In the republic 1,800 cavalry (equites) had their horses supplied and maintained by the state (equites equō pūblicō), and in the centuriate assembly (see comitia) they formed eighteen centuriae (‘centuries’). They were enrolled by the censors, after financial, physical, and moral scrutiny. At least from 304 bc, though rarely in the late republic, they paraded to the Capitol on 15 July. Men of aristocratic birth always had preference for enrolment.
About 400, men on their own horses (equites equō prīvātō) were added to the cavalry. They did not share the voting privilege, but were given at least some of the status marks, of the others. In the 3rd cent. Roman cavalry proved increasingly ineffective in war and by 200 was largely replaced by auxilia. But equites retained their social eminence and became a corps from which officers and the staffs of governors and commanders were drawn. This new ‘equestrian’ service was within the reach of any rich and well‐connected family, and the old exclusiveness was undermined. In 129 senators were excluded from the equestrian centuries. This marks the beginnings of the later equestrian order as a distinct body. Gaius Sempronius Gracchus excluded senators from service on the extortion court (see optimates). The qualification for service was wealth. Gracchus' prescription was followed in other quaestiones; as a result, the composition of juries became, for a generation (106–70), an object of bitter contention between the senatorial and the equestrian orders, firmly establishing their distinctness.
Pliny the Elder derives the equestrian order from the Gracchan jurors, and what evidence we have supports him. The rich publicani gradually became the dominant element on juries and within the order: Cicero could rhetorically identify them with it. By 50, the influx of Italians, to whose leading men the jury courts had been opened since 70, made a return to the old restriction politically impossible. The law allocating special rows of seats to equestrians probably confirmed the definition by wealth.
The new order was a disparate body. Round an aristocratic Roman core (men like Pomponius Atticus) were grouped leading men from colonies and municipia, publicani, and even negotiatores—many of similar background, but some self‐made men. Free birth and a landed interest were prerequisites for social recognition. Senators and equestrians in the late republic thus formed a plutocracy sharing both landed and business interests, in a range of proportions.
In social standing, equestrians were almost equal to senators, freely intermarrying even with patrician nobles and gaining entry to the senate (though not the consulship—see nobilitas) if they wanted it. But as a class they preferred the pursuit of money and pleasure to political responsibility, and they thus formed the non‐political section of the upper class rather than (as in the empire) an intermediate class. Their history is an important part of that of the late republic, esp. in view of their control of the quaestiones during most of that time. Various popularēs (see optimates) tried to mould them into a political force opposed to the senate and the nobiles; but their social and economic interests, esp. after the enfranchisement of Italy, were too similar to permit this. Sulla, after decimating them in the proscriptions, deprived them of leadership by adlecting the most prominent survivors to the senate, and of power by taking the courts from them. But strengthened by the influx of Italians and by increasing financial power, wooed by Pompey, and largely restored to the courts by the law of Aurelius Cotta, they rose to unprecedented influence in the 60s, when Cicero and the senate—aware of the basic community of interests of the two classes—tried to unite them behind the leading men of the state in a ‘harmony of the orders’. Yet, though often united on a single issue (e.g. against threats to financial stability by demagogues or threats to freedom of profiteering by statesmen), sometimes even for a lengthy period, they were too disparate in composition and too non‐political to form a stable grouping. Preventing necessary reform (esp. in the provinces), they remained a disruptive and irresponsible element with no programme or allegiance, until the Civil War substituted military for economic power. Caesar deprived them of the Asian tithe, but opened a new avenue for them by making prominent equestrians like Oppius and Cornelius Balbus 1—a splendid example of a non‐traditional equestrian—his political and financial agents. The support of these men, as well as the precedent, proved important to Augustus.
Subjects: Classical Studies.