novus homo

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(‘new man’), term used in the late republic in various related senses: for the first man of a family to reach the senate, where he normally remained a ‘small senator’; in a special sense, for such a man actually to rise to the consulship; and for the first man of a senatorial family to reach the consulship. The first of these achievements was not very difficult, provided a man had at least equestrian standing, some military or oratorical ability, and good connections. The last also was far from rare: it was thus that the nōbilēs were constantly reinvigorated. But few men rose from outside the senate to a consulship, and the commonest use of the term characterizes this rare achievement. It took unusual merit and effort and either noble patronage (e.g. that of the Flacci for Porcius Cato 1) or a public emergency, as in the cases of Marius and Cicero.

The novus homo become consul contrasts with the nobiles (the ‘known’ men) as per sē cognitus (‘known (only) through himself’). He has to win his own connections and clientēlae (see cliens) to balance those inherited by the nobiles. Hence a typical pattern of career and outlook develops, best seen in Marius and Cicero, about whom we know most. During his rise the novus homo prides himself on his ability and achievements and tends to compare them with those of the founders of noble families, as contrasted with their degenerate descendants. But Cicero is not a reformer of the system. After rising to the top, he aims at defending the order in which he has risen and gaining recognition as an equal from his social superiors. Some (e.g. Cato, in part through longevity) more or less succeed in this; others (e.g. Marius and Cicero) are never quite accepted. But they never favour the advancement of other new men.

Under the empire, men of this sort, of equestrian background, at first from Italy and gradually from the provinces, can rise high on their own merits, promoted by the emperor, to whom they give less cause for jealousy and suspicion.

Subjects: Classical Studies.

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