A LTHOUGH Servius Tullius was the son of a slave, and had won the crown by a trick, he proved an excellent king. As he had once been poor himself, he was very thoughtful for the lower classes of Rome. He not only helped the poor to pay their debts, but also gave orders that some of the public land should be divided among the plebeians, so that they could support themselves by farming.
Once a slave himself, he also took pity upon the hard life of the Roman slaves, and made laws in their favor. He even said that they should be set free if they served their masters faithfully for a certain length of time, or if they paid a sufficient sum of money.
Slaves who had thus gained their liberty were called freedmen. Although they often stayed in their masters' employ, they were no longer treated as slaves, but were paid for all they did. Little by little the number of these freedmen grew greater, and slavery was no longer considered so terrible, since there was a chance of some time being free.
By order of Servius Tullius, all the Romans came together once in every five years on the Field of Mars. Here they were carefully counted, and every man was called upon to give an exact account of his family and of his property. In this way, the king knew just how many patricians, plebeians, freedmen, and slaves were to be found in Rome; and the process of thus counting the people was called "taking a census."
Before the assembled Romans were allowed to leave the Field of Mars and return to their homes, the priests held a religious ceremony to purify the whole state. This was called a Lustrum. As five years elapsed from one such ceremony to another, the Romans sometimes counted time by lustrums, just as we use the word "decade" instead of ten years.
Servius would probably have made many more reforms in Rome, had he not been forced to lay down the crown with his life, as you will soon see. Although he had no sons to succeed him, he had two grown-up daughters, of very different dispositions. One of them was very gentle and good, while the other was wicked and had a violent temper.
Servius was anxious to settle both these daughters comfortably, so he gave them in marriage to the sons of Tarquin. These young men were also very different in character. One was so cruel and proud that he came to be called Tarquin the Haughty, or Tarquinius Superbus, in order to distinguish him from his father, Tarquin the Elder. To this prince Servius gave his gentle daughter.
The wicked daughter, Tullia, was then provided with a good-natured husband; but she despised him on account of his kindly and gentle ways. Tullia and Tarquinius Superbus were so alike in character and tastes that they soon fell in love with each other and wished to marry.
As they were both married already, it was very wicked for them even to think of such a thing; but they were so bad that they agreed to murder their gentle partners, and then to become husband and wife. This plan was quickly carried out; and, as one wicked deed leads to another, they were no sooner married than they began to plot a second crime.
Both Tarquinius Superbus and Tullia, his wife, were very ambitious, and anxious to occupy the throne; and they soon arranged to murder Servius Tullius, so that they might reign in his stead.
According to the plan which they had made, Tarquin drove off to the senate one day; and there, walking boldly up to Servius Tullius, he publicly claimed the crown. He said that he had the best right to it because he was the true heir of Tarquin the Elder.
Servius paid no heed to this insolent demand, and Tarquin, seeing that his father-in-law did not move, suddenly caught him by the feet, dragged him from the throne, and flung him down the stairs into the street.
This terrible fall stunned the king, and for a while every one thought that he was killed. His friends were about to carry him away, when he slowly opened his eyes. Tarquin, seeing that Servius was not dead, now gave orders to his servants to kill the king, and loudly proclaimed that any one who ventured to interfere should die too.
Frightened by this terrible threat, none of the Romans dared to move, and Servius was killed before their eyes. They did not even venture to touch the bleeding and lifeless body of their murdered king, but left it lying in the middle of the street. Then they obediently followed the cruel Tarquin into the senate house, where he took his place on the vacant throne, as the seventh king of Rome.