Before the Roman Republic: The Life and Times of the 7 Kings of Rome

Before the Roman Republic: The Life and Times of the 7 Kings of Rome

Patrick Lynch - August 5, 2017

The early history of Rome, that is, the 250 or so years between its apparent formation and the creation of the Republic, is still shrouded in mystery. There are a number of problems associated with attempting to write about Rome’s early history. First and foremost, there is no written account dated any earlier than the third century BC. Remember, Rome’s records were destroyed when the city was sacked in 390 BC. While I am writing about Rome’s supposed seven kings, there may have been many more.

The kingdom of Rome is surrounded by myth and legend, as is the formation of the city. We get most of our information from writers like Livy and Plutarch, but the details they received were passed down from generation to generation and are therefore unreliable. As a consequence, we’ll have to do as much as we can with the information that is at our disposal.

1 – Romulus (753? – 716 BC?)

Ancient sources speak of an era where kings ruled Rome, and the Senate and Curiate Assembly had little in the way of power and authority. The Senate could only advise the king and was unable to prevent him from taking whatever actions he chose. According to legend, Romulus founded the city of Rome on April 21, 753 BC. Incidentally, Roman historians such as Fabius Pictor disagree with the date of formation; Pictor believes Rome was founded in 748 or 747 BC while Cincius Alimentus wrote that the date was 729/728 BC.

Before the Roman Republic: The Life and Times of the 7 Kings of Rome
Romulus and remus on a coin. Wikimedia

Regarding the kingship, the successors were chosen from top-ranking officials who had served the previous king. There was always a period of interregnum between monarchs while the next king was chosen. The legend of Romulus says that a she-wolf raised him along with his twin brother Remus; he later murdered his brother. As the king of Rome, Romulus wanted to raise the population quickly and was ruthless in doing so. He even offered sanctuary to criminals on the run at the Capitoline Hill asylum.

Romulus expanded the city’s borders to include the Capitoline, Caelian, Quirinal, and Aventine Hills. With an influx of male criminals and slaves, the king realized that there was a dearth of women in his new kingdom. As a result, he organized a large celebration at the festival of Consus and invited various neighboring tribes to attend. A large number of Sabine’s attended and midway through the festival, the Romans took the unmarried Sabine women and forced them to marry.

Known as the ‘rape of the Sabine women,’ Rome’s actions resulted in war with the Sabine tribe as their king, Titus Tatius, sought revenge. The Sabine’s captured Capitoline Hill but eventually agreed to peace talks. Tatius became joint ruler and reigned from Capitoline Hill whereas Romulus ruled from the Palatine. Tatius died before Romulus who regained sole control of Rome. While most of the information relating to Romulus’ reign is fiction, there might be a few grains of truth. Regarding his death, one story suggests that the senators grew tired of the increasingly tyrannical leader and stabbed him to death.

Before the Roman Republic: The Life and Times of the 7 Kings of Rome
Statue of Numa Pompilius in the Curia, Rome. Flickr

2 – Numa Pompilius (715? – 673 BC?)

Plutarch claimed that Numa was born on the day of Rome’s founding and he banished all thoughts of leading a luxurious life. The disciplined Numa married Tatius’ only daughter, but when she died, he retreated to the countryside. There was an interregnum of a year after the death of Romulus, but eventually, Numa was nominated as king. The Sabine monarch was apparently a cunning and calculated individual, and he enjoyed a relatively peaceful reign.

One of his first acts as king was to disband the 300 Celeres (Romulus’ personal guard) in what was either a sign of humility or a clever maneuver to remove any threat from within. According to tradition, Numa brought the order of the Vestal Virgins to Rome from Alba Longa. He also founded the Temple of Janus and created colleges for priests which included the fetiales, a group with the power to make peace or declare war. It is also claimed that he reformed the calendar by adding the months of January and February to increase the number of days in a year to 360.

Numa ruled Rome for 43 years, and the kingdom enjoyed a peaceful period of growth and prosperity. Legend has it that he chose the prophetess and nymph Egeria as his lover once his wife died and she provided him with wise counsel. The Romans viewed Numa as the father of their culture, a man who turned a group of thieves, bandits, and peasants into something resembling a civilization.

Although there is a lot of interesting information relating to Numa, quite a lot of it is completely inaccurate. For example, several of the priesthoods he allegedly created predated his reign. The reform of the calendar may have happened many years later. Amusingly, there was a suggestion that he was friends with Pythagoras; an impossibility since the Greek philosopher wasn’t born until 570 BC. In 181 BC, 14 books attributed to Numa were found, but further, inspection revealed that they were forgeries. Rome’s Sabine King died in 673 BC.

Before the Roman Republic: The Life and Times of the 7 Kings of Rome
Tullius Hostilius. Rome Across Europe

3 – Tullus Hostilius (673? – 641 BC?)

Tullus was a Latin, and his reign was marked by military ambition. Even his surname comes from the Latin hostis which means ‘hostile.’ During the 7th century BC, there were a number of disputes due to problems such as cattle rustling on territorial borders. While Numa was an excellent diplomat and always solved the issues without conflict, Tullus preferred to do things violently.

One such dispute occurred between Rome and Alba Longa, and Tullus immediately declared war. Since the two cities were in proximity, it was akin to a civil war so instead of fighting a series of bloody battles, Tullus, and his rival, Mettius Fufetius, agreed to a contest of champions. Three brothers from the Horatius family represented Rome while Alba Longa chose three brothers from the Curiatus family. Ultimately, the Romans ‘won’ as all three Curiatus brothers lay dead on the battlefield; meanwhile, one of the Horatius brothers survived.

Alba Longa accepted defeat and Roman superiority, but this acquiescence didn’t last long. King Mettius provoked the Fidentes, another neighbor of Rome, into war. As Rome and Alba Longa were now allies, both armies should have faced off against the Fidentes. However, Mettius’ treachery ensured that the Romans faced their new enemy alone. His machinations were a failure however as Rome defeated the Fidentes. Mettius paid for his betrayal with his life, and Alba Longa was destroyed.

The surviving Albans moved to the Caelian Hill in Rome, but the increase in population caused strain on Rome’s Senate building which was subsequently deemed too small. Tullus decided to build a new home for the Senate at the foot of Capitoline Hill. It survived as the Curia Hostilia until 53 BC. According to legend, Tullus defeated the Sabine’s in various campaigns until plague forced him to make peace. He apparently died after being struck by lightning. Despite this information, there is a possibility that Tullus did not exist after all. However, the family of the Hostilli did exist so perhaps Tullus was a real king of Rome. Certainly, the destruction of the Alba Longa and the creation of the Curia Hostilia were real historical events.

Before the Roman Republic: The Life and Times of the 7 Kings of Rome
Ancus Marius. Sawston Ancient History

4 – Ancus Marcius (640? – 616 BC?)

There is a suggestion that Ancus was the grandson of Numa, but again, there is no way of determining whether or not that is fact or fiction. Ancus was chosen because the powerbrokers of Rome believed he was the man to bring peace and stability back to the kingdom. As a result, Rome’s neighbors believed the new King could be bullied, so an ancient tribe named the Old Latins tried their luck by trespassing on Roman land. Initially, Ancus wanted a peaceful resolution and demanded payment for the damage. The Latins treated the Roman Embassy with contempt, and an angry Ancus declared war.

He marched from Rome with a large army and took the Latin town of Politorium. The residents of the town were relocated to Aventine Hill in Rome. When the Latins tried to repopulate the empty town, Ancus returned and destroyed it. He also marched to the towns of Ficana and Tellenae. The Romans conquered both towns, sacked them and ultimately destroyed them.

Ancus was not yet satisfied and moved on to the heavily fortified town of Medullia. After several battles outside the town, the Romans emerged victoriously and the King returned home with the spoils of war. More Latins were moved to Aventine Hill. By now, Ancus was intent on establishing Rome’s power, so he expanded the kingdom by adding Janiculum and connecting it to the city of Rome via a bridge across the Tiber. There is also a suggestion that he built the Mamertine Prison, the first jail in Roman history.

Ancus further extended Roman territory by founding the port of Ostia and defeating the Veientes tribe to add the Silva Maesia to his growing list of conquests. He supposedly died in 616 BC as a well-respected leader. Once again, historians are not 100% sure whether Ancus existed. As is the case with Tullus, there are records of Ancus family, the Marcii, in Roman history. One of his descendants became a consul in 357 BC for example.

Before the Roman Republic: The Life and Times of the 7 Kings of Rome
Lucius Tarquinius Priscus. Thoughtco

5 – Lucius Tarquinius Priscus (616? – 579 BC?)

Also known as Tarquin, the Elder, Lucius lived in Etruria and, after inheriting his father’s fortune, he tried to gain political office. However, he failed and moved to Rome where he gained respect for his courtesy. Lucius came to the attention of King Ancus who nominated him as guardian for the two royal sons.

Since there was no hereditary tradition and Ancus’ sons were still young, Lucius was able to convince the Comitia Curiata that he was the best choice as king. One story suggests that he convinced Ancus’ sons to go hunting while he took care of the funeral arrangements. When they returned, Lucius was on the throne.

As was always the case when a new king sat on the throne, neighboring tribes took the opportunity to attack Roman land. Tarquin not only fought them off, but he also defeated the Latins in battle and took the town of Apiolae. There is a suggestion that Lucius started fighting on the offensive late in his reign after years of merely warding off attacks. The war with the Latins took place in around 588 BC.

The Sabines were the next to attack, but once again, Lucius led his army to victory and celebrated a triumph in Rome in 585 BC. Not content with these successes, the Roman army continued expanding its territory and took several Latin towns towards the end of Lucius’ reign. During the war with the Sabine’s, five Etruscan cities sent auxiliaries to help Rome’s enemies. When they were captured, the cities responded by declaring war with the help of other cities. Lucius was able to defeat them all and returned home with more plunder.

Lucius’ other achievements include the creation of the Circus Maximus for chariot racing, the giant sewer known as the Cloaca Maxima, and the temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus (some historians give Tarquin the Proud credit for this achievement). The king ruled for 38 years, but apparently, Ancus’ sons wanted the crown for themselves, so they arranged his assassination. They hired two killers; one approached the king from the front and pretended that he wanted advice in a legal dispute. The other came at the king from behind and struck him in the head with an ax. His wife, Tanaquil, told everyone that the king was only wounded and used the confusion to establish Servius Tullius as the new monarch.

Before the Roman Republic: The Life and Times of the 7 Kings of Rome
Servius Tullius. Wikimedia Commons

6 – Servius Tullius (579? – 534 BC?)

The Romans looked upon Servius as arguably their greatest monarch, but in reality, he is probably not responsible for all of the achievements attributed to him. There are different accounts about his background, but the most popular story is that his mother was one of Tanaquil’s slaves. The queen apparently saw greatness in Servius and treated him better than her old children.

While the sons of Ancus fled into exile, Lucius had three surviving sons and Servius cleverly married them to his daughters. He enjoyed military success during his reign; most notably against the Veii. He celebrated three triumphs in Rome; the date of the first was 571 BC, the second was in 567 BC, and the date for the third is unknown. Such was the nature of his success against the Veii that Servius did not have to fight on the field again for the duration of his reign.

It has been suggested that the first use of coinage took place during the reign of Servius. Up to that point, the Romans bartered, but in the 6th century BC, they believed the old system was inadequate and came up with a monetary measure. Value was expressed in ‘heads of cattle’ (pecus) so one head of cattle might be worth 10 sheep. This event was followed by the creation of a monetary system based on an ingot of raw copper that weighed 327 grams (the equivalent of one Roman pound or Libra). Romans could break up the ingot into different sizes with various values.

Although it was claimed that the king built the Servian Wall, it was probably built 200 years later. Servius may have been responsible for a system of defensive earthworks known as agger, however. It was probably Servius who transferred the festival of Diana from Aricia to Aventine Hill. Servius may also have come up with the idea of the very first census. The Roman population was divided into groups according to wealth, age, and status. Your ‘class’ depended on your wealth and helped decide voting rights and the levying of troops. The wealthier you were, the more armor and weapons you could afford.

Servius reigned for around 45 years but his policies proved unpopular with the Senate, and a conspiracy was formed to murder him. According to legend, one of Servius’ daughters, Tullia the Elder, hatched a plot with Lucius Tarquinius, grandson of the former king. They murdered their respective siblings, and Tarquinius bribed or persuaded senators to make him king. He made a speech criticizing Servius, and when the king arrived, Tarquinius threw him down the steps where he was set upon and murdered by the usurper’s men. Tullia then drove her chariot over Servius’ broken body. From that point on the street in question became known as ‘vicus sceleratus’, The Street of Guilt.

Before the Roman Republic: The Life and Times of the 7 Kings of Rome
Tarquin the Proud. Thoughtco

7 – Tarquinius Superbus (534? – 509 BC)

Also known as Tarquin the Proud, he was the seventh and final king of Rome. ‘Superbus’ means arrogant, proud or lofty in Latin and perfectly sums up the attitude of this monarch. Tradition states that he was the son of Lucius Tarquinius, but the timelines suggest he was probably his grandson. He had gained the throne through the most violent way possible and lacked legitimacy from the start. According to ancient historians, his reign was one marked by tyranny, and his actions justified the abolition of the monarchy.

Tarquin was only interested in maintaining his position through violence and fear and soon after he became king, he announced that he was Rome’s supreme judge. He used this power to take total control of capital cases, so the accused had no chance to appeal. Tarquin abused his new position as he used it to get rid of rivals.

The king had a reasonable military record; he managed to bully the Latin League into accepting Rome as its official leader. It was a clever move because it meant the Latins were now part of the Roman army; he effectively doubled his kingdom’s military strength. Tarquin used his new army to start a war with the Volsci and take the city of Suessa Pometia. Next, he started a war with the Latin city of Gabii by treachery.

Back in Rome, he destroyed the Tarpeian Rock to make room for the construction of the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus on Capitoline Hill. By 509 BC, the Roman people were fed up with Tarquin’s insistence on constant construction. Nonetheless, he continued to stay busy and started a war against the Rutuli. The Romans failed to take Ardea, and the army started drinking and boasting.

According to legend, one of the king’s sons, Sextus, raped the wife of a nobleman named Collatinus; she committed suicide in shame. Collatinus swore an oath to remove the king from power and soon, an uprising was threatened. All of this happened when Tarquin was still at Ardea, but when he heard that his position was under threat; he fled and looked for support from his Etrurian allies.

The rebels met the king at the Battle of Silva Arsia and won a decisive victory in 509 BC. Tarquin fled into exile but spent the rest of his life attempting to regain his crown. His final attempt was thwarted at the Battle of Lake Regillus which officially took place in 496 BC but could have occurred several years later. The Romans retained their independence by defeating the Latin League. Tarquin fled to the court of Aristodemus, the tyrant of Cumae. He died there in 495 BC, and the Roman Republic was safe.


Sources For Further Reading:

History Information – The Gauls Sack Rome and Destroy Most Records

Facts & Details – Battles Between Celts And Romans

The Collector – Sexual Assault Of Women In Ancient Rome

ThoughtCo – Biography of Numa Pompilius, Roman King

ThoughtCo – Tullus Hostilius the 3rd King of Rome

ThoughtCo – Ancus Martius

ThoughtCo – The Roman King L. Tarquinius Priscus According to Livy

Atlas Obscura – Cloaca Maxima

Smart History – Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus

Ancient Origins – Servius Tullius – The Last Benevolent King Of Rome

ThoughtCo – The Legend of Lucretia in Roman History

William Shakespeare – The Rape Of Lucrece

History of War – Battle of Lake Regillus