Fall of the Roman Republic 78-31 BC



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Role of optimates, populares

Past HSC question: 2005
Assess the role of the Optimates and Populares during this period.


The following is from HTA Ancient History Study Guide:
  • On the last century of the Republic, which was marked by almost continual warfare and civil strife, there emerged two opposing political factions, the Optimates and the Populares. These names did not relate to separate political parties, but to the different ways individuals accessed political power.
  • The Optimates, ('best men') were the conservative aristocratic group, connected by kinship and mutual interest. The controlled the political scene at Rome through their dominance of the Senate, the senior magistracies and military and provincial appointments. They were determined to protect their privileged position and tried to limit the power of the tribunes, the people's assemblies, the equestrian class and especially the popular military commanders who emerged in this period.
  • The Populares, also from noble backgrounds, were individuals determined to break the power of the Optimates.Motivated by personal ambition or the desire for genuine reform, they appealed to popular opinion and urged the people to assert themselves against the Optimates. The Populares operated politically through the people's tribunes and the citizen assemblies and drew their support from the plebeians and equestrians.
  • Much of the political conflict of the lat Republic can be viewed as a struggle between Optimates, powerful men who sought their support from conservatives within the nobility, and Populares, who sought their support from the wider body of citizens.

The following is from Macquarie Revision Guides - HSC Ancient History:
  • The Optimates were the conservative group in the Senate. It was the Optimates' spokesman Cato the Younger who blocked Pompey's attempts to get his Eastern Settlement ratified and Crassus' rebate for tax farmers. He also opposed Caesar's election to the consulship. The Optimates drove these men into forming the First Triumvirate. Later the Optimates convinced Pompey to side with them, forcing Caesar into civil war.
  • A Populares was a politician or political faction that relied on the support of the people. Populares were opposed to the Optimates and used the assemblies to achieve political powers. Caesar was a populares and Pompey sided with the populares to gain power and to allow his extraordinary commands (lex Gabinia and Manilia).

The following is from Gooley's Guide to Getting Good Grades, Peakhurst, 2009:
If you are faced with an exam question such as the one above (HSC 2005), you will need to go beyond what is offered to you in the revision guides. This dot-point overlaps with many of the others, so you can use information from other areas. Discuss the following:
  • The aims of the Optimates and Populares throughout this period
  • The methods used to achieve these aims (this will relate to specific examples below)
  • The Sullan legacy and the way it was overturned within ten years
  • Pompey's use of tribunes to gain extraordinary commands
  • The factors which brought the First Triumvirate together
  • Caesar's use of tribunes during his consulship
  • Bibulus' methods to attempt to thwart Caesar during their consulship
  • Pompey's relationship with the Optimates in the 50s
  • Tactics of the Optimates and the triumvirs during the 50s
  • The role of the Optimates in opposing Caesar and causing the Civil War
  • The fate of the Optimates at Pharsalus
In all of this you will be showing the attempts of the Optimates to maintain their privileged position and the attempts of the dynasts to assert individual power through the use of the people (tribunes, assemblies). You will argue that the republican institutions were weakened by those who most sought to save them leading ultimately to the rule of a strong individual.

from Modern Sources:

"He had never believed in the ideologies of the optimates and populares which he had encountered on his entry into political life. A born enemy of the optimates, he regarded demagogy as no more than the means to an end. On his way to power he did not meet men who could impress him. He only saw selfishness and envy, and eventually emerged from a life of continuous and bitter conflict as a cynic who assessed all relationships only according to their political value and, judging the others by himself, could not believe that their res publica could still be to them something other than ‘a mere name without body and form’."
Gelzer, Caesar: Politician and Statesman, p.333

"The policy arose from the brain and will of Marcus Cato. His allies, eager to enlist a man of principle on their side, celebrated as integrity what was often conceit or stupidity and mistook craft for sagacity. They might have known better - Cato's stubborn refusal to agree to the land bill for Pompeius' veterans only led to worse evils and a subverting of the constitution. After long strife against the domination of Pompeius, Cato resolved to support a dictatorship, though anxiously shunning the name. Cato's confidence in his own rectitude and insight derived secret strength from the antipathy which he felt for the person and character of Caesar.
The influence and example of Cato spurred on the nobiles and accelerated war. Helped by the power, the prestige, and the illicit armies of Pompeius Magnus... a faction of the Senate worked the constitution against Caesar. The proconsul refused to yield."
Ronald Syme, The Roman Revolution, p.46