Friday 24 November 2023

Tullia Minor - Rome's Murderous 'Bad Girl' by Elisabeth Storrs

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 Tullia Minor.

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 Vicus Cuprius.

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 after dark!

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. / 

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