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The Seven Kings of Rome: History & Summary

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  • 0:05 The Kings of Rome
  • 1:29 Roman Monarchy
  • 3:16 The Duly Elected Kings of Rome
  • 5:53 Rome's Last Two Kings
  • 8:51 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Max Pfingsten
This lesson covers the legendary kings of Rome. The historical reality of these kings is challenged, and the central myths of their reign are explored.

The Kings of Rome

When we think of Rome, we tend to think of the Roman Empire, a sprawling collection of nations and peoples ruled by a single emperor. Or we might think of the Roman Republic, with its separation of powers and system of checks and balances, ruled by vying aristocratic families. Yet in 753 BCE, Rome was just a new city-state, and like so many city-states of its time, Rome was ruled by a monarchy. This monarchy persisted for more than two centuries until the establishment of the republic in 510 BCE.

Unfortunately, we don't have many details of this monarchy at our disposal. Rome's city records were destroyed during the sack of Rome in 390. Later generations of Romans pieced together a history of their early monarchy from legend and myth. The resulting account is rather short on detail and of questionable accuracy. Romans of the later republic were not big fans of kings and may have attempted to weave republican ideals into their history. As a result, we're not even sure if the kings they list even existed, let alone did the things the Roman historians claim. However, we can piece together a rough history of these legendary kings of Rome and at least see how the Roman monarchy eventually gave way to the novel Roman Republic.

Roman Monarchy

The first king, Romulus, founded Rome
First king of Rome

According to Roman legend, the first king of Rome was Romulus, who founded the city and gave it its name. We're not sure if Romulus was a real person or just a figure of legend, but he certainly seems to have been a rather enlightened leader for his time. Romulus did not establish an absolute monarchy in which the king controlled every aspect of the state. Nor did he set up a dynastic monarchy in which princes succeeded their fathers to the throne. Instead, Romulus set up a sort of limited monarchy in which the power of the king is checked by other government bodies. He established a council of founding fathers known as the Senate. The Senate was mostly advisory in function. The only real power Romulus granted the Senate was the power to elect future kings. He probably got this idea from the Etruscans, who used a similar system to elect their own kings.

This still left a lot of authority in the hands of the king. In modern terms, the king was all three branches of government in one. He was the legislative branch, coming up with new laws. He was the executive branch, enforcing the laws of the state, managing state property and commanding the Roman army. He was the judicial branch, sitting in judgment of all civil and criminal cases. The king also served a religious function. He served as the intermediary between the gods and the people of Rome and had administrative control over the state's religion. So while it may be tempting to see a system of checks and balances in the relationship between the Senate and the king, the Senate, at first at least, only exercised real authority during the brief periods between the death of the last king and the election of a new one.

The Duly Elected Kings of Rome

Following Romulus, Roman historians record the election of four more kings of Rome. They attributed the creation of many Roman traditions and sacraments to these duly elected kings. Though I shall list the dates of their reign, you should know that few historians take these dates very seriously.

The first was Numa Pompilius, who supposedly ruled from 715 BCE to 674 BCE. Numa is credited with:

  • Reforming the Roman calendar to include the months of January and February
  • Establishing the traditional Roman guild system
  • Relocating the Vestal Virgins from Alba Longa to Rome
  • Introducing several Roman religious rituals

Upon Numa's death, the Senate elected Tullus Hostilius, who reigned from 673 BCE to 642 BCE. Historians are pretty sure Tullus actually existed, but beyond that we know very little. The Romans gave him credit for

  • Conquering many of Rome's Latin neighbors, including the old Latin capital of Alba Longa
  • Building the first Senate House, the Curia Hostilia

Next came Ancus Marcius, who reigned from 641 BCE to 617 BCE. Marcius was the grandson of Numa, suggesting that though the Roman crown was not hereditary, certain families still tried to make it so. Marcius' contributions to Roman history are almost entirely on the field of battle. He conquered many neighboring Latin cities and relocated their residents to Rome, making them new Roman citizens. He also founded the Roman port city of Ostia.

The last duly elected king of Rome was Lucius Tarquinius Priscus
Last elected king

The last of the duly elected Roman kings was Lucius Tarquinius Priscus, AKA Tarquin the Elder, who ruled from 616 BCE to 579 BCE. According to our Roman sources, Lucius Tarquinius was not a Roman at all but rather an Etruscan nobleman who immigrated to Rome. The king at the time, Ancus Marius, was so impressed with Lucius that he appointed him the caretaker of his sons. Thus elevated, Lucius made a bid for the throne upon Marius' death and won the support of the Senate. The Romans considered Lucius Tarquinius one of their greatest kings. Abroad, he flexed his military muscles in campaigns against Latins, Sabines and Etruscans. At home, he added several important civic structures to Rome, including the Circus Maximus - the great Roman racetrack - and the Cloaca Maxima, Rome's impressive sewer system.

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