Chapter 3

Stairway to the Stars: The Greasy Path to Power

In This Chapter

● The assemblies that ruled Rome

● The emperor’s power and succession

● Climbing up the Roman career ladder

The Roman Empire was all about power: getting it, keeping it, and exercising it. In the days of the Republic, the whole system was designed with a whole series of checks and balance, such as the various assemblies and always having more than one of any magistrate, to prevent any one man having supreme power. But the Romans realised that under extreme circumstances, a man in sole charge was essential for getting out of serious scrapes, so the office of dictator was created. (Keep in mind that the Roman term dictator means a magistrate temporarily elected to supreme power in an emergency. It didn’t mean what it has come to mean today, thanks to men like Hitler and Mussolini.)

Despite these safeguards, various men like Marius and Sulla showed that a general who had a loyal army at his disposal could toss the Republic’s system aside (refer to Chapter 14). Then Julius Caesar was created dictator for life, and the Republic collapsed as a result (see Chapter 15). What emerged was a system in which one man - the emperor - had supreme power within the Republican system.

This chapter explains how Roman power worked: who had it, how it was exercised, and how the emperors took power for themselves. It’s also about the whole career structure of the elite in the Roman world: how a man’s career in power politics started and where it went.

Roman Assemblies

The Roman people had several assemblies, important at different times and with different powers. They reflected the divisions of Roman society between patricians and plebs (refer to Chapter 2). Some of these assemblies had their origins in advisory bodies under the kings, like the Senate. Once the kings had been expelled, the assemblies became the basis of government. Under the Republic, the plebs challenged the patricians’ control in the Senate by creating their own assembly, the Concilium Plebis Tributum (described later in this chapter).

Over succeeding centuries, enormous tensions built up between the various bodies, as the plebs’ representatives, the tribunes, constantly challenged the aristocrats (which now included wealthy plebs) in the Senate. This tension had a dramatic effect on Roman history, contributing to the collapse of the Republic and leading to rule by one man as an emperor. Under the emperors, the assemblies remained intact but their powers were all vastly reduced.

The Comitia Curiata ('Assembly of the Divisions')

The Comitia Curiata was only important in the very early days of Rome. It was an ancient assembly of Roman citizens from the three original patrician tribes (Ramnes, Tities, and Luceres). These tribes were divided into 30 curiae (‘divisions’ - ten per tribe), probably consisting of family groups in gentes (‘clans’, see Chapter 2 for families and their clan groupings). The assembly had few powers, and its main role was to ratify the choice of a king, who had already been ratified by the Senate, and the appointment of magistrates.

The Comitia Centuriata ('Assembly of the Centuries')

The Comitia Centuriata was the assembly of the army. The 35 tribes of the Roman people were divided into the equestrians (see Chapter 2) and five classes (classes - yep, our word’s the same as the Roman one). Classes were organised, according to wealth and subdivided into blocks called centuries (centuriae) of 100 men. The centuries served as infantry, with the top class having a full set of armour, a sword, and spear. Each class that followed had less equipment, until you reached the bottom class, which had pretty much nothing at all to offer except an able-bodied man who could turn up for war.

The centuries gathered in their individual classes at the Comitia Centuriata to elect magistrates such as the consuls (see the section, ‘A career ladder for senators’, later in this chapter). In practice, the two top classes usually voted together and effectively out-voted the rest. This system was created in Rome’s early days. By the time of the Empire, the division into tribes still existed, but it was really just a formality.

The Concilium Plebis Tributum ('Council of the Plebeians arranged by Tribes')

In 471 BC during the Conflict of the Orders (refer to Chapter 14 for more on this), the patricians were forced to accept the plebeian assembly now known as the Concilium Plebis Tributum, which had its origins in the Comitia Tributa (‘tribal assembly’, a plebeian counterpart to the patrician Comitia Curiata - see the earlier section). The assembly passed laws (known as plebiscita), elected representatives called tribunes of the plebs (tribuni plebis) and their assistants, the aediles plebeii (‘plebeian aediles’).

Tribunes pop up throughout Parts III and IV of this book, showing how they steadily increased their power so that eventually they could do almost anything they wanted on the pretext that they were protecting the rights of the people.

The power of the tribunes

Tribuni plebis, ‘tribune of the people’ (first heard of in 494 BC), could convene the Senate, but his main power came from the right to interfere on behalf of a pleb who was being oppressed by a patrician (see the sidebar, ‘The tribunes’ power of veto’). Because the tribune was the one to decide whether someone was being oppressed, it was a great power: Tribunes could disrupt magistrate elections, stop troops, supply levies, and even suspend Senate business. Tribunes did all these things to wear down the patrician monopoly on power, so that, for example, in 367 BC plebs were admitted to the consulship. In the late Republic, rival factions exploited tribunes and their powers, causing the political chaos of the age, helped by the fact that tribunes were usually treated as sacred and inviolable.

Under Sulla, the power of tribunes was seriously reduced until Crassus and Pompey restored it (see Chapter 14). Caesar used the excuse that the Senate had infringed the tribunes’ prerogative to justify his crossing of the Rubicon and marching on Rome in 50 BC.

The tribunes' power of veto

Veto means 'I forbid (this)' in Latin. If a tribune thought a law or a magistrate was against the interests or freedoms of the plebs, he could use his veto because he had the right of interference (ius intercessionis). Strictly speaking there wasn't any law that gave tribunes this power. It came about simply because of the sheer force of the plebs' support for their tribunes and their sworn protection of the tribunes. In other words, the Senate couldn't afford to ignore it. So if a tribune felt inclined to obstruct a measure and use his veto, the Senate had to accept it. While we're on the subject, the tribune's power to defend the common people this way was something Augustus took advantage of when he 'restored' the Republic but, in reality, made himself supreme ruler.

Tribunes under the Empire

From Augustus’s time onwards, the tribunes took care to do only what the emperor wanted. Not surprising seeing as the emperors routinely served as one of the tribunes in order to give them rights over legislation and the Senate. Not many men wanted to serve as tribune alongside an emperor, so Augustus had to have a law passed that tribunes be selected by lot from men who had served as quaestors (see the later section, ‘Senatorial careers’). Even though it was really no more than just an honorific post, tribunes still existed in the fifth century at Rome and carried on even later at Constantinople.

The aediles

In the beginning, the only job the aediles had was to take care of tablets on which laws passed by the Concilium Plebis and decrees of the Senate had been written. The tablets were stored in the Temple of Ceres (aedes means a temple, hence the word aedile), and the plebs were naturally concerned that the patricians would alter the tablets without the aediles around. By the late 400s BC, aediles could arrest people and take care of administration in the city. They also had various responsibilities for using public revenue to pay for public services. See the section ‘A career ladder for senators’ for what aediles did under the Empire.

The Latin word plebiscitum (plural plebiscita) is made up of two words: plebs and scitum (‘law’ or ‘ordinance’). From it, we get our word plebiscite, which means a vote by all electors on an important issue, like a change in the Constitution of the United States. It can also mean an expression of opinion by vote, without having the binding force of law.

The Senate

The Senate was manned by the nobiles (discussed in Chapter 2), mainly those who had held magistracies in the career ladder. By the reign of Augustus, a senator had to have a personal estate of at least 1 million sesterces (compared to 400,000 sesterces for an equestrian).

Origins of the Senate

The Senate had its origins as a Council of Elders (senex, ‘an old man’), made up of the head man from each of the leading clans (gentes). They were the men early kings of Rome called on for advice, and they met in the senaculum, an open area in the Forum. Roman tradition claimed that Romulus had created a Senate of 100 members and that by the end of Tarquinius Superbus’s reign in 509 BC there were 300 senators. It’s very unlikely the numbers are true, but it does suggest the Senate gradually grew in size and influence under the kings, even though in those early days it had no actual legal power. A small number of families dominated the Senate, and in the last days of the Republic, this caused a huge amount of tension when rivals started using personal armies or the plebeian assembly to jockey for power.

New recruits

Equestrians (see Chapter 2 for more on these) were the prime source of new recruits to the Senate. Sulla chose 300 equestrians to bump up the Senate’s numbers after the Civil War. Caesar allowed Italians and some Gauls to enter the Senate. By 29 BC, the Senate had around 1,000 members, many of whom were former equestrians, and Augustus had to get around 190 of them to withdraw voluntarily. Individual men could seek promotion to the Senate if they could stump up the money. The future emperor Vespasian secured his own promotion that way and made himself eligible for a political career. As emperor, Vespasian promoted others and even gave them the money if they were suitable but short of cash (see Chapter 16 for more on Vespasian). Over the centuries that followed, provincials from almost all over the Empire became members. Britain is one of the places not yet known to have produced a single senator. That could have been deliberate exclusion, or it could be that the province was so poor no-one ever became wealthy enough to qualify.

The powers of the Senate

The Senate had various powers. It could:

● Approve laws passed in the assembly

● Approve treaties

● Appoint governors to provinces

● From 121 BC, declare anyone an enemy of the state and support any magistrate’s action against that person: effectively martial law through the power of Senatus Consultum Ultimum (see Chapter 14)

A Senatorial resolution (Senatus Consultum, abbreviated by the Romans to SC) was not a law, but it came to be as powerful as a law. The emperor generally ruled through Senatorial resolutions. Emperors placed SC on their brass and bronze coins to make it appear the small-change coinage at least was being issued with the Senate’s approval. One expression of the identity of the Roman state was Senatus Populusque Romanus (SPQR), meaning ‘The Senate and the People of Rome’. It’s still used by the present-day government of the city of Rome.

The Curia (Senate House) in Rome’s Forum is one of the most intact Roman buildings to have survived. Built in 29 BC by Augustus, and rebuilt in AD 284 by Diocletian, it could seat about 300.

The Emperors

From the time of Augustus, emperors ruled not because they had been declared supreme rulers and a formal office of ‘emperor’ created, but because they possessed a unique set of qualifications, titles, and prestige within what was essentially (on paper at least) the old Republican system of magistracies, and which allowed them great power over the assemblies.

The emperor's titles

When Augustus effectively became emperor in 27 BC, he’d arranged things so that the Senate awarded him his powers. This way it didn’t appear that he had taken them by force or any other means (see Chapter 16 for the details). All other emperors down to the time of Diocletian’s Dominate maintained this fiction, though as time passed it became increasingly obvious that it was a formality.

Some of the titles taken by emperors included the following:

Augustus: Octavian was given this name in 27 BC by the Senate. It means ‘the Revered One’ or ‘the One Worthy of Honour’. The month of Sextilius was renamed August, a name, of course, it still bears today. Augustus was really a kind of religious title and conveniently elevated him from just being the former Octavian of the Second Triumvirate. Augustus became a name for any reigning emperor, but if there was a junior emperor the Augustus was the senior partner (see the next bullet).

Caesar: This was part of the family name of the Julio-Claudians (all the emperors from Augustus to Nero) and showed their actual (or adoptive, in the case of Tiberius) descent from Julius Caesar’s father.

After Nero’s suicide in AD 68, the Julio-Claudians had died out, so later emperors took Caesar as part of their names to maintain the fiction of a family succession. But Caesar became a way of indicating an imperial successor - usually a son or adopted son of the Augustus. Under Diocletian and later, it became nobilissimus Caesar, ‘most noble Caesar’.

● Imperator: This means ‘Commander (of the army)’ and has the same origins as the word imperium (see the next bullet), used to describe the military authority endowed on a man by the Senate. Augustus came to use this as part of his name, not as a title. Because he had, effectively, supreme control, it came to mean a broader sense of supreme power which is why it has survived as our word ‘emperor’. Later emperors, mainly from Vespasian on, did use imperator as a title.

Emperors greeted the Senate with the words: ‘If you and your children are in health, it is well; I and the legions are in health.’ The greeting reinforced the emperor’s position as the head of the armed forces and maintained the formality of respect to the Senate as the senior and traditional basis of the Roman state.

● Imperium: Imperium means ‘Military Command’ and ‘Supreme Authority’. A holder of imperium had control of war and the law, and thus he had power over armies. In the remote past, the early kings of Rome had held this title. In later times, it was reserved for dictators and magistrates. In the Republic, the title was awarded to men like Pompey the Great. Consuls and praetors also held imperium (see the section ‘A career ladder for senators’, later in this chapter). Amongst magistrates, there were degrees of imperium depending on individual seniority. It was normally awarded for a restricted period. The emperors had imperium maius ‘greater imperium’, to mark them at a level above the rest.

● Military titles: Emperors adopted a variety of military titles to commemorate the wars they had taken part in. These usually named the location, like Parthicus and Dacicus for Trajan’s wars in Parthia, and Dacia or Armeniacus for Marcus Aurelius’s Armenian war; but the title Germanicus was a more generic military title and went back to the general Germanicus, father of Caligula, who had campaigned so brilliantly in Germany during the reign of Tiberius.

● Pater Patriae: Augustus was awarded this title in 2 BC. It means ‘Father of the Country’ and was a sort of religious patriotic term that acknowledged his pre-eminent role in making the Roman world what it was.

Many later emperors held the title, too.

● Pontifex Maximus: This title means ‘Chief Priest’, a position held for life and usually conferred when an emperor came to power, though Augustus did not receive it till 13 BC (14 years after he became emperor). The holder was in supreme charge of everything to do with Roman religion and ceremony. The closest equivalent today is probably the pope, who even calls himself Pontifex Maximus.

Part I: Romans - The Big Boys of the Ancient World

● Princeps: From the Latin words primus and capio, which mean literally ‘I take first place’. This title went along with another phrase - Primus Inter Pares, which means ‘First Among Equals’. Being Princeps simply awarded Augustus the premier authority in Rome. Indeed, the sheer force of his personal influence was described as being in possession of auctoritas (‘authority’), reinforced by the strength of his dignitas (‘worthiness’). This was transferred to his successors, so today the Roman Empire from the reign of Augustus until the reign of Diocletian is known as the Principate. Naturally the word is the source of our ‘prince’ and ‘principality’.

● Dominus Noster: This title means ‘Our Lord’. From Diocletian’s time on (AD 284-305), this title gradually supplanted imperator, and marks the transition to the Dominate.

Multitasking: The emperor's jobs

Augustus and his successors took on a number of Republican magistracies and other jobs, including the position of tribune, consul, and censor. By holding these positions, they could be seen to be working within the Republican system, which made their power legal. After all, Augustus’s great claim was that he had restored the Republic, not wiped it out.

The tribunician power

An emperor’s tribunician power was the most important (refer to the earlier section ‘Concilium Plebis Tributum’ for an explanation of what a tribune is).

Augustus made being tribune the basis of his power: He could pose as defender of the people, with powers over the Senate like being able to convene it and veto anything it did. Having tribunician power also had the value-added extra of making an emperor sacred and inviolable. So in 19 BC, Augustus became tribune for life, but it was awarded annually - just a formality, of course. All his successors did the same.

The consulship

The office of consul was held much more infrequently by the emperors, so it’s covered below in the career ladder of men of senatorial rank (see the section ‘Climbing to the Top’, later in this chapter), along with the key qualities all Roman men of rank needed to have: dignity, authority, and virtue.

Censor

This was an old Republican magistracy. The censor was in charge of public morals and from c. 443 BC oversaw censuses of citizens. The position was almost redundant by the end of the Republic, but some emperors like Vespasian (AD 69-79) and his son Domitian (81-96) held it.

The line of succession

Because, in theory, there was no monarchy, there was no system of succession for the emperors. In practice, though, from the time of Augustus onwards, any emperor who could tried to nominate a suitable male heir to assume the various positions and titles he had. Wherever possible, this heir was the emperor’s son, but often there wasn’t one available.

The hereditary principle

Augustus had no sons or surviving (or suitable) grandsons. If he was going to establish a dynasty (see Chapter 16 for the tortuous line of descent which followed down to Nero), he totally depended on marrying his daughter Julia to a suitable male successor (Marcellus, Agrippa, and finally his stepson Tiberius). But just about all the emperors from Vespasian on maintained the dynastic principle, through the second century mainly by adoption. Thereafter emperors constantly tried to have their biological or adopted sons succeed them until the reign of Diocletian (AD 284-305). If no successor was available, then the best available man for the job would be lined up, assuming someone else hadn’t already decided to appoint himself emperor.

Jumping the gun

The Romans amply proved to themselves over and over again how the power of the sword ruled because when an emperor died without a clear successor, there was usually no shortage of would-be emperors with soldiers behind each one. That’s how the civil wars of AD 68-69 and 193-197 started, and it’s also why the third century saw such a reckless cavalcade of soldier emperors who fought and murdered their way into power before being (usually) murdered themselves (Chapter 19 goes into detail on this period).

But even this gang of cut-throats tried to install their own sons as successors, and they invariably adopted all the titles an emperor was supposed to have. Maximinus I (AD 235-238) was a Thracian peasant who rose through the ranks until he overthrew and killed Severus Alexander (222-235). Maximinus was immediately given the power of a tribune for life, awarded the titles of Augustus, Pontifex Maximus, and Pater Patriae, and served as Consul in the second year of his reign.

The only time the succession was based purely on merit was under Diocletian’s Tetrarchy (refer to Chapter 19) where two senior emperors (each an Augustus) appointed two junior emperors (each a Caesar) who would succeed them, and then appoint their own Caesars and so on. The system soon crumbled when the biological sons of some of the Tetrarchs objected to being cut out. Basically, blood is thicker than water.

Climbing to the Top

Nobles and equestrians had their own career paths to climb. By the days of the Empire, these had become fairly well-defined, being based on status, wealth, and age.

A career ladder for senators

Men from noble families of senatorial rank were expected to follow a career through a succession of magistracies, mostly elected by the assemblies, and generally held for one year each. Once a man had held the first magistracy, he could enter the Senate. The senatorial career ladder was called the cursus honorum, ‘the succession of honours [magistracies]’.

Theoretically, all the magistracies in a career were elective. In practice, they were often sold by emperors or their associates. Vespasian (AD 69-79), who loved money, sold offices, and under Commodus, the freedman Cleander did a roaring trade (see Chapter 18), but they were far from being the only culprits.

Whatever position a Roman held in the career ladder, he was expected to have several key qualities, which also applied to the emperors. Those were:

● Authority (auctoritas): The authority to command founded on personal prestige.

● Dignity (dignitas): This means being a man of honour, trust, and reliability, which meant he was faithful (fides) and stuck to his guns and his principles (constantia).

● Manly values (virtus): A Roman man was measured by his excellence, his goodness, and his personal virtue.

The magistracies

In the first and second centuries AD, senators could take on the following roles, usually in this order, as they worked their way up:

Quaestors (Quaestores): The most junior magistracy, quaestors took care of public finance and the treasury (aerarium), receiving all tax income and taking charge of public expenditure. This post was usually held between the ages of 27 and 30, often after being a military tribune attached to a legion (see Chapter 5 for information on the Roman army). After serving as quaestor, a man on the make might become tribunus plebis (for this exceptional post, see the section ‘Roman Assemblies’, earlier in this chapter), or aedile. Neither was a compulsory post on the career ladder, and by imperial times, being a tribune was just honorific (see the sidebar on ‘Gnaeus Julius Agricola’s career’).

● Aediles (Aediles): Aediles had responsibility for the corn dole, streets, public order, water supply, weights, measures, and even aspects of religious practice. Aediles started out as assistants to each of the two tribunes of the plebs, but in 367 BC, they were increased to four and became a normal magistracy. Serving as an aedile wasn’t essential for the cursus honorum, but it was useful because an aedile could win popularity and earned the right of ius imaginum for his family (see Chapter 2 for this prestigious social status).

● Praetor (Praetores): Praetors were mainly involved with justice. The praetor urbanus (‘city praetor’) dealt with justice in Rome, while a praetor peregrinus (‘provincial praetor’) dealt with cases involving foreigners. Praetors had imperium (the power of military command). By the days of the emperors, there were 12 annual praetorships, held by men who were normally at least 30 years old. Men who had served as praetors had earned propraetorian status (see the following section, ‘Legionary commanders and provincial governors’, for details).

● Consul (Consules): Consuls were the senior civil and military magistrates and were the heads of state. Like praetors, consuls had imperium, but the position was of much greater prestige. Men who had been consuls ennobled their families and descendants, making them the nobiles. The first two consuls were elected in 509 BC, when the kings were expelled. Election was by the Comitia Centuriata (see the section ‘Roman Assemblies’ earlier). A consul had to be at least 42 for the first time, and wait ten years for re-election (ignored by Marius, see Chapter 14). But under the emperors, all these restrictions were thrown aside, and it was the emperor who usually recommended the men to be consuls, sometimes standing as one himself annually (Domitian was consul ten times in his 16-year reign). By then, several pairs of consuls were elected annually, instead of just one pair under the Republic. The first two consuls of each year were the senior pair and were called consules ordinarii. Later pairs in each year were called consules suffecti (‘substitute consuls’). By increasing the numbers this way, more qualified men became available for jobs like governing provinces.

All the senatorial posts described in the preceding list really belong to the first and second centuries AD, but had their origins in the Republic. By the third century, things were changing: Equestrians were being increasingly used for jobs senators had once done. By Diocletian’s Dominate, the whole system was very different. You can find out the details of that in Chapter 20, where I explain how Diocletian reorganised the Empire.

Legionary commanders and provincial governors

Ex-praetors were eligible for jobs of propraetorian status (commanding legions or governing less important provinces), and ex-consuls for those of proconsular status (governing the most senior or militarily-demanding provinces). Because emperors had almost invariably served as consuls, they also had proconsular status. The word pro-meant that the holder had all the powers and status of a praetor, or a consul, in the new job.

● Proconsul: Governor of a senatorial province, a man who had served as consul (these were the older provinces, mostly around the Mediterranean, such as Greece).

● Praefectus urbi: Prefect of Rome with imperium and in charge of keeping order in Rome; usually held by a senator who had been consul.

● Legatus Augusti pro praetore: Governor of an imperial (the emperor’s) province (mostly the frontier provinces like Britain and Germany); could be of proconsular or propraetorian status. The most troublesome provinces like Britain had the senior men, but the job was always rated propraetorian so that the governor did not have technically the same status as the emperor, for whom the governor was serving as his delegate.

● Legatus iuridicus (‘judicial legate'): Created by Vespasian to ease the workload on governors by hearing court cases, the judicial legate could hear lawsuits and deal with any legal issues while the governor was tied up with other work like fighting wars.

● Legatus legionis: Commander of a legion; usually a man of propraetorian status.

Gnaeus Julius Agricola's career

Agricola (AD 40-post 97) was the historian Tacitus's father-in-law. Tacitus wrote a biography of Agricola, so we know an exceptional amount about his career (there's no equivalent account for anyone else). Agricola was born in Forum Julii (Frejus) in the province of Gallia Narbonensis. Both his grandfathers were equestrians and served as Procurators, but his father, Julius Graecinus, was promoted to senator. Everyone's career was unique, but Agricola's gives us a good example of a man at the top of Roman society.

● Aged 20: A Military Tribune at the Governor's HQ in Britain in c. AD 60

● Aged 23-24: Returned to Rome, got married and became c. 63-64 quaestor for the proconsular governor of Asia

● Aged 24-25: A year off c. 64-65

● Aged 26-27: Tribunus Plebis c. 66-67

● Aged 27-28: Praetor c. 67-68

● Aged 29-30: In Britain again as Propraetorian Legatus Legionis (Commander) of the XX legion by 69-70

● Aged 33-36: Propraetorian Legatus Augusti (governor) of Gallia Aquitania c. 73-76

● Aged 37: Consul in Rome in 77

● Aged 37-44: Proconsular Legatus Augusti (governor) of Britain, leading a major war of conquest c. late 77-83/4

Following his stint as governor of Britain, Agricola should have become proconsul (governor) of Asia or Africa but for political reasons declined. He held no further office.

The status of these jobs didn’t stay fixed forever. During Gallienus’s reign (253-268), the command of legions was increasingly given to equestrian prefects, probably experienced soldiers who had risen up through the ranks, and reflecting the needs of the age (Chapter 19).

The equestrian career ladder

Most equestrians spent their lives working as bankers and merchants. But there was a sort of elite equestrian career ladder. This was more flexible than the senatorial ladder and didn’t necessarily involve passing through a standardised series of hoops. The big difference from senatorial careers is that these elite equestrians were directly dependent on the emperor for their positions.

An equestrian might progress through the commands of a series of auxiliary army units, starting perhaps with a minor administrative job like deputy manager (promagister) of harbour dues, before going to be praefectus (‘prefect’, a person placed in command) of an infantry unit, and rising to command a cavalry unit before being promoted to command an arm of the Roman fleet. Next he might be made procurator of a province, managing its financial affairs (to prevent the governor having too much control). Another equestrian could serve in a variety of civilian procuratorships, managing imperial estates or other interests (see Chapter 4 for imperial estates and Chapter 7 for mines). By the second century, these various jobs were all rated according to a pay scale based on how important the job was.

A highly successful equestrian could rise to become any one, or in succession, all of these top jobs:

● Praefectus aegypti: The governor of the province of Egypt, the emperor’s personal possession (usually held by a former praefectus annonae).

● Praefectus annonae: Responsible for managing the grain supply to Rome and the handouts to the mob.

● Praefectus civitatium: An equestrian governor of a province.

The most famous equestrian governor today is Pontius Pilate. Pilate was an equestrian prefect who governed Judaea between AD 26-36 in the time of Christ’s crucifixion. Judaea was one of several small but very annoying provinces (others were Raetia and Noricum) to which the emperor allocated equestrian governors.

● Praefectus praetorio: Responsible for commanding the garrison of Rome. Praefectus vehiculum: In charge of Rome’s roads.

● Praefectus vigilum: Commander of Rome’s fire brigade.

Vespasian's equestrian sponges

It was said that Vespasian (AD 69-79) used to appoint the most rapacious men to the most lucrative equestrian posts so that if he condemned them later on, he could confiscate more cash. They were called his sponges because he soaked them in money when dry and then squeezed them when they were wet.

The reason these were equestrian posts was so that the emperor could keep these immensely powerful offices out of the hands of the senatorial nobiles.

Not all prefects were equestrian though, and things did change. The praefectus urbi, effectively the mayor of Rome, was a senatorial post. Under Severus Alexander (discussed in Chapter 19), the post of praetorian prefect became senatorial, too. Conversely, command of legions went to equestrian prefects under Commodus (Chapter 18) and Gallienus (Chapter 19), instead of senators.

Because the ranks of the equestrians were used from the late Republic on to provide new recruits to the Senate, it’s no surprise that many senators and even emperors, such as Agricola and Vespasian respectively, had equestrian ancestors. By Commodus’s reign, some legionary commanders were equestrians, and the process carried on thereafter. The emperor Macrinus (AD 217-218) was still an equestrian when he made himself Emperor, which was unprecedented and did him no favours (see Chapter 19 for more on Macrinus). The division of Roman aristocratic society into senators and equestrians lasted until the reign of Constantine (Chapter 20), by which time the distinction had ceased to have any practical relevance.

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