Historical Tales: 11—Roman - Charles Morris

The Dynasty of the Tarquins

The tale we have now to tell forces us to pass rapidly over years of history. After several kings of Roman and Sabine birth had reigned, a foreigner, of Greek descent, came to the throne of Rome. This was one Lucomo, the son of a native of Corinth, who had settled at Tarquinii in Italy. Growing weary of Tarquinii, Lucomo left that city, with his family and wealth, and made his way to Rome. As he came near the gates of the city an eagle swooped down, lifted the cap from his head, and, bearing it high into the air, descended and placed it on his head again. His wife Tanaquil, who was skilled in augury, told him this was a happy omen, and that he was destined to become great.

And so he did. His riches, courage, and wisdom brought him great favor in Rome, and on the death of their king Ancus the people chose Lucius Tarquinius—as they called him, from his native city—to reign over them in his stead. He proved a valiant and successful warrior, and in times of peace did noble work. He built great sewers to drain the city, constructed a large circus or race-course, and a forum or market-place, and built a wall of stone around the city in place of the old wooden wall.

Forum of Rome


He also began to build a great temple on the Capitoline Hill, which was designed to be the temple of the gods of Rome. In the end Lucius was murdered by the sons of King Ancus, who declared that he had robbed them of the throne.

There is a story of the deed of an augur in his reign which is worth repeating, whether we believe it or not. Lucius had little trust in the augur, and said to him, "Come, tell me by your auguries whether the thing I have in my mind may be done or not." "It may," said Attus, the augur. "It is this," said the king, laughing: "it was in my mind that you should cut this whetstone in two with this razor. Take them and see if you can do it."

Attus took the razor and whetstone, and with a bold stroke cut the latter in two. From that time on Lucius did nothing without first consulting the augurs, and testing the purposes of the gods by the flight of birds, and—so say the legends—he prospered accordingly.

The cause of the death of Lucius was this. One day a boy who dwelt in the palace fell asleep in its portico, and as he lay there some attendants who passed by saw a flame playing lambently around his head. Alarmed at the sight, they were about to throw water upon him to extinguish the flame, when Tanaquil, the queen, who had also seen it, forbade them. She told the king of what had happened, and said that the boy whom they were bringing up so meanly was destined to become great and noble. She bade him, therefore, to rear the child in a way befitting his destiny.

The boy, whose name was Servius Tullius, was thereupon brought up as a prince, and when old enough married the king's daughter. Lucius reigned forty years, and then the sons of Ancus, fearing to be robbed of their claim to the throne by young Servius, who had become very popular, managed to get an audience with and kill the king.

The murderers gained nothing by their deed of blood. Queen Tanaquil shrewdly told the people that Lucius was only stunned by the blow, and that he wished them to obey the orders of Servius. To the young man she said, "The kingdom is yours; if you have no plans of your own, then follow mine." For several days Servius acted as king, and then, the people and senate having grown used to seeing him on the throne, the death of Lucius was declared and Servius proclaimed king. He had the consent of the senate, but had not asked that of the people, being the first king of Rome who reigned without the votes of the assembly of the Roman people.

Servius Tullius reigned long and won victories, but his greatest triumphs were those of peace. He formed a league with the thirty cities of Latium, and is said to have taken a census of the people of the city, which was found to have eighty-three thousand inhabitants. To strengthen his power he married his two daughters to two sons of Lucius Tarquinius, a well-intended act which led to a tragic and dreadful deed.

The daughters of Servius were very unlike in nature, and the same may be said of their husbands, and they became unequally mated. Lucius Tarquinius was proud and full of evil, while his wife, the elder Tullia, was good and gentle. Aruns Tarquinius was of a mild and kindly nature, while his wife, the younger Tullia, was cruel and ambitious. They were thus sadly mismated. But the evil pair saw in each other kindred spirits, and in the end Lucius secretly killed his wife, and the younger Tullia her husband. The wicked pair then married, and proceeded to carry out the purposes of their base hearts.

Servius, being himself of humble birth, had favored the people at the expense of the nobles. He even made a law that no king should rule after him, but that two men chosen by the people should govern them year by year. Thus it was that the commons came to love him and the nobles to hate him, and when be asked for a vote of the people on his kingship there was not a voice raised against him.

Lucius, whom his wicked wife steadily goaded to ambitious aims, conspired with the nobles against the king. There were brotherhoods of the young nobles, pledged to support each other in deeds of oppression. These he joined, and gained their aid. Then he waited till the harvest season, when the commons were in the fields, gathering the ripened corn.

This absence of the king's friends gave him the opportunity he wished. Gathering a band of armed men, he suddenly entered the Forum, and took his seat on the king's throne, before the door of the senate-chamber, from which Servius was accustomed to judge the people. Word of this act of treason was borne to the old king, who at once hastened to the Forum and sternly asked the usurper why he had dared to take that seat.

Lucius insolently answered that it was his father's throne, and that he had the best right to it. Then, as the aged and unguarded king mounted the steps of the senate-house, his ambitious son-in-law sprang up, caught him by the middle, and flung him head-long down the steps to the ground. Then he went into the senate-chamber and called the senators together, as though he were already king.

The old monarch, sadly shaken by his fall, rose to his feet and made his way slowly towards his home on the Esquiline Hill. But when he came near it he was overtaken by some bravos whom Lucius had sent in pursuit. These killed the unprotected old man, and left him lying in his blood in the middle of the street.

And now was done a deed which has aroused the execrations of mankind in all later ages. Tullia, who had instigated her husband to the murder of her father, waited with impatience until it was performed. Then, mounting her chariot, she bade the coachman to drive to the Forum, where, heedless of the crowd of men who had assembled. she called Lucius from the senate-house, and cried to him, in accents of triumph, "Hail to thee, King Tarquinius!"

Wicked as Lucius was, he was not as shameless as his wife, and sternly bade her to go home. She obeyed, taking the same street as her father had followed. Soon reaching the spot where the bleeding body of the old king lay stretched across the way, the coachman drew up his horses and pointed out to Tullia the dreadful spectacle.

"Drive on," she harshly commanded. "I cannot," he replied. "The street is too narrow to pass without crushing the king's body." "Drive on," she again fiercely ordered, and the coachman did so. Tullia went to her home with her father's blood upon the wheels of her chariot, and with the execration of all good men upon her head. And thus it was that Lucius Tarquinius and his wicked wife succeeded the good king Servius upon the throne.

We may tell here briefly the end of this evil pair. Tarquin the Proud, as he is known in history, reigned as a tyrant and oppressor, while his wife was viewed with horror by all virtuous matrons. At length the people rose against a base deed of the tyrant's son, and the wicked Tullia fled in terror from her house. No one sought to stop her in her flight; but all, men and women alike, cursed her as she passed, and prayed that the furies of her father's blood might take revenge for her dreadful deed.

She never saw Rome again. Tarquin sought long to regain his crown, but in vain, and the wicked usurpers died in exile. No king ever again ruled over the Romans. Tarquin's tyranny had given the people enough of kings, and the law of good Servius Tullius was at last carried out.