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Politics, Roman Style

Rating: 2 votes, 4.50 average.
There’s nothing new under the sun. You say that’s an old fogey speaking. Well, I came across this outstanding piece in the ( Wall Street Journal on politics. Not American politics, not the politics of a European nation, not even the politics of the 21st or 20th centuries. Here summarized by Philip Freeman, professor of Classics, is a little know political treatise by the brother of the great Roman statesman, Marcus Tullius Cicero. The brother, Quintus, a different sort than his older brother, apparently more practical, certainly roughed edged and not as learned, offers his brother political advice. From the Wall Street Journal piece:

It was a bitter and volatile campaign, with accusations of inconsistency, incompetence and scandal filling the air. Candidates competed to portray themselves as the true conservative choice, while voters fretted about the economy and war threatened in the Middle East. The year was 64 B.C., and Marcus Tullius Cicero was running for Roman consul.

Cicero was a political outsider from a small town near Rome, but he was a brilliant man and gifted speaker, with a burning desire to gain the highest office in the ancient republic. As the campaign approached, his brother Quintus—a practical and sometimes violent man who would later help Julius Caesar conquer Gaul—decided that his older sibling needed to learn a few things about how to win an election.
First of a little background. Cicero lived during the eclipse of the Roman Republic, a troubled period of infighting and civil war. Though wealthy, he came from an equestrian family, which was between the upper patrician and lower plebeian. Incredibly learned, immersed in Greek philosophy and Roman law, prolific writer, mesmerizing orator, he made a name for himself as a lawyer first, representing difficult cases, and winning, and then entering politics. He was elected to a series of posts, and even Consul (the highest office) for one year, and during the upheaval of the Julius Caesar dictatorship tried to find the middle ground between Caesar and the Conservative Senators. His main goal was to salvage the Republic at all costs. When Caesar was killed and Mark Antony strove to take the dictatorship, Cicero denounced him in a famous set of orations to rally the country against dictatorship, calling Antony a traitor and a drunkard. It was a last gasp attempt to save the Republic. Ultimately he was killed by the forces of Mark Antony, supposedly Antony having his tongue cut out and posted in the center of Rome. Cicero by some has been called the greatest Roman of them all.

This letter from Quintus was to serve as advice for Marcus’s run for Consul.

"My dear Marcus," he wrote, "you have many wonderful qualities, but those you lack you must acquire, and it must appear as if you were born with them." Quintus knew that the odds were against his brother: "To speak bluntly, since you are seeking the most important position in Rome and since you have so many potential enemies, you can't afford to make any mistakes. You must conduct a flawless campaign with the greatest thoughtfulness, industry and care."
And so he laid out an election plan for Marcus in a short pamphlet in Latin that remains almost unknown to modern readers. The candid advice that Quintus gives would make Machiavelli blush, but it rings as true today as it did 2,000 years ago.
I’m not going to quote the entire article. Please do read it, it’s great. But here is a bulletized summary of his advice.

1. Promise everything to everyone. Quintus says that the best way to win voters is to tell them what they want to hear…

2. Call in all favors. If you have helped friends or associates in the past, let them know that it's payback time…

3. Know your opponent's weaknesses—and exploit them. Quintus practically invented opposition research…

4. Flatter voters shamelessly. Quintus warns his brother: "You can be rather stiff at times. You desperately need to learn the art of flattery—a disgraceful thing in normal life but essential when you are running for office…

5. Give people hope. Even the most cynical voter wants to believe in someone…
So did it work? I guess Quintus was the Dick Morris of his day. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

(If you haven’t guessed, I happen to be a Roman history buff.)


  1. mtpspur's Avatar
    I liked this--human nature really hasn't and never will change much.
  2. Buh4Bee's Avatar
    Maybe better yet, Carl Rove- LOL!

    This is a little gem of an article. Yes, this was a very brutal time for the Romans. I know a little bit about the second triumvirate. It seems astounding that a ruler can also be a murder. But, it's apparent that we are not much more civilized than the Romans. Our human nature does prevail, no matter what period in time.
  3. AuntShecky's Avatar
    Oh yes! I seem to recall that some guest on MSNBC recommended this article shortly after
    it was published.

    But it isn't just ancient Rome, is it, Virg.? Almost every event in history has a parallel counterpart in contemporary life. For instance, some of the issues embedded in the Crusades of the 11th through 13th centuries have come up in recent years. Also, whenever I read something about early democracy, such as I. F. Stone's The Death of Socrates, I am astonished on how much the ancient Greeks were like us!

    On this particular blog of yours, thanks for the historical recap, really! It's been so many
    decades since I was in high school Latin classes, I had forgotten the non-horsy meaning of "equestrian." I also remember as a 10th grader how taken I was with Cicero, whom I idolized like a teeny-bopper (even before that phrase became popular.)

    It's funny how our opinions change as we getolder. In my youth I liked Ayn Rand and Goldwater; today I think very little of the former and do not at all subscribe to the political philosophy of the latter (though I still admire some of the late senator's qualities and still agree with him on a couple of issues.)

    The same with Cicero-- my opinion of him changed in reading Robert Graves's books (I've got to read 'em again!) and the PBS version of I,Claudius. And poor Cicero was taken down quite a few pegs by the HBO series, Rome.

    So even though are opinions become less clear-cut and more nuanced as we get older, it becomes more and more evident that the old saw is true-- "The more things change, the more they stay the same."

    Thanks for such a thoughtful and intelligent blog post!

    "A Louse in the locks of literature."
    Updated 03-19-2012 at 04:54 PM by AuntShecky
  4. qimissung's Avatar
    Very interesting, Virgil, and very apropos during an election year, especially the first one, "promise everything to everyone." Sigh. Things never really do change, do they. I guess it is the nature of the beast.
  5. LadyLuck's Avatar
    It really is pretty amusing how little people and society have changed over the past millennia or two The only real difference is that we have better tech gadgets now to spread the word.
  6. Buh4Bee's Avatar
    Tweet! Tweet!
  7. plainjane's Avatar
    Cicero has always been my favorite. Thanks for an interesting article.
  8. Virgil's Avatar
    Thanks to all who answered.

    @Aunt Shecky
    Robert Graves and the HBO series Rome (which I loved) are fictional accounts. You can't really go by that. Was Cicero a character in I Claudius? Claudius lived well after Cicero, possibly almost a century.