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optimātēs, populārēs


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Romans seem from an early time to have used words for ‘good’ (bonus, sup. optimus) to denote high birth and social standing, as well as moral excellence, qualities the upper class regarded as inherently combined. The social meaning is already found in Plautus and Ennius, though ‘optimates’ (anglicized hereafter as ‘optimate(s)’) in a political sense does not appear in our sources until the 1st cent. bc. These ‘best’ men naturally assumed the right to rule the state. A 4th‐cent. law ordered the censors to enrol in the senate optimum quemque (‘all the best men’), patricians and plebeians (see plebs). In due course this was understood to mean all men elected to high office (de facto limited to a small upper class). The senate was in charge of making policy, guided by the nobiles. Its successful leadership in the Second Punic War and the great wars in the east that followed led to unquestioning acceptance of its authority, though the assemblies' rights were respected, poverty was alleviated by colonization and distribution (at times reluctant) of conquered land, and candidates for election conspicuously courted the favour of individual voters. The second half of the 2nd cent. bc saw a marked decline both in the success of senate leadership and in its care for the less fortunate. In foreign affairs the unpopular levies for the protracted wars in Spain (see numantia) led to resentment and actual resistance, organized by tribunes (see tribuni plebis). By the end of the century, the inglorious war against Jugurtha and the disasters against the Gauls and Germans demolished the prestige of those born to command, and they came under increasing attack from men (usually tribunes) later described as ‘populārēs’ (‘supporters of the people’). Successive tribunician laws provided for ballot in assemblies (a tribunician law of Marius made it secret ballot), and such laws were supported by aristocrats (e.g. Cornelius Scipio Aemilianus) who believed in a ‘mixed constitution’. At home the decline and proletarianization of the peasantry caused serious military, as well as social, problems, yet the senate majority resisted any attempt at distributing ager publicus. Finally, a group of eminent senators supported Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus (2) in putting a moderate law for the distribution of some ager publicus directly to the plebs (133). Stubborn resistance to this caused increasing tensions, which led to Tiberius' violent death. His younger brother Gaius Sempronius Gracchus (tribune 123–122) then embarked on an ambitious programme of reform. While recognizing the senate's right to supervise administration, he sought to balance its power by replacing senators with equites in the juries of extortion trials. (Senatorial ex‐governors were not to be judged by fellow senators.) When Gaius also was killed in a riot, the Gracchi became martyrs to later populares. Ambitious tribunes continued to provide leadership, and the tribunal set up by Mamilius in the Jugurthine War made it clear that the equites, although of the same eighteen centuries as senators, resented the death of the Gracchi and despised senatorial incompetence. The election of the novus homo Marius to the consulship and continued command seemed to threaten the birthright of the nobiles, and his admission of the proletarii to the legions created a potential armed pressure group of the poor, which Appuleius Saturninus and Servilius Glaucia tried to combine with the equestrians.

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Subjects: Classical Studies.


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