Anno Urbis - The Roman Empire Online

The Story of Rome From the Earliest Times to the End of the Republic

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Whatever may have been the origin of the new king, he was evidently not of the ruling class, the Populus Romanus, and for this reason his sympathies were naturally with the Plebeians, or, as they would now be called, the Commons. The long reign of Servius was marked by the victories of peace, though he was involved in wars with the surrounding nations, in which he was successful. These conquests seemed to fix the king more firmly upon the throne, but they did not render him much less desirous of obtaining the good-will of his subjects, and they never seemed to tempt him to exercise his power in a tyrannical manner. He thought that by marrying his two daughters to two sons of Tarquin, he might make his position on the throne more secure, and he accomplished this intention, but it failed to benefit him as he had expected.

Besides adding largely to the national territory, Servius brought the thirty cities of Latium into a great league with Rome, and built a temple on the Aventine consecrated to Diana (then in high renown at Ephesus), at which the Romans, Latins, and Sabines should worship together in token of their unity as one civil brotherhood, though it was understood that the Romans were chief in rank. On a brazen pillar in this edifice the terms of the treaty on which the league was based were written, and there they remained for centuries. The additions to Roman territory gave Servius an opportunity of strengthening his hold upon the commons, for he took advantage of it to cause a census to be taken under the direction of two Censors, on the basis of which he made new divisions of the people, and new laws by which the plebeians came into greater prominence than they had enjoyed before. The census showed that the city and suburbs contained eighty-three thousand inhabitants.

The increase of population led to the extension of the pomoerium, and Servius completed the city by including within a wall of stone all of the celebrated seven hills [Footnote: The "seven hills" were not always the same. In earlier times they had been: Palatinus, Cermalus, Velia, Fagutal, Oppius, Cispius, and Coelius. Oppius and Cispius, were names of summits of the Esquiline; Velia was a spur of the Palatine; Cermalus and Fagutal, according to Niebuhr, were not hills at all.]--the Palatine, Aventine, Capitoline, Coelian, Quirinal, Viminal, and Esquilian,--for, though new suburbs grew up beyond this wall, the legal limits of the city were not changed until the times of the empire.

The inhabitants within the walls were divided into four "regions" or districts--the Palatine, the Colline, the Esquiline, and the Suburran. The subjected districts outside, which were inhabited by plebeians, were divided into twenty-six other regions, thus forming thirty tribes containing both plebeians and patricians. The census gave Servius a list of all the citizens and their property, and upon the basis of this information he separated the entire population into six classes, comprising one hundred and ninety-three subdivisions or "centuries," thus introducing a new principle, and placing wealth at the bottom of social distinctions, instead of birth. This naturally pleased the plebeians, but was not approved by the citizens of high pedigree, who thus lost some of their prestige. The newly formed centuries together constituted the Comitia Centuriata (gathering of the centuries), or National Assembly, which met for business on the Campus Martius, somewhat after the manner of a New England "Town Meeting." In these conclaves they elected certain magistrates, gave sanction to legislative acts, and decided upon war or peace. This Comitia formed the highest court of appeal known to Roman law.

Besides this general assembly of the entire Populus Romanus, Servius established a Comitia in each tribe, authorized to exercise jurisdiction in local affairs.

The first of the six general classes thus established comprised the Horsemen, Equites, Knights, or Cavalry, consisting of six patrician centuries of Equites established by Romulus, and twelve new ones formed from the principal plebeian families. Next in rank to them were eighty centuries composed of persons owning property (not deducting debts) to the amount of one hundred thousand ases (æs, copper, brass, bronze), and two centuries of persons not possessed of wealth, but simply Fabrûm, or workmen who manufactured things out of hard material, so important to the state were such considered at the time. One would not think it very difficult to get admission to this high class, when it is remembered that an as (originally a pound of copper in weight) [Footnote: The English word ace gets its meaning, "one," from the fact that in Latin as signified the unit either of weight or measure. Two and a half ases were equal to a sestertius, and ten ases (or four sesterces) equalled one denarius, worth about sixteen cents.] was worth but about a cent and a half, and that a hundred thousand such coins would amount to only about fifteen hundred dollars; though, of course, we should have to make allowance for the price of commodities if we wished to arrive at the exact value in the money of our time. The second, third, and fourth centuries were arranged on a descending grade of property qualification, and the fifth comprised those persons whose property was not worth less than twelve thousand five hundred ases, or about two hundred dollars. The sixth class included all whose possessions did not amount to even so little as this. These were called Proletarii or Capite Censorum; caput, the Latin for head, being used in reference to these unimportant citizens for "person," as farmers use it nowadays when they enumerate animals as so many "head."

Though the new arrangement of Servius Tullius gave the plebeians power, it did not give them so much as might be supposed, because it was contrived that the richest class should have the greatest number of votes, and they with the Equites had so many that they were able to carry any measure upon which they agreed. The older men, too, had an advantage, for every class was divided into Seniors and Juniors, each of which had an equal number of votes, though it is apparent that the seniors must have been always in the minority. Servius did not dare to abolish the old Comitia Curiata, and he felt obliged to enact that the votes of the new Comitia should be valid only after having received the sanction of the more ancient body. Thus it will be seen that there were three assemblies, with sovereignty well defined.

The armor of the different classes was also accurately ordered by the law. The first class was authorized to wear, for the defence of the body, brazen helmets, shields, and coats of mail, and to bear spears and swords, excepting the mechanics, who were to carry the necessary military engines and to serve without arms. The members of the second class, excepting that they had bucklers instead of shields and wore no coats of mail, were permitted to bear the same armor, and to carry the sword and spear. The third class had the same armor as the second, excepting that they could not wear greaves for the protection of their legs. The fourth had no arms excepting a spear and a long javelin. The fifth merely carried slings and stones for use in them. To this class belonged the trumpeters and horn-blowers.


These reforms were very important, and very reasonable, too, but though they gained for the king many friends, it was rather among the plebeians than among the more wealthy patricians, and from time to time hints were thrown out that the consent of the people had not been asked when Servius took his seat upon the throne, and that without it his right to the power he wielded was not complete. There was a very solemn and striking ceremony on the Campus Martius after the census had been finished. It was called the Lustration or Suovetaurilia. The first name originated from the fact that the ceremony was a purification of the people by water, and the second because the sacrifice on the occasion consisted of a pig, a sheep, and an ox, the Latin names of which were sus, ovis, and taurus, these being run together in a single manufactured word. Words are not easily made to order, and this one shows how awkward they are when they do not grow naturally.

On the completion of the census (B.C. 566) Servius ordered the members of all the Centuries to assemble on the Campus Martius, which was enclosed in a bend of the Tiber outside of the walls that he built. They came in full armor, according to rank, and the sight must have been very grand and impressive. Three days were occupied in the celebration. Three times were the pig, the sheep, and the bull carried around the great multitude, and then, amid the flaunting of banners, the burning of incense, and the sounding of trumpets, the libation was poured forth, and the inoffensive beasts were sacrificed for the purification of the people. Once every five years the inhabitants were thus counted, and once in five years were they also purified, and in this way it came to pass that that period was known as a lustrum.

Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown, says the proverb, and it was true in the case of Servius, for he could never forget that the people had not voted in his favor. For this reason he divided among them the lands that he had taken from the enemies he had defeated, and then, supposing that he had obtained their good-will, he called upon them to vote whether they chose and ordered that he should be king. When the votes came to be counted, Servius found that he had been chosen with a unanimity that had not been manifested before in the selection of a sovereign. Whatever confidence he may have derived from this vote, his place was not secure, and his fatal enemy proved to be in his own household.

It happened that of the two husbands of the daughters of Servius, one was ambitious and unprincipled, and the other quiet and peaceable. The same was true of their wives, only the unprincipled wife found herself mated with the well-behaving husband. Now the wicked wife agreed with the wicked husband that they should murder their partners and then marry together, thus making a pair, both members of which should be ambitious and without principle. This was accomplished, and then the wicked wife, whose name was Tullia, told her husband, whose name was Lucius Tarquinius, that what she wanted was not a husband whom she might live with in quiet like a slave, but one who would remember of whose blood he was, who would consider that he was the rightful king; and that if he would not do it he had better go back to Tarquinii or Corinth and sink into his original race, thus shaming his father and Tanaquil, who had bestowed thrones upon her husband and her son-in-law. The taunts and instigations of Tullia led Lucius to solicit the younger patricians to support him in making an effort for the throne. When he thought he had obtained a sufficient number of confederates, he one day rushed into the forum at an appointed time, accompanied by a body of armed men, and, in the midst of a commotion that ensued, took his seat upon the throne and ordered the senate to attend "King Tarquinius." That august body convened very soon, some having been prepared beforehand for the summons, and then Tarquinius began a tirade against Servius, whom he stigmatized as "a slave and the son of a slave," who had favored the most degraded classes, and had, by instituting the census, made the fortunes of the better classes unnecessarily conspicuous, so as to excite the envy and base passions of the meaner citizens.

Servius came to the senate-house in the midst of the harangue, and called to Lucius to know by what audacity he had taken the royal seat, and summoned the senate during the life of the sovereign. Lucius replied in an insulting manner, and, taking advantage of the king's age, seized him by the middle, carried him out, and threw him down the steps to the bottom! Almost lifeless, Servius was slain by emissaries of Lucius as he was making his way to his home on the Esquiline Hill (B.C. 534). The royal retinue, in their fright, left the body where it fell, and there it was when Tullia, returning from having congratulated her husband, reached the place. Her driver, terrified at the sight, stopped, and would have avoided the king's corpse, though the narrowness of the street made it difficult; but the insane daughter ordered him to drive on, and stained and sprinkled herself with her father's blood, which seemed to cry out for vengeance upon such a cruel act! The vengeance came speedily, as we shall see.

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