An Introduction to the Seven Kings of Rome: Fact or Legend?



Once upon a time, when I started this blog -ah, my life was so much simpler then- I was ambitious enough to think that I would write six times a week, with every day of the week dedicated to a different topic. And I chose Monday as history day. I had the lofty idea that I would write out a concise history of Rome, one blog post at a time. Not a bad exercise for me, really, as no matter how much you think you know, there is always so much more to learn. Now more than ever I have reason to do so.

So, let's see, on 26 April 2010 I wrote about the Founding of Rome by Romulus and Remus. Right on cue, one week later, I presented the fascinating story of the Rape of the Sabine Women. And then.... nothing. Wow, two whole weeks it lasted. We can definitely do better than that! Let's try to make it at least three weeks this time...

Maybe a little perspective on Ancient Roman history would be timely. The history of ancient Rome can be catagorized into three main periods: the Roman Kingdom (or the Regal Period), the Roman Republic, and the Roman Empire. Having barely begun this concise (but hopefully thorough) history, we are still quite early on in the first, the time of the legendary kings of Rome, seven in number.

I say legendary because the truth is, we don't really know if any of these kings actually existed. In 390 BC, Gaul sacked Rome, plundering the city and destroying virtually all of the city's records. Since we have no official documents to give us the truth, we must rely on Titus Livy's version of events, written at the end of the first century BC and into the first century AD (as Eddie Izzard puts it, right around the BC/AD change over, when "you didn't have to wind your watch back, you had to get a new bloody watch"). Can we trust what the great historian told us (I'm referring to Livy here, but I think Eddie fits that description too), writing nearly 800 years after his story began?

Livy tells us there were seven kings, ruling Rome from 753 to 509. From a practical standpoint, it's rather hard to believe that over nearly 250 years, in such a volatile time and place, the growing power that was Rome was ruled over by just seven men? With an average reign of nearly 35 years? No usurpers? No overthrows? No assassinations? Seems unlikely.

However, the early Romans were, as always, ahead of their time. The crown was not hereditary, but rather bestowed upon the man chosen by the curiae, a group of ten elected representatives. Under those surprisingly democratic circumstances, maybe it was possible for Rome to be ruled peaceably by so few individuals. Well, we'll almost certainly never know for sure, but does it really matter? As I've written about before, I always tend to go with the legend. I mean, by all means, search for the truth if you can find it, but if the fact have been completely obliterated by vicious mobs of barbarians, then you might as well revel in the legend. As Goethe put it, if they were great enough to invent such stories, we, at least, should be great enough to believe them.