Servius Tullius was the legendary sixth king of Rome, and the second of
its Etruscan dynasty. He reigned 575–535 BC. Roman and Greek
sources describe his servile origins and later marriage to a daughter of
Lucius Tarquinius Priscus, Rome's first Etruscan king, who was assassinated
in 579 BC. Servius is said to have been the first Roman king to accede
without election by the Senate, having gained the throne by popular support;
and the first to be elected by the Senate alone, without reference to the
Several traditions describe Servius' father as divine. Livy depicts
Servius' mother as a captured Latin princess enslaved by the Romans; her
child is chosen as Rome's future king after a ring of fire is seen around
his head. The Emperor Claudius discounted such origins and described
him as an originally Etruscan mercenary, named Mastarna, who fought for
Servius was a popular king, and one of Rome's most significant benefactors.
He had military successes against Veii and the Etruscans, and expanded
the city to include the Quirinal, Viminal and Esquiline hills. He
is traditionally credited with the institution of the Compitalia festivals,
the building of temples to Fortuna and Diana and, less plausibly, the invention
of Rome's first true coinage.
Despite the opposition of Rome's patricians, he expanded the Roman franchise
and improved the lot and fortune of Rome's lowest classes of citizens and
non-citizens. According to Livy, he reigned for 44 years, until murdered
by his daughter Tullia and son-in-law Tarquinius Superbus. In consequence
of this "tragic crime" and his hubristic arrogance as king, Tarquinius
was eventually removed. This cleared the way for the abolition of
Rome's monarchy and the founding of the Roman Republic, whose groundwork
had already been laid by Servius' reforms.
Before its establishment as a Republic, Rome was ruled by kings (Latin
reges, singular rex). In Roman tradition, Rome's founder Romulus
was the first. Servius Tullius was the sixth, and his successor Tarquinius
Superbus (Tarquin the Proud) was the last. The nature of Roman kingship
is unclear; most Roman kings were elected by the senate, as to a lifetime
magistracy, but some claimed succession through dynastic or divine right.
Some were native Romans, others were foreign. Later Romans had a
complex ideological relationship with this distant past. In Republican
mores and institutions kingship was abhorrent; and remained so, in name
at least, during the Empire. On the one hand, Romulus was held to
have brought Rome into being more-or-less at a stroke, so complete and
purely Roman in its essentials that any acceptable change or reform thereafter
must be clothed as restoration. On the other, Romans of the Republic
and Empire saw each king as contributing in some distinctive and novel
way to the city's fabric and territories, or its social, military, religious,
legal or political institutions. Servius Tullius has been described
as Rome's "second founder", "the most complex and enigmatic" of all its
kings, and a kind of "proto-Republican magistrate".
The oldest surviving source for the overall political developments of the
Roman kingdom and Republic is Cicero's De republica ("On the State"), written
in 44 BC. The main literary sources for Servius' life and achievements
are the Roman historian Livy (59 BC – AD 17), whose Ab urbe condita was
generally accepted by the Romans as the standard, most authoritative account;
Livy's near contemporary Dionysius of Halicarnassus, and Plutarch (c. 46
– 120 AD); their own sources included works by Quintus Fabius Pictor, Diocles
of Peparethus, Quintus Ennius and Cato the Elder. Livy's sources
probably included at least some official state records, he excluded what
seemed implausible or contradictory traditions, and arranged his material
within an overarching chronology. Dionysius and Plutarch offer various
alternatives not found in Livy, and Livy's own pupil, the etruscologist,
historian and emperor Claudius, offered yet another, based on Etruscan
Parentage and birth:
Most Roman sources name Servius' mother as Ocrisia, a young noblewoman
taken at the Roman siege of Corniculum and brought to Rome, either pregnant
by her husband, who was killed at the siege: or as a virgin.
She was given to Tanaquil, wife of king Tarquinius, and though slave, was
treated with the respect due her former status. In one variant, she
became wife to a noble client of Tarquinius. In others, she served
the domestic rites of the royal hearth as a Vestal Virgin, and on one such
occasion, having damped the hearth flames with a sacrificial offering,
she was penetrated by a disembodied phallus that rose from the hearth.
According to Tanaquil, this was a divine manifestation, either of the household
Lar or Vulcan himself. Thus Servius was divinely fathered and already
destined for greatness, despite his mother's servile status; for the time
being, Tanaquil and Ocrisia kept this a secret.
Servius' birth to a slave of the royal household made him part of Tarquin's
extended familia. Ancient sources infer him as protégé,
rather than adopted son, as he married Tarquinius' and Tanaquil's daughter,
named by some sources as Gegania. All sources agree that before his
accession, either in his early childhood or later, members of the royal
household witnessed a nimbus of fire about his head while he slept, a sign
of divine favour, and a great portent. He proved a loyal, responsible
son-in-law. When given governmental and military responsibilities,
he excelled in both.
In Livy's account, Tarquinius Priscus had been elected king on the death
of the previous king, Ancus Marcius, whose two sons were too young to inherit
or offer themselves for election. When Servius' popularity and his
marriage to Tarquinius' daughter made him a likely successor to the throne,
these sons attempted to seize the throne for themselves. They hired
two assassins, who attacked and severely wounded Tarquinius. Tanaquil
immediately ordered the palace to be shut, and publicly announced from
a palace window that Tarquinius had appointed Servius as regent; meanwhile,
Tarquinius died of his wounds. When his death became public knowledge,
the senate elected Servius as king, and the sons of Ancus fled to exile
in Suessa Pometia. Livy describes this as the first occasion that
the people of Rome were not involved in the election of the king.
In Plutarch, Servius reluctantly consented to the kingship at the death-bed
insistence of Tanaquil.
Early in his reign, Servius warred against Veii and the Etruscans.
He is said to have shown valour in the campaign, and to have routed a great
army of the enemy. His success helped him to cement his position
at Rome. According to the Fasti Triumphales, Servius celebrated three
triumphs over the Etruscans, including on 25 November 571 BC and 25 May
567 BC (the date of the third triumph is not legible on the Fasti).
Most of the reforms credited to Servius extended voting rights to certain
groups — in particular to Rome's citizen-commoners (known in the Republican
era as plebs), minor landholders hitherto disqualified from voting by ancestry,
status or ethnicity. The same reforms simultaneously defined the
fiscal and military obligations of all Roman citizens. As a whole,
the so-called Servian reforms probably represent a long-drawn, complex
and piecemeal process of populist policy and reform, extending from Servius'
predecessors, Ancus Marcius and Tarquinius Priscus, to his successor Tarquinius
Superbus, and into the Middle and Late Republic. Rome's military
and territorial expansion and consequent changes in its population would
have made franchise regulation and reform an ongoing necessity, and their
wholesale attribution to Servius "cannot be taken at face value".
Curiate reform and census:
Until the Servian reforms, the passing of laws and judgment was the prerogative
of the comitia curiata (curiate assembly), made up from thirty curiae;
Roman sources describe ten curiae for each of three aristocratic tribes
or clans, each supposedly based on one of Rome's central hills, and claiming
patrician status by virtue of their descent from Rome's founding families.
These tribes comprised approximately 200 gentes (clans), each of which
contributed one senator ("elder") to the Senate. The senate advised
the king, devised laws in his name, and was held to represent the entire
populus Romanus (Roman people); but it could only debate and discuss.
Its decisions had no force unless approved by the comitia curiata.
By the time of Servius, if not long before, the tribes of the comitia were
a minority of the population, ruling a multitude who had no effective voice
in their own government.
Rome's far more populous citizen-commoners could participate in this assembly
in limited fashion, and perhaps offer their opinions on decisions but only
the comitia curiata could vote. A minority thus exercised power and
control over the majority. Roman tradition held that Servius formed
a comitia centuriata of commoners to displace the comitia curiata as Rome's
central legislative body. This required his development of the first
Roman census, making Servius the first Roman censor. For the purposes
of the census, citizens assembled by tribe in the Campus Martius to register
their social rank, household, property and income. This established
an individual's tax obligations, his ability to muster arms for military
service when required to do so, and his assignment to a particular voting
The institution of the census and the comitia centuriata are speculated
as Servius' attempt to erode the civil and military power of the Roman
aristocracy, and seek the direct support of his newly enfranchised citizenry
in civil matters; if necessary, under arms. The comitia curiata continued
to function through the Regal and Republican eras, but the Servian reform
had reduced its powers to those of a largely symbolic "upper house"; its
noble members were expected to do no more than ratify decisions of the
The census grouped Rome's male citizen population in classes, according
to status, wealth and age. Each class was subdivided into groups
called centuriae (centuries), nominally of 100 men (Latin centum = 100)
but in practice of variable number, further divided as seniores (men aged
46 – 60, of a suitable age to serve as "home guards" or city police) and
iuniores (men aged 17 – 45, to serve as front-line troops when required).
Adult male citizens were obliged, when called upon, to fulfill military
service according to their means, which was supposedly assessed in archaic
asses. A citizen's wealth and class would therefore have defined
their position in the civil hierarchies, and up to a point, within the
military; but despite its apparent military character, and its possible
origins as the mustering of the citizenry-at-arms, the system would have
primarily served to determine the voting qualifications and wealth of individual
citizens for taxation purposes, and the weight of their vote — wars were
occasional but taxation was a constant necessity — and the comitia centuriata
met whenever required to do so, in peace or war. Though each century
had voting rights, the wealthiest had the most centuries, and voted first.
Those beneath them were convened only in the event of deadlock or indecision;
the lowest class was unlikely to vote at all.
The Roman army's centuria system and its order of battle are thought to
be based on the civilian classifications established by the census.
The military selection process picked men from civilian centuriae and slipped
them into military ones. Their function depended on their age, experience,
and the equipment they could afford. The wealthiest class of iuniores
(aged 17 – 45) were armed as hoplites, heavy infantry with helmet, greaves,
breastplate, shields (clipeus), and spears (hastae). Each battle
line in the phalanx formation was composed of a single class. Military
specialists, such as trumpeters, were chosen from the 5th class.
The highest officers were of aristocratic origin until the early Republic,
when the first plebeian tribunes were elected by the plebeians from their
own number. Cornell suggests that this centuriate system made the
equites, who "consisted mainly, if not exclusively, of patricians" but
voted after infantry of the first class, subordinate to the relatively
Tribal and boundary expansions:
The Servian reforms increased the number of tribes and expanded the city,
which was protected by a new rampart, moat and wall. The enclosed
area was divided into four administrative regiones (regions, or quarters);
the Suburana, Esquilana, Collina and Palatina. Servius himself is
said to have taken a new residence, on the Esquiline. The situation
beyond the walls is unclear, but thereafter, membership of a Roman voting-tribe
would have depended on residence rather than kinship, ancestry and inheritance.
This would have brought significant numbers of urban and rural plebs into
active political life; and a significant number of these would have been
allocated to centuries of the first class, and therefore likely to vote.
The city of Rome's division into "quarters" remained in use until 7 BC,
when Augustus divided the city into 14 new regiones. In modern Rome,
an ancient portion of surviving wall is attributed to Servius, the remainder
supposedly being rebuilt after the sack of Rome in 390/387 BC by the Gauls.
Some Roman historians believed Servius Tullius responsible for Rome's earliest
true, minted coinage, replacing an earlier and less convenient currency
of raw bullion. This is unlikely, though he may have introduced the
official stamping of raw currency. Money played a minimal role in
the Roman economy, which was almost entirely agrarian at this time.
Debt and debt bondage, however, were probably rife. The form of such
debts had little resemblance to those of cash-debtors, compelled to pay
interest to money-lenders on an advance of capital. Rather, wealthy
landowners would make an "advance loan" of seed, foodstuffs or other essentials
to tenants, clients and smallholders, in return for a promise of labour
services. The terms of such "loans" compelled defaulters to sell
themselves, or their dependants, to their creditor; or, if smallholders,
to surrender their farm. Wealthy aristocratic landholders thus acquired
additional farms and service for very little outlay. Dionysius claims
that Servius paid such debts "from his own purse", and forbade voluntary
and compulsory debt bondage. In reality, these practices persisted
well into the Republican era. Livy describes the distribution of land grants
to poor and landless citizens by Servius and others as the political pursuit
of popular support from citizens of little merit or worth.
Servius is credited with the construction of Diana's temple on the Aventine
Hill, to mark the foundation of the so-called Latin League; His servile
birth-mythos, his populist leanings and his reorganisation of the vici
appear to justify the Roman belief that he founded or reformed the Compitalia
festivals (held to celebrate the Lares that watched over each local community),
or allowed for the first time their attendance and service by non-citizens
and slaves. His personal reputation and achievements may have led
to his historical association with temples and shrines to Fortuna; some
sources suggest that the two were connected during Servius' lifetime, via
some form of "sacred marriage". Plutarch explicitly identifies the
Porta Fenestella ("window gate") of the Royal palace as the window from
which Tanaquil announced Servius' regency to the people; the goddess Fortuna
was said to have passed through the same window, to become Servius' consort.
In Livy's history, Servius Tullius had two daughters, Tullia the younger
and Tullia the elder. He arranged their marriage to the two sons
of his predecessor, Lucius Tarquinius Priscus. The younger Tullia married
Arruns Tarquinius. The elder Tullia and Lucius Tarquinius procured
the murders of their respective siblings, married, and conspired to remove
Servius Tullius. Tullia encouraged Lucius Tarquinius to secretly
persuade or bribe senators, and Tarquinius went to the senate-house with
a group of armed men. Then he summoned the senators and gave a speech
criticising Servius: for being a slave born of a slave; for failing to
be elected by the Senate and the people during an interregnum, as had been
the tradition for the election of kings of Rome; for being gifted the throne
by a woman; for favouring the lower classes of Rome over the wealthy; for
taking the land of the upper classes for distribution to the poor; and
for instituting the census, which exposed the wealthy upper classes to
When Servius Tullius arrived at the senate-house to defend his position,
Tarquinius threw him down the steps and Servius was murdered in the street
by Tarquin's men. Soon after, Tullia drove her chariot over her father's
body. For Livy, Tarquinius' impious refusal to permit his father-in-law's
burial earned him the sobriquet "Superbus" (arrogant or proud), and Servius'
death is a "tragic crime" (tragicum scelus), a dark episode in Rome's history
and just cause for the abolition of the monarchy. Servius thus becomes
the last of Rome's benevolent kings; the place of this outrage – which
Livy seems to suggest as a crossroads – is known thereafter as Vicus Sceleratus
(street of shame, infamy or crime). His murder is parricide, the
worst of all crimes. This morally justifies Tarquin's eventual expulsion
and the abolition of Rome's aberrant, "un-Roman" monarchy. Livy's Republic
is partly founded on the achievements and death of Rome's last benevolent
Claims of divine ancestry and divine favour were often attached to charismatic
individuals who rose "as if from nowhere" to become dynasts, tyrants and
hero-founders in the ancient Mediterranean world. Yet all these legends
offer the father as divine, the mother – virgin or not – as princess of
a ruling house, never as slave. The disembodied phallus and its impregnation
of a virgin slave of Royal birth are unique to Servius. Livy and
Dionysius ignore or reject the tales of Servius' supernatural virgin birth;
though his parents came from a conquered people, both are of noble stock.
His ancestry is an accident of fate, and his character and virtues are
entirely Roman. He acts on behalf of the Roman people, not for personal
gain; these Roman virtues are likely to find favour with the gods, and
win the rewards of good fortune.
The details of Servius' servile birth, miraculous conception and links
with divine Fortuna were doubtless embellished after his own time, but
the core may have been propagated during his reign. His unconstitutional
and seemingly reluctant accession, and his direct appeal to the Roman masses
over the heads of the senate may have been interpreted as signs of tyranny.
Under these circumstances, an extraordinary personal charisma must have
been central to his success. When Servius expanded Rome's influence
and boundaries, and reorganised its citizenship and armies, his "new Rome"
was still centered on the Comitium, the Casa Romuli or "hut" of Romulus.
Servius became a second Romulus, a benefactor to his people, part human,
part divine; but his slave origins remain without parallel, and make him
all the more remarkable: for Cornell, this is "the most important single
fact about him". The story of his servile birth evidently circulated
far beyond Rome; Mithridates VI of Pontus sneered that Rome had made kings
of servos vernasque Tuscorum (Etruscan slaves and domestic servants).
Claudius' story of Servius as an Etruscan named Macstarna was published
as an incidental scholarly comment within the Oratio Claudii Caesaris of
the Lugdunum Tablet. There is some support for this Etruscan version
of Servius, in wall paintings at the François Tomb in Etruscan Vulci.
They were commissioned some time in the second half of the 4th century
BC. One panel shows heroic Etruscans putting foreign captives to
the sword. The victims include an individual named Gneve Tarchunies
Rumach, interpreted as a Roman named Gnaeus Tarquinius, although known
Roman history records no Tarquinius of that praenomen. The victors
include Aule and Caile Vipinas – known to the Romans as the Vibenna brothers
– and their ally Macstrna [Macstarna], who seems instrumental in winning
the day. Claudius was certain that Macstarna was simply another name
for Servius Tullius, who started his career as an Etruscan ally of the
Vibenna brothers and helped them settle Rome's Caelian Hill. Claudius'
account evidently drew on sources unavailable to his fellow-historians,
or rejected by them. There may have been two different, Servius-like
figures, or two different traditions about the same figure. Macstarna
may have been the name of a once celebrated Etruscan hero, or more speculatively,
an Etruscan rendering of Roman magister (magistrate). Claudius' "Etruscan
Servius" seems less a monarch than a freelance Roman magister, an "archaic
condottiere" who placed himself and his own band of armed clients at Vibenna's
service, and may later have seized, rather than settled Rome's Caelian
Hill. If the Etruscan Macstarna was identical with the Roman Servius,
the latter may have been less monarch than some kind of proto-Republican
magistrate given permanent office, perhaps a magister populi, a war-leader,
or in Republican parlance, a dictator.
Servius' political reforms and those of his successor Tarquinius Superbus
undermined the bases of aristocratic power and transferred them in part
to commoners. Rome's ordinary citizens became a distinct force within
Roman politics, entitled to participate in government and bear arms on
its behalf, despite the opposition and resentment of Rome's patricians
and senate. Tarquinius was ousted by a conspiracy of patricians,
not plebeians. Once in existence, the comitia centuriata could not
be unmade, or its powers reduced: as Republican Rome's highest court of
appeal, it had the capacity to overturn court decisions, and the Republican
senate was constitutionally obliged to seek its approval. In time,
the comitia centuriata legitimized the rise to power of a plebeian nobility,
and plebeian consuls.
Servius' connections to the Lar and his reform of the vici connect him
directly to the founding of Compitalia, instituted to publicly and piously
honour his divine parentage – assuming the Lar as his father – to extend
his domestic rites into the broader community, to mark his maternal identification
with the lower ranks of Roman society and to assert his regal sponsorship
and guardianship of their rights. Some time before the Augustan Compitalia
reforms of 7 BC, Dionysius of Halicarnassus reports Servius' fathering
by a Lar and his founding of Compitalia as ancient Roman traditions.
In Servius, Augustus found ready association with a popular benefactor
and refounder of Rome, whose reluctance to adopt kingship distanced him
from its taints. Augustus brought the Compitalia and its essentially
plebeian festivals, customs and political factions under his patronage
and if need be, his censorial powers. He did not, however, trace
his lineage and his re-founding to Servius – who even with part-divine
ancestry still had servile connections – but with Romulus, patrician founding
hero, ancestor of the divine Julius Caesar, descendant of Venus and Mars.
Plutarch admires the Servian reforms for their imposition of good order
in government, the military and public morality, and Servius himself as
the wisest, most fortunate and best of all Rome's kings.
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