The ancient Greek historian Thucydides once wrote, “Human nature is constant”. An election is a messy process and something that we have tried to get right for thousands of years. In some ancient Greek city-states, election by lot was a method of choosing public officials. It was used especially in the Athenian democracy, from which most information about the practice is derived. This practice provided the regular turnover of officeholders. As a result, for better or worse, the operations of government were not in the hands of experts, but in the hands of the people.
Only those who had presented themselves as candidates were chosen by lot to fill public offices. Military officers and some financial officials were selected by voting. But for the most part executive functions were broken down into small tasks, of which each was entrusted to an annual board of 10 members chosen by lot. The rationale of this system was the equality of all citizens. The good news in this system is that it provided at least some practical political education for its citizens. Saying “I’m not into politics” seems to not have been an option as they would have been demanded to take part in it eventually. As Pericles said, “Just because you do not take an interest in politics doesn’t mean politics won’t take an interest in you.”
In ancient Rome, although any adult male citizen could cast a ballot, the richest people had disproportionate influence. Social and political patronage was key, and campaigns were followed by bribery and abuse. However, the electoral process was generally fairly reasonable and orderly. In 64 BC, a 42-year-old political outsider named Marcus Tullius Cicero ran for consul – the highest office in the republic. Marcus was young, intelligent and popular, but the fact that he was not a member of the aristocracy would normally have excluded him from consideration. However, the other candidates that year were so unappetizing that, according to his younger brother Quintus, even the stiff and dull Marcus actually had a small chance of winning if he could run a successful campaign. Still, the odds were against Marcus. Not one to mince words, Quintus said, “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.” Quintus then proceeded to write his campaigning advice to his brother in Commentariolum Petitionis, a short handbook on electioneering as a guide for Marcus Tullius Cicero’s campaign for consul of the Roman Republic in 64 BC.
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