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Ancus Marcius
(c. 680 BC - 616 BC; r. 640 BC - 616 BC)

Ancus Marcius was the fourth legendary King of Rome. His reign, like all the other archaic kings, was almost implausibly long, recorded by the historian Livy as being about 24 years in duration. He was considered effective because he combined the military successes of his predecessor Tullus Hostilius with the desire for peace and piety of his grandfather, Numa Pompilius. While he had two surviving sons, he was instead succeeded by his advisor Lucius Tarquinius Priscus upon his death.

For the most part, the preceding paragraph represents almost everything that we know about Ancus Marcius as a historical figure. While trying to come up with a good historical background for the third king, Tullus Hostilius, is not particularly easy, Ancus is an altogether more difficult individual to pin down. As with Tullus, the primary source for information about Ancus is Livy, and again like Tullus, Livy tells us nothing of his early life, so we need to fill in the blanks.

His chief claim to fame in his own time was that he was the grandson of the second king, Numa. Numa is said to have had anywhere from between one and six children with his wife Tatia before she died after a 13-year marriage. As the wife of Numa and the daughter of Titus Tatius, the king of the Sabines during the time of the first king Romulus, Tatia's descendants would have double royal pedigrees. The most dangerous place for a woman during ancient times (and indeed throughout history up until the last century or so) was the birthing chamber, and it seems likely to me that Tatia would have unfortunately passed away as a result of childbirth. Tatia would have had to have been born before before Titus' death in 748 BC and would have had to have been dead for at least a couple of years before the time of Numa's ascension in 715 BC (he is said to have gone to Cures in grief after his wife's death but shortly before being asked to become king of Rome). If we say that she was perhaps born in 750 and that she died in 720, this would give her roughly 30 years of life, allowing for a 13 year marriage starting at the age of 17, knowing that Roman girls were typically married off between the ages of 15 and 20. The only child that the ancient sources unanimously agree to them having was a daughter named Pompilia.

Pompilia seems to have been used like so many ancient women as a political tool to cement an alliance. In this instance, she was given to Numa Marcius, the son of a certain Marcus Marcius who was one of Numa's earliest supporters. The young Marcius was given the title of Pontifex Maximus, the chief priest of the Roman State from the days of Numa to modern times. Marcius and Pompilia disappear from the historical record by the time of Ancus' reign, so they were likely dead by the time of his election. Ancus was probably born late in their marriage and his youth at the time of Numa's death probably accounts for (a) why Tullus was declared king rather than a direct descendant of the previous ruler and (b) why his parents do not seem to have been alive at the time of his own reign.

Livy records that Ancus was chosen as king because the Senate and the people believed that he would be more like his grandfather than the previous ruler, Tullus Hostilius. Tullus was warlike and famous for his successful campaigns against Rome's various bellicose neighbors. He was not, however, a very reverent man and his disregard for the Roman gods was said to have caused in succession an avalance, a plague, and his own death at the hands of none other than the god Jupiter. Tradition says he was killed in a fire, but it's also possible that he was killed by the same illness that laid low so many of his citizens, and if this plague were really bothersome, it would make sense that the Romans would turn to the son of a priest and the grandson of the inventor of Roman religion for redress. His age would have played a role in his choice as well -- Tullus was in his 20s and seen as reckless at the time of his election, so a more mature and learned candidate was a natural fit for the job.

Ancus duly began his reign by studying the surviving texts written by his grandfather and trying to figure out how to fix the problems plaguing Rome at the time. Livy says that the Latin tribes took Ancus' election as a sign of weakness on the part of the Romans and broke the treaty they established with Tullus by invading their territory. Cognizant of the threat but unwilling to offend the gods, Ancus performed an elaborate ritual to establish the righteousness of his cause and then polled every individual member of the Senate to ascertain their support for war. All of this seems rather unnecessary given the fact that the Roman countryside was being invaded by rampaging tribesmen, but it makes sense if you consider the pious mood that had overtaken the Romans at the time.

The war seems to have started out all right, as he captured at least three separate cities. Following Romulus and Tullus, he relocated the peoples of these cities to Roman territory and extened citizenship to them. Despite this, the results of the campaign were mixed overall. He lost the city of Politorium and subsequently burned it to the ground to prevent it from being lost again. He gained new territory from the Etruscans but won a Pyrrhic victory at the city of Medullia; while ultimately successful, even Livy refers to this battle as having had a "doubtful result." Social unrest became prevalent in Rome as a result of the population transfers, necessitating the construction of the first prison inside the city of Rome. While Ancus established the first settlement at Ostia (later a prominent economic center in Italy), he was also forced to buttress Roman territory with an extensive network of defensive foritifications, indicating that the area was still not entirely secure.

At some point, Ancus found the time to get married and have two sons, whose names are not recorded; neither is his wife's name known to us. They were definitely born at some point during the late 630s, because they were both minors at the time of their father's death. Constantly being at war and study, Ancus could not (and was not expected to) raise his children himself. He appointed as guardian of his children a trusted advisor named Lucumo who had come to Rome to seek fame and glory sometime around 625 BC. Lucumo and his wife Tanaquil were originally from the Etruscan city of Tarquinii but were considered outcasts because of Lucumo's parentage. He was the son of a Greek exile from Corinth and foreigners were treated with suspicion, severely curtailing the couple's chances of making a good life for themselves. At Tanaquil's suggestion, they went to Rome and quickly became major figures owing to their wealth, talent, and sophistication, eventually earning the friendship of Ancus. To better integrate themselves into this developing and expanding society, Lucumo and Tanaquil adopted Latin names: Lucius Tarquinius Priscus and Gaia Caecilia, respectively.

Ancus died abruptly after 24 years in power and was succeeded by Lucius Tarquinius Priscus. There is no stated cause for his demise and his age at the time is unknown, but it can be estimated that he was probably in his 60s. He would have been pretty old by the standards of the time, so a natural cause of death is likely...but unnatural reasons cannot be ruled out. Tarquinius is known to have been extremely interested in succeeding Ancus and took the step of sending his two sons on a hunting trip on the day that the election was to occur. Livy indicates that the boys were approaching the Roman conception of manhood by this time, which was around 16 years of age or so. It could be inferred that Tarquinius assassinated Ancus after insinuating himself into his life and seized power by conveniently making sure his sons were nowhere to be found when a succesor was being chosen, but I find this doubtful; if he wanted to be king so badly and would have killed for it, why didn't he just kill his godsons also? Also, the Romans used a figure known as an interrex chosen from the ranks of the Senate to administer the government before selecting a new king. The whole point of this practice was to find the best candidate and give the succession a period of thoughtful reflection; the interregnum between the time of Romulus and Numa lasted a full year, so there was no point in getting the boys out of town so he could steal the kingship. Besides, would the Senate have really chosen the dead king's murderer as his successor?

It is also possible that Ancus was killed in battle. Livy says that one of his successor's first actions was to continue the war against the Latins, which obviously shows that Ancus' war was still not concluded at the time of his death. His death seems to have been very sudden and Livy does not give any indication that he was ill for either a long or short period. However, it would have been unusual for a man of his age -- even a king -- to be out in the battlefield, so there's unfortunately no conclusive answer as to what happened. Even though I think assassination and death in battle are less likely causes than what passed for "old age" in those days, readers are invited to draw their own conclusions.

Ancus Marcius left a mixed legacy. On the one hand, he expanded Rome's borders and population more than all of his predecessors combined, greatly improved the region's infrastructure, and reintroduced some much-needed maturity to politics in the city. Conversely, he was unable to bring his main military expedition to a successful conclusion, he left Roman society disjointed and crime-ridden, and he was unable to ensure a proper dynastic succession. At the very least, Ancus Marcius seems to have been an honest and well-intentioned ruler, although he did not succeed as thoroughly in his aims as did his grandfather.

Reconstructing this man's life is not easy. He exists more as a name than anything else, with only a handful of deeds attributed to him during two and a half decades in power. Livy spends an inordinate amount of space in his biography of Ancus talking about the rise of the Tarquinian dynasty, casually mentioning the king's death as something of an afterthought. I understand that his sources would have been limited, but it's also possible that the writer didn't really think Ancus was anything worth talking about since the story of Tarquinius and Tanaquil is infinitely more interesting (and better attested). Even the derivation of Ancus' name is unclear; the late Roman writer Festus said it was due to his crooked arm (compare the Latin "ancus" to the English "angle") but this is not to be believed since even in antiquity, Festus was regarded with skepticism. It might be related to the Antia gens, whose nomen would have been "Antius." "T" and "C" were sometimes interchangeable in the early Latin language, so a relationship is possible. This was not a particularly prominent family, however, so descent from a king seems unlikely. All in all, Ancus Marcius was and remains an enigma, serving best as a transitional figure in a broader historical narrative.

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