Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is characterized by hyperplastic synovial pannus tissue, which mediates destruction of cartilage and bone. Fibroblast-like synoviocytes (FLS) are a key component of this invasive synovium and have a major role in the initiation and perpetuation of destructive joint inflammation. The pathogenic potential of FLS in RA stems from their ability to express immunomodulating cytokines and mediators as well as a wide array of adhesion molecule and matrix-modelling enzymes. FLS can be viewed as 'passive responders' to the immunoreactive process in RA, their activated phenotype reflecting the proinflammatory milieu. However, FLS from patients with RA also display unique aggressive features that are autonomous and vertically transmitted, and these cells can behave as primary promoters of inflammation. The molecular bases of this 'imprinted aggressor' phenotype are being clarified through genetic and epigenetic studies. The dual behaviour of FLS in RA suggests that FLS-directed therapies could become a complementary approach to immune-directed therapies in this disease. Pathophysiological characteristics of FLS in RA, as well as progress in targeting these cells, are reviewed in this manuscript.