6 “Early Rome to 500 B.C.E.”

Early Rome to 500 B.C.E.

From: Schultz, Celia E., Allen M. Ward, F. M. Heichelheim, and C. A. Yeo. 2019a. “Early Rome to 500 B.C.E.” In A History of the Roman People, 7th edition. New York: Routledge

The stories of Rome’s founding and the so-called Monarchy, or Regal Period, which ended ca. 500 B.C.E., present many problems for the modern historian. The traditional accounts found in ancient literary sources were not formed until hundreds of years after the events narrated therein. For example, an antiquarian named Marcus Terentius Varro in the late first century B.C.E. calculated the equivalent of April 21 753 B.C.E. as the date of Rome’s founding. Moreover, the ancient literary sources do not always square either with each other or with the vast amount of physical evidence excavated by archaeologists since the late nineteenth century. Therefore, trying to construct a coherent and credible picture out of the disparate literary and archaeological evidence is a major challenge.


The oldest extant literary accounts of any significance all come from the second half of the first century B.C.E. The first is the second book of Cicero’s dialogue De Re Publica (ca. 50 B.C.E.). The most influential account is Book One of Livy’s 142-book history of Rome, Ab Urbe Condita (ca. 25 B.C.E.). Later Imperial writers like Florus in the second century C.E. and Aurelius Victor, Eutropius, Festus, Orosius, and Julius Obsequens in the fourth and fifth centuries C.E. basically repeat Livy’s account, which had become the dominant historical narrative. Poets of the Imperial Period, such as Vergil, Horace, [38] Ovid, and Propertius, are another important part of the literary tradition of Rome’s early days.

Greek writers ere also interested in Rome’s beginnings. Among the most important sources are the first four books of the Roman Antiquities by the Greek author Dionysius ofHalicarnassus (ca. 7 B.C.E.). Books Seven to Nine of the world history by Diodorus Siculus, a Greek from Sicily, are fragmentary but still important (ca. 30 B.C.E.). Plutarch was a Greek biographer and essayist in the late first or early second century C.E. He sup­plements the earlier historians, particularly in his “biographies” of the supposed early Roman kings Romulus and Numa Pompilius. Finally, Cassius Dio was a Bithynian Greek and high Roman official in the late second and early third centuries C.E. He covers early Rome in the first three books of his Roman History, but these books are preserved only in fragments.

It is important to remember that all of these ancient writers approached the writ­ing of history as a branch of rhetoric. They wanted to entertain and morally instruct readers with memorable characters, exciting stories, and artful speeches. Also, their imagined view of the past was shaped by their own political concerns and experiences during the civil wars that destroyed the Roman Republic.

The sources of our sources

As the Roman literary tradition now exists, it rests on the mostly lost works of anti­quarian researchers, earlier historians, and the writers of patriotic epics and drama. In the late third and early second centuries B.C.E., a number of historians (many of them called annalists because they narrated events on a year-by-year basis) and patriotic epic poets tried to present coherent versions of early Roman history (pp. 197-200). The annalists were mainly senatorial aristocrats, who were prone to exaggerating the roles of their own ancestors in historical events and who tended toward a pro-senatorial view of events and toward moralizing patriotism. These accounts are all lost but can be partially reconstructed from surviving later works, which ultimately depend on them. Also, during the second and first centuries B.C.E., antiquarian researchers preserved, and often misinterpreted, interesting or obscure facts about early Roman institutions, religion, life, and events. Their detailed and learned studies became raw material for other writers.

The data on which the poets, annalists, and antiquarians had to draw were not so scanty or worthless as many have assumed. Various traditional practices and oral sources preserved much authentic information, however imperfectly understood or distorted during transmission. Important families maintained wax images (imagi­nes) and carved portraits of great ancestors. They sang or recited the exploits of the deceased during banquets, at funerals, and on military campaigns. Stories of major civic events were sometimes retold in dramatic performances. Some temples main­tained their own archives of material, and some elements of ritual were maintained for hundreds of years. Archaic political institutions and practices were never com­pletely abandoned. They were frequently overlaid with new ones as changed condi­tions required. [39]

In addition to the raw materials available for history writing in Rome itself, Rome’s Latin, Etruscan, and Greek neighbors had other customs, oral traditions, monuments, and records that Romans could utilize in reconstructing their early days. The earli­est written accounts of Roman history were found in Greco-Sicilian historians like Timaeus (ca. 356-260 B.C.E.) and Philinus (ca. 250 B.C.E.). They were the models for early Roman accounts and preserved information from the traditions of the cities of Magna Graecia, which had had contacts with early Rome.

Although the Romans did not start writing literature until the middle of the third century B.C.E., literacy had a long history in Latium and Rome. The earliest known inscription written in a Greek alphabet was not found in Greece or the western Greek colonies, but in Latium. It appears on a small vase from a grave dated ca. 770 B.C.E. at Gabii. In Rome, the earliest known piece of writing is the possessive form of the Greek name Ktektos or Kleiklos on a Corinthian pot from a grave dated between ca. 730 and 625 B.C.E. The earliest public inscription yet found in Rome is the Lapis Niger, or Black Stone inscription, named for the black stone under which it was found in the Roman Forum (p. 48). It dates to some time in the sixth century B.C.E.

By 625 B.C.E., Rome had reached a significant level of urbanization. Some kinds of documentary records were needed. It is not likely that any records from that era were systematically maintained. Still, some information may have been kept on papyrus, cloth, or wood. Major items like laws, religious dedications, treaties, and commemora­tive inscriptions on public buildings were set up on durable stone or bronze. In the late first century B.C.E., school children were still memorizing the text of Rome’s first law code, the Twelve Tables, which was compiled in the mid-fifth century B.C.E. (pp. 87-8).

Many have assumed that little of the documentation that existed before ca. 500 B.C.E. could have survived the sack of Rome by marauding Gauls ca. 390 B.C.E. Recent research, however, indicates that the devastation has been exaggerated. Records on durable materials like stone and bronze probably were largely unaffected. More perish­able records were housed in buildings such as the temple of Saturn, the Capitol, and the Regia, where the Pontifex Maximus (Chief Pontiff) performed important duties and kept his archives during the Republic (p. 76). Those buildings remained intact. Records kept there may well have survived.


For the period before 500 B.C.E., however, the surviving oral materials and written documentation were sufficient to construct the detailed picture our sources give us. No matter how much oral, monumental, and documentary material was available to later poets, historians, and antiquarians, its original context and meaning were not always clear to them, and they faced the task of making sense of information preserved hap­hazardly. Thus our authors filled in gaps as suited their own needs and circumstances, creating a foundation story that is far from historically accurate but that still contains valuable pieces of information that may ultimately rest on ancient oral traditions or documents and can help scholars make sense of raw archaeological data. [40]

The traditional story of Rome’s founding

The basic outline of the highly fictional traditional account of Rome’s origin is as fol­lows: the Trojan prince Aeneas, a hero from Homeric Greek epic, supposedly escaped the falI of Troy with his aged father, Anchises, and his young son, Ascanius (lulus). After many years of wandering, he landed in Latium. There, he met the Greek hero Evander, who already bad settled at the future site of Rome on the Palatine Hill. Aeneas also met Latinus, king of the Latins. He won the hand of Latinus’ daughter, Lavinia, after a war with Turnus, the man to whom she was already engaged. Then he founded a city named Lavinium in his new wife’s honor. Aeneas’ son, Ascanius (Iulus), subsequently founded Alba Longa.

Much later, Numitor, the twelfth Alban king after Ascanius, had a daughter, Rhea Silvia (Ilia). Numitor’s brother, Amulius, overthrew him and forced Rhea Silvia to join the Vestal Virgins. She became pregnant by the god Mars and bore two sons Romulus and Remus. Amulius ordered them to be killed. They were set adrift on the Tiber and washed up on shore near the site of Rome. There, a she-wolf found them and suckled them. They were discovered by a shepherd, Faustulus, who raised them. Subsequently, they argued over founding a settlement near the site of their miraculous rescue. Romulus killed Remus and founded a settlement on the Palatine Hill. He populated it with men who were exiles and fugitives from all over Italy. Lacking wives, Romulus and his men carried off the women of a nearby Sabine village. The resultant war ended in a reconciliation of the two groups and an amalgamation under the joint rule of Romulus and Titus Tatius, the Sabine leader.

Deconstructing the traditional story

This highly fictional account reflects the combination of various Greek, Etruscan, Latin, and Roman legends. Greek settlers in Italy and Sicily wanted to link their area with the glorious epic traditions of their native land. The legendary wanderings of Odysseus in The Odyssey provided a handy link. One Greek story (ca. 600 B.C.E.) after the founding of Greek colonies on the Bay of Naples called Latinus a son of Circe and Odysseus and made him king of the Etruscans. The Greeks often did not distinguish between the Etruscans and the Latins. Latinus is obviously a manufactured eponym (a person for whom something is named or supposedly named) for Latium and the Latins. Later Greeks, perhaps as early as the sixth century B.C.E., may have added the story of Aeneas’ journey to Italy. Aeneas quickly became associated with the Etruscans. They were the great foes of the Greeks in Italy, as the Trojans had been of the earlier Greeks in the Homeric epics.

The Etruscans eagerly adopted Aeneas as their own. Through him, they could have a past as ancient and glorious as that of their Greek rivals. Sixth-century B.C.E. votive statues of Aeneas carrying his father, Anchises, have been found at Veii. The same scene appears on seventeen vases found in Etruscan tombs of the late sixth and early fifth centuries B.C.E. Perhaps Roman kings of Etruscan origin during the sixth century B.C.E. popularized the links with the Greek epic tradition. [41]

The story of the she-wolf in the legend ofRome’s founding may have had an Etruscan origin. Although the most famous representation of the wolf, the great bronze she-wolf (with suckling twin boys added in the Renaissance) in modern Rome’s Capitoline Museum, has now been identified on the basis of extensive scientific tests as a medieval piece, there are other images of her that are genuinely ancient. For example, a relief on an Etruscan grave stele dated ca. 400 B.C.E. from Felsina (Bologna) depicts what seems to be a she-wolf suckling a single baby boy, and an engraved Etruscan mirror dated ca. 340 B.C.E. displays a she-wolf nursing two infants.

The story that Romulus and Remus came from Alba Longa and founded Rome is part of the earliest Latin tradition. In the Regal Period, Alba Longa was Rome’s chief rival for leadership of the other Latin towns. The story would have been useful propaganda to bolster Alba’s claim to leadership. Archaeological evidence does show close connections between early Rome and Alba but cannot be used to prove any Alban origin for Rome.

Archaeological excavations have made clear that the site of Rome was inhabited long before the city’s traditional founding in 753 B.C.E. Discoveries on the Palatine Hill and in the area of the Roman Forum that sits at its foot do not, despite some roman­tic interpretations, support the idea that Romulus and Remus were actual historical characters or that some other specific character founded Rome around that time. The characters Romulus and Remus look like two slightly different versions of the typical eponymous hero whose name is actually derived from the name of the city which he is supposed to have founded. Later Romans would have been familiar with such stories from the Greek settlers in southern Italy. In fact, one Greek legend claims that Rome was founded by Rhomus, another son of Odysseus and Circe.

One of the last elements to become part of the standard legend was the list of Alban kings. As Greek scholars and historians became more skilled, they became concerned with establishing precise chronologies. In the early part of the third century B.C.E., the Sicilian Greek Timaeus wrote the first comprehensive history of the western Greeks and events relevant to them. He equated the foundation date of Rome with that of Carthage, supposedly the equivalent of 814 B.C.E. About fifty years later, another Greek, Eratosthenes, established the standard date in antiquity for the fall of Troy, the equivalent of 1184 B.C.E. Clearly, even if Aeneas had existed, he could not have wandered 370 years (the time between the Trojan War and Eratosthenes’ date for the founding of Rome) before getting to Italy. To plug the chronological gap, the ancients used the list of kings of Alba Longa, descended from Aeneas’s son and going all the way down to Numitor, the grandfather of Romulus.

The rise of Greek city-states and its impact on Rome

It is clear that the traditional narrative of Rome’s founding is completely unhistorical in its details. The idea that Rome originated with a specific act by a specific founder goes back to Classical and Hellenistic Greek historians who were trying to link Rome with their own “heroic” past. They also had in mind the examples of numerous Greek cit­ies specifically established by founders as independent colonies in the Archaic Age and by kings as military outposts, centers ·of trade or seats of royal administration in the [42] Hellenistic Age. Still, in a very general sense, chose who created the ancient accounts of Rome’s founding were right in considering Rome to be no different from the early Greek city-states and in placing its origin after the Trojan War of epic tradition at the end of what is now called the Bronze Age. The accumulation of archaeological evidence shows that Rome originated as part of the larger, unconscious process that produced city-states all over the Mediterranean world and even on the shores of the Black Sea between ca. 1000 and 600 B.C.E.

A city-state is characterized by a complex urban center containing a significant number of socially and economically differentiated inhabitants. It provides a central location for services such as health care, markets, defense, law enforcement, courts, large-scale communal worship or cultural events, education, and entertainment to both its inhabitants and those of a relatively compact dependent rural territory. Finally, it is controlled by a formally organized state apparatus (government).

At the end of the early Iron Age and the beginning of the archaic period (ca. 900- 700 B.C.E.), Greeks, Phoenicians, and other Near Easterners took part in the expand­ing world of commerce and craft manufacturing. Those activities supported the growth of small villages and informal communities into formally organized urban centers in the Aegean. Although the Greeks borrowed many things from their neigh­bors, they developed their own distinctive social and political form of the city-state, the polis (pl., poleis). It was a self-governing community in which formal political power and rights were spread among a significant number of free inhabitants believed to be of common ancestry and legally recognized as citizens.

Initially, power in the Greek world had devolved into the hands of local chiefs and strongmen in the aftermath of the late Bronze Age. Later, as more formally organized urban or proto-urban communities emerged, some of the local leaders rose to positions of individual power as kings within the growing communities. These kings, however, were not rooted in a long tradition of dynastic monarchy. They were always limited in personal power. Rather, they depended on the cooperation and support of other important members of the community, who considered themselves to be more or less equal to any king. Often, powerful individuals even competed to become the next king. Usually, that competition led to the elimination of kingship altogether and the sharing of power among the heads of a community’s leading families. They became an exclusive aristocracy and competed among themselves for election to positions of leadership in the community.

As many of these communities continued to grow, social and economic changes sparked internal conflicts. Sometimes, a particularly shrewd or ambitious man would take advantage of these conditions to gain enough popularity and armed support to seize personal control as a tyrant. His son or grandson, however, was usually over­thrown. Subsequent periods of violence and compromise gradually placed more formal rights and political privileges in the hands of moderately well-to-do non-aristocrats. They had enough resources to serve in the heavily armed hoplite infantry, which became the main defense of the archaic and early classical poleis.

In Italy between ca. 750 and 300 B.C.E., Rome and other communities in Etruria, Latium, and Campania, neighbors to the Greeks of southern Italy and Sicily, followed [43] a similar trajectory. Therefore, the development of Rome should be seen as part of the same process that made the polis the dominant type of state in the Classical Mediterranean world. That dominance was not supplanted until the rise of Hellenistic monarchies in the East. At the same time, Rome outgrew the territorial and demo­graphic constraints of the traditional polis and became the dominant state first in Italy and then in the West.

Early Rome and Latium

Excavations indicate that the site of Rome has been continuously inhabited since between 1200 and 1000 B.C.E. It seems, however, that important changes leading ulti­mately to urbanization began around the middle of the eighth century B.C.E. Some ancient Roman religious institutions, rites, and monuments that still existed in later centuries may have had their origin in the mid-eighth century B.C.E. That may account for calculations like Varro’s, which place the permanent settlement and foundation of Rome around the same time. Indeed, the archaeological evidence is compatible with the idea that small Iron Age villages found on some of the hills that Rome came to encompass began to expand and coalesce into a larger entity in that era.

Prior to the eighth century, the Indo-European-speaking villagers, who were simi­lar to people who inhabited the rest of Latium, pursued simple lives as farmers and herders. Their lives are reflected in their graves and in later Roman legends, religious customs, and language. For example, Rome’s legendary eponymous founder and his twin brother, Remus, allegedly were raised in a shepherd’s cottage. The festival of the Parilia on April 21, the day on which Romulus supposedly founded Rome, celebrated a cleanup day for stalls and stables. In honor of Tel/us, or Mother Earth-the goddess of the fruitfulness of animals as well as of crops-the early Romans twice annually celebrated the festival of the Fordicidia: they sacrificed a pregnant cow in the spring and a pregnant sow in early winter.

Because of this pastoral tradition, the Romans, like the other peoples of the Ancient Mediterranean, sacrificed animals to their gods: goats, sheep, and cattle being the most popular offerings. Traces of the same background are evident in the name given to one of their city gates, the Mooing Gate (Porta Mugonia), as well as in the words egregia (meaning “out of the flock” and, therefore, “excellent”) and pecunia (first meaning “wealth in flocks,” but later “money” in general).

Even so, pastoralism could not have been pursued on a very large scale until the Romans had access to wider grazing lands and gained command of the trails to summer pastures in the Apennines. Perhaps standing behind the story of the Sabine women and the amalgamation with Latium’s Sabine neighbors are later battles for those trails and treaties giving the Romans access to summer pastures in the mountains, the Sabines access to winter pastures in the lower Tiber valley, and both the right of intermarriage.

Meanwhile, the Iron Age villagers had other sources of livelihood. They fished; raised pigs :ind chickens; and planted gardens of turnips, peas, beans, lettuce, and ob­bage. On small plots of land adjacent to their houses, they cultivated spelt, a hard kind [44] of emmer wheat. Like durum, it was more suitable for making porridge than bread. People probably also gathered wild grapes and figs, which they either ate as fruit or brewed into wine.

They wore coarse, homespun clothing and used crude, handmade pottery fired without kilns. They seem to have imported little except some simple jewelry and bronze or iron tools. Their houses, like those associated with the Villanovan culture (p. 8), were round or elliptical huts with thatched roofs and wattle-and-daub walls sup­ported by a framework of posts and poles. Smoke from the fireplace escaped through a hole in the roof, and a single large doorway served for additional lighting and ventila­tion. Foundations of such houses have been found on the Palatine Hill, in the Roman Forum, and at other sites in Latium.

1000 to 700 B.C.E.

The earliest graves at Rome are simple cremation burials found in the Forum. The oldest are dated between 1000 and 900 B.C.E., although late Bronze Age graves recently found near Ostia may cause the date to be revised upward. They and many similar burials have been found elsewhere in Latium and reflect the proto-Villanovan culture of the late Bronze Age shared by other people in Italy. From about 900 to about 830 B.C.E., crema­tion burials continued in the Forum. Along with them appear simple inhumation buri­als typical of the Latial culture that emerged in the early Iron Age throughout Latium. Around 830 B.C.E., a new cemetery with only inhumation burials was opened up on the Esquiline. Each male inhumation burial in both the Forum and Esquiline cemeteries between ca. 900 and 770 B.C.E. contained only two or three ordinary vases, a bronze fib­ula (a large safety pin, pl. fibulae), and, in contrast with later times, no weapons. A female burial usually contained a.fibula and jewelry, mainly rings and glass or amber beads, along with spindle whorls and loom weights for spinning and weaving.

Clearly, no radical changes took place during this period, but evidence of popula­tion growth appears at the site of Rome and other places in Latium between 830 and 770 B.C.E. At Rome, dwellings spread from the Palatine to the Capitoline and Forum. The increased population and the habitation of the Forum probably necessitated the opening of the new burial ground on the Esquiline. By about 770 B.C.E., the growth of Rome and many other Latin communities had caught up with that of commu­nities in Etruria. Both sets of communities were now poised to develop in tandem under the stimulus of increasing trade, particularly with the neighboring Greeks and Phoenicians, as is made clear by the discovery of Greek pottery (some bearing inscrip­tions in Greek) and Phoenician transport containers for wine, called amphorae, in Rome and the surrounding area. Early interaction with the wider Mediterranean world is also evidenced by the foundation of a cult of the Greek god Hercules, associated with trade, in the Forum Boarium. This may be due to the presence of Greek traders, or possibly even to Phoenician traders in Rome. The Phoenician god Melqart was equated with Hercules and was often the first deity to whom the Phoenicians would dedicate a tem­ple in a new place. [45]

The seventh century B.C.E.

The level of material culture in Rome and Latium changed enormously in the seventh century B.C.E. during the Orientalizing Period (p. 22). Princely tombs rivaling those of Etruria h:ive been excavated south of Rome at Castel di Decima and Acqua Acetosa, Laurentina, and to the east at Praeneste. Graves at the first two sites contained men and women richly dressed with gold, silver, and bronze ornaments. Swords, lances, shields, and even chariots accompanied many of the men. At least one of the women at each site also had a chariot. The one at Acqua Acetosa, Laurentina, resembled a type found in Assyria. Some of the women had all the equipment for presiding over a sumptuous ban­quet- imported Greek pottery and Punic wine amphorae included. The tombs from Praeneste contained elaborate gold jewelry from workshops in Etruria, silver bowls with pseudo-Egyptian reliefs, bronze tripods from the Near East, bronze cauldrons decorated with oriental motifs like griffin heads, and many items carved from elephant ivory. The ivory could have originated only in Syria or Africa even if the carving was done by local craftsmen.

Parallels exist at Rome. One of the mid-seventh-century B.C.E. trench graves on the Esquiline contained a unit of armor and a chariot. A seventh-century B.C.E. grave in the Forum contained glass-paste beads, a bracelet of ivory, and a disc of amber from northern Europe. Others show that imports of expensive metalware and pottery from Etruria increased greatly after about 625 B.C.E.

During the seventh century B.C.E., the site of Rome acquired substantial private and public buildings similar to those appearing at the sites in central Italy and decorated in a similar style. Architectural remains excavated in the Forum show that by ca. 625 B.C.E., substantial houses were being built. They had stone walls made of square blocks of tufa and roofs of heavy terracotta tiles supported on wooden beams. The houses also had archaic terracotta decorations like those found on buildings from the same period in Etruria. At about the same time, the Forum received its first pavement and a formal drain, the Cloaca Maxima. Also, a new street was laid over a filled-in space between the northeast corner of the Palatine and the Velia. Therefore, what had once been a loose collection of Iron Age hilltop villages by the Tiber had truly become the city of Rome.

The growth of separate villages into a significant town during the eighth and seventh centuries B.C.E. can be traced in some of the archaic Roman religious practices that sur­vived into historical times. The religious festival of the Septimontium (Seven Hills or Enclosed Hills) seems to have originated in the establishment of a common religious festival by the communities on the Palatine, Esquiline, and Caelian hills. They actually embrace seven separate heights: the Esquiline and its three projections, the Oppius, the Cispius, and the Fagutal; the Palatine; the Velia; and the Caelian. Religious association seems to have led to a political union under the Palatine community prior to the later incorporation of the Quirinal.

Two ancient priesthoods, the Salii and the Luperci (p. 83), were each divided into two groups, one representing the Palatine and one the Quirinal. This practice may indicate that the priesthoods originally were common to two independent communi­ties. According to Livy (Book 2.13), the combination of the Palatine and Quirinal [46] communities resulted in what is known as Roma Quadrata, Rome of the Four Regions: the Palatine, Esquiline, Caelian, and Quirinal hills. These four regions also seem to fall generally within an early circuit of the pomerium.

The pomerium was the sacred boundary between the civil and the military spheres. This line did not necessarily correspond with the city’s fortified walls or the zone of habitation. According to a legend, Romulus marked out the first pomerium when he founded Rome on the Palatine (p. 53). The eighth-century wall found on the Palatine may be such a sacred boundary even though it does not support the existence of Romulus. An extension of the pomerium traditionally ascribed to King Servius Tullius seems to correspond with Rome of the Four Regions.


The combined archaeological and literary evidence indicates that not only the city but also the state that can be called Rome came into existence around 625 b.c. That was about when the Forum was paved and began to receive monumental shrines and temples. These projects required a greater coordination of labor and resources than an informal community could have commanded.

A state implies some kind of formal political institutions and practices that are collectively identified as its constitution. Rome never had a written constitution. As in Great Britain today, only a constantly growing and changing body of custom, precedent, and legislation determined what the “constitution” was at any historical moment. The archaic constitution of the Regal Period could not have been complex, but little is actually known about it. What can be said has to be deduced or inferred from archaeological evidence, comparison with monarchies in other societies at a similar stage of development, and the vestiges preserved in the Republic that followed.

The kings

According to tradition, Rome was ruled from its founding to 509 b.c. by seven kings (Titus Tatius, Romulus’ brief Sabine colleague, being excluded). The first four were alternately Latin and Sabine: Romulus, Numa Pompilius, Tullus Hostilius, and Ancus Marcius. The last three were Tarquinius Priscus (Tarquin the Elder), Servius Tullius, and Tarquinius Superbus (Tarquin the Proud). The two Tarquins were always recognized as Etruscan, but the question of Servius’ Latin or Etruscan origin is in doubt. The names notwithstanding, it is a reasonable assumption that early Rome came to be ruled by kings, and so, too, did other archaic Latin city-states, such as Aricia, Tusculum, and Lanuvium.

That kings ruled Rome in the sixth century B.C.E. is supported by two pieces of explicit archaeological evidence. The first, dated to the last quarter of the century, is part of a bucchero cup clearly inscribed with the word rex, king. Moreover, it was excavated at the site of the Regia, the King’s House—the royal palace. The Regia’s successive restorations and re- buildings on the same site in the Roman Forum can be traced back to a date even earlier than the traditional founding date of the city (p. 30). The Romans believed that it was originally built by Romulus’ successor, King Numa. It was next to the temple of Vesta and the house of the Vestal Virgins, whose origins may go back to a date even earlier than the traditional founding date of the city (p. 42).  [47]

The Romans believed that it was originally built by Romulus’ successor, King Numa. It was next to the temple of Vesta and the house of the Vestal Virgins (p. 70). After the Monarchy, the Regia became the headquarters of the Pontifex Maximus, who assumed some of the religious functions of the old kings.

The second piece of evidence is the Lapis Niger (Black Stone) inscription on a block of Grotta Oscura tufa under the black pavement of the Forum. The inscription is dated to the late sixth century B.C.E. It contains the word RECEI, a form of the word rcx (king). In later times, it was believed to mark the grave of one of the early kings.

That certain terms and titles related to kings were used during the Republic also indi­cates the existence of kings in an earlier stage of political development. In the Republic, an elective office might become vacant because of death, resignation, or the failure to hold elections on time. In that case, the senate would declare an interregnum, which lit­erally meant “a period between kingships.” Then, it would appoint an interrex, interim king, to hold an election for the office. From early in the Republic, the word rex was also used in the title of an important priest, the rcx sacrorum, king of rites. His job was to carry on religious functions that probably belonged originally to the kings. His wife was called regina sacrorum queen of rites, and she, too, had a prescribed set of religious duties.

While the existence of early Roman kings seems clear, the detailed accounts of the kings found in the literary sources must be rejected. First, as previously noted, the name of Romulus, Rome’s supposed founder and first king, seems obviously to be a made-up eponym. Second, even with Romulus, there are not enough kings to cover the period from 753 to 509 B.C.E. They require improbably long reigns averag­ing thirty-five years. It is more probable that the earliest records went back to only ca. 625 B.C.E. Depending on the inclusion or exclusion of Titus Tatius, six or seven kings between ca. 625 and 509 B.C.E. would yield much more probable average reigns of sev­enteen to twenty years. On the other hand, there is no reason to reject the story that a man whose Roman name became Tarquinius successfully migrated to Rome from Tarquinia and eventually became king. The archaeological record shows that Greeks, Etruscans, and Phoenicians frequented the important trading center that was archaic Rome, and there is every reason to believe that a number settled there.

An apparently independent Etruscan tradition is depicted in the François Tomb near Vulci. It supports the existence of the Tarquins and antedates the earliest Roman his­torical speculations. What probably should be rejected, however, is the idea of a long­term Etruscan takeover of Rome. In the light of current archaeological evidence, it is much more probable that seventh-century B.C.E. Rome looked like an Etruscan city because both Rome and the contemporary “Etruscan” cities were part of a larger, cen­tral Italian cultural complex. A sharp distinction between the two is valid only later when the people who inhabited Rome had developed a clearly different culture from that which prevailed in those cities of Etruria with whom they later fought.

The nature of early Roman kingship

Like kingship in many early or “primitive” societies, the early Roman monarchy prob­ably had religious origins and was not absolute or strictly hereditary. That king had [48] important religious duties seems clear from the existence of the rex sacrorum during the Republic. The gods who guaranteed the welfare of the community would have been offended if they were not served by a king, as they always had been. The republican practice of appointing an interrex, interim king when certain elected magistrates were lacking :also supports the religious nature of early Roman kingship. First, the patricians in the senate, the patres, appointed one of themselves to be the interrex. They were the leading members of families who supplied Rome’s public priests (p. 70). Second, the interrex held and passed on to subsequently elected magistrates the religious power of taking auspices (p. 69). Presumably, the patres had this power because their ancestors during the Monarchy had chosen who was to be king when the throne was empty. It is also significant that the chief priest of the Roman Republic, the pontifex maximus, had his headquarters in the Regia, the old royal residence.

With the spread of more and better weapons in Latium, as evidenced by seventh­-century graves, Roman kingship probably acquired an increasingly military nature. The republican interrex preserved not only the auspices but also the imperium, the power of military command, in the absence of proper magistrates. During the later Monarchy, kings probably had to become war leaders to protect the community. Some may even have started as leaders of warrior bands who forced their way onto the throne or were chosen kings because of their military prowess. At some point, it seems to have become necessary that the appointment of a king had to be ratified by an early assembly of arms-bearing men, the comitia curiata.

As the leading religious and military authority in the early state, the king would have had broad powers in peace and war. He probably had the power to make war and negotiate treaties. His final word on public affairs most likely had the force of law. The power to enforce laws and even execute wrongdoers seems to have been represented by the fasces and double-headed ax, ancient royal symbols that were later carried in front of magistrates with imperium during the Republic (p. 79). Still, the king could not have functioned alone. He seems to have sought the advice and approval of others to ensure his legitimacy.

The senate

As the Republic evolved, the senate became the state’s most powerful institution. Under the kings, however, it probably was just what its name implies, an advisory body of elders (senes, from which senior and senile derive) to the king. It would have only advised the kings in the Monarchy, just as it only advised the magistrates in the early Republic. It would have been a king’s private council, appointed by him from among his friends and important members of the city’s leading families. As in the Republic, the senate could not have legislated under the kings. It would have given advice only when summoned by the king. He would not have to accept its advice, but it would not have been politically wise for a king habitually to ignore or reject it, particularly on major issues. If he did, he would sooner or later incur the enmity of too many powerful men and might even lose his throne, as Roman tradition says the last Tarquin did. [49]

The Army and the Earliest Popular Assembly, the Comitia Curiata

The king also would have had to take into account the populus, the arms-bearing adult male citizens. They seem to have made up both the early army and the comitia curiata (Curiate Assembly), the original popular (derived from populus) assembly. The comitia curiata was based on the groups to which the adult arms-bearing men originally belonged for the purpose of military service. Originally, all citizens were divided up into three tribes (tribus, literally “by threes”): Ramnes, Tities, and Luceres. Each tribe probably represented a major district of the earliest city. Apparently each tribe was subdivided into ten smaller districts called curiae, from which is derived curiata, for a total of thirty curiae. At some point, perhaps with the incorporation of the community on the Quirinal Hill into the early Roman state, the population was divided into four urban tribes and twenty-six rural districts, pagi (sing. pagus), or regions, regiones (sing. regio). After that, each tribe and district supplied one of the thirty curiae of the army. In assembly, all of the men associated with each curia would have mustered together just as they would if called up for active military duty.

The armed citizens who constituted this assembly theoretically had sovereign power (maiestas), and they took part in the inauguration of a new king. That seems evident from the vestigial comitia curiata that confirmed a magistrate’s imperium in the Republic (p. 60). The Curiate Assembly may even have attended the king in the performance of some of his religious duties, confirmed the appointment of public priests, witnessed (if not approved) wills and adoptions, and dealt with other matters connected with private law. The assembly’s main function during the Monarchy was to listen to and show approval or disapproval of proposals put forward by the king. A king was wise to seek the comitia curiata’s approval, if only to win armed citizens’ cooperation and willing consent to major changes in law and policy.  Their opinion was particularly valuable in matters of war and peace.

The evolution of the army and a new popular assembly, the comitia centuriata.

Before Rome had developed into a fully organized state, warfare, such as it was, probably involved warrior bands loyal to individual leaders. Such bands may have been the origin of certain clans, gentes (pp. 60-3). Even under the Monarchy and early Republic, individual clans sometimes conducted independent military opera­tions. The creation of a formal state and the full urbanization of Rome in the last quarter of the seventh century B.C.E. paralleled and was integral to the spread of new arms, armor, and military tactics in central Italy at the same time. A similar pattern had occurred at the beginning of the seventh century B.C.E. in Greece. The old, heroic style of combat involved a few elite warriors backed up by a rather disorganized mass of retainers as seen in Homer. It gradually gave way to tactics based on the hop­lite phalanx.

The classic hoplite phalanx was a formation in which heavily armed infantry troops advanced to the attack in a tightly ordered battle line several ranks deep. Each soldier [50] carried a long spear for thrusting and a sword for close combat. He was protected by a hoplon (clipeus in Latin), a round shield smaller than earlier body shields. It was fastened to the left arm through a loop in the middle and a handgrip near the edge. A helmet, breastplate or corse- let, and greaves (shin guards), all made of various materials such as leather, heavy linen, and metal, completed the panoply. Each man’s right side was protected by the shield on his neighbor’s left. So long as each man kept in formation, the hoplite phalanx was almost indestructible.

Evidence from graves shows that the Greek hoplite panoply was introduced into Italy in the late seventh century B.C.E. It spread rapidly among those who could afford it. How early and to what extent the Romans and others in Italy adopted the classic Greek phalanx of hoplite infantry is problematical. Ancient and modern reconstructions of the Roman army in the seventh and sixth centuries B.C.E. may too neatly reflect the formal organization and tactics of later Greek and Roman armies. The following reconstruction is offered with that caveat.

The formal field army that emerged in tandem with the evolving state was the legion, legio, literally a “selection” or “levy.” It was drawn from all the able-bodied men who had the means to serve as cavalry or the Roman equivalent of hoplite heavy infantry. Collectively, those men may have been known as the classis, literally the “call-out” or “summoning.”

It is supposed that each of the ten curiae from each of Rome’s three original tribes provided the legion with a quota of ten to forty cavalry and one hundred heavy infantry from its members who met the qualifications for the classis. The resulting 3000 heavy infantry probably fought in a massed formation similar to the Greek phalanx. Men who could not meet the qualifications for the classis were thus infra classem, below the classis. They probably supplied more poorly armed auxiliary troops. They would have supported the heavy infantry as light infantry and skirmishers.

The infantrymen from each tribe seem to have been commanded by a tribal officer of the soldiers, tribunus militum. An analogous tribal officer of the cavalry, tribunus celerum (or equitum), seems to have commanded the cavalry supplied by each tribe. At the top, the supreme command belonged to the king or his appointee, the magister populi, master of the army. Next to the king or magister populi in rank was the commander of the whole cavalry, the magister equitum (master of the cavalry).

From the latter part of the sixth century B.C.E., the curiate organization of Roman manpower, now based on four urban tribes and twenty-six rural districts (pagi) or regions (regiones), became obsolete for military purposes. To align Rome’s military manpower with its growing wealth and population, the legion’s infantry was reorganized in accordance with the reforms ascribed to King Servius Tullius in the literary tradition (p. 58). All of the changes credited to Servius Tullius could not have happened at once and probably were not fully developed until well into the Republic. Still, it seems likely that Servius Tullius or someone like him increased the heavy infantry to 4000 men in 40 units now called centuries (centuriae), hundreds, instead of curiae. Later, the heavy infantry expanded to 6000 men in 60 centuries. The officer in charge of each century naturally became known as a centurion. [51]

Another part of the “Servian” reform was the consolidation of rural districts into larger geographical units to create rural tribes along with the four urban ones. As the state grew in population and territory during later periods, the number of urban tribes remained fixed at four, but new rural tribes were added until a limit of thirty-one rural tribes was reached. E:1eh tribe contributed similarly armed men to groups from which the field army, the legion (legio), was drawn. These groups also came to be called centuries, because originally one hundred men taken from each group formed one of the centuries of the legion. Eventually, the whole adult male citizen body was organized into 193 centuries. Men were ranked by the value of their property and the type of military service they could afford to provide. If not by the end of the Monarchy, then in the early Republic, adult male citizens assembling by centuries became the comitia centuriata (Centuriate Assembly) and replaced the comitia curiata as Rome’s primary popular assembly.


Despite problems presented by the late literary accounts of Rome’s early history and with the help of a growing body of archaeological evidence, historians can construct a general picture of Rome’s origin and early growth as a city and a state. Beginning in the early to mid-eighth century B.C.E., a handful of small agricultural villages on a group of hills by the eastern bank of the lower Tiber River began to coalesce. They had evolved into a true city and state that can be called Rome by the last quarter of the seventh century B.C.E. Location on advantageous trade routes had greatly stimulated this devclopment and created a thriving urban center in the same cultural context as that of contemporary Etruscan cities. By the end of the sixth century B.C.E., Rome had acquired a relatively sophisticated political and military organization. It was on par with the major archaic city-states of Greece and the rest of central Italy. Rome may well have been ruled by kings of Etruscan origin in the last part of the sixth century near the end of the Regal Period, but that does not mean it was controlled by some external Etruscan power. Indeed, it had become a significant force in its own right in Latium and southern Etruria.


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Gender and Sexuality in Ancient Rome Copyright © by Jody Valentine. All Rights Reserved.

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