The optimates favored the nobiles (noble families) and opposed the ascension of novi homines ("new men", usually provincials) into Roman politics. Ironically, Cicero, a strong supporter of the optimates' cause, was himself a novus homo, being the first in his family to enter the Senate, and was never fully accepted by the optimates. During the Civil War of 49BC, Caesar, of a respectable old family, contended against Senate championed by Pompey, a new man.
In addition to their political aims, the optimates opposed the extension of Roman citizenship, and sought the preservation of the mos maiorum, the ways of their forefathers. They sought to prevent talented generals, such as Gaius Marius, Pompey the Great and Julius Caesar, from using their armies to accrue such power that they might be in a position to challenge the Senate, firstly by opposing Marius' plan to enlist impoverished Romans too poor to provide their own arms and supplies in the legions, and then by opposing attempts to settle such generals' veterans on state-owned land.
The optimates' cause reached its peak under the dictatorship of Lucius Cornelius Sulla (81 BC–79 BC). During his reign, the Assemblies were stripped of nearly all power, the Senate membership was raised from 300 to 600, thousands of soldiers were settled in northern Italy, and an equally large number of populares were executed via proscription lists. However, after Sulla's resignation and subsequent death, many of their policies were gradually reversed.
Besides Sulla, notable optimates included Cato the Younger, Titus Annius Milo, Marcus Calpurnius Bibulus and Marcus Junius Brutus. Though they had opposed him for the entirety of his political career, Pompey the Great also found himself as the leader of the optimates' faction once their civil war with Julius Caesar began.