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The Roman Classes
Adapted from the Oxford Classical Dictionary (2nd edition, 1970)
The class system of republican Rome was determined by the taking of five yearly censuses by elected censors (see the hyperlink on the Cursus Honorum). All citizens were divided into five property classes, with each class being divided into seniores and iuniores determined by age. Class ranged from the senatorial at the top, down to the so-called capite censi, the un-propertied, at the bottom.
The senatorial class was originally composed of those arisocratic families who had provided a body of advisors to the kings. In the Republic and after the long running stand-off known as the "struggle of the orders" (see below), the plebeian classes were admitted to membership of the senate provided they held a certain amount of property. The original patricians were referred to henceforth as patres and their non-patrician senatorial colleagues as adlecti or conscripti. All senators were excluded from bidding for state contracts and could not own ships over a certain size - in effect they could not engage in trade. Other members of a senator's family were not banned from trade, so a land holding senator could well have a father, brother or son who could trade by virtue of the fact that they held the equestrian census. As regards the elections to the consulate, there was nothing against a non-patrician seeking the office, but it continued to be monopolised by nobile families whose ancestors had themselves been consul. If such a new man (or novus homo) managed to make the consulate, his descendants were thus nobiles forever. Gaius Marius, M. Tullius Cicero and M. Porcius Cato Uticensis were all novi homines.
The equites too - those holding the equestrian census - had their origins in the days of the kings, but by the early republic were the equites equo publico, the eighteen hundred holders of the public horse, cavalry units who had their horses supplied at the state's expense. These cavalry units were organised into eighteen voting centuries in the comitia centuriata (see the hyperlink on Roman voting assemblies) and held certain voting priviledges over the majority of the population by virtue of the fact that they had to serve the state in ten campaigning seasons of warfare. Later, the equites equo privato, those rich enough to supply their own horse to fight for the state, were added to the eighteen centuries; of the same wealth qualifications but of slightly lesser status. By the end of the second century B.C. the importance of cavalry in Roman warfare had declined in favour of auxilia, soldiers or cavalry provided by the peoples Rome now ruled, but the personal standing of the equites remained, and they were in effect the officer class of Rome. Senators were now barred from also being a holder of a public horse (there was nothing to stop this before), and after the time of the brothers Gracchus the equites formed a distinct class in Roman political life. There were now equestrians on the court juries (previously the preserve of senators) and some equites even gave up commercial life to enter the senate, though this was apparently rare.
The Plebs and the Struggle of the Orders
As mentioned above, the patricians had originally taken control of the Roman state after the expulsion of the kings. The plebieans - anyone not from a patrician family (the vast majority of the population of the city)- were barred from priesthoods, magistracies and the senate, but could always be called up for military duty. In response, the plebs of Rome came to set up their own assembly - the concilia plebis - with their own magistrates, the ten tribuni plebis and the aediles plebis, as well as having their own Record Office in the temple of Diana on the Aventine Hill. It is important to stress that this was not a class conflict in the modern sense, as some of the plebs were undoubtedly just as rich as some of the senatorial order. In the event, this "state within a state" continued to operate right down to the early third century B.C. when the lex Hortensia of 287 gave the decisions of the concilia plebis - known as plebiscita, the unconditional force of law, to be recognised by the state as a whole. Furthermore, there had been since the third quarter of the fourth century B.C. a law stating that one of each year's consulates had to be filled by a man of plebeian birth. Thereafter, the plebeian offices and magistrates were incorporated into the regular arrangements.