Eras Journal – Chambers, E: Abstract

Abstract of Chambers, E., “Having Hirtius to Dinner: optimates and populares in the Late Republic”.

In May 44BCE, almost two months after Caesar’s murder, a curious exchange of letters took place between Cicero and Atticus. The letters concerned Cicero’s attempt to further the interests of the Liberators, Brutus and Cassius, by seeking the support of the Consul designate, Aulus Hirtius. The letters are important because they illustrate the presence of an ideological division in Roman politics between optimates and populares which continues to be overlooked by those scholars who are convinced that ‘Roman politicians did not normally divide on matters of principle’. They are also important because they allow us to re-examine the assumption, which is also a feature of much of the modern debate, that ‘the Roman aristocrat’s commitment to causes was purely temporary in so far as they promoted his own aggrandizement’.

Roman politicians operated in an atmosphere of competition for honours, diverse personal allegiances and alliances and under the constant pressure to win glory for themselves and their families. So much has been generally accepted. What has been consistently rejected by the orthodoxy in Twentieth Century scholarship, is that all of this could take place against a backdrop of meaningful ideological debate. But Cicero and his contemporaries did not live in a world devoid of political ideologies. On the contrary, their letters indicate that ideologies and causes were central to Roman political interactions.