Story of the Roman People - E. M. Tappan

The Legends of the Seven Kings of Rome (Continued)

Besides the story of Romulus and Remus, the Romans had many other legends about the early days of their city. According to these legends, Romulus was the first of seven kings. It took a whole year to choose his successor, for the Romans wanted a Roman and the Sabines wanted a Sabine. At length they came to an exceedingly wise agreement; the Romans were to choose the king, but he was to be of the Sabine race. They chose a wise, just man named Numa Pompilius. He saw that his subjects were brave, but that they were a rude, savage people who needed to be taught everything except how to fight.

First of all, he made treaties with the tribes around, in order that there might be a time of peace. Then he set to work to instruct his people how to worship the gods. They believed that the goddess Egeria used to come to him in a certain shady grove and tell him what to teach them, and therefore they paid close attention to his words. He appointed priests to carry on the worship of Jupiter, Mars, and some of the other gods, and gave them salaries and handsome robes. The priests' of Mars wore richly embroidered tunics and carried shields. They used to march through the city in procession, singing hymns to the war-god and carrying on a solemn dance.

[Illustration] from Story of the Roman People by E. M. Tappan


Numa had it carefully written out in just what manner the worship of each god was to be carried on, what sacrifices were to be offered, and in what manner. He gave the charge of this worship to the pontifex maximus, or high priest, and taught him also how to tell the will of the gods from flashes of lightning and the flight of birds.

[Illustration] from Story of the Roman People by E. M. Tappan


Thus far, the Romans had been busy chiefly with fighting, but Numa divided among them the lands which Romulus had won, and encouraged them to cultivate the ground. He marked out their fields with stones; and to make them feel it a crime to remove these stones, he set up an altar on the Capitoline Hill in honor of Terminus, the god of boundaries. He also built a temple in honor of Janus. In time of war its doors were open, but in peace they were closed; and it is the greatest glory of the reign of Numa that while he was on the throne the gates were always closed.

The gates of this temple were flung open, however, almost as soon as Numa died, and a new king, Tullius Hostilius, was chosen. He believed that his people would become slow and dull if they gave up fighting, and therefore he seized the first excuse for a war, and in a little while the Romans and the people of Alba Longa were drawn up on the field of battle. While both lines were awaiting the signal to make an attack, the Alban general asked to speak with King Tullus. "The Etruscans who dwell all about us," he said, "are a very powerful people both by land and by sea. Now when we and you are exhausted by fighting, they may fall upon us and destroy both parties. Can we not come to terms in some other way than by war?"

[Illustration] from Story of the Roman People by E. M. Tappan


Tullus would have much preferred to fight, but he could not help seeing that this was a sensible speech, and after a while a plan was made that must have disappointed the Etruscans if they had been hoping to get any gain from the quarrel. It chanced that in the Roman army were three brothers of the Horatian family born at one birth. They were known as the Horatii. In the Alban army were their three cousins, also born at one birth, of the Curiatian family. They were known as the Curiatii. The leaders of the armies agreed that these six should meet in combat, three on a side, and the nation whose champions won should be looked upon as the victors. "Be brave," cried both parties to their respective champions. "Remember that your gods, your country, your parents, that all your countrymen, both here and at home, are watching you." The champions took their stand between the two lines. The signal was given, and in a moment their swords were flashing. The encounter was so fierce that almost at once two of the Horatii fell dead and the three Curiatii were wounded. Hurt as they were, they were together more than a match for the remaining one of the Horatii; but he had no idea of allowing all three to attack him at once. He ran away and they pursued. He who was least wounded came up to Horatius first. The Roman suddenly turned upon him and slew him. He did the same with the other two as they came up; and so it was that the Romans became the victors.

The Roman army shouted for joy, and soon set out upon the return home. First came men bearing the armor and weapons of the Curiatii. Next came Horatius, and after him the rest of the army. When they reached the city gates, the people poured out to welcome them; but the sister of Horatius gave a great wail of sorrow, for on her brother's shoulders she recognized the coat of one of the Curiatii to whom she had been betrothed, a coat which she herself had wrought. Horatius drew his sword and ran it through her body, crying, "So perish every Roman woman who shall mourn an enemy." Every one was dismayed. The murder of the maiden must be punished, but how could they put to death the man who had just saved them from being subject to the Albans? Finally Horatius was brought to trial. His father pleaded so earnestly for his son's life that the champion was pardoned; but many sacrifices were offered to the gods that his sin might be forgiven.

The Albans were not very faithful subjects, and at length Tullus commanded them to remove to Rome. He sent soldiers to tear down their homes, and with pitiful weeping and wailing, the poor people caught up whatever they valued most of their household treasures and went in sorrowful groups to Rome. The temples of the gods were left standing, but everything else in Alba Longa was destroyed.

Tullus fought other wars, and was so successful that he began to feel it quite beneath so great a man as he to pay any service to the gods or even to deal justly and lawfully with his people. The gods were angry, and they sent a pestilence upon people and king.

Then Tullus was ready enough to offer up sacrifices. Unluckily for him, he had neglected this duty for so long that he did not know how to observe the rites properly. Jupiter was angry, and with a flash of lightning he burned the king and his house to ashes.

[Illustration] from Story of the Roman People by E. M. Tappan


The next king was Ancus Martius. He was a grandson of Numa Pompilius; and he seemed to have the good traits of both Numa and Tullus. First of all, he had the rules for the proper worship of the gods carefully written on tablets and set out where every one could read them. He paid such attention to his religious duties that the neighboring nations thought there was an excellent chance for them to attack the city while the Roman king was saying prayers and offering up sacrifices. They made a mistake, for King Ancus could fight as well as pray. He conquered his enemies and strengthened the fortifications of Rome. Just across the river Tiber was the hill Janiculum, and Ancus did not forget to fortify this, lest some enemy should capture it and so be able to take the town. In order to join this hill to the city, he built a wooden bridge across the Tiber, and at the mouth of the river he founded a colony which he called Ostia, the Latin name for mouths.

King Ancus committed only one act that seemed foolish: when he came to die, he made one Lucius Tarquinius Priscus guardian of his two sons. This man was rich and ambitious, and he had come to Rome on purpose to win power. When he was on his way to the city for the first time, with his wife Tanaquil beside him in the chariot, and had come as far as the hill Janiculum, an eagle suddenly swooped down, caught his hat from his head and wheeled about in the air with it, then dropped down and placed it on his head again. Tanaquil was skilled in reading the flights of birds and other omens, and she cried out with delight, "The eagle is the bird of Jupiter, and most surely some lofty station in life is awaiting you." Tarquinius bought a house in Rome and tried by every means in his power to win the favor of the king and the chief men, and he was most successful.

Now when Ancus was dead and the people were about to choose a new ruler, Tarquinius Priscus sent the two sons of Ancus away on a hunting trip, and then he made a speech to the assembly, telling them why they would do well to make him king. He seems to have convinced them, for he was chosen sovereign. No one could say that he did not do well by his kingdom, for he conquered the tribes roundabout, and even the powerful Etruscans acknowledged him as their king, and sent him a crown and sceptre and ivory chair, an embroidered tunic, a purple toga, or robe, and twelve bundles of rods called fasces, in each of which was an axe. This last was to signify that he had power to punish and to put to death. The men who carried the rods and axes were known as lictors; and when the king appeared in public, twelve of them always marched in single file before him.

After the enemies of the Romans had been subdued, Tarquinius set to work to improve the city. In honor of Jupiter, he built a splendid temple which was called the Capitol. The height on which it stood received the name of the Capitoline Hill. He also built directly across the city a famous underground sewer called the Cloaca Maxima, or great sewer, to drain the swamps between the hills, and he marked out the Circus Maximus, or great circus, where games were held.

One night the king and queen were aroused from their sleep to see a wonderful sight. A little boy, the son of one of their slaves, lay fast asleep, and around his head was blazing a beautiful and harmless flame. Queen Tanaquil forbade the servants to disturb the child, and she said to her husband, "Of course that fire is a mark of the favor of the gods, and the boy is surely destined for some noble position. Let us bring him up with the best of care, and if ever we are in the darkness of adversity, he will be a light to us." From that time Tarquinius treated the boy as his own son, and when he was grown up, he showed himself so truly kingly that the king gave him his daughter in marriage.

[Illustration] from Story of the Roman People by E. M. Tappan


The sons of Ancus seem to have been waiting patiently, expecting that the crown would be theirs at the death of Tarquinius; but when they saw that the king's favor was given to the boy Servius Tullius, they were angry and indignant, and a little later they hired two bold and daring shepherds to assassinate Tarquinius. Probably the sons of Ancus would have been able to seize the crown if Queen Tanaquil had not been so quick-witted. She opened the window and addressed the people. "Be of good cheer," she said. "The king is only stunned, and I hope you will soon see him again. In the mean time, he wishes you to obey Servius Tullius in his place." Then to Servius she said, "Now is your time. If you are a man, the kingdom is yours, not theirs who have brought about the murder of the king." Servius seated himself upon the throne and gave judgment in some cases, while in others he pretended to consult the king. By the time that the king's death was known, Servius had gained so much power that he easily held the kingdom. He was just and kind to his people. He never forgot that his mother had been a slave, and he was so strong a friend to the poorer folk that it is no wonder they called him the good king Servius.

In some ways the reign of Servius Tullius was almost a revolution. First of all, he planned for a larger army. It had always been regarded as an honor to defend the state, and therefore only patricians had been privileged to serve as soldiers. Servius, however, obliged all landowners to join the army. He divided them, not into patricians and plebeians, but into five classes according to the amount of land which they held. The largest landowners were required to provide themselves with horses to form the cavalry; the next largest had to obtain full suits of armor, helmets, coats of mail, shields, and greaves, or protectors for the legs. The poorer people provided less armor. The patricians as a class were more wealthy than the plebeians; in general, therefore, the former continued to serve as cavalry, while the latter made up the infantry.

To make it easier to form the army, Servius paid no attention to the old division of the patricians into three tribes; instead, he divided the city into four wards, or districts, classing all landowners living in one district, whether patricians or plebeians, as of one tribe.

Servius built a wall entirely around the city, parts of which remain to this day. He also established the census, a list of the people of the state, their children, and the amount of their property. This census was taken every five years. It closed with a sacrifice to the gods called a lustrum, or purification, and soon the period of five years came to be called a lustrum.

[Illustration] from Story of the Roman People by E. M. Tappan


The place where the soldiers used to come together to drill was a plain just outside the walls of the city called the Campus Martius, or Field of Mars. The troops were divided into groups of one hundred, and as the Latin word for hundred is centum, the meeting of these groups came to be called the comitia centuriata, or assembly of the centuries.

Servius was loved by his people, but there was one man whom he feared, Lucius, the son of Tarquinius. Lucius had married the daughter of Servius; but she was a wicked woman and plotted that her husband should seize her father's crown. One day Lucius went in royal robes to the forum, or public square, and declared that he, and not the son of a slave, was the rightful king. He caught hold of the aged Servius and flung him down the steps of the senate house, and then sent men to murder him. The wicked daughter of Servius heard what had been done, and she hastened to the forum to salute her husband as king. He bade her withdraw from such a tumult, and she obeyed, ordering her charioteer to drive her chariot over the bleeding body of her father lying in the road.

So it was that a second Lucius Tarquinius became king. He was so cruel and haughty that the people called him Tarquinius Superbus, or Tarquin the Proud, and if he had not always kept a bodyguard around him, some one would surely have murdered him. One day when he was at the height of his power, a strange woman came before him with nine books, and asked him to buy them. Her price was so high that he only laughed scornfully. She went away and burned three of the books, then returned and offered him the six at the same, price that she had asked for the nine. "The woman is surely mad," Tarquinius declared. She made no reply, but went away again, and a little later offered him the last three books, but still at the same price. The affair was so remarkable that Tarquinius began to think the books must have been sent by the gods. He paid the price and took them. They proved to be prophecies about the future of the city. They were preserved with the utmost care and were consulted whenever the city seemed to be in danger. The strange woman was the Sibyl of Cumae. She vanished and was never seen again. The books were known as the Sibylline Books, and were counted among the greatest treasures of Rome.

Tarquinius was successful in war, but he could not subdue the Gabii. This his false son Sextus undertook to do for him. He fled to them covered with blood and begged them to protect him from his father. They treated him kindly, and gave him command of a band of soldiers. In the first engagement, Sextus and his band put the Romans to flight for this was what he and Tarquinius had agreed upon. Now the Gabii were so sure that Sextus was true to them that they made him leader of their whole army. Then Sextus treacherously surrendered the town to the Romans.

Tarquinius had done so many evil deeds that it is small wonder he became afraid the gods would punish him. A serpent gliding out of a wooden pillar frightened him, and he sent two of his sons to the oracle of the Greeks at Delphi to ask what the sight foreboded. With them went their cousin, who was called Brutus, or the fool, because he pretended to be foolish lest Tarquinius should put him to death. The two sons had a question of their own to ask: Who would reign after their father? The oracle replied, "He who first kisses his mother." When they returned to Rome, Brutus pretended to stumble and fell. No one noticed that he slyly kissed the ground, and no one knew until afterwards that he said to himself, "The earth is the mother of us all."

Sextus, who had deceived the Gabii, was the worst of the three sons. One day he insulted so grievously the good Lucretia, wife of one of his cousins, that she called upon her father and her husband to avenge her, and then in grief and shame she plunged a knife into her heart. At this Brutus stood out boldly before the people and recounted the evil deeds of Tarquinius and his sons. He pleaded with the Romans to drive the tyrant from the throne, and they agreed. Moreover, they declared that never again should a king reign over them, and they even decreed that if any one should venture to say he wished a return of the kingly rule, he should be put to death as an enemy to the state. This took place in 509 B.C. That date marks the end of the kingdom, for Rome now became a republic.


The six kings who followed Romulus were:

  1. Numa Pompilius, who taught his people to worship the gods and cultivate the ground.
  2. Tullus Hostilius, who became ruler of Alba Longa by the victory of Horatius over the Curiatii.
  3. Ancus Martius, who attended closely to his religious duties and strengthened the fortifications of Rome.
  4. Lucius Tarquinius Priscus, who overcame the Etruscans, and built the Capitol, the Cloaca Maxima, and the Circus Maximus.
  5. Servius Tullius, who required all landowners to join the army, and divided the people into five classes according to their property in land. He divided the city into four wards, he built a wall around it, and established the census. The comitia centuriata originated in his reign.
  6. Tarquinius Superbus, who murdered Servius Tullius. He purchased the Sibylline Books. His son Sextus overcame the Gabii by treachery. Brutus aroused the Romans to expel the king. The kingdom now became a republic.

Suggestions for Written Work

  • An Alban woman tells the story of her removal to Rome. Describe the Capitol (from a picture).
  • Tanaquil tells Servius of the "harmless flame."
  • The coming of the Sibyl as described by Tarquinius.