Before Rome was established as an ancient superpower, it had a series of kings from bordering tribes. Two of these kings were brought to power by Tanaquil: the queen of Rome and kingmaker.
The daughter of a powerful Etruscan family, Tanaquil married Tarquinius Priscus from the nearby kingdom of Etruria. She knew that while they remained in Etruscus her husband’s power would be limited, because the Etruscans did not allow foreign men to rule. Keen to break out of the limits set at home and to push her husband to his full potential, Tanaquil left her family home and drove her husband Tarquinius to Rome, where she knew he could rise through the political system.
But Tanaquil was not just ambitious and persuasive, she was also skilled in the art of divination! Though for us this skill is part of Harry Potter, for the Romans interpreting omens was part of their religion. Romulus and Remus, Rome’s founders, determined who should be king by reading the portent of eagles flying over. Tanaquil’s husband also received a message from an eagle.
According to the Roman historian Livy, whilst Tarquinius was travelling to Rome an eagle snatched his hat- only to replace it on his head. Tanaquil was thrilled because she understood that the eagle had removed a cap and returned a crown, she read this as an augury (a bird omen) of Tarquinius’ future kingship.
When they arrived in Rome, Tanaquil encouraged Tullius to befriend the ruling families and eventually he even befriended the ruling king himself: Ancus. Finally, Ancus passed away and Tarquinius was able to take over. First he sent Ancus’ sons on a hunting trip, then he called for the comitia (Roman officials) to elect a new king and took the opportunity to campaign among them and steak his claim to the throne ahead of Ancus’ own sons!
After ruling from 579-616 BC, Ancus’ sons allegedly took revenge and killed Tarquinius, but even in this dire hour Tanaquil handed the situation with a political masterstroke…
Whilst her husband lay dying, Tanaquil had another man in mind for king and she took control of the situation to make it happen. She dismissed all witnesses from the room when Tarquinius passed away and told the Roman people that he was on his sick bed for weeks after he had died. This left the position of rule open for an interregnum, a period where someone would act as king another’s place. This made way for Tanaquil to make her second king: Servius Tullus.
But let’s back up to understand why Tanaquil chose to make Servius king, at the expense of burying and mourning her own husband. Again, according to Livy, Servius was either an illegitimate child born to one of Tanaquil’s slave women, Ocrisia, or the child of a pregnant queen taken captive from Corniculum during conflict. Whilst Servius was sleeping as a child, his head supposedly sparked with a prodigal flame. Being skilled in divination, Tanaquil read this as sign of the boy’s potential, telling her husband:
“Do you see this child that we are bringing up as a slave? One day he will protect the royal house and become king. Let us raise him as a son who will honour Rome and our family.”Livy 1.39
Tanaquil read the signs and knew that Servius should be the future king. As Servius grew, he proved her right by becoming worthy to rule, compelling Tanaquil and Tarquinus to marry Servius to their daughter. So years later, when Tanaquil’s husband Tarquinius died, she seized the opportunity to make Servius king. Using Tarquinius’ alleged illness to make the community choose Servius as a temporary king, or interregnum, Tanaquil then revealed that her husband had indeed died, having secured Servius’ place as king permanently.
From Prophetess to Goddess?
Roman historians such as Pliny the Elder have claimed that Tanaquil changed her name when arriving in Rome to Gaia Caecilia. Tanaquil is known for refusing to take her husband’s name after marriage, a Roman custom in which the wife would assume a forename that is the feminised version of her husband’s name. Instead, some argue she took the name of the earth mother Gaia, which links Tanaquil to the Roman wedding vows:
ubi tu Gaius, ego Gaia,
“Where you are Gaius, I am Gaia”
Gaia Caecilia is even credited with creating the first Roman wedding robe and is depicted in Medieval artwork at her loom, in line with contemporary standards of moral women. For some, Tanaquil took on such a role after her death as a deified goddess of women, marriage, and the home. For others, Tanaquil the king-maker remains a shrewd and ambitious augur, who put her own family ties aside to raise the most auspicious ruler to power.
Tanaquil made her personal relationships second to her understanding of what was right. She left her homeland to make her husband king, she forsook her sons to raise her handmaiden’s son to the throne and, in doing so, this Etruscan woman rewrote Roman history.
Dionysius. Roman Antiquities
Livy. The Origins of the City
Kobakhidze, E. 2009. Tanaquil of Tarquinii. Tblisi.
Sinclair, B & Carpino, A. 2016. Tanaquil, the Etruscan Queen. In: A Companion to the Etruscans. London: Wiley.
Wilson, R.A. 2015. An Attempt at Clarity: Understanding the Lives of Livia, Tanaquil, and Alexandra. Macalster.