A classis (‘class’) was a group of Roman citizens who could meet a certain minimum wealth qualification. Servius Tullius (see rex) is supposed to have divided property owners into five classēs for military purposes. The first three classes were equipped as heavy infantry, the last two as light‐armed skirmishers. This system, together with the monetary values given in our sources to the levels of wealth required for membership of the various classes, cannot be earlier than c.400 bc.
In early times, then, the term classis signified Rome's armed forces; a vestige of this survived in the later use of classis (nāvālis) to mean ‘navy’. The cognate term classicus (‘belonging to the first rank’) gives us the modern word ‘classical’ (see classicism).
The later republican division into five classes was instituted for fiscal purposes, as a means of taxing citizens on a sliding scale according to their wealth (see tributum), and as the basis for distributing citizens into voting units in the comitia centuriata. By that time the army was recruited indiscriminately from all those who could meet the minimum property qualification for membership of the fifth class, a qualification that seems to have been reduced at various stages during the 2nd cent. bc until the time of Marius.
Subjects: Classical Studies.