Populares ("favoring the people", singular popularis) were aristocratic leaders in the late Roman Republic who relied on the people's assemblies and tribunate to acquire political power. They are regarded in modern scholarship as in opposition to the optimates, who are identified with the conservative interests of a senatorial elite. The populares themselves, however, were also of senatorial rank and might be patricians or noble plebeians.
Populares addressed the problems of the urban plebs, particularly subsidizing a grain dole. They also garnered political support by attempts to expand citizenship to communities outside Rome and Italy.
Popularist politics reached a peak under the dictatorship of Julius Caesar, who had relied on the support of the people in his rise to power. After the creation of the Second Triumvirate (43 BC–33 BC), the populares ceased to function as a political movement.
Besides Caesar, notable populares included the Gracchi brothers, Gaius Marius, Lucius Cornelius Cinna, Publius Clodius Pulcher, and (during the First Triumvirate) Marcus Licinius Crassus and Pompey. Both Pompey and Crassus had, however, fought on the side of Sulla during the civil war, and after the death of Crassus, Pompey eventually reverted to his position as a conservative optimas. These shifting allegiances are reminders that the designation populares refers as much to political tactics as to any perceived policy. Indeed Republican politicians 'had always been more divided on issues of style than of policy'.
A historian of the Late Republic cautions against understanding the terms populares and optimates as formally organized factions with an ideological basis:
|“||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.||”|
This summarizes the dominant interpretation of the populares in 20th-century scholarship, deriving in large part from Ronald Syme in the Anglophone literature. In the early 21st century, and as early as the publication of the ninth volume of The Cambridge Ancient History in 1994, the validity of examining popularist ideology in the context of Roman political philosophy has been reasserted. T.P. Wiseman, in particular, has rehabilitated the use of the word "party" to describe the political opposition between optimates and popularists, based on Latin usage (partes) and pointing to the consistency of a sort of party platform based on the food supply and general welfare of the populus, making land available to those outside the senatorial elite, and debt relief.
- C.B.R. Pelling, "Plutarch and Roman Politics," in Past Perspectives: Studies in Greek and Roman Historical Writing. Papers Presented at a Conference in Leeds, 6–8 April 1983 (Cambridge University Press, 1986), pp. 159–16, 165–169 online: "Plutarch is there [in his Life of Caesar] very concerned to explain Caesar's rise to tyranny … . From the beginning, Caesar is the champion and the favourite of the Roman demos. When they support him, he rises; when he loses their favour, he falls." Cassius Dio (36.43.3) noted that Caesar "courted the good-will of the multitude, observing how much stronger they were than the senate." See especially Fergus Millar, The Crowd in Rome in the Late Republic (University of Michigan Press, 2002), pp. 75–76 online et passim. Caesar's popular support also discussed in Lily Ross Taylor, Party Politics in the Age of Caesar (University of California Press, 1949), p. 93 online et passim; P.A. Brunt, The Fall of the Roman Republic and Related Essays (Oxford University Press, 1988), pp. 1–92, limited preview online; Zvi Yavetz, "The Popularity of Julius Caesar," in Plebs and Princeps (Transaction, 1988), pp. 38–57, especially p. 45 online ("Such was Caesar's policy: consolidation based on a body of supporters as heterogenous in class as possible, among them the plebs urbana); Henrik Mouritsen, Plebs and Politics in the Late Roman Republic (Cambridge University Press, 2001), pp. 1, 9, et passim. On the paradox of "Caesarism" (i.e., the combination of popular support and tyranny), see Peter R. Baehr, Caesar and the Fading of the Roman World: A Study in Republicanism and Caesarism (Transaction Publishers, 1998), limited preview online.
- Boatwright, Gargola, pp 244 pub2004
- Holland, T. (2003) 'Rubicon: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Roman Republic' (London:Abacus) pg194
- Robert Morstein-Marx, Mass Oratory and Political Power in the Late Roman Republic (Cambridge University Press, 2003), pp. 204–205 online.
- Andrew Lintott, "Political History, 146–96 B.C.," in The Cambridge Ancient History (Cambridge University Press, 1994), p. 52 online.
- Though this has been a strand in Wiseman's scholarship over the decades, see particularly the introduction and "Roman History and the Ideological Vacuum," in Remembering the Roman People: Essays on Late-Republican Politics and Literature (Oxford University Press, 2009); p. 14 online for partes and "party." A less truncated version of "Roman History and the Ideological Vacuum" may be found in Classics in Progress (Oxford University Press, 2006), p. 285ff. online.
- Brunt, P.A. "The Roman Mob." Past and Present 35 (1966) 3–27.
- Holland, Tom. (2003) 'Rubicon: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Roman Republic' (London:Abacus)
- Hölkeskamp, Karl-J. "Conquest, Competition and Consensus: Roman Expansion in Italy and the Rise of the nobilitas." Historia 42 (1993) 12–39.
- Millar, Fergus. "Politics, Persuasion and the People before the Social War (150–90 B.C.)." Journal of Roman Studies 76 (1986) 1–11.
- Millar, Fergus. "Political Power in the Mid-Republic: Curia or Comitium?" Journal of Roman Studies 79 (1989) 138–150.
- Millar, Fergus. “Popular Politics at Rome in the Late Republic.” In Leaders and Masses in the Roman World: Studies in Honor of Zvi Yavetz. Edited by I. Malkin and Z.W. Rubinsohn. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1995. Limited preview online.
- Millar, Fergus. The Crowd in Rome in the Late Republic. University of Michigan Press, 2002. Limited preview online.
- Parenti, Michael. "The Assassination of Julius Caesar: A People's History of Ancient Rome". The New Press, 2003. ISBN 1-56584-797-0.
- Seager, Robin. "Cicero and the Word popularis." Classical Quarterly 22 (1972) 328–338.
- Sherwin-White, A.N. "The Lex repetundarum and the Political Ideas of Gaius Gracchus." Journal of Roman Studies 72 (1982) 18–31.
- Taylor, Lily Ross. Party Politics in the Age of Caesar. University of California Press, Berkeley, 1949. Limited preview online.
- Yakobson, Alexander. "Petitio et largitio: Popular Participation in the Centuriate Assembly of the Late Republic." Journal of Roman Studies 82 (1992) 32–52.
- 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.