After the mysterious death of its first king Romulus, the throne of Rome was empty and without a designated successor. How did the Romans face this situation and how did they select a new ruler?
The mythical stories describing the beginnings of the city (presented as history in the works of ancient historians and widely believed by the Roman people) leave Romans in a difficult situation after Romulus’ death. The city, while generally flourishing, was under a threat of an internal struggle. A former war against the neighbouring tribes (caused by the so-called Rape of the Sabine women) brought a vast number of Sabines to its population. The assimilation of those newcomers brought some tension. The Sabine leader Titus Tatius gained the title of Roman king alongside Romulus and ruled with him for five years. The situation the led to his demise and death was not without a glimmer of conflict between the two rulers.
The death of Romulus also happened under very suspicious circumstances. While the official version granted him a divine glory and described his ascension to heaven, other theories blamed the senators or the Sabines.
In most ancient monarchies agnatic systems of inheritance were customary. If the succession was not elective, the title passed to the son the deceased king. As Romulus was the city’s first king, there was no precedent. If Romulus had had a son, he could have been at least considered as the new king. But did he? While most ancient authors do not mention any such sons, Plutarch cites a certain Zenodotus of Troezen who claims that Romulus indeed had a son with his wife Hersilia and named him Aollios (later called Avillius) and even a daughter called Prima. However, the author is alone in claiming this and it seems to be an attempt of flattery aimed towards the Roman family of Avillii than a widely accepted historical fact. As we know, the real beginnings of Rome were not documented by contemporaries, and later authors had a tendency to occasionally add a character or two to magnify the impact of Rome’s most prestigious families on the city’s ancient history.
The conflict between the “original” Romans and Sabines blocked the election of a new ruler. Each party had an equal share of the Senate and each vigorously opposed the idea that a new king would be selected from the ranks of the other. The “original” senators didn’t want to be ruled by any of the “immigrants” and the Sabines argued that (after the death of Tatius), they had already accepted Romulus as a sole king form the opposing faction and now it was their turn to have a king from their ranks. Nevertheless, the city needed a ruler and the stalemate had to be overcome. The senators were able to agree at least on a temporary solution based on a rotation of the right to rule.
The Senate was divided to decuriae, groups of ten senators. One of them was selected by chance to rule first and others followed. The ten men of the ruling decuria did not do it together, but even among them, the absolute rule rotated. Each man held the power and the insignia of a king for a mere five days and then passed them to another senator.
Plutarch states that the rotation was even more rapid and one temporary king was in office only for 12 hours (6 during the daytime, 6 during the nighttime).
In any case, this must have been a huge change for the Roman people. They severely lacked stability. While Romulus reigned for 37 years, now they had a new ruler every 5 days. None of those new rulers was a son of Mars-like Romulus or connected to other deities, each of them enforced different policies and had different visions of the state’s future. In about a year it became clear that this chaos was not a long-term solution and a new stable ruler had to be elected.
There are several versions of how the elections happened. Livius claims that the Senators entrusted the people with the right to elect a new king and then just reserved a right to confirm this selection. Dionysius describes a more complicated process. In his version, the election was kept in the Senate and the two factions made an agreement. While neither of those two factions wanted to forgo its influence, they came up with a compromise solution where both had an impact. One faction gained the right to elect the new king, but only from the ranks of the other faction and not one of their own. This process would ensure the neutrality of the elected king. The “original Romans” were the ones who did the choosing part. They didn’t select anyone from the Sabine senators but found a man in the Sabine city of Cures (the birthplace of the former king Titus Tatius) famous for his justice, wisdom, and piety. His name was Numa Pompilius. The people, happy with this choice, accepted their new king quickly.
Only one small problem now occurred – the man who was chosen to rule after so much effort and such a lengthy and difficult process was not really keen on reigning at all. When a delegation from Rome approached him, he humbly refused. It required much much persuasion from his father and brothers with arguments about honour too great to refuse, but in the end, Numa finally agreed and became the king of Rome.
Livy – Ad Urbe Condita Libri
Dionysius of Halicarnassus – The Roman Antiquities
Plutarch – Parallel Lives
T. P. Wiseman – The Wife and Children of Romulus; The Classical Quarterly, Vol. 33, No. 2