The Romans

UNDER THE KINGS

 

The Roman talent for empire building first emerged in the period of the kings, even though the original intention may have been to survive by aggression and by dominating the local scene. Territory gained provided additional fighting power, and the kings of Rome succeeded in subjugating a fair slice of land south of the Tiber. The most significant advance to a position of supremacy among the Latin states came with the destruction of the city of Alba Longa, of which nothing has been found of a date later than the sixth century BC. With that victory, the Romans assumed precedence in religious affairs in Latium, and took over the administration of the sacred festivals which had for years been celebrated on the Alban Mount.

Servius Tullius transferred the regional festival of Diana, goddess of wild nature and hunting, from Aricia to the Aventine Hill. (Gallery of the Candelabra, Vatican: René Seindal)

In this period, too, the roots of the later Roman constitution are to be found. The king was nominally appointed by the senate, an advisory body of patricians, members of a closed group of families of noble origins. He wielded much the same power over his subjects as that of a Roman head of family over his household, which included the right to inflict capital punishment. The king was also responsible for foreign relations, war, security, public works, justice, and the maintenance of religion. Wherever he went in public, he was accompanied by a band of attendants, or lictors, each carrying the fasces, a bundle of rods with an axe in the middle, signifying the punishments that could be meted out to criminals.

The concept of the father (Latin pater) was extended into the community. Each patrician family had its clients (from the Latin word meaning “listener”), an extended body of hereditary hangers-on, who depended on the patricians for patronage and economic support. In return for these favours they gave their labour and, in time of war, military service, in the same way as the villeins in medieval times.

There was a sharp distinction between the patricians and their clients on the one hand, and the plebs, the common people, on the other. The community was divided, probably territorially, into three tribes, each responsible for providing one thousand infantry and one hundred cavalry in time of war, which occurred frequently. Each tribe was further divided into ten curiae, whose representatives were responsible for civil affairs, and met together as required by the king to discuss, but not to decide upon, matters of national importance. Servius Tullius is credited with reforming the army, to which he also gave the status of a political assembly, the comitia centuriata.

Numa Pompilius establishing the worship of the Vestal Virgins. (Seventeenth-century fresco by Cavalier d’Arpino: VRoma: Capitoline Museums, Rome: Barbara McManus)

We are a far cry from the notion of a primitive people scratching the soil and herding rudimentary flocks. Craftsmen plied their trades, and were properly represented by guilds. Numa divided them according to their trades: flute-players, goldsmiths, carpenters, dyers, shoemakers, leather-dressers, potters, and workers in copper and brass, with an additional guild of all the other trades grouped together. This diversity of crafts served a society which, unlike the Greeks, did not use money. Trade was conducted by barter or, in cases where the system was inadequate, by expressing value in terms of head of cattle. A head of cattle (pecus) was the first Roman monetary unit, from which came the Latin word for money, pecunia; one head of cattle was equal to ten sheep, Latterly during the period of the kings, a primitive monetary system evolved based on ingots of raw copper, weighed on a rudimentary balance which probably measured only a single standard unit, the Roman pound (libra) of 327 g. An ingot could then be broken up into lumps of different sizes and values. Servius is credited with first stamping the design of an ox or a sheep on the copper.

Bronze decussis ( = 10 asses) of the third century BC, with the image of an ox. (From Sir John Edwin Sandys (ed.), A Companion to Latin Studies, Cambridge University Press 1913)

The Etruscans had considerable skill in three aspects of building and civil engineering at which the Romans were to excel: road-construction, hydraulics, and the use of the arch to bridge space.

The Porta all’ Arco at Volterra, an Etruscan gate of the fourth century BC, is still standing. (Acknowledgment to Communi di Volterra)

Tarquinius Priscus is said to have planned the great temple of Jupiter, about 60 metres long and 50 wide, but his grandson Tarquinius Superbus supervised its building, calling up labour from Etruria as well as from Latium to get the job done.

Tarquinius Superbus planned, if not also built, the Cloaca Maxima (Great Sewer) of republican and imperial Rome. Its arched exit, where it discharged into the Tiber, can still be seen under the Ponte Palatino.(VRoma: Jim Reubel)

The Etruscans were also past masters at the art of delicate sculpture in terracotta. Tarquinius commissioned some Etruscan sculptors from Veii to fashion a chariot to stand on top of the new temple. When it was out into the furnace, the clay, instead of contracting as the moisture evaporated, swelled up to such a size that the furnace had to be dismantled before the finished piece could be removed.

Etruscan terracotta horses at Tarquinia. (VRoma: Susan Bonvallet)

By the time the temple was completed, however, the period of the kings was over for good. The rape of Lucretia by the son of Tarquinius has proved a popular subject for art, literature, and even the stage ever since, but, if it ever took place, there is no evidence that it was the cause of the fall of Tarquinius. It is more likely that the rebellion by a band of nobles was the natural reaction of a society which, on the Greek model, was verging towards democratic government, against a monarch who had exceeded his constitutional brief and made himself even more unpopular by imposing forced labour. It is possible, too, that the conspiracy was part of a wider revolt by several Latin cities, including Antium, Aricia, and Tusculum, against a king of Etruscan origin.

Etruscan bronze head, with inlaid eyes, of a Roman, so-called Lucius Junius Brutus, leader of the rebellion against Tarquinius. (VRoma: Capitoline Museums, Rome: Barbara McManus)

Rome was not yet entirely free. Tarquinius escaped and naturally commanded the support of the Etruscans, one of whose chiefs, known as Porsena, occupied Rome for some time by force. To this campaign belong the traditional stories of Horatius, who held the bridge against the advancing Etruscans, and of Mucius Scaevola, who plunged his right hand into the flames rather than reveal details of a plot to kill Porsena.

Mucius Scaevola plunges his right hand into the fire. (Sixteenth-century fresco by Tommaso Laureti: VRoma: Susan Bonvallet)

Porsena, having previously survived one assassination attempt, was so unnerved by the thought of further ones, that he withdrew his garrison from the city in return for hostages. Now women, too, were inspired to emulate Scaevola’s heroism. Cloelia, one of the hostages, tricked the guards and, at the head of a group of other women, swam the Tiber back to the Roman side under a hail of missiles and javelins. Etruscan attempts to recapture Rome, as well as Antium, Aricia, and Tusculum, smouldered on until 505 BC, when they were finally extinguished before Aricia: not by a Roman army but by a force of Greek auxiliaries from Cumae, called up to bolster the Latin army. In the meantime, Rome had become a republic.

Model of Rome from the time of Tarquinius to the beginning of the republic. (VRoma: EUR, Rome: Ann Raia)

Overview of this page [Ref 1.4]

 

The Romans acquire territory to the south (Latium). The importance of the father (pater) in Rome - the Patricians and their clients. Roman tribes. The Plebs.

The responsibilities and achievements of the kings. Economic progress - the first coinage. Trade, building, sewers.

Opposition to Etruscan rule (remembered in traditional stories of heroic actions). Beginning of the republic.

End of Chapter 1 - The Founding of Rome.

Larger versions of the illustrations can be found in Gallery 1



Notes

Three tribes : Ramnes, Luceres and Tities were believed to represent the three ethnic strands in the population - Latins, Sabines and Etruscans.

Selected source

Anchises, father of Aeneas, foretells the future of Rome:

"WHO IS HE IN THE DISTANCE, STANDING OUT with the olive branches, carrying the sacred emblems? I recognise the hair and grey-bearded chin of a Roman king: the one who will give the city a basis of laws - sent from little Cures and its poor countryside to a mighty responsibility. Next there will succeed him Tullus, who will shatter the peace of the fatherland and rouse to battle men grown used to leisure, and units who've already lost the taste for military triumphs. Behind him follows one more arrogant: Ancus, now already taking too much pleasure in popular approval.

Do you also want to see the Tarquins and the proud spirit of Brutus their avenger, and the fasces returned to the people? Brutus is the first who will receive the power of a consul and the cruel axes - a father who - in the name of liberty the beautiful - will call down punishment on his sons for plotting to renew the wars. Sad man! However posterity interprets those actions, love for his country and a boundless thirst for praise will prevail."

Virgil, Aeneid 6

Lucretia

The fall of the kings, as described by Livy, is a rattling good story designed to idealize in Greek terms the removal of a tyrant and to promote Roman female virtues in a patriarchal society. Sextus, son of Tarquinius Superbus, inflamed by the chastity, beauty, and dedication to her domestic duties of Lucretia, wife of Collatinus, calls on her while her husband is away. Courtesy dictates that she should offer him a bed for the night, which he accepts. When all is quiet, he enters her bedroom, sword in hand. When she refuses his advances, he threatens to kill her, and to lay beside her corpse the naked body of a slave with his throat slit. Sextus will then tell the world that he caught them at it, and that he duly exacted the penalty. For Lucretia, to be reckoned to have committed adultery with a slave was a thought worse than death itself. She submits to Sextus who, having enjoyed her, rides away triumphant. Lucretia is still technically guilty of adultery, which was during Livy’s lifetime officially designated a crime for a woman of the upper class. She sends for Collatinus and for her father, whose authority, in Roman tradition, exceeded that of the husband. In front of them, and witnesses, she confesses her guilt, demands reparation for Sextus’s invasion of her body, and kills herself with a knife that she has hidden in her clothing. The challenge is immediately taken up not by her family, but by one of the witnesses, Lucius Junius Brutus. In Latin brutus means stupid, which, again according to Livy, Lucius Junius has pretended until now to be, in order to avoid the attentions of the tyrannical Tarquinius Superbus, who is his uncle.

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Believe it or not:


The scientific writer and historian Pliny the Elder (AD 23 - 79) describes the dimensions of some of the underground sewers constructed at this time as “large enough for a loaded hay-wagon to pass through” (Natural History XXXVI. 24).