Servilii – just another patrician family (so not)

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.

Family Servilius

The family tree of Servilii with connections to the most important noble families of late Roman republican era.

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.

I have already written about Servilii and families and individuals connected to them at here, here and here.

When even marriage contracts won’t help

Year 91. After years of prosperity and economical boom Rome and other Italian cities are rich and powerful. In fact the Italian cities have become so strong that they start to seek better deals with Rome, there’s even talk about granting a Roman citizenship to Italian people.

Rome has had its share of growth pains too: riches from trade and wars, influx of slaves and new citizens, need for agrarian reform and evermore fiercer political competition in the small elite of the citystate. Some 30 years earlier the brothers Gracchi had tried to solve problems already evident then by measures that benefitted mostly the poor part of the population. Their efforts were met with disapproval from the ruling nobility. The same fate waited for infamous tribune Saturninus and his allies.

The senatorial side had its champion too: M. Livius Drusus. His agenda was to change the balance of power firmly into senate side. His laws brought senators back into court juries and doubled the number of senators. He also started a land reform and lowered the price of grain thus gaining the support from poorer population added to senators and equesterians. Up to this point his plans were succeeded.

However, his next move was to become his downfall. He proposed to grant citizenship for the Italic allies of Rome. This was so unpopular that Drusus lost practically all his political support and his previous laws were declared null over technicalities. He was assassinated and this in turn brought about a rebellion against Rome amongst the Italian allied cities and started very bloody Social War that lasted 3 years.

These events are also interesting because of the political and family relationships of the two of the major figures: Drusus and one of his main opponents, Q. Servilius Caepio, who was praetor at the same year 91 as Drusus as tribune presented his laws. The two man were very closely linked by marriages.

Livius Servilius

Marriage arrangements between Drusus and Caepio.

Drusus´ sister Livia Drusa was married to Caepio. Also their daughter Servilia Caepionis was married to Drusus himself after her marriage with Q. Lutatius Catulus (cos 102) had ended when Caepio´s father Q. Servilius Caepio (cos 106) went into exile. It is also possible, perhaps even probable, that Servilia was in fact a daughter of elder Caepio, but in any case the Drusus and Caepio younger were closely tied with inter-family marriages.

Despite these close ties Drusus found a great political enemy in Caepio. I have already written more about these two friends and their fates, but I think it is noteworthy that sometimes even the most carefully managed marriage contracts and other arrangements were not enough to gurantee the stability of political alliances in the Roman politics. Individuals had still free will according which to act and make their decisions.

One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them

This is a story of two friends, impoverishment, marriage, a fabulous treasure, military glory and downfall, as well of one ring, that was behind one of the most horrible wars in the Roman history.

Chapter One: Military glory

Our story has, if not humble beginnings, but at least a beginning, which can be taken as a typical Roman story. Q. Servilius Caepio was a consul of the year 106. He is from an ancient and proud patrician gens Servilia.

During his days the position of patricians was not what it had used to be a hundred or more years before. The fast growing population of Rome had driven patrician gentes to be such a small minority with overwhealming number of plebeian gentes ever growing. Plebeians had been given a chance for consulship and during the days of our Caepio, the majority of consuls were plebeian. Still Caepio was proud about his lineage, somewhat rightly so, being a descendant of consuls of 253, 203, 169 and 140.

His consulship reflected his, I’m tempted to say conservative, sentiments about the Roman society. He did what he could to overthrow the changes into Roman legal system by the brothers of Gracchi. What he did was to change the law about the composition of juries of the trials. The reform that was made before him was that the jurymen were chosen from the equites, but our Caepio cancelled this reform and from his days on the jurymen were chosen from the senatorial class, thus tightening the grip that narrow ruling nobility had from the Roman state.

After his consulship he was sent to fight in the border provinces in the established fashion of his family. He was chosen as proconsul of Gallia Cisalpina at the year of 105.

During those times the areas of Gallia and Germania were very different from the area of immediate Mediterranean coasts of Italy, Greece and North Africa. While being rich and prosperous, the Gallia and Germania were composed of numerous tribes and tribal societies. Many of these tribes were independent and warlike and certainly refused to submit themselves under Roman or any other authority.

This of course offered Romans excellent excuses for wars small and big. Behind Roman preference for war was not lust to conquer or grow the land area of the Roman empire, but a simple personal motivation: lust for riches. Caepio as well as other Romans who reached the highest positions of the Roman state, had to use considerable sums of money to build their career. They had to show largesse to the masses, give favours to political allies, buy and bribe their way through elections. After their run in public positions they usually were more or less broke and had to fill their coffers.

Rich provinces for taxation like Sicilia or Asia were for those who did not like the fight so much. For those who were more ambitious and warlike, the provinces in Gallia and Hispania were the places to go. Caepio had already made a name for himself by his campaigns in Hispania before his consulship and returned Rome with triumph at 107, which obviously give him boost for consulship at 106.

So our Caepio got himself assigned into Gallia Cisalpina, after his consulship, where he commanded the other Roman force at the province while plebeian consul of 105 Cn. Mallius Maximus commanded the other. They fought against numerous Germanic tribes: Teutones, Cimbri and Cherusci.

Chapter Two: A Fabulous treasure

Caepio won some smaller victories along his way in the province and hit the jackpot at Tolosa (Tolouse) where he plundered its temples. The size of this so called Aurum Tolosanum treasure is said to have been 15 000 talents, that is about 510 tonnes of gold. Be that figure accurate as it may, it is no doubt that the treasure robbed from the temples of Tolosa was a fabulous one.

In many ways our Caepio this far was an examplary Roman of his date and social class: successful military commander and statesman, who had secured the status and the future of his family by getting himself into the consular rank and getting rich while doing it. He also had son and therefore a male heir.

At this point of our story the fate steps in, as so often it tends to do in the stories of successful men, in the guise of pride.

Chapter Three: A Downfall of an illustrious man

As said, our Caepio was a proud man. While perhaps not that evident before his proconsulship in Gallia, I think we can safely assume that pride was one of his leading traits. What he did in Gallia was to demonstrate his pride about being a patrician by refusing to camp together with the plebeian consul Mallius Maximus, who technically was also his superior officer.

Mallius Maximus was a homo novus, one of the few real new men of his day to reach consulship – meaning his ancestors had not reached consulship or even a place in the Senate. This was a stain bad enough for our Caepio to keep his distance.

The two Roman armies reached the area of Arausio (modern day Orange in Southern France) and camped separately: opposite shores of river Rhone. This was during September of 105. In the beginning of October it seemed that Mallius Maximus was able to reach a peace treaty in negotiations with the Germanic tribes. In such event Mallius would be awarded as a victor of those tribes and Caepio would be left without glory for final solution to pacify his province.

So at the 6th of October Caepio started his own attack against the tribes. The attack was poorly executed for some reason, perhaps for over confidence? In any case the Caepios force was cut down practically to the last man. Only small handful of men managed to escape, Caepio amongst them. The enemy looted the camp of Caepio and moved on to press attack against the other Roman camp. This camp was poorly placed between the enemy and the river, so there was no chance for Mallius’ troops to retreat and form any battle formation. Mallius’s force was also completely annihilated.

This battle of Arausio was the single largest defeat of Roman army ever. Estimate of total Roman losses are between 80 000 and 120 000 killed, that is about 10 legions and their auxiliary troops.

Strategic importance of this defeat was big. Northern frontier of Roman territory was left open. Romans also suffered severe lack of manpower due this defeat and this in its part was behind the coming innovation of C. Marius, who went to completely re-organize the way Roman military force was kept up and even fought.

Caepio escaped unharmed from the battle and went back to Rome. His defeat was widely seen as a (another) example of the rotten and incompetent upper class of Roman society. Caepio was tried in the court for losing his army. He was stripped of his citizenship and more importantly he received a sentence of interdicere aquae et ignis, that is any Roman was forbidden to give him food or shelter within 1200 kilometres from Rome, he was thus exiled. He chose to migrate into city of Smyrna at Asia, where he lived rest of his days.

He also received a fine of 15 000 talents. This was partly because the main part of the treasure of Tolosa never arrived into Rome. Rumour had it that Caepio himself had arranged it to be stolen on the way. This rumour was proved to be long lived: it was said that some parts of it survived to the ancestors of Caepio, eventually ending into the hands of M. Junius Brutus, murdered of Caesar!

Such a huge sum of course could not be paid, it probably exceeded many times the treasury of the Rome itself. The state then confiscated all property of Caepio and it was sold in public auction.

This ends the first part of our story. The elder Caepio had it all and lost it all in very spectacular manner. We can only guess what he must have felt about all this. What he thought during the long return to Rome from Gallia? What passed in his mind during the long nights? Still he chose not to commit a suicide, which would have been a honourable way out in Roman society. Did he believe he could get away from all that had happened? To bribe courts, to rely political allies? We don’t know.

The second part of our story is about the tragedy of his son and daughter.

Chapter Four: Impoverishment

Let’s have a look into the family of Caepiones. Consul of 169, Cn. Servilius Caepio had two sons Quintus and Gnaeus, who were consuls at 141 and 140. Our elder Caepio was son of Q. Servilius Caepio consul of 140. This elder Caepio had a son and a daughter: Q. Servilius Caepio (whom we call here younger Caepio for clarity) and Servilia Caepionis. Younger Servilius married Livia Drusa and together they had one son and two daughters and his sister married Q. Lutatius Catulus, consul of 102. Of these infamous daughters of younger Caepio I have already written.

The family of Q. Servilius Caepio and its connections into other powerful families through marriages.

The family of Q. Servilius Caepio and its connections into other powerful families through marriages.

The family of elder Caepio naturally faced a disaster when the paterfamilias was exiled and all his possessions were auctioned. According to the Roman custom, the new head of the family was younger Caepio and it was his task now to keep up the family lifestyle according to the high position. He also was made a custodian to his sister and was expected to come up with suitable dowry and wed her to a suitable husband. To do any of this he lacked funds and we can only imagine what he had to do to arrange the family affairs in order.

Chapter Five: Two friends and two marriages

In his youth younger Caepio had been close friends with M. Livius Drusus (whom we also call younger for clarity). The father of younger Drusus was consul of 112 M. Livius Drusus. This elder Drusus had the peak of his political career by presenting a dummy counter-proposal for the laws of C. Gracchus in 121, these leges Liviae were never enacted, but they managed to draw support from Gracchus’ laws and keep the reforms minimal. As such he was a staunch optimate against popular faction in the politics. During his consulship this elder Drusus fought wars in Macedonia from which he gathered a considerable possessions added to family’s already considerable wealth. When he died at 108 during his censorship he left his fortune to his son, who then became one of the richest men in Rome. Elder Drusus, in short, was a typical Roman statesman-general of the era and most probably a political ally of elder Caepio. Younger Drusus started from the same political position as his father, but gradually moved more and more towards opposing faction.

Younger Caepio and younger Drusus had shared some early parts of their career together and when the disaster of elder Caepio’s exile hit the family, Drusus offered his help to younger Caepio in form of marriage arrangements. First of all rich Drusus married younger Caepio’s sister, who had been widowed from Q. Lutatius Catulus. And as the marriage was between friends and Drusus was already rich, there was no need for Servilia to have a dowry with her. Also a part of the arrangement was that younger Caepio would marry Drusus’ sister Livia and with Livia would come a large dowry.

In this way, the financial problems of younger Caepio were solved in neat way and family honour was saved. At least, this is how it meant to happen. Roman society was merciless when it come to malicious gossip and Servilia marrying without dowry with younger Drusus, a known epileptic, the marriage was labelled as prostitution in public talk very quickly. The family reputation of Caepiones has sunk so low that even a normally honourable arrange was not enough to save it.

Chapter Six: A Ring that brought war with it

Perhaps the most curious detail in our tragic story of elder and younger Caepio is a golden ring that eventually sparked the social war between Rome and her Italic allies. This ring belonged to elder Caepio and was auctioned along with the rest of his possessions. In the auction younger Caepio wanted to buy it for himself – for what motivation we don’t know. Perhaps it just had some emotional value to him. In any case also younger Drusus wanted the same ring for himself. Again, we don’t know why, perhaps he collected such artefacts – collecting being popular amongst the Roman high society of the day. The argument that ensued marked break up of the friendship of younger Caepio and younger Drusus, so whatever their motivation, both really held the ring so precious that it was worth breaking up such a friendship.

In politics too the former friends moved into opposing directions. Younger Caepio kept their fathers’ ideological stance while younger Drusus moved ever more into opposing faction. Younger Drusus had ambitious plans to balance the situation between poor majority of citizens and especially Italian rural nobility against the ruling elite in Rome. He formulated several proposals and got support for them from the leading statesmen of the time, the princeps senatus M. Aemilius Scaurus and celebrated C. Marius. When younger Drusus moved on to a following step of his proposal, his luck ran out: the Senate did not approve at all his proposal to grant citizenship for Italian allies.

The leading opponent of his was his former friend younger Caepio. Their disagreement went as far as Caepio divorcing Drusus’ sister, who then married M. Porcius Cato. The political situation kept on boiling ever hotter and eventually all his laws were annulled on religious pretext and younger Drusus himself was murdered. This assassination sparked the armed rebellion within Italian allies and started the social war, that was to become especially bloody war even by Roman standards.

Younger Caepio was long suspected of murder of younger Drusus, but was never proven guilty. All it took was one ring, that bind them all to darkness. Younger Caepio was killed during the social war. His death marks the end of our tragic story of elder and younger Caepio.


As I wrote in the synopsis, this was a story of two friends, impoverishment, marriage, a fabulous treasure, military glory and downfall, as well of one ring, that was behind one of the most horrible wars in the Roman history. These kind of stories, and the Roman history is full of them, reveal the intensity of life of the Romans of this class, the crude, horrifying intensity with interpersonal tensions, blood relations, marriages, divorces, honour, deceive, courage and cowardice, all of extreme scale. Even while the events of the battle of Arausio happened about 2120 years ago, they still touch and can have a fresh meaning for us, a thing or more to teach to us. Most importantly they are real events of history with real people.

I have always held that Roman history (as well as Greek) contains so many lessons about humanity and what being a human means, because of the intensity and seemingly limitless force of life that is so characteristic to ancient Roman culture. What Caepiones and their daughters were prepared to do for their survival, what kinds of fears and horrors they faced, what kind of moral boundaries they were ready to cross is staggering to think of. Still they were real humans, with real feelings and with real limitations. That is a thing we must keep in our minds every time we come across their story, because that also tells a lot about us as human beings. What extremes each of us would be prepared to go for our family and for our own survival?

And this is why I think that we would all need to study more about Caepiones or any other Roman family rather than spend our time with the Lord of Rings or Game of Thrones. The Romans were real, not invented stories. The story of Caepiones and their daughters have everything more than the Game of Thrones: 100x more power intrigues, 100x more sex, 100x more blood and guts ripped open – and everything is true, not any softcore fantasy. Of course when acknowledging this, one as a reader has to take the things a bit more seriously, to really think about those 100 000 or so corpse at the Arausio fields rotting or younger Caepio facing the downfall of his father. But I don’t think that is a bad thing, it reminds us about the brutality of life and that the history is always basically a history of human bodily fluids! That I think holds the lesson of history.

Of course we can look into these stories more scientific way, meaning that we also should be critical towards the assessments made in the Roman historiography about the elder Caepio. Our ancient sources interpret his life and actions in the context of patrician-plebeian class struggle, and we don’t know if this point of view is the only valid one and to what extent it has affected the way the story of Caepio elder and younger is told.