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Quintus Cicero and the eternal cynicism of the candidate

“Everyone prefers a lie than a declination”

Quintus Cicero writes in an essay[1] his advice to his brother Marcus Cicero (the most famous of the two) on how to secure enough votes in order to take the chair of consul of the Roman Republic. Not that Marcus doesn’t know how to win votes or gain support, but, as his smaller brother writes, it will be useful to concentrate all the relevant insights he could utilize to earn the consulate. The biggest obstacle for Marcus is the fact that he is a “new man” (homo novus), meaning he is the first of his family to go after the chair. Quintus thinks the means for him to get over this obstacle is his rhetoric ability, which he has developed by studying the work of the Greek rhetorician Demosthenes. The world of Rome is controlled with rhetoric –this is the way it is enchanted and this is the way it is deterred from discomfort or harm.

Fresco in Palazzo Madama, in Rome (19ος century)
Fresco in Palazzo Madama, in Rome (19ος century)


The city, an aggregate of ethnicities where one must adapt to a variety of characters, discourses and emotions, is, for Quintus, filled with traps, cons, mischievous deeds of every kind, a place where “you must be subjected to the insolence, the ill will, the arrogance, the hatred, the impertinence of the crowd”. Enmity and defamation make it almost impossible to live in, and the work of someone who wants to earn any office by vote a great burden. Quintus’ cynicism is evident and it might be assumed that his brother shares it. While he can’t think of any one good thing to say about Rome and its people, right after the dreary reality he describes above, he continues to say that the worse attribute of a Roman citizen is oblivion; oblivion that entails ingratitude towards Marcus for all he has offered during his career as a lawyer and a judge, and all the favors towards eminent men.

“And because in this city the greatest shortcoming is oblivion, since corruption spreads, try and make your virtue and honor famous; I mean to say that you must understand that you are in the best position for your antagonists to be afraid that they will be judged; they should learn that you are keeping an eye on them, that you oversee them; so that not only they will be afraid of your activities, your charms, your rhetoric power, but also the support you get from the Equites [ordo equester, an aristocratic class also called the Knights]”.

It’s not that Marcus should attack the rest of the candidates with threats of court trials or with straighforward accusations against them, but his antagonists should be certain that, in the event of him winning the elections, if Marcus decided accordingly, they would be in danger from an enemy determined and effective in ruining their careers, or perhaps something even worse. But threats can be countered easily and publicly by his antagonists, while whispers and insinuations work better to their defamation. Of course, if Marcus finds evidence against his opponents, he is obliged to use them at will and to his gain and, actually, he is obligated to look for such evidence, if it would secure the much desired postulate. His noble competitors, Marcus’ brother continues, are sure to envy him for his premiership within his family to run for consul, and they will do everything to undermine him. But it will be difficult for them to say that their own noble ancestry is a good criterion for their worth while Cicero’s earned, through hard work, value isn’t.

He goes on to write: “When we campaign for office, we must secure methodically two things: the dedication of friends and the affinity of the people”. The ways to obtain affinity are three: obligation, hope and selfless sympathy.

Quintus cannot be bothered with arguing for the benefits to the people and the country. That is his brother’s job, who must sell hope and esteem to the plain citizens as much as to the renowned noblemen who have power and influence to put him on the chair. During his election campaign he must publicly show the mass of his friends, and their variety and quality. He has earned the support of Publicanis (societates publicanorum, contractors), Equites, noblemen, the ones he had successfully defended in court with his orations, various guilds, young men who follow him “in order to learn the art of elocution” and faithful friends. Public appearances with all of them, and public support on their behalf, will be great assets for him. The youth that follow Marcus must be specially attended since, concerning electioneering, spreading news and providing a public escort, young men illustrate great zeal; and rather prominently at that. It is very important for Marcus to always appear surrounded by many worthy men. A fair attendance in his public appearances will bring fame and prestige.

For all those indebted to Cicero, now is the time to pay their debt. Now is the chance for favors to be reciprocated and for promises to be given. The demands, the reminders and the pleas must be multiplied with insistence so that their chance to repay what they owe is not lost. Besides, it is in their interest to reciprocate; if they don’t they will lose respect among their own circle of friends. Their contribution in the campaign constitutes, apart from an obligation, an opportunity to rid themselves of “the burden of debt”, as Quintus writes, and also to avoid the defamation that ingratitude entails. And, if they are led to the conclusion that they can hope in a future return for this service, even better. So, Marcus should observe their behavior closely and discern their abilities and lineage in order to manipulate each of them accordingly, to promise fitting benefits, and not waste his time with incompetent or worthless men. “There is nothing more pointless than relying on an acolyte you know nothing about”.

To those who like Marcus unselfishly, insinuations that their solidarity in the campaign will lead to a more intimate friendship will create the conditions for their support. No useful citizen must be precluded from a session with the candidate. And to no one must the excuse be given to say that Marcus did not ask for his help when there was an opportunity and an exigency, nor that he didn’t do it lively and with persistence. This would mean a waste of opportunities to gain possible votes, and also a reason for the neglected ones to later claim that Marcus did not go to them in his hour of need.

Beginning of the Republic of Metz. Election of the first Head-Alderman in 1289, by Auguste Migette
“Beginning of the Republic of Metz. Election of the first Head-Alderman in 1289”, by Auguste Migette (source)

As for friendship, Marcus must broaden semantically his use of the word, since, for a candidate, “this notion of friendship must be perceived more widely than in everyday life”. Whoever shows the slightest interest or hangs around in Marcus’ house must be considered a ‘friend’, whose dedication will be earned through past services or the promise of future ones.

The others, the real friends, must be made sure that they appreciate and love him. But, for Quintus, there is no place for honest human relations in the political struggle; meaning, relations without constraints, reservations or reciprocation. Friends are only prerequisites for the achievement of a goal. And beware of the neighbors, the clients and the servants! “Because the words that solidify fame almost always come from the most familiar ones”. (It is more than fair to note here that Marcus Cicero, in his On Friendship dialogue, is proven a much warmer person than Quintus might have us believe. His description of a friend as something valuable to the individual like the sun is to the world, should make us think twice before assigning to Marcus such attributes as “Machiavellian” – though, Machiavelli, too, might have to be seen not as a cynic but a realist; and his Prince as a mere description of the world, not a morality tale.)

Those who only show up to meet and greet, have to believe that however small their contribution is, he is deeply touched by it and will remember it well. He has to praise them in front of his friends so they are made to feel important. Thus, those of them who are ambivalent on who to vote will become genuine supporters. And if Marcus knows one of them is there only to blow smoke in his face while he aims defamation behind his back, it should not be shown that he knows. Even he can be won over. “To not trust easily is a mark of wisdom”, but the jealousy of someone can be made into a declaration of friendship with the appropriate treatment. Someone’s animosity, if it stems from Marcus having attacked his interests on some previous occasion (Marcus used to be a lawyer), can be turned into support if the previously offended one is convinced that the attack occurred because of Marcus’ friendship with his opponent, and therefore a friendship with Marcus would mean vindication for his interests in future similar circumstances.

The candidate’s house must always be open to everybody, and if it is not full all the time it means he does not make enough promises. “We would never see our house filled if we only accepted those for whom we can provide services”. His attitude and expression must also be made ‘open’. He must give the impression that he listens carefully to the visitor’s requests, and appear generous and understanding. If the request is something he can realize, he must show he does it willingly, not as a burden. Otherwise, the visitor may not believe that his request will be realized and the vote will be lost.

If the request is something that cannot be done, it should not be denied nevertheless. If he denies it he will show he is a “good man”. If he doesn’t, that he is a “good candidate”. But the former does not grant success. The promise must be given even if it is not possible to realize. It would be disheartening for the visitor to receive a negative response on the spot. However, if later on he realizes his wish will not be satisfied, it will be easier for him to understand that there are objective reasons for it, or that Marcus is not in a position to satisfy it at that moment. “Everyone prefers a lie than a declination”.

Some people are spellbound by a face and an oration much more than the chance of a future realization of a request. Others only make a request in order to determine whether they can generally count on someone, rather than to have the particular request satisfied. They might even ask for something they know is unattainable. What they really want to know is whether the candidate is on their side and understands them; whether he is their go-to man. And if someone is truly disappointed by Marcus ignoring his request after the elections, it will be too late. “As for the rage of he who you lie to, it is the last thing that should trouble you!”

If there is anything impressive in Quintus’ text it is not how extraordinary it is, but its banality. And, if someone wants proof that ‘history repeats itself’, there might not be a better (or shorter) example than his small essay. Quintus pinpoints all that any future politician asking for votes learns all-too-well during his career: How to cajole the prominent citizens and convince them he will work for the stability of the polity while dismissing the plebeians; even though in front of the masses he talks about upsetting the status quo and about progress; while he offers promises as general and vague as possible. Also, he illustrates how useful it is to address as small an interest group as he can find, recognizing its particularities in order to utilize the group by addressing its needs; how to run an impressive campaign filled with fanfare and massive public appearances; and also how valuable it is for a candidate to memorize the names and faces of his supporters in order to present a more human, friendly attitude. For a politician to earn the young vote is today as important as it ever was, as the youth is called to play the role of a little candidate, submissively and energetically propagandizing the leader’s positions; while defamation (or a negative campaign) is suggested not only as a useful tool but a possibly necessary one for achieving victory.

“Take good care so that your campaign is grandiose, bright, thunderous, popular; so that it is decent and exemplary in merit; look for incriminating evidence against your antagonists (crime, corruption or immorality) according to their character”.

Wherever Marcus’ knowledge of political strategy, as exhibited in this essay, came from, whether he acquired it from his brother or from years of personal avocation in the political scene of Rome, the following year (in 63 BC, when he was 42 years old) he won the office of consul following these exact advice which will, fatefully, be useful for every candidate for any office.


[1] Since the text (Little Handbook on Electioneering) is written in a rhetorical form which is not to expected for a letter addressed to the writer’s brother, its authenticity has been questioned. However, since what’s important here is its actual content and not who actually wrote it, this has little effect; and it would be condescending to think that the candidate is not aware of the content, as we’ll see.

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