The philosopher Aristotle once said "man is a political animal." What he meant by this was that it was within man's nature to seek out others and to engage them socially and economically, but the modern takeaway from this maxim is that man is by nature inclined to promote his own interests and ally himself to others whose interests intersect with his own -- and to oppose those whose do not. While political parties as we today understand them did not exist in antiquity, the history of shared interests is as old as time. One of the most famous prototypical parties was the Optimate faction of the late Roman Republic, thriving from roughly 100 BC to 30 BC with varying degrees of success and influence. When pluralized, the name literally means "the best men," i.e., the aristocracy. Their chief political opponents were known as the Populares, literally meaning "men of the people." Ironically, both the Optimates and the Populares enjoyed the support of patricians and plebeians alike.

Origins

It is impossible to speak of a precise beginning date for the Optimates, but tension between aristocrats and commoners has been a constant feature of just about every society so divided. There was not much social strife during the period of the Kingdom of Rome (753 BC-509 BC) since both the nobility and the masses were subordinate to the monarchs of the era, but after the last king was expelled from the city, the reconstitution of Rome as a republic opened the doors for the two sides to become estranged from one another. The official name of the Roman state from this point was Senatus Populusque Romanum -- the Senate and the People of Rome; even this name demonstrates the oppositional nature of the arrangement, with the noble patrician class comprising the ruling Senate and everyone else just sort of being part of the "the people."

Rome was not, as they say, built in a day, so it should surprise nobody to learn that social conflict was a pretty common thing. I won't go into all of the mundane details, but I will say that the history of the Roman Republic up until the end of the second century BC was largely one that saw the rights of the plebeians being gradually -- and by this, I mean at a positively glacial pace, but still -- expanded at the expense of the patrician and equestrian classes. Predictably, the upper classes were not especially pleased with these developments, and outbreaks of political violence were not uncommon. The Gracchi brothers -- Tiberius and Gaius -- were populist plebeian politicians who saw themselves assassinated by patrician opponents for proposing radical legislation pertaining to the redistribution of land in 133 and 121 BC, respectively.

Marius

In 108 BC, a man by the name of Gaius Marius stood for election as consul of Rome for the following year. The consul was the most sought-after office in Roman politics at this time, being as it was the chief executive office of the state. Those elected to it served one-year terms with a coequal colleague. Marius was an accomplished general, but (being a plebeian) was not especially popular with the ruling class. He won his election largely because of his promise to successfully conclude a military fiasco raging in Africa at that time. The Senate denied him command of the consular army, however, so he conjured up some archaic legislation to allow a direct election by the people (which he naturally won). Before setting off for Africa, he reformed the entry requirements for the Roman army, namely by eliminating them altogether. Since the earliest days of the Republic, only landholders worth a certain amount of money were allowed to serve in the military, but this number fluctuated as time went on. Recognizing the need for a readily available supply of professional full-time soldiers, Marius removed all property requirements, inquiring only whether or not the applicant was a Roman citizen.

This was awkward for the Optimates for a number of reasons. First, it was a tenet of conservative Roman belief that only land-owners were effective soldiers. Their reasoning was that a man would fight harder and more soberly if he stood to lose more than his life in a failed campaign; poor urban tradesmen had no land to lose and therefore could be persuaded to abandon the fight if things got too hairy. Additionally, impoverished professional soldiers had no source of income beyond the army, so it was thought that charismatic military leaders could potentially buy the personal loyalty of their men and use them to overthrow the state. The other practical concern, of course, was that even if the commanders were entirely virtuous and had no desire to bribe their soldiers for nefarious purposes, someone still had to pay for their service and upkeep. How were they to eat? Who would pay for their arms and armor? Who would provide them with horses? What was to be done with them at the end of the campaign? Generally speaking, people who shed blood in service to their country rightly expect some form of recompense, especially if these same people lack any other means to acquire it in civilian life. What would stop them from mutiny or even brigandry if they could not be paid?

Marius' campaign did not get off to the best start. It had taken a great deal of time for him to get to Africa and he could not even seem to locate the enemy. He also immensely disliked the staff he had been given. He reserved particular opprobrium for one of his more senior officers, Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felix. Sulla was an Optimate and the two men clashed personally, although both men conducted themselves professionally with regards to their ranks. Through guile, Sulla was able to personally capture Jugurtha, the king of Numidia and the cause of the war. Marius took credit for his subordinate's victory and celebrated a triumph in honor of "his" achievement. He also won a second term as consul for the year 104 BC despite the fact that he was not in the city when elections were held and an act of the Senate some 30 years earlier had specifically outlawed multiple consulships for one person. This controversy was forgotten when Italy faced a Gallic invasion and he was forced to fight it off, again with Sulla by his side. He managed to get himself reelected consul every year for the next four years in an unprecedented flouting of convention.

While he deftly dealt with the Gauls and won great acclaim for his subsequent victories over the Germans, Marius was presented with an unenviable choice in 100 BC when a revolt broke out over a failed land redistribution law. While he sympathized with the rebels, he was legally obliged to quash the rebellion, which he did. Perhaps wounded by this, he retired to his estate and did not seek the consulship the following year, much to the relief of the Optimates. He was later called out of retirement to fight in the Social War, this time against Rome's Italian allies. Marius had a stroke, however, and was forced to cede command to a subordinate. Sulla (serving under the consul Lucius Julius Caesar) distinguished himself to the extent that he was elected consul in his own right for 88 BC at the end of the war. A war with the Anatolian kingdom of Pontus had broken out and Sulla was the preferred candidate of the Optimates to end it quickly and efficiently.

Sulla

Jealous at his former subordinate's impending glory -- and in ill health, to boot -- Marius bribed a tribune and had himself elected commander by the people. An outburst of violence ensued and Sulla's son-in-law was murdered. Outraged at the insult, Sulla gathered his legions from Greece and brought them back to attack Rome. Helplessly outnumbered and unprepared, Marius fled the city in fear. Sulla had Marius sentenced to death in absentia and set about purging what few allies of his remained in Rome. He rolled back many of the rights which had been won by the plebeians in recent years and only then departed for the campaign against Pontus. While he was a great champion of the Optimate cause, Sulla himself had violated one of its most basic precepts: he entered the city of Rome with a standing army, something nobody had ever done previously. While the Optimates were naturally pleased that Sulla had restored more power to the Senate, his actions leading up to that were unacceptable. The Senate recalled Marius in 87 BC (while Sulla himself was in Asia Minor) and he set about destroying Sulla's forces that remained in the city. This soon extended to anybody with whom Marius had a disagreement and he intimidated his way into a seventh consulship for 86 BC and command of the Pontic war. Less than three weeks into his term, however, he died of an unknown illness.

Around this time, Sulla successfully concluded the war in Pontus and was not very pleased at his having been dislodged from power. He reconstituted his legions and surrounded himself with talented young commanders like Marcus Licinius Crassus and Gnaeus Pompeius, both of whom were of plebeian stock but supporters of his cause owing to Marius' actions against their families. With Marius dead, his son of the same name became the rallying point for the Populares. Sulla landed in Italy in 83 BC and was able to amass a great deal of support from those who had been banished or forced to flee Rome by Marius. His manpower was also augmented by defections from the Marians. Sulla's forces met with success everywhere they went and Crassus and Pompey distinguished themselves very well in the civil war. The younger Marius committed suicide rather than be captured.

When Sulla got to Rome, it was time to settle the score for good. If the gloves were on before, they were certainly off now. He had himself named dictator in 82 BC, an office which had been out of use for more than 100 years by that time. While the dictator normally served a six month term of absolute power, Sulla saw to it that his term had no expiration date. He then went about killing close to 10,000 people, including over a thousand noblemen, whose fortunes he confiscated. Pompey took to this job with such zeal that he was pejoratively called "butcher boy." He doubled the size of the Senate, curtailed the office of the plebeian Tribune to the point of irrelevancy, prohibited the popular assemblies from debating legislation that had not already passed through the Senate, and restricted the rights of the equestrians who had failed to show sufficient support for his cause. After about two years as dictator, he resigned the position and had himself elected consul for 80 BC and proceeded as if nothing amiss had happened. He retired after his term expired and died of cirrhosis in 78 BC.

While Sulla definitely strengthened the Optimate cause, he also injured it. Ideologically, the Optimates were traditionalists of the highest order. They believed very firmly in republicanism and in the inviolability of the republic's institutions. Law and tradition intersected in a religious fashion for them. Using the dictatorship as a vessel for personal enrichment and mass proscriptions was almost blasphemous. Sulla's marches on Rome were deeply offensive because it was taken as a given that no Roman worthy of the name would ever dare violate the sanctity of the state by threatening the heart of its political institutions. And yet, there they were. The Roman Republic had been founded in response to the actions of a tyrant, so the notion of one-man-rule was inherently inimical; this is why there were two consuls every year, so one could be a check on the other's power if necessary. This is also why they only served for one year and why a law had been passed forbidding multiple terms: really, how much power can one person accumulate in the space of a year? All of this, of course, assumes adherence to the form of the law; ambition is rarely compliant with such things, however.

Crassus, Pompey, and Caesar

In 73 BC, a massive army of slaves under the leadership of a Thracian gladiator named Spartacus threatened to destroy Rome. With Roman military resources taxed by two other wars, there seemed little hope of opposing them. Crassus -- who had by this time become the wealthiest man in Rome, and likely acquired the single largest personal fortune in the history of the world -- built an army with his own money and received Senatorial approval to campaign against the slaves. This extra-legal imperium accorded to him provided legitimacy for the concept of a personal army and confirmed the fears that the Optimates had about the nature of service in the Roman military. While he did most of the hard work, Pompey dealt the final blow to the slaves and took credit for ending the revolt in 71 BC. Crassus and Pompey served as consuls for the year 70 BC, though they were deeply mistrustful of one another. For the next few years after their term, Crassus and Pompey engaged in bouts of oneupsmanship with Crassus becoming censor -- conveniently acquiring the power to add and remove Senators at will -- and Pompey using his legions to threaten the Senate into giving him unprecedented powers to deal with a highly exaggerated threat from pirates along the coastlines (despite not being consul, he was given consular powers throughout the Mediterranean basin up to 50 miles inland).

It seemed possible for a while that a civil war between Crassus and Pompey would break out until an ambitious young aristocrat named Gaius Julius Caesar interceded and convinced the men to join in an alliance with him to promote their own careers. This power-sharing arrangement between Crassus, Pompey, and Caesar became known as the First Triumvirate. While all three of them certainly had their own ideologies, this alliance was more about personal power than anything else. A group of Optimates in the Senate became the core conservative opposition to the Triumvirate. Cato the Younger, Metellus Scipio, and Marcus Junius Brutus were the most important of this faction. The great orator Marcus Tullius Cicero is sometimes counted among this group, but he was a lifelong ally of Crassus, so he could not honorably oppose Pompey and Caesar overtly. Jealousy was rife between the triumvirate, but the alliance held strong when in 55 BC, Pompey and Crassus were again consuls and they granted Caesar a five year term as governor of Gaul. While Gaul was not exactly a glamorous place, it gave Caesar a chance to enrich himself off of the taxes collected and to gain military glory in the campaign against the tribes there. It was determined that Pompey would serve as governor of Spain and Crassus as governor of Syria after their terms ended. Pompey would not be required to assume personal governance of the province (allowing him to influence things in Rome) and Crassus was desirous of a campaign against the Parthian Empire to augment his own glory.

Unfortunately, this is where things sort of broke down. Crassus' campaign was a disaster, and he was killed in action in 53 BC, supposedly by having molten gold poured down his throat. The alliance had been augmented by Pompey's marriage to Caesar's daughter Julia, but she died in childbirth, severing the ties between the two men. The Optimates took advantage of the strife between Caesar and Pompey and won the latter over to their cause. Pompey was envious of Caesar's fame and military success while Caesar was tired of having been the junior partner in the arrangement. To cement his new alliance, Pompey married Cornelia (the daughter of Scipio) after rejecting an engagement to Caesar's young great-niece Octavia Minor. Caesar requested that he be allowed to stand for consul in absentia for 50 BC, immediately after his term as governor of Gaul ended (to grant himself immunity from prosecution). He was rebuffed and ordered to disband his legions and return to Rome to face an inquiry. He declined this request and again reiterated his desire to be consul. The Optimates in the Senate upped the ante and brought charges of war crimes and treason against him. In response, Caesar marched his troops into Italy in 49 BC, thus sparking another civil war.

Pompey was in awkward position because while he could summon more legions than Caesar, he would be unable to do so in the short amount of time it would take his adversary to march on Rome. With the leading Optimates in tow, he fled to Greece to raise funds and soldiers. A force left behind under the command of Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus was met by Caesar's troops; three of these legions defected to Caesar. In Rome, Caesar was declared dictator and then elected consul. He left for Greece in pursuit of the Optimates and was soundly defeated at Dyrrhachium. Strangely, Pompey did not pursue Caesar, perhaps believing the retreat to be a trap. A few days later, the two sides met again at Pharsalus, with Pompey greatly outnumbering Caesar. The size and poor organization of Pompey's force made it unmanageable, however, providing Caesar with a decisive victory. The Optimate forces split, with Pompey fleeing to Egypt, Cato and Scipio to the province of Africa, and Brutus and Cicero to Caesar, who was more than willing to welcome them back into the fold.

Pompey was killed as soon as he entered Egypt, which mightily angered Caesar upon his landing in Alexandria. While his opponent was dead, he was also deprived of the glory of slaying him in battle (or even more humiliatingly, offering him clemency). He also felt it beneath the dignity of a Roman consul -- and indeed one who had been surnamed "the Great" -- to be killed in a sordid fashion in a foreign land. In 47 BC, he stayed in Egypt to depose Ptolemy XIII and install his sister, Cleopatra VII, as a more pliable client monarch. He then marched to Thapsus to confront Scipio and Cato, whom he soundly defeated in 46 BC. Both Senators took their lives after the battle.

Significant military resistance to Caesar on the part of the Optimates ended at this point, although political turmoil was brewing. The Senator Gaius Cassius Longinus -- a veteran of Crassus' Parthian debacle -- took up the leadership of the Optimate faction at great personal risk. He conceived of a plot to assassinate Caesar and have the act declared a tyrannicide, legal under the Republican constitution. After Caesar was declared dictator for life, Brutus joined in this task, lending his name and assuming the mantle of leadership. On March 15, 44 BC, Brutus, Cassius, and the other Optimates assassinated Caesar inside the Senate house. Caesar's friend and consular colleague Mark Antony offered a truce to the Optimates, and they agreed -- until the day of Caesar's funeral when Antony delivered a damning oration against them, causing them to flee for the east to raise money and soldiers. Antony for his part behaved poorly afterward, demanding that he be made governor of Gaul, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that it was currently in the possession of Brutus' cousin and fellow Optimate, Decimus Junius Brutus. When Decimus refused to surrender the province, Antony attacked him.

Antony and Cicero despised one another, so it was with great annoyance to him that Antony had not also been killed on the Ides of March. This stemmed ironically from Cicero's great admiration of Antony's grandfather, known to us as Marcus Antonius Orator (meaning exactly what it seems like it should). Cicero believed that Antony was tarnishing his family's good name for the purposes of self-aggrandizement and in doing so endangering the foundations of the Republic. After Antony's expedition to Gaul, Cicero encouraged the Senate to declare him a traitor and even made an alliance with Caesar's great-nephew and adopted son Octavian to provide him with the necessary authority to take an army after Antony in 43 BC. Brutus and Cassius had summoned 17 legions in the east and the time seemed right for them to press the advantage and take Rome back. Unfortunately for them, Antony and Octavian were reconciled after dislodging Decimus from Mutina and the two had agreed to join their forces to meet the Optimates in Greece at the Battle of Philippi in 42 BC. Brutus and Cassius split their forces and Brutus managed to defeat Octavian, but Antony's men overran Cassius' camp. Apparently believing Brutus had also been defeated, Cassius committed suicide. The next day, the remaining Optimate forces were routed and cut down the middle to prevent reinforcements. Seeing the battle was lost, Brutus followed Cassius in taking his own life.

Octavian

Despite their joint victory, Antony and Octavian were not friends. Cicero's overtures to Octavian went unthanked as the great orator found himself killed on Mark Antony's command in 43 BC, following a series of inflammatory and libellous speeches Cicero delivered against Antony. Antony had married Octavian's sister Octavia as a gesture of amity, but soon abandoned her to take up with Cleopatra in Egypt (with whom he had previously had two illegitimate children), which Caesar's heir took as a personal insult. A new conflict was brewing and new allies would be needed.

Octavian was personally very socially conservative, which endeared him somewhat to the Optimates. He married Livia, who was the daughter of Brutus' ally Marcus Livius Drusus and the ex-wife of Tiberius Claudius Nero, an Optimate politician who had previously made public declarations of support in favor of Caesar's assassination. She was his ex-wife because Octavian demanded he divorce her, which was likely his price for not having him killed; unsurprisingly, he enthusiastically agreed, going so far as to stand in for Drusus in giving away Livia at her wedding to her new husband. Thinking dynastically, Octavian allowed Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus (grandson of the previously mentioned Optimate of the same name) to marry his niece (and Mark Antony's daughter), Antonia. Octavian appealed to the new generation of Optimates by saying that Antony had designs on creating a dynastic monarchy with Cleopatra, having his will read to the Senate in which the Roman world was carved up as personal kingdoms for their children together and Cleopatra's illegitimate son by Caesar named Caesarion. He emphasized that Antony had adopted strange and foreign customs not in accordance with what was expected of a virtuous Roman nobleman. Without much effort, Octavian was able to secure the Senate's support for a war against Egypt.

Octavian soundly defeated Antony and Cleopatra at a naval battle near Actium in Greece in 31 BC. They fled to mainland Egypt where he destroyed their ground forces the following year, after which both of them committed suicide. Upon returning to Rome, Octavian tread very carefully about the Senate, emphasizing his traditional values and his total lack of desire to create a monarchy. In 27 BC, he voluntarily resigned all of his government positions and offered to return exclusively to private life. In response, the Senate granted him the title "Augustus," the name by which he is generally known today, as well as sweeping powers that made him the unchallenged -- but still entirely constitutional -- absolute ruler of the Roman world. What Optimates were left, it seems, had reconciled themselves to the concept of one-man-rule and appreciated Augustus' attempts to wield power through particular offices (he was given the tribunician power, consular imperium, command of the provinces, and the religious authority of the pontifex maximus) rather than as a dictator for life like his adopted father. Of course, Augustus was the first Roman Emperor, and it's ironic that the most fervent opponents of a monarchy in Rome collaborated in creating and prolonging it.

While the prestige and authority of the Senate gradually diminished during the time of the Roman Empire, there was never any real talk after Augustus' ascension of returning to a republican form of government. It was a crime during the era of the Julio-Claudian dynasty to express sympathy with the assassins of Julius Caesar, but the moral and religious concerns of the Optimates were taken up with zeal by Augustus and his successors. They would have to content themselves with victories not political in nature, since those sorts of disputes became increasingly bloody and ruinous. It should have been some consolation to them, I suppose, that the Populares ceased to exist as well, their cause of breaking the Senate's political power finally accomplished at the expense of losing their own. There's probably a lesson in there somewhere about not cutting off your nose to spite your face.

Op`ti*ma"tes (?), n. pl. [L. See Optimate.]

The nobility or aristocracy of ancient Rome, as opposed to the populares.

 

© Webster 1913.

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