A HISTORY OF THE ROMAN EQUESTRIAN ORDER

Caillan Davenport

CUP (2019) h/b 717pp £130 (ISBN 9781107032538)

 This book traces the history of the equites from earliest times through to Late Antiquity. The structure is broadly chronological, with thematic chapters to supplement the narrative.

During the regal period, roughly the eighth to sixth centuries BC, a mounted aristocracy were the supporters of the king. These men were the forerunners of the equestrian order. The expulsion of the kings and establishment of the Republic is traditionally dated to 509 BC but, in reality, the emergence of Rome’s new constitution must have been a gradual process. Horse ownership continued to be a mark of status. The three principal orders under the early Republic were the equites (wealthiest citizens who fought on horseback), pedites (citizen infantry) and proletarii (non-fighting poor).

Under the later Republic, Rome acquired an empire and conscripted young men from the provinces as auxiliary soldiers. Many of the auxiliaries were skilled horsemen and served as cavalry. This brought about a change in the role of the Roman equites. A minority still served in cavalry units, but they were the officers in command. More generally, the equites now constituted a wealthy ruling élite, only some of whom had any military role. All senators were drawn from their number.

Legislation in 129 BC required senators to surrender their membership of the equestrian order. In 123 BC Gracchus established the Quaestio de repetundis, a criminal court dealing with corruption and other serious public crimes. Only equestrians were qualified to act as jurors in this court. That continued until 70 BC, when the lex Aurelia allowed senators to serve as well.

Equestrians enjoyed many privileges. Each wore a gold ring as a symbol of his status and a toga with a narrow stripe. The lex Roscia of 67 BC provided that the front fourteen rows in theatres were reserved for equestrians. (Just think of the outcry there would be now if the front fourteen rows of the stalls were reserved by law for the middle classes!). In addition to their perks, equestrians also had lucrative business opportunities. They served as administrators and financiers across the Empire.

The first century BC was a period of change. In 90 BC the lex Iulia de civitate extended Roman citizenship to all Italians. This inevitably led to the appearance of Italian equites, some of whom seldom visited Rome. An even greater change came later in the century with the return of a monarchical system of government. All power was vested in one person, the princeps. Augustus, the first holder of that office, substantially enhanced the position of the equestrians. He awarded senior government posts to equites, such as his friend Maecenas, rather than to senators. The emperor’s motives were partly meritocratic and partly Macchiavellian. Augustus was bypassing powerful senatorial figures who might be a threat to his position. Augustus also created four major prefectures which were open only to equestrians. These were prefect of the Praetorian Guard, prefect of the fire brigade, prefect of the corn supply and prefect of the imperial province of Egypt.

Throughout the principate the equestrians were a powerful body of men who played key roles in running the Empire. They were procurators who organised taxation of the provinces and payment of the troops, civilian officials, centurions, military tribunes in the legions and prefects of auxiliary units. All these developments meant that a cursus honorum was open to equestrians, which was separate from the traditional cursus pursued by young men from senatorial families.

As time went on the equites became legionary commanders and provincial governors. These changes coincided with restructuring of the empire and re-organisation of the army. In one-legion provinces (such as Britannia Inferior, which was created in the early third century by dividing Britain into two), the legionary commander automatically became provincial governor. A hierarchy of equestrians emerged: egregius, centenarius, ducenarius and at the top perfectissimus. The grant of all such honours and titles was in the gift of the emperor. In those carefree days there was no Honours Committee to vet his appointments.

The dénoument came in the fourth century. Constantine and his successors designated top equestrians clarissimi. This carried with it senatorial status. So the provincial governors were, once again, senators. By now the classifications, from egregius up to clarissimus, mattered far more than equestrian status. The equites as a social or political grouping died out in the mid-fifth century.

The above summary hardly does justice to a truly remarkable study of the ancient world. What the author has produced is both a major work of a scholarship and a highly readable book. This reviewer found it difficult to put down. The book has much to offer anyone with an interest in Roman history, whether generalist or specialist.

Rupert Jackson

We welcome your comments; please send via our social media.
Back to Reading Room