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E´QUITES The traditional account of the origin of the Roman equites is as follows:--Livy (1.13) relates that Romulus raised three centuries of horsemen, called Ramnenses, Titienses, and Luceres. Dionysius (2.13) asserts that these were elected, like the senators, by the curies, each of the thirty curies choosing ten men. He also says that the three centuries were divided for military purposes into ten [p. 1.754]turmae, each consisting of 30 men, viz. 10 Ramnes, 10 Tities, and 10 Luceres, the group of ten being commanded by its own decurio. This account is hardly consistent with Livy's; nor is Livy's view in harmony with his own remark elsewhere (10.6), borne out by the language of Cicero (Rep. 2.8, 14) and Varro (L. L. 5.55, 81, 89, 91), which speaks of the Ramnes, Titienses, and Luceres as tribes into which the whole nation was divided. Dionysius further says that these horsemen were called Celeres, and formed the body-guard of the king: Livy (1.15) appears to regard the Celeres as a distinct body. Next Livy states that ten turmae of Albans were added by Tullus Hostilius (1.30); the number would thus reach 600. Then he tells us that Tarquinius Priscus did not make any other change in the centuries of horse, but doubled the number, making the three centuries to consist of 1800 men. He is thus inconsistent with himself, and appears to have drawn from some different authority here. Some editors have wished to read, without any authority, MCC for MDCCC, but the alteration is quite unwarranted, the carelessness being characteristic of Livy. Besides, it is clear that there was some authority for this number of 1800, for it is restored to the text of Cicero (de Rep. 2.20, 36) by a certain emendation of C. T. Zumpt's, adopted by all recent critical editors. It is plain that this authority transferred to the time of Tarquinius Priscus the number of the equites, as it existed afterwards under the constitution of Servius Tullius. Mommsen holds it to be certain that there were originally 3 (H. R. 1.78), then 6 (1.88), and after the Servian reform 18 (1.97) equestrian centuries. Next Livy states (1.43) that Servius Tullius “equitum ex primoribus civitatis duodecim scripsit centurias,” and had also the six other centuries (three having been instituted by Romulus) under the same names by which they had been inaugurated. These last six were undoubtedly patrician originally, but there is no evidence that they remained so (Mommsen, Röm. Forsch. 1.135): they were called sex suffragia, and consisted of primi secundique Ramnes, Titienses, and Luceres. Along with the added twelve, they formed the eighteen centuries of equites equo publico, who long continued to be an important body at Rome. It has commonly been supposed that the centuries were of double strength, as is implied in Livy's narrative, but Mommsen has shown that there is no reason to accept this, and that the number of horses supplied by the community was always limited to 1800 (Hist. 2.319).

Both Livy and Cicero agree in stating that each of the equites received a horse from the state (equus publicus), or money to purchase one (or rather a pair, one being needed for the attendant; cf. Festus, s. v. Pararium), as well as a sum of money for its annual support; and that the expense of its support was defrayed by the orphans and unmarried females; “since,” says Niebuhr (Hist. of Rome, vol. i. p. 461), “in a military state it could not be esteemed unjust, that the women and the children were to contribute largely for those who fought in behalf of them and of the commonwealth.” According to Gaius (4.27) the purchase-money for a knight's horse was called aes equestre, and its annual forage aes hordearium. [AES HORDEARIUM.] The former amounted, according to Livy (1.43), to 10,000 asses, and the latter to 2,000: but these sums are so large as to be almost incredible, especially when we take into account that 126 years afterwards a sheep was only reckoned at 10, and an ox at 100 asses in the tables of penalties (Gel. 11.1). The correctness of these numbers has accordingly been questioned by some modern writers, while others have attempted to account for the largeness of the sum. Boeckh (Metrolog. Untersuch. 100.29) supposes that the sums of money in the Servian census are not given in asses of a pound weight, but in the reduced asses of the first Punic war, when they were struck of the same weight as the sextans; that is, two ounces, or one-sixth of the original weight. [As.] Zumpt considers that 1000 asses of the old weight were given for the purchase of the horse, and 200 annually for its keep; and that the original sum has been retained in a passage of Varro ( “equum publicum mille assariorum,” L. L. 8.71). But the view of Mommsen is the most probable, that like the assessments of the Servian constitution generally, the original estimate was made in land, and that it was transformed into a money assessment only at a later time, when the value of landed property had enormously increased (Hist. 1.95).

All the equites, of whom we have been speaking, received a horse from the state, and were included in the 18 equestrian centuries of the Servian constitution; but in course of time, we read of another class of equites in Roman history, who did not receive a horse from the state, and were not included in the 18 centuries. This latter class is first mentioned by Livy (5.7) in his account of the siege of Veii, B.C. 403. He says that during the siege, when the Romans had at one time suffered great disasters, all those citizens who had an equestrian fortune, and no horse allotted to them ( “quibus census equester erat, equi publici non erant” ), volunteered to serve with their own horses; and he adds, that from this time equites first began to serve with their own horses ( “tum primum equis merere equites coeperunt” ). The state paid them ( “certus numerus aeris est assignatus” ) as a kind of compensation for serving with their own horses. The foot-soldiers had received pay a few years before (Liv. 4.59); and two years afterwards, B.C. 401, the pay of the equites was made threefold that of the infantry (Liv. 5.12; see Niebuhr, vol. ii. p. 439). But whether this class of cavalry serving equis suis was a permanent institution at Rome, and they formed the ordinary legionary cavalry, or whether on the other hand it was only resorted to under exceptional circumstances, is a question which has long been a matter of keen controversy. Marquardt, who in a special treatise (Historiae equitum Romanorum libri iv., Berlin, 1840) defended the former view, has more recently abandoned it, and holds (Röm. Staatsv. ii.2 323) that there is no evidence of a permanent body of cavalry receiving pay from the state, except the 18 centuries. “This does not exclude the possibility that at a later time men of equestrian position served voluntarily with horses of their own, but they never formed a distinct corps.” The only strong argument in favour of such a body is that 1800 horse--300 for each legion--would [p. 1.755]hardly meet all the requirements of military service. But it must not be forgotten that the bulk of the cavalry serving in a Roman army was always furnished by the allies. Our authorities are too incomplete to allow us to come to a very positive conclusion; but at least there is no evidence to upset Marquardt's latest results (cf. Belot, Histoire des Chevaliers Romains, 2 vols. Paris, 1866-1873). Mommsen's most recent discussion of the question (Röm. Staatsr. 3.476 ff.) brings him to the opinion that, as a considerable proportion of the equites equo publico served as officers, and as at an early date the custom sprang up that an eques retained his horse, after he had ceased to be qualified for active service, vacancies in the ranks of the normal cavalry squadrons were filled up by allowing those who could afford it to serve with their own horses, instead of on foot.

The Roman knights who received horses from the state are frequently called equites equo publico (Cic. Phil. 6.5), and sometimes Flexumines (or more probably Flexuntes: so Detlefsen and Servius on Verg. A. 9.606) or Trossuli (Plin. Nat. 33.35; Festus, s. v.).

As vacancies occurred in the 18 centuries, the descendants of those who were originally enrolled succeeded to their places, whether plebeians or patricians, provided they had not dissipated their property; for Niebuhr goes too far when he asserts that all vacancies were filled up according to birth. independent of any property qualification. But in course of time, as population and wealth increased, the number of persons who possessed an equestrian fortune also increased greatly; and as the number of equites in the 18 centuries was limited, those persons whose ancestors had not been enrolled in the centuries could not receive horses from the state. It is probable, therefore, that they were allowed the privilege of serving with their own horses amongst the cavalry, instead of the infantry, if they were called upon for active military service.

The inspection of the equites who received horses from the state belonged to the censors, who had the power of depriving an eques of his horse, and reducing him to the condition of an aerarian (Liv. 24.43), and also of giving the vacant horse to the most distinguished of the equites who had previously served at their own expense (Liv. 39.19, 4). For these purposes they made during their censorship a public inspection, in the forum, of all the knights who possessed public horses (equitatum recognoscunt, Liv. 39.44; equitum centurias recognoscunt, Valer. Max. 2.9.6). The tribes were taken in order, and each knight was summoned by name. Every one, as his name was called, walked past the censors, leading his horse. This ceremony is represented on the reverse of many Roman coins struck by the censors. A specimen is annexed.

Inspection of Equites by the Censors. (Roman coin.)

If the censors had no fault to find either with the character of the knight or the equipments of his horse, they ordered him to pass on (traduc equum, Valer. Max. 4.1.10); but if on the contrary they considered him unworthy of his rank, they struck him out of the list of knights, and deprived him of his horse (Liv. 39.44) or ordered him to sell it (Liv. 29.37; Valer. Max. 2.9.6), with the intention no doubt that the person thus degraded should refund to the state the money which had been advanced to him for its purchase (Niebuhr, Hist. of Rome, vol. i. p. 433). If he appeared to have neglected his horse, he might be fined (Gel. 4.12, 2; Festus, p. 108) or deprived of his allowance. At the same review, those equites who had served the regular time, and wished to be discharged, were accustomed to give an account to the censors of the campaigns in which they had served, and were then dismissed with honour or disgrace, as they might have deserved (Plut. Pomp. 22).

This review of the equites by the censors must not be confounded with the Equitum Transvectio, which was a solemn procession of the body every year on the Ides of Quintilis (July). The procession started from the temple of Mars outside the city, and passed through the city over the forum, and by the temple of the Dioscuri. On this occasion the equites were always crowned with olive chaplets, and wore their state dress, the trabea, with all the honourable distinctions which they had gained in battle (Dionys. A. R. 6.13). According to Livy (9.46), this annual procession was first established by the censors Q. Fabius and P. Decius, B.C. 304; but, according to Dionysius (l.c.), it was instituted after the defeat of the Latins near the lake Regillus, of which an account was brought to Rome by the Dioscuri.

It may be asked, how long did the knight retain his public horse, and a vote in the equestrian century to which he belonged? On this subject we have no positive information; but as those equites, who served with their own horses, were only obliged to serve for ten years (stipendia, στρατείας) under the age of forty-six (Plb. 6.19.2), we may presume that the same rule extended to those who served with the public horses, provided they wished to give up the service. For it is certain that in the earlier times of the Republic a knight might retain his horse as long as he pleased, even after he had entered the senate, provided he continued able to discharge the duties of a knight. Thus the two censors, M. Livius Salinator and C. Claudius Nero, in B.C. 204, were also equites (Liv. 29.37), and L. Scipio Asiaticus, who was deprived of his horse by the censors in B.C. 185 (Liv. 39.44), had himself been censor in B.C. 191. This is also proved by a fragment in the fourth book (100.2, 2) of Cicero's De Republica, in which he says, “equitatus, in quo suffragia sunt etiam senatus;” by which he evidently means, that most of the senators were enabled to vote at the Comitia Centuriata in consequence of their belonging to the equestrian centuries. On the other hand, a man might be deprived of his horse without disgrace, if he were no longer physically fitted for active service (Gel. 6.32). A passage in Liv. 26.36, 6, proves that it was quite usual for anyone who had held a curule office to have a horse from the state. During the later times of the Republic the knights were obliged to give up their horses on entering the senate, and consequently ceased to belong to the equestrian centuries. This regulation [p. 1.756]is alluded to in the fragment of Cicero already referred to, in which Scipio says that many persons were anxious that a plebiscitum should be passed, ordaining that the public horses should be restored to the state, which decree was in all probability passed after-wards; “since,” as Niebuhr observes (vol. i. p. 433, note 1016), “when Cicero makes Scipio speak of any measure as intended, we are to suppose that it had actually taken place, but, according to the information possessed by Cicero, was later than the date he assigns to Scipio's discourse.” This seems to have been the rule after the time of C. Gracchus, as a result of his policy of making the equites a power in the state to counterbalance the senate (cp. Madvig, Opusc. 1.74 ff.). That the greater number of the equites equo publico, after the exclusion of senators from the equestrian centuries, were young men, is proved by a passage in the work of Q. Cicero, de Petitione Consulatus (8, 33), the genuineness of which Prof. Tyrrell has well established (cf. Hor. A. P. 341).

The equestrian centuries, of which we have hitherto been treating, were only regarded as a division of the army; they did not form a distinct class or ordo in the constitution. The community, in a political point of view, was only divided into patricians and plebeians; and the equestrian centuries were composed of both. But in the year B.C. 123, a new class, called the Ordo Equester, was formed in the state by the Lex Sempronia, which was introduced by C. Gracchus. By this law all the judices had to be chosen from those citizens who possessed an equestrian fortune (Plut. C. Gracch. 5; Appian, de Bell. Civ. 1.22; Tac. Ann. 12.60). We know very little respecting the provisions of this law; but it appears from the Lex Servilia repetundarum, passed eighteen years afterwards, that every person who was to be chosen judex was required to be above thirty and under sixty years of age, to have either an equus publicus or to be qualified by his fortune to possess one, and not to be a senator. Mommsen however holds that the judices were always equites equo publico, possibly including also those who had surrendered the horse (3.530). The number of judices who were required yearly was chosen from this class by the praetor urbanus (Klenze, Lex Servilia [more properly Acilia], Berl. 1825: cf. Mommsen in C. I. L. 1.54-57; Bruns, Fontes,5 p. 53 ff.).

As the name of equites had been loosely extended from those who possessed the public horses to those who served with their own horses, it now came to be applied to all those persons who were qualified by their fortune to act as judices, in which sense the word is usually used by Cicero. Pliny (Plin. Nat. 33.30) indeed says that those persons who possessed the equestrian fortune, but did not serve as equites, were only judices, and that the name of equites was always confined to the possessors of the equi publici. This may have been the correct use of the term; but custom soon gave the name of equites to the judices chosen in accordance with the Lex Sempronia. After the date of Sulla's changes in the constitution, the censorship practically fell into abeyance, and the census was only once taken (B.C. 50) between this time and that of Augustus. Hence there can have been during this period no equites equo publico in the proper sense of the term. We are. left to conjecture as to the means by which the ranks of the equites were filled. Under Augustus the sons of senators took their places of right among the equites. Although we find this custom in existence, we are not informed that it was introduced by Augustus. Hence it is a probable conjecture of Mommsen's, that Sulla introduced with regard to the equites a self-acting regulation like that which he established for the senate.

The reforms of Sulla entirely deprived the equestrian order of the right of being chosen as judices, but in B.C. 70 the Lex Aurelia ordained that the judices should be chosen from the senators, equites, and tribuni aerarii. It seems pretty clear that the last group must have always possessed the equestrian census, and so have been equites in the wider sense. Hence Velleius (2.32) speaks of this law as dividing the judicia between the senate and the equites; and Livy (Ep. 97) even of its restoring them to the equites [JUDICES]. The statement that. Caesar (Suet. Jul. 41) limited the judicia to the two classes of senators and equites is probably to be understood as implying that he made the second as well as the third decuria consist of equites equopublico; for we find that the three decuries continued to exist after this change. The influence of the order, says Pliny, was still maintained by the publicani (Plin. Nat. 33.34), or farmers of the public taxes. We find that the publicani were almost always called equites, not because any particular rank was necessary in order to obtain from the state the farming of the taxes, but because the state naturally would not let them to any one who did not possess a considerable fortune. Thus the publicani are frequently spoken of by Cicero as identical with the equestrian order (ad Att. 2.1.8). [PUBLICANI] The consulship of Cicero, and the active part which the knights. then took in suppressing the conspiracy of Catiline, tended still further to increase the power and influence of the equestrian order; and “from that time,” says Pliny (l.c.), “it became a third body (corpus) in the state, and, to the title of Senatus Populusque Romanus, there began to be added Et Equester Ordo.” (Cf., however, Madvig, Röm. Verf. 1.156, note.)

In B.C. 63 a distinction was conferred upon them which tended to separate them still further from the plebs. By the Lex Roscia Othonis, passed in that year, the first fourteen rows of seats in the theatre behind the orchestra were given to the equites (Liv. Epit. 99); which, according to Cicero (pro Mur. 19, 40) and Velleius Paterculus (2.32), was only a restoration of an earlier privilege which may have dated from the time of Gracchus. No importance is to be attached to the statement of Livy (1.35), who says that special seats were set apart in the Circus Maximus for the senators and equites. They also possessed the right of wearing the Clavus Angustus [CLAVUS]; and subsequently obtained the privilege of wearing a gold ring, which was originally confined to the equites equo publico, and probably only granted to these after the time of Gracchus. But the military organisation of the equites was still kept up; and whenever they took part as a [p. 1.757]body in public functions, as for instance in funerals (cf. Mommsen, 2.522), they were formed into turmae (Tac. Hist. 2.83).

The number of equites increased greatly under the early emperors, and all persons were admitted into the order, provided they possessed the requisite property, without any inquiry into their character or into the free birth of their father and grandfather, which had always been required by the censors under the Republic. Property became now the only qualification; and the order in consequence gradually began to lose all the consideration which it had acquired during the later times of the Republic.

It is commonly asserted that Augustus formed a select class of equites, consisting of those equites who possessed the property of a senator, and the old requirement of free birth up to the grand-father; that he permitted this class to wear the latus clavus (Ovid. Trist. 4.10, 35); and also allowed the tribunes of the plebs to be chosen from them, as well as the senators, and gave them the option at the termination of their office to remain in the senate or return to the equestrian order (Suet. Aug. 40; D. C. 54.30). But it is not accurate to speak of these wearers of the latus clavus as equites, still less to find a technical name for them in the equites illustres of Tacitus (Tac. Ann. 11.4, with the note of Lipsius; cf. Mommsen, 3.562-3). Like the other epithets, splendidi, primores, insignes, and the like, this is merely a descriptive term; and in fact none of the eq. illustres of Tac. Ann. 11.4 can have worn the latus clavus. A formal division of the equites into classes was made first by Marcus Aurelius and Verus (cf. Madvig, Röm. Verf. 1.171).

In the ninth year of the reign of Tiberius an attempt was made to improve the order by requiring the old qualifications of free birth up to the grandfather, and by strictly forbidding anyone to wear the gold ring unless he possessed this qualification. This regulation, however, was of little avail, as the emperors frequently admitted freedmen into the equestrian order (Plin. Nat. 33.34). When private persons were no longer appointed judices, the necessity for a distinct class in the community, like the equestrian order, ceased entirely; and the gold ring came at length to be worn by all free citizens. Even slaves, after their manumission, were allowed to wear it by special permission from the emperor, which appears to have been usually granted provided the patronus consented (Dig. 40, 10, 3). [ANNULUS]

Having thus traced the history of the equestrian order to its final extinction as a distinct class in the community, we must now return to the equites equo publico, who formed the eighteen equestrian centuries. This class still existed during the latter years of the Republic, but after the reforms of Marius it had entirely ceased to serve as horse-soldiers in the army. The cavalry of the Roman legions no longer consisted, as in the time of Polybius, of Roman equites, but their place was supplied by the cavalry of the allied states. It is evident that Caesar in his Gallic wars possessed no Roman cavalry (Caes. Bell. Gall. 1.15). When he went to an interview with Ariovistus, and was obliged to take cavalry with him, we are told that he did not dare to trust his safety to the Gallic cavalry, and therefore mounted his legionary soldiers upon their horses (Id. 1.42). The Roman equites are, however, frequently mentioned in the Gallic and civil wars, but never as common soldiers; they were officers attached to the staff of the general, or commanded the cavalry of the allies, or sometimes the legions (Id. 7.70; Bell. Civ. 1.77, 3.71, &c.).

When Augustus took upon himself, in B.C. 29, the praefectura morum, he frequently reviewed the troops of equites, and restored, according to Suetonius (Suet. Aug. 38), the long-neglected custom of the solemn procession (transvectio); by which we are probably to understand that Augustus connected the review of the knights (probatio) with the annual procession (transvectio) of the 15th of July. Dionysius (6.13) tells us that as many as 5,000 equites sometimes took part in this procession. From this time these equites formed an honourable corps, from which all the higher officers in the army (Suet. Aug. 38, Claud. 25) and certain of the chief magistrates in the state were chosen. Admission into this body was equivalent to an introduction into public life, and was therefore esteemed a great privilege; it was granted by the emperor at pleasure through an office (a censibus), which was a branch of the department for petitions (a libellis) under a high official (Mommsen, 3.490); and we find it recorded in inscriptions that such a person was equo publico honoratus, exornatus, &c. by the emperor (Orelli, Inscrip. Nos. 3457, 313, 1229). This rank was tenable for life. If a young man was not admitted into this body, he was excluded from all civil offices of any importance, except in municipal towns; and also from all rank in the army (militia as opposed to stipendium), with the exception of centurion.

All those equites who were not employed in actual service were obliged to reside at Rome (D. C. 59.9), where they were allowed to fill the lower magistracies, which entitled a person to admission into the senate. They were divided into six turmae, each of which was commanded by an officer, who is frequently mentioned in inscriptions as Sevir equitum Rom. turmae I. II., &c., or commonly Sevir turmae or Sevir turmarum equitum Romanorum. From the time that the equites bestowed the title of principes juventutis upon Gaius and Lucius Caesar, the grandsons of Augustus (Tac. Ann. 1.3; Monum. Ancyr.), it became the custom to confer this title, as well as that of Sevir, upon the probable successor to the throne, when he first entered into public life and was presented with an equus publicus (Capitol. M. Anton. Phil. 6; Lamprid. Commod. 1).

It appears to have been the policy of Augustus to divide the administrative functions between the senators and the equites. The government of Egypt was always reserved to the latter, and senators were not allowed to enter it without the emperor's express permission. The smaller provinces to the north of Italy were similarly often placed under equestrian governors: the commanders of the fleets were drawn from the same body; and so were many of the prefects newly instituted by Augustus. Many posts in the general administration were usually filled by knights, e. g. the receiverships of customs, and the business of the [p. 1.758]imperial chancery. Those who held these were required, as a rule, to have completed their time of service as officers in the army.

The practice of filling such offices in the state from the equites appears to have continued as long as Rome was the centre of the government and the residence of the emperor. They are mentioned in the time of Severus (Gruter, Inscrip. p. 1001, 5; Papinian, in Dig. 29, 1, 43), and of Caracalla (Gruter, p. 379, 7); and perhaps later. After the time of Diocletian, the equites became only a city guard, under the command of the Praefectus Vigilum; but they still retained, in the time of Valentinianus and Valens, A.D. 364, the second rank in the city, and were not subject to corporal punishment. (Cod. Theodos. 6, 36.) Respecting the Magister Equitum, see DICTATOR

(Zumpt, Ueber die römischen Ritter und den Ritterstand in Rom, Berlin, 1840; Marquardt, Historiae Equitum Romanorum libri iv., Berlin, 1840; Madvig, Opuscula, vol. i. p. 72, &c.; Becker, Handbuch der römischen Alterthümer, vol. ii. part i. p. 235, &c.; Marquardt, Röm. Staatsverf. 5.337 ff. and 426 if., and especially Mommsen, Röm. Staatsr. 3.476-569; Madvig, Röm. Verf. 1.155-181.)

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  • Cross-references from this page (32):
    • Polybius, Histories, 6.19.2
    • Cicero, Philippics, 6.5
    • Vergil, Aeneid, 9.606
    • Tacitus, Annales, 11.4
    • Tacitus, Annales, 12.60
    • Tacitus, Annales, 1.3
    • Tacitus, Historiae, 2.83
    • Suetonius, Divus Augustus, 38
    • Suetonius, Divus Augustus, 40
    • Suetonius, Divus Julius, 41
    • Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia, 33.34
    • Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia, 33.35
    • Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia, 33.30
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 39, 19
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 39, 4
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 39, 44
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 5, 7
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 9, 46
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 1, 13
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 24, 43
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 29, 37
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 1, 35
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 1, 15
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 1, 43
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 4, 59
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 5, 12
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 26, 36
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 26, 6
    • Gellius, Noctes Atticae, 11.1
    • Gellius, Noctes Atticae, 4.2
    • Gellius, Noctes Atticae, 4.12
    • Plutarch, Pompey, 22
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