For 255 years, according to the historians Livy, Dionysius Halikarnassus, and Plutarch, Rome was ruled by kings. Modern scholars question the exactness of this king-list as to the length of the reigns, whether or other men also ruled as formally acclaimed as kings, or were merely warlord chiefs who conquered Rome for a time.
But for now, we must begin with the seven kings of Rome.
Romulus-the traditional founder of Rome who was a very fortunate warrior-king. Rome still celebrates April 21 as its birthday, the exact date that Romulus is said to have begun building the city. He reigns for 37 years, a small part of which is in partner-rule with the Sabine king Titus Tatius. The highlights of his reign are the betrayal that allows the Sabines to capture the Capitoline fortress, the “abduction-rape” of the Sabine women, and all Romulus’ military victories. Tatius and Romulus had been at war, and Tatius had occupied the fortress heights, before he and Romulus became co-kings. In scenes reminiscent of the story of Lysistrata, the Sabine women, now wives and mothers of Rome, walk onto a raging battlefield to end the bloodshed between their fathers, brothers, and husbands. The rich spoils Romulus brings home from his conquests do not stop the wealthy men of Rome from plotting against his life.
Numa Pompilius is a Sabine from the same city Tatius ruled. In fact, Numa was Tatius’ son-in-law. While Tatius ruled with Romulus, he was murdered, and Romulus may have been slow to bring his killers to justice. Perhaps that helped Numa be reluctant to become king in Rome after Romulus was gone. But he did—reigning for 43 years as a priest-king under whom Rome knew only peace.
Tullus Hostilius was a fierce warrior-king of Rome, from a city that Romulus had earlier conquered. The history of his 32-year reign is filled with war between Alba and Rome, secret conspiracies and betrayals of Rome by a pledged ally, and a battle-duel between two sets of triplet cousins- one Alban, one Roman- which leads to victory for Rome and the total destruction of Alba. It also ends in a heartbreaking family tragedy-which tangentially highlights some of the cultural mores of the time.
Ancus Marcius is Numa’s maternal grandson and thus another Sabine. By this time, cities that had treaties of peace with Rome’s earlier kings now decide that those treaties no longer have effect, and so Ancus takes Rome again into war. His 24-year reign is most notable because of the appearance in Rome of the Etruscan Tarquinius Priscus, grandfather of the last king of Rome. Priscus becomes a close friend and advisor to Ancus, even being appointed guardian for his sons.
Tarquinius Priscus becomes king of Rome, expelling the sons of Ancus. It is interesting to note that the revolt that eventually brings down his grandson Superbus is engineered by descendants of Priscus and his brother-making the fall of the monarchy one of history’s earliest royal family squabbles. Priscus is another warrior-king of Rome, fighting Latins and Etruscans at various times. During his 38-year reign, Servius Tullius, the next king of Rome is born in Priscus’ palace to a Roman captive servant.
Servius Tullius had humble origins, supposedly born to a servant in the Roman palace. He grows to become a trusted officer in Priscus’ army, and when Priscus is murdered in a plot by Ancus’ sons, his Etruscan wife sets up Servius to become the new king. He reign for 44 years, and new walls of Rome, divisions of the classes and army, are all attributed to Servius. Emperor Claudius, who was fascinated with Etruscan history, referred to Servius in a speech as having possibly been an Etruscan mercenary chief-an interesting fictional path to tread, to be sure.
Tarquinius Superbus is the last traditional king of Rome. He was depicted as a tyrant in the Greek style, lecherous, arrogant, and cruel-and his sons were no better. The commonly held story of his fall was that a beautiful honorable Roman matron was raped by his son, and her subsequent suicide inspired a group of Roman patricians to rebel and oust Superbus from the throne. Some research into Etruscan artifacts has presented a theory that Lucretia may have been engaged in an affair with Sextus, which proved a good excuse for her husband’s cousin to finally act on his own high ambitions. The ringleaders of this revolt are in fact close Tarquin relatives. The expelled Superbus seeks the help of the Etruscan king Lars Porsena, who invades Rome’s territory, occupies the Janiculum hill and, according to later Roman writers, may in fact have actually conquered Rome for a time. Porsena also takes some of the noble Roman youths as hostages, and one of these, Cloelia, becomes famous for engineering their rescue back to Rome, but then as a point of honor she returns to Porsena to remain a hostage.