Tullus Hostilius, the third legendary king of Rome, is a figure shrouded in myth and legend. Hostilius strictly adhered to the law and held firm beliefs regarding the importance of Roman religious rituals. Over the course of his reign, he was known primarily for his military leadership and his aggressive expansion of Roman territory.
Though his historical existence cannot be definitively confirmed, Hostilius’s story remains an important and fascinating part of Roman mythology . So what do we know about this legendary Roman king?
18th century engraving representing the legendary Roman warrior king Tullus Hostilius. ( Public domain )
The Mysterious Ascent to Power of Tullus Hostilius
There is limited reliable historical information about the early days of Rome, so the origins of Tullus Hostilius aren’t entirely clear. It is believed that Tullus Hostilius was likely of Latin origin, as the early Romans were a mix of Latin and Sabine people. However, there is also some speculation that he may have been of Etruscan or even Greek descent, as there were strong cultural and political influences from these regions during the early days of Rome.
According to Roman tradition, Tullus Hostilius was born into the Hostilia gens in the 8th century BC, which was one of the most ancient and prestigious Roman families in history. This blood connection would mean that he descended from Hostus Hostilius, a famous hero who fought alongside Romulus, the legendary founder of Rome .
Regardless of his true origins, Tullus Hostilius was likely connected to one of the ancient and powerful families that played a significant role in the early history of Rome. As a member of such an influential dynasty, he would have been part of the aristocratic elite that ruled the city, and his connections and status would have played a significant role in his rise to power.
Illustration of a sculpture of Tullus Hostilius. ( Public domain )
Praise and Power: The Reign of Tullus Hostilius
As the story goes, Tullus Hostilius came to the throne after the death of Numa Pompilius , the second legendary king of Rome. Unlike Numa’s peaceful reign, Hostilius was known for his aggressive, warlike nature, which at times weakened the confidence of the Roman people of the era.
During his reign, Tullus Hostilius is said to have waged war against the neighboring cities of Alba Longa and Fidenae, seeking to expand Rome’s borders and establish its dominance in the region. He is also said to have led his troops into battle personally, clearly displaying his bravery and martial prowess to the masses.
One of Tullus Hostilius’s most famous military victories was his defeat of the Albans, who were fellow Latins and close relatives of the Romans. According to legend, Tullus Hostilius challenged the Alban king, Mettius Fufetius, to a duel to determine the outcome of the war. Tullus Hostilius emerged victorious, and the Romans claimed victory over the Albans.
After this victory, Hostilius instituted the office of pontifex maximus , or chief priest, and constructed the first temple to the god Jupiter on the Capitoline Hill . He believed that the gods should be honored and respected, and that their favor was necessary for the success and prosperity of the Roman state. He ultimately dedicated his life to worship and war in the name of Roman success, and was heavily praised by his people for it.
The Victory of Tullus Hostilius Over the Forces of Veii and Fidenae, by Giuseppe Cesari. ( Public domain )
Hostilius’ Shocking End: A Warning to Future Rulers
Though Tullus Hostilius accomplished many great Roman feats during his reign, it was not without controversy. According to Roman mythology, Tullus Hostilius met an unfortunate and tragic end. After his successful military campaigns and the expansion of Roman territory, Tullus Hostilius reportedly began to neglect various religious rituals , even though he had previously held them near and dear.
The neglect of these important rituals quickly angered the gods, especially the god Jupiter, and earned Hostilius and his people a swift death. Rome was struck with a plague, while the gods struck Hostilius down with a bolt of lightning and killed him instantly.
Hostilius’ shocking end was widely seen by his followers as a divine punishment for his disrespect of the gods. These events served as a harsh warning to future Roman rulers to respect the power of the gods and to maintain proper religious observances, else they would not bless the Romans or their leaders.
Tullus Hostilius’s death also served as a reminder of the fragility of human power and the need for humility in the face of divine authority, as the previously undefeated Tullus Hostilius was no match for the wrath of the gods.
Legend has it that Tullus Hostilius incurred the wrath of the god Jupiter and was struck down by a bolt of lightning. ( zwiebackesser / Adobe Stock)
Separating Roman Myth from Reality in the Story of Tullus Hostilius
Because the origins of Tullus Hostilius are unclear outside of Roman tradition, some have questioned whether he ever truly existed. With such limited reliable historical information out there about him and his reign, Tullus Hostilius can only be considered a legendary figure in Roman history. While it is believed that there may have been a real person who served as the third king of Rome, historians are unable to separate fact from fiction in the many accounts of his life.
Though this lack of data points toward Tullus Hostilius being a man of fiction, historians believe that the stories and legends surrounding his life are likely based on real historical events and figures—possibly even Romulus himself. While the stories of his military conquests and his strict adherence to law and religion may have some basis in reality, these stories have likely been embellished over time through the lens of mythology and tradition, resulting in the legend of Tullus Hostilius.
A Legendary Figure for Roman Historians
Tullus Hostilius represented the ideal of a strong ruler who defended his people and expanded the reach of his empire, while also recognizing the importance of law and religion. Despite the mythical nature surrounding the legend of Tullus Hostilius, he remains an important figure in Roman mythology. To this day, his story continues to give historians important information about ancient Roman society and shape the way we view Roman tradition.
Top image: Representational image of Tullus Hostilius. Source: Pixel Matrix / Adobe Stock
By Lex Leigh