Famous Men of Rome - John Haaren

The Tarquins


The next king of Rome was Ancus Marcius. He was a grandson of Numa Pompilius, and a very good king. He thought that it would be an advantage to Rome to have a sea harbor for ships. So he founded a city at one of the mouths of the Tiber, on the coast of the Mediterranean, about fifteen miles from Rome. The city was called Ostia, which is a Latin word meaning mouths. Latin was the language spoken by the Roman people.

During the reign of Ancus Marcius, a rich man named Lucumo came to live in Rome. He came from Tarquinii, a town some miles distant from Rome, in a district or country called Etruria, so the Romans called him Tarquinius, which in English is Tarquin.

A very wonderful thing happened to Tarquin while he was on his way to Rome. He drove in a chariot, with his wife Tanaquil seated beside him, and their servants following behind. As they were approaching the city an eagle which appeared in the sky above them came gently down and snatched the cap from Tarquin's head with its beak. After hovering around for a few moments the eagle replaced the cap and with loud screams flew away.

[Illustration] from Famous Men of Rome by John Haaren


Tarquin was much surprised at this strange event. He did not know what to think of it. But Tanaquil was much pleased. She said to her husband that it was a sign sent by the gods and meant that he was to be a great man—perhaps a king.

Tarquin was not long in Rome before he became a favorite with everybody. The people liked him because he spent a great deal of money in doing good. The king also liked him and often asked his advice in affairs of government, for Tarquin was a man of great knowledge and wisdom. And when King Ancus became old and felt that his death was near, he appointed Tarquin the guardian of his two sons who were then but boys.

Soon afterwards Ancus died, and the people elected Tarquin king. He reigned for nearly forty years and did a great deal for the good of the city.


It was King Tarquin who began the building of the famous temple of Jupiter on the Saturnian Hill—the same hill on which stood the fortress that Romulus built. While the workmen were digging for the foundations of the temple they found a man's head so well preserved that it looked as if it had been buried quite recently. This was so strange a thing that the augurs were asked about it, and they said it was a sign that Rome would become the head  or chief city of the world. So the new building was called the Capitol, from caput, the Latin word for head, and the hill was called the Capitoline Hill. This has given our language a word. We call the building in which our Congress meets—as well as that in which a state legislature meets—the Capitol.

It took a long time to finish the Capitol, but when finished it was a great and beautiful building. It covered more than eight acres. Its gates or doors were of solid brass, thickly plated with gold. The walls inside were all marble, ornamented with beautiful figures engraved in silver.

Tarquin also began several other works in Rome, which were too great and costly to be finished in a lifetime. One of them was a wall round the city. The wall that Romulus made was only round Palatine Hill. But since then the city had been much enlarged. In course of time it covered seven hills. This is why Rome is often called the seven-hilled city. The seven hills were the Palatine, the Capitoline, the Cælian, the Quirinal, the Esquiline, the Viminal, and the Aventine.



One of the other things Tarquin did was to establish a kind of police called lictors. These were officers who always walked before the king whenever he appeared in public. Each lictor bore upon his shoulder an ax enclosed in a bundle of rods tied with a red strap. This was called the fasces . It was a mark of the power of the king. The ax meant that the king might order criminals to be beheaded, and the rods meant that he might punish offenders by flogging.

Another work of Tarquin was the Circus, afterwards called the Circus Maximus (great circus). This was a place where horse-races and games and shows of various kinds were held. The Romans were very fond of such amusements. Great numbers of them always went to the shows, but it was easy for them to go, for they did not have to pay for admission. The cost of the shows was paid often by rich Romans who wanted to gain the favor of the people, and often by the government.

The circus had no roof, but there were a great many seats all round and in the middle was a large open space for the performers. This space was covered with sand, and was called the arena, a word which is Latin for sand.

As so many people attended the circus it had to be very large. In the time when Rome was an empire, about which you will read later on in this book, the Circus Maximus was so large that it contained seats for 250,000 people. From the circus and arena of the Romans these words have come into use in our own language.


Besides building a circus, King Tarquin also greatly improved the Forum by making covered walks or porticoes all round it. The Forum was a large open space at the foot of the Capitoline Hill, where public meetings were held, and where people came to hear the news or talk about politics. It was also used as a market-place, and merchants showed their goods in shops or stores along the porticoes. In course of time great buildings were erected round the Forum. There were courts of justice and temples and statues and monuments of various kinds. The Senate House, where the Senate held its meetings, was also in the Forum. From the end of the Forum next the Capitoline Hill there was a passage leading up to the Capitol.

But the most useful thing King Tarquin did was the building of a great sewer through the city and into the Tiber. Before his time there were no sewers in Rome, though the places between the hills were swampy and wet. This made many parts of the city very unhealthy. Tarquin's sewer drained the swamps and carried the water into the river. It crossed the entire city. It was so high and wide that men could sail into it in boats, and it was so strongly built that it has lasted to the present time. The great sewer is still in use.

Tarquin wanted very much to change one of the laws about the army, but an augur named Attius Navius told him such a thing could not be done without a sign from the gods. This made the king angry, and he thought he would try to show that the augurs had not the power or knowledge they were supposed to have, so he said to Attius:

"Come, now, I will give you a question. I am thinking whether a certain thing I have in my mind can be done or not. Go and find out from your signs if it can be done."

Navius went away, and shortly afterwards returned and told the king that the thing could be done. Then Tarquin said:

"Well, I was thinking whether or not you could cut this stone in two with this razor. As you say it can be done, do it."

Navius took the razor and immediately cut the stone in two with the greatest ease. The king never again doubted the power of the augurs.


On the death of Tarquin his son-in-law Servius Tullius was made king. Tarquin had two young sons, and the sons of Ancus Marcius were also living; but the people preferred to have Servius Tullius for their king.

Servius was a very good king. He had many good laws made and, like King Numa Pompilius, he divided some of the public lands among the poor people of the city.

One of the important things Servius did was to finish the wall round the city which Tarquin had begun. This wall was very high. It was made of stone and earth, and on the outside there was a ditch a hundred feet wide and thirty feet deep. There were several gates in the wall, but they were all well guarded night and day by soldiers, so that no enemy could enter.

King Servius was the first to have a census taken in Rome. He made a rule or law that once every five years all the people should assemble in the Campus Martius to be counted. The word census  is a Latin word, meaning a counting or reckoning, and so we use it in our own country for the counting of the people which takes place every ten years.

Servius Tullius was killed by King Tarquin's son, who was also called Tarquin but got the name of Superbus, or Proud, because he was a very haughty and cruel man. The dead body of Servius was left lying on the street where he had been killed, and Tullia, wife of the wicked Tarquin and daughter of the murdered king, drove her chariot over it.

Tarquin the Proud now became king. It was during his reign that the Sibylline Books were brought to Rome. These books were not like our books. They were merely three bundles of loose pieces of parchment, having moral sentences on them written in the Greek language. This is the story of how the books were obtained:

One morning an old woman came to King Tarquin, carrying nine books in her hands. She offered to sell them to the king, but when she named a large sum as the price he laughed at her and ordered her away. The next day the woman came again, but with only six books. She had burned the other three. She offered to sell the six, but she asked the same price that she had asked the day before for the whole nine. The king again laughed at her and drove her away.

The same day Tarquin went to visit the augurs in their temple, and he told them about the old woman and her books. The augurs declared that she was certainly a sibyl and that her books doubtless contained important predictions about Rome.

The sibyls were women who pretended to be able to foretell events. There were sibyls in many countries, but the most famous of them all was the Sibyl of Cumæ, a town in the south of Italy. This was the sibyl who brought the books to Tarquin.

Tarquin was now sorry he had not taken the books, and he hoped the woman would come again. She did come on the following day, but she had only three books instead of six. She had burned the other three the day before. The king was very glad to see her, and he bought the remaining three books, but he had to pay just as much for them as the old woman had asked at first for the nine. Then the Sibyl disappeared, and was never seen again.

The ordinary books the Romans had were not like the Sibylline Books. They had no printed books, for printing was not known for many centuries after. Their books were written with pens made of reeds. Their paper was made of the pith of a plant called the papyrus, and from this name the word paper  is derived. To make a book they cut the paper into leaves or pages, and after writing on them they pasted the pages one to another sidewise until all the pages of one book were put together. This long strip was made into a cylindrical roll, and was called a volume, from the Latin word volumen, a roll. When the volume was being read it was held in both hands, the reader unrolling it with one hand and rolling it with the other.

[Illustration] from Famous Men of Rome by John Haaren


The Sibylline Books were put in the temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline Hill. Two officers were appointed to keep watch over them. Whenever the Romans were going to war, or had any serious trouble, they would consult the books. The way they did it was this: one of the officers would open the stone chest where the books were kept and take out the first piece of parchment he laid his hand on. Then the Greek sentence found on the piece would be translated into Latin. It was sometimes very hard to tell what the sentence really meant. Often they had to guess. When they made sense out of it they said that it was a prophecy of the Sibyl and would surely come to pass.