How to win an election with Quintus T. Cicero
Part XI of the Ancient Wisdom for Modern Readers series
[Based on How to Win an Election: An Ancient Guide for Modern Politicians, by Quintus Tullius Cicero, translated by Philip Freeman. Full book series here.]
The more things change, the more they stay the same. At least, one definitely comes to this conclusion by reading Quintus Tullius Cicero’s Commentariolum Petitionis, translated by Philip Freeman as How to Win an Election for the ongoing Princeton Press series, Ancient Wisdom for Modern Readers.
Quintus was the younger brother of the more famous Marcus Tullius Cicero, who in 64 BCE was running for the highest political office in ancient Republican Rome, that of Consul. Quintus wrote a little guide to electioneering for the benefit of his brother in the form of a letter addressed to Marcus. Modern aspiring politicians would do well to read such letter, as they would learn pretty much all there is to know about campaigning for public office.
The Roman Republic was the other major democracy of the ancient world—other than Athens, that is. In a number of ways it was more sophisticated than its Athenian counterpart. The Roman Constitution had a number of checks and balances built into its system of government, so that no individual would have an easy time accruing too much power. The Roman people had had a taste of monarchy early on in their history and did not want to repeat the experience. (That is why not even later emperors ever referred to themselves as kings, even though they were absolute monarchs for all effective purposes.)
Various offices, like the ten Tribunes representing the plebeian classes, were up for election. So were the two Consuls, who held executive power for a year. All recognized Roman citizens, regardless of where they lived, could cast a vote in groups similar to the modern electoral colleges in the American system, known as centuriae (the same name as that of a military unit of 100 men). Unfortunately, there was no absentee ballot, which meant that if you lived far from the capital and wanted to vote you would have to embark on a potentially long and costly journey. Votes were cast by secret ballot and the first candidate to reach the minimum needed to win was elected (again, very much like in the modern US).
Moreover, people couldn’t just directly run for the highest offices, even if they were wealthy and belonging to the aristocracy. Rather, there was a set path, the cursus honorum, which specified the sequence of offices to be won and held before someone could move on to the next level. First the aspiring politician had to serve in the military; then, at a minimum age of 30, he could run for Quaestor, serving in the financial administration of the Republic; at a minimum age of 36 one could stand for Aedile, in charge of the maintenance of temples and buildings, among other things; the next step was to be elected Praetor, at a minimum age of 39, with largely judicial functions; finally, one could run for Consul, at the minimum age of 42. Just imagine how much more competent our political class would be if we enforced something like the cursus honorum of ancient Rome, with its guarantee that only people with a long record and experience of public service can reach the highest political offices.
Marcus Cicero was of the minimum age to become Consul in 64 BCE, and at the time was the most famous orator and public advocate of Rome. He had served as Quaestor in Sicily, where he had made a reputation for fair and uncorrupt government, and had gone through all the other steps of the cursus. However, he faced an additional obstacle: he was a homo novus, that is he was of relatively low origins and the first of his family to serve in the Senate, and was thus seen with suspicion by the reigning aristocracy. That’s why he needed all the help he could gather to win the election.
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His brother Quintus’ advice to overcome these obstacles and get elected can be summarized in ten points that will immediately appear familiar to us moderns:
(i) Secure the backing of your friends and family. You need those closest to you to be on board, partly because those are the people that are most likely to start damaging rumors against you, if they are not on your side.
(ii) Surround yourself with the right advisers and collaborators. A talented staff is one of the most formidable weapons of a campaign well run.
(iii) Call in favors. Any favors that anyone you have previously helped owes you. And if someone you need doesn’t owe you anything, then promise to return the favor in the future.
(iv) Build a wide base of support. Elections are not won without the help of a varied number of interest groups, citizens of different age ranges, members of the business community, and so forth.
(v) Make promises to everyone. Edge your bets and cast yourself as a supporter of traditional values with conservatives as well as a proponent of liberal reforms to progressives. Within limits, of course.
(vi) Hone your communications skills. This was not a problem for Marcus Cicero, but any good politician has to be persuasive, which means he needs to seriously cultivate the art of rhetoric.
(vii) Don’t take holidays. Campaigning for political office is a 24/7 job, no breaks or vacations are allowed until it’s over.
(viii) Know and exploit the weaknesses of your opponents. Use anything you can to cast a dark light on whoever is running against you. Rumors of corruption work very well. Sexual scandals even better.
(ix) Flatter your potential voters. Be warm with them, look them in the eyes, hold their babies, whatever it takes.
(x) Give hope to the people. In the end, most voters want to feel hopeful, and they need a candidate that can reassure them that better times are ahead.
Marcus Cicero followed the advice of his brother Quintus, and handily won election as Consul. His year in office turned out to be far more momentous than anyone would have imagined, since he found himself facing a conspiracy against the State orchestrated by the guy who had lost that very same election: Lucius Sergius Catilina. But that’s a story for another time.
Here are some highlights from How to Win an Election, with accompanying brief commentaries:
“Every day as you go down to the Forum, you should say to yourself: ‘I am an outsider. I want to be a consul. This is Rome.’” (2)
Nothing like a daily reminder to oneself of one’s objectives and the obstacles one faces. Marcus Cicero came from the small provincial town of Arpinum, south of Rome. And even though his father was wealthy enough to give him a good education, which included spending time in Athens, Cicero was well aware of the rarity of someone from outside the established aristocracy to be elected Consul.
“Another factor that can help you as an outsider is the poor quality of those men of the nobility who are competing against you. … You should be grateful to run against men like those two. They have both been brutes since they were boys, while even now they are notorious philanderers and spendthrifts.” (7-8)
Cicero’s two rivals were the already mentioned Catiline and Gaius Antonius Hybrida, who ended as the runner-up and was therefore co-Consul with Cicero (though he played an entirely secondary role during the consulship itself). The aristocrats in the Senate were decidedly against Catiline, which is why they threw their support behind Cicero, albeit reluctantly. It pays to understand and exploit the internal political dynamics of your party.
“Running for office can be divided into two kinds of activity: securing the support of your friends and winning over the general public. … In an election you need to think of friendship in broader terms than in everyday life. For a candidate, a friend is anyone who shows you goodwill or seeks out your company.” (16)
This and other passages sound extremely utilitarian, but then again, Quintus was advising his brother on how to win the election, not how to run a charity. That said, one of the most interesting characteristics of Marcus Cicero as a statesman is that he always kept his moral compass and long-term goals firm in his mind while at the same time acting pragmatically and shifting tactics as dictated by the situation on the ground. It is this combination of principles and pragmatics that made him one of the best politicians of all times and an inspiration to people like Thomas Jefferson and Winston Churchill.
“Running for office, as wearisome as it is, has the advantage of allowing you to meet and get to know many different types of people you wouldn’t normally associate with in your daily life.” (25)
Politicians have to like people, or at the very least be able to effectively pretend that they do. Cicero had the advantage that he didn’t have to pretend. He was a genuinely open minded and curious person, who valued getting to know others and learning from them. And it sounds like he truly enjoyed campaigning for office.
“It isn’t enough that you merely call them by name and develop a superficial friendship. You must actually be their friend.” (32)
This is excellent advice by Quintus, which I’m sure Marcus had no trouble following. Ultimately, a good politician really has to care for those he represents, or it will soon be obvious that he doesn’t. People enter into politics for all sorts of reasons, but the only good one is that you genuinely want to do good for others, and Marcus Tullius Cicero did try his best to help his fellow countrymen throughout his life.
[Next in this series: How to run a country with Cicero. Previous installments: I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX, X.]
Interesting that Quintus failed to say anything about paying out lots of hush money... :-)
Thank you for covering this series, and summarizing it so eloquently. As a Veteran, I am tired of politicians who do not know what military service entails and who treat us as props or tools. Although I certainly will vote for any worthy politician, especially against any unworthy one, I do think it's a good thing in a leader's resume to have been in a situation where they serve the public in such a role, and I believe there's comparable roles in civilian life too, like police or fire fighters. There's nothing quite like being in a situation where you put your life on the line to make you think viscerally about the value of life. And to think about the public you place your life on the line for. I know for me, as a young man, seeing the night time flashes of mortar or cannon fire in the hills surrounding Beirut from my ship in 1983 led me to seek philosophy, as I had to evaluate my life choices and seek to understand myself better.