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 p471  Equites

Unsigned article on pp471‑475 of

William Smith, D.C.L., LL.D.:
A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, John Murray, London, 1875.

E′QUITES. The Roman Equites were originally the horse-soldiers of the Roman state, and did not form a distinct class or ordo in the commonwealth till the time of the Gracchi. Their institution is attributed to Romulus, who caused 300 equites, divided into three centuries, to be elected by the curiae. Each of the old Roman tribes, the Ramnes, Tities, and Luceres was represented by 100 equites, and consequently each of the 30 curiae by 10 equites; and each of the three centuries bore the name of the tribe which it represented. The three centuries were divided into 10 turmae, each consisting of 30 men; every turma contained 10 Ramnes, 10 Tities, and 10 Luceres; and each of these decuries was commanded by a decurio. The whole body likewise bore the name of Celeres, who are erroneously regarded by some writers simply as the body-guard of the king. The commander of the 300 equites was called Tribunus Celerum (Dionys. II.13; Varro, L. L. V.91, ed. Müller; Plin. H. N. XXXIII.9; Festus, s.v. Celeres; Liv. I.13, 15). [Celeres.]

To the three hundred equites of Romulus, ten Alban turmae were added by Tullus Hostilius (Liv. I.30). There were consequently now 600 equites; but as the number of centuries was not increased, each of these centuries contained 200 men. Tarquinius Priscus, according to Livy (Liv. I.36), wished to establish some new centuries of horsemen, and to call them by his own name, but gave up his intention in consequence of the opposition of the augur Attus Navius, and only doubled the number of the centuries. The three centuries which he added were called the Ramnes, Titienses, and Luceres Posteriores. The number ought therefore now to be 1200 in all, which number is given in many editions of Livy (l.c.), but is not found in any manuscript. The number in the manuscripts is different, but some of the best manuscripts have 1800, which has been adopted by most modern editors. This number, however, is opposed to Livy's previous account, and cannot be supported by the statement of Plutarch (Rom. 20), that after the union with the Sabines, the equites were increased to 600; because the original 300 are spoken of as the representatives of the three tribes; whereas, according to Plutarch's account, the original 300 ought only to represent the Ramnes. If therefore we adopt Livy's account that there were originally 300 equites, that these were increased to 600 by Tullus Hostilius, and that the 600 were doubled by Tarquinius Priscus, there were 1200 in the time of the last-mentioned king, being divided into three centuries of Ramnes, Tities and Luceres, each century containing 200 priores and 200 posteriores.

The complete organization of the equites Livy (I.43) attributes to Servius Tullius. He says that the king formed (scripsit) 12 centuries of equites from the leading men of the state (ex primoribus civitatis); and that he also made six centuries out of the three established by Romulus. Thus, there were now 18 centuries. As each of the 12 new centuries probably contained the same number as the six old centuries, if the latter contained 1200 men, the former would have contained 2400, and the whole number of the equites would have been 3600.

The account, however, which Cicero (De Rep. II.20) gives is quite different. He attributes the complete organization of the equites to Tarquinius Priscus. He agrees with Livy in saying that Tarquinius Priscus increased the number of the Ramnes, Titienses, and Luceres secundi (not, however, posteriores, as Livy states; compare Festus, s.v. Sex Vestae); but he differs from him in stating, that this king also doubled their number after the conquest of the Aequi. Scipio, who is represented by Cicero as giving this account, also says that the arrangement of the equites, which was made by Tarquinius Priscus, continued unchanged to his day (B.C. 129). The account, which Cicero gave of the equites in the constitution of Servius Tullius, is unfortunately lost, and the only words which remain are duodeviginti censu maximo; but it is difficult to conceive in what way he represented the division of the 18 centuries in the Servian constitution, after he had expressly said that the organization of the body by Tarquinius Priscus had continued unchanged to the time of Scipio. The number of equites in this passage of Cicero is open to much doubt and dispute. Scipio states, according to the reading adopted in all editions of the "De Republica," that Tarquinius Priscus increased the original number of the equites to 1200, and that he subsequently doubled this number after the conquest of the Aequi; which account would make the whole number 2400, which number cannot be correct, since if 2400 be divided by 18 (the number of the centuries), the quotient is not a complete number. The MS., however, has ∞ACCC, which is interpreted to mean mille ac ducentos; but instead of this, Zumpt (Ueber die Römischen Ritter und den Ritterstand in Rom, Berlin, 1840) proposes to read ∞DCCC, 1800, justly remarking, that such a use of ac never occurs in Cicero. This reading would make the number, when doubled, 3600, which agrees with Livy's view, and which appears to have been the regular number of equites in the flourishing times of the republic.

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, 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 p461), "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 (IV.27) the purchase-money for a knight's horse was called aes equestre, and its annual provision aes hordearium. [Aes Hordearium.] The former amounted, according to Livy (I.43), to 10,000 asses, and the  p472 latter to 2000: 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 (Gell. XI.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. Niebuhr (vol. I p433) remarks that the sum was doubtless intended not only for the purchase of the horse, but also for its equipment, which would be incomplete without a groom or slave, who had to be bought and then to be mounted.º Böckh (Metrolog. Untersuch. c29) 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 for its annual provision; and that the original sum has been retained in a passage of Varro (equum publicum mille assariorum, L. L. VIII.71).

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 (V.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 (iam 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. IV.59); and two years afterwards, B.C. 401, the pay of the equites was made three-fold that of the infantry (Liv. V.12; see Niebuhr, vol. II p439).

From the year B.C. 403, there were therefore two classes of Roman knights: one who received horses from the state, and are therefore frequently called equites equo publico (Cic. Phil. VI.5), and sometimes Flexumines or Trossuli, the latter of which, according to Göttling, is an Etruscan word (Plin. H. N. XXXIII.9; Festus, s.v.; Göttling, Gesch. der Röm. Staatsv. p372), and another class, who served, when they were required, with their own horses, but were not classed among the 18 centuries. As they served on horseback they were called equites; and, when spoken of in opposition to cavalry, which did not consist of Roman citizens, they were also called equites Romani; but they had no legal claim to the name of equites, since in ancient times this title was strictly confined to those who received horses from the state, as Pliny (H. N. XXXIII.7) expressly says, "Equitum nomen subsistebat in turmis equorum publicorum."

But here two questions arise. Why did the equites, who belonged to the eighteen centuries, receive a horse from the state, and the others not? and how was a person admitted into each class respectively? These questions have occasioned much controversy among modern writers, but the following account is perhaps the most satisfactory:—

In the constitution of Servius Tullius all the Roman citizens were arranged in different classes according to the amount of their property, and it may therefore fairly be presumed that a place in the centuries of equites was determined by the same qualification. Dionysius (IV.18) expressly says, that the equites were chosen by Servius out of the richest and most illustrious families; and Cicero (De Rep. II.22) that they were of the highest census (censu maximo). Livy (I.43) also states that the twelve centuries formed by Servius Tullius consisted of the leading men of the state. None of these writers, however, mention the property which was necessary to entitle a person to a place among the equites; but it was probably of the same amount as in the latter times of the republic, that is, four times that of the first class. Every one therefore who possessed the requisite property, and whose character was unblemished (for this latter qualification appears to have been always necessary in the ancient times of the republic), was admitted among the equites of the Servian constitution; and it may be presumed that the twelve new centuries were created in order to include all those persons in the state who possessed the necessary qualifications. Niebuhr (Hist. of Rome, vol. I p427, &c.), however, supposes that the qualification of property was only necessary for admission into the twelve new centuries, and that the statement of Dionysius, quoted above, ought to be confined to these centuries, and not applied to the whole eighteen. He maintains that the twelve centuries consisted exclusively of plebeians; and that the six old centuries (that is, the three double centuries of Ramnes, Tities and Luceres, priores and posteriores), which were incorporated by Servius into his comitia under the title of the sex suffragia, comprised all the patricians, independent of the amount of property which they possessed. This account, however, does not seem to rest on sufficient evidence; and we have, on the contrary, an express instance of a patrician, L. Tarquitius, B.C. 458, who was compelled on account of his poverty to serve on foot (Liv. III.27). That the six old centuries consisted entirely of patricians is most probable, since the plebeians would certainly not have been admitted among the equites at all till the Servian constitution; and as by this constitution new centuries were created, it is not likely that any plebeians would have been placed among the ancient six. But we have no reason for supposing that these six centuries contained the whole body of patricians, or that the twelve consisted entirely of plebeians. We may suppose that those patricians, who belonged to the six, were allowed by the Servian constitution to continue in them, if they possessed the requisite property; and that all other persons in the state, whether patricians or plebeians, who possessed the requisite property, were admitted into the 12 new centuries. That the latter were not confined to plebeians may be inferred from Livy, who says that they consisted of the leading men in the state (primores civitatis), not in the plebs.

As vacancies occurred in the eighteen centuries, the descendants of those who were originally enrolled succeeded to their places, whether plebeians or patricians, provided they had not dissipated  p473 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, and were therefore allowed the privilege of serving with their own horses amongst the cavalry, instead of the infantry, as they would otherwise have been obliged to have done. Thus arose the two distinct classes of equites, which have been already mentioned.

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. XXIV.43), and also of giving the vacant horse to the most distinguished of the equites who had previously served at their own expense. 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. XXXIX.44; equitum centurias recognoscunt, Valer. Max. II.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.

[image ALT: A Roman coin. The obverse shows a female head, the reverse a knight standing in front of a horse, with the legend 'L. CRASSVS M. F.': it is supposed to represent the ceremony of the recognition of equites.]

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 (traducere equum, Valer. Max. IV.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. XXXIX.44) or ordered him to sell it (Liv. XXIX.37; Valer. Max. II.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 p433). 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).

The 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, 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. VI.13). According to Livy (IX.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 46 (Polyb. VI.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 ancient 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. XXIX.37); and L. Scipio Asiaticus, who was deprived of his horse by the censors in B.C. 185 (Liv. XXXIX.44), had himself been censor in B.C. 191. This is also proved by a fragment in the fourth book (c2) 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. But 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 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 afterwards; since, as Niebuhr observes (vol. I p433, 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." 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 (c8).

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 Equestris, 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. I.22; Tac. Ann. XII.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  p474 be qualified by his fortune to possess one, and not to be a senator. The number of judices, who were required yearly, was chosen from this class by the praetor urbanus (Klenze, Lex Servilia, Verl. 1825).

As the name of equites had been originally 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 (H. N. XXXIII.7) indeed says that those persons who possessed the equestrian fortune, but did not serve as equites, were only called 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 reform of Sulla, which entirely deprived the equestrian order of the right of being chosen as judices, and the passing of the Lex Aurelia (B.C. 70), which ordained that the judices should be chosen from the senators, equites, and tribuni aerarii, the influence of the order, says Pliny, was still maintained by the publicani (Plin. H. N. XXXIII.8), 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. II.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 Equestris Ordo."

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 seats in the theatre behind the orchestra were given to the equites (Liv. Epit. 99); which, according to Cicero (pro Mur. 19) and Velleius Paterculus (II.32), was only a restoration of an ancient privilege; which is alluded to by Livy (I.35), when he 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.

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. Thus Horace (Ep. I.1.58) says, with no small degree of contempt, —

Si quadringentis sex septem milia desunt,

Plebs eris.

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 grandfather. He permitted this class to wear the latus clavus (Ovid. Trist. IV.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 that termination of their office to remain in the senate or return to the equestrian order (Suet. Aug. 40; Dion Cass. LIV.30). This class of knights was distinguished by the special title illustres (sometimes insignes and splendidi) equites Romani (Tac. Ann. XI.4, with the note of Lipsius).

The formation of this distinct class tended to lower the others still more in public estimation. 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 any one 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. H. N. XXXIII.8). 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 tit. 10 s3). [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 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. I.15). When he went to an interview with Ariovistus, 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. I.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. VII.70; Bell. Civ. I.77, III.71, &c.).

After the year B.C. 50, there were no censors in the state, and it would therefore follow that for some years no review of the body took place, and that the vacancies were not filled up. When Augustus however took upon himself, in B.C. 29, the praefectura morum, he frequently reviewed the troops of equites, and restored, according to Suetonius (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 (recognitio) with the annual procession (transvectio) of the 15th of July. From this time these equites formed an honourable corps, from which all the higher officers in the army (Suet. Aug. 38, Claud. 25) and the chief magistrates  p475 in the state were chosen. Admission into this body was equivalent to an introduction into public life, and was therefore esteemed a great privilege; whence we find it recorded in inscriptions that such a person was equo publico honoratus, exornatus, &c. by the emperor (Orelli, Inscrip. No. 3457, 313, 1229).​a 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, with the exception of centurion.

All those equites who were not employed in actual service were obliged to reside at Rome (Dion Cass. LIX.9), where they were allowed to fill the lower magistracies, which entitled a person to admission into the senate. They we 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 Caius and Lucius Caesar, the grandsons of Augustus (Tac. Ann. I.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).

The practice of filling all the higher offices in the state from these 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. p1001.5; Papinian, in Dig. 29 tit. 21 s43), and of Caracalla (Gruter, p379.7); 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. 6.37).º 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, De Loco Ciceronis in lib. IV. de Republica, in Opuscula, vol. 1 p72, &c.; Becker, Handbuch der Römischen Alterthümer, vol. II part I. p235, &c.).

Thayer's Note:

a we find equo publico honoratus recorded in inscriptions: For a typical example, see this photo of a funerary altar in Umbria, (with transcription, translation, and brief commentary).

[image ALT: Valid HTML 4.01.]

Page updated: 17 Feb 21