Optimates and Populares: The Elite Struggle for the Control of Rome

Although the names might sound like they’re coming from a Transformers movie, Optimates and Populares are not from the future. Instead, they are two groups whose roots go way back in our collective human history, to the days before the Roman empire. 

Both groups came from the upper classes of Roman society, but they each had a very different view on how Rome should be governed. 

Over time, these differences of opinion escalated…a lot. Civil wars, secret alliances, and the eventual destruction of the Roman republic are all events that can be traced back to the differences between Optimates and Populares. 

The Structure of the Roman Senate

To understand how these two groups differed, and how their differences pushed along the fall of Rome’s republic, it’s important to understand the Roman senate and how it worked. 

Made up of a group of appointed officials, the Senate was in charge of Roman foreign policy, meaning the army and wars it would fight. In addition, the Senate would also elect the consuls, who were the leaders of Rome for a year and who acted more or less like the presidents. 

In the early stages of Roman society, the Senate delegated some of its power and responsibility to smaller groups, mainly assemblies and magistrates. But over time, these groups gained more powers, and new ones were added to bring in more voices to the government. 

In fact, in some cases, through the use of special government officials known as Tribunes, these lower assemblies could veto decisions made by the Senate and the consuls. 

All of this meant that the power of the Senate shrank while Rome grew. As it expanded its reach further and further beyond its borders, it expanded its government. This helped make Rome more democratic, but it also made it easier for powerful individuals to use the Roman state to pursue their own personal ambitions.

Rome’s Elite Splits in Two

As Rome grew and its state became larger and more powerful, Roman senators began to divide into two groups, which the famous Senator Cicero named Optimates and Populares. 

Their differing perspectives on the role of the Roman government and how to conduct the state produced a great number of conflicts throughout the period of the Roman Republic and eventually contributed to its evolution into empire. 

Optimates

The word “optimates” quite literally means “best men,” and this translation pretty accurately describes the policy intentions of this group of Roman senators. 

They saw helping the “best” of Roman society succeed as the primary goal of the Roman Senate. And so they were reluctant to give power to the masses, or to include the masses, aka the plebeians, in their plans for the development of the state. They would frequently work together to block laws and policies coming from other senators. 

They claimed to be defending Rome’s original constitution and preventing the Roman state from falling into the wrong hands. This “constitution,” however, was not a written document but rather a collection of customs open for interpretation. So what exactly were they defending? Well, we don’t know. But it was something., 

This resistance to expanding political rights in the name of preserving the republic helped the Optimates become known as  the conservatives of the Roman republic. 

Populares

The other group of senators was the “populares.” Still members of the upper class, these individuals would try to get around the power of the senate by appealing to the lower classes. 

As the Roman republic grew, the lower classes that had previously been excluded from government started to gain more of a voice. Many politicians figured out that if they gained the support of the Roman people, they could accomplish quite a bit. So, either motivated by a genuine interest in helping their fellow Romans, or a desire to gain more personal power, the populares were frequently butting heads with the Optimates. 

In some ways, the Optimates had it right. By drawing on support from the masses, sometimes through success on the battlefield or business, individuals could exert considerable influence on the Roman state, and in the process threaten its underlying democratic structure.

Optimates and Populares Determine the Future of the Republic

The Optimates and Populares had been battling ever since the early days of the republic. But their fight came to a head in the final century BC when a group of very powerful men, split along party lines, competed for control of Rome. 

The result of this battle royale was the eventual abolition of the Roman republic. 

Cato and Cicero versus The First Triumvirate

This ultimate showdown between the Optimates and Populares came as two Senators, Cicero and Cato the Younger, both Optimates, tried to challenge the political power of three other powerful Roman statesmen, Populares Gaius Julius Caesar (Caesar), Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (Pompey) and Marcus Licinius Crassus (Crassus), 

Together, these three men had formed a secret alliance that was designed to help each one of them accomplish their political aspirations. As a team, they became quite powerful, and eventually a civil war broke out among them, with Caesar emerging as the victor and the sole leader over Rome. 

The Optimates Try to “Save” Rome

In the end, as mentioned, the Optimates kind of had it right. Their fear that the masses could be used to help individuals take power came true, and the Roman republic crumbled once Julius Caesar was named dictator perpetuo, or dictator for life. 

That this happened in Rome is interesting because the Roman republic was designed specifically to prevent this from happening. The many different groups and positions within the government were meant to be checks on the power of individual offices. But, in the end, the populares found a way to the top, providing a lesson for modern governments and societies that think their states cannot be corrupted by powerful people.

However, with Caesar’s popularity in Rome and support from the right people in the Roman government, his position was essentially secure. But some Optimates chose not to see this, and they made one last-ditch effort to, as they saw it, “save” Rome. 

Their plan? To assassinate Caesar. Right in the middle of the senate chamber. 

This failed miserably, as the people all but revolted against what they saw to be an attempt to seize power from the “rightful” ruler of Rome. Civil war followed, and when the battlefields emptied, the Roman republic was a mere shadow of its former self.  In fact, it existed in name only. From that moment on, Rome had become an empire.

Reducing the Power of the Senate

The story of the Optimates versus the Populares is really one of the slowly shrinking power of the Roman senate. Dating back to the founding of Rome, the senate ran the show for nearly six centuries. 

Over time, its grip on power loosened, as the Roman people became more and more of an influence in Roman politics. 

This decline in the power of the senate, driven by the many debates and clashes of the Optimates and Populares, gave rise to the power of Roman dictators. The rise of these dictators, which is a period we know as the Roman empire, transformed Europe, North Africa, and western Asia, but it came at the cost of Rome’s original democratic institution: the republic. 

Written by Matthew Jones