In the list of the legendary Roman kings, one can find men of various parentage. From a son of Mars, through relatives of former kings, to a son of a Greek merchant. However, Servius Tullius stands out as the son of a slave who made it all the way to the throne. He succeeded in his reign and many long-lasting reforms or buildings were attributed to him. Who was this guy and how did he do it?
In his histories, Livy reports a supernatural story that happened in Servius’ childhood. This young boy belonged to the royal court of the Roman king Tarquinius Priscus. One of the royal slaves was his mothers. While he was sleeping, a miracle happened, and a bright flame appeared on his head. While this divine fire was obviously not hot enough to wake him up, it was scary enough for the rest of the household to notice. One of the slaves reacted in a way every normal person would and fetched some water to extinguish the fire. The surprise of this slave couldn’t have been greater when he was stopped by the Roman queen herself. Tanaquil, the wife of king Tarquinius, recognized an omen and ordered to let the fire as it was until the boy woke up. She prophecized that the small Servius Tullius was selected by the gods to do great things, save Rome from disasters and bring glory for the city. Tanaquil apparently had a thing for explaining divine omens, so it’s not a surprise, she got it right.
Obviously, a child predestined for greatness can hardly be a mere slave. Roman historians, therefore, provided several theories that deliver the desired divine or at least noble origins. The most popular claimed his father was a man also called Tullius, the political leader of the city called Corniculum. The city was sacked by the Romans just when his wife Ocrisia was pregnant. Tullius Sr. died in the fight, and the Romans took his wife and all other prisoners to Rome, where she gave birth to Tullius Jr. Dionysius claims the boy was named Servius (the name is as similar to the word “servile” as it is in English) because his mother was a slave at that moment. Livy doesn’t make this connection and calls his father Servius Tullius too.
The Penis Theory
In some Roman histories, however, there is an alternative theory that provides a much more spectacular story. Here Ocrisia notices a strange thing above the fire in the hearth in the palace. After taking a closer look, she recognized what that was – a penis. Yes, someone’s private parts mysteriously appeared, and no one knew what to think of it. Queen Tanaquil, skilled in divination, and other respected soothsayers were consulted and the Romans came up with a perfectly logical plan – someone should have sex with the penis! Because it goes without saying that when a strange penis is discovered at one’s home, it is actually a blessing from the gods and any women lucky enough to conceive a child after having some fun with the thing will give birth to a future leader of a great country. Ocrisia was chosen to have intercourse with the mysterious penis. As an obedient slave, she did. The thing disappeared immediately after the act, but the slavegirl was left pregnant and eventually gave birth to Servius Tullius. It was hard to identify which deity was brave and horny enough to expose his genitals in such an unorthodox way. Pliny the Elder attributes the body part to the Lar of the household. Lars were the divine protectors of the Roman households and Servius is later said to establish a religious festival celebrating their importance.
If this astonishing story seems odd to you, please be aware that the same was occasionally told about the conception of Romulus and Remus. Either some historians connected it with one legendary figure and others with other figures, or in those times it was extremely difficult for a young girl not to run into a divine penis every time she looked at a hearth.
To the Throne
Ocrisia didn’t spend her life in slavery. She became close to Tanaquil, was soon freed by her, and the two ladies continued to be friends. The ties to the royal family got even tighter once young Servius was allowed to marry one of the daughters of Tarquinius and Tanaquil. With all the other responsibilities and honours given to Servius, it became clear to the Romans that the successor to the Roman throne was being groomed here. Realizing this was happening, the sons of the former king Ancus Marcius took action. They had been deprived of the kingship after the death of their father and were content with the reign of Tarquinius only because they expected to succeed him. With Servius Tullius in the picture, this expectation began to vanish. The orchestrated an assassination and while they managed to kill the king, they did not end up with the crown. Queen Tanaquil handled the situation and established Servius Tullius on the throne fulfilling the old prophecy that had come with his burning head. She managed to hide the death of king Tarquinius from the public for a while and claimed the king chose Servius Tullius to help him rule the country until his recovery. Only when Servius secured his position, the death of the late king was made public.
It was in Tanaquil’s best interest to help Servius Tullius. Letting Marcius’ sons rule would certainly be a disaster for everyone connected to Tarquinius. She also had to take care of two little boys. The grandchildren fathered by hers and the king’s recently deceased son (some sources claim the boys were children, not grandchildren of the royal couple). Servius Tullius gladly promised to take care of the boys and he soon married the two boys to his two daughters. Tanaquil asked Servius to grant succession to one of the boys once they get older and peacefully ensure they will get the title that belonged to them by birth. Eventually, one of them indeed became the king of Rome after Servius, but the circumstances were far from peaceful…
- Livy – Ad Urbe Condita Libri
- Cassius Dio – Roman History
- Dionysius of Halicarnassus – The Roman Antiquities
- Pliny the Elder – Natural History