The Vibenna Brothers And Macstrna—Possibly Forgotten Tyrants (Or Kings) Of Ancient Rome


According to the traditional story laid down by Livy and other ancient Roman historians, there were only seven kings who ruled Rome during the city-state’s regal period: Romulus, Numa Pompilius, Tullus Hostilius, Ancus Marcius, Tarquinius Priscus, Servius Tullius, and Tarquinius Superbus. These seven men, at least in the traditional scheme of things, were the sole rulers of Rome for the span of about 244 years (753-509 BCE)—an average of about 35 years per king. Given that even the most stable monarchies of the ancient and medieval world all hovered at average reigns of about 20 years or less, the timeline and list of kings presented by Roman tradition has long been viewed with skepticism. In such a militarily- and politically-tumultuous region as ancient Italy, many historians are inclined to believe that numerous unknown Roman kings and tyrants existed in pre-Republic Rome, but were forgotten by the later Romans, who only began publishing their own histories around 200 BCE.

A certain Etruscan adventurer known as Macstrna is one of those possibly lost kings or tyrants of pre-Republic Rome. He was a follower of the Vibenna brothers (Caeles and Aulus), a pair of twins from Vulci, Italy, who were powerful Etruscan chieftains living around the time of the regal period in Rome. The Vibenna brothers and Macstrna were mentioned by ancient antiquarians (Varro, Verrius Flaccus) and historians (Tacitus, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Claudius), and archeologists have found several objects bearing their images or names, some of which date back as far as the 6th century BCE. From these sources, a framework of their lives—albeit a vague and incomplete one—can be constructed to bring these figures partially out of obscurity.

Caeles and Aulus Vibenna were both powerful chieftains and can probably be classified as condottieri—warlords with enough power to operate independently of their homeland’s government. Macstrna was their most prestigious follower, and he became the right-hand man of Caeles. When the powerful brothers and Macstrna ran afoul of their own people, they apparently chose Rome as a place of exile, where they were often known as ‘Caelius’, ‘Olus’, and ‘Mastarna’. Some Romans also called the brothers by the name ‘Vivenna’ instead of Vibenna. According to ancient antiquarians and historians, Aulus and Caeles each influenced Rome their in own way. Caeles, in particular, was reportedly so helpful to the Romans that he was given an estate on one of the Seven Hills of Rome. Yet, that pales in comparison to what Aulus may have achieved—the fascinating Chronography of 354, in its Chronicle of the City of Rome, claims that Olus (as the Romans called Aulus) became a king of Rome. It must be said, however, that no other ancient historian, antiquarian, or piece of archaeology yet found has corroborated the claim of the Chronography of 354. Aulus/Olus, be he a king or a rich refugee, was said to have been eventually murdered in Rome and his remains rested on a certain Roman hill. According to tradition, when the head (caput) of Olus was later found on that hill, the Romans began calling the site the Capitoline Hill.

Caeles, Aulus and Macstrna, however, were not always friendly with Rome. One reported episode where the Vibenna brothers and their trusty champion, Macstrna, were enemies of Rome was painted in detail on a tomb wall in Vulci around the 4th century BCE—this wall was rediscovered in 1857 at a location called the François Tomb. The paintings (which were unfortunately hauled away to a private villa) showed an interesting scene that depicted the Vibenna brothers and four companions (including Macstrna) in an armed struggle against four enemies. Along with each painted figure was a written name that identified each person in the scene. Interestingly, among the men fighting the Vibenna brothers was a man labeled by the original painter as ‘Cneve Tarchunies Rumach,’ which can be Latinized to Gnaeus Tarquinius of Rome. The Tarquin family, according to Roman tradition, produced two kings of Rome (Lucius Tarquinius Priscus and Lucius Tarquinius Superbus)—nevertheless, it must be said that no Gnaeus Tarquinius was ever mentioned in the traditional Tarquin family trees provided by ancient historians.

Upon analyzing the painting further, scholars discovered clues that led them to make an interesting theory about the meaning of the scene. In the painting, Macstrna can be seen cutting binding rope from the hands of his friend, Caeles Vibenna. Additionally, all but one of the Vibenna party was painted in the nude, whereas all of the opposing faction was depicted with some sort of clothing. Scholars have interpreted these clues to mean that the Vibenna brothers and their associates had been captured and imprisoned by Gnaeus Tarquinius of Rome. The single clothed Vibenna supporter, scholars theorize, then orchestrated a successful prison break, allowing the naked (but now armed) escapees to overcome their captors.

Little is known of the death of Caeles Vibenna, but when the powerful Etruscan chieftain did eventually die, it seems that his lieutenant, Macstrna, took command of the leaderless group and became a chieftain in his own right. Like the Vibenna brothers, Macstrna, too, was said to have run afoul of his Etruscan homeland and traveled to Rome. The emperor and historian, Claudius (r. 41-54), included some information about Macstrna in a speech he delivered in 48 CE, and a copy of the speech has survived on a bronze tablet found at Lyons. Claudius stated, “If we follow Etruscan sources, he [Macstrna] was once the faithful companion of Caelius Vivenna and took part in all his adventures. Subsequently, driven out by a change of fortune, he left Etruria with all the remnants of Caelius’ army and occupied the Caelian hill, naming it thus after his former leader” (Tablet of Lyons, ILS 212.I.8-27). The Roman historian, Tacitus (c. 56-117+), agreed with Claudius that the Caelian hill was named after Caeles/Caelius: “’the [Caelian] hill was originally called Oak Hill because of its dense growth of oak trees, and was later named ‘Caelian’ after Caeles Vibenna, an Etruscan chief who, for helping Rome, had been granted the hill as a residence by Tarquinius Priscus—or another king” (The Annals of Imperial Rome, Book IV, section 65).

After Macstrna took up residence in the late Caeles Vibenna’s estate on the Caelian hill, he apparently delved into Roman politics. According to Emperor Claudius, Macstrna ultimately became a king. The emperor offered an intriguing (but unverified) theory that linked Macstrna to one of the more popular Roman monarchs: “Servius [Tullius] changed his name (for in Etruscan his name was Mastarna), and was called by the name I have used, and he obtained the throne to the greatest advantage of the state” (Tablet of Lyons, ILS 212.I.8-27). As of now, however, there is still no evidence to truly link Macstrna to the Roman king, Servius Tullius, and until further evidence is found, the traditional stories of these two figures are too different to satisfactorily mesh them together. Yet, many historians do find it plausible that, instead of being another name for Servius Tullius, Macstrna could have simply been an entirely separate and unknown king or tyrant of Rome. Some theorize (again without definitive evidence) that ‘Macstrna’ is not a name, but a corrupted variant of the title, magister, which, when lengthened to magister populi, becomes an alternative title for dictator. Unfortunately, with the scant amount of information we currently have, the truth about the extent of power wielded by the Vibenna brothers and Macstrna will remain clouded in mystery.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (A scene of ancient Rome painted by Vincenzo Camuccini (1771–1844), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).


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