Ancient accounts of the Regal period mingle history and legend. Tarquin was said to have been the son or grandson of Lucius Tarquinius Priscus, the fifth king of Rome, and to have gained the throne through the murders of both his wife and his elder brother, followed by the assassination of his predecessor, Servius Tullius. His reign is described as a tyranny that justified the abolition of the monarchy.
Tarquin was the son or grandson of Lucius Tarquinius Priscus, the fifth king of Rome, and Tanaquil. Tanaquil had engineered her husband's succession to the Roman kingdom on the death of Ancus Marcius, and when the sons of Marcius arranged the elder Tarquin's assassination in 579 BC, Tanaquil placed Servius Tullius on the throne, in preference to her own sons. According to an Etruscan tradition, the hero Macstarna, usually equated with Servius Tullius, defeated and killed a Roman named Gnaeus Tarquinius, and rescued the brothers Caelius and Aulus Vibenna. This may recollect an otherwise forgotten attempt by the sons of Tarquin the elder to reclaim the throne.
To forestall further dynastic strife, Tullius married his daughters, known to history as Tullia Major and Tullia Minor, to Lucius Tarquinius, the future king, and his brother Arruns. Their sister, Tarquinia, married Marcus Junius Brutus, and was the mother of Lucius Junius Brutus.
The elder Tullia was of mild disposition, yet married the ambitious Lucius Tarquinius. Her younger sister was of fiercer temperament, but her husband Arruns was not, and she came to despise him, and conspired with his brother to bring about the deaths of the elder sister and younger brother. After the murder of their siblings, Lucius and Tullia were married. Together, they had three sons: Titus, Arruns, and Sextus, and a daughter, Tarquinia, who married Octavius Mamilius, the prince of Tusculum.
Tullia encouraged her husband to advance his own position, ultimately persuading him to usurp the throne. Tarquin solicited the support of the patrician senators, especially those from families who had received their senatorial rank under Tarquin the Elder. He bestowed presents upon them, and spread criticism of Servius the king.
In time, Tarquin felt ready to seize the throne. He went to the senate-house with a group of armed men, sat himself on the throne, and summoned the senators to attend upon King Tarquin. He then spoke to the senators, denigrating Servius as a slave born of a slave; for failing to be elected by the senate and the people during an interregnum, as had been the tradition for the election of kings of Rome; for being gifted the throne by a woman; for favouring the lower classes of Rome over the wealthy, and for taking the land of the upper classes for distribution to the poor; and for instituting the census so that the wealth of the upper classes might be exposed in order to excite popular envy.
When word of this brazen deed reached Servius, he hurried to the curia to confront Tarquin, who leveled the same accusations against his father-in-law, and then in his youth and vigor carried the king outside and flung him down the steps of the senate-house and into the street. The king's retainers fled, and as he made his way, dazed and unattended, toward the palace, the aged Servius was set upon and murdered by Tarquin's assassins, perhaps on the advice of his own daughter.
Tullia, meanwhile, drove in her chariot to the senate-house, where she was the first to hail her husband as king. But Tarquin bade her return home, concerned that the crowd might do her violence. As she drove toward the Urbian Hill, her driver stopped suddenly, horrified at the sight of the king's body, lying in the street. But in a frenzy, Tullia herself seized the reins, and drove the wheels of her chariot over her father's corpse. The king's blood spattered against the chariot and stained Tullia's clothes, so that she brought a gruesome relic of the murder back to her house. The street where Tullia disgraced the dead king afterward became known as the Vicus Sceleratus, the Street of Crime.
Tarquin commenced his reign by refusing to bury the dead Servius, and then putting to death a number of leading senators, whom he suspected of remaining loyal to Servius. By not replacing the slain senators, and not consulting the senate on matters of government, he diminished both the size and the authority of the senate. In another break with tradition, Tarquin judged capital crimes without the advice of counselors, causing fear amongst those who might think to oppose him. He made a powerful ally when he betrothed his daughter to Octavius Mamilius of Tusculum, among the most eminent of the Latin chiefs.
Early in his reign, Tarquin called a meeting of the Latin leaders to discuss the bonds between Rome and the Latin towns. The meeting was held at a grove sacred to the goddess Ferentina. At the meeting, Turnus Herdonius inveighed against the Tarquin's arrogance, and warned his countrymen against trusting the Roman king. Tarquin then bribed Turnus' servant to store a large number of swords in his master's lodging. Tarquin called together the Latin leaders, and accused Turnus of plotting his assassination. The Latin leaders accompanied Tarquin to Turnus' lodging and, the swords then being discovered, the Latin's guilt was then speedily inferred. Turnus was condemned to be thrown into a pool of water in the grove, with a wooden frame, or cratis, placed over his head, into which stones were thrown, drowning him. The meeting of the Latin chiefs then continued, and Tarquin persuaded them to renew their treaty with Rome, becoming her allies rather than her enemies. It was agreed that the soldiers of the Latins would attend at the grove on an appointed day, and form a united military force with the Roman army.
Next, Tarquin instigated a war against the Volsci, taking the wealthy town of Suessa Pometia. He celebrated a triumph, and with the spoils of this conquest, he commenced the erection of the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus, which Tarquin the Elder had vowed. He then engaged in a war with Gabii, one of the Latin cities that had rejected the treaty with Rome. Unable to take the city by force of arms, Tarquin resorted to another stratagem. His son, Sextus, pretending to be ill-treated by his father, and covered with the bloody marks of stripes, fled to Gabii. The infatuated inhabitants entrusted him with the command of their troops, and when he had obtained the unlimited confidence of the citizens, he sent a messenger to his father to inquire how he should deliver the city into his hands. The king, who was walking in his garden when the messenger arrived, made no reply, but kept striking off the heads of the tallest poppies with his stick. Sextus took the hint, and put to death, or banished on false charges, all the leading men of Gabii, after which he had no difficulty in compelling the city to submit.
Tarquin agreed upon a peace with the Aequi, and renewed the treaty of peace between Rome and the Etruscans. According to the Fasti Triumphales, he won a victory over the Sabines, and established Roman colonies at the towns of Signia and Circeii.
At Rome, Tarquin leveled the top of the Tarpeian Rock, overlooking the Forum, and removed a number of ancient Sabine shrines, in order to make way for the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus on the Capitoline Hill. He constructed tiers of seats in the circus, and ordered the excavation of Rome's great sewer, the cloaca maxima.
According to one story, Tarquin was approached by the Cumaean Sibyl, who offered him nine books of prophecy at an exorbitant price. Tarquin abruptly refused, and the Sibyl proceeded to burn three of the nine. She then offered him the remaining books, but at the same price. He hesitated, but refused again. The Sibyl then burned three more books before offering him the three remaining books at the original price. At last Tarquin accepted, in this way obtaining the Sibylline Books.
In 509 BC, having angered the Roman populace through the pace and burden of constant building, Tarquin embarked on a campaign against the Rutuli. At that time, the Rutuli were a very wealthy nation, and Tarquin was keen to obtain the spoils that would come with victory, in hopes of assuaging the ire of his subjects. Failing to take their capital of Ardea by storm, the king determined to take the city by siege.
With little prospect of battle, the young noblemen in the king's army fell to drinking and boasting. When the subject turned to the virtue of their wives, Lucius Tarquinius Collatinus claimed to have the most dedicated of spouses. With his companions, they secretly visited each other's homes, and discovered all of the wives enjoying themselves, except for Lucretia, the wife of Collatinus, who was engaged in domestic activities. Lucretia received the princes graciously, and together her beauty and virtue kindled the flame of desire in Collatinus' cousin, Sextus Tarquinius, the king's son. After a few days, Sextus returned to Collatia, where he implored Lucretia to give herself to him. When she refused, he threatened to kill her, and claim that he had discovered her in the act of adultery with a slave, if she did not yield to him.
To spare her husband the shame threatened by Sextus, Lucretia submitted to his whims. But when he had departed for the camp, she sent for her husband and father, revealing the whole affair, and accusing Sextus. Despite the pleas of her family, Lucretia took her own life out of shame. Collatinus, together with his father-in-law, Spurius Lucretius Tricipitinus, and his companions, Lucius Junius Brutus and Publius Valerius, swore an oath to expel the king and his family from Rome.
As Tribune of the Celeres, Brutus was head of the king's personal bodyguard, and entitled to summon the Roman comitia. This he did, and by recounting the various grievances of the people, the king's abuses of power, and by inflaming public sentiment with the tale of the rape of Lucretia, Brutus persuaded the comitia to revoke the king's imperium and send him into exile. Tullia fled the city in fear of the mob, while Sextus Tarquinius, his deed revealed, fled to Gabii, where he hoped for the protection of the Roman garrison. However, his previous conduct there had made him many enemies, and he was soon assassinated. In place of the king, the comitia centuriata resolved to elect two consuls to hold power jointly. Lucretius, the prefect of the city, presided over the election of the first consuls, Brutus and Collatinus.
When word of the uprising reached the king, Tarquin abandoned Ardea, and sought support from his allies in Etruria. The cities of Veii and Tarquinii sent contingents to join the king's army, and he prepared to march upon Rome. Brutus, meanwhile, prepared a force to meet the returning army. In a surprising reversal, Brutus demanded that his colleague, Collatinus, resign the consulship and go into exile, because he bore the hated name of Tarquinius. Stunned by this betrayal, Collatinus complied, and his father-in-law was chosen to succeed him.
Meanwhile, the king sent ambassadors to the senate, ostensibly to request the return of his personal property, but in reality to subvert a number of Rome's leading men. When this plot was discovered, those found guilty were put to death by the consuls. Brutus was forced to condemn to death his two sons, Titus and Tiberius, who had taken part in the conspiracy. Leaving Lucretius in charge of the city, Brutus departed to meet the king upon the field of battle. At the Battle of Silva Arsia, the Romans won a hard-fought victory over the king and his Etruscan allies. Each side sustained painful losses; the consul Brutus and his cousin, Arruns Tarquinius, fell in battle against each other.
After this failure, Tarquin turned to Lars Porsena, the king of Clusium. Porsena's march on Rome and the valiant defense of the Romans achieved legendary status, giving rise to the story of Horatius at the bridge, and the bravery of Gaius Mucius Scaevola. Accounts vary as to whether Porsena finally entered Rome, or was thwarted, but modern scholarship suggests that he was able to occupy the city briefly before withdrawing. In any case, his efforts were of no avail to the exiled Roman king.
Tarquin's final attempt to regain the Roman kingdom came in 498 or 496 BC, when he persuaded his son-in-law, Octavius Mamilius, dictator of Tusculum, to march on Rome at the head of a Latin army. The Roman army was led by the dictator, Albus Postumius Albus, and his Master of the Horse, Titus Aebutius Elva, while the elderly king and his last remaining son, Titus Tarquinius, accompanied by a force of Roman exiles, fought alongside the Latins. Once more the battle was hard fought and narrowly decided, with both sides suffering great losses. Mamilius was slain, the master of the horse grievously injured, and Titus Tarquinius barely escaped with his life. But in the end, the Latins abandoned the field, and Rome retained her independence.
After the Latin defeat and the death of his son-in-law, Tarquin went to the court of Aristodemus at Cumae, where he died in 495.
Tarquin is mentioned by William Shakespeare in his plays, Titus Andronicus, Julius Caesar, Macbeth, and Cymbeline.
In 1765, Patrick Henry gave a speech before the Virginia House of Burgesses, in opposition to the Stamp Act of 1765. Toward the end of his speech, he inserted as a rhetorical flourish, a comparison between King George III and various historical figures who were brought low by their enemies, including Charles I, Caesar, and in some accounts of the speech, Tarquin.
The cultural phenomenon known as "tall poppy syndrome," in which persons of unusual merit are attacked or resented because of their achievements, derives its name from the episode in Livy, in which Tarquin is said to have instructed his son, Sextus, to weaken the city of Gabii by destroying its leading men. The motif of using an unwitting messenger to deliver such a message, through the metaphor of cutting the heads off the tallest poppies, may have been borrowed from Herodotus, whose Histories contain a similar story, involving ears of wheat instead of poppies. A passage concerning Livy's version of the story appears in Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling.
Benjamin Britten employed the character in his 1946 chamber opera The Rape of Lucretia.