Classics Optimates/Populares
Cristina Rosillo-López
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 August 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0323


Populares and optimates are two political denominations, especially used in ancient Roman politics during the 1st century BCE during the Late Roman Republic (although the sources apply them sometimes to the 2nd century BCE). The basis of such differentiation is Marcus Tullius Cicero (106–43 BCE), Pro Sestio 96, which defined populares and optimates as two distinct political categories. Popularis (adjective, singular of the plural populares in Latin) is an ambiguous term: it could connote “pleasing to the people” or “in the interest of the people”; the term to define the opposite of the senatorial majority, a combination of a certain political strategy and a certain type of political eloquence (eloquentia popularis) or, finally, a certain political tradition. Many politicians termed populares were tribunes of the plebs and some of them died or were murdered in violent confrontations with the Senate. The term optimates, or boni (a similar term, not exactly a synonym), rarely occur in the sources. People ascribed to this group in modern scholarship are those who believed in senatorial authority and/or those supporting the interests of the wealthy. However, identification can be also problematic. Some of the main sources are Cicero, Pro Sestio 96 (takes a negative view; main locus of the confrontation optimates-populares); Sallust, Bellum Catilinae 20; Bellum Iugurthinum 31 (Memmius’s speech) and 85 (Marius’s speech); Historiae 1.55 (Lepidus’s speech) and 3.48 (Macer’s speech). Sallust’s Epistulae ad Caesarem have been considered to be both fake and authentic (latest edition Antonio Duplá, Guillermo Fatás, and Francisco Pina Polo, Rem publicam restituere: una propuesta popularis para la crisis republicana: las Epistulae ad Caesarem de Salustio [Zaragoza, Spain: Departamento de ciencias de la antigüedad Universidad de Zaragoza, 1994] considers them authentic). Best introductions in English: Zvi Yavetz, Plebs and princeps (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1988); Nicola Mackie, Popularis ideology and popular politics at Rome in the first century B. C. Rheinisches Museum für Philologie 135 (1992): 49–73; Margaret Robb, Beyond « populares » and « optimates »: political language in the late Republic (Stuttgart: Steiner, 2010); Antonio Duplá, “Consules populares,” in Consuls and res publica: holding high office in the Roman Republic, edited by Hans Beck, Antonio Duplá, Martin Jehne and Francisco Pina Polo (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011), pp. 279–298; Claudia Tiersch, “Political Communication in the Late Roman Republic: Semantic Battles between Optimates and Populares?” in Institutions and Ideology in Republican Rome. Speech, Audience and Decision, edited by H. van der Blom, C. Gray and C. Steel (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2018), pp. 35–68.

Reference Works

This section covers the classic and modern treatment of this subject in encyclopedias. Strasburger 1939 and Meier 1965 are two authoritative articles for the Realencyclopädie der Classischen Altertumswissenschaft Pauly-Wissowa. Robb 2012 and Yakobson 2016 are the most contemporary encyclopedic accounts, both of them concise and providing basic bibliography.

  • Meier, Christian. 1965. Populares. In RE (Realencyclopädie der Classischen Altertumswissenschaft Pauly-Wissowa). Suppl. 10:549–615.

    Meier defined populares as those politicians who preferred to use the assemblies rather than the Senate and whose only thing in common was opposition to the Senate. In his opinion, populares were identified by their political method rather than by a political agenda. Not all of them were reformers; he conceived their reforms as modest and in line with the oligarchic system. Meier compiled a list of seventy-two men who, in his view, displayed dissenting behavior.

  • Robb, Margaret. 2012. Optimates, populares. In The encyclopedia of ancient history. Wiley Online Library.

    A good modern introduction to the topic, including a concise historiographical review. A good starting point for any research.

  • Strasburger, Hermann. 1939. Optimates. In RE (Realencyclopädie der Classischen Altertumswissenschaft Pauly-Wissowa) 18.1: cols 773–798.

    Strasburger rejected the use of optimates and populares as political parties. For him, populares were individuals who had specific goals and tactics in common, but they were not an identifiable group. Hence, in opposition, the optimates were only people with common interests but no political group either.

  • Yakobson, Alexander. 2016. Optimates, populares. In Oxford Research Encyclopedia in Classics. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    The most up-to-date and concise discussion about the subject. The secondary starting point for research on this theme.

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