Unusual Roman King-Makers

Genseric Sacking Rome
Genseric Sacking Rome
Genseric Sacking Rome, a painting by Karl Briullov (1833-1836). Courtesy of Wikipedia

The first Roman History Books and More book chat of the academic year 2008-9 was supposed to cover through the 5th chapter of Cornell’s Beginnings of Rome. Of those of us in attendance, I don’t think one of us had recently made it beyond Chapter 4. Cornell is dense, filled with information and theories.

Kings of Rome

Romulus 753 – 716 B.C.
Numa Pompilius 715 – 674
Tullus Hostilius 673 – 642
Ancus Marcius 642 – 617
Lucius Tarquinius Priscus 616 – 579
Servius Tullius 578 – 535
Lucius Tarquinius Superbus 535 – 510/509

In the 5th chapter, Cornell addresses the issue of the improbable timeline of the 7 kings of Rome (none of whom, he argues, was a patrician*). Problems** include the fact that Tarquinius Superbus’ mother, Tanaquil (wife of Tarquinius Priscus), would have been well past menopause when she conceived her son. Sounds like Abraham’s wife. This same Tanaquil may have acted as kingmaker to the usurper Servius Tullius. She may have delayed public knowledge of the death of Tarquinius Priscus by pretending that he had improved but needed Servius to carry out his duties. (Tarquinius Priscus had been assassinated on the instigation of the sons of Ancus Marcius.) After the Romans grew accustomed to Servius, Tanaquil released the information that her husband was dead. By this time, Servius Tullius was firmly entrenched. The Romans were fond of Servius and did what they could to redeem his reputation, but they couldn’t get around the fact that he was a slave — as indicated by his name* — and had usurped his position, instead of being awarded it by the authority of the patricians.

Another ruler whom the Romans and historians have portrayed well, but whose accession is similarly shady is the emperor Hadrian. I wonder if Trajan’s wife Plotina didn’t actually take a page out of Tanaquil’s book, since the story is about the same, except that Trajan was not assassinated (he died of a stroke) and the senators were no longer really in charge of picking out the successors.

*Cornell lists the patrician families with Servius as a praenomen. While it would have been possible that Servius came from one, Cornell believes someone would have said something. As it is, the kings of Rome were non-patricians, and often outsiders, as in Sabine or Etruscan. Cornell says that Dionysius of Halicarnassus says some kings became patricians after their appointment.

**A less improbable objection is that Superbus would have been 80 at the Battle of Regillus. I say less improbable, because it is physically possible, especially if role in battle is seriously circumscribed. The Vandal Gaiseric was still fighting with Rome three years before his death at age 87.

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