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Tarquinius the Elder

(? - 578 BCE)

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Tarquinius the Elder

Lucius Tarquinius the Elder (Lucius Tarquinius Priscus) was the fifth king of Rome. He ruled in the years 617-578 BCE.

As reported by Titius Livius, he had Etruscan origin and came from the city of Tarquinia. His original name was Lucumo (Etruscan Lauchume) which meant “king” in Etruscan. After inheriting his father’s wealth, Lucius decided to get involved in politics. Lack of success in Etruria meant that Lucius decided to emigrate to Rome with his wife Tanaquil.

According to legend, when Lucius rode his chariot into the city, the eagle took off his hat and flew away to put it on again. Knowing the signs, Tanaquil considered this a good omen and a prophecy of her husband’s great career.

Upon the arrival of Lucius Tarquinius in Rome, he became known as a polite foreigner, as noted by King Ancus Marcius himself. Livy mentions that Lucius eventually became the guardian of the royal sons.


After the king’s death in 617 BCE, Tarquinius persuaded the curia commission to take power instead of underage sons. According to Livy, the boys were on the hunt during the committee meeting and therefore could not protest.

After taking power, Tarquinius increased the size of the senate by 100 representatives of the largest Roman families. Then he launched a military campaign against the Latins. He captured the city of Apiolae and then returned in glory and with large spoils to Rome. This war was to take place by 588 BCE.

King Tarquinius also had to deal with the attack of the Sabines, supported by five Etruscan cities. To counter the invasion, Tarquinius increased his equites. Ultimately, the enemy was defeated after fierce fighting in the streets of Rome. As a result of the agreement, Rome received the city of Collatia, which was to be administered by the king’s nephew – Egerius. According to Dionysius of Halicarnassus, it was for this reason that he was given the nickname Collatinus.

A scene showing a photo of an eagle’s headdress.

During his reign, Tarquinius conquered many Latin cities: Corniculum, the old settlement of Ficulea, Cameria, Crustumerium, Ameriola, Medullia and Nomentum.

Tarquinius, after returning to Rome, triumphed on September 13, 585 BCE. According to Florus’s message, Tarquinius celebrated his triumph in the Etruscan style riding a golden chariot drawn by white horses and wearing a gold-decorated toga and tunica palmata.

During his reign, other Etruscan objects entered the political and religious life: the scepter; trabea – purple fabric, which was mainly used as a cloak; fasces worn by lictors; curule chair; toga praetexta; rings worn by senators; plaudamentum – later military coat; or the phalera – a metal disc that was worn on the chests of soldiers or on banners during a military parade. According to Strabo, Tarquinius also brought to Rome the sacrificial and fortune-telling rites, as well as the tube that was used to give orders on the battlefield.

The detention of prisoners of war from five Etruscan cities resulted in their further clash with Rome. Seven other Etruscan cities joined the conflict. The Etruscan army captured the Roman colony Fidenae. Ultimately, however, after several bloody battles, Tarquinius was again the winner. The cities fighting Rome were subjugated and plundered, which brought great wealth to the “Eternal City”.

In addition to numerous wars, Tarquinius’ rule was characterized by ambitious building plans. During his reign, the construction of the great circus of Rome began – Circus Maximus – which was created for the organization of chariot racing. At the behest of Tarquinius, according to Livy, annual games were organized in which Etruscan horses and boxers took part.

The great flood that surprised Rome caused a decision to build sewers – Cloaca Maxima. Great walls were also erected around the city and the Temple of Jupiter the Greatest in the Capitol.

End of life

According to tradition, Tarquinius the Elder was 38 years old to rule. Legend has it that sons jealous of the throne arranged the death of the king. This is how Titus Livy presented the situation:

The two sons of Ancus had always felt most keenly their being deprived of their father’s throne through the treachery of their guardian; its occupation by a foreigner who was not even of Italian, much less of Roman descent, increased their indignation, when they saw that not even after the death of Tarquin would the crown revert to them, but would suddenly descend to a slave —that crown which Romulus, the offspring of a god, and himself a god, had worn whilst he was on earth, now to he the possession of a slave – born slave a hundred years later! They felt that it would be a disgrace to the whole Roman nation, and especially to their house, if, while the male issue of Ancus was still,alive, the sovereignty of Rome should be open not only to foreigners but even to slaves. They determined, therefore, to repel that insult by the sword. But it was on Tarquin rather than on Servius that they sought to avenge their wrongs; if the king were left alive he would be able to deal more summary vengeance than an ordinary citizen, and in the event of Servius being killed, the king would certainly make any one else whom he chose for a son-in-law heir to the crown. These considerations decided them to form a plot against the king’s life. Two shepherds, perfect desperadoes, were selected for the deed. They appeared in the vestibule of the palace, each with his usual implement, and by pretending to have a violent and outrageous quarrel, they attracted the attention of all the royal guards. Then, as they both began to appeal to the king, and their clamour had penetrated within the palace, they were summoned before the king. At first they tried, by shouting each against the other, to see who could make the most noise, until, after being repressed by the lictor and ordered to speak in turn, they became quiet, and one of the two began to state his case. Whilst the king’s attention was absorbed in listening to him, the other swung aloft his axe and drove it into the king’s head, and leaving the weapon in the wound both dashed out of the palace.

Titus Livius, Ab urbe condita, I.40

They dealt him a fatal blow to the head during the riots in 578 BCE. Queen Tanaquil claimed that the ruler had only been seriously injured and had placed Servius Tullius as regent during the turmoil. When it turned out that Tarquinius was indeed dead, Servius officially took the throne.

Tarquinius the Old was regarded by most ancient writers as the father of Tarquinius the Proud – the seventh and last king of Rome. Some said he was his grandfather after all.

  • Krawczuk Aleksander, Kronika starożytnego Rzymu, Warszawa 1994
  • Krawczuk Aleksander (red.), Wielka Historia Świata, tom 3
  • Livy, Ab urbe condita

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