Servius Tullius

Servius Tullius

Servius Tullius was the sixth legendary king of ancient Rome, and the second king of the Etruscan dynasty. The traditional dates of his reign are 578-535 BC. Described in one account as originally a slave, he is said to have married a daughter of Lucius Tarquinius Priscus, and succeeded him after the latter's assassination in 535 BC. He was the first king to come to power without the consultation of the plebeians, having gained the throne by the contrivance of Tanaquil, his mother-in-law. In this account (found in Livy) Tullius was anointed as a young child to become king, after a ring of fire was seen around his head. He was then raised as a prince.

Incidentally, Livy did not believe that Servius Tullius was born a slave. Livy postulated that Tullius' mother was a queen of an Etruscan city which had been sacked by the Romans. His mother was captured and to pay homage to her regal origins she was allowed to live in the palace. Another version, quoted in a speech to the Senate by Claudius, represented him as a soldier of fortune originally named Macstarna, from Etruria, who attached himself to Caelius Vibenna. After various adventures Caelius was beaten but Macstarna came to Rome with the remnants of his army. Macstarna named the Caelian Hill after his deceased friend, but some suppose Caelius Vibenna to have placed a settlement there.

The servile stories can probably be discounted as folk-aetiologic; that is, Livy and others were trying to explain the name Servius, which looks like an adjective of servus, "slave." The adjective, however is servilis, and there is some evidence to support the Macstarna story, which comes from the "Oratio Claudii Caesaris" of the Lugdunum Tablet and represents an Etruscan explanation being told by the emperor Claudius (a savant in matters Etruscan). The evidence is a painting of Etruscan heroes in the Francois Tomb at Vulci. A figure labelled Mastarna and others labelled the Vibenna brothers (Caile and Avle Vipinas) appear there. If Macstarna was Servius, the questions remain as to why he changed his name, and why he chose that name.

After military campaigns against Veii and the Etruscans, he improved the administrative and political organization of Rome. He undertook building projects and expanded the city to include the Quirinal, Viminal and Esquiline hills. Favoring the goddess, Fortuna (perhaps he was thinking of the fate of Vibenna), he built several temples to her as well as to Diana. He also built a palace for himself on the Esquiline.

However, as time passed, Servius increasingly favoured the most impoverished people in order to obtain favours from the plebs. His legislation was extremely distasteful to the patrician order, and his reign of forty-four years was brought to a close by a conspiracy in 535 BC headed by his son-in-law Tarquinius Superbus and his own daughter Tullia. The street in which the chariot was driven over Servius ever after bore the name of the "Vicus Sceleratus" (Street of Infamy). It is alleged in Livy that his daughter was driving the chariot that ran over his dying body to add insult to injury.

ocial reforms

According to traditional Roman history (i.e. as recorded in the works of Livy and Plutarch, among others), Servius Tullius is credited with reforming the army and also radically transforming the Roman constitution. Note that the term "constitution" in this case does not refer to a foundational document like the U.S. Constitution, but rather to the collective unwritten organizational structures and functions of the state: composition of the tribes, army, senate and voting assemblies, tax collection, conduct of official censuses, etc.

Constitutional change

The Roman constitution under the monarchy established a monarch, the rex, an advisory body, the Senatus, and various types of assemblies, the Comitia. Theirs was the rule of law, not of the monarch or the senate, and even those august institutions had to follow it. The Romans believed in leges (singular lex), "laws", which established iures (singular ius), "rights." When the kings were overthrown, it was on the basis that they had violated the law.

The king conformed more to the image of chief executive that we have come to expect of presidents and modern kings. Dictators are not in this category, as they are above the law. Romans would use them for special circumstances; indeed, the word is Roman. Between the king and the people was the Senate, which advised them both. It was the Senate that proposed, deliberated, prepared and promulgated laws. They did not go into effect until voted upon by the comitia curiata, an assembly of the whole populace voice voting by curia (a tribal division).

This is the constitution that Servius inherited, but his Rome was deeply divided. On the one hand were the ancient gentes organized in curiae. This was the constitutional populace. Apparently they consisted of both Latins and Etruscans. On the other were masses of people who had entered Rome one way or another, mainly from the surrounding Italic tribes. They used the facilities, needed magistrates, required defense, yet they did not participate in the government in any way. These were the plebs.

Servius, it seems, had been a warrior rather than a slave, as slaves are not trained in the arts of war or diplomacy. The slave idea was no doubt a double entendre with which the original populace mocked their fellow Etruscan. He must have had grave misgivings about the ability of such a large city to defend itself with only a small part of its population. In one magnificent gesture he altered the constitution so as to make full use of its able and willing plebs. Moreover, he must have had enough support among the gentes to do that. Some hypothesize a slow evolution, but that seems unlikely, considering the resentment to his reforms and his sudden murder.

In short he found a way to receive the outsiders into the infrastructure. After establishing their assembly, the comitia centuriata, he took the power of the legislative vote away from the comitia curiata and gave it instead to the comitia centuriata. This was not a removal of power from the curiae or from the gentes, as they still filled all the magistracies and the seats in the senate.

Voting rights now depended on wealth as determined by what is believed to be the world's first census. The gentes were wealthy and powerful before Servius and they still were. The significance of the Servian reforms is that he opened the ranks of the powerful to the nouveau riche and also gave every free male a say in self-government, no matter in how soft a voice.

First census

Servius Tullius, according to the Roman historians, initiated the first census. The noun comes from the participle of the Latin verb, censere, "to judge" or "to estimate". The census was an estimation of the total personal assets of Rome. Servius Tullius used it as a gauge of military capability.

The Roman census as practiced by Servius was quite different from our census, which aims at counting and locating people. Servius made sure those functions were performed, but he was primarily interested in property assessments. He used them to divide people into classes, nor was he at all interested in status or snobbery; in fact, he was killed for his popularizing. He wanted to know what arms and equipment Rome could provide. The army at that time was primarily privately funded, not publicly. He wanted to know who could fund what, who was bearing an unfair burden and who may have been shirking their responsibilities.

Neither the census nor the classification changed things much socially at Rome. All he did was to tell the senators they needed to own at least 800,000 sesterces to sit in the Senate, but in fact they all owned that much and more, and did not cease doing so. Similarly, the equites, or "knights", needed to own at least 400,000 sesterces, but we don't hear of any knights being declassified because they were discovered not to own enough. Business went on as usual at Rome, the main difference being that now some of the richer outsiders could attend assembly and had to be treated as citizens, a circumstance the patricii found it hard to accept, with some outstanding exceptions, such as Servius himself.

Today censuses are conducted by governments, who hiring large numbers of census takers. In Rome, the upkeep of the state was the responsibility of its citizens. The people were assembled by tribe in the Campus Martius and each man had to state under oath to the registrar, or censor, or his assistants, his name, address, social rank, family members, servants, tenants, and property. This information was recorded.

Servius intended the process to be repeated every five years, but the growing population of Rome made that impossible. It has been estimated that Servius enrolled about 80,000 men. That is not the population of Rome, but only of the free males. By the time of Augustus it had reached four million.


Servius did not invent the concept of class. The prior reforms of Solon at Athens had been along similar lines, creating new tribes and dividing the citizens by wealth so as to break the monopoly of the ancient families, whose exclusive powers were strangling the business of state.

The word classis appears at about the time of Servius and may well have been innovated by Servius. The centuria, or century, also appears at this time.

Classis comes from Indo-European *clad-ti, "that which is called out." But who or what was called and why? Here we might be guided by a type of special assembly, summoned or "called out" for a purpose by calatores, "callers." The comitia calata met once a month to hear and act upon the decisions made by the pontiffs concerning the legal days of the calendar month. The classis was a calling of a different sort of assembly, the comitia centuriata, which took over most of the functions of the subsequently supernumerary comitia curiata.

After completing his history-making first census, Servius used the information from it to divide the new, expanded populace by wealth, age and occupation. Once a class existed, it was further subdivided into peculiar institutions called centuriae, or centuries, which look as though they ought to be units of 100 men (centum is 100), but that was never the case. Perhaps 100 is simply a number symbolic of a large group.

In any case, even at the inception of the concept, the patricii, including Servius, had discovered the principle of the gerrymander. If voting is by district and there is one vote per district, then you can effectively invalidate large numbers of people by redistricting so as to put them all in one district.

The comitia centuriata met when summoned by the senate and later the consuls to vote on legislation, one vote per century. Whichever class had the most centuries met first. If they failed to reach a unanimous vote, other classes were convened. Obviously the class with the most centuries met most frequently and had the most power. The classes are as follows.
*1st, or classici. Men with 100,000 sesterces in assets. 40 centuries of men 45 and older, from which urban police were to be selected, and 40 centuries of men 17-45, prospective soldiers.
*2nd. 75,000 sesterces in assets. 10 centuries of older men and 10 of younger.
*3rd. 50,000 sesterces in assets. 10 of older, 10 of younger.
*4th. 25,000 sesterces in assets. 10 older, 10 younger.
*5th. 11,000 sesterces in assets. 30 centuries of specific types of workmen, such as 3 of carpenters.
*6th, or proletarii. No estate. One century.

The classes below the classici were the infra classem. The fixed parameters were the number of centuries, regardless of population density. It can easily be seen that if a century contained 100 men it was only by accident. And yet, no one has questioned the derivation of century from centum. Such a system biased the voting in favor of the classici, who contained 80 centuries.

There is some question about whether the top of Roman society was included in the classes at all. One sesterce is two and one half asses. Thus the senatorial requirement was 2 million asses, far above the minimum of the classici, and the equestrian requirement was one million asses, which puts them no lower than the second class. And yet, the junior officers of the army, who were well-to-do youngsters, commanded soldiers of all classes. Romans preferred the same laws to apply to everyone, indicating that the classici must have included most of the gentes, but the question remains open.

New tribal division

Before Servius Tullius, society at Rome was divided into three tribus, or tribes: the Ramnes, the Tities, and the Luceres. Originally they represented the entire populus Romanus. In tradition, the Ramnes were Latini who lived on the Palatine, the Tities were Sabini who lived on the Quirinal and Viminal, and the Luceres were Etrusci who lived on the Caelian. These tribes consisted of 200 gentes, each of which contributed one senator ("old man") to the deliberative and consultative body of the senatus. They advised the rex (king) and devised laws. Laws, however, required the approval of the 30 curiae into which the three tribes were divided. These bodies met from time to time and voted, probably one curia at a time, and probably by voice ("yea" or "nay"). This was the comitia curiata, "the going together of the curiae."

The senators were in fact the patres (fathers) of the clans. In time Rome was flooded with other people than members of the gens, who lived in districts around the ones cited. They had no say in the government. It is significant that they were not originally the Etruscan word populace, but were the plebs, an Indo-European word, root *ple-, "fill", in the sense of multitude. These were Italics. In contrast they called the clans the patricii, "of the fathers."

By the time of Servius the patricii had become the minority, excluding the better part of the city from governing themselves. What Servius did to correct the imbalance is to move the pomerium, the sacred boundary of the city, to add to the existing hill districts, thus completing the "Septimontium". The space enclosed he divided into four urban tribes, the Suburana, Esquilina, Collina, and Palatina. According to Livy the taxes, the "tribute," derived from the word "tribe."

The new tribal division brought new families into the social structure. It isn't clear that they received their own curiae; probably not, as Servius innovated a new class system. The classes met on the same field and took over most functions of the curiae, and yet the curiae continued to exist.


Servius Tullius is often accused in retrospect of being a militarist on the grounds that he organized society along military lines. Such critics view the army as having had a century structure and view Servius as having transmitted that to the unwilling populace.

It seems clear that the centuries began in the civilian populace and were transmitted to the army. This circumstance would account for the military century never really having been 100 men at any time in its history.

Having packaged the manpower resource so that he could take inventory of it, Servius used the packages off the shelf, so to speak. The military selection process picked men from civilian centuries and slipped them into military ones. Their function in the military depended on their age and the equipment they could afford. A class thus became a line of battle in the phalanx. Specialists were chosen from the 5th class. Officers were not part of the class selection process but were picked beforehand, often by vote of the civilian century. The centuries must have had a local character like that of the army of the North in the American civil war.

Servian Wall

Servius Tullius supposedly built a great wall around Rome, as the previous walls were not large enough for the growing city. In modern Rome, a portion of remaining wall is said to be part of the Servian Wall. The walls that can be seen are the walls of Rome rebuilt after the Sack of Rome in 390 BC by the Gauls. Many doubt whether he really did enlarge the walls.


His successor was Tarquinius Superbus


* Wright, F. A., "Lemprière's Classical Dictionary of Proper Names mentioned in Ancient Authors Writ Large", Third Edition, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London "et al.", 1984, ISBN 0-7102-0068-4, under "Centuria".

External links

* [ Smith, William, "Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities", 1870, under "Patricii", "Comitia"]

* [ Etymology of plebs]

* [ Etymology of class]

* [ Etymology of century]

* [ The Roman Assemblies]

* [ Etymology of census]

* [ Roman Census Figures]

"Incorporates text from the 9th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica"


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