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.