Election by Connection

Arthur Grace/Contact Press Images
Marina del Rey, California, 2009; photograph by Arthur Grace from his book America 101, a selection of his documentary images from the early 1970s to the present, most of them never seen before. It has just been published by Fall Line.

During the British election campaign in 2010, I was asked by BBC radio to interview Boris Johnson—keen classicist, mayor of London, Tory maverick, and not yet rumored (as he is now) to be aiming to replace David Cameron as prime minister and party leader. Our subject was to be one of the most intriguing works of ancient literature to have survived, the “Handbook on Electioneering” (Commentariolum Petitionis in Latin), a short text said to have been written by Quintus Cicero, advising his more famous brother Marcus on how to run a Roman election campaign, in 64 BCE—who to chat up, where to be seen, and what to say.

The BBC is closely scrutinized during elections for any suggestion of bias, and it is bound by a series of rules, which insist that each party get its fair share of airtime (minutely calibrated from the big players down to the special-interest minority groups who field a candidate or two). This was a perfect alibi for talking about politics safely: to have an academic, with no formal political affiliation, talking to an idiosyncratic politician who was not standing for election, about a guide to elections written two thousand years ago.

Predictably, Boris (and he is the only British politician regularly known by his first name) was extremely interested in Quintus Cicero’s advice, and found all kinds of modern parallels. He was particularly taken with the suggestion that a politician was well advised to lie his way into popular favor, or at least that he should promise more than he could deliver. “After all,” as Philip Freeman translates it in his new version of the text, “if a politician made only promises he was sure he could keep, he wouldn’t have many friends.” “Exactly,” said Boris. “That is just how modern politics works.”

In fact, this “Handbook on Electioneering” is rather more complicated than it appears. There has long been some doubt on whether it really was written by the second-rate Quintus, attempting to instruct his much smarter elder brother in how to reach the consulship. Why, after all, would it have been preserved? And why did Marcus need Quintus’ advice? Many critics have suspected that it was a nostalgic fiction—or rhetorical exercise—of the early imperial period, written decades after popular elections had ended under Roman autocratic rule. But at the same time, most critics have imagined that it nevertheless represented much of the reality of Roman political competition; and that’s partly because it can seem so close to our own.

Philip Freeman’s translation of the “Handbook”—How to Win an Election—is a timely new…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.