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Tarquinius Superbus makes himself King
Tarquinius, The Arrogant, reigned from 535 BCE to 509 BCE. His tyrannical rule came to an abrupt end through a popular uprising. This marked the end of the seventh and final Roman monarch and the establishment of the Roman Republic.
Tarquinius had gained the throne through the murder of his first wife, Tullia Major (the elder), then his elder brother so as to marry his ruthlessly ambitious wife, Tullia Minor (the younger) and the sister of Tullia Major, and finally, arranged for the assassination of the previous monarch, his Father-in-law, Servius Tullius.
Tarquinius prepared the way for his violent coup d’etat by bribing with expensive gifts the wealthy elite – the patrician senators – and by defamation and mockery of his predecessor, Servius. Playing upon the name, Servius, he accused him of being a slave and the son of a slave; and most pointedly, Tarquinius took strong issue, as did his patrician allies, with Servius’ favoring the poorer classes by taking land from the ultra wealthy and distributing it to the landless poor.
Upon hearing of the denigrating remarks made of him by his son-in-law, Servius rushed to the Curia – the Senators’ formal place of assembly – to confront Tarquinius. The far younger man reacted by bodily carrying and casting his father-in-law down the steps of the Curia (depicted above). Dazed from the fall, Servius limped his way towards home. Hired assassins made sure that Servius would never reach his destination.
During his reign, Tarquinius devoted the spoils acquired through conquests of weaker nations to his extensive building projects to further enhance his prestige. He took away the privileges of the plebeians, and sent many to the scaffold. Likened to the demands of Egyptian pharaohs, he employed the destitute as common bricklayers. Perhaps he hoped that the splendour of the construction of these magnificent buildings would induce posterity to place the best construction on his character – bearing an overwhelming resemblance to a notorious builder of today!
He coolly assumed the whole administration of the law, and added the office of executioner to that of judge, while he combined with both the character of a criminal, by seizing the property of all those whom he punished, and thus adding robbery to violence. To prevent the possibility of a majority against him in the Senate, he cut off several of the heads of members of that body. Not yet a king, yet we have a current head of government culpable of similar effects from gratuitous killing, surreptitious stealing and the appointment of callous “administrators of justice.”
Ultimately, the chief of the king’s bodyguard, who by an ironic twist was also the king’s nephew, summoned a comitia – a legal gathering of the people of Rome – to decide the fate of the king and his family. The many grievances proffered by the general populace, compounded by Tarquinius’ excessive abuse of power, was further exacerbated by the recounting of the shameful act of his son, Sextus Tarquin, who raped a beautiful and honorable woman; her name, Lucretia, has echoed down the ages as a reminder of that ancient ignominious act, foreshadowing the recurrence of such abuse of women up to and including the present age. Lucretia, availed of no opportunity to satisfactorily redress this violent assault to her body, was overcome with shame; despite the pleas of her family, she took her own life. This marked the culminating act which forced his entire family into exile. Subsequently, Tarquinius made several unsuccessful attempts to regain power. Banishment was all that was left to him until his death, signaling the end of the monarchy.
Cicero (106 BCE – 43 BCE) was a Roman statesman, lawyer, orator, author and philosopher. In his forty-third year he became a candidate for the consulship with others; among whom were L. Sergius Catiline, whom he later castigated as a criminal in several orations against the man.
At this juncture, the reader will allow me a personal memory from one of my highschool Latin classes. I still recall Cicero’s poignant challenge to Catiline who at the time was a Roman Senator: Quo usque tandem abutere, Catilina, patientia nostra est? “How long, Catiline, will you continue to abuse our patience?”
Cicero’s popularity was so immense, even among the patricians (who formerly opposed his advancement) that he was saluted consul by acclamation of the people before the votes were counted. Cicero’s reputation for knowledge and probity was so great, and the times were becoming so critical, that they deemed the government safe in his hands.
In his De Re Publica (On Matters of the Republic), he draws a contrast between the tyrant – like Tarquinius who lived several centuries before Cicero’s time – with a genuine broker for the republic; the interests and energies of the latter, he maintained, are solely devoted to the integrity and preservation of the republic, in part, by forsaking self-aggrandizement and personal fortune.
Following the death of Julius Caesar (44 BCE), Mark Antony succeeded as interpreter of Caesar’s legacy in his capacity as consul. Cicero, in his characteristically eloquent fashion, verbally attacked Antony for overstepping his authority in carrying out the presumed wishes of Caesar. Though none could equal Cicero in oratory, Antony outdid him in political machinations. Accused of treason by the Second Triumvirate, Cicero was executed. Nonetheless, through his extensive and incisive writings, he left a lasting influence on political thinkers of the Renaissance period and those of later generations (Locke, Hume, Montesquieu, Burke, etc.).
In his treatise, De Re Publica, Cicero explicitly mentions Tarquinius, as a prime example of a tyrant:
As it happened with Tarquinius, not by having obtained new powers, but by using unjustly powers he already had, [the tyrant] overthrows the entire apparatus of the royal state. In opposition to this person is another man who is good and wise and experienced in the public welfare and public authority (bonus et sapiens et peritus utilitatus dignitatisque civilitas) as if he were the tutor and guardian of the state: for such leadership, he will be called the president and commander of the state. Make sure you recognize such a man for this is the only one able to preserve the republic through his judgement and his actions.
Admittedly, I have taken up considerable space to make, which by now the reader will recognize as a glaringly obvious point: that we have currently inhabiting the White House – that is, when he is not off on one of his jaunts to a favorite golf course or some other self-indulgent excursion – a tyrant, just as Cicero described him over two thousand years ago. I deliberately chose two persons – Tarquinius and Cicero – from the ancient past, lest I be accused of partisanship when holding up for criticism the current president. I employ standards of probity no more (and no less) than those of Cicero.
As we engage in the selection among the primary contenders the one who will challenge the present tyrant in the general election, now, more than ever, we are in sore need of a person “who is good and wise and experienced in the public welfare and public authority as if he or she were the tutor and guardian of the state. This person may be called the president and commander of the state. Make sure you recognize such a person for this is the only one who is able to restore and preserve our democracy through wise judgement and action.”
Of course, such a tall order is far too great a burden for any one person. But with such a one at the helm, the support from the vast majority of the voting public; the prudent choice of cabinet members, advisers and heads of departments; all would contribute to maintaining the ship of state on a true and steady course.