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Lucius Junius Brutus

The so-called Brutus. First century BCE. Musei Capitolini, Roma (Italy). Photo Jona Lendering.
The so-called Brutus, a bust from the second or first century BCE, long believed to be the founder of the Roman republic but in fact an ancestor of the emperor Augustus
Lucius Junius Brutus: the legendary founder of the Roman republic.

In the last quarter of the sixth century BCE, Rome was ruled by king Lucius Tarquinius Superbus or Tarquin the Proud, a descendant from an Etruscan family. His kingdom was one of the most powerful in Italy: its capital had some 35,000 inhabitants, its territory was some 800 square kilometers, and its zone of influence stretched as far as Circeii and Terracina - 90 kilometers to the southeast. The Latin cities recognized Roman leadership, and Tarquin added several towns to his kingdom.

His domestic policy, however, was not so happy. The heads of Rome's noble families had always been invited to give advise to the king; their meeting was called the Senate. It seems that Tarquin behaved like an autocrat and did not consult the senators, who felt ignored. The king's surname Superbus means something like 'the haughty one' or 'the Proud'.

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P. Valerius Publicola
Family tree of the Roman royal family (the Tarquins) and their successors Brutus and Collatinus. Design Jona Lendering.
The drop that made the cup run over, was a scandal in the royal family. Tarquin's son Sextus raped a Roman noblewoman, Lucretia, the wife of Lucius Tarquinius Collatinus, who was distantly related to the royal family. If we are to believe the unanimous Roman tradition, this caused one cousins, Lucius Junius Brutus, to launch an insurrection against the royal family. The Tarquinians were expelled from the city and the Roman republic was founded. According to the Roman scholar Varro, this happened in 509 BCE, but there are strong indications that it happened, in fact, some four years later. (The Varronian chronology is discussed here.)

Lorenzo Quilici's model of archaic Rome, Museo della civiltą romana, Rome (Italy).
Model of archaic Rome
(Museo nazionale della 
civiltą romana
, Roma; ©**)

The story about Lucretia is not implausible, although it has been elaborated. According to the historian Titus Livy (59 BCE - 17 CE), king Tarquin was besieging Ardea, a Latin town, and several noblemen were discussing the virtues of their wives. They decided to visit them unexpectedly and see if they were as virtuous as they thought. So they returned to Rome and discovered that only one woman behaved as expected, Lucretia. Livy does not tell what the men were discussing when they went back to the siege of Ardea.

Having seen Lucretia's qualities, prince Sextus fell in love, returned to Rome, forced her to have intercourse with him and went away. In a state of shock, Lucretia sent a message to her husband, who arrived immediately, accompanied with some friends. She told Collatinus what had happened, and before they understood completely what she was doing, she had stabbed herself with a knife and died. At that moment Brutus, who was among Collatinus' friends, swore that he would overthrow the monarchy. So, he and Collatinus became the first consuls of the Roman republic, the two magistrates who executed the decisions of the Senate.

Lucretia's theatrical suicide strongly suggests that this story is ultimately derived from a fabula praetextata, a tragedy inspired by an event from Roman history.  We know that the playwright Accius (170-c.85) wrote a very popular Brutus, which treated the rape of Lucretia, her death and the beginning of the republic. There must have been similar plays.


Map of Latium at the beginning of the Republic. Design Jona Lendering.

Nonetheless, it is very likely that the rape of Lucretia was the immediate cause of the expulsion of the Tarquinius family. Tarquin was not the first and would not be the last ruler who run into difficulties after a sex scandal. Besides, there is nothing inherently implausible in Livy's account, which, if we ignore the romantic coloring, boils down to this: the royal family has caused people to talk, and two other branches of the family seize power.

What is less convincing, is that Brutus and Collatinus established a republic. Of course it is certain that at a later stage in history, the Romans elected every year two consuls, who were responsible to the Senate. But a constitution is not screwed together on a late afternoon - it is something that grows slowly. Fortunately, Livy's account leaves enough clues to establish what may have happened in reality.

To start with, Livy tells us that Brutus summoned Collatinus to lay down his powers. After all, his full name was Lucius Tarquinius Collatinus, and Brutus invited him to liberate the Romans from this hated name now that he had liberated them from the hated king. Livy continues:

At first Collatinus was struck dumb with astonishment at this extraordinary request; then, when he was beginning to speak, the foremost men in the commonwealth gathered round him and repeatedly urged the same plea, but with little success. It was not till Spurius Lucretius, his superior in age and rank, and also his father-in-law, began to use every method of entreaty and persuasion that he yielded to the universal wish. The consul, fearing that after his year of office had expired and he returned to private life, the same demand should be made upon him, accompanied with loss of property and the ignominy of banishment, formally laid down the consulship, and after transferring all his possessions to [the Latin town of] Lanuvium, withdrew from the state. A decree of the Senate empowered Brutus to propose to the people a measure exiling all the members of the house of Tarquinius. Then he conducted the election of a new consul, and the people elected as his colleague Publius Valerius, who had acted with him in the expulsion of the royal family.
[Livy, 2.2.8-11;
tr. Rev. Canon Roberts]
This is a strange story. After all, Brutus was closer related to the king than Collatinus. It is more likely that he wanted to be the sole ruler of Rome, unless we accept that the name was more hateful than the family, and believe that the principle of collegial rule was already established. Perhaps it is better to be suspicious and assume that Publius Valerius was not Brutus' colleague, but his right-hand man or an influential senator who had helped Brutus becoming sole ruler.

There is another indication that Brutus in reality wanted to be king. Livy tells that several years before he was expelled, king Tarquin sent his sons Arruns and Titus to Delphi to consult the god Apollo about the building of a temple. Their cousin was with them.

After executing their father's commission the young men were desirous of ascertaining to which of them the kingdom of Rome would come. A voice came from the lowest depths of the cavern: 'Whichever of you, young men, shall be the first to kiss his mother, he shall hold supreme sway in Rome.' Sextus had remained behind in Rome and to keep him in ignorance of this oracle and so deprive him of any chance of coming to the throne, the two princes insisted upon absolute silence being kept on the subject. They drew lots to decide which of them should be the first to kiss his mother. On their return to Rome, Brutus, thinking that the oracular utterance had another meaning, pretended to stumble, and as he fell kissed the ground, for the earth is of course the common mother of us all.
[Livy 1.56.10-12;
tr. Rev. Canon Roberts]
In this prophecy, it is assumed that Brutus held 'supreme sway in Rome' - in other words, he did not share his power.

The royal drama received a sequel when the expelled king tried to raise a rebellion against Brutus. However, the plot was discovered by a slave, and Brutus executed the conspirators. Among them were his family-in-law and his sons Titus and Tiberius. After this, he ordered the impoundage of the possessions of the Tarquinius family.

It is possible that the royal palace, which was situated between the Roman Forum and the Velia (a hill), was burnt down in these days: archaeologists have that a fiery destruction took place at the end of the sixth century. (Livy mentions construction activities in the neighborhood: 2.7.6.) Likewise, the sanctuary near the modern church of Sant' Omobono, which seems to have played a role in the royal propaganda, was destroyed at the closing of the sixth century. It is tempting to connect the destruction with the confiscation of the royal goods.

Maybe Brutus benefited from the seizure of the possessions of the Tarquinians. In any case, he did not enjoy them for very long, because he fell in combat in a successful attempt to prevent Tarquin from reconquering the city he had lost.

After this battle, Valerius was sole ruler, and he seems to have tried to become king. As we have already noted, there were construction activities in the royal palace, and he seems to have been forced to accept a colleague. He chose the old Spurius Lucretius Tricipitinus, the father of Lucretia, who died not much later. We may assume that Valerius accepted him as colleague because he was not dangerous. Lucretius was succeeded by Marcus Horatius Pulvillus, and again we hear about tensions between the two rulers (Livy 2.8.6-8). However, Valerius had accepted colleagues, and may well have been the real inventor of the principle of collegial rule. We will discuss the career of this man, who was called 'Friend of the people', here.





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