Nobiles (Nobilitas) was the highest social class that was formed at the turn of the 3rd and 2nd centuries BCE. after the end of the battles between patricians and commoners. The name of this group is derived from the word “gentry” (nobilis). The nobiles were formed from among the senatorial aristocracy, made up of patrician families and wealthy plebeian families.
It consisted only of the highest government officials and their descendants. This elite was already clearly shaped after the Second Punic War when it was closed to only 25 of the strongest families. For many generations, they stubbornly defended their privileged position, preventing one of the ordinary senators from taking the office of consul. The actions of the nobiles ensured possession of the aristocracy practically throughout the second century BCE. consul’s office. During this period, the consulate was taken over by someone outside the circle of nobilitas only twice. The nobiles accepted to say that the consul’s office belongs to them (consulatum nobilitas inter se per manus tradebat).
Nobiles usually did not have any major problems with taking a favourable position. Senatorial dignities and offices were often held in heredity, as the contributions of grandfathers and fathers to the republic were an important argument in the election of their sons and grandchildren. It was also popular to bribe voters, which adversely affected the morality of some Romans. Additionally, after their termination of office, under the senate’s decision, they received the governorship of the provinces, from which they made huge profits.
Their high social and political position guaranteed them many privileges. On the reverse of Roman coins, they were depicted with palladium and a sceptre. Moreover, they had the privilege of wearing a wide-gated purple tunic, golden rings, and the right to possess ancestral masks (ius imaginum).
Noblemen owe their privileged position primarily to their political, and especially military, skills. Every victory on the battlefield, every well-placed step on the political scene gained many supporters for the families. Salustius himself writes about it:
“By the will of a few tycoons, everything happened in times of peace and war: in their hands were the political treasure, provinces, offices, fame and triumphs, the people were plagued by military service and poverty; the war gains were torn apart by the leaders into partnership with several nobiles; at the same time parents or minors the children of the soldiers were driven out of their seats if any of them were neighbours of a more powerful lord. ”
This underlines the clearly growing economic power of the aristocracy, which gets rich mainly during military expeditions. The nobiles were one of the more important factors that led the Roman people to conquer Italy and expand beyond the Apennine Peninsula. The irresistible lust for fame, riches, honours and loot encouraged nobilitas to use their influence and force the magistracy to take aggressive steps.
Efforts were also made to gain the popularity of commoners and the lowest classes. For this purpose, the nobiles distributed grain and organized circus competitions.
The aforementioned war expeditions allowed the already rich families to multiply their fortune. We can mention here, for example, Scipio the Elder, who left his two daughters with a property of a total amount of 600,000 denarii. Another example is Lucius Aemilius Paulus, the great Roman commander from Pydna. At the time of his death, he had a fortune of 370,000 denarii. It is natural that such sums were obtained solely on the basis of hostilities.
The expansion of the borders of the Roman state allowed rich families to expand their lands at the same time. As a result, they owned huge latifundia in various provinces, often exceeding 500 Jugers (about 2,518 square meters). Probably the record holder in this matter was Publius Licinius Crassus Dives Mucianus, consul of 131 BCE, whose lands consisted of nearly 100,000 Jugers.
The senatorial aristocracy did not form a single, cohesive organism, but was divided into groups, factiones, which fought with each other for influence and access to offices. However, in the event of a threat of loss of influence, they were ready to make agreements. Such a situation arose, for example, during the period of the Gracchi’s reforms, who wanted to take part of their land from them.
The nobiles were extremely reluctant to independent politicians who did not come from the aristocracy, especially those who managed to gain a high position despite the unfavourable political situation. The Nobilitas described them contemptuously as “new people” (homines novi).