Just in time for the 2012 electoral silly season comes an old text, newly translated, with timeless advice for those who would rule.
Among its pearls of swinedom, offered with not even a pause over self-contradiction: Flatter voters grandly, but beware, “politics is full of deceit, treachery, and betrayal.”
Quintus Tullius Cicero set down that and other advice for his big brother, Marcus Tullius Cicero, in 64 BC. Quintus was trying to help Marcus, perhaps Rome’s greatest orator, win election to one of two annual consulships of Rome, the state’s supremely powerful top post.
Quintus’ counsel took the form of a punchy, you’re-just-going-to-have-to-man-up letter. And it suggests that little is new in political thrust and parry: Nothing the younger Cicero told his brother has lost any currency—at all. Statesmen considered shameless flattery to be effectively deceitful then, as now.
Introducing his translation of the document, out soon from Princeton University Press as How to Win an Election: An Ancient Guide for Modern Politicians, Philip Freeman writes: “The real pleasure for most modern readers is its unashamedly pragmatic advice on how to manipulate voters and win political office.” The professor of classics at Luther College (Iowa) and current visiting fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., acknowledges the letter’s baldly manipulative intent: “Idealism and naïveté are left by the wayside as Quintus tells his brother…how the down-and-dirty business of successful campaigning really works.”
The Cicero brothers knew that Marcus, for all his brilliance, was up against it as he wooed his Roman friends and countrymen. “Marcus was a gifted speaker and possessed a brilliant mind equal to his golden tongue,” says Freeman. He was the Great Communicator of his day, albeit one who could speak in grammatical sentences, and complete ones. But that was not enough, in the glory days of the Roman republic.
Freeman writes that what Marcus Cicero lacked was “the advantage of noble birth,” which was as important in class-conscious Rome as a high-beams smile, top-dollar coif, and unctuous condescension are in politics today. “Election to the consulship was jealously guarded by the aristocracy of Rome,” to which the Ciceros did not belong, he explains. So much so that “no man outside the noble families had been elected as a consul for thirty years, making the attainment of this ultimate goal by Marcus unlikely.”
Quintus’ litany of cut-throat advice—his Commentariolum Petitionis (little handbook on electioneering)—although only about 4,500 words long, is an insistently repetitive tract whose core stratagems can be quickly summarized.
♦Promise everything to everybody (this was before the 24-hour news cycle—Roma in 64 BC had no mass communication). However, “you should not make specific pledges either to the Senate or the people. Stick to vague generalities.”
♦Remind voters about the sexual transgressions of opponents. Of Cicero’s two opponents for the consulship, little brother Quintus (Bobby to Cicero’s Jack) wrote: “They have both been brutes since they were boys, while even now they are notorious philanderers and spendthrifts. … [Antonious] disgraced himself by going down to the market and openly buying a girl to keep at home as a sex slave.” Catiline “was so impudent, so wicked, so skilled in his licentiousness that he molested young boys almost in the laps of their parents.”
♦When you’re a candidate, the most destructive rumors about you are the ones that originate among one’s supposed allies. Nonetheless, surround yourself with rabid supporters; they comprise one device for dazzling the masses: “Be sure to put on a good show. Dignified, yes, but full of the color and spectacle that appeals so much to crowds.”
Call in favors and curry new ones. If potential backers seek a quid pro quo, turn them down tactfully: Say you’d love to return their favor but your time and resources are promised to a kinsman: “People would prefer you give them a gracious lie than an outright refusal,” Quintus assures his brother.
♦Don’t sweat over honesty, or even sincerity, he adds: “Broken promises are often lost in a cloud of changing circumstances so that anger against you will be minimal.”
As for the pitch, give people hope, because even cynical voters want to believe in something.
The younger Cicero’s advice apparently was sound, because Marcus Cicero won his people’s nomination, and thrived for some time (until 43 BC, when he and Quintus were offed by Mark Antony and Octavian for supporting Pompey in his civil war against Julius Caesar).
Princeton’s diminutive volume features Quintus Tullius Cicero’s Latin text and Freeman’s translation on facing pages. The translation was no easy task, Freeman says in his introduction: “The Latin is at times obscure, while the manuscripts passed down to us have been corrupted at several points.”
The book is noteworthy not only for its pithy text, but its blurbs. Among them is one from Karl Rove, another from Gary Hart.
Rove, architect of Republican victories by some far less oratorically endowed candidates than Marcus Cicero, writes: “Fresh, lively, and sharp, this primer provides timeless counsel and a great read for the modern political practitioner. In his election advice to his brother Marcus, Quintus Cicero shows himself to be a master political strategist with a clear understanding of opposition research, organization, and turnout (though a little weak on message).”
Indeed, Quintus Cicero’s only real message is: Win.
By persuading Rove to plug its volume, Princeton might seem to have taken Cicero minor’s advice on making well-placed friends. That came about quite simply, says Rob Tempio, the press’s classics editor. He emailed Rove after seeing that he had blurbed a book by a fellow political operator.
And Gary Hart?
Certainly he has his own history of career-altering peccadilloes, so his enthusiasm for the caustic Cicero text does surprise. The former U.S. senator, who after his presidential run, and stumble, earned a doctorate in political history from the University of Oxford, specializing in Jeffersonian republicanism and its forebears in Rome and elsewhere, writes: “Given the lowly state of politics these days, this ancient Roman handbook on electioneering shows how little has changed. Freeman has done a masterful job of bringing this delightful text into the modern day.”
Indeed, says Tempio, Hart “was so convinced of its continuing relevance, today, that he said he wouldn’t be surprised if it had been written by Karl Rove.”