Citations:

Text #9517

"Optimates", in Wikipedia.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Optimates

The optimates (“Aristocrats”, singular optimas; also known as boni, “Good Men”) were the traditionalist Senatorial majority of the late Roman Republic. They wished to limit the power of the popular assemblies and the Tribunes of the Plebs, and to extend the power of the Senate, which was viewed as more dedicated to the interests of the aristocrats who held the reins of power. In particular, they were concerned with the rise of individual generals who, backed by the tribunate, the assemblies and their own soldiers, could shift power from the Senate and aristocracy. They were opposed by the populares.

Many members of this faction were so classified because they used the backing of the aristocracy and the senate to achieve personal goals, not necessarily because they favored the aristocracy over the lower classes. Similarly, the populares did not necessarily champion the lower classes, but often used their support to achieve personal goals.

In general, the optimates favored the nobiles and opposed the ascension of novi homines into Roman politics, but exceptions exist.

Cicero, for example, a strong supporter of the optimates’ cause, was himself a novus homo, being the first in his family to enter the Senate; he was thus never fully accepted by the optimates.[1] On the other hand, during the civil war of 49 BC, Julius Caesar, of a respectable old family, contended against a Senate championed by Pompey the Great.

In addition to their political aims, the optimates opposed the extension of Roman citizenship, and sought the preservation of the mos maiorum, the ways of their forefathers. They sought to prevent successful generals, such as Gaius Marius, Pompey the Great, and Julius Caesar, from using their armies to accrue such power that they might be in a position to challenge the Senate. They opposed Marius’ plan to enlist impoverished Romans, too poor to provide their own arms and supplies in the legions, and the generals’ attempts to settle these veterans on state-owned land.

John Edwin Sandys detects an optimates grouping at time of the death of Tiberius Gracchus in 133 BCE.[2]

The optimates’ cause reached its peak under the dictatorship (81 BC) of Lucius Cornelius Sulla. Sulla’s administration stripped the Assemblies of nearly all power, raised the number of members of the Senate from 300 to 600, executed an equally large number of populares via proscription lists, and settled thousands of soldiers in northern Italy. However, after Sulla’s withdrawal from public life (80 BC) and subsequent death (78 BC), many of their policies were gradually reversed.

Besides Sulla, notable optimates included Lucius Licinius Lucullus, Cato, Milo, Bibulus and Brutus. Though the optimates had opposed him for the entirety of his political career, Pompey the Great also found himself as the leader of the optimates’ faction once their civil war with Julius Caesar began in 49 BC. Optimates who (along with disillusioned populares) had carried out Caesar’s assassination in 44 BC called themselves Liberatores.

A historian of the Late Republic cautions against understanding the terms populares and optimates as solid factions or as ideological groupings:

“ Our chief contemporary witnesses to the political life of the late Republic, Cicero and Sallust, are fond of analyzing the political struggles of the period in terms of a distinction between optimates and populares, often appearing with slight variations in terminology, such as Senate, nobility, or boni versus People or plebs. But what precisely is denoted and connoted by this polarity? Clear enough, one who is designated in these sources as popularis was at least at that moment acting as ‘the People’s man,’ that is a politician — for all practical purposes, a senator — advocating the rights and privileges of the People, implicitly in contrast to the leadership of the Senate; an ‘optimate’ (optimas), by contrast, was one upholding the special custodial and leadership role of the Senate, implicitly against the efforts of some popularis or other. The polarity obviously corresponds with the dual sources of institutional power in the Republic — Senate and People — and was realized in practice through contrasting political methods … and distinctive types of rhetorico-ideological appeals suited to tapping those alternative sources of power … . It is important to realize that references to populares in the plural do not imply a co-ordinated ‘party’ with a distinctive ideological character, a kind of political grouping for which there is no evidence in Rome, but simply allude to a recognizable, if statistically quite rare, type of senator whose activities are scattered sporadically across late-Republic history … The ‘life-long’ popularis … was a new and worrying phenomenon at the time of Julius Caesar’s consulship of 59: an underlying reason why the man inspired such profound fears. (Robert Morstein-Marx, Mass Oratory and Political Power in the Late Roman Republic (Cambridge University Press, 2003), pp. 204–205)

References

Everitt, Anthony (2001). Cicero. Random House.

Sandys, John Edwin, ed. (1910). A Companion to Latin Studies (3 ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (published 1921). p. 125. Retrieved 2015-11-03. “133[:] Tribute of Ti.

Gracchus, his ‘lex agraria’ and destruction by a rabble of optimates, headed by P. Scipio Nasica […]”

Robert Morstein-Marx, Mass Oratory and Political Power in the Late Roman Republic (Cambridge University Press, 2003),

Text #9654

"Populares", in Wikipedia.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Populares

Populares (“favoring the people”, singular popularis) were leaders in the late Roman Republic who relied on the people’s assemblies and tribunate to acquire political power. They are regarded in modern scholarship as in opposition to the optimates, who are identified with the conservative interests of a senatorial elite. The populares themselves, however, were also of senatorial rank and might be patricians, noble plebeians or Equites.

Populares addressed the problems of the urban plebs, particularly subsidizing a grain dole. They also garnered political support by attempts to expand citizenship to communities outside Rome and Italy.

Popularist politics reached a peak under the dictatorship of Julius Caesar, who had relied on the support of the people in his rise to power. After the creation of the Second Triumvirate (43 BC–33 BC), popularis ceased to be a relevant political label.

Besides Caesar, notable populares included the Gracchi brothers, Marius, Cinna, Sertorius, Saturninus, Sulpicius Rufus, Drusus, Clodius Pulcher, Rullus and (during the First Triumvirate) Crassus and Pompey. Both Pompey and Crassus had, however, fought on the side of Sulla during the civil war, and after the death of Crassus, Pompey eventually reverted to his position as a conservative optimas. These shifting allegiances are reminders that the designation populares refers as much to political tactics as to any perceived policy. Indeed, Republican politicians ‘had always been more divided on issues of style than of policy’.

Prominent members

Tiberius Gracchus
Gaius Gracchus
Gaius Marius
Lucius Appuleius Saturninus
Quintus Sertorius
Marcus Aemilius Lepidus
Marcus Licinius Crassus
Catiline
Julius Caesar
Publius Clodius Pulcher
Mark Antony

A historian of the Late Republic cautions against understanding the terms populares and optimates as formally organized factions with an ideological basis:

“ Our chief contemporary witnesses to the political life of the late Republic, Cicero and Sallust, are fond of analyzing the political struggles of the period in terms of a distinction between optimates and populares, often appearing with slight variations in terminology, such as Senate, nobility, or boni versus People or plebs. But what precisely is denoted and connoted by this polarity? Clear enough, one who is designated in these sources as popularis was at least at that moment acting as ‘the People’s man,’ that is a politician — for all practical purposes, a senator — advocating the rights and privileges of the People, implicitly in contrast to the leadership of the Senate; an ‘optimate’ (optimas), by contrast, was one upholding the special custodial and leadership role of the Senate, implicitly against the efforts of some popularis or other. The polarity obviously corresponds with the dual sources of institutional power in the Republic — Senate and People — and was realized in practice through contrasting political methods … and distinctive types of rhetorico-ideological appeals suited to tapping those alternative sources of power … . It is important to realize that references to populares in the plural do not imply a co-ordinated ‘party’ with a distinctive ideological character, a kind of political grouping for which there is no evidence in Rome, but simply allude to a recognizable, if statistically quite rare, type of senator whose activities are scattered sporadically across late-Republic history … The ‘life-long’ popularis … was a new and worrying phenomenon at the time of Julius Caesar’s consulship of 59: an underlying reason why the man inspired such profound fears. ”

This summarizes the dominant interpretation of the populares in 20th-century scholarship, deriving in large part from Ronald Syme in the Anglophone literature. In the early 21st century, and as early as the publication of the ninth volume of The Cambridge Ancient History in 1994, the validity of examining popularist ideology in the context of Roman political philosophy has been reasserted. T.P. Wiseman, in particular, has rehabilitated the use of the word “party” to describe the political opposition between optimates and popularists, based on Latin usage (partes) and pointing to the consistency of a sort of party platform based on the food supply and general welfare of the populus, making land available to those outside the senatorial elite, and debt relief.

References

Brunt, P.A. “The Roman Mob.” Past and Present 35 (1966) 3–27.

Holland, Tom. (2003) ‘Rubicon: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Roman Republic’ (London:Abacus)

Hölkeskamp, Karl-J. “Conquest, Competition and Consensus: Roman Expansion in Italy and the Rise of the nobilitas.” Historia 42 (1993) 12–39.

Millar, Fergus. “Politics, Persuasion and the People before the Social War (150–90 B.C.).” Journal of Roman Studies 76 (1986) 1–11.

Millar, Fergus. “Political Power in the Mid-Republic: Curia or Comitium?” Journal of Roman Studies 79 (1989) 138–150.

Millar, Fergus. “Popular Politics at Rome in the Late Republic.” In Leaders and Masses in the Roman World: Studies in Honor of Zvi Yavetz. Edited by I. Malkin and Z.W. Rubinsohn. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1995. Limited preview online.

Millar, Fergus. The Crowd in Rome in the Late Republic. University of Michigan Press, 2002. Limited preview online.

Parenti, Michael. “The Assassination of Julius Caesar: A People’s History of Ancient Rome”. The New Press, 2003. ISBN 1-56584-797-0.

Seager, Robin. “Cicero and the Word popularis.” Classical Quarterly 22 (1972) 328–338.

Sherwin-White, A.N. “The Lex repetundarum and the Political Ideas of Gaius Gracchus.” Journal of Roman Studies 72 (1982) 18–31.

Taylor, Lily Ross. Party Politics in the Age of Caesar. University of California Press, Berkeley, 1949. Limited preview online.

Yakobson, Alexander. “Petitio et largitio: Popular Participation in the Centuriate Assembly of the Late Republic.” Journal of Roman Studies 82 (1992) 32–52.

Text #9671

Editorial comment by Laura Knight-Jadczyk

Just as there is today, in ancient Rome there was enormous disparity in wealth distribution and power which developed into a class war that brought about the end of the Republic despite Julius Caesar’s efforts to reform and save it. The two classes then were called Optimates, or boni (good men) and populares though, as we will see, there were significant aristocrats who had conscience and vision who took up the cause of the populares.

The optimates – the wealthy elite families - wished to limit the power of the popular assemblies and the Tribunes of the Plebs, and to extend the power of the Senate, which was viewed as more dedicated to the interests of the aristocrats who held the reins of power. The optimates favored the nobiles and opposed the ascension of novi homines into Roman politics.

Besides Sulla, notable optimates included Lucullus, Cato, Milo, Bibulus and Brutus. The populares included the Gracchi, Saturninus, Drusus, Sulpicius, Marius and a series of radical tribunes leading to Catiline, Clodius, and Caesar just to name a few.

So it was that, in the senate, the political battles were essentially between two types of oligarchs. One type recognized clearly that a society that is based on blatant inequities in wealth, privilege and power, breed conflict and trouble of all sorts. The other type believed, despite all experiences to the contrary, that the masters of power must stay the masters of power and any changes to that situation must be repressed at all costs.

In the early days of the Republic, the only men who could be members of the army were citizens who had a certain amount of money. This was because there was no real organized army and each soldier had to provide his own kit and you didn’t get paid, though you did get a share of booty if there was any. You had to have money to do that. It was said, in defense of this way of doing things, that only those who owned property could be trusted in the army to defend the state. The more money and property you had, the higher your rank in the army, more or less. In some cases, the smaller land holders borrowed from the rich aristocrats or moneylenders to get their kit for war together.

After a lot of wars, most of the citizens of the lower ranks in the army – the small land-holding foot soldiers – were dead, and the Republic was in a dire situation and needed soldiers, so it was decided to lower the standards and to admit freedmen and landless individuals. Obviously, that meant that somebody had to pay to kit them out in addition to giving them a share of booty. These new soldiers felt that, since they fought the wars for everyone else, they should also have a plot of land to come home to which proposal the aristocrats rejected entirely out of hand. At the same time, many of the small land holders had lost their farms to the aristocrats because, while fighting the wars, they were unable to pay off their loans. The aristocrats kept grabbing the land, and then putting slaves to work on it, so the increasing numbers of poor and landless individuals was literally created by the greed of the aristocrats. This is, ultimately, the central fulcrum point on which the collapse of the Republic teetered.

As to why the Roman Republic fought so many wars, it was purely and simply for plunder. Oh, of course, they created the ideology that Rome was a city ordained by the gods to bring peace and prosperity to all mankind (like exporting democracy). By the time of Caesar, there had been over two decades of internal massacres and upheaval in Italy and Rome itself.

The constant agitation for change to judicial and electoral fairness and equal distribution of land and wealth was perceived by the oligarchy as a constant conspiracy of the common people who were just “ungrateful” for the crumbs they received. They blamed the recurring uprisings and conspiracies and rebellions and “demagoguery” on “individuals” such as the “power-hungry” Pompey, the “greedy” Crassus , and the “unruly and demagogic” Caesar.

The aristocrats had a monopoly on patriotism – “you are either with us or against us” – and held the highest religious positions giving them direct communication with the gods; with their wealth, their political and military traditions enshrined in laws they made to further their own interests, their mafia-like relationships with their client-dependents, they maintained an uncompromising commitment to the status-quo: “me senator, you lowly serf.”

Another outstanding demagogue of the time who has been lionized by our culture was Cato, who prided himself on his fine Stoic sentiments of refusal to ever compromise or change his mind once it was made up. (I don’t know about you, but that really doesn’t sound very Stoic to me. Somebody has slipped a different definition in under that type of philosophy while we weren’t looking.) Cato rejected peremptorily any opinions that differed from his and confidently proclaimed over and over again how incorruptible he was. Now, that’s a demagogue for you! (Cato was the scion of a family of “new men”, by the way.)

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