Tullia runs over the Corpse of her Father by Jean Bardin (1765)
In previous posts, I’ve told the stories of exemplary women of Roman legend such as Lucretia, Verginia and Tanaquil. In The Legend of Tarpeia – a Roman Morality Tale, I’ve also related the fate of the greedy traitoress, Tarpeia, Today, I tell the tale of the ultimate ‘bad girl’ – Tullia Minor – the last queen of Rome.
The historian, Livy, described Tullia as ‘ferox’ - savage. What
did she do to be branded so? Try sororicide, mariticide and parricide then add mutilating
a corpse to her list of crimes!
Tullia Minor was the younger daughter of King Servius
Tullius, the sixth king of Rome. A son of an enslaved Latin noblewoman, Servius
ascended the throne due to the influence of Queen Tanaquil, a gifted Etruscan
seer, who foresaw his greatness (see The
Legend of Tanaquil and the Auspicious Flight of Birds). After Tanaquil’s
husband, Tarquinius, was assassinated, she contrived to have the Senate appoint
Servius as monarch in preference to her own two sons, Lucius and Arruns. Servius
therefore became king without holding a popular vote (although he later called
for one and was successful in the election.)
History records Servius Tullius as a visionary leader who
introduced important reforms including the Census. This led to the division of citizens
into 5 wealth classes each with the right to vote but also the responsibility
to serve in war. Under his reign, the boundary of Rome was expanded to include
the Quirinal, Esquiline and Viminal Hills. He successfully established a
crucial treaty with the neighbouring Latin League, founding a shrine to the
Latin goddess, Diana, on the Aventine Hill to mark their concord.
However, Servius’ popularity in expanding the franchise to
the lowest classes of citizens raised the ire of the upper-class patricians. The
simmering resentment which ensued paved the way to his downfall. But it was
the hatreds seething within his own family that were to effect his demise.
To placate the ousted sons of King Tarquinius, Servius
Tullius arranged marriages for them with his daughters. The girls, both named Tullia,
(according to the custom of women taking the feminine form of their father’s cognomen)
were extreme opposites in temperament as were the princely brothers. Unfortunately,
the sweet natured Tullia Major was wedded to the ruthless Lucius, while the
scheming Tullia Minor became the wife of the unambitious Arruns.
Determined to gain power, Tullia was frustrated by Arruns’
refusal to overthrow Servius and rightfully reclaim the throne. Instead, she
turned to Lucius who matched her zeal. The pair conspired to murder their
spouses resulting in brother killing brother, sister killing sister, and both
committing homicide of their respective in-laws. Unaware of their part in the
assassinations, Servius reluctantly then approved a marriage between Lucius and
Emboldened, Lucius embarked on a vicious campaign to
undermine Servius’ authority and foment rebellion. Having convinced a bloc of
Senators to support him, he proceeded to the Curia Senate House and sat on the throne,
surrounded by armed guards. When Servius arrived to accost the usurper, Lucius hurled
his father-in-law down the Curia’s stairs into the Forum. Dripping blood and
abandoned by supporters, the old man limped along Clivius Orbius, the road to
the Esquiline Hill.
When Tullia heard Lucius had seized power, she called for her
carriage and sped to the Senate House, hailing her husband as king. She then urged
him to kill her father lest Servius survive and raise an army from his
remaining supporters. Lucius quickly dispatched assassins who slew the injured
Servius and left his mutilated body lying across a small alleyway known as the
With chaos unleashed in the Forum, Lucius ordered Tullia to
return home for her own safety. On the way, she came upon her father’s corpse. In
a frenzy, she ordered her driver to force the horses to trample the body. As a
result, Tullia arrived at her house with blood spattered clothes as ‘a grim
relic of the murdered man... The guardian gods of the house did not forget;
they were to see to it, in their anger at the bad beginning of the reign, that
as bad an end should follow.’
The historian, Livy, pulls no punches when he describes
Tullia as maniacally ambitious and transgressive. Unlike Tanaquil who quietly
pulled strings behind the scenes, Tullia harangued Lucius into bloody deeds. ‘To
Tullia the thought of Tanaquil’s success was torture. She was determined to
emulate it: if Tanaquil, a foreigner, had had influence enough twice in succession
to confer the crown – first on her husband, then on her son-in-law – it was
intolerable to feel that she herself, a princess of blood, should count for
nothing in the making, or unmaking of kings.’
Lucius Tarquinius Superbus and Tullia were to become models
of regal depravity: venal, psychopathic and unjust rulers. But Tullia, as a woman, is held
up as a shocking example of private and public impiety who is responsible, in great
part, for her family’s exile. For ultimately, Lucius and his family were
banished when the Romans could no longer stomach his tyranny, rising in outrage
at the rape of the virtuous noblewoman, Lucretia, and her subsequent suicide. See
Roman Honour Killings – Lucretia and Verginia. As such, the public actions
of two women with diametrically opposed characters can be seen as catalysts for
the overthrow of the monarchy and the birth of the Republic.
Borghese Steps, Rome
As an interesting side note, the Via Cupria was dubbed Vicus
Sceleratus – the Wicked Street – after Tullia’s desecration of her father’s body.
In the early C15th century a grand staircase was built over it connecting the
Esquiline to the Basilica San Pietro in Vincoli. The Palazzo that was built
over these steps by the Cesarini family was given to Vannozza dei Cattanei, the
mistress of Rodrigo Borgia (Pope Alexander V) and the mother of the infamous
Borgia children; Cesare, Lucrezia, Juan and Gioffre. The steps became known as
the Borgia Steps. On June 14, 1497, Juan Borgia left the family apartments through the heavy door to the stairway and was attacked and killed. His body was
then thrown into the Tiber, remaining undiscovered for three days.
The identity of Juan Borgia's murderer remains an unsolved
mystery. Was it his brother Cesare? Or a jealous husband or brother avenging
their family’s honour? It wasn’t a robbery given his body was found with a coin filled purse. Whatever the answer, the scene of his death resounds
with ghostly echoes of Tullia Minor’s crimes. Definitely a street to avoid
Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Quotes from The Early History of Rome by Livy translated by Aubrey de Selincourt, 1971.
Elisabeth Storrs is the author of the A Tale of Ancient Rome saga, and the founder of the Historical Novel Society Australasia. www.elisabethstorrs.com / www.hnsa.org.au