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Roman aristocracy

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For the play by Aristophanes called Equites in Latin, see The Knights.

The ancient Roman aristocracy (Latin: nobilitas Romana) consisted of three overlapping groups, or "orders", in order of rank: the patricii (Patricians), a hereditary caste that monopolised political power during the regal era (to 509 BC) and during the early Republic (to 338 BC); the ordo senatorius ("Senatorial Order"), which included all sitting members of the Roman Senate and their families; and the ordo equester ("Order of Knights"). The groups overlapped in the sense that all Patricians and Senators also held the status of Roman Knights.

Of the three, only Patrician rank was hereditary and permanent, and thus the number of Patricians gradually declined over the centuries as male lines died out. The term patrician (Latin: patricius, Greek: πατρίκιος, patrikios) originally referred to a group of ruling class families in ancient Rome, including both their natural and adopted members. In the late Roman Empire, the class was broadened to include high administrative officials. Senatorial rank depended on the head of the family holding a seat in the Senate, which was not hereditary, but dependent on election. (Senate seats were limited to 600 during the Principate, 30 BC - AD 284). Although election was for life, the seat would be forfeited if the Senator, at the quinquennial census, failed to meet a minimum property requirement (250,000 denarii under Augustus). Knightly rank was hereditary (in the male line), but again could be lost by failure to meet a property threshold (100,000 denarii). As only Knights were eligible for a seat in the Senate, all Senators also held Knightly rank (and would revert to it if they lost their seat). Under Augustus, a distinction arose between hereditary Knights (known, due to historical reasons, as equites equo publico - "Knights with a Public Horse"), and the much more numerous "property-Knights", commoners who attained the property-threshold, and were accorded Knightly status and regalia by Augustus, but did not belong to the Order and were not eligible to enter the Senate or hold the public posts reserved for Knights.

During the Roman imperial era, all the top administrative, military and religious positions - Senate seats, state magistracies, provincial governorships, command of legions and auxiliary regiments, state priesthoods - were reserved for Senators and hereditary Knights. Wealth accumulated over centuries by aristocratic families resulted in most land and commerce being in the hands of the same elite. Thus, a tiny elite of around 5,000 men monopolized all of the wealth and power in an empire of nearly 60 million inhabitants.

Regal era (753 to 509 BC)[edit]

According to Roman legend, Rome was founded by its first king, Romulus, in 753 BC. However, archaeological evidence suggests that Rome did not acquire the character of a unified city-state (as opposed to a number of separate hilltop settlements) until ca. 625 BC.[1]

According to Livy, the first 100 men appointed as senators, or wise advisors, by Romulus were referred to as "fathers" (patres) of Rome by virtue of their rank and the descendants of those men became the Patrician class. Livy states that Romulus chose 100 men either because that number was adequate, or because there were only a hundred heads of houses who could be created. The patricians were distinct from the other citizens because they were aristocracy and had wider political influence.

Roman tradition relates that the Order of Knights was founded by Romulus, who supposedly established a cavalry regiment of 300 men called the Celeres ("the Swift Squadron") to act as his personal escort, with each of the three Roman "tribes" (actually voting constituencies) supplying 100 horse. This cavalry regiment was supposedly doubled in size to 600 men by King Tarquinius Priscus (traditional dates 616-578 BC).[2] That the cavalry was increased to 600 during the regal era is plausible, as in the early Republic the cavalry fielded remained 600-strong (2 legions with 300 horse each).[3] Apparently, Knights 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.[4]

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.[5] 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.[4] 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).[6]

Early Republic (509-338 BC)[edit]

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.[Note 1] Indeed, Alfoldi suggests that the coup was carried out by the Celeres themselves.[9] According to the Fraccaro interpretation, when the Roman monarchy was replaced by two annually elected praetores (later called Consuls), the royal army was divided equally between them for campaigning purposes, which if true explains why a later Polybian legion's cavalry contingent was 300-strong.[10]

Around 400 BC, the ranks of Knights was swelled by the establishment of 12 additional centuriae (ascribed by Livy, probably mistakenly, to king Servius Tullius). It is widely agreed that the 12 new centuriae were open to non-Patricians.[11] Thus, from this date if not earlier, not all Knights 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 Iulii clan was patrician.[12]

In contrast, the ranks of Knights, although also hereditary (in the male line), were open to new entrants who met the property requirement and who satisfied the Roman censors that they were suitable for membership.[13] As a consequence, Patricians rapidly became only a small minority of the Order of Knights. However, Patricians retained political influence greatly out of proportion with their numbers. Until 172 BC, one of the two Consuls elected each year had to be a Patrician.[12] In addition, Patricians may have retained their original 6 centuriae, which gave them a third of the total voting-power of the Knights, 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 monopolised certain priesthoods and continued to enjoy enormous prestige.[14]

Later Republic (338-30 BC)[edit]

Rise of the senatorial oligarchy[edit]

The period following the end of the Latin War (340-338 BC) and of the Samnite Wars (343-290) saw the transformation of the Roman Republic from a powerful but beleaguered city-state into the hegemonic power of the Italian peninsula. This was accompanied by profound changes in its constitution and army. Internally, the critical development was the emergence of the Senate as the all-powerful organ of state.[15]

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. It was characterised by "rotation of public office within a competitive elite, and the suppression of charismatic individuals by peer-group pressure", in this case exercised by the Senate.[16] 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 Roman magistrates, boasted enormous experience and influence.[15] It was also a narrow, self-perpetuating clique.

The ostensible vehicle of the people's sovereignty was the comitia centuriata a people's assembly which nominally promulgated Roman laws and annually elected the Roman magistrates, the executive officers of the state: Consuls, Praetors, Aediles and Quaestors.[17] But in reality, the comitia were a virtually powerless body in which voting was rigged in favour of the wealthiest classes. In the assembly, the citizen-body was divided into 193 centuriae, or voting constituencies. Of these, 18 were allocated to Knights (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 tiny minority of the citizenry. The lowest class, the proletarii, rated at under 400 drachmae, had just one vote, despite being the most numerous.[17]

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.[17]

Role of Knights[edit]

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, Paris.
A Roman coin issued during the Second Punic War (218-201 BC) showing (obverse) the god of war Mars and (reverse) probably the earliest image of a Roman cavalryman of the Republican era. Note helmet with horsehair plume, long spear (hasta), small round shield (parma equestris), flowing mantle. Roman cavalry was levied from the equites, and from volunteers of the second property class, until the early 1st century BC. Bronze quincunx from Larinum mint.

In the "Polybian" Roman army of the mid-Republic (338 - 88 BC), Knights held the exclusive right to serve as senior officers of the army.[18] 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 who led each squadron (turma) of legionary cavalry (total 30 decurions per legion).[19]

As their name implies, Knights 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 Knightly 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.[20]

The cavalry role of Knights dwindled after the Second Punic War (218-201 BC), as the number of Knights became insufficient to provide the senior officers of the army and general cavalrymen as well. Knights became exclusively an officer-class, with the First Class of commoners providing the legionary cavalry.

From the earliest times and throughout the Republican period, Roman Knights 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 Knights, 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.[21] 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.[Note 2] Many Knights 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.[26] One successful attempt, but with a tragic twist, was that of the decurion Titus Manlius Torquatus in 340 BC during the Latin War. Despite strict orders from the Consuls (one of whom was his own father) not to engage the enemy, Manlius could not resist accepting a personal challenge from the commander of the Tusculan cavalry, which his squadron encountered while on reconnaissance. There ensued a fiercely contested joust with the opposing squadrons as spectators. Manlius won, spearing his adversary after the latter was thrown by his horse. But when the triumphant young man presented the spoils to his father, the latter ordered his son's immediate execution for disobeying orders. "Orders of Manlius" (Manliana imperia) became a proverbial army term for orders which must on no account be disregarded.[27]

Business activities of the aristocracy[edit]

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.[28]

From this time onwards, Senatorial families mostly invested their capital in land. All other Knights 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.[29] Knights became especially prominent in tax farming and, by 100 BC, owned virtually all tax-farming companies (publicani).[30]

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 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.[31]

The system also led to political conflict between equites publicani ("tax-farming Knights") and the majority of their fellow-Knights, 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.[32] 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).[33] 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. Equites publicani became prominent in banking activities such as money-lending and money-changing.[31]


The official dress of Knights was the tunica angusticlavia ("narrow-striped tunic" - as opposed to the broad stripe worn by Senators), worn underneath the toga, in such a manner that the stripe over the right shoulder was visible.[34]) Knights bore the title eques Romanus, were entitled to wear an anulus aureus (gold ring) on their left hand, and, from 67 BC, enjoyed privileged seats at games and public functions (just behind those reserved for Senators).[35]

The Augustan aristocracy[edit]

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 regiment) in Germania Inferior. Pliny was a hereditary Roman Knight of the imperial era who became famous for his writings on geography and natural history. He also had a distinguished career as a public servant, in a series of posts reserved for Knights. He served as a military officer in 44-54, as equestrian governor (procurator Augusti) of two minor provinces in the period 70-77 and then as a secretary of state in Rome to the emperor Vespasian. In 79, when he was praefectus classis (admiral commanding) of the main imperial fleet at Misenum in the Bay of Naples, Pliny carried out his most famous, and final, public service. The nearby volcano Mt. Vesuvius erupted, burying the surrounding towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum. From his base across the bay, Pliny led out his entire fleet in an attempt to rescue thousands of survivors trapped by lava-flows on the shore beneath Vesuvius. But after reaching port at Stabiae, Pliny's ships were prevented from putting to sea again for several hours by a strong in-shore gale (caused by convection: superheated air rising over the volcano, sucking cooler air in from over the sea). Whilst waiting for the wind to abate, Pliny died on a nearby beach from inhaling toxic gases. His notes on this incident, and of the eruption, were referred to in a letter by his nephew, Pliny the Younger, who remained behind at Misenum.[36] (Source: British Museum, London)

Differentiation of the senatorial order[edit]

The Senate as a body was formed of sitting Senators, whose number was limited to 600 by the founder of the Principate, Augustus (sole rule 30 BC-AD 14) and his successors until 312. Senators' sons and further descendants technically retained Knightly rank unless and until they won a seat in the Senate. But Talbert argues that Augustus established the existing senatorial elite as a separate and superior order, the (ordo senatorius), for the first time.[34]

But Talbert's view is contradicted by the fact Senators remained a subset of the Order of Knights. 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[edit]

As regards the Order of Knights, Augustus re-organised it in a quasi-military fashion, with members enrolled into 6 turmae (notional cavalry squadrons). The Order's governing body were the seviri ("Committee of Six"), composed of the "commanders" of the turmae. In an attempt to foster the Knights' esprit de corps, Augustus revived an obsolete Republican ceremony, the recognitio equitum ("Inspection of the Knights"), in which Knights paraded every 5 years with their horses before the Consuls.[11] At some stage during the early Principate, Knights acquired the right to the title egregius ("distinguished gentleman"), while Senators were styled clarissimus, "most distinguished").[35]

Beyond equites equo publico (hereditary Knights), 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 Knights" were not apparently admitted to the Order of Knights itself, but simply enjoyed Knightly status.[37][38]

Only those granted the title equo publico by the emperor (or who inherited the status from their fathers) were enrolled in the Order. Imperial Knights 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 Knights; 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.[37][38]

Knights 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 Knightly 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:

  1. The normal route was election to the post of Quaestor, the most junior magistracy (for which the minimum eligible age was 27 years), which carried automatic membership of the Senate. 20 Quaestors were appointed each year, a number which evidently broadly matched the average annual vacancies (caused by death or expulsion for misdemeanours or insufficient wealth) so that the 600-member limit was preserved. Under Augustus, Senators' sons had the right to stand for election, while Knights could only do so with the emperor's permission. Later in the Julio-Claudian period, the rule became established that all candidates required imperial leave. Previously conducted by the people's assembly (comitia centuriata), the election was in the hands, from the time of Tiberius onwards, of the Senate itself, whose sitting members inevitably favoured the sons of their colleagues. Since the latter alone often outnumbered the number of available places, Knightly candidates stood little chance unless they enjoyed the support of the emperor.[39]
  2. The exceptional route was direct appointment to a Senate seat by the emperor (adlectio), technically using the powers of Roman censor (which also entitled him to expel members). Adlectio was, however, generally used sparingly in order not to breach the 600-member ceiling. It was chiefly resorted to in periods when Senate numbers became severely depleted e.g. during the Civil War of 68-9, following which the emperor Vespasian made large-scale adlectiones.[40]

Aristocratic public careers[edit]

In public service, hereditary Knights 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), Knights were required to serve as military officers for about 10 years before they would be appointed to senior administrative or military posts.[41]

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 Lavinium, a town in Latium, then served as a military officer, first as praefectus (commander) of cohors I Montanorum (in Pannonia), then tribunus militum of legio II Augusta (in Britannia), and finally praefectus of ala veterana Gallorum (in Aegyptus). Then, after a stint as subpraefectus classis (deputy commander) of the imperial fleet at Ravenna, Sabinus was governor of the Alpes Poeninae and then of Dacia Apulensis provinces. His son, who erected the memorial, is described as of equo publico rank. Dated to the early Severan period (193-211)

Knights 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 Knight's military 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.[42]

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 Knights by Augustus, though most ranked below the senatorial posts.[43] In the imperial administration, posts reserved for Knights included that of the governorship (praefectus Augusti) of the province of Egypt, which was considered the most prestigious of all the posts open to Knights, often the culmination of a long and distinguished career serving the state. In addition, Knights were appointed to the governorship (procurator Augusti) of some smaller provinces and sub-provinces e.g. Judaea, whose governor was subordinate to the senatorial governor of Syria.[44]

Knights were also the procuratores Augusti (Chief Financial Officers) of the imperial provinces, and the deputy financial officers of senatorial provinces. At Rome, Knights filled numerous senior administrative posts such as the emperor's secretaries of state (from the time of Claudius e.g. Correspondence and Treasury) and the praefecti annonae ("Director of Grain Supply").[44]

In the military, Knights 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.[44] Equestrians also provided the praefecti classis (Admirals Commanding) of the two main imperial fleets at Misenum in the bay of Naples and at Ravenna on the Italian Adriatic coast. The command of Rome's Vigiles (combined fire brigade and police force), was likewise reserved for Knights.[41]

Not all Knights followed the conventional career-path. Those Knights 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 Hadrian (r. AD 117-138).[45] At the same time, many Knights became career military-officers, remaining in the army for much longer than the standard 10 years. After completing their tres militiae, some would continue to command auxiliary regiments, moving across units and provinces.[46]

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).[32] 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).[47][48]

Relations with emperor[edit]

It was suggested by some ancient writers, and accepted by many modern historians, that Roman emperors trusted Knights 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 their command of provincial legions, combined with their immense personal wealth, to launch coups.[49]

They also had greater opportunities for peculation as provincial governors. Hence the appointment of Knights 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 Order of Knights, since placing a Senator in a position to starve Italy was considered too risky.[49]

The Commanders of the Praetorian Guard, the principal military force close to the emperor at Rome, were also usually drawn from the ranks of the Knights.[35] 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 Knights were no more loyal or less corrupt than Senators.[50] 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.[51] Under Tiberius, both the senatorial governor and the equestrian fiscal procurator of Asia province were convicted of corruption.[52]

There is also evidence that emperors were as wary of powerful Knights as they were of Senators. Augustus enforced a tacit rule that Senators and prominent Knights must obtain his express permission to enter the province of Egypt, a policy that was continued by his successors.[49][53] Also, the command of the Praetorian Guard was normally split between two Knights, to reduce the potential for a successful coup d'état. At the same time, command of the second military force in Rome, the cohortes urbanae, was entrusted to a Senator.

Oligarchical rule in the early Principate (30 BC - AD 218)[edit]

It is apparent that the oligarchical nature of the governance of the Republic continued largely intact into the imperial era. The institution of the emperor paradoxically did not undermine the oligarchy, but actually perpetuated it, by guarding against the threat of powerful generals. Because the Senate was limited to 600 members, hereditary Knights, numbering several thousands, greatly outnumbered men of senatorial rank.[37] Even so, Senators and Knights combined constituted a tiny elite in a citizen-body of about 6 millions (in AD 47) and an empire with a total population of 60-70 millions.[54][55] 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 (e.g. under Nero (r.54-68), half of all land in Africa proconsularis province was owned by just 6 senators) and of most major commercial enterprises.[56]

Overall, Senators and Knights 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 Principate (30 BC - AD 218), there was only two episodes of major internal strife: the Civil War of 68-9 and the Year of the Five Emperors.

The aristocracy in the later empire[edit]

The emperor Maximinus I (Thrax) (ruled 235-8), whose career epitomises the soldier-Knights 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 Septimius Severus and was probably made a Knight by Caracalla towards the end of his rule (218). Under Alexander Severus he was given command of a legion and later served as provincial governor in Mauretania Tingitana and in Germania before seizing supreme power in a coup d'état in 235

Rise of the military Knights (3rd century)[edit]

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 Knights and the concomitant exclusion of the Italian aristocracy, both Senators and Knights; (2) the growth in hierarchy within the aristocratic orders.

Augustus instituted a policy, followed by his successors, of elevating to the Order of Knights the primus pilus ("chief centurion") of each legion, at the end of his single year in the post.[57] This resulted in about 30 career-soldiers, often risen from the ranks, joining the Order every year. These equites primipilares (military Knights) and their descendants formed a section of the Order which was quite distinct from the hereditary Italian aristocrats.[35]

The primipilares were almost entirely provincials, especially Romanised Illyrians and Thracians from the Danubian provinces where about half the Roman army was deployed. They were generally far less wealthy than the landowning Italians (not benefiting from centuries of inherited wealth) and they rarely held non-military posts.[58] Their military expertise led emperors to rely on them ever more heavily on campaigns, especially in difficult conflicts such as the Marcomannic Wars (166-80). But because they were only Knights and not Senators, they were not eligible to hold 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.[59]

But this met resistance in the Senate, so that in the 3rd century, emperors simply appointed Knights directly to the top commands, under the fiction that they were only temporary substitutes (praeses pro legato). Septimius Severus (r. AD 193-211) appointed primipilares to command the 3 new legions that he raised in 197 for his Parthian War.[59] Gallienus (r. AD 253-268) completed the process by appointing equites to command all the legions.[60] These appointees were mostly provincial military Knights, not Italian aristocrats.[61]

Under the reforming emperor Diocletian (r. AD 284-305), himself an Illyrian equestrian officer, the military equestrian "takeover" was brought a stage further, with the removal of hereditary Senators from most administrative, as well as military posts. Hereditary Senators were limited to administrative jobs in Italy and a few neighbouring provinces (Sicily, Africa, Achaea and Asia), despite the fact that senior administrative posts had been greatly multiplied by the tripling of the number of provinces and the establishment of dioceses (super-provinces). The exclusion of the old Italian aristocracy, both senatorial and equestrian, from the political and military power that they had monopolised for many centuries was thus complete. The Senate became politically insignificant, although it retained great prestige.[62]

The 3rd and 4th centuries saw the proliferation of hierarchical ranks within the aristocratic orders, in line with the greater stratification of society as a whole, which became divided into two broad classes, with discriminatory rights and privileges: the honestiores ("more noble") and humiliores ("more base"). Among the honestiores, equestrians were divided into 5 grades, depending on the salary-levels of the offices they held.[63]

These ranged from egregii or sexagenarii (salary of 60,000 sesterces = 15,000 denarii) to the eminentissimi ("most exalted"), limited to the 2 commanders of the Praetorian Guard and, with the establishment of Diocletian's Tetrarchy, the 4 praefecti praetorio (not to be confused with the commanders of the Praetorian Guard in Rome) that assisted the Tetrarchs, each ruling over a quarter of the empire.[63]

The idle aristocracy (4th century)[edit]

From the reign of Constantine I the Great (312–37) onwards, there was an explosive increase in the membership of both aristocratic orders. Under Diocletian, the number of sitting members of the Senate remained at around 600, the level it had retained for the whole duration of the Principate.[63] But Constantine established Byzantium as a twin capital of the empire, with its own senate, initially of 300 members. By 387, their number had swollen to 2,000, while the Senate in Rome probably reached a comparable size, so that the upper order reached total numbers similar to the equo publico Knights of the early Principate.[64] By this time, even some commanders of military regiments were accorded senatorial status.[65]

At the same time the Order of Knights was also expanded vastly by the proliferation of public posts in the late empire, most of which now carried Knightly rank. The Principate had been a remarkably slim-line administration, with about 250 senior officials running the vast empire, relying on local government and private contractors to deliver the necessary taxes and services. By the time of the Notitia, comparable positions had grown to approximately 6,000, a 24-fold increase.[66] In addition, large numbers of decuriones (city councillors) were granted knightly rank, often obtaining it by bribery. Officials of ever lower rank were granted knightly rank as reward for good service e.g. in 365, the actuarii (accountants) of military regiments. This inflation in Knights' numbers inevitably led to the debasement of the Order's prestige. By AD 400, Knights were no longer an echelon of nobility, but just a title associated with mid-level administrative posts.[45]

Constantine established a third order of nobility, the comites ("Companions (of the emperor)", singular form comes, the origin of the medieval noble rank of count). the Order of Companions overlapped with those of Senators and Knights, drawing members from both. Originally, the Companions were a highly exclusive group, comprising the most senior administrative and military officers, such as the commanders of the comitatus, or mobile field armies. But the Companions rapidly followed the same path as Knights, being devalued by excessive grants until the title became meaningless by 450.[65]

In the late 4th and in the 5th century, therefore, the senatorial class at Rome and Byzantium remained the only true aristocracy of the empire. It contained many ancient and illustrious families, some of whom claimed descent from the aristocracy of the Republic, but had, as described, lost almost all political and military power.[67] Nevertheless, Senators retained great influence due to their enormous inherited wealth and their role as the guardians of Roman tradition and culture.[68]

Centuries of capital accumulation by inheritance, in the form of vast landed estates (latifundia) across many provinces resulted in enormous wealth for most Senators. Many received annual rents in cash and in kind of over 5,000 pounds (2,300 kg) of gold, equivalent to 360,000 solidi (or 5 million Augustan-era denarii), at a time when a miles (common soldier) would earn no more than 4 solidi a year in cash. Even Senators of middling wealth could expect an income 1,000 to 1,500 pounds (450 to 680 kg) of gold.[69]

The 4th century historian Ammianus Marcellinus, a former high-ranking military staff-officer who spent his retirement years in Rome, bitterly attacks the Italian aristocracy, denouncing their extravagant palaces, clothes, games and banquets and above all their lives of total idleness and frivolity.[70] In his words can be heard the contempt for the senatorial class of a career-soldier who had spent his lifetime defending the empire, a view clearly shared by Diocletian and his Illyrian successors. But it is the latter who reduced the aristocracy to that state, by displacing them from their traditional role of governing the empire and leading the army.[71]


  1. ^ 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.[7] The position and powers of a Roman king were thus similar to those of Julius Caesar when he was appointed dictator-for-life in 44 BC. That was why Caesar's assassin Marcus Junius Brutus felt a moral obligation to emulate his claimed ancestor Lucius Junius Brutus, "The Liberator", the man who, Roman tradition averred, in 509 BC led the coup which overthrew the last king, Tarquin the Proud, and established the Republic.[8]
  2. ^ Spolia opima: The highest form of spolia duci hostium detracta (spoils taken from an enemy leader) were known as the spolia opima ("rich spoils"), which were displayed in the Temple of Jupiter Feretrius in Rome. According to the most widely understood version of the tradition, to earn the spolia opima one had to be a Roman commander-in-chief who killed the enemy paramount leader in single combat. The spolia opima were won only three times: by Romulus for killing Acro, king of the Caeninenses (ca. 750 BC); by Aulus Cornelius Cossus for killing Lars Tolumnius, king of the Veientes (in 437 or 425 BC); and by Marcus Claudius Marcellus for killing Viridomarus, king of the Celtic Gaesatae (in 222 BC).[22] However, the award to Cossus was a matter for some controversy, as, according to Livy, he was only a tribunus militum, and not commander-in-chief of the army at the time.[23] A minority tradition, originally preserved by Varro, antiquarian of the late Republic, held that spolia opima could be won by any Roman soldier who killed the enemy leader in battle.[24] According to Varro, there were three classes of spolia opima: First Class, spoils taken by the Roman commander-in-chief, which alone could be dedicated to Jupiter Feretrius; Second Class, spoils taken by a Roman officer; and Third Class, those taken by a common soldier.[25]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Cornell (1995) 94, 102
  2. ^ Livy I.36
  3. ^ Polybius
  4. ^ a b Livy I.43
  5. ^ Cornell (1995) 245
  6. ^ Cornell (1995) 250
  7. ^ Cornell (1995) 141–42
  8. ^ Plutarch Brutus 10-2
  9. ^ Cornell (1995) 238, 446 note 32
  10. ^ Cornell (1995) 182
  11. ^ a b Online 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica Equites
  12. ^ a b Oxford Patricians
  13. ^ Livy XXXIX.19, 44
  14. ^ Online Encyclopædia Britannica Patricians
  15. ^ a b Cornell (1995) 369
  16. ^ Cornell (1995) 372
  17. ^ a b c Cornell (1995) 379-80
  18. ^ Smith (1890) Equites
  19. ^ Polybius VI.19, 26
  20. ^ Goldsworthy (2000) 49
  21. ^ Livy, XLV.39.16; Plutarch Aemilius Paullus 31.2
  22. ^ Plutarch Romulus; Marcellus
  23. ^ Livy IV.20
  24. ^ Festus Lexicon "Opima Spolia"
  25. ^ Smith (1890) Spolia
  26. ^ Sidnell (2006) 153-4
  27. ^ Livy VIII.7-8
  28. ^ Livy XXI.63
  29. ^ Jones (1964) 6
  30. ^ Tacitus Annales IV.6
  31. ^ a b Encyclopædia Britannica Online Publicani
  32. ^ a b Talbert (1996) 341
  33. ^ Burton (1987) 426
  34. ^ a b Talbert (1996) 326
  35. ^ a b c d Jones (1964) 8
  36. ^ Pliny the Younger Letters VI.19
  37. ^ a b c Jones (1964) 7, 8
  38. ^ a b Encyclopædia Britannica Online Ancient Rome
  39. ^ Talbert (1996) 333
  40. ^ Eck in CAH XI (2000) 215-6
  41. ^ a b Talbert (1996) 340
  42. ^ Goldsworthy (2003) 65
  43. ^ Goldsworthy (2003) 60, 64, 65
  44. ^ a b c Goldsworthy (2003) 64-5
  45. ^ a b Jones (1964)
  46. ^ Goldsworthy (2003) 66
  47. ^ Birley (1988) 46
  48. ^ Jones (1964) 31
  49. ^ a b c Tacitus Annales II.59
  50. ^ Talbert (1996) 342
  51. ^ Dio Cassius LIII.23
  52. ^ Tacitus Annales IV.13
  53. ^ Ritner (1998) 1-2.
  54. ^ Tacitus Annales XI.25
  55. ^ Scheidel (2006) 9
  56. ^ Thompson (1987) 556
  57. ^ Goldsworthy (2000) 129
  58. ^ Goldsworthy (2000) 164-5
  59. ^ a b Goldsworthy (2000) 164
  60. ^ Tomlin (1988) 108
  61. ^ Holder (1982) 65
  62. ^ Jones (1964) 50, 525, 526
  63. ^ a b c Jones (1964) 525
  64. ^ Jones (1964) 527
  65. ^ a b Jones (1964) 528
  66. ^ Heather (2005) 228
  67. ^ Jones (1964) 545–56
  68. ^ Jones (1964) 561–62
  69. ^ Jones (1964) 554
  70. ^ Ammianus XXVIII.4
  71. ^ Jones (1964) 50, 525




  • Birley, Anthony (2002). Band of Brothers: Garrison Life at Vindolanda. 
  • Burton, G. (1987): Government and the Provinces. In J. Wacher ed. The Roman World Vol I
  • Bury,J.B. (1898). The History of the Roman Empire from its Foundation to the death of Marcus Aurelius (27 BC-180 AD). Cambridge University Press.  (Bury(1898)):
  • Cornell, T. J. (1995): The Beginnings of Rome
  • Eck, Werner (2000): Emperor, Senate & Magistrates. In Cambridge Ancient History 2nd Ed. Vol XI
  • Goldsworthy, Adrian (2000): Roman Warfare
  • Goldsworthy, Adrian (2003): The Complete Roman Army
  • Heather, Peter (2005): Fall of the Roman Empire
  • Jones, A.H.M. (1964): Later Roman Empire
  • Keppie, Lawrence (1996). "The Army and the Navy" in Cambridge Ancient History 2nd Ed Vol X (The Augustan Empire 30BC - 69 AD). 
  • Ritner, R.K. (1998): Egypt Under Roman Rule: the Legacy of Ancient Egypt. In Cambridge History of Egypt, Vol I. Ed. C.F. Petry. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
  • Scheidel, Walter (2006): Population & Demography (Princeton-Stanford Working Papers in Classics)
  • Sidnell, Philip (2006): Warhorse
  • Smith W. (1890): Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities
  • Talbert, Richard (1996): The Senate and Senatorial and Equestrian Posts. In Cambridge Ancient History, Vol X 2nd Edition. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
  • Tomlin, R. S. O. (1988). The Army of the Late Empire. In The Roman World (ed J. Wacher). 

Further reading[edit]

  • Brunt, P.A. (1983). "Princeps and Equites". The Journal of Roman Studies (The Journal of Roman Studies, Vol. 73) 73: 42–75. doi:10.2307/300072. JSTOR 300072. 
  • Greenough, J.B.; Kittredge, G.L. (17 June 2005) [1902]. "The Roman Constitution". The Society for Ancient Languages. Retrieved 22 August 2012.  ("This essay is reproduced in its entirety from 'Introduction: VI. The Roman Constitution', Select Orations and Letters of Cicero. ed. J.B. Greenough & G.L. Kittredge. Boston: Ginn and Company, 1902."
  • Hill, H. (July 1938). "Equites and Celeres". Classical Philology 33 (3): 283–290. doi:10.1086/362138. JSTOR 265360. 

External links[edit]