The Roman Monarchy: Myth or History?

Classics Ambassador and LSA CA Classics Competition Finalist 2020, Katherine Baker takes us back to 753BC and the foundation of Rome.

The ancient civilisation of Rome is often remembered for its emperors; both the brutal tyrants and the benevolent leaders. Those who attended the LSA CA Classics Competition in March may already know about the former as I talked in some depth about Caligula, an emperor notorious for his insanity and perversity. However, the monarchy which laid down the foundations of Rome is often overlooked. Many may be familiar with the story of the first king, Romulus, and his brother Remus but what of Numa Pompilius, Tullus Hostilius or Servius Tullius? Have these kings been forgotten? Or were they simply figments of the Roman historian, Livy’s, imagination? Where do we draw the boundary that divides myth from history?

Speaking about Caligula and other ancient party guests

Romulus’ story is well known: born to a Vestal Virgin and fathered by Mars the God of War, both he and his twin brother, Remus, were abandoned on the bank of the River Tiber as infants. Instead of being left to die as intended, they were suckled by a she-wolf. This lupine image has long-since been an icon of the city of Rome. Eventually, they were adopted by a shepherd and grew up unaware of their true identities. As young adults, they became involved in a dispute between their grandfather, the former king, and his brother who had displaced him on the throne. This resulted in Remus being taken prisoner. Romulus organised a plan which resulted in his grandfather regaining the throne and his brother’s freedom. The twins then endeavoured to set up a city of their own. However, the brothers argued about the hill upon which to found their city. The dispute was only concluded by Romulus killing Remus and establishing Rome upon the Palatine Hill. Romulus went on to found the institutions, government, military and religious traditions of the ancient city. It is agreed that Romulus ruled for many years as Rome’s first king.

The Capitoline Wolf

Despite having supposedly taken place in the 8th century BCE, many modern historians have dismissed this story as a charming legend. Our earliest sources, Dionysius of Halicarnassus and Livy, wrote their accounts hundreds of years after the events of the myth, which is similar to you or I writing a detailed historical account of the Norman era with no books or other resources to base this on. It is simply not plausible that a historical account written based on hearsay and legend could be taken at face value.

Could this grotto, located beneath Augustus’ Domus Livia, be the Lupercal where Romulus and Remus were found?

We do however have some archaeological evidence that could suggest there is an element of truth in the well-known tale; for example, a cave covered in mosaics was uncovered below the Palatine Hill, which some believe could be the Lupercal, the sacred cave where Romulus and Remus were said to have been suckled by a wolf. While the chances of this being the exact cave are minimal, the cave could be used as evidence that myths about the city’s founding reflect its history, and prove that the founder of Rome may actually have been named Romulus.

The second legendary king of Rome is less well known. Numa Pompilius was renowned for keeping Rome in 43 years of peaceful cultural and religious growth. He had a key role in the formulation of the religious calendar and is credited with adding January and February to the calendar to bring the number of days in a year to 360. Numa is said to have founded the structure of Rome’s official religion by introducing the Archaic Triad: Jupiter; Mars; and Quirinus, the deified form of Romulus. He played a key role in establishing both the Vestal Virgins and the office of Pontifex Maximus, the most important position in ancient Rome. (The term ‘pontiff’ which now refers only to the Pope is still in use today).

Numa Pompilius

Whilst Numa’s achievements might seem more plausible than those of his predecessor, whether he ever really existed or, if he did, whether his purported achievements are justifiably ascribed to him, is impossible to know. For example, it is suggested that Numa was a student of the philosopher, Pythagoras. This is rejected by modern scholars as it is chronologically impossible; Pythagoras lived more than a century after Numa.

There is very little known about Tullus Hostilius, the third king of Rome. We are told he was a warlike and ferocious king who reigned for only nine years until he died in 642 BC, a victim of the plague. He is presented as a contrasting stereotype to Numa Pompilius and the myth of his character may be a figment of the imagination of historians based purely on an interpretation of his name. Notwithstanding the credibility of his persona, it is thought that Hostilius was an important historical figure. The name Tullus was not generally used in Roman culture and therefore the uniqueness of his name is considered evidence that his existence was fictitious.

Tullus Hostilius

According to Livy, religious order was restored with the arrival of the next king, Ancus Martius. Martius believed that the unfortunate events that had happened in the city, including the plague which had killed Tullus, were a result of the recent impiety of the Romans. His mission was to get the gods back on their side and thus his first act of power was to display to the public the ceremonies of religion from the commentaries of Numa. Many of the edicts established by Numa had been removed when Tullus was king and these were then reinstated. Martius expanded the Roman nation by relocating many neighbours from surrounding conquered cities to Rome and consequently had to occupy the Aventine Hill to cope with the burgeoning population. He is also credited with building Rome’s first bridge over the river Tiber. Peace and stability had returned to Rome.

Ancus Martius

After the death of Ancus Martius, came the Etruscan kings – Tarquin the Elder, Servius Tullius and Tarquin the Proud. Their narratives are no less mythologised than those of their predecessors and their reigns have been clouded by chronological impossibilities. From the reports that we have today, there appear to be 150 years separating the birth of Tarquin the Elder and the death of his son, Tarquin the Proud, which even by modern lifespans is implausible, to the extent where even some ancient scholars were uncomfortable with this idea and endeavoured to solve this impossibility by suggesting that the younger Tarquin was, in fact, his grandson instead.

What separated these three kings from the others for the Romans was the violent nature of their stories. Tarquin the Elder was murdered by the sons of his predecessor, Ancus Martius, who felt that the throne was rightfully theirs. Servius Tulles was then eased onto the throne by a palace coup orchestrated by the wife of Tarquin, Tanaquil, but was later murdered by the younger Tarquin whose reign is described as a tyranny that reached a breaking point with the rape of Lucretia by one of his sons, thereby justifying the abolition of the monarchy.

Tarquin the Elder consulting Attius Navius; a famous priest

The idea that the Roman state was founded upon a succession of kings is, therefore, one to be viewed with scepticism. Fact and fiction have become impossible to separate and much personal judgement needs to be exercised to determine the extent to which Livy’s account is based on any real fact. Historians will always dispute the origins of the Roman respublica; the true account remains a mystery.