[Edited 9/11/14]

The Roman Monarchy


I summarized for you briefly last time the many ways in which the study of Roman history is important to historians with a wide variety of interests in a great many fields.  I hope I made it clear that one of the most important reasons Roman history is so important is that, in many ways, the history of Rome is much like our own American history.  Like the United States, Rome started as a relatively insignificant power, but grew quickly into a force to be reckoned with, a major world power.  Also like America, Rome started as one of the most moral and idealistic societies of the face of the earth.  And, like America, Rome was a vast melting pot, combining elements from a variety of cultures.  Both in political and social terms, developments and problems in ancient Rome parallel developments and problems in American history—sometimes in an uncanny way.  Figuring out what went right and what went wrong in Roman history, then, is sometimes vitally important for the light it sheds on our own situation—and, perhaps, as a consolation for the troubles of our own age.  As Livy says, “The study of history is the best medicine for a sick mind: for in history you have a record of the infinite variety of human experience plainly set out for all to see: and in that record you can find for yourself and your country both examples and warnings: fine things to take as models, base things, rotten through and through, to avoid.”

Particularly when it comes to political issues, Rome has much to teach us.  Through much of their history, the Romans, like Americans, were a self-governing people.  But, like America, and unlike Athens, Rome was not a direct democracy. The Romans maintained a republic, electing leaders who were answerable to the people as a whole.

Can such a government last for long?  Much of world history suggests that it cannot.  Democratic and republican governments tended to be short-lived in Sumer, Greece, and in Renaissance Italy.  And in the 20th century, many European democracies succumbed to the temptation of totalitarian rule.  17th century French bishop Jacques Bossuet argued that monarchy was the most natural, ancient, and common form of government—and that’s certainly true.  But is it possible to make non-autocratic government work?  Ancient Rome is the best example showing that it can.

For hundred years (during the period of the Roman Republic) the Roman people ruled themselves—and ruled themselves well.  Their success in turning the Mediterranean into a Roman lake—Mare Nostrum, our sea—show just how well they made Republican government effective.  So what was it that the Romans were doing right? And where did they start going wrong?  For the first third of our course, these are going to be our major themes. But before we get to Republican period, the time in which Rome becomes a major player in the Mediterranean, we’ll look first at the earliest roots of Roman history.

By the way, it’s worth having an overall “big picture” sense of Roman history in terms of the varying governmental systems dominating Rome.

·       The Roman Monarchy (753-509 BC)

·       The Early Republic (509-133 BC)

·       The Roman Revolution (133-31 BC)

·       The Roman Empire (31 BC—AD 476/AD 1453!)

Well, let’s start, as much as we can, at the very beginning—a very good place to start—with the earliest phase of Roman history, the Roman monarchy.  Unfortunately, only a very little can be said with any certainty about this period of Roman history.  Still, the stories we have of this period, even if not historically accurate, are exceptionally important in helping us to understand subsequent history.

One of the major difficulties with this period of history is that it was a long, long time before anyone attempted to deal with it.  The first attempts at Roman history didn’t come until the time of the Greek historian Polybius (c. 150 BC), and Polybius felt it irresponsible to write about events when he couldn’t directly talk to witnesses.  Under Greek influence, the Romans did at last begin to write histories of their own, and by the time of Augustus, Livy speaks of many writers who had tried to write on Roman history.  But this was an awfully late time to get started, and Livy’s introduction makes clear how hard the task was:

Whether the task I have undertaken of writing a complete history of the Roman people from the very commencement of its existence will reward me for the labour spent on it, I neither know for certain, nor if I did know would I venture to say. For I see that this is an old-established and a common practice, each fresh writer being invariably persuaded that he will either attain greater certainty in the materials of his narrative, or surpass the rudeness of antiquity in the excellence of his style. However this may be, it will still be a great satisfaction to me to have taken my part, too, in investing, to the utmost of my abilities, the annals of the foremost nation in the world with a deeper interest; and if in such a crowd of writers my own reputation is thrown into the shade, I would console myself with the renown and greatness of those who eclipse my fame. The subject, moreover, is one that demands immense labour. It goes back beyond 700 years and, after starting from small and humble beginnings, has grown to such dimensions that it begins to be overburdened by its greatness. I have very little doubt, too, that for the majority of my readers the earliest times and those immediately succeeding, will possess little attraction; they will hurry on to these modern days in which the might of a long paramount nation is wasting by internal decay. I, on the other hand, shall look for a further reward of my labours in being able to close my eyes to the evils which our generation has witnessed for so many years; so long, at least, as I am devoting all my thoughts to retracing those pristine records, free from all the anxiety which can disturb the historian of his own times even if it cannot warp him from the truth.


The traditions of what happened prior to the foundation of the City or whilst it was being built, are more fitted to adorn the creations of the poet than the authentic records of the historian, and I have no intention of establishing either their truth or their falsehood. This much license is conceded to the ancients, that by intermingling human actions with divine they may confer a more august dignity on the origins of states. Now, if any nation ought to be allowed to claim a sacred origin and point back to a divine paternity that nation is Rome. For such is her renown in war that when she chooses to represent Mars as her own and her founder's father, the nations of the world accept the statement with the same equanimity with which they accept her dominion. But whatever opinions may be formed or criticisms passed upon these and similar traditions, I regard them as of small importance. The subjects to which I would ask each of my readers to devote his earnest attention are these-the life and morals of the community; the men and the qualities by which through domestic policy and foreign war dominion was won and extended. Then as the standard of morality gradually lowers, let him follow the decay of the national character, observing how at first it slowly sinks, then slips downward more and more rapidly, and finally begins to plunge into headlong ruin, until he reaches these days, in which we can bear neither our diseases nor their remedies.

Well, as Plutarch says, time to ask the indulgence of those who can bear with patience the legends of the past.

The story, as the Romans told it, was something like this….

The great Trojan hero Aeneas escapes from the burning Troy with his father Anchises on his shoulder.  He travels around the Mediterranean, and seems to land on his feet when the beautiful Carthaginian queen Dido falls in love with him.  But, his destiny lying in another direction, Aeneas abandons Dido and makes his way to Latium.

There he eventually marries Lavinia, daughter of the king Latinus, and his descendants become kings of Alba Longa.  Among this long line of kings, Proca who has two sons, Amulius and Numitor.  Numitor is the elder and the abler, but Amulius usurps the throne and kills Numitor’s sons.  He honors Numitor’s  daughter (Rhea Silvia), by making her a vestal virgin.  This, of course, means no descendants for Numitor.  But Rhea Silvia gets pregnant anyway—raped by the god Mars supposedly.

Amulius orders Rhea Silvia imprisoned, and her twin boys are to be thrown in the river.  Well, the commands are carried out, but, since the Tiber was at flood stage, it wasn’t possible to get to the main channel, and so the boys were abandoned where they weren’t necessarily going to drown.  Sure enough, they were discovered by a she-wolf who nursed them as if they were her own.

Later, Romulus and Remus end up adopted into a shepherd’s family, and, when they grow up, discover a nice way to supplement the family income.  They waylay robbers and take from those robbers their ill-gotten gains.  The real robbers try to turn the tables on them, and the brothers end up accused of plundering Numitor’s estates.  Amulius captures one brother, and turns him over to Numitor for punishment.  Numitor puts two and two together, and figures out that the boys are his supposedly dead grandsons.  The three now plot the overthrow of Amulius, and Numitor is restored to his rightful place on the throne of Alba Longa.

Romulus and Remus go on to establish a new city of their own, attracting lots of energetic, ambitious young men who (for one reason or another) needed to get a fresh start. The city begins (translating Roman dates to our own calendar) on April 2, 753 BC. But there’s trouble.  Who will rule the new city?  Romulus and Remus agree to look to the heavens for a sign.  Remus sees 6 eagles.  Romulus 12.  Remus’ sign is first, Romulus’ sign is greater.  Dispute unsettled, and, eventually, the brothers fight it out.  One story is that Romulus was building the city walls, and Remus made fun of the project by leaping over them.  So Romulus killed him, saying that’s what happens to anyone who dare attack the walls of his city.

But it looks like the city Romulus is establishing isn’t going to last very long: no women, and therefore, no children.  Neighboring cities aren’t willing to establish marital connections with the men of this upstart city.

A stratagem.  The Romans invite neighbors to tour Rome and see all the wonderful things they’ve built.  Among the visitors, the Sabines.  At a signal, the Romans seize all the eligible young women who the Sabines have brought along.  Without weapons, the girls fathers can do nothing right away, but they begin plans for attack.

Somehow, the Romans cajole the captive women to be content with their new situation, and, when the Sabine attack begins in earnest, they’re got in a dilemma.  The Sabines attack, and a young women named Tarpeia promises to help them for “what they have on their left arms,” e.g. gold bracelets.  Instead, they throw shields on her!

Anyway, as the fighting begins to really get going, the Sabine women throw themselves between the two sets of combatants, pleading them to make peace—which they do.

The city grows, but tension grows too, with many of the more privileged people disgruntled with Romulus, a protector of the less privileged. One stormy night, Romulus disappears. Murdered?  No…he’s become a god!

But what now?  Will the elite take over?  Will there be a strong king?  Well, for a time, kings for the most part prevail.

The 2nd king is Numa, who establishes laws—mostly religious laws, laws that relate closely to politics as well.

The 3rd king in Tullus Hostillius—who, as you can probably guess from the name, makes his mark as a military man. The chief opponent: Alba Longa, the original home of Romulus and Remus.  The two sides try to settle there dispute initially in trial by combat (the Horatii vs. the Curiati), but that doesn’t work (though it gives us a great story), and, eventually Alba Longa is destroyed with the survivors being absorbed by Rome.

The 4th king, Ancus Marcius, combines the best of Tullus and the best of Numa.  A law-giver and also a fighting king, he makes Rome larger, better organized, and more successful than ever.

But there was a problem.  Hereditary succession wasn’t an established principal, and though Marcius’ sons thought they should succeed him, the kingship went instead to Tarquin the Elder—a man of Etruscan background.

Tarquin was succeeded, not directly by his sons, but by Servius Tullius.  Dynastic marriage strengthened the tie: Tarquin’s sons married Servius’ daughters.  But there was a mismatch here.  The ambitious son (Tarquin the Proud) was married to the less ambitious daughter, the less ambitious son to the more ambitious daughter.  The ambitious ones conspire to murder their spouses and Servius—and Tarquin takes the throne.

Not necessarily a bad thing for Rome, but power corrupts, and dynastic squabbles tend to create trouble.  When Tarquin’s son rapes Lucretia, wife of Collatinus, that’s the last straw.  Collatinus and Brutus drive out the Tarquins.

Not quite the end.  With the help of the Etruscan Lars Porsenna, the Tarquins try a come-back.  But Rome gets some heroes. Gaius Mucius Scavola. Horatius.  Cloelia.

Famous stories, and exciting stories: but how much of this can be believed?  If you asked 19th century scholars, none at all.  19th century scholarship was enormously skeptical about everything ancient writers told us.  The questioned Herodotus, Livy, the Old and New Testaments, Suetonius, Tacitus, and the rest. But as archaeology developed in the late 19th century and in the 20th century, the evidence showed that many ancient writers were a lot more reliable than the skeptics had thought.

The textbook consensus suggests that the general picture Livy give can be confirmed by archaeology:

·       The 8th century start for Rome is about right.

·       There does seem to be a mix of Sabine and Latin influence

·       Etruscan influence is likewise clear

·       The names are probably historical

·       The expulsion of the kings is plausible

Archaeological evidence can’t confirm the details of the stories, and the Etruscan evidence is very hard to interpret.  But, even so, the stories are important for showing us Roman values at a later time.  We see emphasis on honor, chastity, patriotism, and respect for law.  We see hostility to kingship, and a strong religious bent.

The stories also inspire much post-Roman work.  Artists and writers from Shakespeare to Thomas Babington MacCauley to Jacque Louis David use the stories in their works.  And then there are the wonderful (!) sword and sandal movies like Hero of Rome based on the stories. Watch closely, and you’ll see the echoes of these stories again and again…and sometimes in unexpected places.