What virtues and attainments defined the Roman aristocrat in the Republic? How, if at all, did this conception of the aristocrat change during the empire? The aristocracy of Rome has changed with the transition from the Republic to the Empire. This can be seen through analyzing funeral epitaphs, such as the epitaph of the Scipionic family and the epitaph of Publius Plautius Pulcher. Virtues of the aristocracy in the Republic were mainly focused on virtus and gloria; they attained such precedence by maintaining the achievements of their ancestors and upholding their status as the nobilitas.
During the empire virtues and attainments of the nobility did not change completely, they merely altered to the new setting of imperialist Rome. Becoming a great man in Imperial Rome was somewhat harder, but still achievable as can be observed from the biography of Gnaeus Julius Agricola written by Tacitus. Suetonius’ life biography of the Deified Julius Caesar clearly shows the aristocratic ideal. Caesar’s success is extensively remarked upon showing that aristocracy excellence is relevant to the biography.
The Roman aristocracy was an important part of Rome and analyzing their change is an appropriate way to understand the change from the Republic to the Empire. Roman aristocracy in the Republic was known under the term nobilitas, or nobility. It was a combination of leading Patrician and Plebeian families who had leading positions in the political powers of Rome. The aristocracy was simply a political aristocracy,1 those who held office in politics were those of great status in Rome. Nobilitas in the first century BC was limited to families that had consular lineage; it became a birthright.
2 New men, novi homines, were not easily accepted into the aristocracy,3 they did not come from well-known families who had already achieved great things; the aristocracy looked down on those without great ancestry lineage, they had no standing in politics. The introduction of new men created a possible balance but few advanced to significant positions of power. This lead to a small percentage of Rome’s population holding all the power; around twenty powerful families controlled Rome’s politics along with armies, provinces and the policy of Rome.
4 They had almost complete control of all politics in Rome. 5 There was a fierce competition for power and glory especially with few political positions available. It is important to understand that the aristocracy of the Republic did not achieve political and military success for wealth nor for superiority over the common people. Wealth was not an incentive for the aristocracy; it was not their nature to be greedy and to accumulate wealth in ways that would be looked down on. Wealth was of course a must for the aristocracy but it had to be gained by honest means.
They did not deal in trade or business, and regarded those occupations with distaste. 6 The aristocracy either had to inherit a large sum of money or negotiate in profitable land investments. 7 Aristocracy received no privileges; they were technically equal before the law to the same standard of a common Roman man. Only the Patricians were awarded a few decorative privileges. 8 It was power and prestige that was paramount in the aristocrat’s life. 9 Power remained in the aristocracies’ hands due to the clientela relationship.
All citizens had a patron, many of whom stemmed from a noble family; it was the patrons’ job to look after their clients in return for political support. 10 This clientela system was important, as the clients were the voters for who in the aristocratic class received certain political positions. A greater client base enhanced the nobles’ political success by increasing their number of votes. The clients were pleased with this arrangement as long as stability and freedom were secured.
11 The clientela system had similarities to the process of lobbying observed today in many modern democracies. If the nobility could uphold these benefits to the ordinary Romans, all would be well. This relationship enabled the Roman elite to control not only Rome, but also the rest of Italy and its allies giving the aristocrats more prestige and influence in the political scene. 12 In the Republic, aristocracy followed two main virtues, virtus and gloria and displays of these two virtues defined one as a great man, honoring ones ancestors and progeny.
Virtus can be translated in many different ways depending on what it concerns. The most common translation is ‘manliness’ but it can also be associated with prayer, money or the quality of man. 13 In context to the Roman aristocrat it was in relation to the individuals glory and greatness one attained from serving the Roman state. 14 Virtus could also be gained by the good conduct of the aristocracy. 15 Their morals in the second BC had been tainted by debauchery but they still prided themselves on not fighting their wars with money, reward or trickery.
16 Aristocracy had to aspire to live in an honourable way and commit oneself to fides, good faith, to earn more virtus for ones family. 17 Gloria, the second most important virtue of Roman aristocracy, was acquired when one gained an excellent reputation through brave deeds. One had to have a good reputation and be a good man to achieve gloria and “…was awarded by the political class for political achievements”18 If both virtues were exhibited one attained honos, bestowing honor on your family. To achieve pride in your family you had to devote your life to military and public service.
19 The Scipionic epitaphs reflect both these virtues; Lucius Cornelius Scipio displayed his virtus through his courage in military success “…he captured Taurasia and Cisauna in Samnium”(ILS 1) plus he went on to achieve in politics “…he was aedile, consul, and censor among you”(ILS 1) Another Lucius Cornelius Scipio attained the virtues of virtus and gloria by his individual political and military attainments “…he was aedile, consul and censor…this man captured Corsica and the city of Aleria…” (ILS 2&3) he was also pious and dedicated a temple to the Goddess of Weather.
This display of political and military success proved that the Scipio’s had achieved virtus and gloria and honored their family as the proper aristocrat should. It was not Roman custom to speak ill of the dead, but it is clear in some cases like Publius Cornelius Scipio that some aristocrats did not achieve greatness. Publius’s epitaph envisions what he could of achieved had he not been short lived “… if you had been allowed to enjoy a longer life, you would of easily have surpassed the glory of your ancestors”(ILS 4) He is said to have died early, although his age was to be of 40; in Roman times that was old.
His political and military success is excused by the position of Flamen Dialis (ILS 4) yet his epitaph still speaks of the glory he could of attained. It is clear that he did not honor his family or ancestors in politics or military success, as the other Scipios’ did. This clearly shows the importance of individual success, it was an aristocratic tradition to only record achievements made in servitude of the state20 and it becomes very apparent when little was achieved. The main defining attainment of the aristocrat was to honor their ancestors, family and progenies.
By displaying virtus and gloria and gaining honor for ones family one managed to attain the greatest glory. This can be seen in the Scipio epitaph of Gnaeus Cornelius Scipio Hispanus where he states that he tried to equal his fathers achievements and “…attained the distinction of my ancestors, so that they were glad I was born of their line… ”(ILS 6) Gnaeus achieved the attainment of honoring his ancestors through the means of politics and his “good character” although he did not achieve consulship. If an aristocrat failed in participating in public life and did not contribute to the families glory they failed the aristocratic ideal.
21 Gnaeus himself may not of attained consulship but he still took an active role in public life and was worthy of the aristocrat title. It was a disgrace of an aristocrat who did not try to attain some sort of virtus and gloria to honour their family. 22 Nobilitas men had to have an avid political and military contribution to be considered successful. They had to devote their life to the public and maintain mos maiorum. Consul was the highest position and most successful magistracy. If you achieved this position you had a successful life and had undoubtedly succeeded in honoring your ancestors.
In Caecilius Metullus’ funeral oration it states that he obtained consul twice, a great achievement. It also states that he “…had achieved the ten greatest and noblest objects in pursuit of which wise men devote their lives”(Plin. HN 7. 39) Metullus was a great man and he had achieved his greatness in honourable and wise ways upholding his and his families status as part of the nobility. Metullus was a “…superlative warrior, the best orator, the bravest general…” he had fully participated in public life just to ensure that he would continue his families prosperity and bestow enough honour on his progeny so they may surpass his own glory.
With the transition from the Republic to the Empire the aristocracy was seen to have some change in their virtues and attainments. The aristocracy retained the virtues of gloria and virtus but added in two more: obsequium and moderatio. 23 These were what the imperial aristocrat needed in order to become a great man instead of just a good man. Imperial Rome was both part republican and part autocratic24 so the aristocrat still had the duty to fulfill of servitude to the state. Emperor Augustus transformed the aristocracy;25 he had all authority but knew to share the running of the state with his inferiors.
26 Under the empire the need for competition was less, as one technically could not surpass the superiority of the autocrat. 27 The emperor was the greatest of Romans,28 it was a lifetime position and he held the power to elect magistracies. Without competition for political power the nobles had to form a new way to honour their ancestors. Thus the virtue obsequium29 came into practice, obsequium was the respectful attitude and compliance towards the powerful. Deference towards the Emperor and earning his favour gave you virtus and gloria.
In exchange for ones loyalty to the emperor they were rewarded in both prestige and wealth. 30 By looking at the epitaph of Publius Plautius Pulcher we can see that he is not disgraced for not attaining the consulship nor is there any mention of military success. He still managed to achieve political success and receive the magistracy of praetor in 47BC (CIL 14. 3607) but the main focus is on his closeness to the Emperor “…friend of Drusus the son of Germanicus, uncle of Drusus the son of Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus…” (CIL 14. 3607) His ties to the Emperor Claudius are how he attains his ancestral glory.
There is no excuse given to why he did not attain a consulship like the Scipionic epitaphs do. Military and political success, although still prominent, had a lesser meaning for the aristocracy of imperial Rome. Senatorial greatness was to a great extent reliant on the emperor. 31 Moderatio,32 the second virtue meant simply in moderation, everything was regulated and taken in moderation. In the Republic the aristocracy wanted everything and tried to be the best of the best. But in imperial Rome one could not be the best of the best as there was always an emperor who was greater.
The aristocrat had to regulate what one could have and take it in moderation and be careful not to threaten the emperor. The biography of Gnaeus Julius Agricola illuminates these two virtues. Tacitus, the writer, depicts Agricola as a great man; something he would of attained through virtus and gloria plus the imperial virtues of obsequium and moderatio. Tacitus states that Agricola “… retained what is most difficult to compass — moderation. ”(Tac. Ag. 4) Agricola was offered a proconsulship yet he refused instead to live in private; (Tac. Ag. 42) he took his political powers in moderation, and knew when to decline.
Agricola also displayed obsequium in that he had an honorable career and respected the Emperor in power, even when it was Domitian who roundly hated Agricola. 33 The moral attitude of the aristocracy also underwent change during the empire due to Augustus’ influence. In the republic the aristocrats had become debauched and had forgotten their morals of being honest and boni as they became consumed with lust for money and power. 34 Augustus set about restoring the moral standards of Rome by restoring temples, religious practices, and even going as far as intruding on the private lives of Romans by regulating family values.
35 He wanted pristine values and virtues in Rome. This interference with moral standards would hopefully rid the aristocracy of their arrogance, cruelty and neglection of the gods36 that they had acquired during the republic. If these new moral standards were not adhered too, serious consequences would follow. The attainments of the aristocracy in Imperial Rome did not change significantly. It was still a great attainment if you achieved gloria and honos for your ancestors and progeny. But the emperor had impacted both the political and public identity of the aristocracy.
37 To accomplish military and political success was still an avid part of the aristocracy but their reasoning had changed. The competition was lost, and they now succeeded in gaining favour from the Emperor instead. Obsequium, the virtue, can be easily seen in this way. Like discussed previously, the funeral oration of Publius Plautius Pulcher readily shows how the aristocracy did not care for power as greatly as before. If you had achieved friendship with the Emperor but did not achieve consul it did not matter, your ancestors would still be pleased.
In the Republic an aristocrat had to participate fully in public life or you were accused of failing the idealistic Roman aristocrat life. 38 But in the Empire you could merely befriend the Emperor and honor to your family was attained. In conclusion, to state that the aristocracy changed is simplistic; they adapted to a new environment through an evolutionary process and utilized new methodology to maintain status and power. There is a difference in the aristocrat of the Republic and the Empire but it is not a direct change, more an evolution.
Instead of going against the new Empire the aristocrat instead moved with it. They evolved their virtues and attainments to suit the current situation. By keeping the basis of their virtues they retained their previous ancestral glory and honor but also allowed their progenies to attain such glory in the new setting of politics. The introduction of an Emperor reduced the fierce competition of power so the aristocracy created a new competition; a competition to befriend and earn the favour of the Emperor. Gloria and virtus were still key virtues, but everything was taken in moderation with regards to the emperor.
Discuss Julius Caesar’s successes and failures in realizing the appropriate aristocratic ideal. Is importance placed on this matter by Suetonius, that is, is the matter of aristocratic excellence relevant to the biography, and, if so, in what ways? If not, why not? Suetonius discusses the successes and failures of the deified Julius Caesar in realizing the appropriate aristocratic ideal. Importance is placed on the matter of achieving the aristocratic ideal as Suetonius discusses the military and political attainments of Julius Caesar’s life extensively.
Although whilst assessing Caesar’s aristocratic credentials he does allude to some potential failures. Aristocratic excellence is relevant to the biography as it is full of Caesar’s successes and little of his failures. The biography itself is called the ‘deified’, which relates to a godlike presence, which signifies that Caesar was worshipped after the end of his life. Julius Caesar’s biography by Suetonius is full of his success in both military achievements and politics fulfilling the aristocrat ideal. He gained both virtus and gloria and bestowed honos on his ancestors.
Suetonius has put great effort into describing Caesar’s success and little on his failures making out that Caesar was a very great man. Caesar’s success as an aristocrat seem to arise from when he looked upon the statue of Alexandra the Great at the temple of Hercules in Gades. (Suet. Jul. 7) Suetonius portrays him as groaning at the thought of how little he has accomplished at an age where Alexandra had already conquered the world. (Suet. Jul. 7) On his return to Rome, Caesar was already determined to seize the greater opportunities available to him and become a great man.
Caesar’s political history saw him attain military tribune, questor, aedile, pontifix maximus, praetor, consul and dictator. (Suet. Jul. 10,13,14,18) By achieving so highly in politics Caesar had accomplished the appropriate aristocratic ideals. Caesar was also an excellent general who cared for his ‘comrades’. Caesar was reputed for having no stains on his manliness (Suet. Jul. 49) and was of a handsome sort. (Suet. Jul. 45) He was a good man and Suetonius clearly thinks so as he praises Caesar and has little to fault him on. Caesar attains the Republican aristocrat ideal by pursuing a public life and devoting himself to serving the state.
His prestigious career undoubtedly would of bestowed virtus, gloria and honour on his family. The people loved him, according to Suetonius they mobbed him and demanded he be returned to power when the senate had sent him away. (Suet. Jul. 16) This was the same attitude of the men that served under his command. It was said that “…he made his men utterly loyal to him and supremely brave as well” (Suet. Jul. 68) Suetonius also goes to mention that Caesar grew his beard and hair out and refused to cut them until he had his vengeance after the Titurian disaster. (Suet. Jul.
67) By participating in public life and gaining the peoples love he was able to succeed further in his political attainments, as the people wanted him to continue serving the state. Caesar was a reputable general who never seemed to lose a battle and was merciful to those he defeated. He conquered Gaul and the Britons and occupied Picenum, Umbria and Etruria in the civil war. (Suet. Jul. 25,34) These military achievements gave Caesar an excellent reputation which aristocrats strove for. He was lenient in his revenge; a great example that Suetonius mentions is to do with the pirates who had previously captured him.
He ordered them to be crucified but had them strangled first to save them the pain of crucifixion. (Suet. Jul. 74) Even when his slave Philemon tried to poison him Caesar was considerate and gave him a quick death with no punishment. (Suet. Jul. 74) Caesar became ‘the father of the fatherland’ (Suet. Jul 85) and was given a godlike status after his death. He had attained the Republican aristocratic ideal via his display of virtus and gloria by being honest, just and committing oneself to fides. Nevertheless Caesar was a human being and did have his failings as an aristocrat although they did not cause great injury to his reputation.
Suetonius states that Caesar had epileptic fits, (Suet. Jul. 45) which portrayed poor health. This was not an idealistic trait of an aristocrat, and would be perceived as a weakness although the truth behind this claim is speculative. Another weakness Caesar had was becoming completely engrossed with power. Suetonius mentions Caesar becoming arrogant and excessive in the amount of honour bestowed upon him. (Suet. Jul. 76) Caesar was given a godlike status and idealised himself as a god, even going as far to state that his aunts fathers family was related to the goddess Venus.
(Suet. Jul. 6) He was supposedly caught saying in public “Men should now have more consideration in speaking with me and regard what I say as law”(Suet. Jul. 77) This was inclined to failing the aristocratic ideal as by assuming himself in control of all law was taking away the freedom of the people and disregarding the republic of Rome. An aristocrat obtained wealth either by inheritance or land investments yet Caesar went against this and obtained some through trickery. This was distasteful in regards to the moral of fides.
Caesar is said to have stolen three thousand pounds of gold from the capitol replacing it with gilded bronzed coins. (Suet. Jul. 54) This failed the ideal of the aristocrat, as it was not an honorable way to gain wealth but a shameless act. Caesar was also accused of being a tyrant and a King. (Suet. Jul. 79) Caesar himself denied himself as King yet allowed himself to have special privileges, which went against the republic and angered the rest of the aristocracy. It was said that he was given a golden seat in the senate, temples, altars and statues placed next to Gods and of course a month of the year named after him. (Suet. Jul.
76) Suetonius refers to one moment, which thoroughly angered the senate, where Caesar did not rise from his seat to thank the senate for bestowing the highest decrees to him. (Suet. Jul 78) This lead to immense jealousy throughout the senate, Caesar was seen as a threat to the Republic and the senatorial auctoritas. Suetonius details some ways that Caesar secured alliances that gave him a homosexual reputation. Homosexuality was debauchery and impure to the moral standards of aristocrats. 39 It was said that he sold himself to King Nicomedes in order to gain a Bithynia fleet thus earning the degrading title of Queen of Bithynia.
(Suet. Jul. 49) His soldiers chanted “Caesar had his way with Gaul; Nicomedes had his way with Caesar: Behold now Caesar, conqueror of Gaul, in triumph, Not so, Nicomedes, conqueror of Caesar”(Suet. Jul. 49) and this escapade follows him throughout his career and was later used against him by his enemies. (Suet. Jul. 49) Other facts Suetonius touched on concerned his infidelity towards his wives, (Suet. Jul. 50) he was renowned for being an adulterer although he does not place importance on this fact and merely regards it as a small problem concerning Caesars aristocratic status.
Caesar’s cunning and dirty ways he accomplished such things were occasionally overlooked. He was still perceived as attaining virtus and gloria even amongst his few failures as an aristocrat. Aristocratic excellence is relevant to the biography of the Deified Julius Caesar as it concerns his excellence. Suetonius covers mostly Caesar’s success in the military and political scene of Republic Rome and how he rose to become one of the great Caesars of Rome. Suetonius treats the weaknesses of Caesar as historical facts.
He states that Caesar had a weakness in moral character with infidelity and a reputation of an alleged homosexual. Yet they do not demoralize his aristocratic excellence. Caesar’s excellence is also largely relevant due to the fact that he was the instigator of the decline of the Republic. His successes in Rome lead to jealousy amongst the senate, which enthralled them to conspire together and plan Caesar’s death. (Suet. Jul. 80) Although it was not the custom of the Republican aristocracy to take things in moderation, it is obvious to see that Caesar took too much and paid for this mistake with death.
To conclude, the aristocracy of Rome evolved with the transition of the Republic to the Empire. The republican virtues of virtus and gloria were incorporated into the empire along with obsequium and moderatio thus creating new motives for the aristocracy. In the republic it was a battle over who was greatest but in the empire it focused on the emperor. Suetonius’ life on Caesar enhances his success as an aristocrat, confirming his achievement of being the greatest. It is clear to see that Caesar did achieve the republican aristocratic ideal, definitely in securing honos for his ancestors and progeny.
The morals of aristocracy were on a downward spiral tainted by trickery but the intervention of Augustus and the Roman Empire rectified them by making everyone a winner. Being a great man was a continuous self-centered battle in Republican Rome but in Imperialistic Rome there was a lesser need to compete, as the greatest would always be the emperor. One attainment of the aristocrat that stayed true through both Republic and Imperial Rome was that family honour was a fundamental principal of any aristocrat and the main instigator for any success. No aristocrat wanted to disgrace their family.
Bibliography: Primary Sources – Excerpts from the Scipionic Epitaphs (ILS 1-4, 6-7) Epitaph for Publius Plautius Pulcher (CIL 14. 3607) Funeral oration for Lucius Caecilius Metellus (Plin H. N 7. 139) Suetonius. “The Deified Julius Caesar”. Lives of the Caesars. Trans. C. Edwards (United States, 2000) 3-42 Tacitus, Agricola Secondary Sources – Earl, D. The Moral and Political Tradition of Rome (Ithaca 1967), 11-43 Tatum, W,J. Always I am Caesar (Oxford 2008), 167-88 Wallace-Hadrill, A. ‘ Civilis Princeps: Between Citizen and King’, JRS 72 (1982), 32-48