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p798 Nobiles

Article by George Long, M.A., Fellow of Trinity College
on pp798‑800 of

William Smith, D.C.L., LL.D.:
A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, John Murray, London, 1875.

NO′BILES, NOBI′LITAS. In the early periods of the Roman state the Patricians were the Nobles as opposed to the Plebs. The Patricians possessed the chief political power and the distinction which power gives. Livius, who wrote in the age of Augustus, and is not very careful in the use of terms, often designates the Patricians by the term Nobilis (VI.42); and yet Nobilis, in its proper historic sense, has a different meaning.

In B.C. 366, the plebeians obtained the right of being eligible to the consulship, and finally they obtained access to all the curule magistracies. Thus the two classes were put on the same footing as to political capacity. Those plebeians who had obtained a curule magistracy were thus elevated above their own body, and the personal distinction of a father would confer distinction on his descendants. It is in the nature of aristocratical institutions to perish if they are exclusive; but they perpetuate themselves by giving a plebeian class the power of entering within their narrow limits. Those who are received within the body of nobles are pleased at being separated from their former companions, and are at least as exclusive in their notions as the original members of the class which they have joined.

This was the history of Nobilitas at Rome. The descendants of plebeians who had filled curule magistracies formed a class called Nobiles or men "known," who were so called by way of distinction from "Ignobiles" or people who were not known. The Nobiles had no legal privileges as such; but they were bound together by a common distinction derived from a legal title and by a common interest; and their common interest was to endeavour to confine the election to all the high magistracies to the members of their body, to the Nobilitas. Thus the descendants of those Plebeians who had won their way to distinction combined to exclude other Plebeians from the distinction which their own ancestors had transmitted to them.

The external distinction of the Nobiles was the Jus Imaginum, a right or privilege which was apparently established on usage only, and not on any positive enactments. These Imagines were figures with painted masks of wax, made to resemble the person whom they represented (Plin. H. N. XXXV.2 expressi cera vultus); and they were placed in the Atrium of the house, apparently in small wooden receptacles or cases somewhat in the form of temples (ξύλινα ναιδια, Polybius VI.53). The Imagines were accompanied with the tituli or names of distinction which the deceased had acquired; and the tituli were connected in some way by lines or branches so as to exhibit the pedigree (stemma) of the family (compare the passages quoted in Becker, p222, note 53). These Imagines were generally enclosed in their cases, but they were opened on festival days and other great ceremonials, and crowned with bay (laureatae): they also formed part of a solemn procession. The most complete account of these Imagines is in the passage of Polybius, which has been already referred to; but there is frequent mention of them in the Roman writers.

These were the external marks or signs of a Nobilis Familia; a kind of heraldic distinction in substance. The origin of this use of Imagines from which the notion of a Roman Nobilitas must not be separated, is uncertain. The term Nobilitas, as already observed, is applied by Livius to a p799period of Roman history before the consulship was opened to the Plebeians; and it is possible that the Patricians may have had the use of Imagines, which those Plebeians afterwards adopted, when the curule magistracies were opened to them. The Patricians carried back their pedigrees (stemmata) to the remotest historical period and even beyond it (Tac. Ann. IV.9). It seems probable that the Roman Nobilitas, in the strict sense of that term, and the Jus Imaginum, originated with the admission of the Plebeians to the consulship B.C. 366. The practice of having Imagines, as already observed, may have existed and probably did exist before the notion of the Jus Imaginum was established. Indeed, as the object of the Patricians, who were all of equal rank so far as respected their class, would be to attach to themselves such Plebeians as were elected to Curule magistracies, it seems conformable to the nature of the thing that the family of such plebeians should be allowed or invited to adopt some existing distinction which should separate them from the body to which they properly belonged. Usage would soon give to such a practice the notion of legality; and thus the Jus Imaginum would be established, as many Roman institutions were, by some general conviction of utility or upon some prevailing notion, and it would be perpetuated by custom.

A plebeian who first attained a Curule office was the founder of his family's Nobilitas (princeps nobilitatis; auctor generis). Such a person could have no imagines of his ancestors; and he could have none of his own, for such imagines of a man were not made until after he was dead (Polyb. VI.53). Such a person then was not nobilis in the full sense of the term, nor yet was he ignobilis. He was called by the Romans a "novus homo" or a new man; and his status or condition was called Novitas (Sall. Jug. 85; the speech which is put in the mouth of C. Marius). The term novus homo was never applied to a Patrician. The first novus homo of Rome was the first Plebeian Consul, L. Sextius; and the two most distinguished "novi homines" were C. Marius andº M. Tullius Cicero, both natives of an Italian municipium.

The Patricians would of course be jealous of the new nobility; but this new nobility once formed would easily unite with the old aristocracy of Rome to keep the political power in their hands, and to prevent more novi homines from polluting this exclusive class (Sall. Jug. 63). As early as the second Punic war this new class, compounded of Patricians or original aristocrats, and Nobiles or newly-engrafted aristocrats, was able to exclude novi homines from the consulship (Liv. XXII.34). They maintained this power to the end of the republican period, and the consulship continued almost in the exclusive possession of the Nobilitas. The testimony of Cicero, himself a novus homo, on this point is full and distinct.

The mode in which the Nobilitas continued to keep possession of the great offices in the state, is neither difficult to conjecture, nor to establish by evidence; but the inquiry does not belong to this place.

As to the persons who would be included in the stemma of a noble family, it appears that all the ascendants of a man up to the ancestor who first attained a curule office would be comprehended, and of course all the intermediate ancestors who had attained a like distinction. The kinsfolk on the mother's side were also included, so that a stemma would contain both Agnati and Cognati. Adoption would also increase the number of persons who would be comprised within a stemma; and if Affines were occasionally included, as they appear to have been, the stemma would become an enormous pedigree.

The word Optimates, as explained by Cicero (pro Sest. 45) is opposed to Populares: he describes the Optimates to be all those "qui neque nocentes sunt nec natura improbi nec furiosi nec malis domesticis impediti." This is no political definition: it is nothing more than such a name as Conservative or any other like name. The use of it in Livius (III.39) shows how he understood it; but Livius is blameable for using the term with reference to those early times. Velleius (II.3) describes the Optimates, as the Senatus, the better and larger part of the equestris ordo, and such part of the Plebs as were unaffected by pernicious counsels: all these joined in the attack of Gracchus. This opens our eyes to the real meaning of Optimates: they were the Nobilitas and the chief part of the Equites, a rich middle class, and also all others whose support the Nobilitas and Equites could command, in fact all who were opposed to change that might affect the power of the Nobilitas and the interests of those whom the Nobilitas allied with themselves. Optimates in this sense are opposed to Plebs, to the mass of the people; and Optimates is a wider term than Nobilitas, inasmuch as it would comprehend the Nobilitas and all who adhered to them.

The term Populares is vague. It could be used to signify the opponents of the Nobilitas, whether the motives of these opponents were pure and honest, or whether the motives were self-aggrandizement through popular favour. Of Caesar, who sought to gain the popular favour, it was truly said, that it was not so much what he gave to the people which made him formidable, as what he would expect to get from them in return. A Popularis might be of the class of the Nobilitas, and very often was. He might even be a Patrician like Caesar: his object might be either to humble the nobles, or to promote the interest of the people, or to promote his own; or he might have all the objects, as Caesar had.

The Nobilitas is discussed by Becker, Handbuch der Römischen Alterthümer, II. 1ste Abh.; and there is probably little to add to what he has said, and little to correct in it. There are also some remarks on the Roman Nobiles in Zachariae, Sulla (I.5). He observes of Sulla that though his family was Patrician, he could hardly be considered as belonging to the Nobiles in the strict sense, as the term Nobilitas implied that some one of a man's ancestors had filled a curule magistracy, and it also implied the possession of wealth. But this is a confused view of the matter. Sulla's ancestors had filled curule magistracies; and though his family was poor, it was still Nobilis. A Nobilis, though poor, as Sulla was, was still Nobilis. Want of wealth might deprive a man of influence, but not of the Jus Imaginum. If there was any Patrician whose ancestors had never filled a curule magistracy, he would not be Nobilis in the strict sense. But when the Nobilitas had been formed into a powerful body, which was long before the reforms of the Gracchi, the distinction of p800Patrician was of secondary importance. It would seem unlikely that there was any patrician gens existing in the year B.C. 133, or, indeed, long before that time, the families of which had not enjoyed the highest honours of the state many times. The exceptions, if any, would be few.

In reading the Greek writers on Roman history, it is useful to attend to the meaning of the political terms which they use. The δυνατοί of Plutarch (Tib. Gracch. 1320), and the πλούσιοι, are the Nobilitas and their partisans; or as Cicero, after he was made consul, would call them the Optimates. In such passages as Dion Cassius (XXXVIII.2), the meaning of δυνατοί may be collected from the context.


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