The nobiles (SG nobilis) were members of a social rank in the Roman Republic indicating that one was "well known".[1] This may have changed over time: in Cicero's time, one was notable if one descended from a person who had been elected consul.[2] In earlier periods and more broadly, this may have included a larger group consisting of those who were patricians, were descended from patricians who had become plebeians via transitio ad plebem, or were descended from plebeians who had held curule offices.[3]


The nobiles emerged after the Conflict of the Orders established legal equality between patricians and plebeians, allowing plebeians to hold all the magistracies; the state of being "known" was connected to the nobiles's rights to funeral masks (Latin: imagines) and actors in aristocratic funeral processions.[4] However, the term is largely unattested to in the middle Republic, having been introduced in the late Republic as a description rather than a status.[5] Earning such a mask required holding one of the qualifying curule magistracies.[6]

These elections meant the republican nobility was not entirely closed.[7] Nor in the republic did nobiles enjoy special legal privileges. In the later Republic, one who became noble was termed a novus homo (English: new man), an unusual achievement.[8] Two of the most famous examples of these self-made "new men" were Gaius Marius, who held the consulship seven times, and Cicero. While wholly new men were rare, the political elite as a whole turned over as some families were unable to win elections over multiple generations and other families became more prominent, creating slow-moving and osmotic change.[9]

The prestige of the nobiles was connected directly to their election to high office by the people.[10] During the Roman Republic, the nobiles never held less than about 70 per cent of the consulships over longer periods; by the time of Cicero, the nobiles as a whole held more than 90 per cent of the consulships, a proportion "remarkably untouched by the most violent political crises".[4] The narrowing of what made someone part of the nobiles occurred around the time of the constitutional reforms of Sulla with its "much larger senate with a proportionately smaller circle of elite senators... many new Italians in the Sullan senate, and the increased number of praetors" leading the elite to close ranks to preserve their prestige.[11]

During the time of Augustus, a nobilis enjoyed easier access to the consulship, with a lowered age requirement perhaps set at 32. Women who descended from Augustan consuls were also regarded as belonging to the Roman nobility.[12] The term still referred to descendants of republican and triumviral consuls, but by the Antonines, most noble families had died out; one of the last were the Acilii Glabriones who survived into the 4th century.[4]

See alsoEdit



  1. ^ Brunt 1982, p. 11.
  2. ^ Brunt 1982, p. 1.
  3. ^ Brunt 1982, p. 1. The curule offices were those of dictator, magister equitum, censor, consul, praetor, and curule aedile.
  4. ^ a b c Badian 2012a.
  5. ^ Millar, Fergus (2002). Rome, the Greek World, and the East. University of North Carolina Press. pp. 126–27. ISBN 978-0-8078-4990-3.
  6. ^ Flower 2010, pp. 155–56. "It was the mask and the chair that traditionally identified a man, and his family, as part of the political elite".
  7. ^ Burckhardt 1990, p. 84.
  8. ^ Badian 2012b.
  9. ^ Burckhardt 1990, p. 86.
  10. ^ Flower 2010, p. 46.
  11. ^ Flower 2010, p. 156–57.
  12. ^ Syme, Ronald (1989). The Augustan Aristocracy. Clarendon Press. pp. 50–52. ISBN 978-0-19-814731-2.


Further readingEdit

  • Hans Beck: Karriere und Hierarchie. Die römische Aristokratie und die Anfänge des „cursus honorum“ in der mittleren Republik, Akademie-Verlag, Berlin 2005.
  • Hans Beck: Die Rolle des Adligen. Prominenz und aristokratische Herrschaft in der römischen Republik. In: Hans Beck, Peter Scholz, Uwe Walter (eds.): Die Macht der Wenigen. Aristokratische Herrschaftspraxis, Kommunikation und „edler“ Lebensstil in Antike und Früher Neuzeit, Oldenbourg, Munich 2008, 101–123.
  • Jochen Bleicken: Die Nobilität der römischen Republik. In: Gymnasium 88, 1981, 236–253.
  • Klaus Bringmann: Geschichte der Römischen Republik. Von den Anfängen bis Augustus. Beck, Munich 2002.
  • Matthias Gelzer: Die Nobilität der römischen Republik. Teubner, Leipzig 1912.
  • Karl-Joachim Hölkeskamp: Die Entstehung der Nobilität. Studien zur sozialen und politischen Geschichte der Römischen Republik im 4. Jahrhundert v. Chr. Steiner, Stuttgart 1987, ISBN 3-515-04621-6.
  • Fergus Millar: The Political Character of the Classical Roman Republic, 200–151 B.C. In: Journal of Roman Studies 74, 1984, 1–19.
  • R. T. Ridley: The Genesis of a Turning-Point: Gelzer's "Nobilität". In: Historia 35, 1986, 474-502.