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Tarquinius the Proud

(6th century - 496 BCE)

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Tarquinius the Proud

Tarquinius the Proud (Lucius Tarquinius Superbus) was born in the 6th century BCE. According to the tradition, he was the seventh and last Roman king of Etruscan origin. Reigned 535-509 BCE

Coming to power

The Tarquins were an Etruscan family originating from the city of Tarquinia. Perhaps they also had Greek blood in their veins – Livy writes that Tarquinius the Proud’s grandfather came from Corinth. The first ruler of this family was Tarquinius the Old, the fifth Roman king. He was succeeded by Servius Tullius, whose daughter Tulia married Lucius Tarquinius, son (or grandson) of Tarquinius the Old. Lucius believed that by reason of his origin he deserved the throne and he hated his father-in-law. According to the records, the power-hungry Tulia directly urged her husband to overthrow and even kill her father. Lucius, relying on the senators who owed their position to Tarquinius the Old, began to incite the Romans against the ruler. One day he sat on the royal throne and ordered the Senate to be convened. Servius Tullius, who tried to oppose the usurper, was killed by his men. These events took place around 535 BCE. Unlike the gentle and just king of the previous king, Lucius was a ruthless tyrant. It was soon named Superbus – Delicious.

He imprisoned, expelled or murdered those who might threaten his authority. Tarquinius did not agree to the burial of Servius and curtailed his powers without consulting the Senate. Tarquinius tried the most important court cases without advisers. Recent decisions have shown that the new king has broken with tradition and good practice. At the beginning of his reign, Tarquinius formed an alliance with Octavius ​​Mamilius, the dictator in Tusculum, to whom he gave his daughter’s hand.

The way he gained power and the character of Tarquinius made him disliked by all social classes. He decided that victorious wars would improve the situation, so he attacked Wolsków. The Romans captured the city of Swessa Pomecja, and the spoils obtained there were to be worth 40 talents of silver (over a ton of gold). Tarquinius decided to use them for the construction of the great temple of Jupiter. The next target of the Roman army was Gabie in Latium. When the city could not be captured, the trick described by Livy was used. The eldest son of Tarquinius the Proud – Sextus – was sent to the city, where he told that he had escaped from his father’s tyranny. He quickly gained trust and influence, and after some time he became the commander of the Gabia army. It was then that he began to eliminate the ruling elite, both through false accusations and assassinations. The city deprived of power soon fell into the hands of the Romans.

Tarquinius Superbus declares himself king. The drawing comes from The Comic History of Rome, by Gilbert Abbott à Beckett.

After the fighting ended, Tarquinius focused on the expansion of Rome. He built a great Etruscan-style temple on the Capitoline Hill, which became the model for all later Roman temples; it was placed on a platform and decorated with painted terracotta decorations; a triad of deities was worshipped there: Jupiter (the statue was made by the famous Etruscan sculptor Wulka), Minerva and Juno. The citizens of Rome were forced to work on construction sites, which aroused great opposition, as they considered it an occupation below their dignity. In addition, they were not paid for the work.

Tarquinius purchased from Sibyl of Kume the so-called Sibylline Books. Legend has it that Sibyl herself offered the king nine books, saying that whoever interprets their text correctly will know the future. Tarquinius replied that the price for the books was too high, then Sibylla destroyed three of them and demanded the rest of the same price. Tarquinius refused to buy again, and Sibylla destroyed another three and repeated the same price. The king finally bought three books at a price for which he was offered nine books. These books were kept in a specially built temple and could be used only in times of the greatest danger to Rome.

Tarquinius the Proud was a despotic ruler. He had two cruel sons, and he supposedly prepared one of them as his successor – thus breaking the tradition that the next kings were chosen by the Romans themselves.

Purchase of Sibylline books on the 19th-century illustration by John Leech with Comic History of Rome.

A large snake is said to have appeared in the palace of Tarquinius the Proud once. The frightened king sent envoys to the Delphi oracle to find out what that meant. His sons Titus and Arruns and his nephew Lucius Junius went to Greece. The latter was called Brutus, meaning “Stupid”. In fact, he pretended to be stupid to save his life from a cruel uncle who had no mercy on opponents, even relatives. The Pythia told Tarquini’s envoys that the one who first kissed his mother would become the ruler of Rome. Actually, only Brutus understood it – kissed the ground, mother of all. The prophecy was about to come true soon.

The overthrow of the monarchy

The hated King Tarquinius started another war. He attacked the Rutul people, but their most important city – Ardea – was powerfully fortified. The monarch wanted to get it, hoping that it would calm the increasingly agitated Romans. A long siege began during which Roman commanders had little to do. Once, several of them, including Sextus Tarquinius, the king’s son, and Lucius Tarwinus Collatynus, his distant relative, went to see what their wives were doing. They all enjoyed feasts, except for Collatinus’ consort, Lucrezia, who spun wool. Sextus fell in love with her. One night he came to her house and began to persuade her to leave her husband. Sextus Tarquinius, after refusing, raped Collatinus’ wife. Licorice, widely regarded as virtuous, unable to bear the shame, committed suicide by piercing her chest with a dagger. Lucrezia’s death was the direct cause of the uprising led by Lucius Junius Brutus.

News of this tragedy sparked outrage in Rome. A rebellion against the Tarquinius broke out. It was headed by Brutus, giving a speech reminiscent of all the wickedness of Tarquinius the Proud and his sons. Those gathered at the Forum decided to take power away from the king and banish him and his family. The troops near Ardea also revolted. Tarquinius the Proud with his wife and younger sons was expelled from Rome, and the monarchy was overthrown – Rome became a republic. Tarquinius, wanting to return to Rome, found the gates of the city closed in front of him. The Comitia centuriata headed by the city’s prefect Lucretius, elected Brutus and Kollatin as first consuls.

The overthrow of the monarchy took place in 510 BCE. The following year, 509 BCE, marks the beginning of the Roman republic. The overthrow of Tarquinius describes Titus Livius at the end of Book I of Ab urbe condita combining historical facts with legends.

Attempts to return to the throne

Tarquinius Superbus, Lawrence Alma-Tadema. In the picture we can see the king receiving his laurel.

Tarquini took refuge with the Etruscan king Lars Porsenna in the city of Caere and made plans to return to the throne. At that time, Sextus fled to Gabia, where he was soon murdered. In Rome, Tarquinius still had followers who were preparing for his return. There were reportedly even two sons of Brutus among them – Titus and Tiberius. However, the plot was discovered and all the conspirators were whipped to death without exception. All the property of the former ruler, ie the suburban fields, was consecrated to the god Mars and passed to the state – henceforth named the Fields of Mars. Tarquinius, not giving up, brought the Etruscan troops to Rome. The city managed to repel the enemy, but consul Brutus died in one of the battles.

In 508-507 BCE the invasion of the Etruscan king Porsenna – the ruler of Clusium – who tried to restore power to Tarquinius the Proud was repulsed. His army pushed the Romans beyond the Tiber, taking a hill on the right bank of the river, the later suburb of Janiculum (the place where Saint Peter was, according to tradition, crucified). Thanks to the courage of Horatius Cocles and Mucius Scewola, Rome was defended.

The last attempt to regain the Roman throne were the plans from 498 or 496 BCE Then Tarquinius persuaded his son-in-law Octavius ​​Mamilius, the dictator of Tusculum, to march to Rome at the head of the Latin army. He was accompanied by the former king and his only surviving son, Titus Tarquinius. The Roman army was commanded by the dictator Albus Postumius Albus and magister equitum Titus Aebutius Elva. The clash took place on Lake Regillus. The battle was won by Roman troops (27,000 men) led by Postumius over the troops of the Latin League (43,000 men). Mamilius was captured, magister equitum was badly wounded, and the former monarch’s son fled the battlefield.

Tarquinius, seeing no chance of restoring the kingdom, went to Kume (Cumae).

Death

The last king of Rome died in exile after 25 years of reign, in Kume in Campania in 496 BCE. From his rule came the great reluctance of the Romans to royal power. Even with unlimited power, emperors did not dare to use the title “rex”.

Summary

Historians say that the last king of Rome was an authentic figure who was overthrown as a result of tyrannical rule. Over the centuries, many legends have arisen regarding the reign of Tarquinius the Proud. However, this does not raise any doubts as to the history of the overthrow of the monarchy and the creation of the Roman republic.

Sources
  • Krawczuk Aleksander, Kronika starożytnego Rzymu, Warszawa 1994
  • Radziejewski Piotr, Tarkwiniusz Pyszny, "Histurion.pl", 11 May 2008
  • Livy, Ab urbe condita
  • Zieliński Tadeusz, Rzeczpospolita Rzymska, Katowice 1989

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