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Overthrow of the Roman Monarchy

Updated: Jan 19, 2022

Overthrow of the Roman monarchy

The overthrow of the Roman monarchy, a political revolution in ancient Rome, took place around 509 BC and resulted in the expulsion of the last king of Rome, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, and the establishment of the Roman Republic.

The semi-legendary Roman histories[1] tell that while the king was away on campaign, his son Sextus Tarquinius raped a noblewoman, Lucretia. Afterwards she revealed the offence to various Roman noblemen, and then committed suicide. The Roman noblemen, led by Lucius Junius Brutus, obtained the support of the Roman aristocracy and the people to expel the king and his family and to institute a republic. The Roman army supported Brutus, and the king went into exile. Despite a number of attempts by Lucius Tarquinius Superbus to reinstate the monarchy, the citizens established a republic and thereafter elected two consuls annually to rule the city.

Background: The Kingdom

Main articles: Roman Kingdom, King of Rome, and Lucius Tarquinius Superbus

Roman history held that seven kings of Rome reigned from the establishment of the city in 753 BC by Romulus up to the reign of Tarquinius. The accuracy of this account has been doubted by modern historians, although it appears to be accepted that there was a monarchy, and the last king Tarquinius was expelled upon the founding of the republic in the late 6th century BC.

Tarquinius was the son of the fifth king, Lucius Tarquinius Priscus. In around 535 BC Tarquinius, together with his wife Tullia Minor (one of the daughters of the then king Servius Tullius) arranged the murder of Servius. Tarquinius became king in his place.

Despite various military victories, Tarquinius became an unpopular king. He refused to bury his predecessor, then put to death a number of the leading senators whom he suspected of remaining loyal to Servius (one of whom was the brother of Lucius Junius Brutus). By not replacing the slain senators, and not consulting the Senate on all matters of government, he diminished both the size and authority of the Senate. In another break with tradition, he judged capital criminal cases without advice of counsellors, thereby creating fear among those who might think to oppose him. He also engaged in treachery with the Latin allies.

Rape of Lucretia

Titian's Tarquin and Lucretia (1571)

Main article: Lucretia

In about 510 BC, Tarquinius went to war with the Rutuli. According to Livy, the Rutuli were, at that time, a very wealthy people and Tarquinius was keen to obtain the spoils that would come with victory over the Rutuli in order, in part, to assuage the anger of his subjects.[2]

Tarquinius unsuccessfully sought to take the Rutulian capital Ardea by storm, and subsequently began an extensive siege of the city.[2]

Sextus Tarquinius, the king's son, was sent on a military errand to Collatia. Sextus was received with great hospitality at the governor's mansion, home of Lucius Tarquinius Collatinus, son of the king's nephew, Arruns Tarquinius, former governor of Collatia and first of the Tarquinii Collatini. Lucius' wife, Lucretia, daughter of Spurius Lucretius, prefect of Rome, "a man of distinction",[3] made sure that the king's son was treated as became his rank, although her husband was away at the siege.

In a variant of the story,[4] Sextus and Lucius, at a wine party on furlough, were debating the virtues of wives when Lucius volunteered to settle the debate by all of them riding to his home to see what Lucretia was doing. She was weaving with her maids. The party awarded her the palm of victory and Lucius invited them to visit, but for the time being they returned to camp.

At night Sextus entered her bedroom by stealth, quietly going around the slaves who were sleeping at her door. She awakened, he identified himself and offered her two choices: she could submit to his sexual advances and become his wife and future queen, or he would kill her and one of her slaves and place the bodies together, then claim he had caught her having adulterous sex (see sexuality in ancient Rome). In the alternative story, he returned from camp a few days later with one companion to take Collatinus up on his invitation to visit and was lodged in a guest bedroom. He entered Lucretia's room while she lay naked in her bed and started to wash her belly with water, which woke her up.


Brutus holding the knife and swearing the oath, with Lucretia

The next day Lucretia dressed in black and went to her father's house in Rome and cast herself down in the suppliant's position (embracing the knees), weeping. Asked to explain herself she insisted on first summoning witnesses and after disclosing the rape, called on them for vengeance, a plea that could not be ignored, as she was speaking to the chief magistrate of Rome. While they were debating she drew a concealed dagger and stabbed herself in the heart. She died in her father's arms, with the women present keening and lamenting. "This dreadful scene struck the Romans who were present with so much horror and compassion that they all cried out with one voice that they would rather die a thousand deaths in defence of their liberty than suffer such outrages to be committed by the tyrants."[5]

In the alternative version, Lucretia summoned Lucius Junius Brutus (a leading citizen, and the grandson of Rome's fifth king Tarquinius Priscus), along with her father Spurius Lucretius Tricipitinus, another leading citizen Publius Valerius Publicola, and her husband Lucius Tarquinius Collatinus (also related to Tarquinius Priscus) to Collatia after she had been raped. Lucretia, believing that the rape dishonored her and her family, committed suicide by stabbing herself with a dagger after telling of what had befallen her. According to legend, Brutus grabbed the dagger from Lucretia's breast after her death and immediately shouted for the overthrow of the Tarquins.[6]

The four men gathered the youth of Collatia, then went to Rome where Brutus, being at that time Tribunus Celerum, summoned the people to the forum and exhorted them to rise up against the king. The people voted for the deposition of the king, and the banishment of the royal family.[7]

Brutus summoned the comitia curiata, an organization of patrician families used mainly to ratify the decrees of the king and began to harangue them in one of the more noted and effective speeches of ancient Rome. He began by revealing that his pose as fool was a sham designed to protect him against an evil king. He leveled a number of charges against the king and his family: the outrage against Lucretia, whom everyone could see on the dais, the king's tyranny, the forced labor of the plebeians in the ditches and sewers of Rome. He pointed out that Superbus had come to rule by the murder of Servius Tullius, his wife's father, next-to-the-last king of Rome. He "solemnly invoked the gods as the avengers of murdered parents." The king's wife, Tullia, was in fact in Rome and probably was a witness to the proceedings from her palace near the forum. Seeing herself the target of so much animosity she fled from the palace in fear of her life and proceeded to the camp at Ardea.[7]

Brutus opened a debate on the form of government Rome ought to have; there were many speakers (all patricians). In summation he proposed the banishment of the Tarquins from all the territories of Rome and appointment of an interrex to nominate new magistrates and conduct an election of ratification. They had decided on a republican form of government with two consuls in place of a king executing the will of a patrician senate. This was a temporary measure until they could consider the details more carefully. Brutus renounced all right to the throne. In subsequent years the powers of the king were divided among various elected magistracies. A final vote of the curiae carried the interim constitution. Spurius Lucretius was swiftly elected interrex (he was prefect of the city anyway). He proposed Brutus and Collatinus as the first two consuls and that choice was ratified by the curiae. Needing to acquire the assent of the population as a whole they paraded Lucretia's body through the streets, summoning the plebeians to legal assembly in the forum. Once there they heard a further speech by Brutus. It began:[8]

Inasmuch as Tarquinius neither obtained the sovereignty in accordance with our ancestral customs and laws, nor, since he obtained it — in whatever manner he got it — has he been exercising it in an honourable or kingly manner, but has surpassed in insolence and lawlessness all the tyrants the world ever saw, we patricians met together and resolved to deprive him of his power, a thing we ought to have done long ago, but are doing now when a favourable opportunity has offered. And we have called you together, plebeians, in order to declare our own decision and then ask for your assistance in achieving liberty for our country....

A general election was held. The vote was for the republic. The monarchy was at an end, even while Lucretia was still displayed in the forum.

Brutus, leaving Lucretius in command of the city, proceeded with armed men to the Roman army then camped at Ardea. The king, who had been with the army, heard of developments at Rome, and left the camp for the city before Brutus' arrival. The army received Brutus as a hero, and the king's sons were expelled from the camp. Tarquinius Superbus, meanwhile, was refused entry at Rome, and fled with his family into exile.[9]

Establishment of the republic

The Capitoline Brutus, an ancient Roman bust from the Capitoline Museums is traditionally identified as a portrait of Lucius Junius Brutus

That uprising resulted in the exile or Regifugium, after a reign of 25 years, of Tarquinius and his family, and the establishment of the Roman Republic, with Brutus and Collatinus (both related by blood to Rome's fifth king Lucius Tarquinius Priscus) as the first consuls.[10]

Tarquinius and his two eldest sons, Titus and Arruns, went into exile at Caere.[11]

According to Livy, Brutus' first act after the expulsion of Lucius Tarquinius Superbus was to bring the people to swear an oath (the Oath of Brutus) never to allow any man again to be king in Rome.[12]

Omnium primum avidum novae libertatis populum, ne postmodum flecti precibus aut donis regiis posset, iure iurando adegit neminem Romae passuros regnare.

First of all, by swearing an oath that they would suffer no man to rule Rome, it forced the people, desirous of a new liberty, not to be thereafter swayed by the entreaties or bribes of kings.

This is, fundamentally, a restatement of the "private oath" sworn by the conspirators to overthrow the monarchy:[13]

Per hunc... castissimum ante regiam iniuriam sanguinem iuro, vosque, di, testes facio me L. Tarquinium Superbum cum scelerata coniuge et omni liberorum stirpe ferro igni quacumque dehinc vi possim exsecuturum, nec illos nec alium quemquam regnare Romae passurum.

By this guiltless blood before the kingly injustice I swear – you and the gods as my witnesses – I make myself the one who will prosecute, by what force I am able, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus along with his wicked wife and the whole house of his freeborn children by sword, by fire, by any means hence, so that neither they nor any one else be suffered to rule Rome.

There is no scholarly agreement that the oath took place; it is reported, although differently, by Plutarch (Poplicola, 2) and Appian (B.C. 2.119).

Brutus also replenished the number of senators to 300 from the principal men of the equites. The new consuls also created a new office of rex sacrorum to carry out the religious duties that had previously been performed by the kings.[14]

Because of the Roman people's revulsion at the name and family of the exiled king, the consul Tarquinius Collatinus was forced to resign from the office of consul and go into exile.[14]

Attempts to reinstate the monarchy

After his exile, Tarquinius made a number of attempts to regain the throne. At first, he sent ambassadors to the Senate to request the return of his family's personal effects, which had been seized in the coup. In secret, while the Senate debated his request, the ambassadors met with and subverted a number of the leading men of Rome to the royal cause, in the Tarquinian conspiracy. The conspirators included two of Brutus' brothers-in-law, and his two sons Titus and Tiberius. The conspiracy was discovered, and the conspirators executed.[15]

Although the Senate had initially agreed to Tarquin's request for a return of his family's effects, the decision was reconsidered and revoked after the discovery of the conspiracy, and the royal property was given over to be plundered by the Roman populace.[16]

Tarquinius next attempted to regain Rome by force of arms. He first gained the support of the cities of Veii and Tarquinii, recalling to the former their regular losses of war and land to the Roman state, and to the latter his family ties. The armies of the two cities were led by Tarquinius against Rome in the Battle of Silva Arsia. The king commanded the Etruscan infantry. Although the result initially appeared uncertain, the Romans were victorious. Both Brutus (the consul) and Arruns (the king's son) were killed in battle.[17]

Another attempt by Tarquinius relied on military support from Lars Porsenna, king of Clusium. The war led to the siege of Rome, and finally a peace treaty. However, Tarquinius failed to achieve his aim of regaining the throne.[18][19]

Tarquinius and his family left Clusium, and instead sought refuge in Tusculum with his son-in-law Octavius Mamilius.[20] In about 496 BC, Tarquin and his son Titus fought with Mamilius and the Latin League against Rome, but lost, at the Battle of Lake Regillus at which Mamilius perished.

Subsequently, Tarquinius fled to take refuge at the court of the tyrant of Cumae, Aristodemus, where he died in 495 BC.[21]

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