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Hoplite Warfare and Servian Reform

March 9, 2014

The formation of the comitia centuriata is attributed to the sixth king of Rome Servius Tullius. The original purpose of the assembly is a matter for another time but it was either military in nature and then became political or vice versa; though Last (1945:47) concludes that it was the former. The assembly described by Livy (History of Rome 1.43) and Dionysius of Halicarnassus (Roman Antiquities 4.16-18) is a class based system that divided the population into five groups. The armour and weapons each group were supposedly required to wear is consistent with that of a hoplite; though only the first class were required to have all the hoplite panoply. This suggests that there is a link between the comitia centuriata attributed to Servius and the introduction of hoplite warfare.

The details provided by Livy and Dionysius are complex in nature. It is generally observed that the system described is a much later version than what originally existed (Cornell, 1995:180, Last 1945:43 and Forsythe 2007:29). This assessment seems reasonable as complex political systems invariably evolve over time. Therefore, it is necessary to consider in what form the comitia centuriata took when it was founded. Aulus Gellius (Attic Nights 6.13) provides evidence that there originally existed a system formed of those of a single class (classis) and those who fell below the class (infra classem). Forsythe (2007:32) argues that Gellius’ account demonstrates the original class distinction whereby there were those who could afford to arm themselves and those who could not. On the other hand, Last (1945:44) suggests that Gellius’  work could be interpreted to indicate that a division of five classes existed but only the first class was considered classis and the others were grouped together as being infra classem. I believe that Last’s interpretation is questionable and instead agree with the view of Botsford referred to by Cornell (1995:184) that classis defined those citizens who could afford the weapons and armour of heavy infantry and fought as hoplites. Further to this I would propose that Gellius’ reference to the five class system was likely a means of drawing contemporary comparison with the system that had originally existed.

The discovery of hoplite panoply dating to c. 530 BC in Vulci and in the warrior graves in the Tyrrhenian lowlands dating to c.625 BC, suggest it is likely that hoplite warfare was introduced into Rome in the sixth century BC (Forsythe, 2007:28 and Cornell 1995:184). This dates to the period during which Servius Tullius is attested to have ruled as king in Rome. Forsythe (2007:27) observes that a state using hoplite warfare needed to develop a system of organising its citizens. The Servian reforms brought in during the sixth century BC provided such a system. However, I would argue that initially it would have been the more basic two tier system described by Gellius. This basic reform would have enabled a shift in Roman policy to ensure that all men could be easily registered for military service. Furthermore, the two tier split would have enabled the men who were physically fit and economically able to afford the equipment for heavy infantry, to be distinguished from those who were only able to serve in the light infantry (Cornell, 1995:183).

The comitia centuriata began its development in the sixth century BC but this was not in the form recorded by Livy and Dionysius. I would propose that it is likely later annalists attributed the final form of the comitia centuriata to Servius Tullius as they did not have an account of its original form in the sixth century. I believe that this Servian reform is directly connected with the emergence of hoplite warfare, as the assessment of citizen’s wealth enabled Rome to organise and recruit a larger effective heavy infantry of hoplites and lighter auxiliaries. This has been a consideration of one small area of Servian reform as it cannot be justly treated within a single blog post; for example why did this system evolve into the five classes when there seems to be no military reason? The bibliography provides some relevant articles which explore this and other areas in greater detail.



Livy, History of Rome Translated by Rev. C. Roberts, New York: E. P. Dutton and Co. 1912. Perseus Digital Library [Accessed: 9 March 2014]

Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities, Loeb Classical Library Translated by E. Cary, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1950. LacusCurtius [Accessed: 9 March 2014]

Aulus Gelius, Attic Nights Vol. II, Loeb Classical Library Translated by J. C. Rolfe, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1927. LacusCurtius [Accessed: 9 March 2014]


Cornell, T. The Beginnings of Rome: Italy and Rome from the Bronze Age to the Punic Wars, c. 1000 – 264 BC London: Routledge, 1995.

Forsythe, G. ‘The Army and Centuriate Organization in Early Rome’, in P. Erdkamp (ed.), A Companion to the Roman Army Oxford: Blackwell, pp.24-41, 2007.

Last, H. The Servian Reforms, Journal of Roman Studies, Vol. 35, pp.30-48, 1945.

From → Rome

  1. jose mauricio saldanha alvarez permalink

    Dear Mr. David:
    I appreciated your article on the Serbian reforms. Solid, attractive, well written. Also liked about the origin of your Blog. This is quite Roman, never give up, take the war to the gates of Carthage

  2. jose mauricio saldanha alvarez permalink

    Dear Mr. David:
    I sorry, It’s not Serbian, as you now, but SERVIAN.

    • Dear Jose, thank you for your kind words, they are very much appreciated. I am glad you enjoyed reading my article and I shall certainly never give up. I love what I am doing and will continue to work towards my goal.

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