The Roman Kingdom (753–509 BC)

Also referred to as the Roman Monarchy, or the Regal Period, it was the earliest period of Roman history, when Romulus had founded his city on top of the Palatine hill in 753 BC.

Little is certain about the Kingdom’s history, as no records and few inscriptions from the time of the kings survive, and the accounts of this period written during the Republic and the Empire are thought to be based on oral tradition. It ended with the overthrow of the kings and the establishment of the Republic in 509 BC.

An illustration of early Rome. (c) Sutori

For Rome’s foundation myth see Romulus & Remus.

During the Roman Kingdom, seven kings ruled the city of Rome: Romulus (753-716 BC), Numa Pompilius (715-673 BC), Tullus Hostilius (673-641 BC), Ancius Marcus (641-616 BC), Tarquinius Priscus (616-579 BC), Servius Tullius (578-535 BC) and Tarquinius Superbus (535-509 BC).

The kings, excluding Romulus, were all elected by the people of Rome to serve for life, with none of the kings relying on military force to gain or keep the throne. The insignia of the kings of Rome were twelve lictors wielding the fasces bearing axes, the right to sit upon a Curule chair, the purple Toga Picta, red shoes, and a white diadem around the head.

The Seven Kings of Rome (c) KnowTheRomans


After he killed his brother Remus, Romulus began building the city on the Palatine Hill. He permitted men of all classes to come to Rome as citizens, including slaves and freemen without distinction. He is credited with establishing the city’s religious, legal and political institutions. The kingdom was established by unanimous acclaim with him at the helm when Romulus called the citizenry to a council for the purposes of determining their government.

Romulus established the senate as an advisory council with the appointment of 100 of the most noble men in the community. These men he called patres, and their descendants became the patricians. To project command, he surrounded himself with attendants, in particular the twelve lictors. He created three divisions of horsemen (equites), called centuries: the Ramnes (Romans), the Tities (after the Sabine king) and the Luceres (Etruscans). He also divided the populace into 30 curiae, named after 30 of the Sabine women who had intervened to end the war between Romulus and Tatius. The curiae formed the voting units in the popular assembly, the Comitia Curiata.

The Rape of the Sabine Women | Ancient Origins
The Rape of the Sabine Women by Pietro da Cortona.

Romulus was behind one of the most notorious acts in Roman history, the incident commonly known as the Rape of the Sabine women. To provide his citizens with wives, Romulus invited the neighbouring Sabine tribe to a festival in Rome where the Romans committed a mass abduction of young women from among the attendees. War broke out when Romulus refused to return the captives. After the Sabines had made three unsuccessful attempts to invade Rome, the women themselves intervened during the Battle of the Lacus Curtius to end the war. The two peoples were united in a joint kingdom, with Romulus and the Sabine king Titus Tatius sharing the throne. In addition to the war with the Sabines, Romulus waged war with the Fidenates and Veientes.

The Intervention of the Sabine Women
The Intervention of the Sabine Women by Jacques-Louis David, 1799.

He reigned for thirty-seven years. According to the legend, Romulus vanished at age fifty-four while reviewing his troops on the Campus Martius. He was reported to have been taken up to Mt. Olympus in a whirlwind and made a god. After initial acceptance by the public, rumours and suspicions of foul play by the patricians began to grow. In particular, some thought that members of the nobility had murdered him, dismembered his body, and buried the pieces on their land. These were set aside after an esteemed nobleman testified that Romulus had come to him in a vision and told him that he was the god Quirinus. He became, not only one of the three major gods of Rome, but the very likeness of the city itself.

A replica of Romulus’ hut was maintained in the centre of Rome until the end of the Roman Empire.

Numa Pompilius

After Romulus died, there was an interregnum for one year, during which time ten men chosen from the senate governed Rome as successive interreges. Under popular pressure, the Senate finally chose the Sabine, Numa Pompilius, to succeed Romulus, on account of his reputation for justice and piety. The choice was accepted by the Curiate Assembly.

Numa’s reign was marked by peace and religious reform. He constructed a new temple to Janus and, after establishing peace with Rome’s neighbours, closed the doors of the temple to indicate a state of peace. They remained closed for the rest of his reign. He established the Vestal Virgins at Rome, as well as the Salii, and the flamines for JupiterMars and Quirinus. He also established the office and duties of the Pontifex Maximus. Numa reigned for 43 years. He reformed the Roman calendar by adjusting it for the solar and lunar year, as well as by adding the months of January and February to bring the total number of months to twelve.

Farmer's calendar
The Menologium Rusticum Colotianum with Zodiac signs, Festivals, and Agricultural Activities. A Roman marble calendar dating to the 1st c. AD. (c) Museo Galileo

Tullus Hostilius

Tullus Hostilius was as warlike as Romulus had been and completely unlike Numa as he lacked any respect for the gods. Tullus waged war against Alba Longa, Fidenae, Veii and the Sabines. During his reign, the city of Alba Longa was completely destroyed and Tullus integrated its population into Rome.

Tullus is attributed with constructing a new home for the Senate, the Curia Hostilia, which survived for 562 years after his death. His reign lasted for 31 years.

Battle of Tullus Hostilius and the Veientes. Giuseppe Cesari
Battle of Tullus Hostilius and the Veientes, painting by Giuseppe Cesari.

Ancius Marcus

Following Tullus’ death, the Romans elected a peaceful and religious king in his place, Numa’s grandson, Ancus Marcius. Much like his grandfather, Ancus did little to expand the borders of Rome and only fought wars to defend his territory. He also built Rome’s first prison on the Capitoline Hill.

Ancus further fortified the Janiculum Hill on the western bank, and built the first bridge across the Tiber River. He also founded the port of Ostia on the Tyrrhenian Sea and established Rome’s first salt works around the port.

He died a natural death, like his grandfather, after 25 years as king, marking the end of Rome’s Latin-Sabine kings.

Silver denarius struck by L. Marcius Philippus, in Rome, 56 BC.
Obv: ANCVS: Head of Ancus Marcius, lituus behind.
Rev: PHILIPPVS AQVA MAR: equestrian statue on 5 arches of aqueduct (Aqua Marcia). (c) Johny Sysel

Tarquinius Priscus

L. Tarquinius Priscus was the fifth king of Rome and the first of Etruscan birth. After immigrating to Rome, he gained favor with Ancus, who later adopted him as son. Upon ascending the throne, he waged wars against the Sabines and Etruscans, doubling the size of Rome and bringing great treasures to the city. To accommodate the influx of population, the Aventine and Caelian hills were populated.

One of his first reforms was to add one hundred new members to the Senate from the conquered Etruscan tribes, bringing the total number of senators to two hundred. He used the treasures Rome had acquired from the conquests to build great monuments for Rome. Among these were Rome’s great sewer system, the Cloaca Maxima, which he used to drain the swamp-like area between the Seven Hills of Rome. In its place, he began construction on the Roman Forum.

C.R. Cockerell RA, Imaginary view of the Temple of Jupiter Capitolinus, Rome
Imaginary view of the Temple of Jupiter Capitolinus, painting by C.R. Cockerell RA, 1788 – 1863.

Priscus initiated other great building projects, including the city’s first bridge, the Pons Sublicius. The most famous is the Circus Maximus, a stadium for chariot races. After that, he started the building of the temple to the god Jupiter Optimus Maximus on the Capitoline Hill. However, before it was completed, he was killed by a son of Ancus Marcius, after thirty eight years as king.

Servius Tullius

Priscus was succeeded by his son-in-law Servius Tullius, Rome’s second king of Etruscan birth, and the son of a slave. Like his father-in-law, Servius fought successful wars against the Etruscans. He used the booty to build the first wall around the Seven Hills of Rome, the pomerium.

Schematic map of ancient Rome. Besides the Servian Wall ...
A map of the Servian Walls circuit around Rome. (c) Vera Machline

Servius Tullius instituted a new constitution, further developing the citizen classes. He instituted Rome’s first census which divided the population into five economic classes, and formed the Centuriate Assembly. He used the census to divide the population into four urban tribes based on location, thus establishing the Tribal Assembly. He also oversaw the construction of the temple to Diana on the Aventine Hill.

Servius’ reforms made a big change in Roman life: voting rights based on socio-economic status, favouring elites. However, over time, Servius increasingly favoured the poor in order to gain support from plebeian class, often at the expense of patricians. After a forty four year reign, Servius was killed in a conspiracy by his daughter Tullia and her husband L. Tarquinius Superbus.

A section of the Servian Walls outside Termini station.

Tarquinius Superbus

The seventh and final king of Rome was L. Tarquinius Superbus. He was the son of Priscus and the son-in-law of Servius, whom he and his wife had killed.

Tarquinius waged a number of wars against Rome’s neighbours, including against the Volsci, Gabii and the Rutuli. He also secured Rome’s position as head of the Latin cities. He also engaged in a series of public works, notably the completion of the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus, and works on the Cloaca Maxima and the Circus Maximus. However, Tarquinius Superbus’s reign is remembered for his use of violence and intimidation to control Rome, and his disrespect of Roman custom and the Roman Senate.

Tarquin and Lucretia by Titian, 1571.

Tensions came to a head when the king’s son, Sextus Tarquinius, raped Lucretia, wife and daughter to L. Tarquinius Collatinus and Sp. Lucretius Tricipitinus respectively. Lucretia told her relatives about the attack, and committed suicide to avoid the dishonour of the episode. Four men, led by L. Junius Brutus, and including L. Tarquinius Collatinus, P. Valerius Poplicola, and Sp. Lucretius Tricipitinus incited a revolution that deposed and expelled Tarquinius and his family from Rome in 509 BC.

Tarquin was viewed so negatively that the word for king, rex, held a negative connotation in Latin language until the fall of the Roman Empire; Julius Caesar was famous for rejecting the title of rex and rumours of his ambition to become a king led in part to his assassination.

Brutus and Collatinus became Rome’s first consuls, marking the beginning of the Roman Republic. This new government would survive for the next 500 years until the rise of Julius Caesar and Augustus, and would cover a period during which Rome’s authority and area of control extended to the majority of the Mediterranean Basin.

The Capitoline Brutus.

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