How To Win An Election In The Roman Republic


The UK is deep in the grip of election fever. Party leaders are touring the country in battle-buses, shaking hands, announcing policies, and chasing photo opportunitiesall in the hope of winning over voters. But what did aspiring politicians need to do to get elected in ancient Rome? To answer this question we first need to understand some of the differences between the Roman political system and our own. While some aspects of campaigning persist across the ages, different systems reward different behaviours. In other words, it took different tactics to win a Roman election than it does a British one.

For one thing, there were no party leaders – or indeed political parties – in ancient Rome. Politicians stood for election as individuals, running largely on the basis of personal reputation rather than any policy platform. This is extremely clear from the Commentariolum Petitionis (‘Little Guide to Electioneering’), an ancient text giving advice to Cicero in his campaign for the consulship of 63 BC. Cicero (figure 1) is told that while a candidate he “must not pursue political measures, either in the senate-house or in public meetings (Comm. Pet. 13). Instead, he should hold back, and allow himself to be judged on his established reputation and character. To win, then, it was more important to be seen as a good sort, generally capable of running the state, than it was to put forward particular ideas about how this should be done.

The importance of reputation and character also reflects another way in which Roman politics differed from ours: the role of patronage and friendship connections (figure 2). Though we think of friendship as a primarily social relationship, in the Roman world both friendship and patronage were semi-formal arrangements, based on doing one another favours. Friendships between the wealthy were developed and maintained through actions such as defending one another in the law courts or backing political measures. Meanwhile, patrons helped their poorer clients to find employment, or provided for them when it was not available. The main thing clients could offer in return for this was their political support.

The Roman systems of patronage and friendship

The impact of this system at election time was huge. It meant that elections could be won and lost on whoever controlled the biggest client-base. Having plenty of your own clients was obviously important, but real success could only be achieved by persuading others to mobilise their client bases on your behalf as well. Again, this is crystal clear from the Commentariolum Petitionis. Here, Cicero is urged to remind existing friends of the favours he has done them in the past, and to do them more during the election period. Meanwhile, new friends can be won over with promises of what Cicero will do for them once elected – in other words, they are encouraged to give their support as a form of investment, which will pay off in the future.

Surprisingly to our eyes, Cicero is actively advised not to worry about making people angry by breaking his promises later on. This would be bad advice in the UK today, where public anger at politicians’ broken promises is strongly felt. But the difference again comes down to the lack of parties and policy platforms. Since modern politicians make policy pledges to the whole electorate, large numbers of people feel betrayed if they are broken. But Roman politicians merely promised individual favours on a person-by-person basis, and could thus risk breaking one or two later on. Cicero’s adviser clearly felt this was worth the risk, noting that not everyone would call the favours in anyway, while refusing to make promises in the first place caused even greater offence.

It is also important to understand that in ancient Rome, not all votes were equal. Roman elections were run under a variety of different systems, but the one used for the two highest offices of state – consuls and praetors – presented the greatest inequalities. Here, the electorate was sorted into six main wealth bands, from those with property valued at below 11,000 pounds of bronze at the bottom, to the super-rich with property of over 100,000 at the top. The votes of the lowest band, known as the proletarii, were all counted together, giving these people collectively a single say in the overall election result. But the top band was divided into 98 sub-groups known as centuries, with the vote of each century counting once in the overall result. Since there were 193 centuries in total, a majority of votes under this system was 97. So if all the richest citizens in the top band voted the same way, the 98 votes which they commanded would carry the day before any of the lower classes had had a chance to vote at all.

The disparities caused by this system were exacerbated by other factors. Women and slaves could not vote at all, while most ordinary men would have struggled to absorb the income lost in taking time off work to vote in person in Rome, especially if they lived a long way from the city. Given how little weight their vote would carry even if they did, it is likely that most did not bother. In fact, Ramsay MacMullen has argued that only 2% of those eligible to vote usually did so (Athenaeum 58: 454-7). A system this heavily weighted in favour of the wealthy male elite cannot be regarded as democratic. Rather, the Roman Republic is best described as an oligarchy: that is, a society in which political power was restricted to a privileged few. The wealthy elite themselves were quite aware of this, and indeed celebrated it. Speaking of the system for consular elections, described above, Cicero observed that “the greatest number of votes belong not to the common people but to the rich” and argued that this was commendable, since it meant “that the greatest number should not have the greatest power” (Republic 2.22.39).


Winning elections, then, required above all the approval of the wealthy male elite. Between their disproportionate input into the voting process and their networks of clients and friends, candidates could not succeed if the majority of this group did not support them. Indeed, the candidates themselves inevitably came from the same class, since Rome’s political offices were unpaid, leaving only the independently-wealthy able to undertake them. As a result, the surest way of winning elections was to appeal to the pious and patriotic instincts of this very conservative social group.

We can see this from the common practice of dedicating temples to the gods after military victories. These temples demonstrated the victorious general’s piety, but also set up a permanent monument to his military success in the heart of the city. Most generals had already reached the peak of their political careers by the time they were able to dedicate a victory-temple, so did not require further electoral support. But in a political climate which emphasised personal reputation, such dedications were an investment in the family brand. Future generations could point to the piety and military success of the temple-builder as proof of their own good character. For example, Gaius Lutatius Catulus dedicated a temple to the goddess Juturna in 241 BC, to commemorate his successes against the Carthaginians in the previous year (figure 3). Though Lutatius himself had been the first member of his family to reach the consulship, his brother enjoyed the same success in the very year that the temple was dedicated, and his son followed suit twenty years later.


Despite the influence of the elite, though, the support of the lower classes was worth pursuing in campaigns for some of the more junior political offices, or when the elite vote was split. Techniques for securing it included putting on spectacular games, which explains Julius Caesar’s behaviour in 65 BC. “He financed wild-beast hunts and stage-plays, some on his own and some with his colleague, so that he took all the credit for the expense either way”. (Suetonius, Julius Caesar 10) Hand-outs of food were also common. The ceramic bowls in figure 4, whose scratched inscriptions refer to the election campaigns of Cato the Younger and Catiline in 63 BC, were almost certainly given out piled high with food in an attempt to win over the electorate. This type of behaviour is known today as ‘treating’ voters, and is an electoral offence: as a UKIP candidate recently discovered, but in Republican Rome, it was all part of the process. For Cato the Younger, the strategy was successful, though not for Catiline. In fact, he was defeated by Cicero: proof perhaps that the advice of the Commentariolum Petitionis was indeed worth following.

Dr Penny Goodman is a Lecturer in Classics at the University of Leeds.