Tarquin the Proud, Etruscan King of Rome

Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, the Last of the Etruscan Rulers in Rome

The expulsion of Tarquin and his family from Rome.
The expulsion of Tarquin and his family from Rome. Artist: Master of Marradi (Maestro di Marradi) (active 1470-1513). Heritage Images/Getty Images / Getty Images

Lucius Tarquinius Superbus or Tarquin the Proud, who ruled Rome between 534–510 BCE, was the last king the Romans would tolerate. Tarquin's despotic reign earned him the title Superbus (proud, haughty). The flaw in Superbus's character—he combined a great deal of ambition with a wealth of family treachery in his background—eventually led to the end of the Etruscan rule over the city of Rome.

A Legendary Rule

There are no historical records for this period in Roman history: those records were destroyed when Gaul sacked Rome in 390 BCE. What scholars know of the Tarquin history are legends written down by the much later Roman historians Livy, Cicero, and Dionysius.

Tarquin the Proud was one of the Etruscan kings of Rome called the Tarquin Dynasty or the "Great House of Tarquin" by Rome's historian Livy, but the spotty intrigue-riddled reign was hardly a dynasty. The Tarquins were one of several Etruscan chiefs, including the Tarchu, Mastarna, and Porsenna, who in turned usurped Rome's throne with little chance to found genuine dynasties. Cicero sketched the Tarquin history in his Republica as an example of how easily good government could degenerate.

A Family of Intrigue

Superbus was the son or possibly the grandson of Tarquinius Priscus and son-in-law of the previous Etruscan king Servius Tullius. Cicero's text suggests that Superbus and his daughter Tullia Minor killed their respective spouses, Arruns Tarquin and Tullia Major, before murdering Servius Tullius and bringing Superbus to power.

Tarquin's legacy of court intrigue and scandal led to the end of the Etruscan rule of Rome. It was Tarquin the Proud's son, Tarquinius Sextus, who raped the Roman noble woman Lucretia. Lucretia was the wife of his cousin Tarquinius Collatinus, and her rape brought about the end of the Etruscan rule of Rome.

Lucretia's rape was scandalous on several levels, but it came about because of a drinking party during which her husband and other Tarquins argued over who had the most beautiful wife. Sextus was at that party and aroused by the discussion, came to the virtuous Lucretia's bed and forcibly raped her. She called her family to demand revenge, and when they didn't deliver, committed suicide.

A Revolt and the New Republic

A revolt against the corrupt Etruscans was spearheaded by Tarquin the Proud's nephew Lucius Junius Brutus and Lucretia's husband Tarquinius Collatinus. In the end, Tarquin the Proud and all of his family (ironically, including Collatinus) were expelled from Rome.

Along with the end of the Etruscan kings of Rome, the power of the Etruscans over Latium weakened. Rome replaced the Etruscan rulers with a Republic. Although there are some who believe there was a gradual transition to the consul system of the Republic, the Fasti Consulares list the annual consuls straight after the end of the regal period.

But is it History?

Classical scholar Agnes Michels and others have suggested that the text that Livy, Dionysius, and Cicero used to describe the events of the Tarquin Dynasty has all the earmarks of a classic tragedy, or rather, a trilogy of plays with the moral theme of cupido regni (kingdom of lust).