Titus Tatius: Rome’s Sabine King

The king of the Sabines who waged a brutal war against the first king of Rome, Titus Tatius is a figure shrouded in the mists of history and mythology, who stands as a compelling yet enigmatic and overlooked ruler in the story of Rome's early years. But who was he? Was Titus Tatius real? Read on to find out.

1 March 2024

Titus Tatius – sometimes referred to as Tatius Sabinus – was said to be the king of the Sabines, a neighbouring tribe of early Romans. His reign, purportedly coexisting with that of Romulus in the late eighth century BC, is often relegated to the status of the ‘forgotten king’ in comparison to the often glorified Romulus.

This oversight can be attributed to the blending of history and myth in Rome’s foundational stories, where Romulus was elevated to almost divine status as the city’s founder and first king. Yet the historical veracity of Titus Tatius and Romulus remains a subject of ongoing debate among historians and scholars.

The early history of Rome is deeply intertwined with legend, making it challenging to discern historical fact from mythological embellishment. Nevertheless, the story of Titus Tatius serves as a crucial component of Rome’s rich tapestry of origin myths, providing insight into the values, conflicts, and aspirations of the ancient Romans.

To understand the story of Titus Tatius is to begin to comprehend the complexities of Rome’s foundation and the beginnings of a civilisation that has profoundly shaped the Western world.

But was Titus Tatius real? Why did Titus Tatius and Romulus go to war, and how did they eventually come together in a truce and rule jointly? This time-trip back to the foundation of one of the world’s great cities attempts to unravel the complex, interwoven threads of truth and myth surrounding the story of the king of the Sabines.

It’s important to note that this article presents a narrative that blends historical conjecture with legendary elements and mythological embellishment, which is typical of accounts of early Rome.

Who were the Sabines?

Sabine women before the signal, c. 1490, Domenico Morone (Credit: Heritage Images / Contributor via Getty Images)

The Sabines were an ancient Italic tribe that held a pivotal place in the tapestry of early Roman history and mythology. Inhabiting the mountainous regions of central Italy, they were known for their religious piety, rustic virtues, and a culture that significantly influenced the burgeoning society of Rome.

While living somewhat peacefully outside Rome, it was an horrific event that brought them into conflict with the Romans, culminating in the epic Battle of the Lacus Curtius, and bringing the kingdoms of Titus Tatius and Romulus together in a brutal fight in the Roman Forum.

According to Roman historian Livy, the story began with the idea that Romulus was concerned his young city had too few women, and over time this imbalance would allow the surrounding tribes to outgrow and envelope his emerging state.

There are a number of different variations of the narrative, but the most commonly told is that Romulus invited the Sabine families – and those from other neighbouring regions including the Caeninenses, the Antemnates and the Crustumini – to a festival of games and other events celebrating the Neptune Equester.

It was said that during this event Romulus gave a signal to his men, who forcibly took the Sabine women and battled against the Sabine men. After capturing the women, Romulus begged them to take Roman men as their husbands.

This act of treachery led Titus Sabinus to eventually wage a fierce war on Rome, culminating in the dramatic and legendary Battle of Lacus Curtius, a site within the Roman Forum that would later be shrouded in myths of its own.

The Caeninenses, the Antemnates and the Crustumini attacked Rome immediately, but were defeated. The king of the Sabines bided his time.

Titus Tatuis first sent an envoy to politely request the return of his women but he was ceremoniously rebuffed. He then raised an army and marched on Rome.

The Battle of Lacus Curtius

Colosseum and Forum Romanum, Rome (Credit: Harald Nachtmann via Getty Images)

The Battle of Lacus Curtius stands as a legendary episode in the foundational myths of Rome, emblematic of the early conflicts and eventual reconciliation between the Romans and the Sabine tribe.

This battle was said to have unfolded in the heart of what would become the Roman Forum. The Sabines were let into the city by Tarpeia, the daughter of Spurius Tarpeius, a pseudo-historical character who was in command of the Roman citadel. It’s said she was tricked into opening the gates, with one version of the story stating that after doing so she was crushed to death by the shields of the advancing enemy soldiers.

A number of smaller skirmishes ensued and the Battle of Lacus Curtius, on or near the site of the future Roman Forum between Palatine Hill and Capitoline Hill, was fought. The turning point of the battle was said to have come from the extraordinary intervention of the Sabine women themselves. Having been integrated into Roman society and having formed familial bonds with their Roman captors, these women, led by Hersilia, the wife of Romulus and herself of Sabine origin, bravely positioned themselves between the battling forces, imploring their fathers and husbands to cease hostilities.

Their courageous act of peacemaking underscored the futility of the conflict and highlighted the shared bonds that united the two communities. This intervention led to a cessation of hostilities and laid the groundwork for a peace agreement. As a result, the Romans and Sabines forged a new unity, with Titus Tatius and Romulus agreeing to co-rule Rome, blending their peoples into one society.

The Aftermath of the Battle

Relief on the Lacus Curtius, a monument on the Roman Forum (Credit: Sepia Times / Contributor via Getty Images)

The Battle of Lacus Curtius was said to have significantly shaped the future of Rome. The integration of the Sabines into Roman society enriched the city’s cultural and religious fabric, introducing new gods and customs that would themselves become integral to Roman identity.

The site of the battle itself became shrouded in myth and legend, serving as a symbol of the sacrifice and reconciliation that marked the early days of Rome. This event also set a precedent for the assimilation of other peoples into the Roman fold, a strategy that would become a cornerstone of Roman expansion and success.

The Death of Titus Tatius

The Death of Tatius (oil on canvas). (Credit: Art Images via Getty Images)

According to Roman tradition, Titus Tatius was assassinated, and the circumstances leading to his demise are tied to an incident involving ambassadors.

The story goes that Tatius had allowed a crime against a number of visitors from the ancient city of Laurentum to go unpunished – this was seen as a serious violation of the sacred laws of hospitality and diplomatic immunity at the time. Tatius’s refusal to allow Romulus to extradite the criminals involved highlighted the fragility of their partnership, and ultimately led to Tatius’s death.

The details surrounding Tatius’s assassination itself, including who exactly carried it out and the precise motivations, are not thoroughly documented and remain part of the mythic narrative of early Rome. Regardless of the specifics, in the founding legends of Rome this act left Romulus in sole charge, and established him as the ultimate power within the young city.

Was Titus Tatius Real?

The Sabine Women (Credit: Universal History Archive / Contributor via Getty Images)

Titus Tatius, the king of the Sabines, remains an enigmatic figure at the crossroads of history and myth. His story, interwoven with the legends of Rome’s early days, exemplifies the complexities of ancient narratives where the lines between fact and fiction are blurred.

Was Titus Tatius real? There’s no definitive evidence of him as a historical figure, though some historians have speculated he could have been a genuine early king of Rome, whose story was interwoven and subsumed by the city’s foundational myths.

While Tatius’s historical existence, much like that of Romulus, cannot be definitively proven, his tale holds a significant place in the cultural memory of Rome. According to both legend and historical accounts like those of Livy, his story, including the conflict and subsequent alliance with Romulus, forms a crucial part of Rome’s foundational story.


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