Ancient Roman Text Offers Tips On Winning Elections

Feb 7, 2012
Originally published on February 7, 2012 4:26 pm
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Many years ago, a man wrote a long letter of advice to his brother, who was running for the highest office in the land. Among his many pearls of wisdom was this one: Running for office, as wearisome as it is, has the advantage of allowing you to meet and get to know many different types of people you wouldn't normally associate with in your daily life. This is perfectly respectable during a campaign. In fact, you would be thought a fool if you didn't take advantage of it so that you can eagerly, and unashamedly, cultivate friendships with people no decent person would talk to.

Well, the campaign in question, for the most powerful office in the world, was way back in 64 - not 1964, just 64; 64 B.C., in fact. The campaign was for consul of Rome, and the advice was from Quintus Tullius Cicero, intended for his brother, the orator Marcus Cicero. Professor Philip Freeman, a classicist at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, has provided a translation and an introduction to this little landmark in the history of political consulting. It's called "How to Win an Election: An Ancient Guide for Modern Politicians." Philip Freeman, welcome to the program.

PHILIP FREEMAN: Thanks very much.

SIEGEL: And first, tell us about Cicero's campaign, and why his brother thought the candidate was in need of advice.

FREEMAN: Well, Cicero was, first of all, an outsider. He was not part of the Roman nobility, and he was certainly not in line to rise to the consulship, to the highest office in Rome. Also, he was a bit shy and reserved, and he was not particularly good at associating, making small talk with people. So Quintus decided to give him this no-holds-barred advice about how to win an election - all the down-and-dirty facts.

SIEGEL: And there's one piece of wisdom at the beginning that I found most striking, and sounded to me most modern. He said: Every day, as you go down to the forum, you should say to yourself: I am an outsider. I want to be consul. This is Rome.

FREEMAN: It was great advice for him to do every day because as an outsider, Cicero - Marcus Cicero stood very little chance of being elected as consul. So he always had to remind himself just what he was up against.

SIEGEL: He sounded to me there like a sports psychologist, telling him to visualize, you know, imagine yourself...

FREEMAN: Oh, absolutely.

SIEGEL: ...being consul of Rome. I also love this line; he wrote: Now, my brother, you have many wonderful qualities but those you lack, you must acquire, and it must appear as if you were born with them.

FREEMAN: Absolutely. Cicero, like I said, was a fairly shy and reserved person, so Quintus wanted him to learn to be an actor. And that's really at the heart of a lot of the advice he gives him - is how to act like a person who cares about voters, even if you really don't.

SIEGEL: So he tells him, learn to be flattering to people; don't be so stiff around people.

FREEMAN: Oh, absolutely. Flatter people shamelessly, no matter what their social station in life. Shake their hand, look them in the eye, and make them believe that you really care about them.

SIEGEL: What's some other political advice that you find still germane to elective politics?

FREEMAN: Oh, there's so much in the letter. First of all, he says to make sure that your family and friends are on board, before you decide to run for office, because things that can go wrong will very often originate with those closest to you. And one of his best pieces of advice is, promise everything to everybody and - to adapt your message to the particular audience of the day.

SIEGEL: Yes. I guess in ancient Rome, all politics was pretty local and pretty personal.

FREEMAN: Oh, it was. There was no such thing as an absentee ballot. If you were a Roman citizen and you wanted to vote in the elections, you had to come physically to Rome to do it.

SIEGEL: So tell us about whom Marcus Cicero was running against, and what the outcome of the 64 election was for consul.

FREEMAN: Well, he was running against four or five other people, and two of them were a bit of a challenge. One was named Antonius, and the other was named Catiline. And Catiline is the person who would, a year or two later, try to overthrow the Roman government. And Cicero managed to defeat him, to expose the conspiracy. But Cicero had a very tough race, but he did manage to win the consulship.

SIEGEL: There were two winners, though.

FREEMAN: Yes. There were always two winners. Antonius was the other one. But Cicero was elected as the chief consul.

SIEGEL: Now, I was thinking about negative campaigning in this year's Republican primaries. In this case, when Quintus was writing to his brother of Antonius, who was the second-place finisher, he wrote scathingly about him. He said, how can the man establish friendships when he can't even remember anyone's name?

FREEMAN: Oh, absolutely. That's one of Quintus' pieces of advice - is, always remember the names of your supporters. That was one of the tamer things he said about Antonius.

He reminded Cicero to expose all of the sexual scandals that Antonius had been involved in, which were pretty bad. He got elected anyway but still, that was important - was to always keep in mind your opponent's weaknesses, and to exploit them.

SIEGEL: Well, Philip Freeman, thanks a lot for talking with us about your new translation of "How to Win an Election: An Ancient Guide for Modern Politicians."

FREEMAN: Oh, my pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.