The Etruscans were a powerful nation that lived to the north of the Latin tribes right at the start of Rome’s history. For a long time, they were far more powerful than Rome. It is reasonably well known that they had a strong influence on the development of the city. However, what many people are not aware of is that the Etruscans actually ruled it for a while as well. In fact, this is one of the reasons why the Etruscans were able to have such a strong impact on its development.
According to legend, Rome had seven kings, the first being Romulus. The line of kings came to an end when the monarchy was overthrown and the Republic was founded. At some point, the native Latin dynasty founded by Romulus was replaced by an Etruscan dynasty. The last three kings were Etruscans (and so too were the first two consuls of the Republic). Who were these Etruscan kings?
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Etruscan King Lucius Tarquinius Priscus
The first king of the Etruscan dynasty was Lucius Tarquinius Priscus. He was the son of a Greek man named Demaratus who had fled to Italy to escape charges of sedition. Demaratus married an Etruscan woman, unnamed in the sources.
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Their son Priscus married an Etruscan woman named Tanaquil, who was said to have been skilled in prophecy. Priscus was unable to rise to political power in Etruria due to the ethnicity of his father. Because of this, his wife Tanaquil encouraged him to move to Rome. There, he was able to pursue political power. According to the legendary sources, an eagle stole his cap from his head as he entered Rome, but then flew back and returned it to him. His wife interpreted this as an omen indicating that he would be powerful in the future. After the death of the reigning king, Ancus Marcius, Lucius Tarquinius Priscus convinced the leading political men of Rome to make him king.
Priscus was, by all accounts, a powerful king. He was said to have expanded Rome’s borders through military conquests. His three main enemies throughout his reign were the Latins, the Sabines, and his own kinsmen, the Etruscans.
He first led the Romans in battle against the other Latin tribes. He was victorious over them, resulting in many of the Latin tribes becoming united, with Rome as the centralized power. After this, he fought against the Sabines, although he did not conquer them and more Latin towns were conquered. In retaliation for keeping some Etruscans held in prison for participating in the Sabine War, several Etruscan cities warred against Rome. Eventually, Priscus defeated them in battle and actually conquered the cities involved.
Lucius Tarquinius Priscus was not just important for his military conquests. He also enacted some political reforms, such as adding many more families to the Roman Senate. He also commissioned the Circus Maximus, the first stadium built in Rome for chariot racing. More significantly, he constructed Rome’s great sewer, the Cloaca Maxima, as well as a wall around the city.
After Lucius Tarquinius Priscus died, he was succeeded by a man named Servius Tullius. However, he was not a son of Priscus. According to one tradition, recorded by Emperor Claudius, Servius was originally an Etruscan mercenary called Mastarna.
His mother was named Ocrisia. She was said to have been a noblewoman captured by the Romans during one of their attacks on Etruria. One tradition records how her husband was killed in the attack. A different tradition records that she was a virgin when she was taken, and she was impregnated by a deity. In any case, his mother was believed to be a slave in the household of the king. It is because of this “servile” origins that her child was named Servius.
Because of being part of the royal household, albeit as the son of a slave-woman, Servius Tullius was able to take advantage of some important opportunities. He married the daughter of Tarquinius Priscus and Tanaquil, whose name was Tarquinia. He ended up receiving political and military power while his father in law was ruling.
Servius was said to have performed many reforms in the city of Rome. In reality, many scholars today believe that these reforms occurred gradually, even over centuries. But in any case, one of the reforms attributed to Servius is that he allowed common landowners to vote. He also put into law the military obligations of all Romans. He reorganized the legislative body that had power over Rome and held a census of the people, which had never been done before.
Servius came to be remembered in later Roman tradition as a benevolent king and his death was viewed as a tragic event. But how did his death occur? Supposedly he was assassinated. His youngest daughter had married Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, the son or grandson of Lucius Tarquinius Priscus, the previous king. Together, they conspired to kill Servius. One day, Tarquinius Superbus went to Servius’ throne and sat himself down on it. He then gave a speech to the senators, strongly criticizing Servius for his background and his policies. When Servius arrived and was about to defend himself, Tarquinius pushed him down the steps. Tarquinius’ men then rushed over to him and murdered him.
Lucius Tarquinius Superbus
Lucius Tarquinius Superbus then became the next king. He became known as “Superbus,” which means “proud” or “arrogant,” due to his refusal to allow Servius’ body to be buried. He then went about trying to firmly establish his power over the Romans. One way he did this was by killing any senators whom he thought were still loyal to Servius.
Lucius then tried to expand his power even further by gaining power over the other Latin tribes. Through deceit and manipulation to remove his opposers, he ended up forming a military alliance with almost all the other Latin towns, with Rome as the ruler. One of the cities that had refused to join the alliance with Rome was Gabii. Tarquinius Superbus went to war against it, but could not take it. Therefore, he sent his son, Sextus, there and had him pretend to have been suffering at the hands of his father. The city took him in and gave him command of their troops. Sextus then killed or banished all the prominent men of the city and then handed it over to his father.
It is clear that the reign of Lucius Tarquinius Superbus was marked by cunning and subterfuge. He did not come to be remembered as a benevolent king. Many of the king’s actions disturbed the people greatly. However, what directly led to his downfall were really the actions of his son. His son, Sextus, raped a woman named Lucretia, the wife of Lucius Collatinus, one of the king’s relatives. Another relative of the king, Lucius Junius Brutus, took the lead in overthrowing the monarchy in retaliation for this act and for everything that the king had done.
Tarquinius was rejected by the common people as their king, and he fled in exile to the Etruscans. He received some military support, and with that he led an army against Rome. At the Battle of Silvia Arsia, Tarquinius was defeated, although the Roman army suffered heavy losses as well. Tarquinius tried a number of times over the years to regain control of Rome, but he was not successful.
Lucius Tarquinius Superbus is generally considered to have been the last king of Rome, Etruscan or otherwise. However, there was another Etruscan king who may well have ruled Rome for a while. This king was named Lars Porsenna. He was the ruler of the powerful Etruscan town of Clusium. After his defeat at the Battle of Silvia Arsia, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus went to Lars Porsenna for help.
Porsenna then led an army against Rome. Whether he was able to actually enter and take control of the city is heavily debated by modern scholars. Some Roman sources say that he settled on peace terms with the besieged Romans and then withdrew. If he did occupy the city for a time, as some scholars believe, then Lars Porsenna would be the true final Etruscan king of Rome.
The Etruscan Kings of Rome
In summary, Rome traditionally had seven kings, the last three of whom were Etruscan. This is one way in which the Etruscans exerted a massive impact on the development of early Rome. The first of these Etruscan kings was Lucius Tarquinius Priscus, who had an Etruscan mother and a Greek father. He expanded Rome’s power and territory through his military exploits. He also constructed the important sewer system in Rome.
Servius Tullius, born of a slave woman, was the next king. He instituted many important political reforms, many of which gave more power to the people. He was murdered by his son-in-law, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, who became the next king. He was a proud, arrogant, cunning ruler. He increased Rome’s authority over the other Latin towns. Eventually, he was overthrown through both his son’s wickedness and his own. After him, the Etruscan ruler Lars Porsenna may have ruled Rome for a short time, although this is still debated.