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Servius Tullius: The Sixth King of Ancient Rome

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Servius Tullius, the sixth king of ancient Rome.

Servius Tullius, the sixth king of ancient Rome.

The Death of King Tarquin

The old King Tarquin lay dead on the palace floor with a nasty axe wound to his head. He was the victim of an assassination plot put in place by the sons of the previous king, Ancus Marcius. The two sons were seeking revenge on King Tarquin because one of them had not been chosen king upon the death of their father.

When she saw the lifeless body of her husband, Tarquin’s quick-thinking wife, Queen Tanaquil, closed the palace doors and ordered everyone to leave. She then sent for medical supplies as though her husband was still alive and summoned her son-in-law, Servius Tullius. As Servius entered the room he was shocked to see a man who had been like a father to him lying dead. Tanaquil grabbed his right hand, begging him not to allow the death of the king to go unavenged. “The kingship is yours, Servius, if you are a man,” she cried. “It does not belong to those who used the hands of others to commit this terrible crime.”

A boisterous crowd had gathered outside the palace, pushing and shoving, seeking word on the fate of their king. Tanaquil addressed the people of Rome from the upper story of the house. She explained that the king had been rendered unconscious by a sudden blow but was regaining his consciousness. She told them she was confident that he would soon return to the throne and until his recovery, they should follow Servius Tullius. According to the historian Dio, she told the crowd, “Be not afraid. My husband both lives and shall be seen by you shortly. But in order that he may regain health at leisure and that no hindrance to business my arise from his being incapacitated, he entrusted the management of the public weal for the present to Tullius.”

In the days and weeks that followed, Servius appeared in the royal court dressed in regal attire and performed the duties of the king. Realizing the ruse would eventually be found out, Servius prepared for that eventuality by surrounding himself with bodyguards. After some time, the death of the king was announced and with no objection Servius became the sixth king of Rome with the approval of the senate.

The death of King Tarquin the Elder. The picture depicts Queen Tanaquil with her two young children and Servius Tullius looking at the body of the dead king.

The death of King Tarquin the Elder. The picture depicts Queen Tanaquil with her two young children and Servius Tullius looking at the body of the dead king.

Ancient Sources on Servius Tullius

Nearly everything known about the life and times of King Tullius comes to us from a few ancient sources. One of the most prolific writers of the history of the early Roman Empire was a first century BC Roman historian named Livy. He wrote a lengthy history of Rome from the mythical founding of the city by Romulus and Remus up until his own day. Much of his work has stood the ravages of time and is contained in his monumental work, Ab Urbe Condita (“From the Founding of the City”), or as it is commonly known, The History of Rome.

A second historian who wrote about Servius is a Greek teacher named Dionysius of Halicarnassus. He moved to Rome in the first century BC and lived there for over 20 years, where he taught rhetoric and wrote his books on Roman history. His major work, Roman Antiquities, narrates the history of Rome from the mythical period to the beginning of the First Punic War in 20 books, not all of which have survived until modern times.

Though fragmentary references can be found in other Roman authors, three additional writers from antiquity provide valuable information about Servius and his accomplishments. The first is Plutarch, who lived in the first century AD in Rome. The second was a famous writer, orator, and statesman from the first century BC named Cicero. The third in the trio of historians is Cassius Dio. who lived in the second century AD. Dio was a senator in Rome and wrote extensively on the history of the Roman Empire.

The Story of Servius’s Youth

Servius grew up as the son of a slave in the palace of King Tarquin (reigned from c. 616 to c. 579 BC) and his wife Queen Tanaquil. One story of Servius’s unusual origin begins with his mythical conception. As the legend goes, his mother was tending to the palace’s hearth and when she sat on the hearth, a disembodied phallus rose up and inserted itself inside her, impregnating her. Once the story was revealed to the queen, she realized that a god must be responsible and watched closely over the slave woman’s pregnancy.

Another event occurred when Servius was very young and gave credence to his exceptional nature. One night a servant noticed that as young Servius slept a ring of fire surrounded his head. The king and queen were awakened to the uproar caused within the palace over such a miraculous occurrence. When the boy awoke, to everyone’s amazement, the fire was gone and the boy was unhurt. Tanaquil took her husband aside and told him, “You see this boy that we are raising in such humble circumstances? We should realize that he will be a beacon for us when we are in jeopardy and a safeguard for our royal house when it is stricken. Henceforth let us rear him with every indulgence that we can, since he will be a source of great distinction to the state and our family.” The young Servius grew up in the house of the king, increasing in skill and knowledge.

Cicero gives more detail on the young Servius: “He was brought up among the servants and waited at the king’s table; but the brightness of the lad’s intelligence was already too clear to remain unnoticed—he was so capable in all his duties and in everything he said. And so Tarquin, whose children were then quite small, became so fond of Servius that the latter was commonly treated as his son. The king had him educated with the greatest care in all accomplishments which he himself had learnt, to meet the most exacting standards of Greece” (Cicero, 2.37).

The sleeping child Servius Tullius. The picture depicts the king and queen preventing a servant from pouring water on the flame around the head of sleeping Servius.

The sleeping child Servius Tullius. The picture depicts the king and queen preventing a servant from pouring water on the flame around the head of sleeping Servius.

The Reign of King Servius Tullius

Once Servius gained the throne he realized that the two boys of dead King Tarquin and Queen Tanaquil would eventually become jealous of him, wanting the kingship for themselves. When the boys were of age, he married his two daughters to the king’s sons, Lucius and Arruns Tarquinius. Even though Servius had been chosen by their mother, Lucius and Arruns were both jealous that one of them had not been chosen over Servius to fill their dead father’s role.

War with Veii and the Etruscans

King Servius proved to be a good military leader, warring successfully against the nearby Etruscan city of Veii after a treaty had expired. The Romans had fought the people of the city sporadically since the time of Rome’s first king Romulus. According to a recovered ancient stone calendar dating from the first century BC, known as Fasti Triumphales, Servius had three victories over the Etruscans: the first in 571 BC, the second in 567 BC, and a third victory of which the date isn’t fully legible on the Fasti. According to Livy, “In that war, the bravery and good fortune of Servius Tullius shone forth. He routed a huge enemy army and returned to Rome, having proved himself the undisputed king in the minds of both senators and people.”

Map of central Italy around 450 BC. Rome (Roma) was surrounded by the Etruscans and Sabines to the north and the Latins to the south.

Map of central Italy around 450 BC. Rome (Roma) was surrounded by the Etruscans and Sabines to the north and the Latins to the south.

Servius Establishes a Census and Ranks the Citizens by Wealth

One of the accomplishments Servius is most remembered for is establishment of a census, the results of which were used to determine a person’s voting and military status. After the count of the people of the city of Rome and the surrounding areas was complete, the king put each family into a class that was further subdivided into centuries. A century was theoretically one hundred men; however, in practice they varied in size. In voting, each century carried the same weight as the other centuries, regardless of size.

Servius created five classes of citizens based on wealth. The number of centuries in the first two classes (the wealthiest) was greater than that in the remaining classes. Voting was successive starting with the wealthiest classes first. If the issue could be decided by the vote of the first two classes, the three lower classes were not required to vote. This system gave the wealthiest citizens much more political power than the poor. This political system, in which birth was no longer the dominant consideration, was not a democracy but rather a system based on property ownership.

Class Structure

Servius broke the people down into five classes depending on wealth as measured in terms of an equivalent weight of one pound of bronze, known as an as. He also divided the men into two groups depending on age. A senior was a man between the age of 46 and 60 years old. A junior was a man between the age of 17 and 45 years.

First Class – This was the wealthiest class, consisting of those who possessed 100,000 asses or more. Servius created eighty centuries, with 40 each juniors and seniors. Seniors were expected to guard the city in time of war while juniors had to wage war in the field. Due to their wealth, they were required to supply a helmet, a round shield, greaves (armor used to protect the shin), and a breastplate, all made of bronze. For offensive weapons they were required to arm themselves with a spear and sword. Added to this class were two centuries of craftsmen who were tasked with building and maintaining the siege equipment of war.

Second Class – This class consisted of men with wealth valued at 75,000 asses or more. There were 20 centuries for seniors and juniors. In time of war, this class was to provide an oblong shield, and everything else required of the first class less a breastplate.

Third Class – This class was made up of men with wealth valued at a minimum of 50,000 asses. There were the same number of centuries as the second class with the same age distribution. The military requirements were the same except they were not required to provide greaves.

Fourth Class – Men in this class possessed at least 25,000 asses. They had the same number of centuries as the third class but only needed to provide a spear and a javelin.

Fifth Class – This was the largest class and was made up of men who possessed at least 11,000 asses. They carried a sling and used stones for missiles in their slings. This class also had three centuries of trumpeters and horn-blowers. Those with less wealth than the fifth class were put in one century and were not required for military service.

A first class Roman solider in battle gear.

A first class Roman solider in battle gear.

Changes to the Government

Before the time of King Tullius, Rome’s laws and judgements were administered by the Comitia curiata. This body consisted of representatives from each of the three aristocratic tribes from Rome’s central hills, whose members claimed patrician status by virtue of their descent from Rome’s original founding families. The tribes consisted of roughly 200 clans, each of which contributed one member to the senate. The role of the senate was to advise the king, but it could only advise and debate; any decisions had to be approved by the Comitia curiata. By the time of King Tullius, the tribes making up the Comitia were a minority of the population, ruling over the rest who effectively had no voice in government.

Servius changed the distribution of power away from the Comitia curiata by adding a more representative and powerful assembly of centuries, called the Comitia centuriata. This change proved to be more practical to accommodate the expanding city. After the fall of the monarchy during the reign of Tullius’s successor, the Comitia centuriata grew more powerful, enacted laws, elected chief magistrates, and decided on peace or war. However, the assembly was often overshadowed by the senate, with their superior prestige and wealth, which controlled its votes on many occasions.

The Servian Wall

Rightly or wrongly, history has attributed the building of a fortification wall that encircled the north part of the city with a rampart. Tradition has ascribed the building of the wall to the reign of Servius; however, archeological evidence to support that claim is scant. The earthwork was apparently more than 25 feet high, with a ditch in front. It was built on the vulnerable open plateau on the north side of the city, to block the heads of the valley leading from the interior of Latium to Rome. In 378 BC with the onslaught of the Gauls, the Romans no longer considered their city sufficiently protected by the old earthen rampart, forcing erection of a massive new fortification wall, one of the great defensive works of the age. A large portion of it can still be seen today and it erroneously bears the name of the “Wall of Servius Tullius.”

Remnant of the Wall of Servius in the modern city of Rome.

Remnant of the Wall of Servius in the modern city of Rome.

Division of the City into Four Tribes or Quarters

To accommodate the growth of the city, Servius divided it into four parts or “quarters” according to the areas and hills in which people lived. Membership in each of the voting-tribes was dependent on residence rather than kinship or ancestry. The king called each of the groups tribes. The tribes were not connected with the number of the centuries. The division into tribes was for tax purposes rather than along ethnic lines, hence the relationship between “tribe” and “tribute" is attributed to Servius. Outside the boundaries of the city, he established 17 additional tribes for the rural areas. The changes to government instituted by Servius brought significant numbers of urban and rural common people (plebs) into the active political life of the city, many of whom were the upper classes, thus their right to vote.

And Servius Tullius, the man who of all kings most increased the power of his people, and introduced a well-regulated government and imposed order upon both the holding of elections and military procedure, and became the first censor and overseer of the lives and decorum of the citizens, and held the highest repute for courage and wisdom.

— Plutarch

The Assassination of Servius Tullius

Servius’s younger daughter Tullia and her brother-in-law Lucius Tarquinius “Tarquin” were both politically ambitious and wanted to take over the kingdom from the elder Servius. Tullia and Lucius conspired with each other, arranging the murders of their spouses then marrying and plotting to take over the kingdom. Livy places much of the blame on Servius’ younger daughter for the events that ensued, writing, “Quickly she filled the young man’s mind with her own recklessness. Deaths followed in quick succession, ensuring vacancies in their home for new spouses. And so Lucius Tarquinius and the younger Tullia were married. Servius did not prevent the marriage but hardly gave his approval.”

Tarquin began to make accusations that Servius had stolen his father’s throne, that he was nothing more than a son of a slave, and that he had favored the poor over the rich in the distribution of land. In a show of force, Lucius Tarquin dressed in royal regalia and went to the senate house to claim his rightful place as king. The senators were summoned to attend to the new king. When Servius, now an old man, arrived at the senate house, Tarquin physically threw him out of the building into the street. There, Tarquin’s assassins killed the old king and left him on the street for dead.

Tullia hurried to the senate house to praise her husband as the new king. Tarquin told her to go home as the situation was too volatile and dangerous. On her way home, her chariot ran over the body of her dead father. Livy tells of the horrendous event: “On her way back home, she came to the top of Cyprius Street, where the shrine of Diana recently stood…her driver recoiled in terror and, pulling in the reins, pointed out to his mistress the murdered king lying there…Crazed by the avenging sprits of her sister and husband, Tullia is said to have driven her carriage over her father’s body. Spattered and defiled by the blood of her murdered father, she brought some of it on her vehicle to the gods of her own household and those of her husband’s.”

The violent and deadly overthrow of King Servius Tullius marked the beginning of the reign of the last king of Rome, Lucius Tarquinius, or as he was also known, Tarquin Superbus. The reforms put in place by Tullius during his 44 year reign laid the groundwork for the founding of the Roman Republic.

A painting depicting Tullia’s chariot running over her father’s body.

A painting depicting Tullia’s chariot running over her father’s body.

References

  • Cicero and Niall Rudd (translator). Cicero: The Republic and the Laws. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.
  • Dio, Cassius and Herbert B. Foster (translator). Dio’s Rome, Volume 1. Troy New York: Pafraets Book Company, 1905.
  • Everitt, Anthony. The Rise of Rome: The Making of the World’s Greatest Empire. New York: Random House, 2012.
  • Grant, Michael. History of Rome. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1978.
  • Hornblower, Simon and Antony Spawforth (editors). The Oxford Classical Dictionary, 3rd edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.
  • Livy and Valerie M. Warrior (translator and notes). Livy: The History of Rome Books 1-5. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2006.
  • Matyszak, Philip. Chronicles of the Roman Republic: The Rulers of Ancient Rome from Romulus to Augustus. London: Thames & Hudson Ltd, 2003.
  • Plutarch. “On the Fortune of the Romans,” in Moralia. Loeb Classical Library Edition, Vol. IV, 1936.
  • West, Doug. The Seven Kings of Ancient Rome: A Short Introduction. Missouri: C&D Publications, 2022.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Doug West