Book Review: How To Win An Election

How To Win An Election: An Ancient Guide For Modern Politicians, by Quintus Tullius Cicero

Quintus Tullius Cicero, the younger brother of the more famous Marcus, who was among the greatest orators of the late Roman Republic [1], apparently wrote this delightful little book in a lengthy letter to his older brother about how to win an election. In understanding this book, the word “an” becomes rather important. Within this book there are two different ways this word can be understood as far as its larger significance. The author, a somewhat cynical and worldly wise Roman of his time, gives advice to his somewhat stiff and reserved but ambitious older brother on how to win a particular election given the weakness of the field, which allowed Cicero, despite only being from the upper middle class of the period, to win a spot that ensured his spot for himself and his family in the aristocratic nobility by winning the consular election in 64BC. That said, the author’s points, despite their weakness in not focusing on message, as Karl Rove drily points out in his back cover blurb for the book, are applicable today for modern politicians [2] in how to win through glad-handing, promising the moon, and negative smear campaigns.

In terms of its contents, this book is to the point and direct. If one did not have the quirky and idiosyncratic Latin original text on the left side of the page, and one was only reading the English translation, only a change of names would be necessary to make it impossible to determine if the text had been written in 64BC or at any point later than about 1972 in the United States concerning its political worldview. Despite its short length, barely 100 pages even when considering that half of it is in Latin, and most of the rest is made up of explanatory notes, an introductory text, a glossary and suggestions for further reading, this is a book that contains a great deal of worthwhile advice with an edge and a brutal honesty that is remarkable even more than 2000 years later, in a fresh translation by contemporary classicist Philip Freeman. About his text, the translator states: “Translating the text of the Commentariolum Petitionis is no easy task. The Latin is at times obscure, while the manuscripts passed down to us have been corrupted at several points. I have tried to make my translation accessible, colloquial, and as clear as possible to modern readers, while remaining faithful to the sense of the original text (xxiii).” Mission accomplished.

So, how did Quintus advise his elder brother on how to win the most prestigious election in Roman republican society? For one, he advised his brother to make winning the election his focus, not taking time off, not wasting time by going on vacation, but by showing the Roman populace his support and working constantly to demonstrate the strength of his own coalition, his ability to work over often neglected suburban and rural voters in the area around Rome, and in calling in his political favors won through his oratory as a lawyer for the elites as well as a protégé of populist Roman aristocrat Pompey. He advised his brother, who could come off as stiff as Obama or Romney, to work on being more charming and charismatic, putting on a front of friendliness and cheeriness, and paying attention to remembering people and paying close attention to them in conversation rather than allowing himself to get lost in thought and reflection as he was wont to do. Most cynically, he advised his brother to run a campaign to show continual activity and support among elites and community leaders and the like and smear his opponents ruthlessly, since his elite competitors for the consulate were scandal-ridden second raters like the notorious Catiline, whose rebellion against the republic upon the loss of his second consul election in a row was easily crushed thanks to the oratorical skills of Marcus Cicero. Although Cicero was successful in his campaign, he ultimately fell prey to the hostility of the successors to Julius Caesar during the fall of the Republic some twenty years after this successful campaign. All earthly glory is passing, after all. This is a text well worth reading, though, since its principles continue to be practiced today by the Machiavellian modern equivalents of Quintus Tullius Cicero in our contemporary political milieu.

[1] See, for example:

[2] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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