Turnus Herdonius vs Tarquinius Superbus – The Roman Leadership in the Latin League

During the reign of the legendary last Roman king Lucius Tarquinius Superbus (Tarquin “the Proud”/”the Arrogant”), the Romans focused their diplomacy on establishing a close alliance with the Latins, people living in the areas south of Rome. The Roman were Latins themselves and the Latin people had close cultural connections to them, after all, they spoke the same language. Historians like Livy and Dionysius describe an interesting incident that stood at the beginning of the Roman hegemony among the Latin cities in an alliance sometimes called the Latin League.

The accounts of Roman historians writing about the early history of their city are not something one should take literally. The Romans started writing about their history centuries after these events took place and the collective memory was very blurred by that time. Nevertheless, in this case, they tell a story that, even in case it is not historical, remains noteworthy.

The myths of the Roman origins include the Latins and have them playing a huge role in the events that led to the birth of Rome. When the Trojans led by Aeneas landed in Italy, they merged with a local tribe “Aborigines” led by king Latinus and the new tribe was known as the Latins. They considered Alba Longa as a centre of the region. It was in Alba Longa, where Romulus and Remus were born. In the reign of the Roman king Tullus Hostilius a war broke out between Alba Longa and Roma and when the Romans emerged victoriously, Alba was abandoned, and its populace was transferred to Rome. Yet, the Latins did not accept automatically the leadership of Rome and waged wars against Rome in the following decades.

Tarquinius Superbus saw the hegemony of Rome among the Latins as inevitable. His predecessor Servius Tullius built a temple of Diana on the Aventine hill (at the time most likely just outside of the Roman city walls) for all Latins to worship and to ensure the peaceful coexistence of Romans and Latins. Tarquinius Superbus wanted to go one step further and agree on a treaty. He invited the leaders of all independent Latin cities for discussion. Surprisingly, when they all came, he failed to show up. The day almost passed and when Tarquinius was nowhere to be found, Turnus Herdonius from the Latin city of Aricia addressed the participants of the assembly. According to one version of the story (written down by Dionysius of Halicarnassus), Turnus had a history with Tarquinius. The Roman king had rejected his proposal to marry the king’s daughter and preferred another Latin noble – Octavius Mamilius from Tusculum. Mamilius traced his origins back to Odysseus and Circe (from Homer’s Odyssey), while Turnus could hardly trace his family origins back five generations. This business left Turnus with understandably hostile feelings towards the Roman king.

Turnus criticized Tarquinius for this impudence. He accused the Roman king of the lack of respect and ambitions to unjustly rule all the Latins. He didn’t hesitate to point out that Tarquinius has already unjustly seized the power in Rome, to the harm of the Roman citizens, and is now trying to do the same with the Latins. It was not without a cause, he said, that Tarquinius is already called “the Arrogant” in his city. The Latins would do best if they refused to trust that man, after all, Tarquinius is not a Latin, but his family came from Etruria and even from Greece. Turnus suggested to dissolve the assembly and go home, but before any action was taken, his speech was interrupted.

Tarquinius finally appeared. He claimed to have been delayed by a dispute he was asked to settle. When he got into more detail and mentioned that the dispute was between a father and son, Turnus once again stepped in. “No dispute is more easily settled than one between a father and his son.”, he claimed, “The son must be told to obey his father!”.  I guess I don’t have to remind you that this was patriarchal society at its peak.

Tarquinius was furious. To question his authority in this way was unprecedented. The Roman king had a temper and immediately planned his revenge. Turnus was a noble and a guest, so an ordinary public execution remained out of the question. It was necessary to take a different approach and fabricate an accusation believable to the other Latin leaders and punishable by death. The Roman king postponed the assembly to the next morning and used the night to carry out his plan. He bribed one of Turnus’ slaves and had him bring and hide weapons in Turnus’ room. Then, before sunrise, Tarquinius called the main Latin leaders to his chambers and told them about a conspiracy led by Turnus. He claimed that Turnus Herdonius planned to kill all of them and Tarquinius’ delay actually saved their lives because Turnus didn’t want to start the violence without the Roman king as a victim. The Latin leaders listened in amazement and didn’t know what to believe. They demanded some proof to back up the wild accusations. Tarquinius happily complied and seemingly on the spot came up with an idea to enter Turnus’ room and seek weapons.

To the amazement of the Latins, and even bigger amazement of Turnus himself, a large number of weapons was indeed found in his room. At this point all his defense was futile, he was executed (by drowning) on the very same morning.

The assembly was much friendlier towards Tarquinius than the day before. The Roman king made sure to publicly praise all the Latin leaders who helped him to uncover the dangerous criminal among them. He went on to point out that the city of Alba Longa had been the leader of all Latins before it was destroyed and Rome (as the victor over Alba) now has a similar right. Nevertheless, he proposed a new treaty to be agreed by all, to avoid unnecessary conflicts. The treaty was easily approved by all. The Latin leaders were keen to side with their friend who had just saved their lives and the rest of the Latins agreed, taking into consideration that the one man who had been brave enough to oppose Tarquinius, was dead not even one day later.


  • Livy – Ad Urbe Condita Libri
  • Dionysius of Halicarnassus – The Roman Antiquities
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