Servius Tullius – The last benevolent king of Rome
Just a stone’s throw away from the bustling Termini station in the heart of Rome stands a section of an ancient wall. This wall is known as the Servian Wall, as it is believed to have been built during the 6 century B.C. by Rome’s sixth and penultimate king, Servius Tullius. These notable defensive walls, however, are not the only enduring contributions made to the city by the man considered to be the last benevolent king of Rome.
16th century depiction of Servius Tullius, the sixth legendary king of ancient Rome. (c. 578 – 535 BC)
Large section of the Servian Wall near the modern Termini Railroad station, Rome, Italy. Public Domain
Although he attained the position of King of Rome, Servius Tullius is said to have come from humble origins. Most ancient sources agree that Servius’ mother was Ocrisia, a young noblewoman who was enslaved after the Roman siege of Corniculum and given to Tanaquil, the wife of king Tarquinius. These sources, however, disagree as to what happened next. One source claims that she was already pregnant when captured, while another asserts that she was a virgin. In the latter version, she becomes a Vestal Virgin (chastity-sworn priestesses of goddess Vesta) due to her former status, and said to have been impregnated by a god.
Her son’s divinity is also said to be attested in the story that a ring of fire was seen blazing around the head of the young Servius while he was sleeping. This was taken as a sign that the boy was destined to do great things.
When king Tarquinius was assassinated, Servius ascended the throne. According to the Roman historian Livy, it was through the king’s wife, Tanaquil that Servius was able to succeed. Noticing that the king’s state was deteriorating, Tanaquil summoned and convinced Servius to seize the throne. Addressing the people from a palace window, Tanaquil announced that the king would recover, and that Servius would serve as regent in the meantime. Although Tarquinius was already dead, his death was kept a secret for several days, thus allowing Servius to consolidate his own position. After Tarquinius’ death was announced, Servius was elected as king by the Senate without reference of the people, however some sources credit him with obtaining the throne via public support.
Like most Roman rulers, Servius expanded Roman territory through conquests and celebrated triumphs with much pomp and ceremony. However, Servius was also quite unique as a ruler of Rome. Described as the benevolent king, Servius committed himself to improving the lot and fortune of Rome's lowest classes of citizens.
Servius Tullius was the sixth legendary king of ancient Rome and the second king of the Etruscan dynasty. Public Domain
During the early part of his reign, Servius pursued a war against the Veientes and Etruscans in order to preserve the internal peace of the kingdom. The war was a huge success, in which the king is recorded to have shown valor by routing a large army of the enemy. The peace that ensued allowed Servius to undertake important reforms in the kingdom. These political reforms undermined the bases of aristocratic power and transferred them in part to commoners.
Servius included new families into urban society by shifting the boundary of the city.
The most important was perhaps the establishment of a census that divided Rome’s male citizen population based on class. This exposed the wealth of the upper class.
The Roman ruler took land belonging to the upper classes for distribution to the poor. Rome's ordinary citizens became a distinct force within Roman politics, entitled to participate in government under certain circumstances, and bear arms on its behalf, despite the opposition and resentment of Rome's patricians and senate.
The divisions of these classes were based on the armor each man could afford. As a result, the burden of serving in the military was lifted from the shoulders of the poor and placed on the wealthy. In return, the rich were granted more political power, as they were given the privilege of voting first, should a vote be required. However, Servius also extended voting rights to those that had been previously excluded based on ancestry, status, or ethnicity.
The reforms are traditionally attributed entirely to Servius, and are now known as the Servian reforms.
Despite the success of his reign, Servius did not meet a happy end. Although Servius sought to avoid the fate of the previous king Tarquinius by marrying his daughters to the sons of his predecessor, it is ironic that their union would be the cause of his demise.
Initially Servius’ ambitious younger daughter, Tullia was wedded to the milder Arruns, whilst the elder Tullia was married to Lucius. The similar ambitious natures of the younger Tullia and Lucius, however, drew them together. Having murdered their respective siblings, the couple soon married, and began plotting Servius’ death and downfall. Although Lucius managed to seize the throne from Servius, he would eventually be overthrown, leading to the abolishment of the monarchy, and the establishment of the Roman Republic.
Detail, the Murder of King Servius by His Son-in-Law. Circa 1413 -1415. Public Domain
In the end, after a 44-year reign, Servius was murdered by his treacherous daughter Tullia and son-in-law Tarquinius Superbus, the heir to the throne, for favoring the lower classes of Rome over the wealthy. As a result of his crime and his arrogance as king, Tarquinius was eventually deposed.
According to Livy’s account, Tullia and Tarquinius bribed senators, and arranged for armed men to be present when Servius arrived at the senate-house. Met with angry senators, criticisms and accusations – for being of low birth, for his strange rise to power, for favoring lower classes over the wealthy, for the census, and for land redistribution – Servius was eventually overpowered and murdered in the street. In a final insult, it is said his own daughter Tullia, in a fit of madness, drove over his body with her chariot.
The fall of the last benevolent king cleared the way for the abolition of Rome's monarchy and the founding of the Roman Republic, the groundwork of which had been laid by the Servius reforms.
Featured image: Tullia drives her chariot over the body of her father, Servius Tullius. Painting by Jean Bardin, 1765. Public Domain
ancienthistory.about.com, 2015. Livy on King Servius Tullius. [Online]
Available at: http://ancienthistory.about.com/library/bl/bl_text_livy_Servius_Tullius.htm
dante.udallas.edu, 2015. Servius Tullius. [Online]
Available at: http://dante.udallas.edu/hutchison/Seven_kings/king_servius.htm
Gill, N. S., 2015. Servian Wall. [Online]
Available at: http://ancienthistory.about.com/od/cityofrome/g/ServianWall.htm
Gill, N. S., 2015. Servius Tullius. [Online]
Available at: http://ancienthistory.about.com/od/kingsofrome/tp/052711-Servius-Tullius.htm