The EQUITES (Latin : eques nom. singular; sometimes called "knights " in modern times because of the involvement of horses) constituted the lower of the two aristocratic classes of ancient Rome , ranking below the patricians (patricii), a hereditary caste that monopolized political power during the regal era (753 to 509 BC) and during the early Republic (to 338 BC). A member of the equestrian order was known as an EQUES (plural: EQUITES).
* 1 Description * 2 Regal era (753–509 BC) * 3 Early Republic (509–338 BC)
* 4 Later Republic (338–30 BC)
* 4.1 Transformation of state and army (338–290) * 4.2 Political role * 4.3 Military officer role * 4.4 Cavalry role * 4.5 Ethos * 4.6 Business activities * 4.7 Privileges
* 5 The Augustan equestrian order (
* 5.1 Differentiation of the senatorial order
* 5.2 The ordo equester under
* 6 Equestrians in the later empire (AD 197–395)
* 6.1 Rise of the military equestrians (3rd century) * 6.2 The idle aristocracy (4th century)
* 7 Notes * 8 See also * 9 Citations
* 10 References
* 10.1 Ancient * 10.2 Modern
* 11 Further reading * 12 External links
By the time of the
Second Punic War
With the exception of the purely hereditary patricians, the equites
were originally defined by a property threshold. The rank was passed
from father to son, although members of the order who at the regular
quinquennial census no longer met the property requirement were
usually removed from the order's rolls by the Roman censors. In the
late Republic, the property threshold stood at 50,000 denarii and was
doubled to 100,000 by the emperor
In the later Republican period, Roman Senators and their offspring became an unofficial elite within the equestrian order. As senators' ability to engage in commerce was strictly limited by law, the bulk of non-agricultural activities were in the hands of non-senatorial equites. As well as holding large landed estates, equites came to dominate mining, shipping and manufacturing industry. In particular, tax farming companies (publicani) were almost all in the hands of equites.
Under Augustus, the senatorial elite was given formal status (as the ordo senatorius) with a higher wealth threshold (250,000 denarii, or the pay of 1,100 legionaries) and superior rank and privileges to ordinary equites. During the Principate, equites filled the senior administrative and military posts of the imperial government. There was a clear division between jobs reserved for senators (the most senior) and those reserved for non-senatorial equites. But the career structure of both groups was broadly similar: a period of junior administrative posts in Rome or Italy, followed by a period (normally a decade) of military service as a senior army officer, followed by senior administrative or military posts in the provinces. Senators and equites formed a tiny elite of under 10,000 members who monopolised political, military and economic power in an empire of about 60 million inhabitants.
During the 3rd century AD, power shifted from the Italian aristocracy
to a class of equites who had earned their membership by distinguished
military service, often rising from the ranks: career military
officers from the provinces (especially the
REGAL ERA (753–509 BC)
According to Roman legend, Rome was founded by its first king,
Roman tradition relates that the Order of
Apparently, equites were originally provided with a sum of money by the state to purchase a horse for military service and for its fodder. This was known as an equus publicus.
Mommsen argues that the royal cavalry was drawn exclusively from the ranks of the Patricians (patricii), the aristocracy of early Rome, which was purely hereditary. Apart from the traditional association of the aristocracy with horsemanship, the evidence for this view is the fact that, during the Republic, 6 centuriae (voting constituencies) of equites in the comitia centuriata (electoral assembly) retained the names of the original 6 royal cavalry centuriae. These are very likely "the centuriae of patrician nobles" in the comitia mentioned by the lexicologist Festus . If this view is correct, it implies that the cavalry was exclusively patrician (and therefore hereditary) in the regal period. (However, Cornell considers the evidence tenuous).
EARLY REPUBLIC (509–338 BC)
It is widely accepted that the Roman monarchy was overthrown by a
patrician coup, probably provoked by the Tarquin dynasty\'s populist
policies in favour of the plebeian class. Indeed, Alfoldi suggests
that the coup was carried out by the
The 12 additional centuriae ascribed by
The persons referred to in this passage were probably members of the 12 new centuriae who were entitled to public horses, but temporarily waived that privilege. Mommsen, however, argues that the passage refers to members of the First Class of commoners being admitted to cavalry service in 403 BC for the first time as an emergency measure. If so, this group may be the original so-called equites equo privato, a rank that is attested throughout the history of the Republic (in contrast to equites equo publico). However, due to lack of evidence, the origins and definition of equo privato equites remain obscure.
It is widely agreed that the 12 new centuriae were open to
non-patricians. Thus, from this date if not earlier, not all equites
were patricians. The patricians, as a closed hereditary caste,
steadily diminished in numbers over the centuries, as families died
out. Around 450 BC, there are some 50 patrician gentes (clans)
recorded, whereas just 14 remained at the time of Julius Caesar
(dictator of Rome 48 -44 BC), whose own
In contrast, the ranks of equites, although also hereditary (in the
male line), were open to new entrants who met the property requirement
and who satisfied the
In addition, patricians may have retained their original 6 centuriae, which gave them a third of the total voting-power of the equites, even though they constituted only a tiny minority of the Order by 200 BC. Patricians also enjoyed official precedence, such as the right to speak first in senatorial debates, which were initiated by the princeps senatus ("Leader of the Senate"), a position reserved for patricians. In addition, patricians monopolized certain priesthoods and continued to enjoy enormous prestige.
LATER REPUBLIC (338–30 BC)
TRANSFORMATION OF STATE AND ARMY (338–290)
The period following the end of the
By 280 BC, the Senate had assumed total control of state taxation,
expenditure, declarations of war, treaties, raising of legions,
establishing colonies and religious affairs. In other words, of
virtually all political power. From an ad hoc group of advisors
appointed by the Consuls, the Senate had become a permanent body of c.
300 life-peers who, as largely former
The gruelling contest for Italian hegemony that Rome fought against
It is also from this period that every Roman army that took the field was regularly accompanied by at least as many troops supplied by the socii (Rome's Italian military confederates, often referred to as "Latin allies"). Each legion would be matched by a confederate ala (literally: "wing"), a formation that contained roughly the same number of infantry as a legion, but three times the number of horse (900).
But this now represented only 25% of the army's total cavalry contingent, the rest being supplied by the Italian confederates. A legion's modest cavalry share of 7% of its 4,500 total strength was thus increased to 12% in a confederate army, comparable with (or higher than) any other forces in Italy except the Gauls and also similar to those in Greek armies such as Pyrrhus'.
Despite an ostensibly democratic constitution based on the
sovereignty of the people, the Roman Republic was in reality a classic
oligarchy , in which political power was monopolised by the richest
social echelon. Probably by c. 300 BC, the centuriate organisation of
the Roman citizen-body for political purposes achieved the evolved
form described by
In the assembly, the citizen-body was divided into 193 centuriae, or voting constituencies. Of these, 18 were allocated to equites (including patricians) and a further 80 to the First Class of commoners, securing an absolute majority of the votes (98 out of 193) for the wealthiest echelon of society, although it constituted only a small minority of the citizenry. (The lowest class, the proletarii, rated at under 400 drachmae, had just one vote, despite being the most numerous).
As a result, the wealthiest echelon could ensure that the elected Magistrates were always their own members. In turn, this ensured that the Senate was dominated by the wealthy classes, as its membership was composed almost entirely of current and former Magistrates.
ANALYSIS OF ROMAN CENTURIATE ORGANISATION CLASS Property Rating (drachmae: denarii after 211 BC) No. of votes in electoral assembly Military service
Patricii (patricians) n.a. (hereditary) 6 Officers/legionary cavalry
First Class 10,000 - 25,000? 80 Legionary cavalry
Second Class 7,500 - 10,000 20 Legionary infantry
Third Class 5,000 - 7,500 20 Legionary infantry
Fourth Class 2,500 - 5,000 20 Legionary infantry
Fifth Class 400 (or 1,100) - 2,500 30 Legionary infantry (velites )
Proletarii (a.k.a. capite censi) Under 400 (or 1,100) 1 Fleets (oarsmen)
MILITARY OFFICER ROLE
A Roman senior officer (centre) of the time of Polybius, as
depicted on a bas-relief from the Altar of Cn. Domitius Ahenobarbus ,
ca. 122 BC. Probably a tribunus militum (joint legionary commander),
the officer wears a decorated bronze cuirass, pteruges , mantle, and
Attic-style helmet with horsehair plume. The sash around his cuirass
probably denoted knightly rank. In the Republican army, tribuni were
elected by the comitia centuriata (main people's assembly) from the
members of the equestrian order.
Musée du Louvre
In the "Polybian" army of the mid-republic (338 - 88 BC), equites held the exclusive right to serve as senior officers of the army. These were the 6 tribuni militum in each legion who were elected by the comitia at the start of each campaigning season and took turns to command the legion in pairs; the praefecti sociorum, commanders of the Italian confederate alae, who were appointed by the Consuls; and the 3 decurions that led each squadron (turma ) of legionary cavalry (total 30 decurions per legion).
As their name implies, equites were liable to cavalry service in the legion of the mid-Republic. They originally provided a legion's entire cavalry contingent, although from an early stage (probably from c. 400 and not later than c. 300 BC), when equestrian numbers had become insufficient, large numbers of young men from the First Class of commoners were regularly volunteering for the service, which was considered more glamorous than the infantry.
The cavalry role of equites dwindled after the Second Punic War
(218-201 BC), as the number of equestrians became insufficient to
provide the senior officers of the army and general cavalrymen as
From the earliest times and throughout the Republican period, Roman equites subscribed, in their role as Roman cavalrymen, to an ethos of personal heroism and glory. This was motivated by the desire to justify their privileged status to the lower classes that provided the infantry ranks, to enhance the renown of their family name, and to augment their chances of subsequent political advancement in a martial society. For equites, a focus of the heroic ethos was the quest for spolia militaria, the stripped armour and weapons of a foe whom they had killed in single combat. There are many recorded instances. For example, Servilius Geminus Pulex , who went on to become Consul in 202 BC, was reputed to have gained spolia 23 times.
The higher the rank of the opponent killed in combat, the more prestigious the spolia, and none more so than spolia duci hostium detracta, spoils taken from an enemy leader himself. Many equites attempted to gain such an honour, but very few succeeded for the obvious reason that enemy leaders were always surrounded by large numbers of elite bodyguards.
One successful attempt, but with a tragic twist, was that of the
decurion Titus Manlius Torquatus in 340 BC during the
In 218 BC, the lex Claudia restricted the commercial activity of senators and their sons, on the grounds that it was incompatible with their status. Senators were prohibited from owning ships of greater capacity than 300 amphorae (about 7 tonnes) - this being judged sufficient to carry the produce of their own landed estates but too small to conduct large-scale sea transportation.
From this time onwards, senatorial families mostly invested their capital in land. All other equestrians remained free to invest their wealth, greatly increased by the growth of Rome's overseas empire after the 2nd Punic War, in large-scale commercial enterprises including mining and industry, as well as land. Equestrians became especially prominent in tax farming and, by 100 BC, owned virtually all tax-farming companies (publicani ).
During the late Republican era, the collection of most taxes was contracted out to private individuals or companies by competitive tender, with the contract for each province awarded to the publicanus who bid the highest advance to the state treasury on the estimated tax-take of the province. The publicanus would then attempt to recoup his advance, with the right to retain any surplus collected as his profit. This system frequently resulted in extortion from the common people of the provinces, as unscrupulous publicani often sought to maximise their profit by demanding a much higher rates of tax than originally set by the government. The provincial governors whose duty it was to curb illegal demands were often bribed into acquiescence by the publicani.
The system also led to political conflict between equites publicani
and the majority of their fellow-equites, especially senators, who as
big landowners wanted to minimise the tax on land outside Italy
(tributum solis), which was the main source of state revenue. This
pernicious system was terminated by the first Roman emperor, Augustus
(sole rule 30 BC - 14 AD), who transferred responsibility for tax
collection from the publicani to provincial local authorities
(civitates peregrinae). Although the latter also frequently employed
private companies to collect their tax quotas, it was in their own
interests to curb extortion. During the imperial era, tax collectors
were generally paid an agreed percentage of the amount collected.
The official dress of equestrians was the tunica angusticlavia
("narrow-striped tunic"), worn underneath the toga , in such a manner
that the stripe over the right shoulder was visible (as opposed to the
broad stripe worn by senators. )
THE AUGUSTAN EQUESTRIAN ORDER (PRINCIPATE ERA)
Bridle ornament inscribed PLINIO PRAEFECTO ("Property of the
prefect Pliny"), found at
Castra Vetera legionary base (Xanten,
Germany), believed to have belonged to the classical author PLINY THE
ELDER when he was a praefectus alae (commander of an auxiliary cavalry
DIFFERENTIATION OF THE SENATORIAL ORDER
The Senate as a body was formed of sitting senators, whose number was
held at around 600 by the founder of the
A family's senatorial status depended not only on continuing to match the higher wealth qualification, but on their leading member holding a seat in the Senate. Failing either condition, the family would revert to ordinary knightly status. Although sons of sitting senators frequently won seats in the Senate, this was by no means guaranteed, as candidates often outnumbered the 20 seats available each year, leading to intense competition.
THE ORDO EQUESTER UNDER AUGUSTUS
As regards the equestrian order,
Beyond equites with equus publicus, Augustus' legislation permitted any Roman citizen who was assessed in an official census as meeting the property requirement of 100,000 denarii to use the title of eques and wear the narrow-striped tunic and gold ring. But such "property-qualified equites" were not apparently admitted to the ordo equester itself, but simply enjoyed equestrian status.
Only those granted an equus publicus by the emperor (or who inherited the status from their fathers) were enrolled in the Order. Imperial equites were thus divided into two tiers: a few thousand mainly Italian equites equo publico, members of the Order eligible to hold the public offices reserved for the equites; and a much larger group of wealthy Italians and provincials (estimated at 25,000 in the 2nd century) of equestrian status but outside the Order.
Equestrians could in turn be elevated to senatorial rank (e.g. Pliny the Younger ), but in practice this was much more difficult than elevation from commoner to equestrian rank. To join the upper order, not only was the candidate required to meet the minimum property requirement of 250,000 denarii, but also had to be elected a member of the Senate . There were two routes for this, both controlled by the emperor:
* The normal route was election to the post of
EQUESTRIAN PUBLIC CAREERS
In public service, equites equo publico had their own version of the
senatorial cursus honorum , or conventional career-path, which
typically combined military and administrative posts. After an initial
period of a few years in local government in their home regions as
administrators (local aediles or duumviri) or as priests (augures ),
equites were required to serve as military officers for about 10 years
before they would be appointed to senior administrative or military
posts. Tombstone of the knight TITUS CORNASIDIUS SABINUS,
detailing a typical equestrian career in the imperial period. Sabinus
initially held posts in the local government of
Equestrians exclusively provided the praefecti (commanders) of the imperial army's auxiliary regiments and 5 of the 6 tribuni militum (senior staff officers) in each legion . The standard equestrian officer progression was known as the tres militiae ("three services"): (1) praefectus of a cohors (auxiliary infantry regiment), followed by (2) tribunus militum in a legion, and finally (3) praefectus of an ala (auxiliary cavalry regiment). From the time of Hadrian, a fourth militia was added for exceptionally gifted officers, commander of an ala milliaria (double-strength ala). Each post would be held for 3–4 years.
Most of the top posts in the imperial administration were reserved for senators, who provided the governors of the larger provinces (except Egypt), the legati legionis (legion commanders) of all legions outside Egypt, and the praefectus urbi (prefect of the City of Rome), who controlled the Cohortes Urbanae (public order battalions), the only fully armed force in the City apart from the Praetorian Guard. Nevertheless, a wide range of senior administrative and military posts were created and reserved for equestrians by Augustus, though most ranked below the senatorial posts.
In the imperial administration, equestrian posts included that of the governorship (praefectus Augusti) of the province of Egypt, which was considered the most prestigious of all the posts open to equites, often the culmination of a long and distinguished career serving the state. In addition, equites were appointed to the governorship (procurator Augusti) of some smaller provinces and sub-provinces e.g. Judaea , whose governor was subordinate to the governor of Syria .
Equestrians were also the chief financial officers (also called
procuratores Augusti ) of the imperial provinces, and the deputy
financial officers of senatorial provinces. At Rome, equestrians
filled numerous senior administrative posts such as the emperor's
secretaries of state (from the time of
In the military, equestrians provided the praefecti praetorio
(commanders of the
Praetorian Guard ) who also acted as the emperor's
chiefs of military staff. There were normally two of these, but at
times irregular appointments resulted in just a single incumbent or
even 3 at the same time. Equestrians also provided the praefecti
classis (admirals commanding) of the two main imperial fleets at
Not all equites followed the conventional career-path. Those
equestrians who specialised in a legal or administrative career,
providing judges (iudices) in Rome's law courts and state secretaries
in the imperial government, were granted dispensation from military
service by emperor
Already wealthy to start with, equites equo publico accumulated even greater riches through holding their reserved senior posts in the administration, which carried enormous salaries (although they were generally smaller than senatorial salaries). For example, the salaries of equestrian procuratores (fiscal and gubernatorial) ranged from 15,000 to a maximum of 75,000 denarii (for the governor of Egypt) per annum, whilst an equestrian praefectus of an auxiliary cohort was paid about 50 times as much as a common foot soldier (about 10,000 denarii). A praefectus could thus earn in one year the same as two of his auxiliary rankers combined earned during their entire 25-year service terms.
RELATIONS WITH EMPEROR
It was suggested by ancient writers, and accepted by many modern historians, that Roman emperors trusted equestrians more than men of senatorial rank, and used the former as a political counterweight to the senators. According to this view, senators were often regarded as potentially less loyal and honest by the emperor, as they could become powerful enough, through the command of provincial legions, to launch coups.
They also had greater opportunities for peculation as provincial governors. Hence the appointment of equestrians to the most sensitive military commands. In Egypt, which supplied much of Italy's grain needs, the governor and the commanders of both provincial legions were drawn from the equestrian order, since placing a senator in a position to starve Italy was considered too risky.
The commanders of the Praetorian Guard, the principal military force close to the emperor at Rome, were also usually drawn from the equestrian order. Also cited in support of this view is the appointment of equestrian fiscal procuratores, reporting direct to the emperor, alongside senatorial provincial governors. These would supervise the collection of taxes and act as watchdogs to limit opportunities for corruption by the governors (as well as managing the imperial estates in the province).
According to Talbert, however, the evidence suggests that equites were no more loyal or less corrupt than senators. For example, c. 26 BC, the equestrian governor of Egypt, Gaius Cornelius Gallus , was recalled for politically suspect behaviour and sundry other misdemeanours. His conduct was deemed sufficiently serious by the Senate to warrant the maximum penalty of exile and confiscation of assets. Under Tiberius, both the senatorial governor and the equestrian fiscal procurator of Asia province were convicted of corruption.
There is evidence that emperors were as wary of powerful equites as
they were of senators.
OLIGARCHICAL RULE IN THE EARLY PRINCIPATE (TO AD 197)
Because the Senate was limited to 600 members, equites equo publico,
numbering several thousands, greatly outnumbered men of senatorial
rank. Even so, senators and equites combined constituted a tiny elite
in a citizen-body of about 6 million (in AD 47) and an empire with a
total population of 60-70 millions. This immensely wealthy elite
monopolised political, military and economic power in the empire. It
controlled the major offices of state, command of all military units,
ownership of a significant proportion of the empire's arable land
Overall, senators and equites cooperated smoothly in the running of
the empire. In contrast to the chaotic civil wars of the late
Republic, the rule of this tiny oligarchy achieved a remarkable degree
of political stability. In the first 250 years of the
THE EQUESTRIAN HIERARCHY
It seems that from the start the equestrians in the Imperial service
were organised on a hierarchical basis reflecting their pay-grades.
There is almost no literary or epigraphic evidence for the use of these ranks until towards the end of the Second Century. However, it would seem that the increasing employment of equestrians by the Emperors in civil and military roles had had social ramifications for it is then that there begin to appear the first references to a more far-reaching hierarchy with three distinct classes covering the whole of the Order: the Viri Egregii (i.e. "Select Men"); the Viri Perfectissimi (i.e. "Best of Men"); and the Viri Eminentissimi (i.e. "Most Eminent of Men"). The mechanisms by which the equestrians were organised into these classes and the distinctions enforced is not known. However, it is generally assumed that the highest class, the Viri Eminentissimi was confined to the Praetorian Prefects , while the Viri Perfectissimi were the heads of the main departments of state, and the great prefectures, including Egypt, the City Watch (Vigiles), the Corn Supply (Annona) etc. and men commissioned to carry out specific tasks by the Emperor himself such as the military duces . The defining characteristic of the "perfectissimate" seems to have been that its members were of or associated socially (i.e. as clientes - see Patronage in ancient Rome of Great Men) with the Imperial court circle and were office-holders known to the Emperor and appointed by his favour. It is also possible that system was intended to indicate the hierarchy of office-holders in situations where this might be disputed. The Viri Egregii comprehended the rest of the Equestrian Order, in the service of the Emperors.
The Viri Egregii included officials of all four pay-grades. Ducenariate procurators governing provinces not reserved for senators were of this category as were the Praefecti Legionum, after Gallienus opened all legionary commands to equestrians. However, it seems that after 270 AD the procuratores ducenarii were elevated into the ranks of the Viri Perfectissimi
EQUESTRIANS IN THE LATER EMPIRE (AD 197–395)
The emperor Maximinus I (Thrax) (ruled 235-8), whose career
epitomises the soldier-equestrians who took over command of the army
during the 3rd century. A Thracian shepherd who had led a group of
peasant vigilantes against rural robbers in his home region, he joined
the army as a cavalryman in ca. 197 under
RISE OF THE MILITARY EQUESTRIANS (3RD CENTURY)
The 3rd century saw two major trends in the development of the Roman aristocracy: (1) the progressive takeover of the top positions in the empire's administration and army by military equestrians and the concomitant exclusion of the Italian aristocracy, both senators and equites; (2) the growth in hierarchy within the aristocratic orders.
They were almost entirely provincials, especially from the Danube provinces where about half the Roman army was deployed. These Danubians mostly came from Pannonia, Moesia, Thrace, Illyria and Dalmatia. They were generally far less wealthy than the landowning Italians (not benefiting from centuries of inherited wealth) and they rarely held non-military posts.
Their professionalism led emperors to rely on them ever more heavily, especially in difficult conflicts such as the Marcomannic Wars (166-80). But because they were only equestrians, they could not be appointed to the top military commands, those of legatus Augusti pro praetore (governor of an imperial province, where virtually all military units were deployed) and legatus legionis (commander of a legion). In the later 2nd century, emperors tried to circumvent the problem by elevating large numbers of primipilares to senatorial rank by adlectio.
But this met resistance in the Senate, so that in the 3rd century,
emperors simply appointed equestrians directly to the top commands,
under the fiction that they were only temporary substitutes (praeses
* ^ 6 CENTURIAE: The original 3 cavalry centuriae were named after
the tribes from which they were drawn: Ramnes, Tities and Luceres.
When an additional 3 centuriae were established by king Tarquinius
Priscus, the latter took the tribal names with the suffix posteriores,
with the original 3 being called priores
* ^ ROMAN KINGSHIP: The Roman monarchy, although an autocracy , was
not hereditary and based on "divine right", but elective and subject
to the ultimate sovereignty of the people. The king (rex) was elected
by the people's assembly (the comitia curiata originally) although
there is strong evidence that the process was in practice controlled
by the patricians. Most kings were non-Romans brought in from abroad,
doubtless as a neutral figure who could be seen as above patrician
factions. Although blood relations could and did succeed, they were
still required to submit to election. The position and powers of a
Roman king were thus similar to those of
* ^ Cornell (1995) 94, 102
Ammianus Marcellinus Res Gestae (c. 390 AD)
Dio Cassius Roman History (c. 250 AD)
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