Tullus Hostilius: The Hostile Third King of Rome

If I never become known for anything else, at least I can claim the honor of having written the most blog posts about Rome’s second king, Numa Pompilius, than any other blogger in the world. (Not that I’ve ever checked that. I just can’t imagine anyone else––save an actual scholar––coming up with so much to say about him). Now, whether anyone reads these posts is another story. Here’s hoping.

I started my [ahem] weekly history posts a good two years ago, with the legendary founding of Rome by Romulus. Two years later and I’m only up to Rome’s third king. Not very impressive. But it’s quality, not quantity, that matters, am I right?

Tullus Hostilius. Let’s see if we can dissect this guy’s reign with just one post (don’t count on it).

If our old––and by now very close––friend Numa Pompilius was the most religious of all Rome’s kings, and the most peaceful, then Tullus Hostilius was the most aggressive. The most bloodthirsty. The most hostile. Hostile Hostilius! Could that be where the word comes from? Oh, goodness, etymology gets me so excited! With but a moment’s worth of Google-powered research, I see that hostile comes from the Latin hostilis (of an enemy), which in turn comes from hostis (enemy). What do you think, was the word hostile derived from this king’s antagonistic behavior, or did he earn the name because of his behavior?

Actually, as it turns out, the name is at least a few generations older than Tullus. According to Titus Livy, during Rome’s war with the Sabines, Tullus’ grandfather Hostus Hostilius, a friend and comrade of Romulus, valiantly strode into battle ahead of the rest of the army to defend the Roman citadel against the Sabine invaders. (He died of course.) Was this hostile behavior the root of the word, then? We'll probably never know, but whatever the case, it does seem that this affinity for battle rubbed off on his grandson.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, during Rome’s regal period, succession did not necessarily pass from father to son. When pious King Numa finally succumbed, Tullus was elected by the senate and became king in 673 BC and ruled (supposedly) until 642. Although he may not have been the wise, pacific ruler his predecessor was, his skill on the battlefield led to conquests of Fidenae, Veii, and, most famously, Alba Longa (more on that in a later post).

The Victory of Tullus Hostilius over the armes of Veii and Fidenae , Cavalier d'Arpino, 1601. Musée des Beaux Art de Caen.

The Victory of Tullus Hostilius over the armes of Veii and Fidenae, Cavalier d'Arpino, 1601. Musée des Beaux Art de Caen.

His successful military campaigns brought glory to the burgeoning backwater that was Rome, increasing its power dramatically. Its territory expanded and its population swelled (as the conquered peoples were absorbed into the Roman populace). Tullus was also credited with building the city's first senate house, the Curia Hostilia in the Roman Forum, (although according to archeological evidence, it was built closer to the year 600 BC, and Tullus died in 642, but let's not squabble over a silly thing like dates).

As in the case of Romulus, bad weather can be blamed for Tullus' unlikely demise. Near the end of his reign, a meteor shower pummeled the city, followed closely by an outbreak of the plague. Livy recounts that these omens were brought about by Tullus' neglect of the religious rites and observances that were so fundamental to the survival of the city. When the King himself caught the plague, he finally saw the light and tried desperately to mend his ways. But it was too late. After botching a sacred ritual to honor Jupiter, he was smitten by a lightening bolt and that was the end of Tullus Hostilius.

But we're not quite done with Rome's bellicose 3rd king yet (what did I tell you?). Tune in next week and I'll regale you with one of the most dramatic and improbable battles in Roman history. If you thought the Roman twins were exciting, wait to you read about the Roman triplets!

What have we covered so far?

The Birth of Rome, 21 April 753 BC

The Rape of the Sabine Women

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

Romulus, First King of Rome

The Death of Romulus

Numa Pompilius, Second King of Rome

Numa Pompilius and his calendar

Numa Pompilius and the Vestal Virgins

Numa Pompilius and the Nymph Egeria

Image sources: 1, 2, 3