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As nobility (from Latin nobilitas , “celebrity”), the research describes the leadership class of the middle and late Roman republic as well as the period of the principality , which developed after the end of the “class struggles ”. As a nobilis (plural: nobiles ), the Romans themselves referred to a member of the aristocracy who had achieved notoriety through holding public offices.

Once in archaic Rome initially hereditary patrician had formed, it was corporately organized elite soon by other families, the plebeians challenged. In the class struggles up to 287 BC they achieved Gradually the political equality. The most important milestones of this dispute were the Lex Canuleia (445 BC, plebeians were allowed to marry patricians), the Leges Liciniae Sextiae (367 BC , plebeians were allowed access to the consulate ), the Lex Ogulnia (around 300 BC). BC, plebeians were given access to the most important priestly offices) and finally the Lex Hortensia (287 BC, plebeians and patricians were put on an equal footing). Patricians and those plebeian families who reached the highest state offices now formed the patrician-plebeian aristocracy, the nobility.

By Matthias Geltser and in its wake by the majority of today's historian members of the nobility as are usually senatorial aristocracy referred that at least a consul or censor had under their direct ancestors. Other definitions, however, are based on any curular magistrate among the ancestors; this view goes back above all to Theodor Mommsen and is still shared by some researchers today. But at least in the late republic and in principle , only direct descendants of consuls were considered nobiles .

Who belonged to the nobiles was neither bindingly regulated nor precisely defined, since ancestry in Roman society was never enough to establish social status. The individual achievements were at least as important and especially decisive for the claim to leadership of the nobility. The descendants of a consul could sink into insignificance if they failed to prove themselves in the service of the state. In addition, modern research indicates that social groups are never exactly delimited. The politically active descendants of consuls were most likely considered nobiles , but there were exceptions to this rule, which was never formulated officially.

The nobility was not hereditary and, at least until the end of the res publica libera , it was not a legally defined group. Its members followed a meritocratic code of conduct , which was shaped in particular by the endeavor to increase the fame and honor of their own gens by serving the res publica . For a young nobilis it was usually a matter of course to pursue a career as a senator and to seek the public offices that would give him access to the Senate. Only those who had been elected by the people to an important office, had proven themselves in it and were subsequently accepted into the Senate, could claim an outstanding position in the republic. Until they entered the Senate, the young nobiles were formally just knights - equites . This changed only Augustus , who created a hereditary senatorial class ( ordo senatorius ).

How great the influence of nobility was within the Roman Republic is controversial in recent research. As an extreme position, Fergus Millar takes the view that during the time of the republic Rome was basically a democracy - by no means dominated by a small oligarchy . The majority of researchers assume, however, that nobility actually determined politics in Rome, even if the influence of the other citizens de iure was considerable. As a rule, the Roman people followed the will of the nobility, which was expressed primarily in senate resolutions. It was therefore a matter of repeatedly demonstrating consensus and assuring the people of their importance, while the political participation of ordinary Roman citizens was in fact very low. Egon Flaig speaks of “ritualized politics” in this context.

Like any aristocracy, the Roman one was always characterized by competition. The aim was to outperform the other nobiles as far as possible. Fields in which one could excel were working as a priest, successfully acting as the patron of as many clients as possible , public appearances as a speaker in court or at popular assemblies and, increasingly, acting as a general. It was typical for Rome that ultimately the Roman citizens, the populus Romanus , determined the hierarchy within the nobility by electing people to important offices. Above all after the victory over Hannibal and the spread of Rome to the east, the rivalry within the upper class escalated in the 2nd and 1st centuries. It was not least this competition that, in the opinion of many ancient historians, ultimately destroyed the solidarity of the class, as particularly successful nobiles such as Sulla , Pompeius and Caesar went beyond the scope and ultimately destroyed the system.

In the late republic, many members of the nobility could be roughly divided into two groups: the optimates and the popular . These were not parties in the modern sense; they differed less in their goals than in their methods. The Optimates based their political projects on the Senate, in which they controlled the majorities. They stood in opposition to the popular, who were also nobiles , but wanted to achieve their goals with the help of the people, the plebs , since they could not find a majority among their peers in the Senate. The conflict between optimates and populars is understood in modern research as an expression of the escalating rivalry within the nobility, with the richest and most powerful protagonists coming into opposition to the majority of the Senate and therefore using the popular method.

A direct ascent of a non-senator into the nobility, which was not uncommon for a long time, was only achieved by a few homines novi (“new men”) like Cicero in the late republic . Around this time, a group of around 30 aristocratic families (such as the Claudii , the Cornelii , the Licinii , the Aemilii , the Caecilii Metelli , the Calpurnii or the Iulii ) dominated the res publica . In the civil wars, the Senate majority finally succumbed to ambitious individuals like Caesar and Octavian .

In the civil wars of the 1st century BC BC the nobility of the Roman Republic was largely wiped out. But even after the end of the free res publica and the establishment of the principate under Augustus, the nobility, to which completely different families now belonged, represented the political, economic and social elite of the Roman Empire for centuries . During the “ Imperial Crisis of the 3rd Century “Their political importance then decreased even further, but basically the Western Roman Senate aristocracy only perished in late antiquity , after the Gothic Wars of the 6th century . Nobilis remained the name for a Roman aristocrat until this time. Most of the old republican families were already extinct around 200 AD - if families like the Anicii later invoked older roots, this was probably just a fiction that was at best justified by adoptions.


  • Adam Afzelius: On the definition of the Roman nobility in the time of Cicero . In: Classica et Mediaevalia 1, 1938, pp. 40-94.
  • Hans Beck : Career and Hierarchy. The Roman aristocracy and the beginnings of the “cursus honorum” in the middle republic (= Klio . Supplements NF Vol. 10). Akademie-Verlag, Berlin 2005, ISBN 3-05-004154-4 .
  • Hans Beck: The role of the nobleman. Prominence and aristocratic rule in the Roman Republic. In: Hans Beck, Peter Scholz , Uwe Walter (eds.): The power of the few. Aristocratic rule, communication and "noble" lifestyle in antiquity and early modern times (= historical magazine . Supplements NF Vol. 47). Oldenbourg, Munich 2008, ISBN 978-3-486-58726-5 , pp. 101-123.
  • Jochen Bleicken : The Nobility of the Roman Republic. In: Gymnasium 88, 1981, pp. 236-253.
  • Klaus Bringmann : History of the Roman Republic. From the beginning to Augustus. Beck, Munich 2002, ISBN 3-406-49292-4 .
  • Leonhard A. Burckhardt : The Political Elite of the Roman Republic. Comments on recent discussion of the concepts of "Nobilitas" and "Homo Novus". In: Historia 39, 1990, pp. 77-99.
  • Matthias Gelzer : The Nobility of the Roman Republic. Teubner, Leipzig 1912.
  • Frank Goldmann: Nobilitas as a status and a group. Reflections on the concept of nobility in the Roman Republic . In: Jörg Spielvogel (Ed.): Res publica reperta. On the Constitution and Society of the Roman Republic and the Early Principate . Steiner, Stuttgart 2002, ISBN 978-3-515-07934-1 , pp. 45-66.
  • Karl-Joachim Hölkeskamp : The Origin of Nobility. Studies of the social and political history of the Roman Republic in the 4th century BC Chr. Steiner, Stuttgart 1987, ISBN 3-515-04621-6 .
  • Fergus Millar : The Political Character of the Classical Roman Republic, 200-151 BC In: Journal of Roman Studies 74, 1984, pp. 1-19.
  • Ronald Syme : The Roman Revolution. Power struggles in ancient Rome. Fundamentally revised and, for the first time, complete new edition. Edited by Christoph Selzer and Uwe Walter . Klett-Cotta, Stuttgart 2003, ISBN 3-608-94029-4 .
  • Richard JA Talbert: The senate of Imperial Rome. Princeton University Press, Princeton 1987, ISBN 0-691-05400-2 .

Web links

Wiktionary: Nobility  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Iring Fetscher , Herfried Münkler (Ed.): Piper's Handbook of Political Ideas, Vol. 1: Early high cultures and European antiquity . Piper, Munich 1988, p. 524.