The optimates ("Best Men," singular optimas; also known as boni, "Good Men") were the traditionalist majority of the late Roman Republic. They wished to limit the power of the popular assemblies and the Tribunes of the Plebs, and to extend the power of the Senate, which was viewed as more dedicated to the interests of the aristocrats who held the reins of power. In particular, they were concerned with the rise of individual generals who, backed by the tribunate, the assemblies and their own soldiers, could shift power from the Senate and aristocracy. They were opposed by the populares.
Many members of this faction were so classified because they used the backing of the aristocracy and the senate to achieve personal goals, not necessarily because they favored the aristocracy over the lower classes. Similarly, the populares did not necessarily champion the lower classes, but often used their support to achieve personal goals.
The optimates favored the nobiles and opposed the ascension of novi homines into Roman politics. Cicero, a strong supporter of the optimates' cause, was himself a novus homo, being the first in his family to enter the Senate, and was never fully accepted by the optimates. During the civil war of 49 BC, Julius Caesar, of a respectable old family, contended against a Senate championed by Pompey the Great.
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 the Great, 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, too poor to provide their own arms and supplies in the legions, and the generals' attempts to settle these veterans on state-owned land.
The optimates' cause reached its peak under the dictatorship of Lucius Cornelius Sulla. During his reign, the Assemblies were stripped of nearly all power, the Senate membership was raised from 300 to 600, an equally large number of populares were executed via proscription lists and thousands of soldiers were settled in northern Italy. However, after Sulla's resignation and subsequent death, many of their policies were gradually reversed.
Besides Sulla, notable optimates included Lucullus, Cato, Milo, Bibulus and Brutus. Though they had opposed him for the entirety of his political career, Pompey the Great also found himself as the leader of the optimates' faction, once their civil war with Julius Caesar began. Optimates, along with disillusioned populares, who had carried out Caesar's assassination called themselves Liberatores.
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. But what precisely is denoted and connoted by this polarity? Clear enough, one who is designated in these sources as popularis was at least at that moment acting as 'the People's man,' that is a politician — for all practical purposes, a senator — advocating the rights and privileges of the People, implicitly in contrast to the leadership of the Senate; an 'optimate' (optimas), by contrast, was one upholding the special custodial and leadership role of the Senate, implicitly against the efforts of some popularis or other. The polarity obviously corresponds with the dual sources of institutional power in the Republic — Senate and People — and was realized in practice through contrasting political methods … and distinctive types of rhetorico-ideological appeals suited to tapping those alternative sources of power … . 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.||”|
- Everitt, Anthony (2001). Cicero. Random House.
- Robert Morstein-Marx, Mass Oratory and Political Power in the Late Roman Republic (Cambridge University Press, 2003), pp. 204–205 online.
||This article relies largely or entirely upon a single source. (August 2008)|
- Parenti, Michael. "The Assassination of Julius Caesar: A People's History of Ancient Rome." The New Press, 2003. ISBN 1-56584-797-0.
- 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: 76 minute talk in 1 part, and in 8 parts.