Ancient Roman History: Optimates

The 'Best Men' in Rome


Bogomolov.PL / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

The optimates were considered to be the "best men" in Rome, as the word optimates translates to "best men" in Latin. They were the traditionalist Senatorial majority of the Roman Republic. Optimates were a conservative faction in contrast with the populares. The optimates were concerned not with the good of the common man but of the elite. They wished to extend the power of the Senate. In the conflict between Marius and Sulla, Sulla represented the old established aristocracy and the optimates, while the new man Marius represented the populares. Since Marius married into the house of Julius Caesar, Caesar had family reasons for supporting the populares. Pompey and Cato were among the optimates.


In contrast to the optimates in the Roman Republic was the populares. The populares were Roman political leaders who were on the side of "the people" as is indicated by their name. They were opposed to the optimates who were concerned with the "best men"—the meaning of optimates. The populares were not always so much interested in the common man as their own careers. The populares used the assemblies of the people rather than the aristocratic senate to further their agendas.

When motivated by noble principles they could help provisions that benefitted the common man, like extending citizenship.

Julius Caesar was a famous leader aligned with the populares.

Ancient Roman Social Structure

In Ancient Roman culture, Romans could be either patrons or clients. At the time, this social stratification proved mutually beneficial.

The number of clients and sometimes the status of clients conferred prestige on the patron. The client owed his vote to the patron. The patron protected the client and his family, gave legal advice, and helped the clients financially or in other ways.

A patron could have a patron of his own; therefore, a client, could have his own clients, but when two high-status Romans had a relationship of mutual benefit, they were likely to choose the label amicus ('friend') to describe the relationship since amicus did not imply stratification.

When enslaved people were manumitted, the liberti ('freedmen') automatically became clients of their former enslavers and were obligated to work for them in some capacity.

There was also patronage in the arts where a patron provided the wherewithal to allow the artist to create in comfort. The work of art or book would be dedicated to the patron.

Client King

This title was typically used by non-Roman rulers who enjoyed Roman patronage but were not treated as equals. Romans called such rulers rex sociusque et amicus 'king, ally, and friend' when the Senate formally recognized them. Braund emphasizes that there is little authority for the actual term "client king."

Client kings did not have to pay taxes, but they were expected to provide military manpower. The client kings expected Rome to help them defend their territories. Sometimes client kings bequeathed their territory to Rome.

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Gill, N.S. "Ancient Roman History: Optimates." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Gill, N.S. (2021, February 16). Ancient Roman History: Optimates. Retrieved from Gill, N.S. "Ancient Roman History: Optimates." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 28, 2023).