Roman Republic Replaces Monarchy

The rape of a Roman noblewoman led to the downfall of the monarchy and the institution of a republican form of government to counter the excesses of royalty. Although the overthrow of the monarchy was an aristocratic rebellion, it led to a move toward democratic representation in a complex government.

Summary of Event

In 509 b.c.e., King Lucius Tarquinius Superbus and his family were driven out of Rome, and a new Republican government was instituted. Tarquinius Superbus, Lucius
Tarquinius Sextus
Junius Brutus, Lucius
Lucius Tarquinius Collatinus

By traditional accounts, Rome was founded in 753 b.c.e. by Romulus, a descendant of the hero Aeneas who fled Troy after the Greeks sacked the city. An elective monarchy was adopted, and from 753 to 509 b.c.e. Rome was ruled by a series of seven kings. The nature of the kingship evolved while the Roman state developed. As the state grew and prospered, the monarchy became populist in character. The kings courted the favor of the people at the expense of the aristocrats. The kings of Rome are credited with developing political assemblies, instituting public services (such as the first sewers in the city), and undertaking large-scale building projects. The fall of the monarchy in 509 b.c.e. was the work of aristocrats, not the common people.

Roman writers, including Livy (59 b.c.e.-17 c.e.), record that the fall of the monarchy was a private family affair and not a political movement. Tarquinius Sextus, the second son of Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, raped the noblewoman Lucretia, the virtuous wife of Lucius Tarquinius Collatinus. Lucretia committed suicide, but not before revealing the crime to her husband, her father Lucretius, and their trusted friends Lucius Junius Brutus and Publius Valerius. Led by Brutus, the friends and family of Lucretia vowed to avenge her injury by driving out Sextus Tarquinius and his tyrannical father and never again allowing anyone to reign as king in Rome. Superbus, who was waging war against the neighboring town of Ardea, was prohibited from reentering Rome. He went into exile in Etruria (now Tuscany, Italy) with members of his immediate family. A republican government was established and Lucius Junius Brutus and Lucius Tarquinius Collatinus were elected to the newly created office of consul. To protect the young republic from a return to monarchy, a law was soon passed banishing from Rome all members of the Tarquin clan. Collatinus, though a leading member of the uprising against the king, resigned his post as consul and went into exile. Lucretius was appointed in his place, followed by Publius Valerius.

Some scholars reject this traditional account with its focus on the personal tale of Lucretia and prefer a political explanation for the fall of the monarchy in Rome. This interpretation is supported by a comparative study of political developments occurring at this time throughout the Greco-Roman world. In the sixth century b.c.e. leading aristocrats were rising up against monarchs and tyrants throughout the Mediterranean, establishing new aristocratic (oligarchic) governments. The events in Rome fit into this larger framework of regional political changes.

The two views, however, are best reconciled. The leading role of Brutus and Collatinus, both of whom came from prominent families, suggests that frustration over the antiaristocratic policies of the king and the lack of opportunity for political advancement may have contributed to the fall of the monarchy. The rape of Lucretia served as the catalyst for action. Under the new Republican system, citizens in the centuriate assembly would elect two aristocrats to hold annual consulships and serve as military and executive officers. Though open to all Roman citizens, the centuriate assembly was organized on the basis of property classes and gave significantly more political power to the wealthiest citizens. The new Roman Republic was thus at its core aristocratic and antimonarchic, not democratic. The aristocratic friends of Lucretia who led the revolt against the monarchy directly benefited from the change of regime.

As the chief officers of the state, the consuls adopted many of the powers and symbols of the kings; however, their authority was not absolute. Power was limited by the collegial and annual nature of the office. These important restrictions on individual power would become the hallmark of Roman magistracies, almost all of which were limited to one year and required the sharing of powers among colleagues. The senate, first organized by Romulus, became the chief deliberative body of the republican system. The popular assemblies took on the new responsibilities of electing magistrates and voting on legislation. The second century b.c.e. Greek historian and political observer Polybius noted the multiple components of Roman government and recognized it as a major factor contributing to Rome’s success. The consuls, senate, and people each held a share of the power, but significant checks were in place to maintain a balance between the three governmental bodies. The result was a political system of exceptional stability, lasting for almost five centuries without significant interruption and forming the foundation for the system later instituted by the emperors.

The date for the fall of the monarchy in Rome is commonly held to be 509 b.c.e. This is confirmed by the consular Fasti, the official lists of annual consuls in Rome. Public records of the chief annual magistrates were kept in Rome throughout the republican and imperial periods. These records provided a chronology for Roman historical writers, and fragments of the Fasti survive to the present day. This evidence, together with the literary sources, clearly indicates the institution of a new political system in the years shortly before 500 b.c.e.

The fall of the monarchy and the establishment of the new republican government in Rome correspond with the decline of Etruscan civilization in Italy. The Etruscans had spread their influence through the northern and central portions of the Italian peninsula during the seventh and sixth centuries b.c.e. The last three kings of Rome (Tarquinius Priscus, Servius Tullius, and Tarquinius Superbus) were Etruscan, and Rome seems to have served as an important base for extending Etruscan influence into the regions of Latium and Campania (present-day Lazio and Campagnia, Italy). Some modern scholars have viewed the fall of the monarchy in Rome as a revolt against Etruscan political control. Indeed, the expulsion of the Tarquins meant the removal of a leading Etruscan family from Rome. Etruscan influence in Italy continued to decline throughout the fifth century. Not long after the establishment of the republic in Rome, the Etruscans were defeated by western Greek forces at the Battle of Cumae (474 b.c.e.) and their holdings in northern Italy were reduced by Celtic invasions (c. 400 b.c.e.). The decline of Etruscan civilization left the way open for the new Roman Republic to rise to power in central Italy and later the Mediterranean world.


The fall of the monarchy in Rome led to new developments in Roman government. The pair of annually elected consuls allowed for a sharing and rotation of power among the leading men in the state. The senate and people also enjoyed a measure of authority. It was as a republic that the Roman state enjoyed centuries of unprecedented success that led to the conquest of the Mediterranean world. With its mixture of executive, deliberative, and popular elements, the Roman Republic has served for centuries as a model for modern Western states.

Further Reading

  • Cornell, T. J. The Beginnings of Rome: Italy and Rome from the Bronze Age to the Punic Wars, c. 1000-264 b.c.e.
    New York: Routledge, 1995. A comprehensive historical analysis of early Rome with detailed discussions of current controversies. Bibliography, indexes, and maps.
  • Heurgon, Jacques. The Rise of Rome to 264 b.c.
    Translated by James Willis. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973. Historical account of Rome’s development. Maps.
  • Lintott, Andrew. The Constitution of the Roman Republic. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Lintott provides a detailed examination of the fully developed Roman Republican government institutions.
  • Livy. The Early History of Rome. Translated by Aubrey de Selincourt. Reprint. New York: Penguin, 2002. An ancient Roman historian’s account of the founding and development of the Roman state.
  • Walbank, F. W., A. E. Astin, M. W. Frederiksen, R. M. Ogilvie, and A. Drummond, eds. The Rise of Rome to 220 b.c.
    Vol. 7, part 2 of The Cambridge Ancient History. 2d ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990. A comprehensive study of the sources and controversies related to early Roman history.

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