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A city of kings

Rome's first constitution was a monarchy. There are many legends describing the early kings, but little in the way of archaeological evidence and no contemporary written record. The archaic era was hardly a model in wise government. Dates given below for the kings are traditional, not necessarily historical.

The oral tradition credits Romulus with creating three voting tribes – the Latins, Sabines and Etruscans – each split into ten smaller units (curiae), who selected an assembly from among themselves (comitia curiata) to act as a curb on the king’s powers. And it may have been Romulus or his successor, the Sabine Numa Pompilius (715–673 BC), who formed the advisory body of a hundred chosen ‘fathers’ known as the Senate.

Unusually for a monarchy, kingship in Rome was not inheritable. When a king died, the Senate took up the reins of government, with one senator after another holding the office of interrex (between king) for five days until a suitable successor was found. The chosen – Numa – is credited with being a wise and peaceful man. It was said that his wisdom came from the goddess Egeria, who he met on a nightly basis just outside the settlement walls. Thanks to her, he learned the art of foretelling the future from the intestines of cows. In consequence, Pompilius oversaw the creation of major religious institutions. He had the temple of the two-headed god Janus built, established the office and duties of the flamines of Jupiter, Mars and Quirinus, brought the Vestal Virgins to Rome from Alba Longa and created the first calendar, which outlined the days on which religious festivities should occur.

His Latin successor, Tullus Hostilius (673–41), was troubled by border disputes throughout his reign. The more culturally advanced Etruscans of Veii and Fidenae were his most pressing enemies, but Tullus also fought a campaign against Rome’s mother city of Alba Longa. Allies of Rome, the Albans were unreliable. When one Alban king held back troops during a clash between Rome and Fidenae so he could pitch in on the winning side, the victorious Romans tied him between two horse-drawn chariots. As the horses were whipped into action the king was torn in two, viciously symbolising the dilemma of indecision.

The Sabine Ancus Marcius (640–14) also survived a string of conflicts with nearby settlements. He enlarged the city by overwhelming neighbouring villages and relocating their populations to Rome. According to Livy, it was Ancus Marcius who created the office of pontifex maximus, or chief priest. His role was to organise the religious calendar and it became a title hotly sought after in later generations. Interestingly, pontifex maximus literally means ‘great bridge builder’, so it’s legitimate to speculatie that Ancus Marcius was responsible for the first bridge across the Tiber.

The next ruler of Rome was of Etruscan extraction. Yet Tarquinius Priscus (617–579), or Tarquin I, was not an invader but an elected king. Legend tells how Tarquinius and his wife travelled to Rome in search of a fresh start. As they perched on the Janiculum to survey the town across the river, an eagle flew down and snatched the hat from his head. The bird circled overhead for a few moments before diving down to replace the hat. This was interpreted to mean that he would one day rule Rome. The eagle, along with the she-wolf who saved Romulus and Remus, remained a symbol of Rome.

The story goes on to tell how Tarquinius became a popular and trusted member of Ancus Marcius’s court and succeeded to the throne on the latter’s death. There is always the possibility this tale was woven to obliterate an unpalatable truth, that a hostile force sent by the militarily superior Etruscans occupied Rome.

His successor, Servius Tullius (579–34), was a slave-turned-ruler who reorganised the Roman army along Greek lines, introducing the phalanx. The Servian Wall, which surrounded the seven hills, was named after him, but is more likely to have been constructed during the Republic in the fourth century BC. Servius also created the comitia centuriata, a new assembly in which citizens were distributed in voting units, called centuries, according to the property and weapons they owned. It operated alongside the comitia curiata but eventually replaced it.

Servius built the goddess Fortuna a temple in the Forum Boarium, and excavations have uncovered the foundations of a temple from this period, the mid-sixth century BC. Servius was murdered, to be replaced without election by his son-in-law Tarquinius Superbus (the Proud), or Tarquin II. Clearly, the character of the later monarchy had changed in that he seized the throne without the consent of either senators or the comitia curiata.

Tarquin II – a tyrant in the Greek mould – wanted absolute power. He launched an all-out attack on the aristocracy, ignored the advice of the senators, and went so far as to have leading members of the Senate put to death.

Tarquin was finally overthrown by a group of senators in a rebellion inspired when his son Sextus raped a noble woman in 509 BC. With his removal, Etruscan influence in Rome was brought to an end, and the city was now ruled by a two-consul system, probably devised while the kings were still in power.

The languages of Italy, 450 BC
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The early growth of the Roman state.
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