Among the legendary seven kings of ancient Rome, Ancus Marcius attracts arguably the least attention. He didn’t conquer many famous cities like Romulus or Tullus Hostilius, he didn’t introduce vast reforms like Numa Pompilius or Servius Tullius, and didn’t enter the myths as a villainous tyrant like Tarquin the Proud. Yet, Dionysius claimed he had “handed Rome on to his successors in a much better condition than he himself had received it” (Dionysius of Halicarnassus – The Roman Antiquities).
Ancus Marcius, inconspicuous as he was, always did what needed to be done. Some of his deeds clearly established a strong foundation for Rome’s future greatness.
Ancus Marcius was not your ordinary warrior-king. The name “Ancus” was a surname that pointed out his maimed arm. Among his ancestors, only one stood out, but one might say it was more than enough – Marcius was a grandson of the former Roman king Numa Pompilius. However, it was not Nume who sat on the throne before him. That belonged to Tullus Hostilius, an aggressive fellow, who spent his reign warmongering and conquering Rome’s neighbours.
The end of Tullus’ life is covered in mysteries. Just like Romulus, Rome’s first king decades before, there were two versions on what happened to him – one relying on divine intervention, the other on a human conspiracy. Both theories agree that the house of the poor king was burnt by a great fire and Tullus and his whole family lost their lives there. They disagree, however, on the origin of the fire.
The “divine” theory, known form Livy’s histories, blames the king himself for mishandling a sacrifice to Jupiter and provoking divine retribution. The impiety angered the king of gods so much that he punished the Roman king by his weapon of choice – a struck of lightning.
The “conspiracy” theory sees our good Ancus Marcius as the originator of the fire. Here, Marcius is described as a power-hungry character, feeling entitled to inherit the throne and worried that Tullus’ own children could get ahead of him. When the king announced his intention to perform a sacrifice in the privacy of his home and on a stormy day, Marcius spotted the opportunity. The unfavourable weather meant less attention from the king’s guards, and less attention meant better access to his home. Marcius and his co-conspirators managed to break in, kill Tullus and his family and set the house on fire. To conceal their crime, they agreed to blame the mighty Jupiter and his thunderbolt.
MAKE ROME STABLE AGAIN
Regardless of how Ancus Marcius got the crown, he was now universally recognized as the king of Rome. In what we could call an inaugural address, he basically blamed the recent impiety of the Romans for all the unfortunate events that happened in the city (e.g. there had been a plague in the city), including the recent death of poor Tullus and his family. As a great leader, he already had a solution prepared. To secure the favour of the gods, he ordered to revive and write down all the details of the rites established by king Numa Pompilus (and almost forgotten during Tullus reign). With this decision, he managed to calm down the Roman people and bring hope of a better future supported by happy gods, and he also highlighted the prestige of king Numa who just happened to be his grandfather. Truly a masterpiece of propaganda!
Marcius reportedly wanted to follow Numa’s example in the military sphere too. He valued peace and didn’t rush to wars like Tullus Hostilius used to. Yet, he soon discovered war was necessary to keep the respect of neighbouring tribes on the secure level. After attacks from the Latins and Sabines, he was forced to march out and defend Rome. He did just that. While waging wars against those enemies, one feature of his character came out – the mildness of his heart. He conquered the Latin city called Politorium and relocated its whole population to Rome (as citizens, not slaves), but didn’t have the heart to raze it. It soon proved to be a mistake as other Latins captured the empty city and Marcius had to lay siege again. Nevertheless, the Romans won all these wars and Marcius triumphed. Credit is due also to his chief general and Master of Horse, a man coming from the Etruscan city of Tarquinii, called Tarquinius.
Marcius continued the tradition of his predecessors and expanded the Roman nation by relocating many people from conquered neighbouring cities to Rome. This soon meant that Rome needed to grow also in terms of space. The Palatine hill was traditionally the core of the oldest city, the Capitoline hill was occupied mainly by the Sabines arriving with Titus Tatius, the Caelian Hill got crowded by people who came from Alba Longa in the reign of Tullus Hostilius. The city needed more space. Marcius solved this problem by occupying another hill nearby – the Aventine hill. He also added the Janiculum Hill, but that was more of a safety precaution. With an increased interest in Janiculum Hill’s accessibility, Ancus Marcius ordered the building of the first bridge over the Tiber in Rome.
The one deed of Ancus Marcius that brought arguably the most benefit to the future of the city was building a port in the mount of Tiber. The place is called Ostia and for centuries it acted as the connection between Rome and the Mediterranean. Tons of cargo were delivered there, unloaded and loaded to riverboats that brought it to Rome.
With decisions like these, Ancus Marcius brought prosperity to the young city and established healthy foundations of future success. He had two sons who could have inherited the title of the Roman king after his death, but they didn’t. The succession at the time was elective, and the two lads didn’t even stand as candidates. Tarquinius, the king’s second in command, made sure they were not present in the city when the matter was being decided and he himself subsequently became king. This was just the first case of very unusual transfers of power in the new Tarquin dynasty.
- Livy – Ad Urbe Condita Libri
- Cassius Dio – Roman History
- Dionysius of Halicarnassus – The Roman Antiquities