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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
    Commented 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
    Commented May 26, 2017 at 19:48
  • This makes one define what a party is. If by party we mean an interest group - such exist everytime and everywhere - in kingdoms, dictatorships, one-party states, at workplace, within a family. If we use party in a narrower sense, as a formal group, united by subscribing to common ideology, with codified rules and internal hierarchy, participating as a whole in a type of political process that gives special place to such groupings - then the difference is obvious. A related modern question: what's the difference between a party and a popular movement?
    – Roger V.
    Commented Jun 15 at 5:07

2 Answers 2

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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.

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  • 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. Commented 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. Commented 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. Commented May 27, 2017 at 16:59
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Understanding republican factionalism requires a bit of historiography. Interpretations of republican faction are driven largely by how revealing these historiographical frameworks are, not the other way around. At the end, I'll conclude. Some metaphorical sacred cows may not survive.

I'll present the main historiographical positions chronologically and explain the main arguments:

Theodor Mommsen suggested in the 19th century that optimates and populares refer to separate political factions, mainly basing his reading on Cicero Pro Sestio. He suggested (in a supremely anachronistic manner) that these labels described essentially "aristocratic" and "democratic" political parties at Rome that were like the "conservative" and "liberal" parliamentary parties of his day. (He wrote shortly after the failure of the 1848 revolutions.) This view was highly influential and has remained influential in the popular imagination since. If only because people today largely live in two-party systems and do not easily conceive of alternatives. It is also very easy to believe in two big factions when you do not know the details that make those factions dissolve.

Matthias Gelzer suggested circa 1910 that republican politics should be understood not in terms of political parties but rather in terms of a "frozen waste", to borrow from John North Classical Philology 85 (1990) pp 277–287, between aristocratic clans that controlled "popular" expression via their client networks.

Gelzer's vision by the mid-20th century had won out. The criticism of Mommsen's political parties is most obvious in the case of someone like Publius Clodius Pulcher's career. Even from the start of what we know with the Bona Dea affair, Clodius is relying on his alliances from across the aristocracy. His tribunate in 58 follows him "switching sides" to Caesar – he spent most of late 59 criticising Caesar and Pompey – involves huge handouts for the plebeian commoda paired with attacks on Caesar's enemies ... before by the end of the year shutting Pompey into his house and challenging the validity of Caesar's legislation. Older scholarship, which depended on party factions to make sense of this, naturally called Clodius basically insane. Views from after the 1950s, however, instead see Clodius as a very sane strategist looking out for himself with a close eye for public opinion. See generally Tatum Patrician tribune (1999), especially the introduction.

It is also evident when examining how people sided in the (very political) court cases of the era. The support for Marcus Aemilius Scaurus during his trial in 56 was astonishing. A friend of Caesar and Pompey, nine former consuls came to testify to his character while he was defended by Clodius, Cicero, Horstensius, and Marcellus. Understanding these political cleavages – look in Alexander Trials (1990) for more, this is no one-off, – in a party-political framework requires positing an implausible series of defections or rejecting party politics instead. Scholars by mid-century had largely done the latter. Eg Gruen Last generation of the Roman republic (1st edn 1974, pbk edn 1995).

So by the 1960s we come to the standard view of populares and optimates that is found in Christian Meier's very influential position that popularis is a style or method: a politician is popularis when he starts making speeches to drum up mass urban support instead of doing it in the senate. What the thing he is drumming up support for is... doesn't really matter. What matters is that he's (usually already) lost in the senate and therefore is going to the people to get what he wants. Optimas, by contrast, is doing politics by deals in the senate. (Eg Clodius' deal with Cicero to get an embassy to Byzantium circa 55.)

What is for us the "old orthodoxy" had by the 1980s come under challenge. The "old orthodoxy" paired well with an oligarchic view of politics where the democratic aspect (per Polybius) was mostly seen as a facade. Fergus Millar in a lot of insightful work brought out a "Roman democracy" thesis which emphasised the power of the plebs in deciding policy. His views are best summed in Millar Crowd in Rome (1998). Such a view, to be compatible with the comitia's lack of initiative – in the republic, laws to redistribute land do not get passed unless a magistrate proposes it, so you need a magistrate – needs popular champions like Clodius. And for the people to have a meaningful voice they need to be organised; what that implies is something like a party. But scholars by this point had rejected the idea of parties with a kind of central control and accepted populares as a political style. So populares becomes at this point an ideology: one of state legitimacy by popular sovereignty and support for more redistributionist policies.

Whether or not Millar's vision is dead is debated; that debate will not end. But there are two main challenges. (I find them rather convincing.) Mouritsen Plebs and politics (2001) showed that popular participation in the comitia was low and could not have been high simply from the size of the meeting places; more damningly he showed that the Romans not only did not make any meaningful efforts to increase turnout but basically did not care about turnout at all. Cornell "Roman political assemblies" in Companion to the political culture of the Roman republic (2022) p 229 citing Martin Jehne: "these facts [the lack of lack of concern about numbers or representativeness] ... seem to me to provide the death blow to [Millar's] Roman democracy". Morstein-Marx Mass oratory (2004) showed that the ideological differences previously believed were more elements of venue (forum vs senate) than strongly held. This "ideological monotony" meant that all politicians had to say publicly they cared about the welfare of the people etc etc. Interest in how Romans ran political campaigns also made it clear that handing out food, tickets, and other kinds of benefits – that moderns associate with state programmes – was commonplace and even touched voters in the lower census classes (poorer people).

Margaret Robb's Beyond populares and optimates (2010) has driven a nail into the philology of populares and optimates, showing that Romans would not have recognised a real difference between people described by both labels. Her work substantially challenged the Mommsenian view that Pro Sestio offered a key (of sorts) to split politicians into two sorts. When Cicero in a highly-charged trial says that everyone, down to the freedmen, are optimates because they oppose Clodius who is not popularis but rather a bad popularis, these terms stop describing factions too.


Where does that leave us?

We have factions that are amorphous, which are nowhere described by contemporaries as factions without any clearly identifiable members (Robb 2010). The supposed factions substantially the same kind of rhetoric and espouse substantially identical ideologies in the forum and in the senate (Morstein-Marx 2004), appealing alternatively to the people or the senate when they lose in the other place (Meier 1966). The people whom politicians need to win over are not organised and the sheer numbers of the poor matter little; what the people get from their leaders is largely the same stuff (Mouritsen 2001; see also Mouritsen Politics in the Roman republic [2017] pp 113f on Cato's tribunate).

The optimates are creatures of the senate... a body in which every single active politician is a member (Gruen 1995 p 50; Mouritsen 2017). Ordinary voters would not have been able to distinguish a popularis from a optimate anyway (Robb 2010), though they definitely play a role and are important in the political system (Millar 1998 and many others). And when politicians are called to political trials they seem to "switch sides" constantly (Gruen 1995).

What kind of party is consistent with this set of requirements? A party with no permanent members, no discernible ideology, and no consequences for defection. If it opposes the senate it is inherently at odds with itself. This is definitely not a modern political party. Many people – myself included – would call this not a party at all. Instead, there is a sort of gegenstandsabhängigkeit (a real world used in Tatum 1999 p 5), a "tendency to converge into ad hoc confirmations", that makes republican politics fluid, dynamic, and fickle. To reduce it to popular and senatorial factions would, per Gruen (1995) p 50, "obscure rather than enlighten".

These "parties" do not exist.

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  • I see a very good answer here, but it's obscured by the presentation. (Unfortunately, I can't point to what I'm finding confusing about it!) You seem to suggest that the O&P labels largely came from Cicero -- am I reading that right? If so, did earlier politicians have different labels, and if so what? I do think that your point that we spend too much time looking at Rome through 19th and 20th century eyes is spot-on.
    – Mark Olson
    Commented Jun 15 at 11:28
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    I hardly care whether this does or does not precisely answer the question: it is one of the most informative and illuminating "answers" I've read on this site. Thank you. :) Commented Jun 15 at 21:15
  • @MarkOlson The labels do not describe parties. That's clear at the end: "These 'parties' do not exist" and the paragraphs immediately before that. The idea of populares and optimates as political parties is a 19th century historiographical fiction. What the labels actually refer to is a method of politics: "Am I doing politics mainly through the senate or through the assemblies?" Each has characteristic themes and rhetorical styles that all politicians used: the fiction was turning those themes and styles into "political parties" and "ideologies".
    – ifly6
    Commented Jun 16 at 14:51
  • I used to manage some tech writers, and they sometimes told me that whet they wrote was perfectly clear and that our users were failing to understand it.
    – Mark Olson
    Commented Jun 16 at 15:17
  • I'm not sure what's unclear. It's certainly very long for an answer: the structure of the answer requires establishing the characteristics that have led to the modern consensus that parties did not exist. Is your disagreement that parties existed?
    – ifly6
    Commented Jun 17 at 2:40

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