Very Short Story about Voting in Ancient Greek and Rome

Sortition by lot was a form of selecting public officials in some ancient Greek city-states. It has been used particularly in the democracy of ancient Athens from which most information on the practice is derived. This procedure overturned the electoral races and allowed for the daily succession of the office holders. Therefore, the government’s activities were not in the hands of experts, but through the sorting system which at least gives the people some practical political education.

The Pnyx, a hill in central Athens – a place of popular assemblies, thus making the hill one of the earliest and most important sites in the creation of democracy.

The justification for this sortition system was the dignity of all men. Only those who put themselves forward as candidates were selected by lot to occupy the public office. Although military officers and some financial officials were chosen by polling rather than by sorting, most of the executive roles were broken down into small assignments, each of which was assigned to an annual board of ten members selected by lot.

In both Athens and Sparta, the male citizen body was relatively small (less than 40,000 in Athens, and perhaps a quarter of the number in Sparta). In Athens, they all came together and voted by a show of hands; in Sparta, they voted by shouting (those who shout the loudest won).

The Pnyx with the carved steps of the speaker’s platform in the centre

Bearing in mind the shouting alone, privacy would have been an issue. The Romans faced the question of privacy in the ballot box even more explicitly than the Athenians who had a form of secret ballot in legal cases, but nowhere else despite their democratic credentials. In the second half of the second century BC , the Romans adopted a number of laws to protect the privacy of the electorate. We know nothing about this in any depth, but Cicero ‘s conservative huffing and puffing makes it clear that this was a politically charged change which aimed to stop the elite putting pressure on the votes of the poor. And it was important enough to be shown on coins. Coins from that era suggest that voters individually picked out their ballot slips (wax on wood, most likely) from a basket as they walked across some form of “bridge”, then wrote the name of their candidate in the wax as they walked, and finally dropped it into the ballot box.

A 63 BC coin depicting a Roman casting a ballot

The sheer number of Roman citizens at the time would also have somewhat complicated things. There were some 200,000 voters in Rome by the middle of the first century BC and many more in Italy. The Roman people have always been divided into groups of voters who, through a series of extraordinarily complex and subtly shifting processes which proves to be a giant pain in one’s bottom to learn centuries later, cast one vote per party. The whole thing was quite modern as each group of voters delivers one vote and the person who gets the largest number of group votes wins, and the process saves time, and manages a massive electorate, because all the groups of voters vote simultaneously and conveniently in a location near their home.  Again, we have been voting in very similar fashions for more than 2000 years. However, the Romans never seem to have invented a local voting scheme, because anyone who wanted to participate had to come to the city itself and they never seem to have hit the idea of a party voting at the same time. Instead, each party voted sequentially, one after the other, so that it could take more than a single day to deliver the vote and an awful lot of waiting around for the average voter.

For those who wanted to be a politician, an electoral handbook survives from the Roman world full of advice on how to run an election campaign. The book is credited to Marcus Cicero’s younger brother, Quintus, and purports to be his advice to Marcus for securing his election to the consulship of 63 BC. It’s awfully modern in many ways, such as its advice to stay out of shaking hands and to make sure you still know people’s names. So really, politicians have been playing the same tunes for more than 2000 years and we fall for it every time.

The relief representation depicts the personified Demos being crowned by Democracy. About 336 BC

It was possible that Julius Caesar was working on some kind of reform of this. And by the time of his assassination, some brand new voting halls (saepta, or “sheep-pen”) had begun in the city to give a new home to the voting process. The irony, of course, was that Caesar’s dictatorship was in fact the end of free democratic elections anyway — and within fifty years the Saepta had been transformed into an up-scale shopping mall and antique market.

How to Win an Election: Lessons from an Ancient Roman Rebel

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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.”

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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.

Cicero, copy by Bertel Thorvaldsen 1799-1800 of Roman bust

It is interesting to note what kind of a man was Quintus Tullius Cicero. To say that Quintus had an impulsive temperament would have been putting it rather mildly. He had frequent fits of cruelty during military operations, a behaviour frowned on by Romans of that time as the Roman ideal was to control one’s emotions even in battle. Quintus had a penchant for old-fashioned and harsh punishments such as putting a person convicted of patricide into a sack and throwing him into the sea. Traditionally, the felon would be severely scourged, then sewn into a stout leather bag with a dog, a snake, a rooster, and a monkey, and the bag was subsequently thrown into a river – understandably, this was not a popular practice. He gave out this punishment during his propraetorship of Asia.

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“Cicero with his friend Atticus and brother Quintus, at his villa at Arpinum” by Richard Wilson (d. 1782)

In one of his letters to his friend Titus Pomponius Atticus (written in 51 BC) Marcus wrote that that he dares not leave Quintus alone as he is afraid of what kind of sudden ideas Quintus might have. So by the sound of it, Marcus has had to spend his life worrying about the erratic Quintus. Why, then, would Marcus take guidance from the family’s black sheep?

The answer is that Quintus, complicated as he was, was a very experienced politician. Quintus was praetor in 62 BC, and propraetor of Asia for three years from 61 to 59 BC. In the Gaelic wars, he was a legatus under Caesar, accompanying him on his second expedition to Britain in 54 BC and surviving a siege of his camp during a revolt. He served under Marcus, his brother, when Marcus was governor in Cilicia in 51 BC. It is understandable, then, that his advice for Marcus was a product of his own long and disinguished experience and still being used by politicians today. Quintus tells his brother that, to win an election, he must creep and crawl to voters, promising impossible things, pretending friendship where there is none and lie, lie, lie. Those were slimy and unpleasant advice but, as evidenced by millions of politicians in the space of thousands of years, they work.

1. Promise everything to everyone.

One of the biggest complaints about modern politicians is their failure to keep campaign promises.  But Quintus blatantly states that the making and breaking of promises is just part of the whole political process. The best way to win voters is to tell them what they want to hear: “Remember Cotta, that master of campaigning, who said he would promise anything, unless some clear obligation prevented him, but only lived up to those promises that benefited him.” People will be much angrier with a candidate who refuses to make promises than with one who breaks them as soon as he was elected. “… if a politician made only promises he was sure he could keep, he wouldn’t have many friends. 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.”

That approach is based on a theory about uninformed voters which rests on the simple notion that human beings make every decision proceeding from their own self-interests. Comprehensive knowledge of the political process is of no use to them. Voters have to deal with too many other problems to listen attentively to politicians unless it directly affects their everyday lives. Politicians then need to ensure that they tell voters exactly what voters want to hear in a concise and understandable way.

This does not mean that politicians should tell you what you want to hear willy-nilly. To determine what to tell voters, ideally a politician must know who the voters are and what they want. Then he needs to identify problems which are of common concern to all voting groups within the relevant election district. Based on analysis of that information, an election message is developed which then evolved to promises that they would break on a later date.

2. Pretend you have friends and call in all favors.

If you have helped friends or associates in the past, an election period is a good time to let them know that you are expecting them to pay you back. “Make it clear to each one under obligation to you exactly what you expect from him. Remind them all that you have never asked anything of them before, but now is the time to make good on what they owe you.” If someone isn’t in in your debt, you can remind them that if elected, they would be rewarded as long as they support you now.

Despite Marcus being a novus homo (“new man” – an ancient Roman term for a man who was the first in his family to serve in the Roman Senate), Quintus says that Marcus can still win over “a man who is well born, and most devoted to humane studies, You will have the best and the brightest . . . on your side.” One of the pamphlet’s most egregious distortions of Marcus’s recorded views is the treatment of amicitia (“friendship”). Marcus himself wrote a book on the subject of friendship, treating it as a pledge of honor binding men together. Quintus tells him to feign friendship where it does not exist and lie to friends when convenient, effectively striking at all that Marcus himself has professed belief in.

3. Know your opponent’s weaknesses and exploit them.

Quintus practically invented opposition research, “Consider Antonius, who once had his property confiscated for debt … after he was elected as praetor, he disgraced himself by going down to the market and buying a girl to be his sex slave.” A winning candidate assesses his opponent and then focuses relentlessly on his weaknesses, all the while trying to distract voters from this opponent’s strengths.

4. Flattery will get you everywhere.

Quintus tells his brother, “You desperately need to learn the art of flattery — a disgraceful thing in normal life but essential when you are running for office.” A candidate must make voters believe that he thinks they’re important. Shake their hands, look them in the eye, listen to their problems.

The ability to listen and process what you hear into something advantageous to you is an asset. A political party must first find out what voters wish for and then repeat those wishes back to them in the same language. In general, it is important for a political party to understand that the most effective political rhetoric is marketing in which the central idea is to promise what the customer (voter) demands and not to wax poetic about the aspirations of the seller (politician).

5. Give people hope.

“The most important part of your campaign is to bring hope to people and a feeling of goodwill toward you.” Voters who are persuaded that you can make their world better will turn out to be devoted followers — at least until after the election, when you will inevitably let them down.

In the USA, Barack Obama’s Campaign of Hope in 2008 demonstrated how far a positive message of hope could go. In New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern’s Let’s Do This campaign saw her coalition’s rise to power that ended the National government’s nine years in charge. Both elections saw an increased voter turn-out and greater engagement from the youth vote.

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“The Young Cicero Reading” by Vincenzo Foppa (1427 – 1515)

7. Get the youth on your side.

Despite what older, worn-out and out of touch politicians try to tell us, the youth are the future. Therefore, helping them to see value in the political decision-making processes and discussions is is very much in a country’s best interest as it helps countries to consider the long-term needs of all their citizens. Quintus highlights their value in other, more self-serving, ways when he writes that “it will help your campaign tremendously to have the enthusiasm and energy of young people on your side to canvass voters, gain supporters, spread news, and make you look good.”

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“Cicero Denounces Catiline” by Cesare Maccari (1840 – 1919)

Marcus Tullius Cicero was elected consul for the year 63 BC. He may not be well-known in modern times for his political career, but his prolific writings have been instrumental in the development of modern political thought. His De Re Publica (“On the Republic”) is still an influential text for discussions and analyses of governments and constitutions to this day. However, all is not lost for Quintus. Although out of the two brothers, history seems to favour Marcus by preserving and quoting him. It was Quintus’ advice that was ingrained and followed by politicians and powerful people even 2000 years later. Quintus would have be delighted.