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Optimates (lat. Optimates , dt .: the best , singular: optimus ; more rarely called boni , the good guys ) were the representatives of the conservative nobility and the advocates of the supremacy of the senate in the late Roman republic . But the Optimates were not a party in the modern sense. The term rather describes a method of making politics: From the point of view of the optimates, all important decisions in the Roman state lay with the senate, while the populars relied on the popular assembly .


The terms Optimaten and Popularen first appeared in relation to the time of the Gracchian reforms from 133 BC. Chr. On. The first application of the senatus consultum ultimum in 121 against Gaius Sempronius Gracchus can be seen as a kind of "founding date" for the optimatic group. However, the term optimates as the opposite of populares is only used late, especially in Cicero's work . Without the Gracchen or without their "popular" laws passed through by appealing to the people's assembly, the Optimates would not have found themselves as advocates of traditional Senate rule. This reaction can be seen as a sign of the perplexity and weakness of the conservative senators. For the first time in the history of the republic, men from their circle worked against them with the help of the people. Tiberius Gracchus not only exposed them in their self-image, he also maneuvered them into a situation for which they knew no schemes and which the auctoritas called into question. To put it bluntly, there would have been no Optimates without the users of the popular method. The conflict between optimates and populares was an expression of the escalating rivalry within the Roman Senate aristocracy.

Political orientation

From a political and social point of view, the Optimates were a relatively homogeneous grouping with a changing cast that formed the Senate majority and therefore relied on itself. Their political activity was almost always to be understood as a reaction to popular actions. Only when the politics of the day required it did the leading families and their supporters band together. If their interests were not questioned or endangered, there was no optimatic group either. This happened when aristocrats who could not find a majority in the Senate tried to enforce their interests with the help of the people's assembly instead - these politicians were called populares. Like the Optimates, they had no fixed political program and no fixed cast. Rather, there are individual personalities within the nobility who responded to popular actions of others and mobilized their supporters, which not only included clientele, but also friends or personally connected nobiles . Both optimates and popular people therefore belonged to the nobility , and the conflict between them was essentially a power struggle within the aristocracy.

Linguistically, the term optimates is related to ἄριστοι and describes those who considered themselves the best in a state - the nobility or, in the Roman sense, the nobility. They invoked tradition and saw themselves legitimized by it. The Optimates were formed from those representatives of the nobility who wanted to restore the old state of safe Senate rule, which no longer existed in the late Republic. In other words: Those politicians who had the majority in the Senate behind them were at the same time optimates because, unlike popular politicians, they had to be concerned with maintaining the authority and claim to political leadership of this body. It was the aim of the Optimates to secure and expand the power of the Senate, while the Populares, as a minority among the Senators, were forced to advocate a different political concept: They had laws passed by the People's Assembly even without the participation of the Senate, thereby weakening the position of the Senate. The Optimates, on the other hand, placed the Senate at the center of legitimate political decision-making.

The instrument used by these politicians was the so-called "optimatic method": if it was not possible to politically outmaneuver the opponents or to eliminate them by prosecuting them in court, the expression of this method was always a senate decision ( senatus consultum ). The first stage was the determination that a political act by a popular politician is contra rem publicam , i.e. directed against the republic or its good. This either disapproved of steps that had already been taken or an implicit request to refrain from planned steps. The second and far more momentous resolution was the senatus consultum ultimum . According to Cicero, who, however, was one of the Optimates himself, it was a means of averting damage to the republic. Thus the extraordinary authority to resolve a state emergency with all necessary means and to restore the welfare of the republic ( salva res publica ) was transferred to the consuls. Even if Sallust's description sounds like almost dictatorial power, empowering the highest officials did not correspond to the authority of a dictator . Whether the senatus consultum ultimum was at all constitutional was never clarified; Strictly speaking, sovereignty in Rome lay not with the Senate, but with the people's assemblies, which is why one can argue that the Optimates usurped a right here that the Senate was not actually entitled to.

The Optimates reached the peak of their power under Sulla's dictatorship ( 82 - 79 BC ). During his reign, the Senate was expanded from 300 to 600 men, and a large number of (alleged) popular people were murdered using proscription lists . After Sulla's death, however, many Senate powers were again restricted and, above all, his rule of tyranny seriously undermined the Senate's reputation. Sulla's follower Pompey used the popular method, although he was actually counted among the Optimates, which vividly illustrates that one should not attach too much weight to the distinction between the two groups. In the end, the Optimates could not prevent ambitious aristocrats like Gaius Iulius Caesar and Octavian from using the popular method to replace the rule of the Senate once and for all with a monarchy - the defeat of the Optimates marked the end of the res publica libera .

Outstanding representatives of the Optimates were Sulla, Cato the Younger and Cicero , who as homo novus was never fully accepted by the Optimates.




  1. ^ Plutarch , C. Gracchus , 14.1-2. See also: Burckhardt: Political strategies of the optimates in the late Roman republic. 1988, p. 100 f.
  2. Burckhardt: Political strategies of the optimates in the late Roman republic. 1988, pp. 35-39.
  3. Burckhardt: Political strategies of the optimates in the late Roman republic. 1988, p. 15.
  4. Burckhardt: Political strategies of the optimates in the late Roman republic. 1988, p. 11 f.
  5. Sallust , Catilina , 29, defines it as almost unlimited.
  6. ^ Strasburger: Optimates. In: Realencyclopadie der classical antiquity science. 1939, col. 774.

Web links

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