How did the kings themselves end their careers? As for Romulus, you can choose between a flattering fable that he was received by the gods into heaven, or you can take the word of the Roman writers who relate that, when he was torn to pieces by the Senate because of his intolerable insolence, the Senate bribed a certain Julius Proculus to say that Romulus had appeared to him, charging him to tell the Roman people to give him divine honors. In this way the people were put down and pacified, after they had begun an insurrection against the Senate.
Then, there was an eclipse of the sun, which the simpleminded populace, not knowing that it was explainable by the sun’s regular course, attributed to the power of Romulus. If the eclipse was taken as the sun in mourning, it would have been more natural for them to believe that Romulus had been murdered, and that, by the failing of the sun’s light, the crime was revealed. That phenomenon did in truth occur when our Lord was crucified by the cruelty and impiety of the Jews. That this latter darkening of the sun was not caused by the normal course of the heavenly bodies is sufficiently proved by the fact that it occurred at the time of the Jewish Pasch. This is celebrated under a full moon, while a natural eclipse is possible only at the end of the lunar phase.
Cicero himself made it sufficiently clear that the reception of Romulus among the gods is a fiction rather than a fact. Even while paying a tribute to him in the De re publica, he says by the tongue of Scipio: ‘His very name had such a hold on people’s minds that, when he suddenly disappeared during an eclipse of the sun, it was commonly believed that he had been raised to fellowship with the gods, an honor no mortal man, unless he were a prodigy of virtue, could achieve.’ Surely, what Cicero says about his sudden disappearance is meant to imply either a violent storm or a well-concealed murder. Besides, other Roman writers add to the story of the eclipse the circumstance of a sudden thunderstorm, which could either have screened the murder or itself have killed him.
Speaking, in the same book, of Tullus Hostilius„ the third king after Romulus, who was also killed by lightning, Cicero states that people did not believe that Tullus was received among the gods after that kind of death because, presumably, the Romans would have cheapened what they believed (or were made to believe) about Romulus, if the same honor be too readily conceded to another. He also says quite openly in his charge against Catiline: ‘We have placed Romulus, the founder of this city, in the rank of the gods, partly out of kindness, and partly because of popular opinion,’ implying that Romulus’ assumption was not a fact, but, as a kindly reward for his virtues, a story that was spread far and wide. But, in his dialogue, the Hortensius, referring to the regular eclipses of the sun, he says: ‘In order that the sun bring about the same darkness as at Romulus’ death, which occurred during an eclipse.’ Here, where Cicero was writing a discussion, not a panegyric, he did not hesitate to treat the death of Romulus as that of an ordinary man.
As for the rest of the Roman kings, except Numa Pompilius and Ancus Martius, who died of illness, their deaths were unspeakably dreadful! Tullus Hostilius, the conqueror and destroyer of Alba, as I have already said, was, together with his whole household, burned to cinders by lightning. Priscus Tarquinius was slain by his predecessor’s sons. Servius Tullius was foully murdered by his son-in-law, Tarquinius Superbus, who succeeded him on the throne. Yet, after the horrible parricide committed against the worthiest king of the Romans, the gods had not ‘gone and left the temples and the altars bare,’ as they did when, outraged by Paris’ rape of Helen, they abandoned wretched Troy to the torch and the sword of the Greeks. What is more, Tarquinius himself mounted the throne after shedding the blood of his father-in-law.
The gods saw this infamous parricide seize the throne over his father-in-law’s body. They saw him elated by victory in many wars. They saw him build the capitol with the spoils of war. They did not depart; they were present, and remained to look on. They permitted their sovereign Jupiter to preside and rule over them in that lofty temple, the work of a kinsman’s assassin. Nor must we imagine that Tarquinius was free from guilt when he built the Capitol and was only driven from the city for crimes committed later. On the contrary, it was by a monstrous crime that he entered upon that very reign during which he built the Capitol.
His subsequent expulsion and exclusion from the city were not because he had any part in the rape of Lucretia. This was his son’s crime, committed not only without his knowledge, but also in his absence—he was then besieging the city of Ardea, waging war for the Roman people. What action he would have taken had he learned of his son’s villainy, we do not know. Yet, without inquiring or ascertaining what was in his mind, the people stripped him of his power. The army received orders to desert him, and, on its return to the city, the gates were shut and Tarquinius barred from returning.
However he continued to harass the Romans by arousing their neighbors against them. But, he was deserted by those on whose aid he relied and was unable to recover the throne. He retired to the town of Tusculum, near Rome, where, we are told, together with his wife, he spent fourteen years as a private citizen. Presumably, he died a more enviable death than that of his father-in-law, who, it is believed, was murdered by his daughter’s husband, with her acquiescence. Yet, the Romans did not name him Tarquinius ‘the Cruel’ or ‘the Criminal,’ but ‘the Proud,’ probably because their own pride could not endure his insolent tyranny.
They made so little of his revolting murder of his father-in-law, their best king, as to make his murderer their ruler. I wonder whether so great a reward granted for so horrible a crime was not an even more infamous crime on their part. Nevertheless, the gods did not depart, ‘leaving the temples and the altars bare.’ Unless, perhaps, someone may possibly offer as defense for those gods the plea that they remained in Rome rather to inflict more effective punishment on the Romans than to aid them with favors, deluding them by hollow triumphs while crushing them by disastrous wars.
Under such conditions did the Romans lead their lives under the kings, during the happy times of the republic, till the expulsion of Tarquin the Proud. That period lasted for 243 years, during which, in spite of all those victories bought at the price of so much blood and so many disasters, that empire spread scarcely twenty miles beyond the walls of Rome. That falls far short of a territory which could compare with the present extent of any city of the Getuli.
From the time of the kings let us now proceed to the subsequent period, when, according to the statement of Sallust, life was regulated by fair and equitable law ‘until the fear inspired by Tarquinius and the hard-fought war with the Etruscans came to an end.’ For as long as the Etruscans aided Tarquinius’ attempts to re-enter the kingdom, Rome was shaken by a violent war. Hence, Sallust says that the republic was governed by fair and equitable law because danger threatened, not because justice so counseled. In that brief space of time, what a nightmare was the year that saw the election of the first consuls, after the overthrow of the kingly power! In fact, the first consuls did not even complete their year of office.
Junius Brutus began by driving his colleague, Lucius Tarquinius Collatinus, out of both his office and the city. Soon after that, Brutus himself fell in battle, slain by the enemy he slew. Before that, he had with his own hands killed his sons and his brothers-in-law, whom he detected in a conspiracy to restore Tarquinius, a deed which Virgil first commended, but very soon mildly deplored. For after saying:
‘His sons convict of turbulent transgression
He kills to quit his country from oppression.’
he presently lamented, ‘Unhappy father, howsoe’er the deed be judged by after days.’ By this he means to say that, in whatever light posterity may regard those deeds, though they praise and applaud them, the man who puts his sons to death is a wretched creature. As if to give some solace to that unhappy man, he adds: ‘Love of country and an irresistible desire for praise conquer him.’
Take the case of Brutus, the man who slew his own sons, the man who wounded to death Tarquinius’ son, his foe, who was in turn slain by the latter, and died long before King Tarquinius. In this man Brutus was there not avenged, apparently, the innocence of his colleague Collatinus, who, good citizen though he was, suffered at Tarquinius’ expulsion the same fate as that of the tyrant himself?
The same Brutus was, indeed, also a blood relation of Tarquinius, but the similarity of his surname ruined Collatinus, his full name being Collatinus Tarquinius. Hence, he should have been compelled to change his name, not his country. Finally, by omitting a word from his name, he might have been called simply Lucius Collatinus. Thus he did not lose what he could have lost without damage, but, as first consul and good citizen, he was stripped of his office and rights of citizenship. Is the abominable villainy of Junius Brutus—no asset at all for the republic—to redound to his glory? Does ‘Love of country and an irresistible desire for praise conquer him’ and compel him to perpetrate even this villainy?
No sooner was the tyrant Tarquinius driven out than Lucretia’s husband, Lucius Tarquinius Collatinus, was elected consul together with Brutus. How justly were the people concerned with the good character in the citizen, and not with his name! But, how unjustly did Brutus rob his colleague in the new dignity, both of his office and of his country, while he could have robbed him of his surname only, if he had cause for offence. These crimes were committed, these calamities occurred, at a time when in the republic ‘life was regulated by fair and equitable law.’ Lucretius, who succeeded Brutus in office, was carried off by disease before finishing his year. Publius Valerius, who followed Collatinus, and Marcus Horatius, who filled the place of the dead Lucretius, brought to a close that black and mournful year. That year saw no less than five consuls appear and disappear, that very year in which the Roman republic so auspiciously inaugurated the new consular office and dignity.
Augustine of Hippo, The City of God, Books I–VII