How to Win an Election in the Roman Republic

Luke Tomes

Ancient and Classical Ancient Rome
HISTORYHIT.TV A new online only channel for history lovers

If you want to have any chance of being elected to a position of power in today’s political climate, you’d better make sure you run a successful and inspiring election campaign.

Politicians utilise various strategies in order to gain the extra edge over their competition; they hold rallies, host fundraisers, share endorsement videos on social media, promote their brand and even tweet to their fanbase from the toilet.

Campaigning strategies have evolved significantly throughout history, yet the core principles of successful electioneering have not really changed since antiquity.

Background

In 64 BC, Rome was still a Republic. An extremely sophisticated political structure established within the city provided the foundation of its democracy. Barring a few obvious exceptions, many elements of the political system were recognisably democratic, even by today’s standards.

Popular individuals, often those with influence, money and a degree of intellect, ran for public office, while the city’s electorate voted every year for their preferred candidate.

Marcus Cicero in the Roman Senate. (Image Credit: Public Domain).

In this year, Marcus Tullius Cicero wanted to be elected Consul of the Roman Republic. He had already made a name for himself within the city as a successful statesman, lawyer and scholar. He was popular, wealthy, influential, and had just reached the minimum age required of candidates running for the highest elected political office.

In the run-up to his political campaign, Cicero received a very important letter from his brother, Quintus Tullius Cicero. It was entitled Commentariolum Petitionis, or “A Short Guide to Electioneering”. The essay within was intended to be a guide for Marcus Cicero during his political campaign.

The deepening political divide in the U.S. and an apparent realignment of the world order through President Trump’s foreign policy have prompted many comparisons to the fall of the Roman Empire. But can we really look back at ancient civilisations and draw parallels with those that exist today? And can the lessons of the past really help us to tackle the challenges of the present?Watch Now

So, what were the tips that Quintus gave to his brother?

Playing to one’s strengths

Quintus was aware that Marcus did not hold the status of a Nobilis, meaning that he had not been born into a family of hereditary patricians – the traditional ruling class in Ancient Rome. He was what became known as a Novus-Homo, or “new man”, eager to attain upward social mobility through merit.

Quintus did not see this as a problem. In fact, he considered it as something that strengthened his brother’s image, and bolstered his campaign.

“Almost every day as you go down to the forum you should say to yourself, I am a Novus Homo, I am a candidate for the consulship, this is Rome.” – Commentariolum Petitionis

Marcus could not rely on tradition, ancestry or huge quantities of wealth, and so it was vital he played to his strengths. What Marcus lacked in impressive lineage, he more than made up for with his impressive oratory skills.

Through his voice, Cicero was able to make the case that he ought to be elected based on merit, unlike many of his rival candidates who simply relied on their ancestral roots to gain public support. He galvanised support, and by playing to his strengths, he was able to turn the tables on those who attempted to belittle his legitimacy.

Commentariolum Petitionis. (Image Credit: Public Domain).

Canvassing

Being an accomplished orator was not enough, however, to be elected as Consul of Rome. Many candidates were good at speaking to large audiences, and so it was important to stand out. One way of doing this was by canvassing voters.

Quintus emphasised the importance of canvassing for consulship, advising his brother to meet voters face to face in as many locations as possible. This strategy was to be specifically targeted at the Plebeian class within the city.

First-century AD bust of Marcus Tullius Cicero in the Capitoline Museums, Rome. (Image Credit: CC).

Marcus was to greet individuals within large crowds and shake their hands in order to show gratitude and humility. It was also important that he remembered their names for future reference.

A system of favours

To gain support from the young and middle-class elites in Rome, a different approach was needed. Simply meeting these men and shaking their hands was not sufficient.

In order to attract the cooperation and backing of this class, Quintus recommended that Marcus go out of his way in order to do favours for them. It would be a wise idea to offer to lend money to any young, elite individuals who may require a loan. He might also offer a few job opportunities – senior positions to men who were looking for work.

In October 42 BC the Roman Republic committed suicide. Near the town of Philippi in northern Greece the forces of Brutus and Cassius, the famous assassins of Julius Caesar and the last surviving cheerleaders of the Roman Republic, faced off against the armies of Marc Antony and young Octavian. Two separate battles were fought, the results of which decided the future direction of Rome. Listen Now

Offering favours to the young elites in Rome would not only attain their support, but their active participation in a candidate’s entourage. Entourages were key for protection on the campaign trail and were equally useful in gaining intelligence from other campaigns.

Patronage

The most prominent class in Rome were the Equestrians. These men held the power to influence the election process. They had the wealth to transform a mediocre campaign into a winning one and so it was crucial that Marcus Cicero had as many of them in his corner as possible. This is why Quintus placed an such an emphasis on seeking their backing.

Equestrian Statue. (Image Credit: Public Domain).

Firstly, it was advisable to find all the “leading men” in all of the cities, colleges and districts. Once these influential individuals had been found, it was important that Marcus found a residential location that suited any potential clients. Doing so would guarantee far more opportunities for Marcus to host meetings and banquets, where he could converse with wealthy men and seek their financial backing.

When in the company of Equestrians, Quintus stressed the importance of being “personable”. Those from whom Marcus sought support needed to be treated as if they were his close friends, not his clients.

Roman Banquet. (Image Credit: Public Domain).

Bribery and violence

Quintus never endorsed the use of violence or bribery, but he did recognise the recurring frequency of both in the run-up to elections.

There was a fine line in Ancient Rome between overt corruption, which was considered to be deplorable, and “entertaining” influential guests. While Quintus encouraged his brother to do the latter, he suggested that Marcus use his entourage to keep watch of any potential bribery occurring within his rivals’ campaigns.

In the first episode of Timeline Tapes, we're presenting Tony Robinson's Romans: Caesar Pt 1 as he takes us through the first part of the life of Julius Caesar.Listen Now

Exposing corruption would damage an opponent’s reputation and significantly improve Marcus’ chances of being elected. It was therefore equally critical that Marcus did not engage in any form of bribery himself.

Violence also became increasingly common from the late second century BC onwards. Many candidates lost their lives as a result of assassination plots. Novi Homines, such as Marcus Cicero, would have to make special efforts to ensure their safety, employing personal bodyguards and ensuring they gained the support of those who could afford to protect them.

Entertainment

Entertaining the masses became an increasingly important factor in the run-up to elections in the late Roman Republic. As competition between elites increased, so did the significance of providing celebratory spectacles for the public to enjoy.

A gladiatorial fight, as imagined in 1872. (Image Credit: Public Domain).

Banquets and gladiatorial games offered their sponsors, often those running for office, extravagantly expensive but effective opportunities for self-promotion. By giving their clients and potential voters exciting entertainment at little or no cost, candidates were bound to gain popularity from all classes.

Universal appeal

Above all else, Quintus made it clear that to win an election, you had to appeal to every class in Rome and across Italy. Having a universal appeal was the most important aspect of electioneering, and if Marcus followed the guide his brother gave him, he was destined for success.

Whether you believe the guide was written by Quintus or not, it certainly seemed to have worked. Marcus Tullius Cicero won his election and became Consul of the Roman Republic in 63 BC.

Excellent for fighting (mock) battles with, and also a great learning aid for kids studying Key Stage 2 (KS2) history.Shop Now

 

Tags: Roman Republic Election Marcus Cicero

Luke Tomes