The Optimates (/ˈɒptəmɪts/; Latin: optimates, "best ones", singular optimas; also known as boni, "good men") were a conservative political faction in the late Roman Republic.

They formed in reaction against the reforms of the Gracchi brothers—two tribunes of the plebs between 133 and 121 BC who tried to pass an agrarian law to help the urban poor, and a political reform that would have diminished the influence of the senatorial class. As the Optimates were senators and large landowners, they violently opposed the Gracchi, and finally murdered them, but their program was upheld by several politicians, called the Populares ("favouring the people"). For about 80 years, Roman politics was marked by the confrontation of these two factions. The Optimates favoured the ancestral Roman laws and customs, as well as the supremacy of the Senate over the popular assemblies and the tribunes of the plebs. They also rejected the massive extension of Roman citizenship to Rome's Italian allies advocated by the Populares. Although suspicious of powerful generals, they sided with Pompey when they came to believe that Julius Caesar—himself a Popularis—planned a coup against the Republic. They disappeared with their defeat in the subsequent Civil War.

While several leaders of the Optimates were patricians—belonging to the oldest noble families—such as Sulla or Scipio Nasica Serapio, many were plebeians: the Caecilii Metelli, Pompey, Cato the Younger, Titus Annius Milo, etc. Cicero—the most famous Optimas—was even a novus homo (the first of his gens to be senator).

Main leadersScipio Nasica Serapio
Cato the Younger
Titus Annius Milo
Marcus Junius Brutus
Caecilii Metelli
Mos maiorum
Senatorial supremacy


In general, the Optimates favored the nobiles and opposed the ascension of novi homines into Roman politics, though exceptions exist. For instance, Cicero (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, who was from a wealthy yet recently ennobled family. 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 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 who were 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 BC.[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 Lucullus, Cato the Younger, Titus Annius Milo, Marcus Calpurnius Bibulus and Marcus Junius Brutus the Younger. Though the Optimates had opposed him for the entirety of his political career, Pompey 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 Julius Caesar's assassination in 44 BC called themselves Liberatores (liberatores meaning "liberators").


Robert Morstein-Max, 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. [...] The polarity obviously corresponds with the dual sources of institutional power in the Republic – Senate and People [...]. 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.[3]

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,[4] the validity of examining Popularist ideology in the context of Roman political philosophy has been reasserted. In particular, T. P. Wiseman has rehabilitated the use of the word "party" to describe the political opposition between Optimates and Populares, 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 ("people"), making land available to those outside the senatorial elite and debt relief.[5]


  1. ^ Everitt, Anthony (30 November 2001). Cicero: The Life and Times of Rome's Greatest Politician. Random House Publishing Group. p. 400. ISBN 9781588360342.
  2. ^ Sandys, John Edwin (1921). A Companion to Latin Studies (3 ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 125. 133[:] Tribute of Ti. Gracchus, his 'lex agraria' and destruction by a rabble of optimates, headed by P. Scipio Nasica [...].
  3. ^ Morstein-Marx, Robert (5 February 2004). Mass Oratory and Political Power in the Late Roman Republic. Cambridge University Press. pp. 204–205. doi:10.1017/CBO9780511482878. ISBN 9781139449878.
  4. ^ Andrew Lintott. "Political History, 146–96 B.C." in The Cambridge Ancient History (Cambridge University Press, 1994). p. 52.
  5. ^ Though this has been a strand in Wiseman's scholarship over the decades, see particularly the introduction and "Roman History and the Ideological Vacuum" in Remembering the Roman People: Essays on Late-Republican Politics and Literature (Oxford University Press, 2009) at p. 14 for partes and "party". A less truncated version of "Roman History and the Ideological Vacuum" may be found in Classics in Progress (Oxford University Press, 2006), p. 285.

Further reading

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

External links

  • Videos of talks by Michael Parenti about his book The Assassination of Julius Caesar: A People's History of Ancient Rome, which describes the conflict between Optimates and Populares, in a 76-minute talk (in one part and in eight parts).
Alea iacta est

Alea iacta est ("The die is cast") is a variation of a Latin phrase (iacta alea est [ˈjakta ˈaːlea est]) attributed by Suetonius to Julius Caesar on January 10, 49 B.C. as he led his army across the Rubicon river in Northern Italy. With this step, he entered Italy at the head of his army in defiance of the Senate and began his long civil war against Pompey and the Optimates. The phrase, either in the original Latin or in translation, is used in many languages to indicate that events have passed a point of no return. It is now most commonly cited with the word order changed ("Alea iacta est") rather than in the original phrasing. The same event inspired another idiom with the same meaning, "Crossing the Rubicon".

Appius Claudius Pulcher (consul 79 BC)

Appius Claudius Pulcher (c. 139 BC – 76 BC) was a Roman noble, general and politician of the 1st century BC. There is uncertainty about who his father was. It was most probably the Appius Claudius Pulcher who was consul in 143 BC. He was a supporter of Lucius Cornelius Sulla and served as praetor in 88 BC. He was exiled in that year by Gaius Marius while Sulla was away in the east. He returned to Rome after Lucius Cornelius Cinna died in 84 BC, and served as consul in 79 BC and as governor of Roman Macedonia from 78 BC to 76 BC. He was the father of a number of renowned Romans, most notable: the infamous Clodius and Clodia.

Battle of Ruspina

The Battle of Ruspina was fought on 4 January 46 BC in the Roman province of Africa, between the Republican forces of the Optimates and forces loyal to Julius Caesar. The Republican army was commanded by Titus Labienus, Caesar's former supporter who had defected to the Republican side at the beginning of the civil war.

Battle of Thapsus

The Battle of Thapsus was an engagement in Caesar's Civil War that took place on April 6, 46 BC near Thapsus (in modern Tunisia). The Republican forces of the Optimates, led by Quintus Caecilius Metellus Scipio, were decisively defeated by the veteran forces loyal to Julius Caesar. It was followed shortly by the suicides of Scipio and his ally, Cato the Younger.

Brutus the Younger

Marcus Junius Brutus (the Younger) (; 85 BC – 23 October 42 BC), often referred to as Brutus, was a politician of the late Roman Republic. After being adopted by his uncle, Quintus Servilius Caepio, he used the name Quintus Servilius Caepio Brutus, but eventually returned to using his original name. He took a leading role in the assassination of Julius Caesar.Brutus was close to General Julius Caesar, the leader of the Populares faction. However, Caesar's attempts to assume greater power for himself put him at greater odds with the Roman elite and members of the Senate. Brutus eventually came to oppose Caesar and fought on the side of the Optimates faction, led by Pompey the Great, against Caesar's forces in Caesar's Civil War. Pompey was defeated at the Battle of Pharsalus in 48 BC, after which Brutus surrendered to Caesar, who granted him amnesty.

However, the underlying political tensions that led to the war had not been resolved. Due to Caesar's increasingly monarchical behavior, several senators, calling themselves "Liberators", plotted to assassinate him. They recruited Brutus, who took a leading role in the assassination, which was carried out successfully on March 15, 44 BC. The Senate, at the request of the Consul Mark Antony, granted amnesty to the assassins. However, a populist uprising forced Brutus and his brother-in-law, fellow assassin Gaius Cassius Longinus, to leave the City of Rome. In 43 BC, Caesar's grandnephew, Consul Octavian, by then also formally known as Gaius Julius Caesar, immediately after taking office passed a resolution declaring the conspirators, including Brutus, murderers. This led to the Liberators' civil war, pitting the erstwhile supporters of Caesar, under the Second Triumvirate, wishing both to gain power for themselves and avenge his death, against those who opposed him. Octavian combined his troops with those of Antony, and together they decisively defeated the outnumbered armies of Brutus and Cassius at the Battle of Philippi in October 42 BC. After the battle, Brutus committed suicide. His name has since become synonymous with acts of intimate public betrayal or treason, and is perhaps only rivaled in this regard by the name of Judas.

Caecilii Metelli family tree

The Caecilii Metelli were one of the most important families of the late Roman Republic. They rose to prominence in the beginning of the third century, with the consulship of Lucius Caecilius Metellus Denter in 284 BC. It was however Quintus Caecilius Metellus—consul in 143—who greatly improved the prestige of the family, notably thanks to his victory during the Fourth Macedonian War, for which he received the agnomen Macedonicus. His descendants and those of his younger brother Lucius received an astonishing number of magistracies during the last century of the Republic.

As the most powerful family in Roman politics, the Metelli distinguished themselves by their unwavering support of the Optimates, the conservative faction that opposed the social reforms advocated by the Populares. Their defeat during the Civil War against Julius Caesar abruptly ended their influence.

Caesar's Civil War

The Great Roman Civil War (49–45 BC), also known as Caesar's Civil War, was one of the last politico-military conflicts in the Roman Republic before the establishment of the Roman Empire. It began as a series of political and military confrontations, between Julius Caesar (100–44 BC), his political supporters (broadly known as Populares), and his legions, against the Optimates (or Boni), the politically conservative and socially traditionalist faction of the Roman Senate, who were supported by Pompey (106–48 BC) and his legions.Prior to the war, Caesar had served for eight years in the Gallic Wars. He and Pompey had, along with Marcus Licinius Crassus, established the First Triumvirate, through which they shared power over Rome. Caesar soon emerged as a champion of the common people, and advocated a variety of reforms. The Senate, fearful of Caesar, demanded that he relinquish command of his army. Caesar refused, and instead marched his army on Rome, which no Roman general was permitted to do. Pompey fled Rome and organized an army in the south of Italy to meet Caesar.

The war was a four-year-long politico-military struggle, fought in Italy, Illyria, Greece, Egypt, Africa, and Hispania. Pompey defeated Caesar in 48 BC at the Battle of Dyrrhachium, but was himself defeated much more decisively at the Battle of Pharsalus. The Optimates under Marcus Junius Brutus and Cicero surrendered after the battle, while others, including those under Cato the Younger and Metellus Scipio fought on. Pompey fled to Egypt and was killed upon arrival. Scipio was defeated in 46 BC at the Battle of Thapsus in North Africa. He and Cato committed suicide shortly after the battle. The following year, Caesar defeated the last of the Optimates in the Battle of Munda and became Dictator perpetuo (Dictator in perpetuity or Dictator for life) of Rome. The changes to Roman government concomitant to the war mostly eliminated the political traditions of the Roman Republic (509–27 BC) and led to the Roman Empire (27 BC–AD 476).

Cato the Younger

Marcus Porcius Cato Uticensis (; 95 BC – April 46 BC), commonly known as Cato the Younger (Cato Minor) to distinguish him from his great-grandfather (Cato the Elder), was a statesman in the late Roman Republic, and a follower of the Stoic philosophy. A noted orator, he is remembered for his stubbornness and tenacity (especially in his lengthy conflict with Julius Caesar), as well as his immunity to bribes, his moral integrity, and his famous distaste for the ubiquitous corruption of the period.

First Triumvirate

The First Triumvirate (60–53 BC) was an informal alliance between three prominent Roman politicians: Gaius Julius Caesar, Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, and Marcus Licinius Crassus, at the end of the Roman Republic.

The constitution of the Roman Republic was a complex set of checks and balances designed to prevent a man from rising above the rest and creating a monarchy. In order to bypass these constitutional obstacles, Caesar, Pompey and Crassus forged a secret alliance in which they promised to use their respective influence to help each other. According to Goldsworthy, the alliance was "not at heart a union of those with the same political ideals and ambitions", but one where "all [were] seeking personal advantage." As the nephew of Gaius Marius, Caesar was at the time very well connected with the Populares faction, which pushed for social reforms. He was moreover Pontifex Maximus—the chief priest in the Roman religion—and could significantly influence politics, notably through the interpretation of the auspices. Pompey was the greatest military leader of the time, having notably won the wars against Sertorius (80–72 BC), Mithridates (73–63 BC), and the Cilician Pirates (66 BC). Although he won the war against Spartacus (73–71 BC), Crassus was mostly known for his fabulous wealth, which he acquired through intense land speculation. Both Pompey and Crassus also had extensive patronage networks. The alliance was cemented with the marriage of Pompey with Caesar's daughter Julia in 59 BC.

Thanks to this alliance, Caesar thus received an extraordinary command over Gaul and Illyria for five years, so he could start his conquest of Gaul. In 56 BC the Triumvirate was renewed at the Lucca Conference, in which the triumvirs agreed to share the Roman provinces between them; Caesar could keep Gaul for another five years, while Pompey received Hispania, and Crassus Syria. The latter embarked into an expedition against the Parthians to match Caesar's victories in Gaul, but died in the disastrous defeat of Carrhae in 53 BC.

The death of Crassus ended the Triumvirate, and left Caesar and Pompey facing each other; their relationship had already degraded after the death of Julia in 54 BC. Pompey then sided with the Optimates, the conservative faction opposed to the Populares—supported by Caesar—and actively fought Caesar in the senate. In 49 BC, once the conquest of Gaul complete, Caesar refused to release his legions and instead invaded Italy from the north by crossing the Rubicon with his army. The following civil war eventually led to Caesar's victory over Pompey at the Battle of Pharsalus in 48 BC and the latter's assassination in Ptolemaic Egypt where he fled after the battle. In 44 BC Caesar was assassinated in Rome and the following year his adopted son Octavian (later known as Augustus) formed the Second Triumvirate with Marcus Antonius and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus.

Gaius Claudius Marcellus Minor

Gaius Claudius Marcellus Minor (88 BC – May 40 BC) was a Roman Senator who served as Consul in 50 BC. He was a member of the distinguished Claudius family. He was a friend to Roman Senator Cicero and an early opponent of Julius Caesar.

He was also noteworthy for marrying the sister of the future emperor Augustus, Octavia the Younger, with whom he fathered M. Marcellus, who was for a while Augustus' intended heir.

He is termed 'Minor' in order to distinguish him from his cousin and namesake, C. Claudius Marcellus 'Maior', the consul of 49 BC.

Lucius Caecilius Metellus Dalmaticus

Lucius Caecilius Metellus Dalmaticus (born c. 160 BC) was a son of Lucius Caecilius Metellus Calvus. He was a Consul in 119 BC, and then Pontifex Maximus. He had eliminated from the Senate 32 of its members and fought Saturninus, thus contributing to the return to Rome, in 99 BC, of his brother Quintus Caecilius Metellus Numidicus. As Consul he defeated the Dalmatians, having for that deserved his cognomen and the Honours of the Triumph.

Marcus Claudius Marcellus (consul 51 BC)

Marcus Claudius Marcellus was a member of the plebeian gens Claudia of the branch cognomitated Marcellus and a Roman politician.

Marcellus was elected curule aedile in 56 BC. In 52 BC he was elected consul, together with Servius Sulpicius Rufus, for the following year. During his consulship Marcellus proved himself to be a zealous partisan of Pompey and the optimates, and urged the Senate to extreme measures against Julius Caesar, managing to establish that the subject of recalling Caesar should be discussed on 1 March of the following year. He also considered the Lex Vitinia invalid, removing Roman citizenship from citizens of Comum, and caused a senator of Comum, who happened to be in Rome, to be scourged, a punishment Roman citizens were exempted from under the Lex Porcia.Upon the start of the civil war, Marcellus fled Rome with the optimates and joined the Republican Grand Army in Epirus. After the Battle of Pharsalus, Marcellus abandoned opposition to Caesar, and withdrew in an honorable exile to Mytilene, where he was left unmolested by Caesar. His cousin Gaius Claudius Marcellus petitioned the dictator for clemency, as did Cicero in his Pro Marcello. This was granted near the close of 46 BC, though Marcellus did not start out for Rome until the middle of 45 BC. En route near Athens he was murdered by one of his own attendants, P. Magius Chilo, an event that some attributed to Caesar, but Cicero suggested was almost certainly caused by a dispute between Magius and Marcellus.Marcellus was the son of another Marcus Claudius Marcellus, aedile curulis in 91 BC; the brother of Gaius Claudius Marcellus Maior, consul in 49 BC and the cousin of Gaius Claudius Marcellus Minor, consul in 50 BC.


The Optimatoi (Greek: Ὀπτιμάτοι, from Latin: Optimates, "the Best Men") were initially formed as an elite Byzantine military unit. In the mid-8th century, however, they were downgraded to a supply and logistics corps and assigned a province (thema) in north-western Asia Minor, which was named after them. As an administrative unit, the Theme of the Optimatoi (Greek: θέμα Ὀπτιμάτων, thema Optimatōn) survived until the Ottoman conquest in the first decades of the 14th century.


The Populares (; Latin: populares, "favoring the people", singular popularis) were a political faction in the late Roman Republic who favoured the cause of the plebeians (the commoners).

The Populares emerged as a political group with the reforms of the Gracchi brothers, who were tribunes of the plebs between 133 and 121 BC. Although the Gracchi belonged to the highest Roman aristocracy, being the grandsons of Scipio Africanus, they were concerned for the urban poor, whose dire condition increased the risk of a social crisis at Rome. They tried to implement a vast social program comprising a grain dole, new colonies, and a redistribution of the Ager publicus in order to alleviate their situation. They also drafted laws to grant Roman citizenship to Italian allies, and reform the judicial system to tackle corruption. Both brothers were nevertheless murdered by their opponents, the Optimates—the conservative faction representing the interests of the landed aristocracy, who dominated the Senate. Several tribunes of the plebs later tried to pass the Gracchi's program by using plebiscites (in order to bypass senatorial opposition), but Saturninus and Clodius Pulcher suffered the same fate as the Gracchi. Furthermore, many politicians of the late Republic postured as Populares to enhance their popularity among the plebs, notably Julius Caesar and Octavian (later Augustus), who finally enacted most of the Populares' platform during their rule.

The Populares counted a number of patricians—the most ancient Roman aristocrats—such as Appius Claudius Pulcher, Lucius Cornelius Cinna, or Julius Caesar. They were allied to politicians of lesser status, especially "new men" like Gaius Marius, or Gaius Norbanus (who might have even been a new Roman citizen).

Quintus Caecilius Metellus Balearicus

Quintus Caecilius Metellus Balearicus (born c. 170 BC) was a Roman statesman and general who was elected consul in 123 BC.

Quintus Caecilius Metellus Nepos

Quintus Caecilius Metellus Nepos (c. 135 BC – 55 BC) was a son of Quintus Caecilius Metellus Balearicus. He was a Consul in 98 BC, having fought at the Iberian Peninsula against the Celtiberians and the Vaccaei, suffering before these a memorable defeat.

He married Licinia Prima, after she had divorced Pontifex Maximus Quintus Mucius Scaevola, of whom she had Mucia Tertia. They had two children:

Quintus Caecilius Metellus Celer

Quintus Caecilius Metellus Nepos Iunior

Quintus Caecilius Metellus Numidicus

Quintus Caecilius Metellus Numidicus (ca 160 BC – 91 BC) was the leader of the conservative faction of the Roman Senate and a bitter enemy of Gaius Marius. He served as consul for 109 BC, and was the chief commander in the Jugurthine War in Numidia until Marius displaced him. He later became a censor, entering into exile in opposition to Marius. Metellus Numidicus enjoyed a reputation for integrity in an era when Roman politics was increasingly corrupt.

Quintus Caecilius Metellus Pius Scipio Nasica

Quintus Caecilius Metellus Pius Cornelianus Scipio Nasica (c. 100/98 BC – 46 BC), in modern scholarship often referred to as Metellus Scipio, was a Roman consul and military commander in the Late Republic. During the civil war between Julius Caesar and the senatorial faction led by Pompeius Magnus ("Pompey the Great"), he remained a staunch optimate. He led troops against Caesar's forces, mainly in the battles of Pharsalus and Thapsus, where he was defeated. He later committed suicide. Ronald Syme called him "the last Scipio of any consequence in Roman history."

Titus Annius Milo

Titus Annius Milo Papianus () was a Roman political agitator. The son of Gaius Papius Celsus, he was adopted by his maternal grandfather, Titus Annius Luscus. In 52 BC, he was prosecuted for the murder of Publius Clodius Pulcher. He was unsuccessfully defended by his friend, Marcus Tullius Cicero, in the speech Pro Milone.

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