The main feature of the ethos of the Roman aristocracy at the time of the second century BC was a particular set of elite values and objectives. These were borne out in ambitious military and political careers and they entailed such objectives as high office, famous deeds and supremely persuasive oratorical skills. The four terms that ascribe such a rigorous set of ideals are gloria, nobilitas, virtus and auctoritas. This essay sets out to describe the meaning of these four terms, and to assess their strengths and weaknesses.

Roman aristocracy was obsessed with family both living, dead and unborn for reasons of preserving the honour of the family name[1]. The term gloria was defined by Cicero as ‘praise given to right actions and the reputation for great merits in the service of the Republic which is approved not merely by the testimony of the multitude but by the witness of all the best men[2].’ For Sallust, it was the memory of the great deeds of his ancestors that kindled a quest to uphold the glory of the family name in a young man’s heart[3]. The various epitaphs written on the tombs of the family of Scipioni attest to their valiance in battle and high office. For example, Lucius Cornelius Scipio was inscribed as being ‘the very best of all good men’, that he was ‘aedile, consul and censor’ and that he ‘captured Corsica and Aleria[4]. Publius Cornelius Scipio Aemilianus belonged to this patrician family. As a general he achieved total victories in the troublesome wars of Carthage and Numantia[5]. He went on to be twice consul, censor and triumphator.

The aristocracy developed out of wealthy plebian and patrician families called by the term nobilitas[6]. The qualification to be entitled noble was to hold public office and the attainment of consulship ennobled a man’s family forever[7]. The display of the imagos of their ancestors gave the nobility authority to establish the institution of clientage. This allowed people to oblige themselves to a noble in return for legal representation and financial aid. Scipio Aemilianus was the patron of many people and therefore referred to as nobilis. This patronage was fundamentally important in Roman politics and due deference was given to such status. Clientela allowed the nobility to display and enhance their prestige within the Senate. ‘New men’ were also allowed to obtain the status of nobilitas through their achievements, as the aristocracy was always looking for new talent[8]. Cato, who was one of these ‘new men’, earned the epithet catus meaning man of outstanding wisdom and experience[9]. Cicero said that the public nature of nobilitas means that a distinguished name must be scrutinized and that the words and deeds of these men were not expected to be kept secret[10].

TheRoman nobility were obsessed with morality and the pursuit of power, glory, position and prestige[11]. The term boni or ‘good men’ referred to the moral worth of the nobility [12] and this was expressed in the ideal of virtus [13]. Virtus consisted of winning preeminence through service to the Roman state and it was the tradition of Rome itself[14]. The use of superlatives to establish virtus is attested to in the epitaph of L. Cornelius Scipio: ‘This man Lucius Scipio, as most argue, was the best of all good men at Rome’[15]. Personal virtue was frowned upon. For the Roman nobility it was the service of state that was the only acceptable activity and this demanded private goodness but public achievement[16]. Furthermore, virtus was connected with family, honour and office and the obligations of political associations and alliance[17]. In pursuing the ideal of virtus a noble must have proper conduct and carry his office with dignitas. Wealth must be acquired in the correct manner or bono modo such as by inheritance or investment in land and must be used for honourable ends[18].

One of the outstanding features of the Roman senate was its exercise of auctoritas or moral authority. A young Roman noble was expected to rise from his ten years of military service to become a preator, consul and censor to give service to his family’s gloria. He was expected to achieve distinction in his military career and be enrolled in the senate. Real power in Republican Rome lay with around twenty families who ‘commanded armies, governed provinces and guided the policies of the senate’. It was only by originating and implementing public policy could the Roman nobility attain auctoritas, which was the highest form of prestige[19]. The ambition of the young Scipio Aemilianus was to serve the Republic as a warrior and general, as an orator and senator and to achieve great deeds[20]. The interlinking of one’s military and political talents was a considerable asset in Republican Rome and Scipio became known as a skilful orator, earning the expression summa eloquentia[21]. His ambition to become an outstanding man of state led him to state these words which express the ideals of the Roman nobility: ‘From innocence is born dignity, from dignity honour, from honour the right to command, from the right to command liberty’[22].

The strengths of such ideals could be determined as a rigorous system of merit in which only the ‘best of men’ achieve the highest status. The exacting standards and the scrutiny of the people could be said to allow a high degree of government transparency and fidelity. However, the quest for family gloria  could also allow for one to take advantage of their position and exaggerate the qualities and achievements of forebears. Also, the practice of being nobilis could allow for sycophancy and the development of corruption within the government, where public policy succumbs to private desires. Furthermore, the use of oratorical skills in the practice of auctoritas makes the most persuasive politician the most successful, rather than the right policy for the people. Therefore it could be said that virtus was the most important of these ideals, as it required the nobility to answer for their actions and demanded their service to the state alone.


  1. Astin, A. E. “P. Cornelius Scipio Aemilianus” in Scipio Aemilianus , Astin, A. E. , 1967 , 12-25
  2. Astin, A. E. “Epilogue” in Scipio Aemilianus , Astin, A. E. , 1967 , 242-244
  3. Cicero, Pro Sestio,79
  4. Cicero, On Duties, 2.44
  5. Cicero, Brutus,82 f.
  6. Earl, Donald. “Morality and politics” in The Moral and Political Tradition of Rome , Earl, Donald , 1967 , 11-43,133-138, Thames and Hudson
  7. Plutarch, Makers of Rome, 4.1, Trans. Ian Scott-Kilvert, (1965) Penguin Books, London
  8. Polybius VI, 53f
  9. Sallust The Jugurthine War 4.5
  10. The Scipionic Epitaphs(from the translation of E.H. Warmington, Remains of Old

Latin, Vol. IV, Loeb Classical Library)

[1] Polybius VI, 53f

[2] Cicero, Pro Sestio,139

[3] Sallust The Jugurthine War 4.5

[4] Warmington, 1. ii

[5] Astin:18

[6] Earl: 12

[7] Ibid: 13

[8] Ibid: 13

[9] Plutarch, Makers of Rome, 4.1

[10] Cicero, On Duties, 2.44

[11] Earl: 16

[12] Ibid: 18

[13] Ibid: 20

[14] Ibid: 21

[15] Warmington 1, ii

[16] Earl: 23

[17] Earl: 27

[18] Ibid: 32

[19] Earl: 14

[20] Ibid: 24

[21] Cicero, Brutus, 82.f

[22] Astin: 22