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Though marked as probably being a true historical figure, unlike the mythic legend of Rome’s purported founder and first King Romulus, Livys account of the last Tarquin, Superbus’ reign and deposal is questionable for a number of reasons.


Livy was writing of a time far before his own existence and the records of it are incomplete and not possible to be trusted as true historical documentation, because of this Livys history appears to be made up of stories that work as moral vignettes which he uses to demonstrate to the Roman people the correct and proper order of life. These are themselves modeled on a Greek mythic tradition casting further doubt on their truthfulness as historical documents. Livys own life experience informs his work to the degree that he looks back on the 100 years of civil war that his country has just come out of and uses his retelling of the regal period in Rome to support his own contemporary pro-senatorial views.


Livy himself admits in the preface of his work that “these matters are enveloped in obscurity both by reason of their great antiquity…and also because written records…were…few and scanty.”(Livy, 6.1) His honesty about this and the fact that there were no written records of Rome’s history before about 00BC(Wiseman,16 pp.11) marks his entire work as questionable but there are clearer instances of fabrication and cause for doubt among the many tales he weaves. His book one was probably published at about 7BC and the Roman way of life was still unsettled due to the many civil wars the people had experienced as different members of the ruling elite fought for control of the senate and by extension the state. Livy had been witness to this but also saw the stabilizing effect of Augustus’ (then Octavian) triumph over Marcus Antonius at the Battle of Actium in 1 BC. And his subsequent establishment in the principate. Despite his solitary rule over the Empire Augustus refused to accept the title of Rex (or King) as the odium that attached itself to that title was still felt by the Roman people after the rule of the last Tarquins over 400 years earlier.


Livys unfavourable description of Tarquinius Superbus, as compared to the treatment of earlier kings works to justify Roman behaviour, much like the demonizing of Hannibal in his later books, (Livy 4.10) in reaction to a foreign threat. Livy recreates a political system that can be


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contrasted with the Republic; he repudiates the Kingship in order to glorify the libertas that the Romans hold dear. In order to do this he completely vilifies the last King of Rome so that the end of the Regal period justifies the cause of the Roman people in their expulsion of a sole tyrant as this legitimizes their later actions in regard to the killing of their own dictator, Gaius Julius Caesar. Livy indicts the King as a foreign villainous tyrant when describing Superbus; “…he finally resorted to the policy, so unlike a Roman, of deceit and trickery,” (Livy, 1.5) in order to further ratify the actions of the Roman senate in deposing him.


Livys writing, rather than trying to illuminate the past in a well researched historical manner, took on the form of moralizing, and he uses the myth that surrounds the last Tarquin to comment upon the Roman state and life in his own time. Livy states in his own preface to the books, “behold the lessons of every kind of experience set forth”,(Livy, Preface.10) the supposed deeds of their forbears are used to provide guidance for his own time and this in itself casts doubt upon his work as a true historical account. The reshaping of history to impart moral clarity to the reader means that the said history has become a palimpsest onto which values and a moral coda far removed from the times he writes on will have been impressed upon it. An example of this is the inclusion of the line “Unless you obey your father it will be worse for you,”(Livy, 1.50) this kind of moralising speech upholds values of Livys contemporaries in which the paterfamilias as head of the family is the person that should ultimately be obeyed. The words are attributed to an Arrician chieftain but reflect the social situation embedded in Republican Rome. Feldherr describes this as the “…socially useful function of the negative exemplum, defining by contrast the proper conception of the res publica.”(Feldherr,18)


Livys recreation of the story of Lars Porsenna’s turning away from Rome at the site of Roman heroism in order to imbue their own history with that of the Greek heroic tradition and to effect a decisive ejection of Etruscan rule from Rome, uncomplicated by Porsenna’s later possible takeover of the city. The conclusions Livy comes to about the sequence of events that leads to the downfall of Tarquinius Superbus has been questioned by scholars


who especially note that the subsequent expulsion of all the Etruscan elite does not match with archeological evidence that suggests that luxurious Etruscan items can be dated in Rome for at least another 50 years after the date of 50BC that Livy gives for the end of


the regal period in Rome. The Romans post-dated their history in order to keep in line with Greek history, for it was in that year that the Athenians expelled the tyrant Gelon from their own city and founded the political system of popular rule by the people now known as


‘democracy’. It seems that Livy has constructed the events in order to match Roman history with that of the cultural power they wished to emulate.


The emulation by Livy appears to extend to the transference of the Greek historical and literary values onto early Roman history, another point on which the veracity of his writing can be questioned. A tragic literary element is inserted into the text with the inclusion of a mythic prophecy that is similar to the Greek myth of Oedipus and the foundation of his city upon the incestuous union he makes with his own mother Jocasta. Livys version recounts the prophecy, “the highest power at Rome shall be his, young men, who shall be first to kiss his mother”(Livy, 1.56) It is the application of a literary tradition to his history that casts doubt upon its ultimate truth as the literary is the realm of myth and legend, not true historical fact and Livy comments on his own source material that they are “…tales with more the charm of poetry than true historical record.”(Livy, Preface.6)


It appears that Livys own pro-senatorial bias leads him to debase the last King at the expense of true historical enquiry in order to present a positive view of the Senate and their privileged place in Roman society. Livy represents Superbus as the deviant in the line of Kings when contrasting him to past ones, “For this king was the first to break with the custom handed down by his predecessors of consulting the Senate on all occasions”(Livy, 1.4) His depiction of the acts of Lucius Junius Brutus appear to correlate too closely with those of Decimus Junius Brutus, the patrician who had led a group of his peers in the assassination of Julius Caesar. They did this in order to stop what they perceived as


Caesars inexorable march towards styling himself as ‘King’ of Rome. Livys use of the story of the rape of Lucretia and the former Brutus’ outrage as his impetus to stem the evil and tyrannical rule of the Tarquins seems to be suspiciously like a veiled attempt to


question the validity of Augustus’ right to sole rule of the Roman Empire, hence Brutus’ quote, “I will suffer neither them nor any other to be King in Rome,”(Livy, 1.60) but ostensibly is an attack on Julius Caesar.Livy’s account of the early history of Rome takes on the form of a literary rather than a historical tradition and because of this the Greek like tyranny of Tarquinius Superbus and the manner of his expulsion from Rome is questionable as it serves to illuminate a moral perspective rather than a historical one.





Ancient Sources


Livy 1.46 � 60 (on Tarquin the Proud)


D. Kagan (ed.), Problems in Ancient History, Vol. The Roman World, nd edn., London Macmillan, 175, pp. 1-1.


Modern Writers


T. Cornell, The Beginnings of Rome Italy and Rome from the Bronze age to the Punic Wars (c. 1000 � 64BC), London and New York Routledge, 15, pp. 48 � 80.


A. Feldherr, Spectacle and Society in Livy’s History, Berkeley University of California Press, 18, pp. 187 � 0.


M. Goodman, The Roman World (44BC � AD180), London and New York Routledge,17, pp. 8 � 47.


H. Scullard, A History of the Roman World 75 to 146 BC, 4th edn., London and New York Methuen, 180, pp. 4 � 77.


T.P Wiseman, ‘What do we know about early Rome?’, review of T.J. Cornell, ‘The Beginnings of Rome Italy and Rome from the Bronze Age to the Punic Wars (c. 1000 � 64 BC), in JRA (Journal of Roman Archeology) (16), pp. 10-15.


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