Novus homo

Homo novus (or: novus homo, Latin for "new man"; plural homines novi) 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. When a man entered public life on an unprecedented scale for a high communal office, then the term used was novus civis (plural: novi cives) or "new citizen".[1]


In the Early Republic, tradition held that both Senate membership and the consulship were restricted to patricians. When plebeians gained the right to this office during the Conflict of the Orders, all newly elected plebeians were naturally novi homines. With time, novi homines became progressively rarer as some plebeian families became as entrenched in the Senate as their patrician colleagues. By the time of the First Punic War, it was already a sensation that novi homines were elected in two consecutive years (Gaius Fundanius Fundulus in 243 BC and Gaius Lutatius Catulus in 242 BC). In 63 BC, Cicero became the first novus homo in more than thirty years.[2]

By the Late Republic, the distinction between the orders became less important. The consuls came from a new elite, the nobiles (noblemen), an artificial aristocracy of all who could demonstrate direct descent in the male line from a consul.[3]

List of novi homines

Topos of the "New Man"

The literary theme of Homo novus, or "how the lowly born but inherently worthy man may properly rise to eminence in the world" was the topos of Seneca's influential Epistle XLIV.[4] At the endpoint of Late Antiquity, it was likewise a subject in Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy (iii, vi). In the Middle Ages Dante's Convivio (book IV) and Petrarch's De remediis utriusque fortunae (I.16; II.5) take up the subject, and Chaucer's Wife of Bath's Tale.

In its Christian renderings, the theme suggested a tension in the scala naturae or great chain of being, one that was produced through the agency of Man's free will.[5]

The theme came naturally to Renaissance humanists who were often homines novi[6] rising by their own wits in a network of noble courts that depended on the highly literate new men to run increasingly complicated chancelries and create the cultural propaganda that was a contemporary vehicle for noble fame, and that consequently offered a kind of intellectual cursus honorum. In the fifteenth century Buonaccorso da Montemagno's Dialogus de vera nobilitate treated of the "true nobility" inherent in the worthy individual; Poggio Bracciolini also wrote at length De nobilitate, stressing the Renaissance view of human responsibility and effectiveness that are at the heart of Humanism: sicut virtutis ita et nobilitatis sibi quisque existit auctor et opifex.[7]

Briefer summaries of the theme were to be found in Francesco Patrizi, De institutionae republicae (VI.1), and in Rodrigo Sánchez de Arévalo's encyclopedic Speculum vitae humanae. In the sixteenth century these and new texts came to be widely printed and distributed. Sánchez de Arévalo's Speculum was first printed at Rome, 1468, and there are more than twenty fifteenth-century printings; German, French and Spanish translations were printed. Jerónimo Osório da Fonseca's De nobilitate (Lisbon 1542, and seven reprintings in the sixteenth century), stressing propria strennuitas ("one's own determined striving") received an English translation in 1576.

The Roman figure most often cited as an exemplum is Gaius Marius, whose speech of self-justification was familiar to readers from the set-piece in Sallust's Bellum Iugurthinum, 85; the most familiar format in the Renaissance treatises is a dialogue that contrasts the two sources of nobility, with the evidence weighted in favour of the "new man".

See also


  1. Becker, M.B., "The Republican City State in Florence: An Inquiry into it origin and survival (1280-1434)", Speculum, 35 (1960), pp. 46-47
  2. Cicero, De lege agraria, describes the interval as perlongo intervallo and his consulship "almost the first in living memory".
  3. First demonstrated in Matthias Gelzer, Die nobilität der römischen Republik 1912, correcting Theodor Mommsen's earlier proposition that all families possessing the ius imaginum, that is, descended from curule magistrates, were designated nobili. D. R. Shackleton Bailey, "Nobiles and Novi Reconsidered" The American Journal of Philology 107.2 (Summer 1986), pp. 255-260, assesses and rejects some apparent exceptions to Gelzer's rule.
  4. The sources that follow are drawn from R. W. Truman, "Lázaro de Tormes and the "Homo Novus" Tradition" The Modern Language Review 64.1 (January 1969), pp. 62-67.
  5. C.A. Patrides, "The Scale of nature and Renaissance treatises on nobility" Studia Neophilologica 36 (1964) pp 63-68.
  6. G.M. Vogt, "Gleanings for the history of a sentiment: Generositas Virtus non Sanguis" Journal of English and Germanic Philology 24 (1925):102-24."
  7. "Thus of the road to manly excellence and nobility the author and workmaster".

External links

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Further reading

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