There are Roman noble families that have high profile and which are very visible through one or couple of extremely famous members. Licinii Luculli might be an example, or Domitii Ahenobarbi. Theirs are relatively small families of few representatives, but who seem to dominate the Roman history as we know it. Then there are families that one bumps into seemingly every turn: Caecilii Metelli or perhaps Cornelii Lentuli might be such. Of those one is hard pressed to mention any particular member, even while the families had great many consulships and complex marital ties to everywhere. Then there are cryptical families, which sound important ones and had fair number of consulships, but of which we know next to nothing, Calpurnii Pisones or Aurelii Cottae, for example.
And finally there are Servilii, a family like no other. They had few family lines and some consulships, but that is about everything normal in them. First of all, they are probably the only noble Roman family of late republic of which most well-known member is a woman: Servilia. Of her I have already written earlier here.
When one lists the consulships of Servilii, one also immediately notices a queer fact:
253, Cn. Servilius Caepio
252, P. Servilius Geminus (I)
248, P. Servilius Geminus (II)
217, Cn. Servilius Geminus
203, Cn. Servilius Caepio
203, C. Servilius Geminus
202, M. Servilius Pulex Geminus
169, Cn. Servilius Caepio
142, Q. Fabius Maximus Servilianus
141, Cn. Servilius Caepio
140, Q. Servilius Caepio
106, Q. Servilius Caepio
79, P. Servilius Vatia Isauricus
48, P. Servilius Vatia Isauricus (I)
41, P. Servilius Vatia Isauricus (II)
Of 15 consulships of the family, 8 were on consecutive years, and in fact we have three Servilii as consules at 203-202 and at 142-140! It’s not unique to have brother fixing consulships to each other, e.g. Caecilii Metelli had one pair of brothers following each other at 143-142, but it is very exceptional to have this continuum of office holding as a clear family strategy. I think we must assume that Servilii for some reason preferred this arrangement. It doesn’t seem to bring them any particular benefit, however. Much more common thing to do was to get an ally from other family to run with you for consulship, e.g. Mucius Scaevola and Licinius Crassus at 95. So one very much open question is, why Servilii wanted to have consuls from the family on consecutive years?
Were Servilii isolated and shy away from forming alliances? No, that could not be farther from the truth. Servilii had very complex and varied ties to other leading families through marriages: Caecilii Metelli, Claudii Pulchri, Junii Silani, Junii Bruti, Aemilii Lepidi, Julii Caesari, Livii Drusi, Licinii Luculli and Lutatii Catulli were all connected through marriages. Along with Claudii Pulchri and Caecilii Metelli the Servilii were the most ambitious family in forming marital ties.
There seems to have been two different kind of political marriages in Rome: those that were one-directional and those that were bi-directional. One-directional marriage arrangement is unbalanced in way that either husband or wife is clearly of weaker position in the society. For example M. Tullius Cicero was below his wife Terentia both in liniage as well as in money. This kind of one-directional marriage arrangement between the families is usally unique, e.g. the sister of the husband did not marry the brother of the wife. Bi-directional marriage arrangements were much more balanced, and cemented family ties to close alliances. If Servilii would have been isolated, their marriage ties to other families would have been pretty much one-off arrangements with different families, and probably include a fair number of marriages with families of remarkably lower social status. Servilii were a patrician family (though it also contained a plebeian branch) and their marriages with other patrician families were notably close. They also had bi-directional arrangements with some of the leading plebeian families. So the marriage arrangements were serious political alliances for the Servilii.
Also a notable characteristic of the Servilii was that while the family had some successful generals and some influental politicians, there seems to be no single or defining trait in the family. With Scipiones one expects culture and military glory, with Scaevolae juristical expertise etc. but with Servilii there seems to be none. In this they represent the Cornelii Lentuli: a highly important, but mostly unnotable family. There is nothing to suggest below than average talents, but certainly there seems to be lacking also the brilliance. While popular enough to attain several consulships, the family also seems to have been lacking a genuine support from the people of Rome. Perhaps the only really popular was the reasonably late consul of 79, P. Servilius Vatia Isauricus, who also lived to remarkable 90 years of age.
Old Isauricus was still in one way a typical Servilius. During his old age he turned against Clodius, son of his consular colleague Claudius Pulcher. While that was not unheard of, it was usually a custom that consular colleagues kept their pact during the coming years also. What is interesting, is that we don’t know any compelling reason for Isauricus to turn against his former ally’s son like this. All we know he could have kept silent and probably would not be condamned for doing so by his peers. Perhaps this gives some clue about the Servilii way? Consul of 106 Caepio and his son, praetor of 91, both were not shy of doing unpopular things. It also seems that the Servilii in general didn’t have any clear goals how to shape the Roman state to suit their vision. Indeed it seems pretty much to be the case that didn’t have any big vision.
Perhaps the secret of the Servilii is that they were so influental, that their status was pretty much guranteed, and all they cared about was to maintain that status. They did not concern themselves on anything else. They ensured their influence, but did not use it actively on anything but to keep things as they are for their family status, and did not seek any lasting position in the history books. Strangely enough this has made them to stand out as many ways exceptional family.