Saturday, November 30, 2013

The Etruscan Kings of Rome

Umbria, Italy (September 18, 2009)


I have a few more photos of the hills and mountains of central Italy that I want to show. That's a perfect excuse to elaborate a little more about the etruscans and their relationship with ancient Rome. As I mentioned in the last post, the etruscans were a large and rich civilization when Rome was still a newly founded hamlet. Rome was protected from their mighty neighbors by the forests growing on the mountains and hills surrounding the city and isolating it from Etruria (these forests are still existing, see the photo above taken in southern Umbria). As Rome grew in size, power and economic importance, the partnership and alliances with the etruscan cities became more essential, until the two civilizations merged. This is symbolized in Rome's foundation myths by having an etruscan dynasty for the last three roman kings. This story is actually worth of a Shakespeare play.

A Tower on the hill
The story began with Lucius Tarquinio Priscus. Born in Tarquinii (in Etruria) by a greek father and etruscan mother, he became disgruntled with etruscan politics and traveled to Rome with his wife Tanaquil. It is said than when he entered the city by chariot, he had his cap stolen and then returned by an eagle, which Tanaquil interpreted as an omen of future greatness. Once in the city he was noticed by the king (Ancus Marcius) who made him tutor of his two sons.

One peculiarity of the roman monarchy was that it wasn't an hereditary institution: kings were acclaimed by the people and ratified by the senate. So, when Ancus Marcius died, Lucius Tarquinius Priscus was preferred to the previous king's sons, and became the new monarch. I won't go in the details of his reign. He fought his quote of wars (including one in which he subjugated several etruscan cities), build the Circus Maximus (the famous stadium for chariot racing) and the Cloaca Maxima (the great roman sewer). All in all he is said to have reigned for 38 years, when he was finally murdered by the sons of his predecessor, that organized a riot in the city, and used the confusion to mortally wound the king.

That was however not the end of the etruscan dynasty. The king's widow Tanaquil took the situation in her hands, hid the death of the king from the roman people, and convinced the senate to appoint one of her servants, Servius Tullius, as regent. Servius, who was born to a "virgin" slave (allegedly impregnated by the god Vulcan), was Tanaquil's protege and had was married with one of Tarquinius Priscus and Tanaquil's daughters. Tanaquil put him forward for the throne, before her two sons Lucius Tarquinius (the older, named after his father) and Arruns Tarquinius (the younger). Once the death of king became apparent, Servius was acclaimed as the new ruler. His reign is remembered as the golden age of the roman monarchic period. He expanded the city, was successful in wars and, most importantly, enfranchised the populace (the plebs) giving them the right to vote and to bear arms, in exchange of taxation and service in the military. In doing so he dramatically reduced the power of the oligarchy that previously dominated the political life in the city, and laid the foundation for many of the institutions that would later evolve into the Roman Republic.

Not everybody, however, was happy. The two sons of Tarquinius Priscus and Tanaquil, in particular, resented being passed over by their mother for the throne. To appease them, Servius gave them his two daughters in marriage. That didn't work, in fact made matters even worse. Lucius Tarquinius (the son) conspired with the wife of his brother (Tullia the younger) to get rid of their siblings and spouses (Arruns Tarquinius and Tullia the older). Then they married, and conspired to overthrow Servius (the king and Tullia's father). After some suitable bribing, Tarquinius walked armed into the Senate, and denounced the king for his policies in favor of the populace: when Servius attempted to intervene to defend his position, Tarquinius pushed him down the steps of the Senate, where he was killed by Tarquinius men, and run over on purpose by the chariot driven by his daughter Tullia. Tarquinius became king and refused to give proper burial services for his father-in-law, and became known for that as Tarquinius the Superbus (the "arrogant"). The street where this tragedy happened is still called "Vicus Sceleratus" ("street of infamy").

Tarquinius the Superb was not a particularly bad king for the standard of the time (made his conquests, built the obligatory temples), but was certainly not a loved one. In part because of the way he acceded to the throne, but most importantly because he tried to restore the power of the oligarchy at a time in which the roman society had already moved on towards more democratic principles. In the end his reign ended when one of his sons raped a respected noblewoman, leading to a revolt of the outraged population and to the founding of the Roman Republic, based on the institutions started by Servius Tullius, the last roman benevolent king.

The rest is history.

Umbria, Italy (September 18, 2009)

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