Lucius Tarquinius Superbus

Lucius Tarquinius Superbus (also called Tarquin the Proud or Tarquin II) was the last of the seven legendary kings of Rome, son of Tarquinius Priscus and son-in-law of Servius Tullius, the sixth king. He was of Etruscan descent and ruled between 535 BC and 510 BC, in the years immediately before his expulsion and the founding of the Roman Republic.

Early life

Some early stories tell us that Tarquin seized power over Latium after the brutal death of Servius Tullius. It has been said that Tarquin was upset that he did not inherit the throne from his father, and also that his predecessor, Servius Tullius, was the son of a slave. Other stories argue that Tarquin's wife was central in the planning and eventual death of her father, the king. It is apparent that both were involved in the shaming and removing of Tullius from his position.

After the removal of Servius Tullius, Tarquin, with his wife's help, summoned the Senate and proclaimed himself to be king of Rome. The new king (or his wife) had assassins complete the coup by murdering Tullius. After which, it is said that Tarquin's wife came across her father's body and continually ran over it with her chariot. To further his grip on power, Tarquin orchestrated the murders of key senators who supported Tullius and proceeded at once to repeal the recent reforms in the constitution, seeking to establish a pure despotism in their place. Wars were waged with the Latins and Etruscans, but the lower classes were deprived of their arms and employed in erecting monuments of regal magnificence (and some important public works, such as the Cloaca Maxima), while the sovereign recruited his armies from his own retainers and from the forces of foreign allies.


When king Tarquin was approached by the Cumaean Sibyl, she offered him nine books of prophecy at an exorbitant price.

Tarquin refused abruptly, and the Sibyl proceeded to burn three of the nine. She then offered him the remaining books, but at the same price. Tarquin hesitated, but refused again. The Sibyl then burned three more books and again offered Tarquin the three remaining Sibylline Books at the original price. At last Tarquin accepted.

The three books were consulted at many portentous moments in later Roman history, though they were edited and changed many times to agree with the appropriate epoch of Roman history. For example, when Hannibal decimated the Roman Legions at the Battle of Cannae, the books were consulted and recommended that two Gauls and two Greeks be buried alive in the city's marketplace. The magistrates duly followed the advice, showing a traditional willingness to commit atrocities to ensure the well-being of their nation.

Tarquin's authority over the city was confirmed by three actions:
#his leveling of the top of the Tarpeian Rock that overlooked the Forum and the removal of its ancient Sabine shrines
#the completion of the fortress temple to Jupiter on the nearby Capitoline Hill
#the fortunate marriage of his son to the daughter of Octavius Mamilius of Tusculum, an alliance that secured him powerful assistance in the field


Tarquin's reign was characterised by bloodshed and violence; his son Sextus Tarquinius' rape of Lucretia laid the seeds for the revolt, led by Lucretia's kinsman Lucius Junius Brutus (himself a member of the Tarquin dynasty) and Lucretia's widowed husband. The uprising resulted in the expulsion of most of the royal family, after Tarquin had reigned for twenty-five years, and Brutus became one of the first consuls of the Roman Republic.

After his exile, Tarquin attempted to gain the support of other Etruscan and Latin kings, claiming that the republicanism would spread beyond Rome. Even though the powerful Etruscan lord Lars Porsenna of Clusium (modern Chiusi) backed Tarquin's return, all efforts to force his way back to the throne were in vain. Tarquin died in exile at Cumae in Campania in 496 BC. Tarquin's death ended the time of the Kings; the Roman people would no longer trust sole power in one ruler and so a Republic was formed.

Cultural references

* Lucius Tarquinius appears as the villain in Shakespeare's narrative poem, "The Rape of Lucrece" (1593-4). Macbeth also mentions Tarquin in his famous dagger soliloquy (2.1.55).
* A quote concerning Tarquinius and a message delivered to his son appears in the beginning of Kierkegaard's "Fear and Trembling".
* According to Livy, Tarqinius cut off the heads of the tallest poppies in his garden as an allegory to instruct his son Sextus Tarquinius to pacify a recently-conquered enemy city by executing its leading citizens. This leads to the modern expression of "Tall Poppy Syndrome" to describe the phenomenon of tearing down individuals who rise too far above the majority.
*Patrick Henry refers to Tarquin in his famous speech ending, "If this be treason, then make the most of it."



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