Who was Tarquin the Last King of Rome and What Happened to Him?

A ruler notorious for ambition and cruelty, the last king of Rome, brought about his own undoing and set the stage for the birth of the Roman Republic. A merciless oppressor, he grew Rome's military and political influence and left an indelible legacy. So, who was this enigmatic figure whose actions changed the course of Roman history? Delve into the astonishing story of Lucius Tarquinius Superbus.

History Rulers
9 May 2023

Shrouded in legend and infamy, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus looms large as the tyrannical final king of Rome, whose reign of terror forever changed the course of Roman history. His brutal rule and boundless ambition ultimately paved the way for the birth of the Roman Republic, as the people sought to escape the oppressive grip of monarchy.

Very little is known about the history of the Roman monarchy with any degree of certainty. A number of historians and scholars attribute the founding of the kingdom to 753 BC when the city was established by Romulus. However, there are no surviving contemporary records and history and legend have become intertwined into stories rather than facts.

Indeed much of the history of the Roman kingdom, including that of the last king of Rome, was written six or seven centuries after its demise by Roman historian Livy and the Greeks Plutarch and Dionysius of Halicarnassus.

It’s believed records were kept, but much was destroyed when the Gauls sacked the city in the last years of the fourth century BC. What was left was either stolen as plunder or succumbed to the ravages of time.

After almost 250 years of royal rule and a final and brutal reign of terror, the people of Rome were determined never to be ruled by a monarch again. The Republic – and later the Empire – transformed the eternal city into one of the greatest global powers the world had ever seen.

The Early Years of Lucius Tarquinius Superbus

Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, the seventh king of Rome. (Photo by The Print Collector/Getty Images)

The information surrounding the early years of the man who became known as Tarquin the Proud is virtually non-existent.

It’s believed he was of Etruscan heritage and is likely to have been related to Rome’s fifth king, Lucius Tarquinius Priscus, though whether as son or grandson is unclear. It’s also generally accepted that Tarquin married Tullia, the daughter of the sixth and penultimate king, Servius Tullius. It’s with this marriage that the story starts to become an ancient Roman soap opera.

Again it’s worth noting that these events may or may not have actually taken place. They have been passed down through the generations, centuries and millennia to the point where they become hearsay, conjecture and rumour depending on the bias of the writer.

The story goes that Tullia wanted Tarquin to become king and encouraged him to usurp her own father. He curried favour with the senators and spread unfounded and malicious rumours about his father-in-law.

In the ensuing confusion, Servius Tullius was murdered, probably by men loyal to Tarquin. A gruesome footnote to this particular episode was that after Tullia proclaimed her husband as king in the senate house she was taken home in a chariot. Upon seeing her father’s body in the street, she grabbed the reins and ran over her father’s corpse. Although the exact location is not known, it was famously called Vicus Sceleratus, the Street of Crime.

Tarquin, the Last King of Rome

The expulsion of Tarquin and his family from Rome. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Tarquin the Proud came to power around 534 BC and immediately embarked on a reign of tyranny so severe it eventually led not just to his downfall, but to the abolition of the monarchy itself and the rise of the Republic.

Writing several centuries later, Marus Tullius Cicero cited the reign of Tarquin as a perfect example of how easily and quickly a sound government could degenerate.

One of Tarquin’s first acts as king was to assassinate senators loyal to Servius. Without replacing them, he dramatically reduced the senate’s powers and became what was effectively a dictator. He made decisions without consulting the people, and subjected them to exorbitant taxes to pay for his ambitious military campaigns and construction projects.

In order to secure Rome’s position as the dominant power in central Italy, he went to war against the Latins, Volsci, Sabines, Gabii and the Etruscans. With a mixture of absolute brutality and tactful diplomacy, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, which translates as Tarquin the Proud, ruled with absolute power.

Tarquin the Builder

Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus in ancient Rome (Photo credit: mikroman6 via Getty Images)

As well as being a brutal, tyrannical and deeply unpopular dictator, the last king of Rome was also an ambitious builder. He completed the construction of the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus on the Capitoline Hill, and he dramatically improved the Circus Maximus. He also initiated the building of the Cloaca Maxima, one of the earliest sewage systems in the world. Indeed some parts of the sewer are still in use and it’s an exceptional example of early Roman architecture and engineering.

The Disgrace and Downfall of the Final King of Rome

By around 510 BC, Rome had had enough of the king’s brutality and wanton spending. In order to get the people back onside, it’s believed he initiated a war against a rich tribe located somewhere southeast of Rome called the Rutuli. The idea was to soundly defeat them and take the spoils of war home.

While Tarquin was preparing for war, he sent his son, Sextus Tarquinius, to the home of Lucuis Tarquinius Collatinus, the governor of Collatia, a small area around fifteen kilometres northeast of Rome. Collatinus was away at war so the young man was hosted by the governor’s wife, Lucretia.

Renowned for her beauty and virtue, Sextus was said to be enamoured by her and pledged to marry her after disposing of her husband. She refused his advances and it’s said he threatened to murder her and a slave and place their bodies together so she would be disgraced as an adultress in death. She was forced to endure a heinous crime and after revealing what had happened to her and by whom, she committed suicide.

Of the event, Dionysius is said to have written, ‘This dreadful scene struck the Romans who were present with so much horror and compassion that they all cried out with one voice that they would rather die a thousand deaths in defence of their liberty than suffer such outrages to be committed by the tyrants.’

Collatinus and a number of his cohorts vowed to remove the disgraced family from Rome entirely and well as the monarchy. One of the cohort, Lucius Junius Brutus, went to Rome and charged the king and his family with tyranny, horrific personal crimes, forced labour used during his construction projects and even the murder of Servius Tullius.

Tarquin tried desperately to cling on to the last vestiges of power but it was too late. The army had deserted him. After several thwarted attempts to regain power through military means, the last king of Rome was exiled, probably to Cumae.

Lucius Tarquinius Superbus died in around 495 BC. Rome would never again have a king.


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