Titus Tatius – the forgotten Roman king

You will often hear stories about the legendary seven kings of Rome, from Romulus, the founder of the city, to Tarquinius Superbus, the tyrant overthrown by Brutus after his son raped the virtuous Lucretia. In that well-established list of kings, one name tends to be missing. The name is “Titus Tatius”. While his historicity is just as unlikely as that of Romulus and other mythical kings, this myth deserves some attention.

After the abduction of virgins from the neighbouring cities that entered the history books as “The Rape of the Sabine Women”, Rome waged war against the Sabines, the tribe of the majority of the seized women. After this war ended the people mixed and Titus Tatius was proclaimed king of Rome alongside Romulus. They ruled together until Tatius’ death, yet while Romulus is celebrated widely, Tatius is almost forgotten. What do we know about the legend of Titus Tatius and what kind of contribution did he make to the future greatness of the city?

In War Against the Romans

Not much is known about the early years of Titus Tatius, with the exception of the fact that he was Sabine. Sabines were an Italic tribe living in the mountains of central Italy. According to some legends (mentioned by Dionysius of Halicarnassus), they originally had a connection to the famous Greek city of Sparta. Plutarch even claimes they were a colony of Sparta. Their greatest city at the time was called Cures and Titus Tatius happened to be the king of that city. It was hardly a surprise when the Sabines elected him to lead them.

After the abduction of the virgins, the Sabines hesitated for a while, not declaring war on Rome immediately. Three other cities (Ceanina, Antemnae, and Crustumerium) wanted to attack Rome right away and turned to Sabines for their leadership, but were turned down. The cities attacked on their own and were defeated soon after. Sabines asked nicely first – they sent an envoy to Rome who demanded the return of their women. Not surprisingly, the Romans rejected. Now the Sabines assembled their army and marched to Rome.

Romulus awaited the enemy and strengthened the Roman army as much as he could. Alba Longa, a city still ruled by his grandfather Numitor, sent help and a considerable number of Etruscan mercenaries arrived, led by a guy called Lucumo. Moreover, the Romans made sure the fortifications are strong enough to hold the enemy. A cruel and bloody fight was to be expected.

In this situation, a stroke of unpredicted luck helped the Sabines to take the Roman fortress on the Capitoline hill. A Roman girl called Tarpeia offered her help and promised to open the gate of the fortress. She demanded a reward – everything the Sabines wore on their left hands. She knew the Sabines had a habit of wearing beautiful gold bracelets on their left hands. While she kept her word and opened the gates as promised, Titus Tatius came up with a rather unorthodox way to keep his part of the agreement. The Sabines, having just attacked the fortress, had shields in their left hands. Tatius threw not his bracelet, but his shield towards the poor girl, did it with his full strength and his men followed. Under that pile of shields, Tarpeia’s life ended.

After both armies secured their positions, skirmishes and larger scale battles began to occur. The fate of the war still remained undecided. In one of the largest battles, Tatius’ forces were on the verge of defeat. Both wings of the Sabine formation were forced to retreat by superior Roman troops led by Romulus himself and an Etruscan mercenary captain Lucumo. All would have been lost, if not for the heroics of the Sabine soldier Mettius Curtius. Curtius held the centre of the line and managed to secure the Sabine retreat in an orderly fashion without chaos and bloodshed that would effectively end the war. He saved his own life swimming through the water in the location later occupied by the Forum Romanum. The fortune changed once more when Romulus, eager to attack the fort on the Capitoline hill while his enemy was weakened, got wounded by a stone. The Sabines formed a counterattack and drove the Romans back. This wasn’t enough to get behind the city walls, though. The defenders made sure that none of the enemies could enter the city and the whole long fight remained undecided.

With no hope for a speedy solution, the war seemed to go on for an uncomfortably long time that would irritate both sides. Peace talks were desired, but none of the sides was really willing to let the other to decide upon the future of the abducted women. Tatius knew he couldn’t return home empty-handed, but also that a long and bloody war was hardly a better alternative. He must have been very surprised when Roman envoys stood in front of him. Don’t get me wrong here, the surprising fact is not the existence of the diplomatic delegation, but its composition. For it was not a delegation of honourable Roman men, but of the abducted Sabine women! Their leader, a woman called Hersilia, made a strong case about the importance of avoiding bloodshed between their fathers and brothers on one side and newly found husbands on the other. According to Livy, the women didn’t even wait to approach the fighting sides in some quiet time but rushed among the fighting men in the midst of the ongoing battle. Either way, they begged both sides for peace and Romulus with Tatius were happy to comply.

A peace treaty was finally agreed between the Romans and the Sabines, effectively joining the two nations. Sabines were invited to live in Rome and Tatius was offered a position of a Roman king. This doesn’t mean that Romulus would step down, or that Tatius would be just some kind of a junior partner. It meant that Titus Tatius would become a king with power and honours equal to that of Romulus. He decided to accept and some part of the Sabine people stayed with him in Rome and merged with the Roman nation. The Sabine military commanders returned home, with the exception of three (Mettius Curtius, Volusus Valerius, and Tallus) who stayed in Rome with Tatius.

King of Rome

Titus Tatius built a palace on the Capitoline hill as his new residence and spent his time overseeing the assimilation of his people with the original Romans. He ruled together with Romulus in great harmony. They even waged war against the inhabitants of Cameria (coincidentally also a colony of Alba Longa, just as Rome), defeating them and expanding Rome by another 4000 new inhabitants.

The joint reign of Romulus and Titus Tatius lasted five full years. In the sixth year, however, trouble started. Some friends of Tatius raided a territory belonging to a town called Lavinium. They robbed the Lavinian citizens and stole cattle from them. Lavinians demanded justice be done swiftly and came to Rome to ensure the guilty robbers would be punished. While Romulus didn’t intend to obstruct the wheels of justice, Tatius strictly forbade any Roman citizens to be taken into custody and transferred to Lavinium. Not only did the Lavinians leave empty-handed but on their way back to their mother city they were assaulted, robbed and many of them even killed. Romulus once again pushed for justice and ordered the man guilty of this violence to be led to Lavinium for punishment. Tatius once again disagreed and made sure that the prisoners were freed before they reached Lavinium. 

But Lavinium was not just an ordinary town. The town was historically closely connected to Rome as it was founded by Aeneas according to tradition. The connection transcended to the religious life. Roman kings were asked to perform sacrifices there. As one could imagine, this was not the best time for Tatius to visit Lavinium. Nonetheless, he did so to perform the required sacrifice. Such an opportunity for revenge would not be missed by the friends and relatives of the dead ambassadors. They assaulted him right at the altar and killed him on the spot. His body was later buried on the Aventine hill in Rome.

While the story I described comes from the books by Dionysius of Halicarnassus, other historians (namely Plutarch and Livy) substitute Lavinium’s role in the story partially by Laurentum, another near town, also connected historically to Roman origins (it was the town of king Latinus, the father in law of Aeneas). They claim the victims of the original robbery and the ambassadors were from Laurentum, but agree with Dionysius that Titus Tatius died in Lavinium.

Anyway, Romulus just had to respond to these events. He might have disagreed with Tatius on the matter of Lavinium, but the man that was assassinated had been a king of Rome! He demanded the Lavinian assassins stand trial in Rome which they did. He patiently listened to their arguments and finally came up with a verdict  – “not guilty”. He acknowledged the just cause they had for the deed and freed them.

To sum the result of the events up – Titus Tatius was dead, the murderers freed and Romulus was once again the sole king of Rome. I don’t want to start a conspiracy theory, but if that was Romulus’ goal from the beginning, he couldn’t have done it better.


Dionysius of Halicarnassus – The Roman Antiquities

Plutarch – The Parallel Lives, Life of Numa, Life of Romulus

Livy: Ab Urbe Condita Libri

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