Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2019.10.16 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2019.10.16

Caillan Davenport, A History of the Roman Equestrian Order.   Cambridge; New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2019.  Pp. xxv, 717.  ISBN 9781107032538.  $180.00.  

Reviewed by Tiziana Carboni, Università di Cagliari (


The ordo equester was much more variegated and complex than the senatorial order. The most privileged, who held imperial administrative positions, could attain a level of power equal to or higher than that of senators; however, most equestrians were only important at a local level. This complexity makes it difficult to study the ordo as a whole. The tradition of studies that refers to Hans Georg-Pflaum focused first on equestrians who held procuratorial posts, trying, after this, to extend its view to the remaining equestrians (mainly Ségolène Demougin with the equestrians of the Julio-Claudian dynasty).1 The congress in Bruxelles-Leuven in 1995 brought attention back to the equestrian order as a whole, but no one has attempted to reconstruct a comprehensive history after Arthur Stein.2 For this reason, Caillan Davenport's work, which aims at outlining the history of the equestrian order from its origins in the Roman Republic up to the late Empire, is worthy of attention.

The book is divided into four main parts, of which three follow a strict chronological order (I, the Republic; II, the Empire; IV, the Late Empire) and one provides an in-depth analysis of how the equestrian order contributed to the process of creating consensus about the Empire as a new form of government (III, Equestrians on Display).

Part I is divided into three chapters: the first chapter describes the origin of equites as mounted warriors (as Pliny the Elder had argued); the second and third describe equites in the Republican period, using mainly Cicero's works as a source: some space is devoted to explaining who the publicani were and how they contributed to changing equites into an ordo.

Part II is divided into four chapters: the first describes Augustus's reforms and the equestrians' access to administrative roles; the second explains how the ordo equester was shaped around the figure of the princeps, thanks in part to imperial patronage; the two final chapters focus on delving into the roles held by equites during the Principate, either as officers (ch. 6) or administrators (ch. 7).

Part III has three chapters, all focused on the different ways the ordo equester contributed to consolidating the ideology of the Principate through public ceremonies (ch. 8), entertainments (ch. 9) and religious events (ch. 10). Part IV is divided into two chapters: the first (ch. 11) is almost entirely dedicated to the changes that took place following the reforms of Gallienus; the last (ch. 12) reflects on the shape the ordo equester took during the late Empire and on its survival. The book also includes an articulate introduction, where comparisons are made with Greek cavalry or medieval knights, in line with the idea of “comparatives studies”, a final chapter, a list of images, tables and abbreviations used (at the beginning of the volume), a glossary with the most significant Greek and Latin words, a rich bibliography, and an index that includes people, places, and things (at the end of the volume).

The idea of the book originated from the author's PhD thesis, defended in Oxford in 2009. The specific goals clarified in the introduction and then discussed again in the conclusions, are three: (1) to study the way equestrians served Rome as cavalry, officers, judges, administrators; (2) to examine what it meant to be an eques Romanus in the Roman world; (3) to investigate the broader sociological function of the equestrian order. All three goals are fully met: although the size of the work sometimes prevents them from being always perceived, they are developed in a balanced way. In fact, next to a detailed reconstruction of the different tasks an eques carried out in the Republic and Empire, there is a clear representation of the economic, political, and symbolic influence every eques Romanus could attain and, at the same time, a reflection on the ordo equester as a social and political subject related to the other figures in ancient Rome such as the senate, the people, and, as of 31 BC, the princeps. The social impact of the ordo equester during the Principate, in particular, is very well described by the key idea that emerges from the paragraph suggestively titled “Pride and Prejudice” (p. 242): becoming an eques involved not only an individual but his entire family and was reason for pride, just as ceasing to be one could cause shame.

The work tackles all the main problems that have long been the subject of discussion: the definition of the equites as an ordo; their relationship with the senate; the introduction of equites into administrative roles and the reasons why civil servants were chosen; the relationship between patronage and individual competences in the choice made by the princeps; the plausibility of applying concepts such as career and hierarchy to the roles held by equestrians; the changes in these roles in the third century, mainly after the reforms of Gallienus. Generally, when addressing these problems, one can note the author's tendency to report the most widespread opinions and then juxtapose his position with those. This method, which certainly depends on the mainly narrative nature of this work, at times results in a lack of in-depth analysis of the argumentation used to support the author’s theses: on pp. 182-183, for example, he reveals that he does not fully agree with those who believe Augustus chose equites as civil servants to solve contingent situations. He implies that Cassius Dio (52.24.1-25.6), presenting the use of equites as part of a coherent program, might have a point; however, this opinion is not well enough clarified. Similarly, the author’s position on the possible career of equestrians should be further problematized: on the one hand he refers to the critical debate produced by Pflaum's studies (outlined on p. 2), showing that he shares reservations about the historical accuracy of his models, on the other hand he does not seem to recognize significant differences between the senators' cursus and the way the equestrian functions were organized (pp. 315-316).

The greatest merit of the volume lies in offering readers a clear image of the ordo equester and sorting out its thematic complexity. This results from accurate references to sources, not only literary and epigraphic, but also archaeological: extensive consideration is given, for example, to discussing how ceremonies such as the transvectio equitum are represented, or examining the representation of the eques himself with the symbols characterizing him, mainly the anulus aureus. The reader can understand that being an equestrian meant not only being an ingenuus, meeting the property requirement of 400,000 sestertii and being formally included by the censor in the rolls of the ordo (these were the necessary requirements for membership in the ordo), but also being acknowledged as one, for example thanks to the anulus aureus or by being assigned certain seats at the theatre. As highlighted by the author, these formal privileges naturally caused usurpations, since at times they were also enjoyed by people who did not formally own that right: this shows even more how the existence of the ordo equester also had an ideological meaning. The image chosen for the cover of the book is also interesting from this point of view: a medallion for the ordo equester depicting a mounted man with the legend EQUIS ROMANUS issued by the mint of Nicomedia to celebrate the twentieth year of Constantine's reign, on which the author himself comments: “It symbolized the idea that Constantine’s regime was supported by the consensus of the people, senate and equites, just like the Principate of Augustus” (pp. 604-605).

The main weakness is the book's length. Although a work facing such a broad topic obviously requires a significant number of pages, several repetitions show that using fewer words would have been more appropriate. For example, the idea stated on p. 170 is reiterated on p. 182 (the issue of whether the appointment of equestrians was according to a systematic plan or not); the presence of only 600 equites in procuratorial posts is highlighted on p. 226 and exactly repeated on p. 301. The statement, however, is not correct, since the equestrians in procuratorial posts are fewer than 600. This number can be accepted only if we also consider the officers—praefecti and tribuni —, that are not actually “procuratorial posts”. The author himself sometimes seems to notice that his argument might be difficult to follow, since there are continuous references, in the text and notes, to what will be said in the following chapters or what was mentioned previously. On p. 300 the translation of codicilli in AE 1962, 183 as “letter” is not correct; a better solution for the same text is the one on p. 301, “letter of appointment”. On p. 364 it does not seem the author fully understands the importance of Philostratus's words (VS 628) with regard to the ab epistulis Aspasius Ravennas: according to Philostratus, Aspasius is not suitable for the ab epistulis because his style is obscure while the imperial word needs clarity. This does not mean that “the true sophistic life was really not compatible with imperial service” (p. 364), but that the sophists' style could instead be an obstacle to holding the office of ab epistulis: this judgement is important since it is offered by a sophist himself. With regard to imperial properties, aside from Fuhrmann 2011 (mentioned above),3 one might suggest Alberto Dalla Rosa's works;4 on the equestrian order during the Tetrarchy, the studies gathered in Eck and Puliatti 2018 are now available (mainly Eck on the role of equites as provincial governors).5 One would have expected the book to delve into the role of equites at a local level, i.e. of everyone who was not employed either as officers or administrators, since they are the majority, as the author himself states. However, only a few remarks are offered in the paragraph "Provincial Perspectives" (p. 226). An index of the sources used would have been a useful annex to this work.


1.   Hans Georg-Pflaum, Les procurateurs équestres sous le Haut- Empire romain, Paris 1950; Hans Georg-Pflaum, Les carrières procuratoriennes équestres sous le Haut-Empire romain, Paris 1961; Ségolène Demougin, L'ordre équestre sous les Julio- Claudiens, Rome 1988; Ségolène Demougin, Prosopographie des chevaliers romains julio-claudiens, 43 av. J.-C.-70 ap. J.-C., Rome 1992.
2.   L'ordre équestre: histoire d'une aristocratie - 2. siècle av. J.-C.-3. siècle ap. J.-C.- Bruxelles-Leuven, 5-7 octobre 1995: actes du Colloque international, organisé par Ségolène Demougin, Hubert Devijver et Marie-Thérèse Raepsaet-Charlier, Rome 1999; Arthur Stein, Der römische Ritterstand: ein Beitrag zur Sozial- und Personengeschichte des römischen Reiches, München 1927.
3.   Christopher J. Fuhrmann, Policing the Roman Empire: Soldiers, Administration, and Public Order, New York 2012.
4.   Principal Investigator of the ERC project PATRIMONIVM - Geography and economy of the imperial properties in the Roman world (Université Bordeaux Montaigne).
5.   Diocleziano: la frontiera giuridica dell’impero, a cura di Werner Eck, Salvatore Puliatti, Pavia 2018.

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