Lucius Tarquinius Priscus
(ca. 652 BC - 579 BC; r. 616 BC - 579 BC)
One of the really interesting characteristics of the ancient Roman monarchy was its non-dynastic nature. While the fourth king was the grandson of the
second, the others were (as far as we are aware) otherwise unrelated. This was due to the fact that the kings of Rome traditionally did not pick their own successors; rather, the
Roman Senate would make a choice after due consideration of various candidates. According to the ancient accounts, each Roman king reigned for over 20 years...assuming this is true, this was a
remarkably stable system. Of course, we have no way of knowing to what extent this reflects actual history, but since we have no other evidence, we have to make the most of what we have to work
with in drawing up a history of the era.
The issue of dynastic succession to the Roman monarchy was not introduced until the rise of the fifth king, Lucius Tarquinius Priscus. Traditionally, he is said to have come to Rome from the
Etruscan city of Tarquinii in north-central Italy with his wife Tanaquil and whatever the two of them could carry. Unlike most of his predecessors, his rise to prominence before attaining the
kingship is documented fairly well -- although I should add that this doesn't necessarily imply that what has been reported is true.
According to Livy and other sources, his original name was Lucumo and he was the son of a Greek exile named Demaratus from the city of Corinth and an Etruscan noblewoman whose name has not
been recorded. The Etruscans were a non-Indo-European people who dominated most of northern and central Italy for several hundred years up until roughly the 6th century BC. Their origins are
unknown, but it is commonly supposed that they either came from Asia Minor or that they were related to the Basque people of southern France and northern Spain. They developed a
sophisticated culture that would greatly influence the pre-Roman Latins in religion and occasionally language, among other things. They were politically significant in their heyday, coming
into conflict with the Greek colonies in Italy (the so-called Magna Graecia) and establishing an alliance with Carthage that lasted until the Etruscans were eventually subsumed by the
Although Tacitus makes the fanciful claim that Demaratus introduced the written word as well as pottery to the Etruscans, this seems not to have earned him much good will, demonstrated by the
fact that Lucumo was not welcome in Tarquinii. Demaratus and his unknown wife had two children, Lucumo and Arruns. Since Demaratus came to Tarquinii around the year 655 BC (he was a member of the
ruling dynasty of Corinth that had been overthrown by a revolution a couple of years earlier), it's safe to date Lucumo's birth within two or three years after that time. Demaratus must have lived
to an advanced age because he was around to see his younger son Arruns get married and die, leaving behind a pregnant wife. Demaratus himself is said to have passed away shortly thereafter, leaving
his fortune to his surviving son Lucumo. The timeframe for all of this is not clear, but we know that Arruns died very shortly after his marriage, which would probably mean he was about 20 at the
time. Lucumo would have been slightly older, perhaps about 23, so we can place this as having happened around 629 BC.
With the deaths of his father and brother, Lucumo was the heir to a large fortune. He apparently had great ambitions for his future, but found himself unable to make a name for himself in his
hometown. The ancient sources universally ascribe this to the fact that he was not a pure Etruscan, which makes sense given ancient conceptions of citizenship. Just about anyone could live in
ancient Athens, for example, but one had to demonstrate a very lengthy, unbroken continuity of ancestral residency in the city to be considered a "citizen." Sparta had a similar notion, with
their society being heavily stratified into three basic castes: the homoioi (full citizens), perioikoi (resident aliens), and helots (slaves/serfs); membership in each caste was inherited and
unchangeable (except in extreme circumstances like conspicuous valor during war). So despite his wealth and whatever his personal merit might have been, Lucumo was unsuitable for public service in Etruscan society.
One thing that differentiated the Etruscans from other ancient societies (and some modern ones) was the relatively equal footing that women seemed to have enjoyed. Women were apparently able to
inherit property in their own right and to choose their own spouses. This might explain why a noblewoman would marry a foreigner and why another noblewoman would marry that foreigner's son.
Lucumo's wife was named Tanaquil and she has the unique distinction of being one of the few politically powerful women of the ancient world who was not looked upon negatively by contemporary
sources. The ancient sources credit Lucumo's decision to move to Rome as having originated with her desire for him to make something of himself. Livy writes that Tanaquil told Lucumo about the
merit-based society of early Rome and that they could have a real future there since it was already a mixed society with a young nobility. With little more than their money and whatever possessions
they could put in a cart, the young couple started their journey to Rome. Along the way, an eagle supposedly swooped down, took Lucumo's hat, flew up, and then returned it to its spot. Tanaquil
interpreted this as an omen that her husband was destined for fame and fortune in Rome.
Livy says that the Etruscan couple made quite an impression when they arrived in Rome and that they Latinized their names, with Lucumo becoming Lucius Tarquinius Priscus and Tanaquil becoming
Gaia Caecilia. While he doesn't go into specifics, he does say that their generosity and their sophistication went a long way in making them local celebrities. He does give us one little tidbit
when he says "the fact of his being a foreigner -- and a wealthy one -- brought him into notice." One of the key societal relationships in ancient Rome was a concept called clientela, generally
translated as "patronage." The clientela system was supposed to have been devised by the founder of Rome, Romulus, who thought it would be a good way to promote harmony between disparate social
classes. All wealthy, higher status Romans were expected to be patrons of lower-class individuals. Essentially, this involved the patron helping to financially support their clients in exchange for
some form of service. This could be manual labor, political support, art, physical protection, military assistance, or any other number of things. This feature of Roman society
existed for hundreds of years in various forms, although its main notion of a more powerful man helping a less powerful one with the expectation of reciprocal favors never changed, and indeed could
fairly be described as a type of microcosmic proto-feudalism. Patrons' sons would inherit clients from their fathers and the clients' sons would inherit patrons from their fathers,
although these bonds could be severed through mutual assent.
As a very rich young man looking to establish himself in a new place, one of Tarquinius' first actions would have been to establish a healthy clientele; one of the biggest status symbols in
ancient Rome was the size of one's clientele. Most obviously, it demonstrated a person's wealth, which was the whole point (think about modern billionaires who engage in conspicuous
philanthropy). Beneath the surface, though, a large clientele could also be a visible show of force: if requested, a man's clients could potentially be used en masse as an armed force. This was
more commonly restricted to political support through either mass pressure or bloc voting for either the patron or the patron's preferred candidates, but the potential still existed for violent
confrontations. By thoroughly developing his clientele, Tarquinius would have displayed the extent of his wealth and his influence, which would go a long way toward his becoming known as a man who
could get things done and make things happen.
Having acquired his clientele and making himself influential in Rome, Tarquinius inevitably attracted the attention of Ancus Marcius, Rome's king at the time. Marcius was not really a bad king,
but his reign was definitely troubled (despite Livy's claim that he was "unsurpassed" in his endeavors, his own textual evidence refutes this). He tried to combine the religiosity of his
grandfather Numa with the martial success of his predecessor Tullus Hostilius and wound up fighting several wars and widely expanding Rome's population and territory. Marcius had gone to war with
the Etruscans and had even captured some of their land, but social and military problems continued to plague him. At some point, he made the acquiantance of Tarquinius and Tanaquil and welcomed
them into his inner circle. Tarquinius soon became one of the king's most trusted advisors and it's not hard to see why: he was an Etruscan exile and Rome was at war with the Etruscans. He likely
provided valuable advice and information about Etruria and could have counselled Marcius on the Etruscan mindset. Livy relates that Tanaquil was "like most Etruscans" in that she was a gifted
astrologer and omen-reader, so this would definitely have appealed to the pious Marcius.
Eventually, Marcius made Tarquinius the guardians of his two sons, who were still minors at the time of the king's death in 616 BC. An intermediary ruler known as an interrex was appointed and
the Roman Senate sought to elect Marcius' successor. Somewhat controversially, Tarquinius sent Marcius' two sons on a hunting trip during the selection process. While this has been read as an
attempt to get them out of the city so that he could win the crown, this doesn't make a whole lot of sense considering that the two boys were still underage and thus ineligible for the monarchy.
While Tarquinius was certainly ambitious, it might very well be the case that he took his role as the boys' guardian very seriously and sent them away for their own safety; history does not record
his motivations. In any event, Tarquinius made his case to Senate that he ought to succeed Marcius as king, mainly by stating that he had lived almost his entire adult life in Rome, that he had
been a great servant of the king, and that he was knowledgeable on religious matters. Of course, the fact that he had acquired a huge mass of supporters over the last 10 or more years didn't hurt
matters, and it's reported that after his "unanimous" election, he elevated 100 of his allies to the ranks of the Senate. I doubt that the two events are coincidental, and it seems likely that
these new Senators formed the bulk of his "get out the vote" drive. Having been elected king, he sent for his young nephew Arruns Tarquinius Egerius (the posthumous son of his late brother) to join
Tarquinius immediately had to contend with the war against the Latins that was apparently left unconcluded by Marcius at the time of his death. He defeated them and added the town of Apiolae to
Rome's holdings and instituted the first celebratory games in the area that would become the location for the Circus Maximus. In the tradition of his predecessors, Tarquinius relocated the
defeated Latins into the city of Rome and repopulated their lands with established Roman citizens. One of these captives was a pregnant noblewoman from Corniculum named Ocrisia whom Tanaquil took
into her personal care. With her hospitality once again on display here, Tanaquil is again depicted as the height of virtuous Roman womanhood. She supposedly was a gifted seamstress who, despite
being a queen, spent much of her free time weaving with the household servants, presumably including this woman. When she gave birth to a baby boy named Servius Tullius (presumably not related
to Tullus Hostilius), Tanaquil witnessed the child's crib in flames and saw this as a premonition that he was destined for greatness and had him raised with her and Tarquinius' own children.
Peace followed for some time, but eventually he was at war with the Sabines, who at first defeated the Romans at the start of the campaign. Tarquinius planned a counterattack and augmented the
strength of the Roman army with new units led by officers of his own choosing -- again, likely these men were still other political allies that he had acquired before his reign. This time, the
Romans decisively defeated the Sabines and added a host of new cities to their lands. Egerius, now an adult, was sent to capture and demand the surrender of the city of Collatia, which he did, and
he received the cognomen Collatinus for his victory. Presumably Servius was also present during the Sabine war as he is said to have demonstrated great military skill; at some point, he was
married to Tarquinia, the daughter of the king and queen.
Things get a little murky here. In 579 BC, the sons of Ancus Marcius were severely agitated that not only had Tarquinius had usurped what they felt was their birthright, but he was building a
flourishing dynasty on top of that; this Tarquinian dynasty would preclude their succession to their father's throne. They concocted a plan by which they paid two shepherds to start a dispute in
front of the royal palace and draw the king's attention with a ruckus. When Tarquinius appeared to listen to the two men argue their cases, one of the shepherds ran up to him and bashed his head in
with an axe. In the ensuing chaos, Tanaquil locked down the residence and bandaged her now-deceased husband's head. She summoned Servius and told him that he would have to assume the reins of
power as had been divinely ordained after his birth. She announced to the crowd that had formed around the palace that Tarquinius had survived the assassination attempt and that he had made
Servius his regent until he could recover and that his word was the same as the king's. Marcius' sons believed their plan had failed and flew into exile, never to be seen or heard from again. In
time, Tarquinius was said to have expired and Servius was pronounced his successor, bypassing the Senate and the people of Rome.
The story of Lucius Tarquinius Priscus is probably the most compelling one relating to the ancient Roman kings, although it has certain significant gaps. Tarquinius and Tanaquil were said to
have had two sons, so why did Tanaquil promote Servius Tullius as his successor? Indeed, one of these sons was said to have been the final king of Rome, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus. As a
consolation prize, the two sons (Lucius and Arruns, following the family tradition) were given Servius' daughters in marriage. This is extremely implausible, however, as Tarquinius supposedly
reigned for 37 years and Servius is alleged to have reigned for more than 40, which would make Superbus extremely old before his own 26 year reign. Superbus could not have been born at the end of
the elder Tarquinius' reign since Tanaquil would have been well past menopause at the time. The two facts are mutually exclusive: either Superbus was the son of Tarquinius and Tanaquil or the
long reigns ascribed to the ancient kings of Rome were factual (or close to it). I think it's more likely that Superbus was the grandson of Tarquinius and Tanaquil and that the sons they were
supposed to have had predeceased their father, explaining why his son-in-law was chosen to succeed him.
The name "Lucius Tarquinius Priscus" is interesting as well. His original name, Lucumo, is alleged to have been the Etruscan word for "king," so it's possible that this title was given to him
later and just transliterated as "Lucius." It's also possible that Lucumo was his real name, and that such a name functioned much like "Rex" or "Leroy" or "Raj" do today, being proper names
all meaning some version of "king." "Tarquinius" obviously refers to his place of birth, a practice which was otherwise unattested in Roman naming. His cognomen, "Priscus," was either a very loose transliteration of some other Etruscan name or (more likely) an example of the Roman practice of giving out ironic names to notable people. The name Brutus, for example, means "simple-minded" but it was first applied to Lucius Junius Brutus because of his shrewdness; think of big, burly gangsters in movies from the 1930s being nicknamed "Tiny." Priscus has no direct translation into English, but it has connotations of being ancient, venerable, and well-established, qualities which obviously would not apply in a Roman context to some half-Greek immigrant from Etruria.
The Tarquinian dynasty took root and established itself in a short period of time in Rome. Tarquinius' raw capabilities and Tanaquil's deft handling of a potential succession crisis ensured its
continuity. Tanaquil herself is supposed to have been the inspiration for the Roman marriage vow spoken by the bride "where you are Gaius, I am Gaia," in honor of the Latin name she chose for
herself and her status as an exemplary Roman matron. Almost all of the pivotal events and personae in Roman history from 616 BC to 496 BC were related to this dynasty, some for the better and some
for the worse (mainly a lot of the latter).