Biography of Tarquin the Proud, Last Etruscan King of Rome

The expulsion of Tarquin and his family from Rome

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Lucius Tarquinius Superbus (died 495 BCE), or Tarquin the Proud, ruled Rome between 534 and 510 BCE and was the last king the Romans would tolerate. Tarquinius' despotic reign earned him the title Superbus (proud, haughty). The flaw in Superbus' 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.

Superbus was a member of the Tarquin Dynasty, dubbed 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 turn 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.

Fast Facts: Lucius Tarquinius Superbus

  • Known For: The Last Etruscan king in Rome
  • Also Known As: Tarquin the Proud
  • Born: Year unknown in Rome
  • Father: Lucius Tarquinius Priscus
  • Died: 495 BCE in Cumae, Rome
  • Spouse(s): Tullia Major, Tullia Minor
  • Children: Titus, Arruns, Sextus, Tarquinia

Early Years

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

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.

Superbus' Reign

After ascending the throne, Superbus embarked on a campaign of expansion early in his reign, waging war against the Etruscans, Volci, and Latins. His victories helped cement Rome’s status as an important power in the region. Superbus also signed Rome’s first treaty with Carthage and completed construction of the massive Temple of Capitoline Jupiter. He also used forced labor to extend the Maxima drainage system, an important water-and-sewer system in ancient Rome.

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, Superbus 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.

Legacy

Classical scholar Agnes Michels and others have suggested that the text 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).

Superbus' 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 noblewoman Lucretia. Lucretia was the wife of his cousin Tarquinius Collatinus, and her rape brought about the end of Etruscan rule.

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, she committed suicide.

Sources

  • Gantz TN. 1975. The Tarquin Dynasty. Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte 24(4):539-554.
  • Michels AK. 1951. The Drama of the Tarquins. Latomus 10(1):13-24.
  • Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Tarquin.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 4 Apr. 2018.
  • Cartwright, Mark. "Lucius Tarquinius Superbus." Ancient History Encyclopedia. Ancient History Encyclopedia, 03 Mar 2017. Web. 17 Mar 2019.