I've read that in the 1st century BCE, Rome came to be dominated by a dispute between two political factions: the Optimates, representing the traditionalist patrician families, who wanted to lock down aristocratic privileges, and the Populares, the plebeians and urban poor, who wanted to advance land reform and redistribution.

But I keep coming across this almost obligatory warning, though for the life of me I can't remember a source to quote it from. It goes something like this: The Optimates and the Populares are not like modern political parties, meaning both that they are not conservatives and progressives, but also that their outlook and organization is just fundamentally different.

That sounds credible, but though I can hazard some guesses as to what historians mean when they say that, I've yet to see these distinctions elaborated on. So my question is, in what specific ways were Roman political factions most strikingly different from the party politics of our own time?

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    Ummm.... in everything? To begin with, they were not even "political parties" in the sense of an stablished organization but collections of personalities, interest, patronage relationships, etc...
    – SJuan76
    May 26, 2017 at 19:36
  • @SJuan76: Yes, but arguably what you just described sounds a great deal like the structures found in modern parties, just with less formalizing bureaucracy. "Less bureaucratic" is a great start, but (respectfully) it's also vague, and easily guessed. The question is intended to help me get a tighter handle on the structure of Roman political factions, and on the individual experience of factional identity and loyalty, just using the present day as a comparative -- and I don't think there's neccesarrily anything naive about that approach.
    – Random
    May 26, 2017 at 19:48

1 Answer 1


In addition to the "patrician" Optimates and "plebeian" Populares, there was also a third group - the Equites - which today we might think of as a kind of 'upper middle class'. To complicate matters still further, by no means all members of the Patrician class were associated with the Optimates faction. Perhaps the best-known example is Julius Caesar, who belonged to the Patrician class, but was politically aligned with the Populares (although quite how far he shared the Populares agenda remains a matter for debate).

You are absolutely right that the three groupings were not remotely like political parties in the modern sense. In modern political parties, people tend to give their loyalty to the party and follow a party line. The groupings in ancient Rome were rather shifting groups of alliances between smaller sub-groups of wealthy and powerful people.

Political support in Rome was primarily mobilised by patronage or clientela - the relationship between wealthy, influential patrons and their poorer but free dependants. The concept is complex to modern eyes (and I suspect it was not much less complex to ancient Roman eyes). It had some elements that we might think of as the more modern notion of noblesse-oblige. Other aspects we might associate with the techniques employed by modern drug lords or Mafia kingpins. These could involve acts of charity and patronage or through the use of enforcers with clubs and brass knuckles. If a patron changed sides, he would expect his clientele to come with him.

The shifting allegiances could give rise to some very strange outcomes (at least to modern eyes). Consider the election of Crassus and Pompey as co-consuls in 70BC (they hated each other) or, even more bizarre to modern eyes, the election of Caesar and Bibulus in 62BC!

It may be easier to understand the way that the system worked if you remember that most votes were controlled by this network of patronage. Individual patrons were often themselves caught up in the network of patronage of more important figures. It would not be at all unusual for someone to repay a favour to one patron by calling their clients to support a particular candidate (say from the Optimates) for election as a Praetor, while simultaneously also agreeing with another patron to support a candidate from the rival camp (in this example, the Populares) for election as an Aedile at the same time.

  • This is the best answer by far, so far. However I must point out that not all those who can be considered populares were plebeian. Caesar is a prime example of this. If you can edit your post and make this distinction then you have my vote. May 27, 2017 at 9:57
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    @DM.J.Morgan That is a very good point. I've expanded the first paragraph to include it. May 27, 2017 at 16:09
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    Excellent. It's also worth noting that plebeians could also be aligned with the optimates, as Pompey and Cicero show us. The former aligning himself with the optimates after his wife Julia died and subsequently his alliance with Caesar. May 27, 2017 at 16:59

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