When the plebs attained legal equality with the patricians, the magistracies were in theory open to all citizens. In fact, the ruling class gradually co‐opted powerful plebeian families into association, until (by the 3rd cent. bc) a new, increasingly plebeian, oligarchy emerges. In lists of consuls and priests, the same names tend to recur, with a slow trickle of newcomers. These new rulers are the nobiles, ‘known’ men—known (presumably) because they had the right to imagines, and actors representing their ancestors in full ceremonial dress were a common sight in the streets of Rome. These ‘known’ men naturally had an advantage in elections, and it was increased by a network of family and client relationships (see cliens) built up over generations. We do not know how and when the word ‘nobilis’ acquired a more exclusive meaning: ‘descended from a consul’. This is its quasi‐technical meaning in the 1st cent. bc (although the general meaning ‘known’ always coexists with it outside the political sphere). Perhaps praetorships (six by 197/6, eight by 81) had become too common, and aedileships too humble.
As Sallust says, with pardonable exaggeration, the nobiles tended to regard the accession of an outsider to the consulship as ‘polluting’ it. By the late republic, the defeat of a nobilis by an outsider sufficed to raise a presumption of corruption. Nobilitas was never a necessary or a sufficient qualification for the consulship. There was fierce competition among nobiles for only two posts, and some outsiders of senatorial background gained admission. But very few men not born to senatorial families became consuls, and those few normally through the support of eminent families. They tended to be perfectly absorbed into the ethos of the oligarchy and became its defenders. (See novus homo.) The proportion of nobiles in the consulship is never, over any lengthy period, less than 70 per cent (and this is a minimum); by the time of Cicero, when many old families long unrepresented revive, it is close to 90 per cent. These proportions are remarkably untouched by the most violent political crises.
Under the empire the word was a social label, still chiefly applied to descendants (on either side) of republican, or at latest triumviral, consuls. Nobiles were raised to (usually harmless) dignity by ‘good’ emperors (the success of a patrician Galba showed how dangerous they could be) and persecuted by ‘bad’ emperors. Most noble families were extinguished by the Antonine period.
Subjects: Classical Studies.