A219 Block 3: The Roman elite Senate Equites

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A219 Block 3: The Roman elite

Senate Equites

300 – 600 members 1800 made up 18 equestrian

separate from the magistrates* centuries (see comitia centuriata)
400,000 HS (HS = sesterces) wealth + landowners 400,000 HS wealth + landowners

(originally had to own and kit out

1 horse, hence ‘knights’/equites)

Judges (treason trials); make/propose laws businessmen/entrepeneurs; judges in lawcourts (no longer had a military role after Punic Wars)

largely aristocrats, many of whom were from largely looked down upon by

Patrician families > nobiles (hereditary aristocracy) aristocrats; Plebeian families

or optimates (lit. ‘the best men’) vs populares [Equites were not populares because populares were politicians]


Consul 2

Praetor 8

Aedile 4

Tribune (of the plebs) 10

Quaestor* 10>20

Pedarii = junior magistrates, outside the cursus honorum (‘ladder’)

*Sulla legislated that quaestors became members of the Senate, so boosting numbers of Senators.
Election to the magistracies was dependent on age and property/wealth qualification, so tended to be the domain of the elite Patricians & Plebeians (NB Plebeians could have wealth, hence the Equites). The alternative route was to be elected Tribune.
Polybius’ account of the Roman Constitution separates it into 3 groups: Senate (aristocracy/oligarchy), Consuls (monarchy) and People (democracy). So, let’s look at the People aspect, which relates to the Tribune (of the plebs)
Note that Polybius sees the constitution as a harmonious whole, each group working as a check on the other two. In practice, at least by the 2nd century BC, what we see instead is rivalries:
Senate (Patricians) vs Equites (Plebeians) (Pompey capitalises on this)

Senate vs Tribune (of the plebs) representing the People (e.g. the Gracchi)

Consuls vs Tribune (of the plebs) representing the People (e.g. Sulla reduces power of tribunes)

Senate vs Consuls (e.g. Caesar)

Equites vs the People

This all revolves around the Census groups – groupings were decided on the basis of wealth, i.e. landownership. The Census was a public record of wealth and social status.

193 voting assemblies in Comitia centuriata = all of the Roman citizens

a ‘century’ was the basic unit of the Roman army

based on wealth (i.e. property)-

greater wealth = more weight to vote

role: to elect magistrates; vote on policy and legislation

18 Equites (1800 men in total)

70 First Census Class

Second Census Class

Third Census Class

Fourth Census Class

Fifth Census Class

proletarii = citizens with no property, e.g. displaced rural poor, urban plebs, freed slaves
It was these lower census classes that the Tribune (of the plebs) appealed to. Why? because the same citizens were members of the:

Comitia Plebis Tributa = Tribal Assembly

role: to approve laws

Comitia Tributa + Concilium Plebis

so named if the presiding magistrate so named if the presiding magistrate

is not a Tribune (of the plebs) is a Tribune (of the plebs)

role: to elect Tribunes of the plebs

35 Tribes

Urban 4 = urban plebs Rural 31 = proletarii

This is the loophole that Tiberius Gracchus exploits. He wins the support of the Concilium Plebis so they elect him Tribune of the plebs. He becomes their presiding magistrate and leads the Comitia Plebis Tributa to approve his land redistribution law, which they do, since this law so clearly benefits them. Thus, they may rise up a census class, and have more voice in the election of magistrates. These people are then quite likely to vote for Plebeians rather than Patricians, (who stole their land in the first place), hence the perceived threat to the blue-blooded aristocracy, the nobiles.

Representing the plebs or the aristocrats?

Key figures

Office held


Key themes


The Gracchi (Tiberius & Gaius)



Land distribution bill

Displaced poor




Political violence




Wider range of bills

As above + citizenship (allies)

Foreign affairs (control to publicani = tax collectors (equites)

Popularis – notably with the army



Magistrate >


Removes property qualification for soldiers

Breaks the constitution by holding consulship 7 times


Land for veterans (i.e. land remains a key theme; Marius just moves the problem)

The rise of the individual

Represents the optimates



Magistrate >




Increasing the size of the Senate

Debasing the office of Tribune

Public building projects in Rome

The rise of the individual

Civil War (political violence)

Popular with the army and the optimates



Consul (no other magistracies)

The Senate break the constitution by giving him the consulship

Public building projects in Rome


Land for veterans

The rise of the individual

Mob rule in Rome

Popular with everyone (plebs, army, optimates) but the Senate back-track (Ides of March...)



Magistracies > Consul

Dictator (in perpetuity)


Addresses issues of poverty and debt in Rome

Public building projects in Rome


Land for veterans

The rise of the individual

Civil War (political violence)

Popular with everyone…?

Octavian (Augustus)

First emperor

‘Restores the Republic’

Public building projects in Rome

Encourages poetry


The rise of the individual

Civil War (political violence), then ca 40 years of stability in Rome

Eulogies, inscriptions, commemoration and personal reputation

Think back to the work you have done on funerary monuments, refer to the inscriptions in Block 3, pp54-58 and to the literary sources for funerals, Block 3, p60 (Pliny NH 7.139-40), Reading 3.12 (Polybius 6.53):

  1. What sort of factual information can we glean from Latin epitaphs and literary sources?

Individual and family names, relationship to (son of... wife of...); ancestry and genealogy; achievements; age at death.

Polybius tells us how (elite) funerals were conducted.

  1. What characteristics, actions and roles were valued by the Roman elite, as presented here? What does this tell us about Roman values?

Characteristics: honour, courage, virtue, wisdom, piety, physical appearanc.

Actions and roles: magistracies (censor, consul, praetor, aedile, quaestor), military successes/leadership, religious roles (dedication of temple, priesthood), oratorical skill, gaining wealth by honourable means; lack of achievements, if died young.


Status was everything – where you were in the official hierarchy/census group, lineage.

Achievements were measured in terms of political and military success and the characteristics valued were related to these. Nothing soft about these Romans! (in due course, compare and contrast Block 4 examples of funerary monuments)
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