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Livy, Tarquin the Proud, & The Tall Poppy Syndrome

Doug Garland
Doug Garland
5 min read
Livy, Tarquin the Proud, & The Tall Poppy Syndrome
Photography by Doug Garland

Table of Contents

This is the second animation of this two-part series regarding the Roman Kingdoms.  The first episode (see Rome's Founding, Familial Envy & The Tall Poppy Syndrome) involved twin brothers Romulus and Remus vying for leadership at the beginning of a new Rome and its First Kingdom in 753 BC. In an act of familial envy, anger, and fratricide Romulus killed Remus to become its first king.

This is business as usual in most kingdoms since succession is decided by ancestry. Accession by birthright creates a lot of dark emotions especially bad envy.  Governorships created through/by dark emotions rarely end well.

The dark emotions plagued all Seven Kingdoms and none ended well. The final and probably the most morally corrupt king, Tarquin the Proud, ended by toppling in 509 BC. The good news is that it ended the kingdom era and ushered in the republic. Tarquin's interaction with his son Sextus is also important regarding TPS history. Their interplay led historian Livy to describe the tall poppy syndrome using the poppy itself as the metaphor.

For those interested here is the text of the animation:

                          Livy, Tarquin The Proud & The Tall Poppy Syndrome


The great Greek historian Herodotus (484 - 425 BC) is credited with the first description of the Tall Poppy Syndrome (TPS) metaphor in his The Histories. However, the object cut down was wheat, not the poppy flower. He reported on Thrasybulus’, triumphant tyrant of Miletus, message to ally Periander, tyrant of Corinth, after his request regarding governance: lop off the heads of wheat - the disguised meaning was cut down the prominent opposition.

Separately in The Histories, Herodotus also recorded two other events that are important to the eventual description of the TPS metaphor using the poppy flower. He described a self-mutilated Zopyrus’ scheme to infiltrate Babylon, gain the trust of their leaders, and then sabotage their defenses permitting Persian King Darius to invade in 522 BC. This description resembles Homer’s description of Odysseus, who spied on Troy after mutilating himself.

The other event was the expulsion of the tyrants of Athens because of a love affair in 510 B.C. These latter paragraphs will gain meaning in the final recounting of Traquin the Proud’s reign.


The renowned Roman historian Livy (59 BC - 12 AD) wrote the first 5 books of his Histories series between 29-27 BC. These books covered Rome’s founding in 753 BC. to the Gallic occupation in 386 BC. This is extremely important since the Greeks sacked Rome, which would have included their libraries. In short, where did Livy get his information regarding the Roman Kingdoms and the early Roman Republic?

Livy explained history through representative individuals and human characters, the same techniques Aristotle and Thucydides used. Thucydides contended that human nature is constant and predictable. As such, people will predictably do what they are predetermined to do. A “like” individual will do what his predecessor did 500 years earlier. Livy also constructed moral episodes which defined the character of principal figures.

                                                     Tarquin the Proud

The Roman Kingdom was the earliest period of Roman history when the city and surrounding areas were ruled by kings with a personally selected, powerless Senate. The  Kingdom began with the city’s founding in 753 BC. It ended with the overthrow of Tarquin the Proud and the establishment of the Republic in 509 BC.

Tarquinius Priscus was the fifth king and had two sons. Instead of his kingdom passing to one of these sons, it went to an adopted son, Servius Tullius ( 578-535 BC). Servius had two daughters and wanted to keep the Kingdom in his family. Servius arranged for his two daughters to marry Tarquinius’s sons, Lucius (Tarquin) and Arruns.

His ploy failed miserably. The marriages became matches made in hell. Spousal envy resulted in the murders (TPS) of Tarquin’s wife and his brother (familial envy). The complaisant widow, Tullia, married Tarquin. Tullia approved, encouraged, and enabled Tarquin’s dark emotions. Tarquin began to openly malign and vilify King Servius who was now an old man.

Tarquin usurped the throne (envy) claiming that Servius was not a rightful king. His assassins then killed (tall poppied ) Servius, perhaps at the suggestion and encouragement of his wife. With a heart ladened with dark emotions and a deranged mind over the killings of her former husband and sister, Tullia drove over her father with a carriage carrying his blood on her clothes and carriage back to her home.

This new reign was hatched, secured, and became the purveyor of dark emotions. Lucius Tarquinius Superbus - Tarquin the Proud (535 - 509 BC) was Rome’s seventh and final king with the appropriate moniker - pride. His rule began by executing Senators (tall poppied) who did not support him. Since the people had not elected him nor had the senate sanctioned him, he ruled by fear and in fear - a bodyguard at all times.

Tarquin was a capable soldier and scored many conquests. The neighboring town of Gabii matched his military might. This caused him to resort to his strengths - deceit and treachery. Sextus, the youngest of three sons, was dispatched under the ruse of an abused son escaping a cruel father. (This was imitated from Herodotus’s description of Zopyrus’s ploy against Babylon.) He was gradually accepted by leaders and admitted to powerful councils. With his mission accomplished, his next move was unclear.

                                          The Tall Poppy Syndrome

Sextus sent a confidential messenger to seek Tarquin’s council regarding the implementation of the next scheme. Tarquin could not ascertain the legitimacy of the carrier and spoke not a word. He wandered about the garden with a stick knocking off the heads of the tall poppies (TPs). (This was copied from Herodutus’s description of Thrasyboulus’ message to Periander and substituting poppies for wheat.) When the field of poppies was uniform, Tarquin returned to his business. The messenger, frustrated by Tarquin’s silence, anger, ignorance, or arrogance, returned to Gabii thinking he had failed. The messenger reported his encounter to Sextus who recognized his next move: remove all influential men of Gabii (TPS) through various methods. The TPs were cut down. Gabii fell to Tarquin without a fight.

Sextus then joined Tarquin’s forces on the assault of Rutuli. During the campaign, Sextus met an officer, Collatinus, and later raped his wife, Lucretia. Distraught, she committed suicide. She and her husband were also friends of Brutus, son of Tranquin’s sister. Brutus knew of Tarquin’s murders of aristocrats which included his brother. Brutus was present shortly after Lucretia’s suicide and pulled the knife from her. He vowed to pursue Tarquin, his wicked wife, and his children, and destroy their reign of terror.

Lucretia’s body was carried to the public square where a crowd gathered. The scene generated great anger towards Sextus and empathy for Lucretia’s family. A rebellion resulted. Brutus wailed against Traquin for killing Servius Tullius. The crowd demanded the rescinding of the King’s authority.

Tarquin and two of his sons were forced into exile (TPS). His wife wondered about the countryside never escaping vengeance for killing her own blood. Sextus returned to Gabii where he was assassinated (TPS). Brutus and Collatinus were elected consuls by popular vote and the Roman Republic was formed in 509 BC. (The tyrants of Athens were expelled in 510 BC as a result of a love affair.)

It should be noted that Livy used a Greek template for much of his Roman history including the tall poppy syndrome.

tall poppy syndromepridevengeance

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Douglas Garland, M.D. practiced orthopedic surgery for 37 years in Southern California. Doug was also a Clinical Professor of Orthopedics at the University of Southern California.


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