Who Were the Early Kings of Rome?

Roman Kings Preceded the Roman Republic and Empire

Long before the founding of the Roman Republic or the later Roman Empire, the great city of Rome began as a small farming village. Most of what we know about these very early times comes from Titus Livius (Livy), a Roman historian who lived from 59 BCE to 17 CE. He wrote a history of Rome entitled History of Rome From Its Foundation.

Livy was able to write accurately about his own time, as he witnessed many major events in Roman history. His description of earlier events, however, may have been based on a combination of hearsay, guesswork, and legend. Today's historians believe that the dates Livy gave to each of the seven kings were very inaccurate, but they are the best information we have available (in addition to the writings of Plutarch, and Dionysius of Halicarnasus, both of whom also lived centuries after the events). Other written records of the time were destroyed during the sack of Rome in 390 BCE.

According to Livy, Rome was founded by the twins Romulus and Remus, descendants of one of the heroes of the Trojan War. After Romulus killed his brother, Remus, in an argument, he became the first King of Rome.

While Romulus and the six succeeding rulers were called "kings" (Rex, in Latin), they did not inherit the title but were duly elected. In addition, the kings were not absolute rulers: they answered to an elected Senate. The seven hills of Rome are associated, in legend, with the seven early kings.

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Romulus 753-715 B.C.

Actor Philippe in role of Romulus, engraving, France, 18th century
DEA / G. DAGLI ORTI/ De Agostini Picture Library/ Getty Images

Romulus was the legendary founder of Rome. According to legend, he and his twin brother, Remus, were raised by wolves. After founding Rome, Romulus returned to his native city to recruit residents; most who followed him were men. To secure wives for his citizens, Romulus stole women from the Sabines in an attack known as the "rape of the Sabine women. Following a truce, the Sabine king of Cures, Tatius, co-ruled with Romulus until his death in 648 B.C.

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Numa Pompilius 715-673

Claude Lorrain, Egeria Mourns Numa
Claude Lorrain, Egeria Mourns Numa. Public Domain, courtesy of Wikipedia

Numa Pompilius was a Sabine Roman, a religious figure who was very different from the warlike Romulus. Under Numa, Rome experienced 43 years of peaceful cultural and religious growth. He moved the Vestal Virgins to Rome, founded religious colleges and the Temple of Janus, and added January and February to the calendar bring the number of days in a year to 360. 

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Tullus Hostilius 673-642 B.C.

Tullus Hostilius [Published by Guillaume Rouille(1518?-1589), From "Promptuarii Iconum Insigniorum"]. PD Courtesy of Wikipedia

Tullus Hostilius, whose existence is in some doubt, was a warrior king. Little is known about him except that he was elected by the Senate, doubled the population of Rome, added Alban nobles to the Senate of Rome, and built the Curia Hostilia.

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Ancus Martius 642-617 B.C.

Ancus Martius [Published by Guillaume Rouille (1518?-1589); From "Promptuarii Iconum Insigniorum"]. PD Courtesy of Wikipedia

Though Ancus Marcius was elected to his position, he was also a grandson of Numa Pompilius. A warrior king, Marcius added to Roman territory by conquering neighboring Latin cities and moving their people to Rome. Marcius also founded the port city of Ostia.

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L. Tarquinius Priscus 616-579 B.C.

Tarquinius Priscus [Published by Guillaume Rouille(1518?-1589); From "Promptuarii Iconum Insigniorum"]. PD Courtesy of Wikipedia

The first Etruscan king of Rome, Tarquinius Priscus (sometimes referred to as Tarquin the Elder) had a Corinthian father. After moving to Rome, he became friendly with Ancus Marcius and was named as guardian to Marcius's sons. As king, he gained ascendance over neighboring tribes and defeated the Sabines, Latins, and Etruscans in battle.

Tarquin created 100 new senators and expanded Rome. He also established the Roman Circus Games. While there is some uncertainty about his legacy, it is said that he undertook the construction of the great Temple of Jupiter Capitolinus, started the construction of the Cloaca Maxima (a massive sewer system), and expanded the role of Etruscans in Roman governance.

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Servius Tullius 578-535 B.C.

Servius Tullius [Published by Guillaume Rouille(1518?-1589); From "Promptuarii Iconum Insigniorum"]. PD Courtesy of Wikipedia

Servius Tullius was the son-in-law of Tarquinius Priscus. He instituted the first census in Rome, which was used to determine the number of representatives each area had in the Senate. Servius Tullius also divided the Roman citizens into tribes and fixed the military obligations of 5 census-determined classes.

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Tarquinius Superbus (Tarquin the Proud) 534-510 B.C.

Tarquinius Superbus [Published by Guillaume Rouille(1518?-1589); From "Promptuarii Iconum Insigniorum"]. PD Courtesy of Wikipedia

The tyrannical Tarquinius Superbus or Tarquin the Proud was the last Etruscan or any king of Rome. According to legend, he came to power as a result of assassination Servius Tullius and ruled as a tyrant. He and his family were so evil, say the stories, that they were forcibly ousted by Brutus and other members of the Senate.

The Founding of the Roman Republic

After the death of Tarquin the Proud, Rome grew under the leadership of the great families (patricians). At the same time, however, a new government developed. In 494 BCE, as a result of a strike by the plebeians (commoners), a new representative government emerged. This was the start of the Roman Republic.