According to ancient Roman tradition, Tullus Hostilius lived in the 7th century BCE and was the third king of Rome, reigning around 673-642 BCE. His predecessor was said to have been King Numa (who was counseled by a goddess) and before Numa it was the reign of the demigod, Romulus. As can be seen by the lives of the former rulers, Tullus Hostilius lived in a period of Roman history that was thoroughly suffused with myth and legend. Like his predecessors, Tullus Hostlius also was met with supernatural influence during his reign. Yet, whereas Romulus was sired by a god and Numa was advised by a goddess, Tullus Hostilius was unfortunately faced with a new type of divine intervention. Sadly, his supernatural experience would be much less gentle.
As the story goes, Rome was ravaged by a plague at the end of Tullus Hostilius’ reign. The king had devoted virtually his whole reign to war, so he did not have the slightest clue about how to cure or alleviate the pain of those stricken by the plague. Anxious for answers, Tullus Hostilius was said to have frantically flipped through notes left behind by the wise King Numa. Finally, the king found something promising. It was a ceremony that, if done correctly, would invoke the protection of Jupiter Elicius.
The king gathered everything he needed for the rite and reportedly decided to perform the ceremony alone, inside his palace. Yet, Tullus Hostilius apparently did not take with him Numa’s notes and chose instead to trust his memory. This, unfortunately, was a fatal mistake, for the king’s mind faltered and he tragically made an error in the procedure of the ceremony. Consequently, the ritual horribly misfired, and, instead of earning Jupiter’s sympathy, it only stoked the god’s anger. When Tullus Hostilius completed his erroneous ceremony, it was not a cure for plague that descended from the sky, but a white-hot bolt of zigzagging lightning. The bolt struck the palace and engulfed the structure in flames. Tullus Hostilius was unable to escape the burning palace and paid the ultimate price for his sacrilegious imprecision as he perished in the fire.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (modified version of Oath of the Horatii painted by Jacques-Louis David (1748–1825), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The History of Rome by Livy, translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt. New York: Penguin Classics, 2002.