equestrian (Roman)

This article is part of the series on: Military of ancient Rome ()
800 BC–AD 476
Structural history
Roman army (unit types and ranks,
legions, auxiliaries, generals)
Roman navy (fleets, )
Campaign history
Lists of Wars and Battles
Decorations and Punishments
Technological history
Military engineering (castra,
siege engines, arches, roads)
Personal equipment
Political history
Strategy and tactics
Infantry tactics
Frontiers and fortifications (Limes,
Hadrian's Wall)
An equestrian (Latin eques, plural equites - also known as a vir egregius, lit. "excellent man" from the 2nd century AD onwards) was a member of one of the two upper social classes in the Roman Republic and early Roman Empire. This social class is often translated as "knight" or "chevalier" (French). However, this translation is not literal, since medieval knights relied on their martial skills, the physical power of their horse and armour to support their position, while the connection of Roman equestrians to horses had become more symbolic even in the early days of the Republic. The social position of medieval knights and Roman equestrians, however, was extremely alike, equestrians being the nearest Roman equivalent to Medieval nobility, the Roman tax farming system shared many similarities with medieval feudalism without actually being identical, due to inherent differences in the social structure and the level of central government.

The equites were the Roman middle class between the upper class of patricians and the lower class of plebs. The distinguishing mark of the equestrian class was a gold ring (that of the patrician was of iron) and narrow black band on the tunic.

Regnal origins

Enlarge picture
Reenactor showing Roman military equestrian
Before the Middle Ages, most armies were largely composed of infantry. Horsemen were used as advance scouts, small fast raiding parties, troop escorts, and to outflank infantry lines. The majority of the fighting was done by infantry. Still, ancient armies needed cavalry, and the horsemen usually belonged to the highest classes, because no one else could afford a horse. Consequently, it was prestigious to own and ride a horse: one could show that one was rich and did not have to perform manual labor (or hand to hand combat).

Ancient Rome was no exception to this rule, although the horsemen received financial compensation to buy a horse (the equus publicus, horse bought by the commonwealth). Thus, originally, the equestrians were a military as well as a political group. It is said that king Servius Tullius divided the Roman nation into centuries, which were not only units of soldiers on the battlefield but also voting units in the so-called Centuriate Assembly. The Roman historian Livy offers a description of a complex system with 18 centuries of cavalry, 170 centuries of infantry, and 2 centuries of engineers. When the centuries came together to vote, the equites centuries cast their 18 votes first, followed by the 172 remaining centuries, and one additional vote for those who were too poor to serve in the army but still had a political vote. (Although the fact that the people were divided belongs to the age of kings, it is likely that these specific numbers date back to the fourth century BC.)

Republican developments

Enlarge picture
Detail of Roman sarcophagus, 2nd Century AD, National Museum of Rome, Italy
Beginning in the late third century BC and continuing into the second century BC, Rome came to rely upon its allies for its cavalry forces. As a result, the equestrian centuries lost their military function. The elite of the Roman Republic still called itself Eques, but like most knights today, members did not typically fight on horseback. Rather, the title simply became an indication of nobility.

At the same time, the Roman elite slowly started to change. Always, the equestrians had been wealthy and had governed the provinces. Words like knight and senator had been synonyms. However, the Senate increasingly became a body of former magistrates, and although other rich people could still be invited to join the discussions, the families that had produced magistrates tended to intermarry, thereby creating a senatorial elite within the old, equestrian elite.

It is probably to this period, the late third and early second century BC, that a distinction within the eighteen equestrian centuries belongs: six centuries were reserved for the senators and their sons, and they cast the first votes, while the other twelve centuries belonged to the equestrians. This must be a development from an age in which the military aspect of the centuries had become less important, because from a military point of view it makes no sense to concentrate the elite in six units. If they were destroyed, the state would lose its governing body.

Thus, in the second century BC, Rome evolved a dual elite. The senators, just as rich as the equestrians, came to monopolize the government by dominating the magistrate offices and started to act as if they were an "elite within the elite". Senators had to behave according to a strict code of conduct, and were forbidden commercial incomes. For the equestrian, this taboo was less rigid, and the equestrians often invested money in tax farming companies and marketing. Unlike Senators, equestrians were permitted to operate businesses. As a result, tensions arose between the elite of the magistrates and the elite of the bankers. After all, the equestrians wanted to make as much money as possible from their tax farming companies and were extorting the provinces, whereas the Senators governed the provinces and noticed that overtaxing caused rebellions.

In the late second century BC, a tribune named Gaius Sempronius Gracchus used the latent tensions within Rome's double elite in an effort to reform Roman society. Before Gracchus, the elite had always been able to overcome any opposition. Gracchus' strategy was to divide the elite by proposing to make the knights jurors in extortion trials. This would enable them to judge their own conduct in the provinces, much against the wishes of the Senators. From that point on, the Senators and equestrians existed as independent classes with different rights, obligations, and interests.

Still, in the age of the Roman civil wars, the senatorial and equestrian orders often collaborated. Control of the courts and financial management of the provinces were two fields in which they sometimes clashed, yet their interests often coincided. Equestrians and Senators were usually not proponents of social change or revolution. Besides, an equestrian who obtained a political office (e.g., the quaestorship) would become a Senator, whereas the son of a Senator who failed to obtain office, remained an equestrian.

Reforms in the Empire

During the reign of the Emperor Augustus, the two orders were for the first time officially defined. One could become an equestrian when one had some 400,000 sesterces; a Senator needed a million. Of course one also needed to be registered in one of the six senatorial or twelve equestrian centuries, and the censor (usually the Emperor) wrote down the names of worthy people on a list to be added to each century.

The empire needed a bureaucracy, but no freeborn Roman would serve another man. As a result, freedmen became very important during the reigns of Claudius (41-54) and Nero (54-68). This was not an acceptable solution. These freedmen could become very influential and Senators did not appreciate it when a former slave had greater power than they had. From the reign of the Emperor Vespasian, who ruled in the year 69, on, equestrian procurators started to serve as heads of the great ministries of the Roman government. The equestrians developed into a bureaucratic and practical elite. The Senators still occupied the representative offices and acted as governors in the major provinces, but the equestrians did the real work within the Empire.

Officially, the equestrians were the second tier of the elite. In the theaters and amphitheaters, they occupied ranks behind the Senators. This made the equestrians harmless and, consequently, suitable for important offices of state: a Senator who served as Praetorian Prefect or Prefect of Egypt might start to dream of making himself Emperor, so these offices were reserved for equestrians. In the late second century, the Emperor Commodus and his successor Septimius Severus increasingly relied upon the equestrian order. Legions, for example, received equestrians as commanders, and the newly conquered provinces of Mesopotamia were governed by equestrian prefects.

Senatorial authors like Cassius Dio did not appreciate it, but it was inevitable. Strong tribes threatened the Roman frontiers, and it would have been irresponsible to hand over the command of the armies to senators.

See also: Roman Senate.

Secondary sources

External links and sources

See also

Military of ancient Rome (Latin: militia) relates to the combined military forces of Ancient Rome from the founding of the city of Rome in the 8th century BC to the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century AD.
..... Click the link for more information.
The structural history of the Roman military describes the major chronological transformations in the organisation and constitution of ancient Rome's armed forces, "the most effective and long-lived military institution known to history".
..... Click the link for more information.
The Roman army was a set of land-based military forces employed by the Roman Kingdom, Roman Republic and later Roman Empire as part of the Roman military. For its main infantry constituent and for much of its history, see Roman legion; for a catalogue of individual legions, dates
..... Click the link for more information.
This is a list of both unit types and ranks of the Roman army from the Roman Republic to the fall of the Roman Empire. The distinction between rank and unit type doesn't seem to have been as precise as in a modern-day army, in which a solider has a
..... Click the link for more information.
This is a list of Roman legions, including key facts about each legion. This article primarily focuses on Principate (early Empire, 30BC - 284AD) legions, for which we have substantial literary, epigraphic and archaeological evidence.
..... Click the link for more information.
Auxiliaries (from Latin: auxilia = supports) formed the standing non-citizen corps of the Roman army of the Principate (30 BC - 284 AD), alongside the citizen legions.
..... Click the link for more information.


Manius Acilius Glabrio -- Manius Acilius Glabrio (consul 191 BC) -- Manius Acilius Glabrio (consul 91) -- Titus Aebutius Helva -- Aegidius -- Lucius Aemilius Barbula -- Marcus Aemilius Lepidus (triumvir) --
..... Click the link for more information.
The Roman Navy (Latin: Classis) operated between the First Punic War and the end of the Western Roman Empire.


By period

Early Republic

..... Click the link for more information.
campaign history of the Roman military is the account of the Roman military's land battles, from its initial defence against and subsequent conquest of the city's hilltop neighbours in the Italian peninsula, to the ultimate struggle of the Western Roman Empire for its existence
..... Click the link for more information.
The following is a List of Roman wars fought by the ancient Roman Kingdom, Roman Republic and Roman Empire, organized by date.

4th century BC

  • First Samnite War (343-341 BC)
  • Latin War (340-338 BC)
  • Second Samnite War (326-304 BC)

3rd century BC

..... Click the link for more information.
The following is a list of Roman Battles fought by the Roman Kingdom, the Roman Republic, the Roman Empire, and sometimes the Byzantine Empire, organized by date. The list is not exhaustive.
..... Click the link for more information.
As with most other military forces the Roman military adopted a "carrot and stick" approach to military, with an extensive list of decorations for military gallantry and likewise a range of punishments for military transgressions.
..... Click the link for more information.
The technology history of the Roman military covers the development of and application of technologies for use in the armies and navies of Rome from the Roman Republic to the fall of the Western Roman Empire.
..... Click the link for more information.
Roman military engineering (Praefectus fabrum)is a type of Roman engineering carried out by the Roman Army - almost exclusively by the Roman legions for the furthering of military objectives.
..... Click the link for more information.
castra,[1] with its singular castrum, was used by the ancient Romans to mean any building or plot of land reserved to or constructed for use as a military defensive position.
..... Click the link for more information.
Roman siege engines were, for the most part, adapted from Hellenistic siege technology. Relatively little was done on their part to develop the technology, however the Romans brought an unrelentingly aggressive style to siege warfare (Goldsworthy 2000: 144).
..... Click the link for more information.
List of ancient Roman triumphal arches

(By modern country)


  • Carpentras
  • Orange
  • Reims: Porte de Mars
  • Saint Rémy de Provence: Roman site of Glanum
  • Saintes: Arch of Germanicus


  • Porta Nigra, Trier

..... Click the link for more information.
Roman roads were essential for the growth of the Roman empire, by enabling the Romans to move armies. A proverb says that "all roads lead to Rome." At its peak, the Roman road system spanned 52,819 miles (85,004 km) and contained about 372 links.
..... Click the link for more information.
Roman military personal equipment was produced in large numbers to established cows and used in an established way. These standard patterns and uses were called the res militaris or disciplina.
..... Click the link for more information.
Rome's military was always tightly keyed to its political system. In the Roman kingdom the social standing of a person impacted both his political and military roles. The political system was from an early date based upon competition within the ruling elite.
..... Click the link for more information.
The strategy of the Roman Military encompasses its grand strategy (the arrangements made by the state to implement its political goals through a selection of military goals, a process of diplomacy backed by threat of military action, and a dedication to the military of part
..... Click the link for more information.
Roman infantry tactics refers to the theoretical and historical deployment, formation and maneuvers of the Roman infantry from the start of the Roman Republic to the fall of the Western Roman Empire.
..... Click the link for more information.
Roman military borders and fortifications were part of a grand strategy of territorial defense in the Roman Empire. By the early second century, the Roman Empire had reached the peak of its territorial expansion and rather than constantly expanding their borders as earlier in the
..... Click the link for more information.
State Party
The template is . Please use instead.
This usage is deprecated. Please replace it with .
'''The template is deprecated. Please use instead.
..... Click the link for more information.
Hadrian's Wall is a stone and turf fortification built by the Roman Empire across the width of modern-day England. It was the second of three such fortifications built across Great Britain, the first being Gask Ridge and the last the Antonine Wall.
..... Click the link for more information.
Official status
Official language of: Vatican City
Used for official purposes, but not spoken in everyday speech
Regulated by: Opus Fundatum Latinitas
Roman Catholic Church
Language codes
ISO 639-1: la
ISO 639-2: lat
..... Click the link for more information.
This article or section needs copy editing for grammar, style, cohesion, tone and/or spelling.
You can assist by [ editing it] now. A how-to guide is available, as is general .
This article has been tagged since February 2007.
..... Click the link for more information.
Roman Republic was the phase of the ancient Roman civilization characterized by a republican form of government. The republican period began with the overthrow of the Monarchy c.
..... Click the link for more information.
The Roman Empire is the name given to both the imperial domain developed by the city-state of Rome and also the corresponding phase of that civilization, characterized by an autocratic form of government. This article however is about the latter.
..... Click the link for more information.
Knight is the English term for a social position originating in the Middle Ages. In the Commonwealth of Nations, knighthood is a non-heritable form of gentility, but is not nobility.
..... Click the link for more information.

This article is copied from an article on Wikipedia.org - the free encyclopedia created and edited by online user community. The text was not checked or edited by anyone on our staff. Although the vast majority of the wikipedia encyclopedia articles provide accurate and timely information please do not assume the accuracy of any particular article. This article is distributed under the terms of GNU Free Documentation License.