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 edition for the US 2012 campaign, and it emphasizes the familiar. The introduction pinpoints all sorts of twenty-first-century-style advice in the ancient text. “Surround yourself with the right people”: every politician, whether in the first century BCE or the twenty-first century CE, needs a staff he can trust. Or “Give people hope”: because every voter wants to believe in someone, and to believe that life will get better. Or “Know the weaknesses of your opponents—and exploit them”: rumors of corruption or sex scandals work especially well.
These topical references make the “Handbook” a more popular text than its author (whether Quintus Cicero or some nostalgic academic one hundred years later) could ever have imagined. But the truth is that it is not quite so familiar as it is often made to appear.
That is partly a question of differences in political structure. Despite the claims of the distinguished Bryn Mawr classicist Lily Ross Taylor (whose most famous book was entitled Party Politics in the Age of Caesar, first published in 1949), there was no party political system in ancient Rome. It is true that there were different interest groups—supporting the rival claims of the people or of the elite—but these were never formalized. There was no party machine supporting the campaign of any would-be consul. Roman elections were all a matter of personal connections, charisma, and favor, not of manifestos and paid-up party loyalty. And that obviously changes the whole dynamic of what the political process was about.
Even so, quite why any individual in Rome ever voted as he did (and it was always he) is one of those questions that reveal our very tenuous grip on the processes of ancient politics. The economic hold of the elite over their dependents and clients is one thing (and predictably enough, the Roman nobility seem generally to have disapproved of the introduction of the secret ballot—an electoral reform unheard of in classical Athens, the supposed “cradle” of Western democracy). But we also glimpse occasionally a sense of the class interest of the Roman people, or plebs (a term that has recently come to haunt the British Tory Party, when a senior government minister was reported to have called an innocent British bobby a “pleb”).
In another curious text of the first century CE, Valerius Maximus’ compilation of Memorable Deeds and Sayings, we read of one upper-class Roman politician who was canvassing in the Forum, shaking the hands of the voters, as candidates do. In doing the rounds, he came across a peasant with rough, horny hands. “Oh my goodness,” said the politician, “do you walk on them?” The onlookers took this as an insult to the honorable, hard-working Roman people, and he lost the election.
But as often, the apparent familiarity of the world of the ancient text is largely a matter of translation. For decades, if not centuries, Quintus Cicero’s advice has been adjusted in English versions to match our own political systems and processes. Freeman’s translation is no different. Even the idea that the politician should give people hope, a cliché of modern media politics, looks different in the original Latin from the modern English. Freeman’s version has: “The most important part of your campaign is to bring hope to people and a feeling of goodwill toward you.” It is, for us, an instantly recognizable thought. But what the original Latin actually says is this: “In seeking election you must take care that the state has a good hope of you, and a good opinion of you”—which is quite different from (indeed the reverse of) the modern idea of bringing hope to the people.
Even Boris’s favorite passage is not quite the same in the Latin as in Freeman’s English. What the author said was: “A man’s house would not be full if he only undertook as much as he saw he could fulfill.” It is a particular reference to the institution of clientship, and the presentation of the client at the house of his patron and his request for help. No patron would have a houseful of clients, so the “Handbook” suggests, if he only offered to help those whom he knew he really could.
That’s a different claim from a modern political view that you promise anything you like to get elected. In fact, in other ways too, the twenty-first- century relationship between the political hopeful and his voters and “clients” is the mirror image of the ancient one. The modern clients, in the shape of Super PACs and the like, call the political tune to an extent that most of the supporters of the ancient would-be consul could not.
Most reviewers of How to Win an Election have been struck by its modernity (Garry Wills was a notable exception). It is, of course, true that we have in some ways learned from the Romans how to operate our own political system. But we have also learned to reconstruct the Roman political system in our own image—which is exactly what Freeman’s How to Win an Election does.