Happy Election Day – A Lesson from Rome for the Candidates!

Happy Election Day! While we wait in lines to vote and by the media for returns, a historical perspective from one of our students, Keara Johnson.



How to get into political office 101 as taught by Professor Quintus Cicero

The electoral system in the Roman Republic can best be evidenced by the example of the Centuriate Assembly. In this case, all citizens belonged to this assembly and were enrolled in 193 voting units called centuries. However, these units were distributed unequally among the wealthy in society and gave more votes to those of higher status compared to those of lower ranking. This led Cicero to say, “we Romans do not count votes; we weigh them.” While this practice may have been considered unfair, it did ensure that the elite would remain loyal to the state and feel as though their concerns were being addressed. In terms of achieving political office, the most important aspect to consider is of course the people. Quintus also claims that soliciting votes for office can be broken down into a pair of activities, securing loyalty of friends and taking note of the feelings of the community. In order to secure this loyalty, especially from members of every class, one ought to make an effort to visit and perform acts of kindness for these people. It is also crucial to form friendships with the types of people that one usually does not approach unless it is for the purpose of canvassing. Sometimes it is necessary for the electorate to be motivated or have specific reasons to be pledging their vote to the candidate running. To do this, it is essential to make sure that the genuine friends of the individual are aware of what they stand to gain from this sponsorship. Candidates are also expected to appreciate what they are receiving from each person and will remember those who gave them the opportunity to rise to this political office in the first place. If both parties are mindful of their responsibilities, then another step is taken toward winning the election. The next phase is to identify the potential voters. Senators, knights and all the other popular men in the community should be canvassed. Gaining the support of these men will make it much easier to review the rest of the city, especially if they are leaders within the sections of the community. After starting with one city, one must move outward to consider the entire area or in Cicero’s case, all of Italy. Doing this would allow the contenders to determine where a stronger foothold was needed and more voters could be collected. The fourth step in the election process has to do more so with the feelings of the voters. In the Roman Republic, it was common that the constituents would escort the official to the forum or attend to them throughout the day. Candidates should express their gratitude for these actions and establish how much they value these individuals. Doing this could make the voters feel as though their candidate truly wishes to maintain a connection with the people voting for them and is more down to earth. At the same time, the daily canvass involves officials polishing their reputations. Officials should continue to remind the people that due to their efforts, some of them have retained their property, honor or fortune. Therefore the principle of “you scratch my back, I scratch yours” must have been a common occurrence during Roman elections. Quintus’s suggestion of knowing one’s enemies is also a worthwhile election strategy. It is important to be aware of the three classes of people who are associated with opponents and detractors. There are those who have been attacked in court who only need to be assured that the official will defend them in such a feverous manner if the need arises. Obviously there will be those who dislike the candidate for reasons only they themselves know. To combat this, Quintus recommended that it was best to appeal to the feelings of these people by performing kind acts of service. For those who harbor animosity based upon their association with a rival, one should express a lack of ill will towards those standing against them. Overall, the best way to win an election during the time of the Roman Republic was simply to win the hearts of the people. No fancy campaigns were expected, but the ability to sway the masses to your side was the greatest skill a candidate could have.

The bonds of patronage and clientage were very prevalent in the Roman Republic and provided self-help without the need for a modern welfare state. Patrons were expected to look out for their clients’ well-being as a whole and vice-versa. The relationship between the two parties could be described as being like a vassal treaty or in a modern sense, an insurance company. A client could be portrayed as a vassal who performs a service for a king/lord/patron in exchange for protection or some other necessary good. As a modern entity, the patron would be the insurance company since they provide security and a safety net for the clients who pay for these services. Patronage could also be extended in a community sense. For example, Cicero was the patron of communities in both Italy and Cilicia as a result of his governorship in Asia Minor. This seems to be an indication of the fact that most patrons who sponsored entire communities had to be high-class and wealthy individuals who were often famous in a political sense as well. The third form of patronage was between a freedman and his liberator. When slaves were properly freed, they were still partially dependent on their past masters. This could be considered troublesome and semi-clumsy. However, this mutual dependency or fides led to this relationship becoming a misleading or perhaps even made-up partnership. Overall, it seems as though the relationship between the various forms of patrons and clients formed the strength of the Republic. These connections may not have been based on the stereotypically strong Roman family unit, but they certainly formed the glue that held many partnerships together throughout the time of the Republic.

Surprisingly, Roman politics was based on the incredibly down to earth principle of direct interactions with the voters and appeals to the feelings of said people. The fact that Quintus pays much attention to the communications between the candidates and their entourage as they travel to and from places is a good indication of this. The political process was more geared towards friendship and gaining lifelong allies. Personal relationships based on patronage, clientage and the common principle that people should help one another out were extremely normal. Quintus further illustrates this point when he reminds his brother that he should mention how he, without any pay, helped them to retain their entire fortunes and properties. This is highly personal, since Marcus Cicero may have saved the intimate livelihood of hundreds of people without a second thought. Even the ways in which hopeful political officials approach their opponents or those who side with their rivals is a seemingly peaceful and personal matter. Rather than lashing out and attempting to disrespect these people, Cicero was encouraged to carry out kind services and befriend any dissenters. These conversations and actions almost seem more like the types of things that would occur between family members, further stressing the point that Roman politics was once carried out in a familial style.

The elections of the Roman Republic and the current elections of today, at least on a national scale, are vastly different, but yet contain some of the key elements that come with any form of election throughout time. The personal level of interaction that took place during campaign season has long since passed. Today’s candidates no longer can reach out to every single individual and build some type of friendship, nor would they want to. Trying to do this would severely impact their time and limit their ability to connect with the groups of people they feel as though they need to gain votes from. Perhaps the largest difference in my opinion between today’s hopeful political officials and the ones of the past is the way opponents are treated. Anyone who has paid any inkling of attention during this presidential race could tell you that Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are not going to become best friends any time soon. Both individuals blast each other over leaked emails, tax policies, “locker room talk” and building walls. Even their supporters attack each other and the candidates over social media and in public. This is a complete flip from the method of treating your rivals during the Roman Republic’s election season. Marcus Cicero was supposed to show that he was kindly disposed to the men who stood against him. He was also told by his brother that the carrying out of services and the demonstration of kindly feelings was a surefire way to remove the prejudice of those who disliked him. This example displays the level of respect held for each human person during the Republic, no matter if they were your political rival or not. This concept is completely foreign today and I cannot imagine either of the two presidential nominees displaying “kindly feelings” or trying to perform charitable gestures for the other person or their supporters. However, some parallels can be drawn between the past and the present elections. In a way, patronage and clientage still exist today in our political elections. If the patrons are the presidential nominees, then the clients could take the form of certain special interest groups or even corporations. The nominees promise to pass legislation that appeals to these groups in exchange for funds or their endorsement when it comes time for people to start determining who they wish to vote for. Also, officials seem to follow the same idea of focusing on regions where they need to gather more support. Officials today often visit areas where it would be possible for them to seal the deal and gain the votes of the people living there. This are usually called swing states. Roman officials did the same thing by studying an entire map of Italy and determining the areas where an increased foothold was needed.

The coin above displays Roman citizens voting and the introduction of the concept of the secret ballot in Roman society. The image on the coin is of a voter bending down to receive a ballot from another individual. There is also another voter standing on a bridge depositing their ballot into the box. The point of the bridge was to ensure that no ballot-stuffing took place and so that the other voters could see what was going on. With the introduction of the secret ballot by the plebiscites in the 2nd century B.C. came a blow to the influence of the elite. No longer could the higher class see how their clients and allies ended up voting. This measure could have affected the elite in various ways. The idea that they no longer knew how their friends were voting could have caused them to up their game to gather voters or led to difficulties since they no longer could see their political leanings. This image is also a glimpse into the lessening control of the upper-classes and the new increase in the freedom of choice and libertas for the other citizens. Overall, the impact of the secret ballot on the Roman Republic cannot yet be fully explored, but this coin is merely the beginning of a movement towards the growth of the influence of the non-elite classes.

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