Tarquinius Superbus, the seventh king of Rome, was not only a builder, but also a great warrior. During his reign he made war against the Volscians, and he also besieged the city of Gabii, where the patricians who did not like him had taken refuge.
This city was so favorably situated, and so well fortified, that Tarquin could not make himself master of it, although his army was unusually well trained.
Seeing that he could not take it by force, he soon decided to try to win it by fraud. He therefore directed his son, Sextus Tarquinius, to go to Gabii, and win admittance to the city by saying that the king had ill-treated him, and that he had come to ask protection. Sextus was as wicked as his father, so he did not scruple to tell this lie; and he set out immediately for Gabii.
When the people heard the pitiful tale which Sextus told, they not only let him into the city, but also revealed to him their secrets. Then they made him general of their army, and even gave him the keys of the gates. Sextus was now all-powerful at Gabii, but he did not know exactly what to do next, so he sent a messenger to his father, to tell him all that had happened, and to ask his advice.
The messenger found Tarquin in his garden, slowly walking up and down between the flower borders. He delivered all his messages, and then asked what reply he should carry back to Sextus at Gabii.
Instead of answering the man, Tarquin slowly turned and walked down the garden path, striking off the heads of the tallest poppies with his staff. The messenger waited for a while in silence, and then again asked what answer he should take to his master.
Tarquin came back to him, and carelessly said: "Go back to Gabii, and tell my son that I had no answer to send him, but be sure to tell him where you found me, and what I was doing."
The man went back to Sextus, and reported all he had seen. After thinking the matter over for a little while, Sextus understood why no verbal message had been sent. It was for fear their plans would become known; and then he decided that his father, by striking off the heads of the tallest flowers, meant to advise him to get rid of the principal men in the city.
This advice pleased the young prince, who now sought, and soon found, a pretext for getting rid of all the most prominent people of Gabii, without arousing any suspicions. When all the bravest men had been either exiled or slain, there was no one left who dared to oppose him. Then Sextus opened the gates of the city and handed it over to the Romans.