Servius Tullius – The First Conqueror of Rome?

Servius Tullius is the 6th of the seven legendary kings of Rome who ruled the city before it abandoned the monarchy and became a republic. The Roman tradition sees him as a hero who succeeded his father in law Tarquinius Priscus on the throne as the most legitimate candidate at the time, but there are traces of Etruscan tradition, that saw things quite differently.

The Roman Story

There are several versions of the origin of Servius Tullius in the Roman literary sources. The most widespread story known from the histories of Livy and others sees Servius as the son of a slave woman. It would take a spectacularly gifted person in huge favour of gods for a slave to become king and that is exactly the main feature of this version. Servius is said to have been no ordinary slave, but one with noble origins. He is a posthumous son of a prince from a town conquered by the Romans and his mother Ocrisia had allegedly been enslaved only shortly before his birth. The favour of gods is attested early in his childhood, when his head burst into flames while sleeping, which for some reason everyone saw as a good omen. Servius subsequently became a protegé, a son in law and the most trusted general of king Tarquinius Priscus. After the assassination of this king, Servius (with a little help from the king’s widow Tanaquil) managed to get rid of the enemies responsible for the regicide and sit on the throne himself. He did it by pretending that Tarquinius didn’t die and he was only the acting leader until the moment of the old king’s recovery. Only after Servius managed to consolidate his power, he publicly announced the death of Tarquinius Priscus. Even the Romans admitted that his rise to power didn’t follow the usual procedure. In the past, after a king died, a period of interregnum followed until the new king was elected. In Servius’ case, there was no interregnum and no election (although some sources claim he eventually held an election procedure after some time on the throne to confirm his right to rule). His reign was full of successful reforms and he held the throne for decades, until Tarquinius Superbus a descendant of the late king, in cooperation with Servius’ own daughter, usurped the throne and killed him.

The story of the slave origin of this king is indeed extraordinary and without a doubt was believed by the Romans. It seems that even the enemies of Rome were aware of this shameful tradition and (if we believe the historian Justin and his source Trogus Pompeius) the infamous Mithridates VI of Pontus didn’t hesitate to use it in his disrespectful speech against them.

Nevertheless, this whole version seems to be built on shaky foundations. Its core lies in the connection of the name “Servius” and a word “servus” that means “slave” in Latin. It is very likely that at the beginning the slave origin of this king was only an attempt to explain the meaning of the name “Servius”. Subsequently, to improve the image of the king, stories of noble origin and divine omens were added. Could there be a connection between “Servius” and “servus”? Most likely, the answer is no. In the list of Roman republican magistrates (known as Fasti Capitolini), we can find the name “Servius” several times. In the Suplicia family, it was often used as a first name and we can see two consuls with the name Servius Sulpicius in the first 50 years after the fall of the monarchy. It is highly unlikely that such a succesfull family would give such a dishonourable name to its children. It is hard to identify the true etymology of the name, but there have been suggestions (e.g. by Wilhelm Schulze) that it may have an Etruscan origin.

The Etruscan Story

Alongside the popular Roman tradition, an Etruscan version existed. We are informed about it by a very familiar source – emperor Claudius himself. Claudius became emperor almost by sheer luck, he was never groomed and prepared for such a role. Instead, he spent his time studying Etruscan history. After the praetorians proclaimed him emperor, and Claudius became the leader of the Roman world, he still couldn’t resist an occasional reference to his scholarly findings. In 48 CE Claudius made a speech to support the acceptance of Gauls into the Roman Senate. He supported his opinion by many examples from Roman history, when accepting foreigner into leading roles brought great success for Rome. The speech can still be read today on a so-called Lyon tablet. About Servius Tullius, Claudius had this to say:

Between Tarquinius and either his son or his grandson (for our authorities disagree on this point), there came Servius Tullius.  And according to the Roman sources Servius Tullius had as a mother a prisoner of war, Ocresia; according to the Etruscans he had been the faithful companion of Caelius Vivenna and took part in his adventures, and later, when he was driven out by a change of fortune, he left Etruria with all the surviving troops of Caelius and seized the Caelian hill, which thus takes its name from his leader Caelius, and after changing his name (for his Etruscan name was Mastarna) he was given the name I have already mentioned, and became king, to the very great advantage of the state.

To sum up the main points:

  • Servius Tullius was a companion of Caelius Vivenna
  • Servius had an Etruscan name Mastarna
  • Servius became king in Rome

Let’s now explore these points in more detail.

“…companion of Caelius Vivenna”

Caelius Vivenna (a.k.a. Caeles Vibenna) is a well-known Etruscan character. While some authors (Dionysius and Varro) place him to the times of Romulus, more frequently he said to have lived in the generation of the elder Tarquinius. Caeles and his brother Aulus came from the Etruscan city of Vulci and became leaders of a private group of armed men dedicating their time to robberies and similar pastimes of ancient heroes. Their deeds later became enhanced into folk legends. One such legend said they assaulted a seer called Cacus, abducting him from his master and forced him to reveal their destiny. According to some stories (e.g. in Tacitus) the Vibenna brothers were allies of Tarquinius Priscus, according to others, as we will see, his enemies. The name of Roman hill Caelius is often connected to Caeles Vibenna with either him occupying the hill at some point or his troops after his death (as Claudius claims).

One noteworthy fact about the Vibenna brothers is their probable historicity. Archeologist found an Etruscan cup with a name Aules V(i)pinas (Aule Vibenna) dating from the 5th century and even a bucchero vase from the first half of the 6th century with the inscription “Avile Vipiiennas”. 

“…his Etruscan name was Mastarna”

The identification of Servius Tullius and Mastarna is the backbone of the alternative theories of the king’s origin and his real way to the throne. The name “Mastarna” itself might not be a name at all, as a quite widely accepted theory explains that it might be just an Etruscan version of the Roman title “Magister” (solution suggested by J. G. Cuno as far as in 1873). This word is attested in the Roman reality of the Republic when for example the official title of the dictator was “magister populi” (master of the infantry), and his lieutenant was “magister equitum” (master of the horse).

The thing is that a character called “Mastarna” can be found on a wall painting in an Etruscan tomb in the area of Vulci in the same scene as Caeles Vibenna and a certain Tarquinius from Rome. The tomb was built in 4th century BCE, two centuries later than the rule of the Tarquin dynasty started. It is by no means contemporary but can still provide a unique source for the Etruscan version of Servius’ story. The tomb was discovered by archaeologist Alessandro François in 1857 and is called The François Tomb. The painting itself has been greatly damaged since the excavation, it was transferred to Rome, but it is not on public display. Nevertheless, we have documentation on its details.

The François Tomb fresco

The scene depicts two groups of men, one apparently attacking the other. On the left, one can see a figure named Caele Vipinas (good old Caeles Vibenna) and Macstrna (Mastarna). The latter is obviously freeing the former from captivity. Next to them, a man named Larth Ulthes stabs Laris Papathnas Velzah and further right Rasce kills a Pesna Arcmsnas Svemach. The bloody duels continue and we can see Venthical (…)plsachs (the name is partially illegible) being killed by Avle Vipinas (that must be Aulus Vibenna, brother of Caeles). The last part of the scene depicts Marce Camitlnas just seconds before killing the character with the most surprising name of them all – Cneve Tarchunies Rumach = Gnaeus Tarquinius of Rome.

The interpretation of the wall painting is not easy, but the most probable story is about a the Vibenna brothers‘ gang, that had been taken captive by a group led by Tarquinius, being freed by Larth Ulthes. Tarquinius and his allies obviously didn’t survive the event.

Tarquinius is arguably the most puzzling figure of the whole painting. He is the only bearded man from the defeated group which indicates he could be the leader. However, nothing specifically points to him being a king. The name nevertheless suggests that he could be a member of the Tarquin dynasty reigning in Rome. One possible explanation is his identification with Tarquinius Priscus himself.  After all, he was the Roman king Tarquinius who died violently in that period of time. The king’ first name was traditionally Lucius, coming from his Etruscan name Lucumo, but we know Lucumo might be just an Etruscan word for “king”, so this might not constitute a problem. On the other hand, no Roman source ever mentioned any Gnaeus Tarquinius and he might as well be a son or other family member of the Roman king.

Marce Camitlnas and Cneve Tarchunies Rumach

What we can see in the painting, therefore, can be the demise of Tarquinius Priscus, but also just an episode preceding it. In any case, it is quite certain that Mastarna was not at friendly terms with this Tarquinius of Rome at that point. Their relationship might have been different prior to the depicted episode. It has been suggested (e.g. by Thomsen) that Servius Tullius had spent some time in the service of Tarquinius Priscus. He may have acted as a military leader/general, thus earning the title “magister” that later transformed to his Etruscan nickname Mastarna. Others proposed a different explanation – Servius Tullius after he assumed power in Rome, abandoned the title “king” (rex) and started to use the title “Magister populi” instead. However that may be, inevitably, the conflict between Servius and the Tarquins emerged and Servius ended up on the victorious side.

“…and became king”

As mentioned before, even the Roman account of the events admit irregularities in the way Servius Tullius became king. He essentially tricked the people when he kept pretending the late Tarquinius Priscus survived the assassination. He was not elected to the office but seized the power. Roman historians pardon him for doing so, explaining that he did all that in good faith and basically didn’t have any reasonable alternative. If he hadn’t done that, the throne would have been usurped by Tarquin’s assassins.

The Etruscan account implies a more violent transition of power. If Servius and Mastarna are indeed the same person, then at some point he emerged in Rome with an armed band and assumed the royal power. It is hard to say how violent the transition might have been, but we cannot rule out a serious attack on the city. After all, Servius/Mastarna was very likely a skilled warrior who might have held an important military post in the Roman army before. Even after he became king, he is sometimes credited by reforming the Roman military and introducing new military tactics to the Roman army – the hoplite warfare, widely used by the Greeks and Etruscans.

Interestingly enough, this might not be the only time when an Etruscan conqueror took control of Rome after the demise of king Tarquinius. Because after Servius Tullius was overthrown by Tarquinius Superbus, and this younger Tarquinius was overthrown too by the Roman patricians, another Etruscan prince, Lars Porsena of Clusium, apparently held the city for some time. Despite the fact, that the Roman sources often stridently claimed he abandoned the siege after being impressed by the gallantry and resolution of the Romans, in reality, Porsena very likely conquered the city.  History repeating itself with two situations of such similarity in such a short period tempted the scholars to identify Servius Tullius/Mastarna with Porsena. The proponents of this theory didn’t succeed to produce sufficient evidence for this identification and modern scholars mostly abandoned it.

In the current state of knowledge, it seems impossible to determine what really happened. Did Servius Tullius even exist? Was he the same guy as Mastarna? Did he conquer Rome violently? We are left with the opportunity to make an educated guess and wait. From what we know now, it seems likely that Servius Tullius really was Mastarna and Rome fell into the hands of this Etruscan band leader. Maybe someday a piece of new evidence will resurface and one can then finally say with certainty who the famous Servius Tullius really was.


  • Livy – Ad Urbe Condita Libri
  • Cassius Dio – Roman History
  • Marcus Junianus Justinus – Epitome of the Philippic History of Pompeius Trogus
  • Dionysius of Halicarnassus – The Roman Antiquities
  • Rudi Thomsen – King Servius Tullius
  • T.J. Cornell – The Beginnings of Rome
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