The rapid territorial expanse of the Roman republic is well known. But it is less well known that Rome wasn`t always a republic. In the early days, Rome was ruled by kings.
But that changed around the year 510 BC when the roman monarchy was overthrown.
Let`s find out what led to the fall of the Roman monarchy.
According to the myth, the roman monarchy was overthrown by Lucius Iunius Brutus and others after the roman prince Sextus Tarquinius had raped the wife of a nobleman. In reality, the overthrowing of the Roman king was probably a family dispute within the royal roman family.
The situation before the Roman monarchy was overthrown
Just like the founding of Rome itself the fall of the roman monarchy is also mythologically charged.
If you want to find out more about the myth and the reality of how Rome was founded you can check out my article here.
There you can also find out why from 753 BC to 510 BC early Rome was ruled by kings!
That changed in the year 510 BC.
Well, actually that’s not entirely true.
One possible date for the fall of the Roman monarchy is 510 BC. The roman writer Polybios on the other hand dates the fall of the roman monarchy into the year 508/507 BC.
Since the sources for the early centuries of Rome are quite rare, more on that here in my article, it is not possible to name the exact year.
Especially not since the entire procedure is highly contradictory. But more on that in the next paragraph!
Let`s go back to the myth.
According to the myth the last king, named Tarquinius Superbus (=Tarquinius the arrogant), had become king by killing his father-in-law (the Roman king Servius Tullius) with the help of his wife.
While roman sources present him in a negative way his accomplishments (especially the expansion of Roman influence and the construction of many important buildings) are not denied. Not even by the writers who explicitly frame Tarquinius Superbus as the stereotype of a tyrant.
But apart from these accomplishments, he is portrayed as a cruel and arrogant tyrant who didn`t respect the laws and customs.
The foundation of his power was not the support of the Roman people but his bodyguard that would intimidate the people of Rome.
It is highly debated of Tarquinius Superbus was really as bad as roman writers presented him.
First of all, it is important to realize that all the writers who wrote about him lived centuries after the Roman monarchy was overthrown.
And second of all, the depiction highly resembles the Greek tyrants. For example the Athenian tyrant Hippias. And coincidentally the Athenian tyrant Hippias was also overthrown in the year 510/509 BC!
Quite a lot of coincidences if you ask me…
But despite the question, if the monarchy was really overthrown in 510 BC and if Tarquinius Superbus was really as tyrannic as he is portrayed on thing seems clear.
Tarquinius Superbus didn`t spark the rebellion against the monarchy! Actually, he wasn`t even in Rome when it happened.
And the question of what happened first leads us to the myth of how the Roman monarchy was overthrown.
According to the myth, the rebellion against the Roman monarchy was sparked by one of the sons of Tarquinius Superbus while Tarquinius himself was on a military campaign.
It is said that Sextus Tarquinius (the son of Tarquinius Superbus) raped Lucretia. Lucretia was the wife of Sextus` cousin Collatinus.
After being raped by Sextus Tarquinius Lucretia committed suicide and her husband and his friends & relatives wanted revenge.
Collatinus, Lucius Iunius Brutus, Publius Valerius Poplicola, and Spurius Lucretius rallied the people of Rome against the Tarquinius clan and branded them as tyrants.
The timing for that kind of rebellion was favorable since king Tarquinius Superbus and the army were on campaign and could not intervene as the rebellion spread.
When Tarquinius Superbus and the army returned they were greeted by locked city gates and could not enter Rome.
Soon the news of what had happened found its way into the army camp and the army decided to side with the rebels.
Tarquinius Superbus and his sons were forced to go into exile from where they (unsuccessfully) tried to regain their kingship.
After the last roman king was exiled and his clan expelled the office of king was replaced by two magistrates.
The first two magistrates that took office were the rebels Lucius Iunius Brutus and Collatinus. Have you ever wondered why male Roman names often consisted of 3 parts while female Romans usually only had one name? Here you can find the answer!
By the way, all the powerful political offices during the roman republic were shared between multiple men.
There were always two consuls. That was a precaution to prevent that any man would accumulate too much power and make himself king.
And even the office of dictator, a regular office that was only manned when things were extremely tense, would have a time limit and other restrictions to prevent the reestablishing of a monarchy!
That kind of deep-rooted fear also formed the roman emperors and also Julius Caesar. All of them did their best to NOT be perceived as kings. You can find more information on the topic here in my article.
Now you might ask yourself how it is possible to simply switch from a monarchy to a system where the city is ruled by aristocrats.
And you are totally right, the entire myth seems unlikely, to say the least.
That is especially shown in the fact that ALL of the leading rebels and the first two magistrates of Rome were close relatives of Tarquinius Superbus!
The idea that the entire Tarquinius clan was expelled clearly collides with the claim that the first two magistrates of the roman republic were relatives of Tarquinius Superbus. Brutus was a nephew of Tarquinius Superbus, Collatinus was a cousin of Tarquinius Superbus!
And that brings us to the scientific reality.
The scientific reality
First I like to state that the sources that are available for the time of the early Roman republic/the end of the Roman monarchy are rare.
But Historians do know a few things about the aristocratic family clans of ancient Rome and how they functioned. If you want to learn more about these clans (the so-called gentes) and you are looking for a few examples you might want to check out my article here!
That combined with the fact that all the leaders of the rebellion against Tarquinius Superbus (as already stated) were close relatives of his open up a new possibility.
The rebellion against Tarquinius Superbus might not have been a liberation from the tyrant but instead a fight for power WITHIN the royal family.
Now the idea that close family members (once again, Brutus was the nephew of Tarquinius Superbus) might sound a little bit to similar to Game of Thrones.
But that kind of fighting for power within a clan was not uncommon. Not during the early days of Rome, more on that topic here in my article and not during later times.
In fact, one could make the strong case that that kind of fighting over power within a family was not exclusive to antiquity. In a way, the history of the Middle Ages and of modern times is full of that kind of family relations.
But that is a story for another time.
There is also a second theory according to which the transformation from a monarchy to a rule of the aristocrats was not one singular event but a process.
According to that theory, the kingship would have slowly lost power and that power was then distributed among the aristocrats until the king had lost all of his power and significance.
That would mean the roman writers (keep in mind, they all wrote centuries after the end of monarchy) would have compressed these processes into one singular event.
For me, that theory sounds quite convincing, especially if you consider that a lot of early roman history was compressed in such a way.
Just take the 6 early kings of Rome as an example. Every one of them was credited for initializing massive reforms.
The first roman king Romulus, more on how a Troyan became the progenitor of Rome here in my article, was credited for organizing both the army and the structuring of the roman people into curiae.
Compressing complex processes into the deeds of a single man was a popular way to explain the early roman history that even the roman writers didn`t know a lot about.
What followed after the end of the Roman monarchy?
So we just established that the roman monarchy was either overthrown or slowly repressed by the influence of the aristocrats.
What followed after the end of the Roman monarchy was the time of the Roman republic that would last until 27 BC.
That by the way is also the time that I personally find the most interesting. Because of that I will write more articles on the Roman republic. Make sure to return to neutralhistory.com to check them out!
During the Roman republic, the power was distributed among the aristocrats. Please check out my article here for a detailed insight into the political institutions and offices of the roman republic.
In order to reach the high Roman offices like consul or praetor, a roman aristocrat had to be voted by the people of Rome.
And that brings us to one of the most popular topics of Roman history: Gladiators!
But also the questions of what happened to the bodies of killed gladiators and why gladiators fought at all (Which is highly connected to the roman preelections).
But all these topics are a story for another time.
I hope you enjoyed our trip into the early days of Rome.
Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.
Until next time
K. Lomas, The Rise of Rome. From the Iron Age to the Punic wars (1000 BC – 264 BC).
Propyläen Weltgeschichte, (Hg. G. Mann, A. Heuß), Bd. 4.