Optimates vs Populares in Julius Caesar's time


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The Roman Republic saw numerous conflict of the orders between patricians (aristocrats) and plebeians (commoners), which was settled by the creation of the office of Tribune of the plebs, an elected magistrate who had the power to veto the actions of the consuls and other magistrates in order to protect the interests of the plebeians as a class. During the Late Republic, political interests became split between the conservative Optimates, who favoured the authority of the Senate and the wealthy (including most patricians) and the Populares, who who favoured the cause of the common people (most plebeians).

The two great civil wars of the 1st century BCE were a struggle between Optimates and Populares. The first was the conflict between Gaius Marius (of the Populares) and Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felix (of the Optimates). This was rather straightforward as Marius was a plebeian and a "new man" from outside of Rome (Arpinium in southern Latium), while Sulla belonged to the most illustrious and powerful of all patrician houses, the Cornelii. There were exceptions like Lucius Cornelius Cinna, who was a patrician but supported the Populares. But overall most patricians were Optimates and most plebeian politicians Populares.

What is really interesting is what came during the second civil war opposing Julius Caesar (a patrician) of the Populares to Pompey Magnus (a plebeian) of the Optimates. During those fateful few years of the 40's BCE, we witness a near reversal of the political support among patricians and plebeians. Many of the leading Populares, or pro-Caesareans, were in fact patricians, while the most famous Optimates, or anti-Caesareans, were of plebeian origin. Let me illustrate.

Leading Populares allied to Julius Caesar

  • Marcus Antonius - patrician
  • Quintus Fabius Maximus - patrician
  • Publius Cornelius Sulla - patrician
  • Publius Cornelius Dolabella - patrician
  • Marcus Aemilius Lepidus - patrician
  • Publius Servilius Isauricus - patrician
  • Sextus Julius Caesar - patrician (great nephew of Julius Caesar)
  • Lucius Pinarius - patrician (great nephew of Julius Caesar)
  • Quintus Pedius - plebeian (great nephew of Julius Caesar)
  • Gnaeus Domitius Calvinus - plebeian

Leading Optimates allied to Pompey the Great

  • Marcus Porcius Cato - plebeian
  • Marcus Tullius Cicero - plebeian
  • Quintus Caecilius Metellus Pius Scipio - born patrician but adopted into the plebeian Caecilii Metelli family.
  • Titus Labienus - plebeian
  • Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus - plebeian
  • Gnaeus & Sextus Pompey - plebeian
  • Marcus Calpurnius Bibulus - plebeian
  • Marcus Petreius - plebeian
  • Lucius Afranius - plebeian
  • Gaius Cassius Longinus - plebeian
  • Gaius Claudius Marcellus - plebeian (the Marcelli were a plebeian branch of the Claudii)
  • Publius Attius Varus - plebeian
  • Marcus Caelius Rufus - plebeian
  • Quintus Caecilius Bassus - plebeian

Changing affiliation

  • Marcus Junius Brutus - patrician (originally for Caesar and against Pompey, but changed side)
  • Decimus Junius Brutus Albinus - patrician (pro-Caesarean from 56 to 45 BCE, but betrayed Caesar in 44 BCE)
  • Gaius Trebonius - plebeian ("new man" who had followed Caesar since Gaul, but eventually betrayed him in 44 BCE)

It's ironic that two of Caesar's most famous assassins were both Junii Bruti, both former allies, and also the only notable anti-Caesareans of patrician rank. I suppose that he had to do with the fact that their ancestor Lucius Junius Brutus was the founder of the Roman Republic and that the anti-Caesareans' main fear was that Julius Caesar was going to abolish the Republic to become king or emperor. Their family name surely played a role in their decision to assassinate the dictator, despite being former friends.

But the most ironic was that the Optimates were led by plebeians. Many of them came from wealthy and influential plebeian families like the gens Caecilia, Calpurnia, Cassia, Domitia or Porcia, but plebeian nonetheless. It would seem to me that they were eager to prove their status of "new rich" by siding with the Optimates, while patricians were more likely to feel like they had nothing to prove and didn't mind being called Populares if that suited their political agenda.
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Thank you Maciamo for bringing the topic.
Most have heard of it but it's always interesting to revisit and getting a new insight.

It's still intriguing to me that they were fighting constantly, and at the same time, they were building such a massive empire. And it's neither the first, nor the last time this happens.

And also this civil war is strange because first you see them fighting optimates in one side, and populares on the other.
But the ones that came from a plebeian background and now were rich, defended wealth and authoritarianism.
And those who were well off were promoting social causes.

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