History, and Some Women, in the Reigns of Romulus and of Tarquinius Superbus

Women do not often figure prominently, or well, in the histories of the ancient world. Sometimes women appear –generally or specifically – in the ancient sources, only to be ignored and omitted by later, even modern, historians. Sometimes their actions, as reported, beg a re-interpretation.

History, Women, and the Wife, in the time of Romulus, Founder of Rome

Romulus acquires wives for the men of his new Rome by abducting young women during a festival.

One of the abducted women may have become Romulus’ wife, Hersilia. Livy of Rome, who wrote during Augustus’ reign, says she was an abducted Sabine who married Romulus. The Greek historian Dionysius of Halikarnassus, who also wrote during the reign of Augustus, says that Hersilia was already a Sabine mother, who when her daughter was abducted, chose freely to go to Rome with her. He makes no mention of Hersilia in turn marrying a Roman. The Greek biographer-historian Plutarch, who wrote in the latter part of the first century AD and early second century AD, has Hersilia, formerly married, be seized by mistake and then later either marrying Romulus or another Roman named Hostilius.

When the abduction is mentioned in modern histories or in discussions of the behaviors between men and women in ancient times, two issues are rarely if ever mentioned.

One is that Romulus first tried diplomacy, sending ambassadors and envoys to the neighboring cities to arrange for marriages. He did not simply arrange to have women dragged off into the shadows and ravished. The sources agree that his diplomatic attempts were rebuffed. So then he arranged a festival, and invited everyone from the cities to attend.  During that festival, the women were indeed carried off-and subsequently, perhaps even as soon as possible, married according to rite and ritual. They became honored wives and mothers of Rome and were treated as such.

The second often ignored element is that those women eventually engineered the peace between Rome and the Sabine army. Three cities had gone to war against Rome, provoked by the parents of the abducted women. Rome had defeated each of these, and had then been attacked by the Sabines, for the same reason. Livy writes that Hersilia pleaded with Romulus to pardon the women’s parents, after the first three cities had been defeated, and he agrees, allowing them to come live in Rome and keep their property. Livy writes later that, while the Roman and Sabine armies faced off against each other on the field, all the women, these wives of Rome, some carrying their young children, walked into the battlefield and  then pleaded with their fathers, brothers, husbands, and all, to cease the fighting and to make a peace. Dionysius writes that Hersilia herself proposed to the women that they go to the battlefield and plead for peace. Both Dionysius and Plutarch agree that Hersilia is the spokesperson for the women after they interrupt the battle. The women are also shown caring for the wounded after the fighting stopped. This is a powerful scene (whether or not it really happened, three ancient historians included the event in their accounts.)

History and a Woman under Tarquinius Superbus, last King of Rome

The story of the death of Lucretia, which is traditionally the provoking incident for the overthrow of L Tarquinius “Superbus,” the tyrant and last king of ancient Rome and the birth of the Republic, is a tale that might encourage a re-interpretation of the event.

The usual story is that Lucretia was the sweet and innocent wife of Collatinus. Rome was currently besieging a city, and a handful of the noble officers decided to look in on their wives to see who was most dutiful. Lucretia caught the eye of the son of the king, who later returned to her secretly and by threats, seduced her. She then called for her husband, her father, and one or two other men, told them what had happened, and then, as an example to all women that unchastity is intolerable, committed suicide. Angered and grief-stricken her relatives incite the crowd to depose the king and form a new government.

This account might be re-interpreted for two reasons.

From a historical basis, the account of the overthrow and formation of consulship is a bit odd. Both Lucretia’s husband Collatinus, and L Brutus, who is traditionally considered the founder of Rome’s republic and one of its first consuls, were actually part of the Tarquin family. While the sources have them eager to get rid of the entire family, they themselves are part of that family. Were they simply ambitious and looking toward their own power in rule? In the accounts, eventually T Superbus seeks aid from the Etruscan Porsenna, supposedly to have him restore Tarquin to the throne. Porsenna indeed invades, takes over the Janiculum hill and holds Rome for a while-but never restores Tarquin to the throne. Never. Not at all. The Roman historian Tacitus makes a brief reference that Porsenna actually conquered and held Rome for a time-but says nothing about Tarquin. Other attempts by Tarquin to gain help from Greek Cumae also fail and he dies in exile.

The second and more interesting reason for re-interpretation is a social one.  The death of Lucretia has been accepted as the suicide of a violated proper wife. But there is a possible, Etruscan, variant of that tale that infers that perhaps Lucretia was a more willing participant in an affair with the Tarquin prince, and that her husband, Brutus, her father, and others, while seeking to avenge their own humiliation, were not simply avenging her honor.

Neither re-interpretation really changes the flow of the events. The last king was deposed, and the Republic was born. Those are clear facts. But perhaps the people involved in the events had different motives and goals.

Perhaps this makes for interesting drama, at least.

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My Fiction for The Regal Period of Rome-

Rome in its Regal period was ruled by Seven Kings.

Rome’s Seven Kings

Each of these kings reigned for many years, while other events were happening in Italy and nearby regions. Romulus founded Rome in 753 BC. The seventh and last king, Tarquinius Superbus, was deposed in 509 BC.

Timeline of Regal Rome

Rome was built on Seven Hills, inland on the Tiber River.

The Land of Regal Rome

Regal Period Italy was home to a variety of different peoples.

Peoples in Regal Period Italy

Regal Period Italy and Rome provides a wealth of ideas for historical fiction novelists.

Two of my own Works-in-progress are set in this period.

Romulus, Wolf who Founded Rome tells the story of Romulus, who wanted to serve the gods, but insted must become a warrior-king.  When his attempts at diplomacy fail and he must take steps to secure the growth of his new city, he goes to war. By the favors of the gods, he ensures Rome becomes wealthy and renowned in Latium. But he is faced with a heartbreaking choice, when he learns his noble subjects plan to kill him.

For Rome’s Honor is set during the reign of the seventh and last king of early Rome. Marcella’s father is executed as a traitor when he speaks out against the king’s tyranny. When the long affair of her married friend Lucretia, with Tarquin’s son Sextus, ends in death and revolution, Marcella and her friend Valeria are among hostages taken by the invading Etruscan king Porsenna. Marcella faces a choice that may win back her family honor but at a price she may not be able to pay.

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The Peoples of Romulus’ Italy

In the age of Romulus and the Founding of Rome, in the mid-8th century BC, the Italian peninsula was inhabited by different peoples. The Celtic Gauls enter Rome’s history centuries after Romulus, so will not be discussed here. Etruscan cities sat to the north and east of Rome; the Latin peoples, which included, but were not exclusive to, the Sabines, had many cities surrounding the hills where Rome began.

The Greeks: Greek cities lay in Italy south of Naples throughout the toe and heel. Greeks from Achaea and from Euboea sent colonists to southern Italy (and Sicily just across the Messina Strait.) Euboean Chalcidians settled on the island of Pithecusa (modern Ischia) c. 750 BC. Some then moved to the mainland by 725 BC and settled Kyme/Cumae, just north of the modern Bay of Naples. Tarquinius Superbus, who ruled Rome from 535-509 BC, acquired some of the books of the Sibyl of Cumae. Cumae would later fight against the Etruscans in 524 BC.

Rhegion, settled by Greek Chalcidians at Italy’s toe, was established on the site of an earlier Oscan-Italic settlement. Sybaris was founded in the eighth century on the instep of Italy’s boot, and a century later it sent out its own colonists to found Posidonia further up Italy’s west coast at the modern Bay of Salerno. Achaean Greeks founded Croton in the late 8th century on the east coast of Italy just inside the Gulf of Taranto. Taras, later known as Tarentum, was founded c. 709 on the eastern coast of the Gulf of Taranto by Sparta. Tarentum would eventually draw Rome into war with Pyrrhus, the king of Epirus in the later 3rd century BC.

Ancient Roman sources leave no record that Romulus and his Rome had any contact with these Greeks in southern Italy. However, the sources and archaeological evidence indicate that Greeks traded with the Etruscans and lived within their cities. But according to the ancient sources, the fifth king of Rome, Tarquinius Priscus who reigned about a century after Romulus, was born in the Etruscan city of Tarquinii to a Corinthian Greek who had emigrated there and brought with him many skilled artisans. A Greek sanctuary to the goddess Hera was uncovered in the port of that city.

The Etruscans: The Etruscans were referred to in ancient sources as the Tyrrhenoi. Etruscan cities lay throughout Italy as early as the 9th and 8th centuries BC. Some were settled on the plateaus of southern Etruria and Latium. Some lay on isolated hills which overlooked the sea, or rivers, in central and northern Italy. Just as archaeology and ancient sources indicate that Greeks and Etruscans had contact, so did the Etruscans have contact with the indigenous and the Carthaginian cultures by way of Sardinia. Rich in mineral deposits like tin, iron, copper and silver, Sardinia was settled by Phoenicians and Carthaginians as early as the 9th and 8th centuries. Rome fought Carthage in three wars-the first in the first quarter of the 3rd century BC, but it signed its first treaty with Carthage in 509 BC, in the last year of Rome’s monarchy. Populonia and Vetulonia on the western coast of Italy lay closest to Sardinia, making trade contact simple. Sardinian pottery models of canoes and boats have been found in rich burial sites of southern coastal and central inland Etruria. Small Sardinian-style pottery jugs have been found in great numbers at Vetulonia, and also from Volterra in the north to Caere in the south. From the mid-9th century, small Sardinian bronzes have been found around Populonia and Vetulonia, from Tarquinia and Vulci (a particularly rich find). These bronzes were votives like pendants, and models of baskets, boats, and daggers. Etruscan bronze objects like fibulae, razors and axes have been found at indigenous Sardinian nuragic sites.

Ancient sources made reference to an Etruscan league of twelve cities. Whether or not such a league existed as such is unclear. This is a list of some Etruscan cities, which appear in the sources of Rome under the kings:

Pupluna/Populonia and Vetluna/Vetulonia, in northern Etruria opposite Corsica, and in good sailing range of Sardinia.

Rosella/Rusellae, which helped the Latins against the fifth Roman king Tarquinius Priscus.
Velch/Vulci, notable because according to Emperor Claudius account of an Etruscan history, Aulus and Caelius Vibenna, and an Etruscan who may have become sixth Roman king Servius Tullius, may have been from Vulci.

Tarchna/Tarquinia lay about 55 miles northwest from Rome, and may have been the oldest Etruscan city. Legend said that the arts of divination for which Etruscans became famous may have begun there.

Cerveteri/Caisra (Etr)/Caere (Lat): Caere lay south of Tarquinii, about 28 miles northwest from Rome. The Etruscans from Caere allied with the Carthaginians in 535 against the Phocaean Greeks.

Veii, which appears in the accounts of Romulus and his wars. Veii lay to the east of Caere, tweve miles northwest of Rome on the right bank of the Tiber River. She claimed control of the Tiber as a waterway and of the salt-works at the Tiber’s mouth. Pliny wrote that an Etruscan sculptor modeled the statue of Capitoline Jupiter for the new temple built by Rome’s last king in the later 6th century. Since sources report that Etruscans worked on the temple itself, perhaps Veii also provided all the artisans. Rome would war with Veii on and off, from Romulus’ reign through the fourth century BC. Veii also claimed possession of nearby Fidenae on the Tiber’s left bank, which provoked a war with Romulus which he won. Fidenae controlled access to the Cremera River valley, which led to Veii. Capua and Tusculum also appear in the ancient sources.

Chiusi/Clevsin/Clusium, from whence came Lars Porsenna, who besieged Rome in 505 BC, perhaps attempting to return the last king of Rome to his throne.

The Latins: Rome itself was a Latin city by birth. Romulus was born in Alba Longa, a Latin town colonized, according to the sources, from Lavinium by descendants of the Trojans who with Aeneas had merged with the Latins there. Strabo’s Geography and Livy’s History discuss these people. Here are some which appear during period of Regal Rome.

The Volsci went to war with Rome for the first time under her last king Tarquinius Superbus, and continued war with Rome over the next two centuries.

The Aequi are said to have provided the Romans with the rites of declaring war. Tarquinus Superbus made peace with them but they later fought again with Rome.

The Hernici alternately fought against Rome and as allies of Rome.

The Sabines are probably the most famous of the Latin peoples. While young women from several Latin cities and peoples were abducted for marriage by Romulus and his Romans, it is recorded that most of these women came from the Sabine people. After a few battles and victories, the Sabines warred on Rome. The war was interrupted, and brought to an end, by the intervention of the women, now all honored wives and mothers of Rome. Romulus and the Sabine leader then became joint rulers of Rome for some years.

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The Rome of Romulus

The story of Romulus is history and myth, myth and legend. Romulus and other people named in his story may, or may not, have existed. The events written about in his story may, or may not, have happened.

Two elements of the story of Romulus are important.

The Geography of Italy and Geography of Rome matter. The Tiber and its tributary the Anio served as transport and barriers. The seven hills provided protection and danger. The plains became assembly areas and centers of commerce. Some of the surrounding cities were allies; some became enemies, and some of those then became the first Roman colonies. Some of these cities still exist in some form today or are at least known through archaeological work.

Politics of Romulus is also a clear element in this story. The founding and beginning of Rome involved more than just an abduction and some wars. Romulus had to learn, and display, the politics of attempted alliances, seeking justice for grievances, tolerating a ruling partner, setting forth laws, waging war or organizing peace.

Geography and Politics should be familiar. They are two elements of our 21st-century world that bind us close to the Land of Romulus. Future posts will share some research and some ideas on these subjects as they relate to the Founding of Rome.

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The Politics of Romulus.

Politics of Romulus’ time began with his grandfather and great-uncle.

Amulius deposed his brother Numitor, and became king of Alba. After Numitor’s daughter bore Romulus and Remus, Amulius attempted to have them killed. He failed. When the brothers grew up, they discovered who they were, and with Numitor’s help, led a coup in which Amulius was killed and Numitor restored to his throne.

Romulus and Remus decided not to remain in Alba as princely heirs, but instead to form their own city. Numitor gave his approval. The brothers had always associated not only with shepherds and farmers but with drifters and those less welcome in the towns, so perhaps Numitor was ensuring that none of this unsettling group would be near his own city. In any case, the brothers intended that their city become a sanctuary-a refuge for anyone who wanted a fresh start.

Once Rome was established, Romulus realized there were not enough women to maintain the population. He sent out emissaries in good will to the neighboring cities, to arrange marriages for his men. He was turned down. The histories are unclear how many attempts he made, or for how long. But it was recorded that he did try. When his diplomacy failed, he resorted to trickery.

The success of the abduction led eventually to war. Romulus first defeated the nearby Latin towns of Caenina, Antemnae. Livy reported that he then pardoned the parents of the women of those towns, and allowed them to migrate to Rome-good political move. Romulus then defeated Crustumium and invited parents and relatives to again move to Rome. At some point in all of this, Romulus organized the Roman people and provided a list of laws for his new city. Apparently he had consulted with wise leaders of the area, he claimed.

Romulus went to war with the Sabines from Cures, who had finally marched on Rome because of the abduction of their women. Betrayal of the Romans allowed the Sabine force to capture the Capitoline. As the Romans and Sabines met on the battlefield, the women who had been captured, now wives and mothers in Rome, come to the field, interrupt the bloodshed and beg that there be peace. Romulus and the Sabine king Tatius, make peace. Regardless of what had occurred between these two peoples, the two leaders become co-rulers of Rome.

Years later, after an apparently harmonious rule between Romulus and Tatius, the latter is killed. His murder was provoked by the ill-treatment some of his relatives gave to envoys from another city-a violation of the accepted custom, or law, regarding ambassadors. The entire situation demanded a level of diplomacy, and practical decision-making by Romulus.

Eventually he again went to war this time with Fidenae and then Veii. He was again successful. He released, without ransom, all the prisoners taken from Veii, and allowed any who so wished, to become citizens of Rome-a kind and wise move, one might say.

But being a successful general and a king loved by the common people was not apparently enough to keep Romulus on his throne. Politics often involves some group being unhappy in its perception of how much power it is allowed. So it was in Rome. Apparently the patrician class perceived that Romulus was ignoring them. One example cited as proof was the claim that Romulus had not consulted the senate, made up of patricians, before releasing the prisoners from Veii. Whether or not that was true was apparently irrelevant. The patricians were displeased. Rumors spread through Rome that certain people were plotting against Romulus’ life.

Livy, Plutarch, and Dionysius Halikarnassus, write about what they say finally happened to Romulus. Novelists may or may not agree.

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Rome’s Seven Kings-Legend or History (or some of both)

Romulus-the traditional founder of Rome who was a very fortunate warrior-king. He reigns for 37 years, a small part of which is in partner-rule with the Sabine king Titus Tatius. The highlights of his reign are the betrayal that allows the Sabines to capture the Capitoline fortress, the “abduction-rape” of the Sabine women, and all Romulus’ military victories. Tatius and Romulus had been at war, and Tatius had occupied the fortress heights, before he and Romulus became co-kings. In scenes reminiscent of the story of Lysistrata, the Sabine women, now wives and mothers of Rome, walk onto a raging battlefield to end the bloodshed between their fathers, brothers, and husbands. The rich spoils Romulus brings home from his conquests do not stop the wealthy men of Rome from plotting against his life. My novel Romulus, Wolf who Founded Rome, will include some variant interpretations of his life and rule.

Numa Pompilius is a Sabine from the same city Tatius ruled. In fact, Numa was Tatius’ son-in-law. While Tatius ruled with Romulus, he was murdered, and Romulus may have been slow to bring his killers to justice. Perhaps that helped Numa be reluctant to become king in Rome after Romulus was gone. But he did—reigning for 43 years as a priest-king under whom Rome knew only peace.

Tullus Hostilius was a fierce warrior-king of Rome, from a city that Romulus had earlier conquered. The history of his 32-year reign is filled with war between Alba and Rome, secret conspiracies and betrayals of Rome by a pledged ally, and a battle-duel between two sets of triplet cousins- one Alban, one Roman- which leads to victory for Rome and the total destruction of Alba. It also ends in a heartbreaking family tragedy-which tangentially highlights some of the cultural mores of the time.

Ancus Marcius is Numa’s maternal grandson and thus another Sabine. By this time, cities that had treaties of peace with Rome’s earlier kings now decide that those treaties no longer have effect, and so Ancus takes Rome again into war. His 24-year reign is most notable because of the appearance in Rome of the Etruscan Tarquinius Priscus, grandfather of the last king of Rome. Priscus becomes a close friend and advisor to Ancus, even being appointed guardian for his sons.

Tarquinius Priscus becomes king of Rome, expelling the sons of Ancus. It is interesting to note that the revolt that eventually brings down his grandson Superbus is engineered by descendants of Priscus and his brother-making the fall of the monarchy one of history’s earliest royal family squabbles. Priscus is another warrior-king of Rome, fighting Latins and Etruscans at various times. During his 38-year reign, Servius Tullius, the next king of Rome is born in Priscus’ palace to a Roman captive servant.

Servius Tullius had humble origins, supposedly born to a servant in the Roman palace. He grows to become a trusted officer in Priscus’ army, and when Priscus is murdered in a plot by Ancus’ sons, his Etruscan wife sets up Servius to become the new king. He reign for 44 years, and new walls of Rome, divisions of the classes and army, are all attributed to Servius. Emperor Claudius, who was fascinated with Etruscan history, referred to Servius in a speech as having possibly been an Etruscan mercenary chief-an interesting fictional path to tread, to be sure.

Tarquinius Superbus is the last traditional king of Rome. He was depicted as a tyrant in the Greek style, lecherous, arrogant, and cruel-and his sons were no better. The commonly held story of his fall was that a beautiful honorable Roman matron was raped by his son, and her subsequent suicide inspired a group of Roman patricians to rebel and oust Superbus from the throne. Some research into Etruscan artifacts has presented a theory that Lucretia may have been engaged in an affair with Sextus, which proved a good excuse for her husband’s cousin to finally act on his own high ambitions. The ringleaders of this revolt are in fact close Tarquin relatives. The expelled Superbus seeks the help of the Etruscan king Lars Porsena, who invades Rome’s territory, occupies the Janiculum hill and, according to later Roman writers, may in fact have actually conquered Rome for a time. Porsena also takes some of the noble Roman youths as hostages, and one of these, Cloelia, becomes famous for engineering their rescue back to Rome, but then as a point of honor she returns to Porsena to remain a hostage. My novel Bound for Rome’s Honor will explore this reign and its characters.

Lots of paths for research in these royal stories, as well as many rich opportunities for fictional story-telling. Scholars are not totally accepting of the reigns of these kings as presented in Livy, Plutarch and Dionysius Halikarnassus. These historians all wrote centuries after the 255 years of kingly rule, and whatever sources they used are fragmented and obscure. Some scholars consider the possibility that if these kings existed that the years of their reigns are inaccurate. Some consider that there may have been more kings or warlord-rulers. Whether or not any of that is or is not true (goodness knows that many more recent histories of people and events are not always clear, even with better documentation available) does not really matter. Rome’s kingly period is a rich field for fiction.

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Just One Timeline of Ancient Rome

I dedicate this timeline and the accompanying historical notes with respect and affection to the following:

* To both my mothers Eleanor and Speranza, to my brothers in Sardinia and their families, to my marvelous adorable husband David, to my sons and their ladies, and to all my ancestors in Italy, Sardinia, and wherever else they may be.

*To all my colleagues and friends in the Historical Fiction writing community, with particular pride in all who write stories set in ancient Rome, but with great gratitude to all of you for your inspiration, dedication and determination to keep alive history and the people who live it.

Timeline 1. of ancient Rome and its World:

c. 814 Carthage is founded by Phoenician settlers

c. 800 The Etruscan culture emerges in Italy.

c. 800-500 The Greeks colonize the western Mediterranean.

c. 776 The Earliest recorded Olympic Games occur in Greece.

c. 771 Romulus is born

c. 753 Rome is traditionally founded. Numa Pompilius, Rome’s second king, is born.

c. 750 Homer composes the Iliad and Odyssey. Corinthian Greeks establish Syracuse in Sicily.

c. 715 Numa becomes king.

c. 700-600 Greek colonies such as Croton, Sybaris, and Rhegium, are established in southern Italy.

c. 680-627 Assyrian empire at its greatest, pressure from its invasions force migrations of artisans into other regions.

c. 672 Tullus Hostilius becomes king of Rome.

c. 655 Demaratus of Corinth flees to Etruscan Tarquinia and becomes father of Rome’s fifth king Tarquinius Priscus

c. 640 Ancus Marcius becomes king of Rome.

c. 616 T Priscus becomes king of Rome.

c. 578 Servius Tullius becomes king of Rome

c. 550-500 Carthage imposes its dominance over much of Sardinia and western Sicily

c. 546 Greek Phocaean refugees settle at Alalia in Corsica

c. 540-535 Battle of the Sardinian Sea where allied Carthaginian and Etruscan fleets are defeated by the Phocaeans, but the Greeks abandon Corsica

c. 534 T Superbus becomes last king of Rome

c. 524 Greek Cumae defeats an invading Etruscan army

c. 510 Dorieus of Sparta killed in western Sicily and Croton destroys Sybaris in southern Italy.

c. 510-500 Hasdrubal is killed in Sardinia.

c. 509 First treaty between Rome and Carthage, Rome expels Superbus and creates a republic.

c. 508-496 Etruscan king Porsena makes war on Rome, Superbus seeks help from Greek Cumae, Latin League is defeated by Rome at Lake Regillus and Superbus dies in exile in Cumae.

Rome’s monarchy ends after more than 250 years (so the traditional kinglist has it).

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