EQUITES ("horsemen" or "knights," from equus, "horse"), in Roman history, originally a division of the army, but subsequently a distinct political order, which under the empire resumed its military character. According to the traditional account, Romulus instituted a cavalry corps, consisting of three centuriae ("hundreds"), called after the three tribes from which they were taken (Ramnes, Tities, Luceres), divided into ten turmae ("squadrons") of thirty men each. The collective name for the corps was celeres ("the swift," or possibly from , "a riding horse"); Livy, however, restricts the term to a special body-guard of Romulus. The statements in ancient authorities as to the changes in the number of the equites during the regal period are very confusing; but it is regarded as certain that Servius Tuillus found six centuries in existence, to which he added twelve, making eighteen in all, a number which remained unchanged throughout the republican period. A proposal by M. Porcius Cato the elder to supplement the deficiency in the cavalry by the creation of four additional centuries was not adopted. The earlier centuries were called sex suffragia ("the six votes"), and at first consisted exclusively of patricians, while those of Servius Tullius were entirely or for the most part plebeian. Until the reform of the comitia centuriata (probably during the censorship of Gaius Flaminius in 220 B.C.; see Comitia), the equites had voted first, but after that time this privilege was transferred to one century selected by lot from the centuries of the equites and the first class. The equites then voted with the first class, the distinction between the sex suffragia and the other centuries being abolished.
Although the equites were selected from the wealthiest citizens, service in the cavalry was so expensive that the state gave financial assistance. A sum of money (aes equestre) was given to each eques for the purchase of two horses (one for himself and one for his groom), and a further sum for their keep (aes hordearium); hence the name equites equo publico. In later times, pay was substituted for the aes hordearium, three times as much as that of the infantry. If competent, an eques could retain his horse and vote after the expiration of his ten years' service, and (till 129 B.C.) even after entry into the senate.
As the demands upon the services of the cavalry increased, it was decided to supplement the regulars by the enrolment of wealthy citizens who kept horses of their own. The origin of these equites equo privato dates back, according to Livy (v. 7), to the siege of Veii, when a number of young men came forward and offered their services. According to Mommsen, although the institution was not intended to be permanent, in later times vacancies in the ranks were filled in this manner, with the result that service in the cavalry, with either a public or a private horse, became obligatory upon all Roman citizens possessed of a certain income. These equites equo privato had no vote in the centuries, received pay in place of the aes equestre, and did not form a distinct corps.
Thus, at a comparatively early period, three classes of equites may be distinguished: (a) The patrician equites equo publico of the sex suffragia; (b) the plebeian equites in the twelve remaining centuries; (c) the equites equo privato, both patrician and plebeian.
The equites were originally chosen by the curiae, then in succession by the kings, the consuls, and (after 443 B.C.) by the censors, by whom they were reviewed every five years in the Forum. Each eques, as his name was called out, passed before the censors, leading his horse. Those whose physique and character were satisfactory, and who had taken care of their horses and equipments, were bidden to lead their horse on (traducere equum), those who failed to pass the scrutiny were ordered to sell it, in token of their expulsion from the corps. This inspection (recognitio) must not be confounded with the full-dress procession (transvectio) on the 15th of July from the temple of Mars or Honos to the Capitol, instituted in 304 B.C. by the censor Q. Fabius Maximus Rullianus to commemorate the miraculous intervention of Castor and Pollux at the battle of Lake Regillus. Both inspection and procession were discontinued before the end of the republic, but revived and in a manner combined by Augustus.
In theory, the twelve plebeian centuries were open to all freeborn youths of the age of seventeen, although in practice preference was given to the members of the older families. Other requirements were sound health, high moral character and an honourable calling. At the beginning of the republican period, senators were included in the equestrian centuries. The only definite information as to the amount of fortune necessary refers to later republican and early imperial times, when it is known to have been 400,000 sesterces (about £3500 to £4000). The insignia of the equites were, at first, distinctly military - such as the purple-edged, short military cloak (trabea) and decorations for service in the field.
With the extension of the Roman dominions, the equites lost their military character. Prolonged service abroad possessed little attraction for the pick of the Roman youth, and recruiting for the cavalry from the equestrian centuries was discontinued. The equites remained at home, or only went out as members of the general's staff, their places being taken by the equites equo privato, the cavalry of the allies and the most skilled horsemen of the subject populations. The first gradually disappeared, and Roman citizens were rarely found in the ranks of the effective cavalry. In these circumstances there grew up in Rome a class of wealthy men, whose sole occupation it was to amass large fortunes by speculation, and who found a most lucrative field of enterprise in state contracts and the farming of the public revenues. These tax-farmers (see Publicani) were already in existence at the time of the Second Punic War; and their numbers and influence increased as the various provinces were added to the Roman dominions. The change of the equites into a body of financiers was further materially promoted (a) by the lex Claudia (218 B.C.), which prohibited senators from engaging in commercial pursuits, especially if (as seems probable) it included public contracts (cf. Flaminius, Gaius); (b) by the enactment in the time of Gaius Gracchus excluding members of the senate from the equestrian centuries. These two measures definitely marked off the aristocracy of birth from the aristocracy of wealth - the landed proprietor from the capitalist. The term equites, originally confined to the purely military equestrian centuries of Servius Tullius, now came to be applied to all who possessed the property qualification of 400,000 sesterces.
As the equites practically monopolized the farming of the taxes, they came to be regarded as identical with the publicani, not, as Pliny remarks, because any particular rank was necessary to obtain the farming of the taxes, but because such occupation was beyond the reach of all except those who were possessed of considerable means. Thus, at the time of the Gracchi, these equites-publicani formed a close financial corporation of about 30,000 members, holding an intermediate position between the nobility and the lower classes, keenly alive to their own interests, and ready to stand by one another when attacked. Although to some extent looked down upon by the senate as following a dishonourable occupation, they had as a rule sided with the latter, as being at least less hostile to them than the democratic party. To obtain the support of the capitalists, Gaius Gracchus conceived the plan of creating friction between them and the senate, which he carried out by handing over to them the control (a) of the jury-courts, and (b) of the revenues of Asia.
(a) Hitherto, the list of jurymen for service in the majority of processes, both civil and criminal, had been composed exclusively of senators. The result was that charges of corruption and extortion failed, when brought against members of that order, even in cases where there was little doubt of their guilt. The popular indignation at such scandalous miscarriages of justice rendered a change in the composition of the courts imperative. Apparently Gracchus at first proposed to create new senators from the equites and to select the jurymen from this mixed body, but this moderate proposal was rejected in favour of one more radical (see W.W. Fowler in Classical Review, July 1896). By the lex Sempronia (123 B.C.) the list was to be drawn from persons of free birth over thirty years of age, who must possess the equestrian census, and must not be senators. Although this measure was bound to set senators and equites at variance, it in no way improved the lot of those chiefly concerned. In fact, it increased the burden of the luckless provincials, whose only appeal lay to a body of men whose interests were identical with those of the publicani. Provided he left the tax-gatherer alone, the governor might squeeze what he could out of the people, while on the other hand, if he were humanely disposed, it was dangerous for him to remonstrate.
(b) The taxes of Asia had formerly been paid by the inhabitants themselves in the shape of a fixed sum. Gracchus ordered that the taxes, direct and indirect, should be increased, and that the farming of them should be put up to auction at Rome. By this arrangement the provincials were ignored, and everything was left in the hands of the capitalists.
From this time dates the existence of the equestrian order as an officially recognized political instrument. When the control of the courts passed into the hands of the property equites, all who were summoned to undertake the duties of judices were called equites; the ordo judicum (the official title) and the ordo equester were regarded as identical. It is probable that certain privileges of the equites were due to Gracchus; that of wearing the gold ring, hitherto reserved for senators; that of special seats in the theatre, subsequently withdrawn (probably by Sulla) and restored by the lex Othonis (67 B.C.); the narrow band of purple on the tunic as distinguished from the broad band worn by the senators.
Various attempts were made by the senate to regain control of the courts, but without success. The lex Livia of M. Livius Drusus (q.v.), passed with that object, but irregularly and by the aid of violence, was annulled by the senate itself. In 82 Sulla restored the right of serving as judices to the senate, to which he elevated 300 of the most influential equites, whose support he thus hoped to secure; at the same time he indirectly dealt a blow at the order generally, by abolishing the office of the censor (immediately revived), in whom was vested the right of bestowing the public horse. To this period Mommsen assigns the regulation, generally attributed to Augustus, that the sons of senators should be knights by right of birth. By the lex Aurelia (70 B.C.) the judices were to be chosen in equal numbers from senators, equites and tribuni aerarii (see Aerarium), (the last-named being closely connected with the equites), who thus practically commanded a majority. About this time the influence of the equestrian order reached its height, and Cicero's great object was to reconcile it with the senate. In this he was successful at the time of the Catilinarian conspiracy, in the suppression of which he was materially aided by the equites. But the union did not last long; shortly afterwards the majority ranged themselves on the side of Julius Caesar, who did away with the tribuni aerarii as judices, and replaced them by equites.
Augustus undertook the thorough reorganization of the equestrian order on a military basis. The equites equo privato were abolished (according to Herzog, not till the reign of Tiberius) and the term equites was officially limited to the equites equo publico, although all who possessed the property qualification were still considered to belong to the "equestrian order." For the equites equo publico high moral character, good health and the equestrian fortune were necessary. Although free birth was considered indispensable, the right of wearing the gold ring (jus anuli aurei) was frequently bestowed by the emperor upon freedmen, who thereby became ingenui and eligible as equites. Tiberius, however, insisted upon free birth on the father's side to the third generation. Extreme youth was no bar; the emperor Marcus Aurelius had been an eques at the age of six. The sons of senators were eligible by right of birth, and appear to have been known as equites illustres. The right of bestowing the equus publicus was vested in the emperor; once given, it was for life, and was only forfeitable through degradation for some offence or the loss of the equestrian fortune.
Augustus divided the equites into six turmae (regarded by Hirschfeld as a continuation of the sex suffragia). Each was under the command of a sevir , who was appointed by the emperor and changed every year. During their term of command the seviri had to exhibit games (ludi sevirales). Under these officers the equites formed a kind of corporation, which, although not officially recognized, had the right of passing resolutions, chiefly such as embodied acts of homage to the imperial house. It is not known whether the turmae contained a fixed number of equites; there is no doubt that, in assigning the public horse, Augustus went far beyond the earlier figure of 1800. Thus, Dionysius of Halicarnassus mentions 5000 equites as taking part in a review at which he himself was present.
As before, the equites wore the narrow, purple-striped tunic, and the gold ring, the latter now being considered the distinctive badge of knighthood. The fourteen rows in the theatre were extended by Augustus to seats in the circus.
The old recognitio was replaced by the probatio, conducted by the emperor in his censorial capacity, assisted by an advisory board of specially selected senators. The ceremony was combined with a procession, which, like the earlier transvectio, took place on the 15th of July, and at such other times as the emperor pleased. As in earlier times, offenders were punished by expulsion.
In order to provide a supply of competent officers, each eques was required to fill certain subordinate posts, called militiae equestres. These were (1) the command of an auxiliary cohort; (2) the tribunate of a legion; (3) the command of an auxiliary cavalry squadron, this order being as a rule strictly adhered to. To these Septimius Severus added the centurionship. Nomination to the militiae equestres was in the hands of the emperor. After the completion of their preliminary military service, the equites were eligible for a number of civil posts, chiefly those with which the emperor himself was closely concerned. Such were various procuratorships; the prefectures of the corn supply, of the fleet, of the watch, of the praetorian guards; the governorships of recently acquired provinces (Egypt, Noricum), the others being reserved for senators. At the same time, the abolition of the indirect method of collecting the taxes in the provinces greatly reduced the political influence of the equites. Certain religious functions of minor importance were also reserved for them. In the jury courts, the equites, thanks to Julius Caesar, already formed two-thirds of the judices; Augustus, by excluding the senators altogether, virtually gave them the sole control of the tribunals. One of the chief objects of the emperors being to weaken the influence of the senate by the opposition of the equestrian order, the practice was adopted of elevating those equites who had reached a certain stage in their career to the rank of senator by adlectio. Certain official posts, of which it would have been inadvisable to deprive senators, could thus be bestowed upon the promoted equites.
The control of the imperial correspondence and purse was at first in the hands of freedmen and slaves. The emperor Claudius tentatively entrusted certain posts connected with these to the equites; in the time of Hadrian this became the regular custom. Thus a civil career was open to the equites without the obligation of preliminary military service, and the emperor was freed from the pernicious influence of freedmen. After the reign of Marcus Aurelius (according to Mommsen) the equites were divided into: (a) viri eminentissimi, the prefects of the praetorian guard; (b) viri perfectissimi, the other prefects and the heads of the financial and secretarial departments; (c) viri egregii, first mentioned in the reign of Antoninus Pius, a title by right of the procurators generally.
Under the empire the power of the equites was at its highest in the time of Diocletian; in consequence of the transference of the capital to Constantinople, they sank to the position of a mere city guard, under the control of the prefect of the watch. Their history may be said to end with the reign of Constantine the Great.
Mention may also be made of the equites singulares Augusti. The body-guard of Augustus, consisting of foreign soldiers (chiefly Germans and Batavians), abolished by Galba, was revived from the time of Trajan or Hadrian under the above title. It was chiefly recruited from the pick of the provincial cavalry, but contained some Roman citizens. It formed the imperial "Swiss guard," and never left the city except to accompany the emperor. In the time of Severus, these equites were divided into two corps, each of which had its separate quarters, and was commanded by a tribune under the orders of the prefect of the praetorian guard. They were subsequently replaced by the protectores Augusti.
See further article Rome: History; also T. Mommsen, Römisches Staatsrecht, iii.; J.N. Madvig, Die Verfassung des römischen Staates, i.; R. Cagnat in Daremberg and Saglio's Dictionnaire des antiquités, where full references to ancient authorities are given in the footnotes; A.S. Wilkins in Smith's Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities (3rd ed., 1891); E. Belot, Histoire des chevaliers romains (1866-1873); H.O. Hirschfeld, Untersuchungen auf dem Gebiete der römischen Verwaltungsgeschichte (Berlin, 1877); E. Herzog, Geschichte und System der römischen Staatsverfassung (Leipzig, 1884-1891); A.H. Friedländer, Sittengeschichte Roms, i. (1901); A.H.J. Greenidge, History of Rome, i. (1904); J.B. Bury, The Student's Roman Empire (1893); T.M. Taylor, Political and Constitutional History of Rome (1899). For a concise summary of different views of the sex suffragia see A. Bouché-Leclercq's Manuel des antiquités romaines, quoted in Daremberg and Saglio; and on the equites singulares, T. Mommsen in Hermes, xvi. (1881), p. 458.
(J. H. F.)
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)