The Roman King L. Tarquinius Priscus According to Livy

The expulsion of Tarquin and his family from Rome. Artist: Master of Marradi (Maestro di Marradi) (active 1470-1513)
The expulsion of Tarquin and his family from Rome is depicted in this painting by artist Master of Marradi, who was active in Florence, Italy, during the second half of the 15th century.

Heritage Images / Getty Images

Like the reigns of the kings of Rome who preceded L. Tarquinius Priscus (Romulus, Numa Pompilius, Tullius Ostilius, and Ancus Marcius), and those who followed him (Servius Tullius, and L. Tarquinius Superbus), the reign of the Roman King L. Tarquinius Priscus is shrouded in legend.

The Story of Tarquinius Priscus According to Livy

An Ambitious Couple
Proud Tanaquil, born to one of the foremost Etruscan families in Tarquinii (an Etrurian city northwest of Rome) was unhappy with her rich husband, Lucumo—not with her husband as a man, but with his social status. On his mother's side, Lucumo was Etruscan, but he was also the son of a foreigner, a Corinthian noble and refugee named Demaratus. Lucumo agreed with Tanaquil that their social status would be enhanced if they moved to a new city, like Rome, where social status wasn't yet measured by genealogy.

Their plans for the future seemed to have divine blessing—or so thought Tanaquil, a woman trained in at least rudimentary arts of Etruscan divination,* for she interpreted the omen of an eagle swooping down to place a cap on Lucumo's head as the gods' selection of her husband as a king.

Upon entering the city of Rome, Lucumo took the name of Lucius Tarquinius Priscus. His wealth and behavior won Tarquin important friends, including the king, Ancus, who, in his will, appointed Tarquin guardian of his children.

Ancus ruled for twenty-four years, during which time his sons almost grew up. After Ancus died, Tarquin, acting as a guardian, sent the boys on a hunting trip, leaving him free to canvass for votes. Successful, Tarquin persuaded the people of Rome that he was the best choice for king.

* According to Iain McDougall, this is the only truly Etruscan trait Livy mentions in connection with Tanaquil. Divination was a man's occupation, but women could have learned certain common basic signs. Tanaquil may otherwise be viewed as a woman of the Augustan age.

The Legacy of L. Tarquinius Priscus - Part I
To garner political support, Tarquin created 100 new senators. Then he waged war against the Latins. He took their town of Apiolae and, in honor of the victory, started the Ludi Romani (Roman Games), which consisted of boxing and horse racing. Tarquin marked out for the Games the spot that became the Circus Maximus. He also established viewing spots, or fori (forum), for the patricians and knights.

The Sabines soon attacked Rome. The first battle ended in a draw, but after Tarquin increased the Roman cavalry he defeated the Sabines and forced an unequivocal surrender of Collatia.

The king asked, "Have you been sent as envoys and commissioners by the people of Collatia to make the surrender of yourselves and the people of Collatia?" "We have." "And is the people of Collatia an independent people?" "It is." "Do you surrender into my power and that of the People of Rome yourselves, and the people of Collatia, your city, lands, water, boundaries, temples, sacred vessels all things divine and human? " "We do surrender them." "Then I accept them."
Livy Book I Chapter: 38

Soon he set his sights on Latium. One by one, the towns capitulated.

The Legacy of L. Tarquinius Priscus - Part II
Even before the Sabine War, he had started to fortify Rome with a stone wall, Now that he was at peace he continued. In areas where water couldn't drain he built drainage systems to empty into the Tiber.

Tanaquil interpreted another omen for her husband. A boy who may have been an enslaved person was sleeping when flames surrounded his head. Instead of dousing him with water, she insisted he be left untouched until he woke of his own accord. When he did, the flames disappeared. Tanaquil told her husband that the boy, Servius Tullius would "be a light to us in trouble and perplexity, and a protection to our tottering house." From then on, Servius was raised as their own and in time was given Tarquin's daughter as wife a sure sign that he was the preferred successor.

This angered the sons of Ancus. They figured the odds of their winning the throne were greater if Tarquin were dead than Servius, so they devised and carried out Tarquin's assassination.

With Tarquin dead from an ax through the head, Tanaquil devised a plan. She would deny to the public that her husband was mortally wounded while Servius would carry on as the king pro-temp, pretending to consult with Tarquin on various issues. This plan worked for a while. In time, word spread of Tarquin's death. However, by this time Servius was already in control. Servius was the first king of Rome who was not elected.

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Gill, N.S. "The Roman King L. Tarquinius Priscus According to Livy." ThoughtCo, Nov. 27, 2020, Gill, N.S. (2020, November 27). The Roman King L. Tarquinius Priscus According to Livy. Retrieved from Gill, N.S. "The Roman King L. Tarquinius Priscus According to Livy." ThoughtCo. (accessed February 9, 2023).