It’s hard to comprehend just how long “Ancient Rome” lasted. The precise date of the city’s foundation is uncertain, but the Romans themselves believed it to be a date that corresponds to what we would know as 753 BC, and in lieu of a better alternative that is the date that modern historians most frequently use when talking about the start of ancient Rome and Roman civilisation. The first 250 years of Rome’s history, until the year 509 BC, saw the city state ruled by a succession of kings, some of whom might even have been real. According to Roman tradition, the line of kings goes like this:
- Romulus, 753-717 BC. Believed to be a son of Mars, raised by a she-wolf along with his twin brother Remus. Founded Rome, killed Remus and stole the first women of Rome from the neighbouring Sabine people. Said to have vanished one day in a storm, never to be seen again, and ascended to godhood.
- Numa, 716-673 BC. Supposedly born on the day of Rome’s founding, the first child born within the city. Believed to have been responsible for founding most of the city’s ancient religious traditions, and for building the Temple of Janus in the Roman Forum.
- Tullus, 673-642 BC. The first true warrior king of Rome, who led the first major expedition of conquest and extended the influence of Rome twelve miles from its boundaries to the town of Alba Longa. Disregarded the religious traditions of Numa, and was believed to have been killed when Jupiter threw a lightning bolt at his house.
- Ancus, 640-616 BC. Reinstated the religious rites of Numa and went to war with the Latins, assimilating them into the Roman population after defeating them. Extended Roman influence to the sea, establishing the port town of Ostia, nineteen miles from Rome. Built Rome’s first prison, the Carcer Mamertinum (prison of the Sons of Mars).
- Tarquin I, 616-579 BC. Fended off a Sabine attack on Rome and defeated twelve rival city states in a series of wars. Built Rome’s great underground sewer, the Cloaca Maxima (literally the “Greatest Sewer”), one of the very first sewage systems anywhere in the world, the Circus Maximus, an enormous chariot racing stadium with a seating capacity of 150,000, and the Temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline Hill. Believed to be an ancestor of the Emperor Augustus (27 BC – 14 AD)
- Servius, 575-535 BC. Extended the boundaries of the city to the Quirinal, Viminal and Esquiline Hills. Created Rome’s first coins, and extended Roman citizenship – highly prized by those who had it and eagerly coveted by those who did not – to the poorest in society. Unpopular with the aristocracy but massively popular with the people. Murdered by his daughter, Tullia, and her husband Tarquin.
- Tarquin II, 535-509 BC. Son of Tarquin I and murderous son-in-law of Servius. Said to have been extremely arrogant, leading to the title “the Proud” (Superbus in Latin). Murdered his wife and brother to solidify hold on the throne, and had a large number of Senators executed. Conquered the towns of Pometia, thirty miles from Rome, and Gabii, eleven miles from Rome. His son Sextus raped Lucretia, the famously virtuous wife of a Roman nobleman. A conspiracy of noblemen led by Junius Brutus killed Sextus and exiled Tarquin, abolishing the Roman monarchy and establishing a republic.
The reputation of Tarquin II would come, in time, to overshadow the reputations of all six of his predecessors, to the extent that the thing that Romans most feared was monarchy. “King” – “Rex” in Latin – became almost a forbidden word, and the entire political system of the Republic, in which the highest office of Consul was held by two men simultaneously and never for longer than a year, was specifically designed to prevent any one man from holding too much power. While this did, of course, all fall apart eventually and Rome became dominated by the emperors, the pretense was maintained for three-hundred years after the end of the Republic that it still existed, and the emperors were never called “Rex”.
- Livy, History of Rome, translated by the Reverend Canon Roberts
- Plutarch, The Life of Romulus, translated by Bernadotte Perrin