Forget the polls, spin doctors and being 'on message', the only day that matters is election day, which is all about winners and losers. Mainly the winners though. While the world today has plenty of elections winners, so did the ancient world. Iris Online thinks that our Greek and Roman election victors could teach a thing or two to their modern counterparts so here is the definitive Top Ten list of election victors from the Classical world. Four more years! Four more years! OK... we know. But you get the idea.
It is a cliché of politics that there are some elections it is better to lose. In the case of ostracism it is no banality to say that ‘winning’ really was the booby prize. Athenian moderate Nicias, chief rival to Aristophanes’ bugbear Cleon during the Archidamian War, was a winner by virtue of his election (several times) as strategos. However, it is for his successful electoral pact with another rival, Alcibiades, that he makes our list: when Hyperbolos was trying to engineer the ostracism of one of the pair, they combined forces to ensure his ostracism. It is said that so disgusted were the Athenians by these shenanigans that it was the last such vote they ever held. Still a great ‘win’ though.
9. Tiberius Gracchus
Tiberius Gracchus was elected tribune in 133 BCE and set about stirring up trouble by attempting to improve the lives of Rome’s many plebs. His lex Sempronia Agraria intended to reverse the accumulation of land in the hands of the few who worked the land with slave labour. We are the 99%! Unable to pass his law - as customary - through the Senate, he took his case to the popular assembly but faced a fellow tribune’s veto. To over-ride the tribunician block Tiberius Gracchus used his own veto to grind business to a halt. Having won re-election (in itself controversial) Gracchus was murdered by the Senate who feared he wanted to make himself king.
8. Gaius Gracchus
Bush, Clinton, Benn, Miliband… ancient politics was just as full of political dynasties as the modern world. Gaius, brother of Tiberius, was a scion of the distinguished gens Sempronia. But if Tiberius was radical, Gaius was revolutionary. Elected tribune in 122 BC his reforms ranged from extending and financing Tiberius’ land reforms to anti-corruption measures; while Lex Frumentaria allowed for a measure of grain to be distributed monthly to Roman citizens at a discounted price. True welfare reform! He scored a hat-trick by winning a landslide third victory for the tribuneship but his peers falsified the ballots to deprive him of office and, like his brother, he was murdered. This time legally.
The idea of a ‘transformative election’ is perhaps a modern one but maybe some elections in the ancient world were transformative as well. Ephialtes was elected strategos in 465 BCE at a time when Athens was still in alliance with Sparta against the Persians. His rise - and his election - marked the end of pro-Spartan general Cimon’s hegenomy and the beginning of ‘radical democracy’ in Athens. In 461 BCE he was assassinated but his democratic reforms lived on and his faction was subsequently lead by Pericles.
Publius Clodius Pulcher was the Bill Clinton of the Roman Republic. Well, kind of. Despite his involvement in the notorious Bona Dea scandal, Clodius - having been adopted into a plebeian family - stood for the office of tribune and won. While it was said that he only secured this position to get revenge on his chief tormentor Cicero, he then used his office to enact sweeping legislation, the leges Clodiae, across a range of social issues. A rabble-rouser who was not above using a touch of violence and intimidation to get his way, Clodius was prevented from a final election triumph when, in 52 BCE, he was killed in a skirmish by supporters of consular candidate Milo. Who later defended Milo? Cicero.
5. Aristides 'the Just'
Can an honest person succeed in politics? Most people would say that by the look of things, obviously not. They also say that there are no second acts in politics. Perhaps the example of Aristides, who was described by Herodotus as the “the best and most just man in Athens”, proves both dicta incorrect. So disliked was he before the Persian Wars that he voted for his own ostracism but on his recall he was twice elected to the position of strategos and work with one-time rival Themistocles to rebuild Athens’ strategic defences. Unlike so many on this list he seems to have died of natural causes.
4. Gaius Marius
Since the expulsion of the kings the Romans had a fear of tyranny and kingship, so dictated a gap of five years between terms of office. Roman general Marius was first elected to the consulship in in 108 BCE, despite his status as a novus homo and the opposition of his sponsors the Metelli. After his governorship, and ignoring the law, he was elected consul in absentia in 105. He then won re-election in 104 and a further time in 103. In fact he won election to the consulship an unprecedented seven times, though some accused him of tyranny and populism. Appropriately he died in office on the seventeenth day of his seventh consulship in 87. His reforms of the army gave him the nickname “third founder of Rome.” Eat your heart out Maggie Thatcher.
3. Gaius Julius Caesar
Every modern politician who is behind in the polls takes Harry Truman’s 1948 against-the-odds election victory as an inspiration. Perhaps for some urbane aristocrat Gaius Julius Caesar can also be similarly inspirational. Caesar was to be elected as praetor and consul, but it is his earlier electoral triumph in 63 BCE for the position of pontifex maximus that he makes our list. Despite his relative youth, inexperience and the fact that he was standing against two more distinguished rivals he won decisively. As he said on election day, he would either return home as pontifex or not at all. Perhaps the massive bribery helped. He came, he saw, he was elected.
Quality not quantity. There are some election winners who do not win often but whose victory coincides with times which allows their leadership attributes to shine. Such a victory was Cicero’s election to the consulship. That, at least is what he would have said. In fact that he what he did say. (And you thought Tony Blair was bad.) Yet it must be admitted that his election victory was improbable as he spent an large portion of his early career roughing up the influential conservative faction of the Senate and, as a novus homo, he had no established network on which to rely. And for those who complain that modern politics concentrate more on personality than policy and that politicians make easy promises, that is exactly how Cicero won.
No surprise, eh? But although predictable, it is worth celebrating the considerable achievement of leading a democracy for over thirty years, a period which heralded a golden age for Athenian culture, society and democracy. After Ephialtes' murder and Cimon’s exile, Pericles assumed a pre-eminence in Athens, winning election to the position of strategos every year but one from 443 BCE until his death in 429 BCE. A populist and gifted orator he oversaw a strengthening of Athen’s grip on the Delian League, the rebuilding of the Acropolis and the beginning of the Peloponnesian War. Quite a legacy. Not only first on our list but also “first citizen of Athens”. Well done.