Rome’s Foundations and Etruscan Rule


Little is known of the early peoples inhabiting the Italian peninsula save what can be gleaned from archeology.  The theory currently holding sway is that there were two early migrations to Italy:

            1st Migration – Mediterranean peoples from Spain or Africa c. 5000-4000 B.C.

                        -Neolithic (mainly shepherds)

            2nd Migration – Across Alps c. 2500 B.C.

                        -Indo-Europeans (Linguistic Group)

            By around 2000 B.C. two distinct cultures had appeared in Italy. The Terramara (Black Earth) were an early bronze age culture around the Po river identifiable by their large communal cremation sites.  To the south a culture commonly called Apennine had developed which buried their dead.

            Circa 1000 B.C. Iron appears in Italy, possibly from trade.  By this point the northern culture has developed into to keep their cremated dead in little urns shaped like huts.  Hence we call this culture Villanovan.  They were marked elsewise by larger trading centers and possibly arrived in Italy via migration.

            Following this, the Etruscans begin to come into focus as forbearers of early Roman traditions.  They inhabited an area called Etruria (Modern Tuscany) located mainly betwixt the Tiber and Arno Rivers.  The Greeks called them Tyrrhenians giving that name to the Sea west of Italy.  Incidentally, their eastern port city of Hadria gave it’s name to the eastern see, the Hadriatic or, as we call it today, Adriatic Sea.  The Etruscans developed some of the first city-states in Italy, Caere, Tarquinni, Volci, Veii to name the more important ones.  These cities were ruled by kings called lucomo who held the fascis and were attended to by lictors.  The twelve main city-states sent representatives to meet at the religious capital of Voltumna wherein they elected a head king (this form of government is called amphictyony). 

The Etruscan language has yet to be deciphered, although it was a high enough culture that, before Rome encountered the Greek world, educated Roman boys studied it as children.  Albeit the language is as yet undeciphered, we have some good guesses about it worth mentioning: (1). It’s not of Indo-european stock, and (2). They called themselves Rasennas.  As to where they came from, ancient historians have told us two irreconcilable possibilities: (1). Herodotus (the older of the two) tells us that they descended from migrants from Lydia, (2) Dionysis said the Etruscans were indigenous.  Either possibility is supportable by evidence.  Perhaps it was both.

            The Etruscans had their golden age in the 7th and 6th centuries B.C.  They mined copper and iron and the Romans would later mine their slag piles.  In the late 6th century many of the lucomo were overthrown and replaced by oligarchies.

            Erstwhile we must concern ourselves with Italy’s neighbor to the East.  Early Greek culture appears around 3000 B.C. mainly in the form of pots.  The following cultures held sway in succession:

            3000-2000 B.C.  Cycladic or small island culture.

            2000-1500 B.C.  Minoan culture centered on Crete. Named after King Minos, owner of the legendary Minotaur (Man with bull head).  Saw it’s end about the time of the disaster of Atlantis, located on the island now called Thera.  That island (now islands) was actually a really big volcano that blew it’s top around 1450 B.C. and is still active today.  The Egyptians actually preserved this story for Plato to later discover on a trip to Eygpt.  The Minoan culture also developed several pictographic representations of their language which modern archeologists have entitled Linear A and Linear B.  Linear A has been deciphered and resembles an early form of Greek.  Linear B remains sadly undeciphered.

            1500-1100 B.C.  Mycenean or Helladic Culture centered on mainland Greece.  These are the guys that decided to attack Troy, a story which managed to survive into modern times as Homer’s Illiad.

            Around 1100 B.C. the Greeks were inundated by invasions of Doric peoples from the north.  Greece then fell into a 300 year dark age in which a great deal of Greek culture perished.  The written language is completely forgotten and will eventually be replaced by a modified form of the Phoenician alphabet.  The only indigenous history to survive are Homer’s works, albeit in a highly mythical and entertaining form.

Around 800 B.C. Greece emerged from the darkness, led by poli (the Greek version of a city-state) such as Athens, Sparta, Thebes, and Corinth.  At this point the Greeks began to have contact with Italy through trade.  They found the southern peninsula lush and heavily timbered.  This period of reawakening was followed by one of colonization.  In Italy, the city of Cumae was founded around 750 B.C. and later became the center of Italian trade.  Naxos and Syracuse were founded around 735 B.C. on the island of Sicily.  The Spartans founded Tarentum as a colony for bastard children.  Many of the colonies eventually became renowned in their own right.  Croton would become famous for it’s spas, medicine, and athletes, while Sybaris became a large commercial city and flaunted its wealth.  Eventually these cities followed in the other great Grecian traditions of city rivalries, warfare, and bloodshed.  Despite this southern Italy at this time acquired the title Magna Grecia, or greater Greece.   Both Pythagoras and Plato would make a point of traveling there.

Now beginth the history of Roma proper.  Unfortunately no one cared to write down the history as it was happening, so the mythical stories of Livy (Titus Livius) and Virgil are most of what we have to go on for the early part of Rome’s history.  These historians apparently had earlier authors from which to copy as well as temple annuls and nails to count.  Aside from this they relied on popular tradition and the entertainment value of oratory.

Titus Livius, who in English is commonly referred to as Livy, lived during the days of the triumvirates and the first Caesars of Rome from 59 BC to 17 AD.  Seemingly unusually uninvolved in politics, he wrote 142 books on history of which 35 are extant.  The first of these, covering the first seven centuries of Roman History to the establishment of the republic in 509 BC, is the subject of the current essay.

            Strictly speaking, Livy isn’t really a primary source.  He certainly wasn’t around for the first 1200 years of Roman history to write about it.  It is doubtful that, hailing from Padua, Livy would have paid much attention to Rome before the third century BC anyway.  He copied from earlier authors freely and often without citation.  Livy was quite proud of Rome’s accomplishments and sought in his writing to spur her on to even greater things:


            …if any nation deserves the privilege of claiming a divine ancestry, that nation is our own; and so great is the glory won by the Roman people in their wars that, when they declare that Mars himself was their first parent and father of the man who founded their city, all nations of the world might well allow the claim as readily as they accept Rome’s imperial dominion…in that record you can find for yourself and your country both examples and warnings; fine things to take as models, base things, rotten through and through, to avoid…for I honestly believe that no country has ever been greater or purer than ours or richer in good citizens and noble deeds…(Livy 1.1)


Thus, Livy interspersed pleasant fiction throughout his facts.  He recorded folk tales, noting so if he found them dubious, often alongside conflicting accounts.  This is especially true in Book I of his history because of the myths created over the years to fill the knowledge gaps surrounding the details of Rome’s foundation.  After seven or eight centuries these must have been great in number.     

In the Greek style that had no doubt become popular by his day, Livy begins the history at the battle of Troy.  Here we meet the Trojan Aeneas, who is the son of Venus herself.  The story of Rome begins with the journey of Aeneas, bearing his families temple gods on his back, from the battle of Troy to Latium in Italy.  Here Livy recounts both popular traditions: one in which the Latins are defeated by Aeneas and his men, and the other in which they are welcomed with open arms.  Either way Aeneas follows this up by marrying the Latin king’s daughter.  Following Aeneas’s noble death in a later battle Livy muses “Was he man or god?”

            After the tale of Aeneas, with only a brief synopsis of intervening events, Livy jumps four hundred years into the future. (Although, since no one else at the time really knew how long ago the battle of Troy was, we can safely assume Livy didn’t either.)  A descendent of Aeneas, one Vestal Virgin by the name of Rhea Silvia, enters the picture as the mother of Romulus and Remus.  Here again Livy presents the story of divine parentage with reservations:


            The Vestal Virgin was raped and gave birth to twin boys.  Mars, she declared, was their father- perhaps she believed it, perhaps she was merely hoping by the pretence to palliate her guilt.  (Livy 1.4)


They are set adrift upon the Tiber and eventually reach shore because the river is flooded.  The two boys, after narrowly escaping death, are suckled by a she-wolf and raised by poor peasants.  Eventually they learn of their divine parentage and found two colonies on the Palatine and Aventine hills respectively near the Tiber River around 753 BC.  Jealousy eventually leads Romulus to kill Remus and the city they founded gets named after and ruled by Romulus.  Apparently the site on the Tiber was so well picked that even Hercules stopped by for a visit.  Whilst reading these stories, one cannot help but think of the Brothers Grimm, Peter Asbjörnsen and others, who did such similar work in collecting the fairy tales of a much later day.  And, just as the Pied Piper of Hamlin is an illiterate society’s way of preserving the memory of the children’s crusade, probably also there is a kernel of truth in these stories of early Rome.

Greed leads Romulus to kill his brother and take over both settlements, becoming the first king of Rome.  This is the beginning of Roman history and the point in time from which they dated things: AUC, ab urbe condita, or since the founding of the city.  Running low on women he leads a raid into Sabine territory and they steal some (Rape of the Sabines).  Romulus, after a long and fruitful life, eventually disappears into the clouds instead of dying, going up to Mount Olympus to his father’s side.  The 7 kings of Rome are as follows:


753-716 BC

Numa Pompilius

715-673 BC

Tullius Hostilius

673-647 BC

Ancus Marcus

647-585 BC

Tarquinius Priscus

585-578 BC

Servius Tullius

578-535 BC

Tarquinius Superbus "The Proud"

535-509 BC

Livy then details the lives of the kings after Romulus.  Interestingly, Livy recounts these kings as being elected by the people while the Senate held power during an interregnum.  Numa Pompilius, who was actually a Sabine, ruled second and set up much of the religious tradition of early Rome. Among other things,


            …he built the temple of Janus, to serve as a visible sign of the alternations of peace and war:  open…that the city was in arms;  closed, that war…had been brought to a successful conclusion.  Since Numa’s reign the temple has twice been closed:  once…at the end of the first war with Carthage and again on the occasion (which we ourselves were allowed by heaven to witness) when after the battle of Actium Augustus Caesar brought peace to the world by land and sea.  (Livy 1.19)


Tullus Hostilius followed him as king and fought many successful wars against Rome’s neighbors only to be struck down by lightning from Jupiter himself.  Next to be elected king was Ancus Marcius, who brought more war and religious traditions to Rome.  Tarquinius Priscus, the first Etruscan king of Rome, instituted the first games in Rome.  His skull was split open by jealous sons of Ancus however, Servius Tullius, whose mother was a slave, was placed on the throne instead by a ruse of the palace.  Servius instituted the census and divided Romans into 5 classes.  Lucius Tarquinius, who was the “son or grandson (more probably the former) of Tarquinius Priscus” (Livy 1.46), seized the throne as rightful heir and killed Servius.  This Tarquin was to be the last king of Rome bearing the name rex, the Latin word for king.

The last king of Rome was to fall by the lust of his son Sextus.  After losing an argument about whose wife was more beautiful to compatriot Collatinus, Sextus rapes Collatinus’s wife Lucretia who kills herself after naming her rapist.  To avenge the honor and death of this noble woman, Collatinus and Lucius Junius Brutus, who was looking for just such an opportunity, led a revolt to overthrow the king in 509 BC.  They forced the king and his family into exile and ended the monarchy.  The last rex had fallen.  Rome would allow no man to bear that title after Tarquin; the emperors called themselves dictator or imperator, the one who holds imperium, but never rex.  Collatinus and Brutus  then ruled as the first consuls of the Roman Republic.

So say the ancients.  Archeologists have for the most provided confirming evidence for the substance of the story, if not the details.  Sometime in the early sixth century BC Etruscan influence appears in big way at Rome.  Apparently around 570 BC the Etruscans captured Rome and began it’s urbanization.  The swamps were drained, the Forum built, et cetera.  This seems to fit well with the historical record of Tarquinius Priscus as the first king from Etruria and Servius Tullius’ claim to the building of various public works such as the so called Servian wall of Rome.  Furthermore, after about 500 BC Etruscan influence begins to wane, disappearing completely by the late fifth century BC.


Last Alteration Performed: July 8, 2002 by Bradley James Wogsland .
Copyright © 2002 Bradley James Wogsland.