running for office in rome -- 11/3/22

Today's encore selection -- from Augustus by Adrian Goldsworthy. Running for public office in ancient Rome:

"A man seeking office [in Rome] formally donned a specially whitened toga known as the toga candidata, from which we get our word candidate. It was important to be conspicuous during a campaign. There were no political parties at Rome as we would understand them, nor were elections primarily contests about policy. Quite openly, voters selected on the basis of perceived character and past behaviour rather than the views a candidate expressed. Where an individual's nature was not obvious, the Roman people tended to be drawn to a famous name, for there was a sense that virtue and ability were inherited. Therefore, if a man's father and grandfather had served with distinction -- or at least avoided utter ignominy -- then it was assumed that he would possess comparable talent. He also tended to inherit the networks of past favours, obligations and friendships built up by previous generations. The established aristocratic families lost no opportunity to advertise their achievements. Porches of houses were decorated with the symbols of past victories, and as someone went in they would pass busts of ancestors, each shown with the insignia of their magistracies. ...

"It was especially important for a candidate's house to be busy in these hours just before dawn as the working day got under way. In 64 BC Quintus Cicero wrote a pamphlet on electioneering presented as advice for his brother's consular campaign -- something which Cicero himself scarcely needed, but a convenient literary device. He notes that quite a few people will choose to visit several of the candidates, hedging their bets on who will win. Quintus advises the candidate to show great pleasure at such visits, in the hope of flattering them into becoming genuine supporters.

Modern painting of the Forum where meetings of the Public Assembly took place.

"A candidate could not have too many political friends, and this was an opportunity to make new ones. As Quintus Cicero puts it: '... you can make friends of any people you wish without disgrace, which you cannot do in the rest of life. If at some other time you were to exert yourself to court friendship with them, you would seem to act in bad taste; but in a canvass you would be thought a very poor candidate if you did not so act and with vigour too in connection with many such people.'

"It was a good opportunity to let people do a candidate a favour by showing support and so put him under obligation to them for the future. There were very obvious ways of displaying commitment to a candidate, most notably walking with him through the Forum. It was important to be attended by as many and as distinguished a following as possible so that friendships could be noted. The Roman electorate tended to favour a perceived winner, and so big followings readily grew as more people wanted to join the winning side.

Voter, standing to the left of a pons (or voting bridge, designed both to make the
act of voting a very public act and to augment the secrecy of a citizen's
individual vote) is being handed a ballot from a bare-chested attendant below.
On the right, another voter puts his ballot in a cista (or voting urn).

"When a candidate proceeded through the heart of the City in this way, he would greet passers-by, and again wish to be seen to be associated with as many prominent people as possible. A special type of slave, known as a nomenclator, had the job of whispering in his master's ear the names of people so that they could be greeted properly. Too obvious a dependence on this assistant was seen as vulgar, but Cato the Younger was unusual in very publicly dispensing with one, and then attempting to ban other candidates from using them. Under pressure he relented, and nomenclatores continued to be an essential part of a politician's staff. ...

"A wise candidate did his best to please as many people as possible. He and his friends were expected to entertain and praise both individuals and groups -- the equestrian order, the publicani, the less well-off classes, and members of the various guilds in the City and voting divisions in the Assemblies. It was vital to be seen as generous and willing to help, particularly in return for support. As Quintus Cicero put it: 'people want not only promises ... but promises made in a lavish and complimentary way'. They were also bound to ask for favours. 'Whatever you cannot perform, decline gracefully or, better yet, don't decline. A good man will do the former, a good candidate the latter.' Better to promise wherever possible, since 'if you refuse you are sure to rouse antagonism at once, and in more people .... Especially as they are much angrier with those who refuse them than with a man who ... has a reason for not fulfilling his promise, although he would do so if he possibly could.' Election pledges were just as impermanent in the first century BC as they are today, and voters similarly inclined to let optimism triumph over experience."

Tuesday is Election Day in the United States. Remember to VOTE!



Adrian Goldsworthy


Augustus: First Emperor of Rome


Yale University Press


2014 by Adrian Goldworthy


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