How to Win an Election


Anyone running for office should consider reading How to Win an Election, by Quintus Tullius Cicero, translated by Philip Freeman. It’s a short, small book subtitled An Ancient Guide for Modern Politicians (Princeton University Press, 2012). It contains both the Latin and the English translation of Quintus’ letter to his more famous brother, the orator Marcus Cicero. Quintus penned it in 64 BCE when Marcus decided to run for the position of Consul, the highest office in the Roman Republic.

No, it won’t give you a secret winning strategy. Nothing will. But it has some practical advice that might help, even for people running for our local council, And it will remind readers that, even despite more than 2,000 years, some things in politics never change. Freeman’s translation is good, and he modernizes some of the terms to suite today’s politics.

Here are just a few suggestions Quintus offers:

  • Know the weaknesses of your opponents — and exploit them.
  • Give people hope.
  • Surround yourself with the right people.
  • Make sure you have the backing of your family and friends.
  • Diligently cultivate relationships with people of privilege.
  • Secure supporters from a wide variety of backgrounds.
  • Inspire people with hope and let them know you will always be there to help them.
  • Make friends with the leaders of special interest groups.
  • Seek people who will represent you as if they themselves were running for office.
  • Don’t accept every profession of goodwill and support you hear.
  • Work every day to recall names and faces.
  • People not only want commitments from a candidate, but they want them delivered in an engaged manner.
  • Use all your assets to spread word about your campaign to the widest possible audience.
  • Put on a good show, full of colour and spectacle.

Quintus is sometimes cynical, although not as deeply so as Machiavelli would be when he penned The Prince in the early 16trh century. Still, Quintus says in part 43, “A candidate must be like a chameleon, adapting to each person he meets, changing his expression and speech as necessary.” That echoes Machiavelli’s comments that a prince must appear to be good, but not necessary be so. Quintus also adds that “people are moved more by appearances than reality.”

Unlike today, in Cicero’s day voters could be bought with favours and bribes (not always openly, of course). Politicians today only have promises to offer (or at least that’s all they should offer). Of course, the Roman election processes were vastly different from ours, but there is some practical sense in much of what Quintus has to say. He warns his brother,

Politics is full of deceit, treachery, and betrayal… Remember the wise words of Epicharmus: “Don’t trust people too easily.” Once you have figured out who your true friends are, give some thought to your enemies as well.

Wise words, and the book has many more to ponder than what excerpts I have shown here. I recommend anyone interested in the political process read this book, even if you’re not on the campaign trail.

PS. Marcus won his race for Consul. How much was due to him following his brother’s advice is unknown. Quintus himself ran for the office of praetor, two years later, and was also elected. Both brothers were murdered by Mark Anthony in 43 BCE as the Roman Republic came to a close.

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