‘Victoria nobilium’: the politics of the 90s and 80s BC reconsidered
My project looks at political and military events in the Roman Republic during the 90s and 80s BC. It focuses on the role of the ‘nobiles’: prestigious families at the top of the social stratum, boasting consular ancestry. The civil wars of the 80s BC are an acknowledged turning-point in the so-called ‘fall’ of the Republic. The conflicts themselves are well-known, but the underlying causes continue to elude explanation. Why, after centuries of consensus-based stability, did the Roman aristocracy splinter so dramatically that the only recourse was violence, murder, and civil war, culminating in the brutal dictatorship of Lucius Cornelius Sulla? Some might answer in ideological terms: the clash was between ‘populists’ seeking ‘progressive’ reforms and ‘conservatives’ opposing them. However, I believe this is anachronistic. We must remain wary of parallelism, and it is dangerous to cast Roman politics as a reflection of ancient Athenian democracy or, even, of modern ‘Left-Right’ politics. Instead, it is perhaps more profitable to explain the conflict in social terms. Both the contemporary observers Sallust (‘Histories’, 3.48.3 M) and Cicero (‘pro Roscio Amerino’, 135-142) portray Sulla’s dictatorship as the triumph of the ‘nobiles’. This depiction, based as it is on contemporary judgements, deserves to be taken seriously. Since it is well-known that one of Sulla’s principal targets during his dictatorship were the rich and powerful ‘equites’, a plausible interpretation starts to emerge: that the defining feature of these years was intra-elite social conflict, marked by challenges to the ‘nobiles’ and a subsequent backlash under Sulla. Literary sources will, of course, feature. For example, Sallust’s ‘Iugurtha’ is instructive, in which he depicts a corrupt nobility jealously guarding the consulship from industrious ‘new men’, typified by Gaius Marius. But the literary record is infamously lacunose for the 90s, a neglected decade which surely holds the answers to many of the issues surrounding the subsequent civil war. Therefore, I am employing a prosopographical approach to widen the scope of evidence: who are the politicians of this era; how many are nobles or new men; are the nobles less successful than previous decades, etc. This quantitative approach is made feasible by KCL’s new website ‘The Digital Prosopography of the Roman Republic’, an indispensable resource which I will use extensively. If it can be established that an intra-elite struggle between nobles and the rest defined the first civil war, then this will not only have significant implications for our wider understanding of Roman politics. It will also touch on broader themes relevant to many periods of history, such as the replication of power in oligarchies, the weaknesses and strengths of timocratic systems, or the constitutional locus of legitimacy in pre-modern societies.