There are not many women mentioned in the legendary histories of Rome’s kingdom period. While Rome was always a strongly patriarchal society, with much emphasis on manly virtues (“virtus”), the woman’s role was clearly different. They are celebrated for their chastity, their family values, but not for being shrewd politicians or mighty warriors. They simply weren’t given a chance to act in these roles. The most famous heroines of those times are the tragic ones (like Lucretia, who killed herself after being raped), or the ones who succeeded in the pursuit of a goal appropriate for their sex (think of Hersilia who stopped the fight between Romans and Sabines and brought peace to her relatives on both sides of the war).
Yet, there is one woman who stands out. A woman who was driven by her selfish ambitions, not a desire to make Rome a great city. A woman who didn’t hesitate to use intrigue when necessary. Her name is Tanaquil. She played a crucial part in the careers of not just one, but two men who became kings of Rome.
KING NO. 1 – TARQUINIUS PRISCUS
Tanaquil was born to a noble Etruscan family in a mighty Etruscan city of Tarquinii (a.k.a. Tarchuna). The place is nowadays called Tarquinia and you can get there from Rome by car in an hour and a half. You can still see the remains of an Etruscan necropolis there – the tombs stand witness to the past importance of the city.
The first step in a career of female grey eminence is finding a suitable husband. Tanaquil found a rich one. His name was Lucumo and he came from a Greek family. His dad, a rich merchant Demaratus, had moved to Etruria from Corinth, Greece. He amassed huge profits by selling Greek cargo to Etruscans and Etruscan cargo to Greeks. Demaratus had two sons – Lucumo and Arruns. In a short time period, death struck the family twice. Arruns died first and Demaratus soon after him, leaving Lucumo the only heir of the family fortune. It turned out that Arruns’ wife was pregnant at the time, but Dematarus had not known this and couldn’t have included this child in his will. When a boy was finally born, he received nothing from the inheritance and Lucumo, Tanaquil’s husband had a huge fortune at his disposal.
Despite all the money, the couple found it hard to reach a status they wished. Power didn’t come easily. Lucumo’s foreign origin proved to be a major obstacle. The citizens of Tarquinii were suspicious towards immigrants and resented the idea to promote them to higher magistracies. Tanaquil saw this as a dead-end and decided they needed a fresh start in a city more open to foreigners. The ideal place to pursue their “American dream” was Rome.
Why Rome? It was still a young city. Only slightly more than a hundred years had passed since it’s founding by Romulus. Its population had come there from various places. Several non-Romans had even reached the very top position in politics, the king’s throne – kings Titus Tatius and Numa Pompilius were Sabines. All this convinced Tanaquil to move to Rome and her husband didn’t object.
A funny thing happened on the way to the forum though. When they were getting close to the city an eagle stole a cap directly from Lucumo’s head. The bird soared for a while and screamed and then calmly returned it to Lucumo’s head again. Tanaquin immediately recognized a prophecy in this – the gods chose her husband for greatness. Delighted with the beginning of their new life they settled down in Rome and purchased property there. Lucumo changed his name in a Roman style to “Lucius Tarquinius” (he is commonly called “Tarquinius Priscus”, Tarquin the Elder, to differentiate him from a later king Tarquinius) and, with the help of his wife, immediately began climbing the social ladder.
Tarquinius used his wealth to gain new friends. Tanaquil’s personal charm and hospitality made their home a popular meeting place for important Romans and it soon became apparent that they didn’t make a mistake moving there. The money made them popular enough, especially after they made the surplus of their funds available for the Roman state. Tarquinius simply approached the Roman leaders and offered them money for public expenses from his own pockets (or probably his own treasure chests). Needless to say, this must have had a hugely positive impact on his public image.
Tarquinius soon had the opportunity to prove himself in battles against Sabines, Latins and even Etruscans from Veii and became the most trusted general of the Roman king Ancus Marcius and his commander of the horse. The king found a friend in Tarquinius and kept granting him new honours – Tanaquil’s husband was soon officially a patrician and not much later a Roman senator. Moreover, the king trusted him so much he asked him to take care of his children after his death.
Of all those titles the last one was the most important. King Ancus Marcius died and his two sons were approaching the age when they could be considered for succession. Tarquinius and Tanaquil knew they couldn’t let that happen. Their chance to seize power has just come. Tarquinius made sure to send the boys out hunting and, in their absence, organized an election. He first stood up and made a strong case for himself as the obvious best choice for the position of the king. Indeed, the Romans unanimously voted for him and proclaimed him king.
His reign can be deemed successful. He initiated military reforms (strengthening the role of cavalry) and celebrated victories, he built the legendary venue of Roman chariot racing – the Circus Maximus and continued to make Rome a bit more powerful again. However, he remembered to also work on securing his own position. He increased the number of senators by another hundred and rightfully expected these men to show their gratitude by supporting his decisions. Little did he know his demise would not come from the Senate, but from the almost forgotten sons of the former king Ancus.
KING NO. 2 – SERVIUS TULLIUS
The sons of the former king never forgot the injustice they had suffered. They felt entitled to rule as kings and didn’t like being tricked out of their right by Tarquinius. For a time, they seemed quite content. The new royal couple made sure they got everything they needed for a lazy life in luxury. Moreover, Tarquinius was no longer a young man and they counted with their succession once he passed away. This hope of theirs, however, soon started to crack. The king had a new protégé and their position clearly declined.
This new protégé was called Servius Tullius and was a son of one of the queen’s slave woman. When the boy was still small, a miraculous flame appeared on his head. In Roman myths, this omen is surprisingly frequent (e.g. in Virgil’s Aeneid the same thing happened on the head of Aeneas’ young son). Tanaquil, as you already know, was skilled in reading the divine will from omens and predicted a great future for the child. Servius become the king’s favourite, accompanied the king in battle acting as general and soon also a member of the royal family when Tanaquil and Tarquinius married their daughter to him.
As you can imagine, Ancus’ sons hated seeing this. A son of a slave was being tutored to sit on the Roman throne in their stead. They realized they had to act decisively or completely forget about the throne. By “acting decisively” I mean a bloody murder. They could, of course, assassinate Servius, but it wouldn’t work that well. Tarquinius would surely just find another successor. Moreover, if it went wrong and they were found guilty, the king was powerful enough to punish them by death. On the other hand, if they managed to commit regicide and get rid of the old king himself, they could assume power immediately and Servius would pose a much smaller threat.
They paid two youths to pretend to have a quarrel. Those guys argued so heavily and aggressively that they were brought in front of the king for judgment. When one of them was colourfully describing his side of the imaginary argument, the other swung his axe in a mighty blow, so the weapon ended up in the king’s head. I am sure you can imagine what followed – blood and panic everywhere.
This was a moment for Tanaquil the queen, to show her quality. She didn’t panic. She just focused on her objective in those surprising circumstances – ensure the succession for Servius Tullius, not for the men responsible for her husband’s death. She immediately started to handle the situation. Her first orders were to carry the king into his chambers and sent for a medicine to cure him.
Just to be clear – at this point, there was absolutely 0% chance of the king’s recovery. The murderer’s axe was probably still stuck in his head. Nevertheless, Tanaquil managed to get the body transport out of the public eyes and even establish that there was a hope for recovery, which made it impossible for Ancus’ sons to assume power.
Subsequently, she issued an official statement admitting that the king was injured but claiming he was going to recover and take on his royal duties again in a short time. Meanwhile, Servius Tullius would act as his temporary replacement. Thus, Servius started to rule as a de facto king. He made most of his decisions himself, but from time to time pretended he needed a piece of advice from the old king and visited his chambers pretending to speak with him. He soon executed the murdered of Tarquinius, although officially not for murder. He also made sure to banish the Ancus’ sons. Only then, once his power was secured, he and Tanaquil officially announced Tarquinius’ death. Servius Tullius then continued to reign Rome for decades until he also met a violent end. Tanaquil however, could be proud to always having achieved what she wanted.
- Livy – Ad Urbe Condita Libri
- Cassius Dio – Roman History
- Dionysius of Halicarnassus – The Roman Antiquities