Appearing in a format similar to that of another work applicable to American politics -- Harry Frankfurt’s landmark treatise On Bullshit -- the little volume called How to Win an Election: An Ancient Guide for Modern Politicians (Princeton University Press) is a new edition of Commentariolum petitionis. It is an essay attributed to Quintus Tullius Cicero, supposedly from 64 B.C., though it may have been written in the following century. Scholars have argued about that long and hard over the years. It could be the work of a student mimicking Cicero, or a historian imagining how the illustrious statesman Marcus Cicero might have been advised about the grubby side of political life under the republic.
Coming in at not quite 120 pages, How to Win an Election is a quick read -- especially if you don’t know Latin: the original work appears on the even-numbered pages, and Philip Freeman’s translation on the odd-numbered. In his introduction, Freeman (a professor of classical languages at Luther College, in Decorah, Iowa) gives a quick and fairly broad sketch of Roman politics in Cicero’s era. A short list of recommended readings includes Anthony Everitt’s Cicero: The Life and Times of Rome’s Greatest Politician, but not, oddly enough, Plutarch’s biography. Either one is well worth tracking down for more context.
Freeman mentions the scholarly debate over who wrote the work, but shrugs it off. “The author,” he writes, “was clearly someone intimately familiar with Roman politics in the first century B.C. who possessed a keen sense of how elections are won in any age.” No doubt, but it's hard to read the document without wondering whether it is fact or fiction.
Authentic or not, the Commentariolum is supposed a letter from Quintus Tullius Cicero to his older brother Marcus (the famous one) on the eve of the campaign for consulship -- as spelled out in the title of another translation of it, available online.
Consulship was an office resembling that of president or prime minister, with some high-priestly responsibilities thrown in. The position would lose much of its power within a few decades, as civil war gave way to the dictatorship (benign and otherwise) of the Caesars. But Marcus was running for consul when it remained the highest office in the land.
That a non-aristocrat like Marcus had a shot at the position was a sign of changing times. He and his brother came from a family that had made its fortune in the toga-cleaning business. The laundering process involved soaking the cloth in urine to get the grease out. It was then rinsed very thoroughly, of course. But still…. Another Roman would coin the phrase pecunia non olet (“money doesn’t stink”), but Marcus Cicero's background must have been a gift to political satirists, even so.
Marcus was thoroughly grounded in Greek rhetorical theory and political science. But lofty ideas do not win elections, and you won’t find any in the manual Quintus wrote for Marcus (assuming he did). It is a bouillon cube of electoral realpolitik – and the advice, if authentic, clearly worked. Marcus won the seat.
To boil the recommendations down to the first PowerPoint slide: A candidate must know how to schmooze, smear, and make lots of promises without becoming excessively distracted by the absolute certainty he will fail to meet most of them.
“If you break a promise,” Quintus Cicero explains, “the outcome is uncertain and the number of people affected is small. But if you refuse to make a promise, the result is certain and produces anger in a large number of voters.” Besides, once elected, time is on the candidate’s side: “Events are always happening that you didn’t expect or not happening that you did expect. Broken promises are often lost in a cloud of changing circumstances so that anger against you will be minimal.”
In short, what have you got to lose? “After all, if a politician made only promises he was sure he could keep, he wouldn’t have many friends.”
True, that. Electoral politics is all about making friends (or “friends,” anyway) without creating, along the way, a bunch of enemies who know various unflattering rumors or inconvenient truths about the candidate. Cicero indicates that the most damaging information about a candidate is likely to come from family members or very close associates.
First of all, the candidate must seek out the privileged -- whose ranks he is trying to join -- to reassure them that he will defend their interests. “Tell them,” Quintus says, “that if you seem to be siding with the common people on any issue it is because you need to win the favor of Pompey, so that he can use his great influence on your behalf or at least not against you.” (Imagine someone with the pre-Palin reputation of John McCain and the post-Lewinsky mojo of Bill Clinton and you get some sense of Pompey.)
Besides the patricians, there are figures exercising power within their own towns, neighborhoods, associations, and so on. The candidate who wins their support also wins the votes of the people they influence. But take care, the campaign advisor warns, “to distinguish these men from those who seem important but have no real power and in fact are often unpopular in their group. Recognizing the difference between the useful and useless men in any organization will save you from investing your time and resources with people who will be of little help to you.”
Given the audience for this column, it seems like a good point to comment on academic politics, but you’re probably way ahead of me on that.
Besides cultivating the power elite, a candidate needs to “meet and get to know many different types of people you wouldn’t normally associate with in your daily life.” It can be wearying. But consider it an opportunity: running for office is a “perfectly respectable” way “eagerly and unashamedly [to] cultivate friendships with people no decent person would talk to.”
Likewise, while “the art of flattery [is] a disgraceful thing in ordinary life,” it definitely has its uses on the campaign trail. “If you use flattery to corrupt a man,” the tactician explains, “there is no excuse for it, but if you apply ingratiation as a way to make political friends, it is acceptable. For a candidate must be a chameleon, adapting to each person he meets, changing his expression and speech as necessary.”
Such passages are what make even a non-classicist wonder if the document is real. As someone said in another context, “You don’t talk about these things, you just do them.” The less impressionistic doubts about its authenticity focus on certain word choices or historical references that might be anachronistic. It has also been argued that the “letter to Marcus” format was some kind of ruse -- that it was really meant to be circulated among potential supporters of Marcus among the aristocracy. It would be a signal that they shouldn’t be worried about any crowd-pleasing promises the candidate made.
If so, it was also a reminder of just how much dirt the Marcus campaign had on his opponents -- in particular Catiline, an aristocratic hothead who, the letter notes, “lived a life of debauchery” while hanging out with actors and was known to pal around with gladiators, who served as “hired thugs in all his crimes.” As for the crimes, they were too numerous to list:
“He never missed a chance to defile a holy shrine even if his companions refused to stoop so low…. He was so impudent, so wicked, so skilled in his licentiousness that he molested young boys almost in the laps of their parents. Do I even need to remind you of what he did in Africa? It’s all recorded in the indictments, which you should take care to review carefully, by the way…. He is so unpredictable that men are more afraid of him when he is doing nothing than they are when he is making trouble.”
And rightly so: Catiline would lead an unsuccessful coup attempt two years later. If the accounts of Roman historians are anything to go by, nothing in the Commentariolum really counts as defamation of character. The guy really does sound like a scumbag.
Whoever wrote the document, and for whatever reason, it’s silly to think anyone in the 21st century will read it as a guide for planning a campaign. Somebody who doesn’t already have an instinctive understanding of the points it makes won’t last long enough to become candidate for city council, much less president.
No, its appeal is for the electorate, as a reminder of what we’re up against. Politicians may come and go, and campaigns ebb and flow -- but election-year cynicism is forever.
(NOTE: Two corrections have been made since this column was originally posted. A garbled reference to Quintus as the more famous brother has been removed, and the original spelling of Catiline has been entered, although modern writings -- such as translations of Sallust's history -- often call him Cataline.)