In the summer of 64 BCE, Marcus Tullius Cicero ran for the office of consul in Rome. It was a bitterly-contested fight.
His younger brother, Quintus, wrote him a letter – called the Commentariolum Petitionis – to advise him how to win that election. That “Little Handbook on Electioneering” is today a classic of politics and campaigning in which Machiavelli would have reveled.*
The short ‘book’ is controversial today, not simply for its content which espouses some “dirty” politics in order to win (along with some basic and valid advice), but because of its authorship. Some scholars doubt that Quintus is the author. As Wikipedia tells us:
Many scholars believe that it was not in fact written by Quintus for the purposes proposed, but in fact by a Roman in the Early Roman Empire, between the periods of Augustus and Trajan, as a rhetorical exercise. Such exercises were not uncommon in that time period. Others claim that it was in fact written by Quintus, but with the view to be published, perhaps as a piece of carefully distributed propaganda.
But for non-scholars, it is the frank content that holds the interest more than the authorship. We can measure today’s political campaigns by Quintus’ suggestions. As Peter Stothard writes in the Wall Street Journal:
Quintus’s election book is frank about the gullibility of the masses and firm in its requirement that they be deceived in their own best interests. Rome was a “cesspool of humanity,” and its would-be leaders could be excused of behavior to match. An assumed personality need not be maintained for long. But Marcus, his brother advised, must make himself seem to be a man of the people while reassuring the wealthy that the “new man” knows his place. There has been much modern argument about how democratic Rome really was. “How to Win an Election” shows that a campaigner’s concerns have remained just as constant as the debate about whether any democracy is ever democratic enough.
The letter is available in a modern translation by Philip Freeman (Princeton University Press, 2012) and is well worth reading by anyone interested in politics and history – and in Machiavelli. It is instructive to see that many of Niccolo’s ideas were presaged by a Cicero. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
Freeman wrote in the LA Times,
Quintus was in many ways the first political consultant, and his little-known book remains a mostly undiscovered treasure. For centuries his concise guide has been read only by Latin scholars, but it deserves a much wider audience.
Carol Herman, reviewing the book in the Washington Times, notes:
Quintus‘ advice is blunt and to the point. A few of the choicer observations, highlighted by Mr. Freeman in his introduction are: “Make sure you have the backing of your family and friends.” “Surround yourself with the right people.” “Call in all favors.” “Build a wide base of support.” “Promise everything to everybody.” “Communication skills are key.” “Don’t leave town.” “Know the weaknesses of your opponents — and exploit them.” “Flatter voters shamelessly.” “Give people hope.”
You can read some excerpts of Freeman’s book on the Foreign Affairs website. One example is:
…as regards the Roman masses, be sure to put on a good show. Dignified, yes, but full of the color and spectacle that appeals so much to crowds. It also wouldn’t hurt to remind them of what scoundrels your opponents are and to smear these men at every opportunity with the crimes, sexual scandals, and corruption they have brought on themselves.
The Latin text can be found here with a translation at the Perseus Library. Fortunately, Freeman’s handy translation is available in book form for those of us who struggle to keep in mind our amo, amas and amat (let alone struggle with Classical Latin) or who simply prefer to read a printed copy.
“…idealism and naivete are left by the wayside as Quintus tells his brother — and all of us — how the down-and-dirty business of successful campaigning really works.”
Rome and Roman politics, of course, are not modern, municipal politics, so the reader looking for advice has to keep in mind the two millennia that separate us. However, both Cicero and Machiavelli resonate in today’s political arena. That is made clear in Michael Den Tandt’s article, Rob Ford, Anthony Weiner emblematic of the moral decline of politics, in which he writes of Toronto mayor, Rob Ford’s political situation:
But here’s where the cynical posture misfires, in the context of a Rob Ford. Even Quintus Cicero and Machiavelli, for all their gimlet-eyed pragmatism, held that a politician should at least appear to be good. In other words they advocated deception as an act of persuasion, while still taking as given that successful politicians must be perceived to be truth-tellers, even when they are not.
And Scott McLemee, writing in Inside Higher Ed, commented:
Whoever wrote the document, and for whatever reason, it’s silly to think anyone in the 21st century will read it as a guide for planning a campaign. Somebody who doesn’t already have an instinctive understanding of the points it makes won’t last long enough to become candidate for city council, much less president.
No, its appeal is for the electorate, as a reminder of what we’re up against. Politicians may come and go, and campaigns ebb and flow — but election-year cynicism is forever.
Not all reviewers are complimentary towards Freeman’s translation, however, and some see the letter as a satire rather than advice (intended to amuse, like the Municipal Machiavelli is).
Garry Wills, writing in the New York Times,
The classicist Michael C. Alexander, author of “Trials in the Late Roman Republic” (1990), makes a further and convincing argument in the journal Athenaeum. Since Cicero was often reviled in this period, Alexander argues that the booklet by “Quintus” makes a satirical case that Cicero, for all his pretensions to virtue, had acted vilely. Seen in this light, the letter is a satire not only on Cicero, but on election practices of the Republic (pilloried by men like Plutarch, whose attacks Shakespeare repeated in “Coriolanus”), and a spoof of the whole “advice” genre.
The book makes pseudo-didactic distinctions, breaking things into useless sets of three where nothing is gained by such anti-Ockhamite multiplication of entities. Three types of opponents are listed, for instance, but the response is the same for all three — blunt their hostility with feigned good will. The book reminds me of a satirical essay I read in high school, “How to Pound Sand.” So far as I know, that essay was never compared with “The Prince.”
And Mary Beard, in the New York Review of Books, wrote:
For decades, if not centuries, Quintus Cicero’s advice has been adjusted in English versions to match our own political systems and processes. Freeman’s translation is no different. Even the idea that the politician should give people hope, a cliché of modern media politics, looks different in the original Latin from the modern English. Freeman’s version has: “The most important part of your campaign is to bring hope to people and a feeling of goodwill toward you.” It is, for us, an instantly recognizable thought. But what the original Latin actually says is this: “In seeking election you must take care that the state has a good hope of you, and a good opinion of you”—which is quite different from (indeed the reverse of) the modern idea of bringing hope to the people…
Most reviewers of How to Win an Election have been struck by its modernity… It is, of course, true that we have in some ways learned how to operate our own political system from the Romans. But we have also learned to reconstruct the Roman political system in our own image—which is exactly what Freeman’s How to Win an Election does.
Whether revisionist or realistic, the letter is worth reading today. You can make up your own mind about the validity of its advice, and decide whether it is a self-help guide or a satire.**
* It is also known as De petitione consulatus, or “On Running for the Consulship.” There is no evidence Machiavelli ever read the work. However, Machiavelli likely read the De Officiis – On Duties – by brother, Marcus, for whom this letter of advice was intended.
** I hope in the near future to do a more in-depth comparison of some of Quintus’ advice with similar comments in The Prince.
- Machiavelli and Sejanus - October 14, 2022
- A Meeting of the Minds? - July 3, 2021
- Machiavelli’s Prince as satire - June 8, 2017
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