The sixth king of Rome. The account of the early life and death of Servius Tullius is full of marvels, and cannot be regarded as possessing any title to a real historical narrative.
According to the general tradition, he was of servile origin, and owed his elevation to the favor of the gods, and especially to the protection of the goddess Fortuna, with whom he was always a favorite. During his life-time she used to visit him secretly in his chamber as his spouse; and after his death, his statue was placed in her temple, and remained unhurt when the temple itself was once destroyed by fire.1
The future greatness of Servius was announced by a miracle before his birth. His mother Ocrisia, a female slave of the queen's, and one of the captives taken at Corniculum, was offering cakes to the Lar or the household genius, when she saw in the fire on the hearth an apparition of the deity. Tanaquil, the wife of Tarquinius, who understood the portent, commanded her to dress herself as a bride, and to shut herself up in the chamber. There she became pregnant by the god, whom some Romans maintained to be the household genius, and others Vulcan; the former supporting their opinion by the festival which Servius established in honor of the Lares, the latter by the deliverance of his statue from fire.2
There are two other legends respecting the birth of Servius, which have more of an historical air, and may therefore be regarded as of later origin. One related that his mother was a slave from Tarquinii, that his father was a client of the king, and that he himself was brought up in the palace with the other household slaves, and waited at the royal table.3 The other legend, which gives Servius a nobler origin, and which is therefore preferred both by Dionysius and Livy, states that his father, likewise called Servius Tullius, was a noble of Corniculum, who was slain at the taking of the city, and that his mother, then in a state of pregnancy, was carried away captive to Rome where she gave birth to the future king in the royal palace.
The prodigies which preceded the birth of Servius accompanied his youth. Once as he was sleeping at mid-day in the porch of the palace, his head was seen surrounded with flames. Tanaquil forbade their being extinguished, for her prophetic spirit recognized the future destiny of the boy: they played around him without harming him, and when he awoke, the fire vanished. From this time forward Servius was brought up as the king's child with the greatest hopes. Nor were these hopes disappointed. By his personal bravery he gained a battle which the Romans had nearly lost; and Tarquinius placed such confidence in him, that he gave him his daughter in marriage, and entrusted him with the exercise of the government. His rule was mild and beneficent; and so popular did he become, that the sons of Ancus Marcius, fearing lest they should be deprived of the throne which they claimed as their inheritance, procured the assassination of Tarquinius. They did not, however, reap the fruit of their crime, for Tanaquil, pretending that the king's wound was not mortal, told the people that Tarquinius would recover in a few days, and that he had commanded Servius meantime to discharge the duties of the kingly office. Servius forthwith began to act as king, greatly to the satisfaction of the people; and when the death of Tarquinius could no longer be concealed, he was already in firm possession of the royal power. Servius thus succeeded to the throne without being elected by the senate and the curiae; but the curiae afterwards, at his own request, invested him with the imperium.4
The reign of Servius Tullius is almost as barren of military exploits as that of Numa. The only war which Livy mentions5 is one against Veii, which was brought to a speedy conclusion. This war is magnified by Dionysius6 into victories over the whole Etruscan nation, which is said to have revolted after the death of Tarquinius Priscus; and these pretended triumphs have found their way into the Fasti, where they are recorded, with the year and date of their occurrence. But the great deeds of Servius were deeds of peace; and he was regarded by posterity as the author of all their civil rights and institutions, just as Numa was of their religious rites and ordinances.
Three important events are assigned to Servius by universal tradition. First he established a constitution, in which the plebs took its place as the second part of the nation, and of which we shall speak more fully below. Secondly, he extended the pomoerium, or hallowed boundary of the city,7 and completed the city by incorporating with it the Quirinal, Viminal and Esquiline hills. He surrounded the whole with a stone wall called after him the wall of Servius Tullius; and from the Porta Collina to the Esquiline Gate where the hills sloped gently to the plain, he constructed a gigantic mound, nearly a mile in length, and a moat, one hundred feet in breadth and thirty in depth, from which the earth of the mound was dug. Rome thus acquired a circumference of five miles, and this continued to be the legal extent of the city till the time of the emperors, although suburbs were added to it. Thirdly, Servius established an important alliance with the Latins, by which Rome and the cities of Latium became the members of one great league.
As leagues of this kind were always connected among the ancients with the worship at some common temple, a temple of Diana or Luna the Moon was built upon the Aventine, which was not included in the pomoerium, as the place of the religious meetings of the two nations. It appears that the Sabines likewise shared in the worship of this temple. There was a celebrated tradition, that a Sabine husbandman had a cow of extraordinary beauty and size, and that the soothsayers had predicted that whoever should sacrifice this cow to Diana on the Aventine, would raise his country to rule over the confederates. The Sabine, anxious to secure the supremacy of his own people, had driven the cow to Rome, and was on the point of sacrificing her before the altar, when the crafty Roman priest rebuked him for daring to offer it with unwashed hands. While the Sabine went and washed in the Tiber, the Roman sacrificed the cow. The gigantic horns of the animal were preserved down to very late times, nailed up in the vestibule.8 From the fact that the Aventine was selected as the place of meeting, it has been inferred that the supremacy of Rome was acknowledged by the Latins; but since we find it expressly stated that this supremacy was not acquired till the reign of Tarquinius Superbus, this view is perhaps not strictly correct.
After Servius had established his new constitution, he did homage to the majesty of the centuries, by calling them together, and leaving them to decide whether he was to reign over them or not. The body which he had called into existence, naturally ratified his power, and declared him to be their king. The patricians, however, were far from acquiescing in the new order of things, and hated the man who had deprived them of their exclusive rule, and had conferred such important benefits upon the plebeians. In addition to his constitutional changes in favor of the second order in the state, tradition related, that out of his private wealth, he discharged the debts of those who were reduced to indigence; that he deprived the creditor of the power of seizing the body of his debtor, and restricted him to the seizure of the goods of the latter; and that he assigned to the plebeians allotments of lands out of the territories which they had won in war.9 The king had good reasons for mistrusting the patricians. Accordingly, when he took up his residence on the Esquiline, he would not allow them to dwell there, but assigned to them the valley, which was called after them the Patricius Vicus, or Patrician Street.10
Meantime, the long and uninterrupted popularity of the king seemed to deprive L. Tarquinius more and more of the chance of regaining the throne of his father. The patricians, anxious to recover their supremacy, readily joined Tarquinius in a conspiracy to assassinate the king. The legend of his death is too celebrated to be omitted here, although it perhaps contains no further truth than that Servius fell a victim to a patrician conspiracy, the leader of which was the son or descendant of the former king. The legend ran as follows.
Servius Tullius, soon after his succession, gave his two daughters in marriage to the two sons of Tarquinius Priscus. L. Tarquinius the elder was married to a quiet and gentle wife; Aruns, the younger, to an aspiring and ambitious woman. The character of the two brothers was the very opposite of the wives who had fallen to their lot; for Lucius was proud and haughty, but Aruns unambitious and quiet. The wife of Aruns, enraged at the long life of her father, and fearing that at his death her husband would tamely resign the sovereignty to his elder brother, resolved to destroy both her father and her husband. Her fiendish spirit put into the heart of Lucius thoughts of crime which he had never entertained before. Lucius murdered his wife, and the younger Tullia her husband; and the survivors, without even the show of mourning, were straightway joined in unhallowed wedlock. Tullia now incessantly urged her husband to murder her father, and thus obtain the kingdom which he so ardently coveted. It was said that their design was hastened by the belief that Servius, in order to complete his legislation, entertained the thought of laying down his kingly power, and establishing the consular form of government. The patricians were no less alarmed at this scheme, as it would have had the effect of confirming for ever the hated laws of Servius. Their mutual hatred and fears united them closely together; and when the conspiracy was ripe, Tarquinius entered the Forum arrayed in the kingly robes, seated himself in the royal chair in the senate-house, and ordered the senators to be summoned to him as their king. At the first news of the commotion, Servius hastened to the senate-house, and standing at the door-way, ordered Tarquinius to come down from the throne. Tarquinius sprang forward, seized the old man, and flung him down the stone steps. Covered with blood, the king was hastening home; but, before he reached it, he was overtaken by the servants of Tarquinius, and murdered.
Tullia drove to the senate-house, and greeted her husband as king; but her transports of joy struck even him with horror. He bade her go home; and as she was returning, her charioteer pulled up, and pointed out the corpse of her father lying in his blood across the road. She commanded him to drive on; the blood of her father spurted over the carriage and on her dress; and from that day forward the street bore the name of the Vicus Sceleratus, or Wicked Street. The body lay unburied, for Tarquinius said scoffingly, "Romulus too went without burial;" and this impious mockery is said to have given rise to his surname of Superbus.11
Servius had reigned forty-four years. His memory was long cherished by the plebeians, and his birth-day was celebrated on the nones of every month, for it was remembered that he was born on the nones of some month, but the month itself had become a matter of uncertainty. At a later time, when the oppressions of the patricians became more and more intolerable, the senate found it necessary to forbid the markets to be holden on the nones, lest the people should attempt an insurrection to restore the laws of their martyred monarch.12
The Roman traditions, as we have seen, were unanimous in making Servius Tullius of Latin origin. He is universally stated to have been the son of a native of Corniculum, which was a Latin town; and Niebuhr, in his Lectures, supposes that he may have been the offspring of a marriage between one of the Luceres and a woman of Cornienlum, previously to the establishment of the connubium, and that this may be the foundation of the story of his descent. His name Tullius also indicates a Latin origin, since the Tullii are expressly mentioned as one of the Alban gentes which were received into the Latin state in the reign of Tullus Hostilius13 His institutions, likewise, bear all the traces of a Latin character.
But the Etruscan tradition about this king was entirely different, and made him a native of Etruria. This Etruscan tradition was related by the emperor Claudius, in a speech which he made upon the admission of some Lugdunensian Gauls into the senate; and the fragments of which are still preserved on two tables discovered at Lyons in the sixteenth century, and since the time of Lipsius have been printed in most editions of Tacitus. In this speech Claudius says "that, according to the Tuscans, Servius was the faithful companion of Caeles Vibenna, and shared all his fortunes: that at last being overpowered by a variety of disasters, he quitted Etruria with the remains of the army which had served under Caeles, went to Rome, and occupied the Caelian Hill, calling it so after his former commander: that he exchanged his Tuscan name Mastarna for the Roman one of Servius Tullius, obtained the kingly power, and wielded it to the great good of the state." This Caeles Vibenna was well known to the Roman writers, according to whom he came himself to Rome, though the statements in whose reign he came differed greatly. All accounts, however, represent him as a leader of an army raised by himself, and not belonging to any state, and as coming to Rome by the invitation of the Roman kings, to assist them.
- Ovid. Fasti vi, 573, foll., 625; Valerius Maximus, i, 8.11.
- Ovid. Fasti vi, 625, foll.; Dionysius, iv, 2.
- Cicero. De re publica ii, 21.
- Cicero. De re publica ii, 21; Dionysius, iv, 12.
- i, 42.
- iv, 27.
- Dictionary of Antiquities, s.v. Pomoerium.
- Livy. The History of Rome i, 45.
- Cicero. De re publica ii, 21; Dionysius, iv, 9; Livy. The History of Rome i, 46.
- Festus s.v.
- Livy. The History of Rome i, 46-48; Ovid. Fasti vi, 581, foll.
- Macrobius. Saturnalia i, 13.
- Livy. The History of Rome i, 30.
- Smith, William. (1870). Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology. London: Taylor, Walton, and Maberly.
This article incorporates text from Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology (1870) by William Smith, which is in the public domain.