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Nobiles

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During the Roman Republic
Roman Republic
The Roman Republic was the period of the ancient Roman civilization where the government operated as a republic. It began with the overthrow of the Roman monarchy, traditionally dated around 508 BC, and its replacement by a government headed by two consuls, elected annually by the citizens and...

, nobilis ("noble," plural nobiles) was a descriptive term of social rank, usually indicating that a member of the family had achieved the consulship
Roman consul
A consul served in the highest elected political office of the Roman Republic.Each year, two consuls were elected together, to serve for a one-year term. Each consul was given veto power over his colleague and the officials would alternate each month...

. Those who belonged to the hereditary patrician families were noble, but plebeians
Plebs
The plebs was the general body of free land-owning Roman citizens in Ancient Rome. They were distinct from the higher order of the patricians. A member of the plebs was known as a plebeian...

 whose ancestors were consuls were also considered nobiles. The transition to nobilitas thus required the rise of an exceptional individual, who was considered a "new man" (novus homo
Novus homo
Homo novus was the term in ancient Rome for a man who was the first in his family to serve in the Roman Senate or, more specifically, to be elected as consul...

). Two of the most famous examples of these self-made "new men" were Gaius Marius
Gaius Marius
Gaius Marius was a Roman general and statesman. He was elected consul an unprecedented seven times during his career. He was also noted for his dramatic reforms of Roman armies, authorizing recruitment of landless citizens, eliminating the manipular military formations, and reorganizing the...

, who held the consulship seven times, and Marcus Tullius Cicero.

The Second Samnite War (326–304 BC) was a formative time in the creation of this ruling elite comprising both patricians and plebeians who had risen to power. From the mid-4th century to the early 3rd century BC, several plebeian-patrician "tickets
Ticket (election)
A ticket refers to a single election choice which fills more than one political office or seat. For example, in the U.S., the candidates for President and Vice President run on the same "ticket", because they are elected together on a single ballot question rather than separately.A ticket can also...

" for the consulship repeated joint terms, suggesting a deliberate political strategy of cooperation.

Scholarly attempts to define nobilitas have led to debates over the particulars of its usage in ancient sources. Fergus Millar
Fergus Millar
-External links:* staff page at the Faculty of Oriental Studies, University of Oxford* announcement of "History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ."...

 points out that nobilis was a descriptive word as used in the Late Republic, and not a technical term for a restricted social group in the sense of peerage
Peerage
The Peerage is a legal system of largely hereditary titles in the United Kingdom, which constitute the ranks of British nobility and is part of the British honours system...

. Matthias Gelzer held that the term was reserved for descendants of consuls, and therefore reckoned that Munatius Plancus
Lucius Munatius Plancus
Lucius Munatius Plancus was a Roman senator, consul in 42 BC, and censor in 22 BC with Aemilius Lepidus Paullus...

, consul designate for 42, was the last man to qualify as an ancestor for a nobilis. P.A. Brunt, building on the view of Theodor Mommsen
Theodor Mommsen
Christian Matthias Theodor Mommsen was a German classical scholar, historian, jurist, journalist, politician, archaeologist, and writer generally regarded as the greatest classicist of the 19th century. His work regarding Roman history is still of fundamental importance for contemporary research...

, assembled evidence of broader usage that suggests any curule office might grant the aura of nobilitas. The term is not found in the literature of the mid-Republic, and came into use long after the social and political changes that created "noble" plebeians.

During the time of Augustus
Augustus
Augustus ;23 September 63 BC – 19 August AD 14) is considered the first emperor of the Roman Empire, which he ruled alone from 27 BC until his death in 14 AD.The dates of his rule are contemporary dates; Augustus lived under two calendars, the Roman Republican until 45 BC, and the Julian...

, a nobilis enjoyed easier access to the consulship, with a lowered age requirement perhaps set at 32. Women who descended from Augustan
Principate
The Principate is the first period of the Roman Empire, extending from the beginning of the reign of Caesar Augustus to the Crisis of the Third Century, after which it was replaced with the Dominate. The Principate is characterized by a concerted effort on the part of the Emperors to preserve the...

 consuls are also regarded as belonging to the Roman nobility. In the usage of Tacitus
Tacitus
Publius Cornelius Tacitus was a senator and a historian of the Roman Empire. The surviving portions of his two major works—the Annals and the Histories—examine the reigns of the Roman Emperors Tiberius, Claudius, Nero and those who reigned in the Year of the Four Emperors...

 and Pliny Minor
Pliny the Younger
Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus, born Gaius Caecilius or Gaius Caecilius Cilo , better known as Pliny the Younger, was a lawyer, author, and magistrate of Ancient Rome. Pliny's uncle, Pliny the Elder, helped raise and educate him...

, a nobilis is a descendant of the Republican aristocracy. The meaning of nobilis then evolved during the Imperial period
Roman Empire
The Roman Empire was the post-Republican period of the ancient Roman civilization, characterised by an autocratic form of government and large territorial holdings in Europe and around the Mediterranean....

.

Further reading

  • Barnes, T.D. "Who Were the Nobility of the Roman Empire?" Phoenix 28 (1974) 444–449. On usage of the term in the 4th century.
  • Brunt, P.A. "Nobilitas and novitas." Journal of Roman Studies 72 (1982) 1–17.
  • Hölkeskamp, Karl-J. "Conquest, Competition and Consensus: Roman Expansion in Italy and the Rise of the nobilitas." Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte 42 (1993) 12–39.
  • Ridley, R. T. "The Genesis of a Turning-Point: Gelzer's Nobilität." Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte 35.4 (1986) 474-502.