Roman People > Tarquinius Superbus

Tarquinius Superbus


Tarquinius Superbus, Lucius, was the son of Lucius Tarquinius Priscus and son-in-law of Servius Tullius, the seventh and last legendary king of Rome (534–510 B.C.). On his accession he proceeded at once to repeal the recent reforms in the constitution, and attempted to set up a pure despotism. Many senators were put to death, and their places remained unfilled; the lower classes were deprived of their arms and employed in erecting splendid monuments, while the army was recruited from the king's own retainers and from the forces of foreign allies.

The completion of the fortress-temple on the Capitoline confirmed his authority over the city, and a fortunate marriage of his son to the daughter of Octavius Mamilius of Tusculum secured him powerful assistance in the field. His reign was characterized by bloodshed and violence; the outrage of his son Sextus upon Lucretia (q.v.) precipitated a revolt, which led to the expulsion of the entire family. All Tarquinius's efforts to force his way back to the throne were vain (see Poesena), and he died in exile at Cumae.

In the story certain Greek elements, probably later additions, may easily be distinguished. Tarquinius appears as a Greek “tyrant” of the ordinary kind, who surrounds himself with a bodyguard and erects magnificent buildings to keep "the people employed; on the other hand, an older tradition represents him as more like Romulus. This twofold aspect of his character perhaps accounts for the making of two Tarquinii out of one (see Tarquinius Priscus).

The stratagem by which Tarquinius obtained possession of the town of Gabii is a mere fiction, derived from Greek and Oriental sources. According to arrangement, his son Sextus requested the protection of the inhabitants against his father. Having obtained their confidence, he sent a messenger to Tarquinius to inquire the next step. His father made no reply to the messenger, but walked up and down his garden, striking off the heads of the tallest poppies. Sextus thereupon put to death all the chief men of the town, and thus obtained the mastery. The stratagem of Sextus is that practised by Zopyrus is the case of Babylon, while the episode of the poppy-heads is borrowed from the advice given by Thrasybulus to Periander (Herodotus iii. 154, v. 92).

On the other hand, the existence in the time of Dionysius of Halicarnassus of a treaty concluded between Tarquinius and the inhabitants of Gabii, shows that the town came under his dominion by formal agreement, not, as the tradition states, by treachery and violence. The embassy to Delphi (see Brutus, Lucius Junius) cannot be historical, since at the time there was no communication between Rome and the mainland of Greece. The well-known story of Tarquinius's repeated refusal and final consent to purchase the Sibylline books has its origin in the fact that the building of the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus, in which they were kept, was ascribed to him. The traditional account of his expulsion can hardly be historical. A constitutional revolution, involving such far-reaching changes, is not likely to have been carried out in primitive times with so little disturbance by a simple resolution of the people, and it probably points to a rising of Romans and Sabines against the dominion of an Etruscan family (Tarquinii, Tarchna) at that time established at Rome.


For a critical examination of the story see Schwegler, Römische Geschichte, bk. xviii. ; Sir G. Cornewall Lewis, Credibility of early Roman History, ch. 11; E. Pais, Storia di Roma, i. (1898); and, for the political character of his reign, Rome: Ancient History. Ancient authorities:—Livy i. 21; Dion. Hal. v. i–vi. 21.

1911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 26 pp. 431

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