Servius Tullius was the 6th of the legendary seven kings of Rome and his reign was full of notable achievements. He was often celebrated for all the good he did for Rome. While his historicity is doubtful, many accomplishments were attributed to him by the Roman historians.
Rise to the Throne
Servius Tullius had one of the most interesting political careers in pre-republic Rome. He was born a slave and died a king. While some histories grant him noble or even divine origins, they all agree that his mother gave birth to him while being a slave on the court of the Roman king Tarquinius Priscus. Thanks to favourable divine omens, his own capabilities, and support from the queen Tanaquil, Servius established himself as a successor o the Roman throne. After the assassination of king Tarquinius, he managed to secure his position. Queen Tanaquil played a crucial role in the smooth transfer of power when she delayed the announcement of the king’s death until Servius’ position was secured.
Helping the Poor
As on many other occasions in antiquity, debts were a huge problem for many poor Romans. Many of the poorest Roman citizens faced imprisonment after not being able to pay what they owed. In one of the first acts as a ruler, Servius Tullius forbade imprisonment to be used in such cased. Moreover, from his personal funds, he donated money to the poor that allowed them to pay their debts. His reforms (see below) also lifted the tax burden from the poor, which certainly helped to prevent a speedy accumulation of new debts. In addition to this, he also divided the public land and allowed many of the poorer Romans to farm and take care of themselves. While he would appear as a champion of the poor, his reforms also stripped the poor of real political power. The introduction of the centuriate assembly brought power firmly to the hands of the rich citizens.
The Servian Reform
Servius’s most famous reform comes with establishing the “comitia centuriata” (centuriate assembly). This body was crucial in the Roman constitution in the Republic era when it had the right to declare war and elect higher magistrates. The Roman citizens were divided into classes based on their wealth. As the first step, the government needed to gather information about the property of each individual citizen. They did it in the simplest possible way – they asked them. This process was called a census. Each citizen had to report the value of his property. Romans were asked to do this truthfully, but just be sure, anyone who lied was stripped of all property, whipped and sold to slavery.
Both duties and rights were given to each of the classes. The citizens were divided into centuries (to reflect military organization) and each century had 1 vote. The military duties stood in the centre of the obligations. For each of the classes, it was clearly defined by how many soldiers are they supposed to contribute to the army and what specific equipment those soldiers will have. Richer classes (despite being fewer in number) equipped more centuries and were therefore asked to provide more man and more money to the army.
On the other hand, the process of voting was not entirely democratic. The richer classes equipped more of the centuries, so they had more votes and a larger impact. Moreover, they were asked first. Only if they failed to reach a unanimous decision, the poorer ones got to vote. As you can see, the richer classes were obliged to provide better-equipped soldiers, but with this, they were also given enhanced voting rights. The close link between the military contribution and the political rights just underlines the way Roman society worked back then.
Helping the Slaves
With the establishment of the centuriated assembly, the status of one social group still remained questionable – the freedmen. While those former slaves we no longer simply the property of their masters, it was still not sure whether they should be allowed to exercise their political laws as Roman citizens. Servius elevated their status and made them part of the hierarchy created by the division of Roman citizens to property classes. This increased the number of men available for army recruitment and also brought political benefits for the former owner of those freedmen. After being freed, a former slave remained a client of his master and was obliged to support him politically.
Expanding the City
He added two hills to the territory of the city – Viminal and Esquiline (according to some also the Quirinal). This allowed many Romans to build houses there. He is credited with building a wall – an old fortification that surrounds the seven hills of the city. The remains of the so-called Servian wall still can be found in Rome, but those fortifications were built in the 4th century BCE.
He then divided the expanded city to four regions and its people to four tribes (Palatine, Esquiline, Suburan, and Colline). He also divided the country to 31 tribes (some say 26 with 5 more added later), in the same manner as the city.
The Latin Alliance and the Holy Cow
Servius Tullius established close cooperation of the Latin cities with Rome leading this newly established alliance. The administrative centre of this alliance was in the newly built Temple of Diana in Rome (on the Aventine hill). During the same time, an extraordinarily marvellous cow was born in the region to a Sabine farmer. The farmer heard a prophecy that it will be the city of the person, who would sacrifice the cow, that would end up leading the regional alliance. As a patriot, he rushed to Rome to make the sacrifice in the temple of Diana. The priest, however, outsmarted the farmer. He sent him to the river to wash his hands before the sacrifice. In the meantime, the Roman priest himself performed the sacrifice – making Rome the beneficiary of the prophecy.
Festival of Compitalia and Other Religious Achievements
Servius introduced a new religious festival called “Compitalia”. It was celebrated in winter, a couple of days after Saturnalia. During the festival, each Roman family was supposed to sacrifice a honey-cake to the Lares Compitales, lesser deities, whose statues stood on the streets. A story circulated in Rome that Servius Tullius was a son of such lesser god. The festival also came with a period of Romans behaving nicer to their servants and slaves by removing (temporarily) the signs of their servitude. He also established the festival of “Paganalia” (a.k.a. Sementivae) and built temples to Fortuna (2x) and Diana
Historian Dionysius of Halicarnassus mentioned that Servius’ predecessor on the Roman throne, Tarquinius Priscus, defeated the Etruscans league and they surrendered their sovereignty to him. However, once the Roman king died and a new one took his place, the Etruscans didn’t feel bound by any treaties and waged war against the Romans. The war took 20 years, but Servius managed to come out on top and with a peace treaty restored the situation and forced the Etruscans to accept the same conditions as before. The Roman king celebrated three triumphs after his successful campaigns against this enemy.
- Livy – Ad Urbe Condita Libri
- Cassius Dio – Roman History
- Dionysius of Halicarnassus – The Roman Antiquities