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NO´BILES, NOBI´LITAS. In the earliest period of Roman history. the Patricians or Patres, who belonged to the older organisation of the populus in curiae, gentes, and familiae, were the nobles as opposed to the Plebs: they practically monopolised political power and the distinction which such power brings. Livy, 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 (6.42); 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 were admitted 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 aristocratic institutions to perish if they are exclusive: but they perpetuate themselves by giving a plebeian class, the power of acquiring a share in the lustre they bestow. 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 sharp distinction between plebeians and the old patricians became blurred no less by their political equalisation than by the greater frequency of marriages between them after the enactment of the Lex Canuleia; but the descendants of plebeians who had filled curule magistracies formed a class called Nobiles or men “known,” in contrast with 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 own 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 apparently was established on usage only, and not on any positive enactment. These Imagines were figures with painted masks of wax, made to resemble the person whom they represented (Pliny, Plin. Nat. 35.2, “expressi ceravultus” ); and they were placed in the atrium of the house, apparently in small wooden receptacles or cases somewhat in the form of temples (ξύλινα ναΐδια, Plb. 6.53). 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: cf. the passages quoted in Becker, Handbuch der römischen Alterthümer, ii. p. 222, note 53. These Imagines were generally enclosed in their cases, but were brought out on festival days and other great ceremonials, and crowned with bay (laureatae): they also formed part of a solemn funeral procession. The most complete account of them. is in the passage of Polybius 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 Roman Nobilitas must not be separated, is uncertain. The term Nobilitas, as already observed, is applied by Livy to a period of Roman history before the consulship was opened to the plebeians; and it is not improbable that the patricians had the use of Imagines, which those plebeians afterwards adopted, when the curule magistracies were made accessible to them. The patricians carried back their pedigrees (stemmata) to the remotest historical period, and even beyond it (Tac. Ann. 4.9); and the practice of having Imagines, clearly connected with the ancestor worship of primitive races which Sir Henry Maine has so fully discussed in his Early Law [p. 2.232]and Custom, probably existed before the notion of the Jus Imaginum was established, though it is equally likely that that notion, as well as the technical conception of Roman Nobilitas, originated in the admission of the plebeians to the consulship. Indeed, as the object of the patricians, who were all of equal rank so far as their class was concerned, 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 till after he was dead (Polyb. l.c.). 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 condition was known as Novitas: see the speech which is put in the mouth of C. Marius in Sallust, Sal. Jug. 85. 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 and M. Tullius Cicero, both natives of an Italian municipium.

The patricians would of course be jealous of the new nobility, which however, when once formed, would easily unite with the old aristocracy to monopolise political power, and to prevent more novi homines from polluting this exclusive class (Sallust. Jug. 63). Their efforts, in particular, to exclude the poorer citizens from rising to their own order is attested by the rule established from the time of the First Punic War, that the cost of the public games should be no longer defrayed by the treasury, but by the aediles (Dionys. A. R. 7.71), and the aedileship was the first step to the higher magistracies. As early as the Second Punic War, the new class, composed of patricians or original aristocrats, and Nobiles or newly engrafted aristocrats, was able to exclude novi homines from the consulship (Liv. 22.34). 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.

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 also the ascendants on the mother's side who had been nobiles. Adoption would also increase the number of persons who would be comprised in a stemma: and if Affines were occasionally included, as they appear to have been, the stemma would become an enormous pedigree.

The term 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. The use of it by Livy (3.39) shows how he understood it; but it is only confusing to employ it in relation to the early times of which he is speaking. Velleius (2.3) 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 on 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, 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 their aim was self-aggrandisement 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, to promote the interests of the people, or to promote his own: or he might have all these objects, as Caesar had.

The chief passages in classical writers bearing on the contrast of nobiles, ignobiles, and novi homines are Cicero, in Rull. 2.1, 2; pro Cluentio, 40, 111; Appian, de Bell. Civ. 2.2; Plutarch,. Cato Maj. i.; Veil. Pat. 2.128, and Asconius in Argum. Orat. in toga candidia, p. 82 (Orelli). The subject of Nobilitas is handled by Becker, in the work already referred to, and there are also some remarks on the Roman Nobiles in Zachariae, Sulla (1.5). 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 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 Nobilis still: 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 office, he would not be nobilis in the technical later sense. But when the Nobilitas had been formed into a powerful body, which was long before the reforms of the Gracchi, the distinction of patrician was of secondary importance. It would seem unlikely that there was any patrician [p. 2.233]gens existing in the year 133 B.C., 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 employ. The δυνατοὶ of Plutarch (Plut. TG 13, 20) and the πλούσιοι are the Nobilitas and their partisans; or, as Cicero would call them after he was made consul, the Optimates. In such passages as D. C. 38.2 the meaning of δυνατοὶ may be collected from the context.

[G.L] [J.B.M]

hide References (8 total)
  • Cross-references from this page (8):
    • Polybius, Histories, 6.53
    • Tacitus, Annales, 4.9
    • Sallust, Bellum Iugurthinum, 85
    • Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia, 35.2
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 22, 34
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 3, 39
    • Plutarch, Tiberius Gracchus, 13
    • Plutarch, Tiberius Gracchus, 20
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