Senators and Equestrians in the Early Roman Empire (Historical Note for What Matters Most)

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When faced with impossible choices, how do you decide what matters most?

Senators and Equestrians in the Early Roman Empire

Under the Roman Republic, the Senate consisted of men from the upper class who were not specifically elected to the Senate but who had been elected to their first magistrate position of questor by the public assemblies of male citizens called comitia. A man was normally a senator for life, but he could be expelled from the Senate for “misconduct” as defined by the senators at the time. While there were originally 100 members, the number of senators increased to 300, then 600 in 80 BC, then 900 under Julius Caesar.

Officially, the Senate advised magistrates, but its power increased after the end of the Second Punic War with Carthage (201 BC). It prepared legislation for a formal vote by the assemblies, handled government finances, oversaw the state religion, and dealt with foreign powers. From the 2nd century BC until the beginning of the Empire under Augustus, the Senate was the government of Rome.

Serving in the Senate was an unpaid position, so a private source of a large income was needed. Senators were banned from making money in commerce by the lex Claudia in 218 BC. Senatorial wealth was based largely on land ownership, with profits from agricultural activities and ownership of rental properties being legal ways to make money.

For some senatorial families, pursuit of political power was the main goal of life. This was largely achieved through personal relationships among the senators. Marriages, divorces, and friendships were often used to acquire political advantage. This remained true during the Empire.

The importance of political alliances combined with the authority of the paterfamilias to determine whom the sons and daughters of senatorial families married. The paterfamilias was the oldest male member of the family, and he owned all the family property and could dictate what his adult children did until he died.

For Sabina in What Matters Most, that was her grandfather, Quintus Flavius Sabinus. Her father Manius still didn’t own property and still had to obey his father, even though he was Quintus’s grown son with grown children of his own. Quintus arranged Sabina’s first marriage to the son of a man who sought Quintus’s political favor.

It was customary for young noblewomen to marry between fourteen and sixteen years of age. Young noblemen married later, but it was still common to marry in their early to mid-twenties to a young woman selected by their fathers or by their grandfathers, if still living. When Sabina is widowed at twenty-two, she expects to seal another alliance by marrying another man selected by her grandfather.

The ultimate political goal of a senator was to be elected consul. During the Republic, two consuls were elected every year, so political campaigning and developing political alliances were never-ending activities. Bribery and corruption were often part of the campaigns, which were all paid for with personal money and money from political allies.

There were a few dozen families that provided most of the consuls, and building one’s own political alliance while undermining others was common. Coming from a consular family had great importance, and even under the empire, the descendants of men who were consuls during the Republic were called nobiles (nobles).

After Augustus established himself as the first emperor, the power of the Senate was greatly decreased, but Augustus chose to call himself “first citizen” (princeps) to make it appear the Senate still controlled Rome and her empire. This pretense was continued by later emperors until Diocletian revamped imperial administration in AD 285.

Augustus decreased the number of senators from over 1000 to fewer than 600 and set a property requirement of 250,000 denarii, the equivalent of a quarter million daily wages. The imperial Senate still controlled the state treasury, administered some peaceful provinces whose governors they appointed, and became a legislative body issuing senatus consulta that had the force of law.

Provinces on the frontier where legions were based and the province of Egypt, which was the source of much of the wheat eaten by the one million people living in Rome itself, were imperial provinces. The emperor appointed legates, the legion commanders who also governed a province that contained a single legion. He also appointed governors over the legates when more than one legion was based in a province.

With many emperors, being a senator who angered the emperor was potentially deadly. Many old senatorial families chose to retire from politics, although some individuals were executed or “chose” to commit suicide to avoid confiscation of their property before it could be passed on to their heirs.

Some upper-class male citizens from the provinces who met the property requirement joined what had once been an Italian-only Senate. Trajan, who was born in Spain, became the first non-Italian emperor. Hadrian, the son of Trajan’s cousin and his own adopted son, was also born in Spain.

Some emperors were notorious for executing senators they thought might be plotting against them. Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, Nero, and Domitian are well known for executing inconvenient senators, so when a new emperor announced he would not kill senators, the pronouncement was welcomed. But it wasn’t completely believed, and it wasn’t always true.

An emperor unpopular with the Senate sometimes had his rule ended by conspirators who killed him. Caligula and Domitian were assassinated, and Nero committed suicide because he expected it.

Trajan had been a popular emperor who died of a fever in AD 117 while away from Rome, and Trajan’s Praetorian Prefect Attianus stayed on with Hadrian. While Hadrian was away from Rome, Attianus charged four ex-consuls with attempting to assassinate Hadrian during his first year as emperor (AD 118), and the prefect presented evidence that forced the Senate to vote for execution. Although Hadrian denied involvement, the Senate blamed him, and many would have welcomed his speedy death.

The second noble order of Romans were the equestrians (equites). They originally formed the cavalry of Republican Rome, but by imperial times, they were the wealthy business class (ordo equester). After the lex Claudia forbade senators from being involved in commerce, equestrians took over most financial opportunities in Rome and the provinces. These included banking, operating mines, importing and exporting goods, money lending, and tax farming. They also received government contracts for road building and supplying the military.

To be enrolled as an equestrian, the minimum financial worth was 100,000 denarii. Although many were wealthy enough to qualify as senators, most chose to remain in the private sector growing their wealth instead of governing. Some pursued military careers or salaried positions administering the empire.

Only senators could serve in some of the most important government positions. The Prefect of the City (praefectus urbi) had many administrative duties, including the distribution of free grain to citizens, and was, in essence, the mayor of Rome, outranked only by the emperor. He was selected by the emperor from among the senators and served until the emperor chose to replace him. It was a very powerful and highly respected position.

The urban prefect commanded the Urban Cohort, which was essentially the daytime police force of Rome. In AD 120, Rome had about a million residents and was divided up between four tribunes with six centurions under each. It was organized much like a legion.

The Praetorian Prefect was also appointed by the emperor, and he was always an equestrian. The Praetorian Guards were organized and trained like a regular legion. Part of the Guard traveled with the emperor when he left Rome, and part remained in Rome to discourage attempts by political rivals to replace the emperor in his absence.

Large crowds can quickly lead to riots. With 250,000 attending the races and 50,000 attending the gladiatorial games, a large military presence was desirable. A Praetorian cohort of between 800 and 1500 men was assigned to keep order at the Circus Maximus on race days, at the amphitheater while the games were in progress, and at the theater during performances.

The city prison was run by the Praetorians, and executions decreed by the emperor or the Senate were their responsibility. A centurion with a detachment of Praetorians might be sent far from Rome to carry out an execution, bringing the head back for public display in Rome. Although not part of their official job description, they often played a crucial role in deciding who would be the next emperor.

In What Matters Most, the hostility between Hadrian and the Senate is the backdrop for the investigation of an assassination plot that becomes the equestrian Tribune Titianus’s final case. Although Titianus is a tribune of the Urban Cohort reporting to Urban Prefect Saturninus, he is loaned to the Praetorian Prefect Turbo for this delicate assignment because of his reputation for incorruptibility and his lack of entanglement in the political alliances of the senatorial class.

The importance of political alliances combined with the authority of the paterfamilias to determine whom the sons and daughters of senatorial families married. The paterfamilias was the oldest male member of the family, and he owned all the family property and could dictate what his adult children did until he died.

For more information, check out the articles at this website bout law enforcement in the city of Rome and the power of the paterfamilias.

Fact and Fiction by Carol Ashby