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Election advice from ancient Rome


'Tonius and Kevinus'. Artwok by Chris Johnston portrays Tony Abbott and Kevin Rudd electioneering in ancient Roman garb.In 64 BC, at the age of 42, the brilliant orator and lawyer Marcus Tullius Cicero decided to run for the position of consul, the highest office in the Roman Republic. On the eve of the campaign his younger brother Quintus — who possessed an unfortunate penchant for the most outrageous acts of cruelty — penned a detailed strategy memo outlining what his older brother needed to do to win the election.

The frank advice, eerily similar to the realpolitik of Niccolò Machiavelli, is as relevant today as it was 2000 years ago. For our current political leaders the pragmatic counsel contained within the Commentariolum Petitionis or Little Handbook on Electioneering, recently translated by Philip Freeman, is well worth a read.

Quintus initially assures his older brother that he has what it takes to be victorious. The opponents he will face are brutes, murderers, philanderers and spendthrifts. But the Cicero brothers are political outsiders and if they want to win they need to command the Field of Mars. Every ballot is a grueling contest so therefore focus your attention and leave nothing to chance. Campaign incessantly. Discipline is the key to electoral success!

Quintus urges his brother to surround himself with people he can trust. Politics is full of deceit and betrayal so choose your campaign staff wisely. Make sure you have the support of your closest friends and family members, as the worst kinds of leaks originate from those who may be aware of your greatest weaknesses and improprieties.

The other precepts laid out are just as prudent. Promise everything to everyone. If problems emerge after the election it is easier to deal with them if you are in power. Engage in the art of flattery. Tell people what they want to hear. Make voters feel they are important. Shake as many hands as you can. Try to remember names and faces. Notwithstanding how objectionable you find your supporters, be sure to count their votes. Call in favours and offer future rewards to those who join the effort. Remember that the electorate is both gullible and self-interested.

Quintus counsels his brother to exploit the weaknesses of his opponents. Opposition research was more or less invented by the younger Cicero. Do not pass up the opportunity to remind the voters of the crimes, sex scandals and alleged corruption of your opponents. Draw attention to their weaknesses to distract from their strengths.

Finally Quintus advises his brother to put on a good show. The people need somebody to believe in, so be that person. Never underestimate the power and appeal of hope. Convince the voters that you will make their world a better place. Remember it is inevitable you will let down at least some of the voters after you come to power.

Did the brotherly advice work? Absolutely. Cicero, the political outsider, won more votes than any other candidate and went on to save the republic from a conspiracy. He was later given the title 'father of his country'.

The current Australian federal election campaign would appear familiar to the Cicero brothers. Tony Abbott has cultivated the support of big business, press barons, and mining billionaires. Kevin Rudd has the support of Trade Unions. The Coalition has unleashed negative advertisements aimed at exposing the dysfunction of the Labor Party. The Labor Party will contend that Abbott is overly aggressive and without a policy agenda. Both will overpromise; both will engage in the art of flattery. Both will cast a new vision and attempt to give people hope.

Sadly the end for Marcus Tullius Cicero was rather unpleasant. In the decades succeeding his consulship the Roman Empire descended into civil war. Cicero and the new despot, Mark Antony, became sworn enemies. Cicero used his status in the Senate to denounce the authoritarian leadership of Antony. And in doing so he sealed his fate.

In 43 BC he was caught while attempting to flee to Macedonia. With his last breath he reportedly uttered 'There is nothing proper about what you are doing, soldier, but do try to kill me properly.' And with that he bowed to his captors and was decapitated. Quintus and his son were also rounded up and executed.

On the order of Antony the head and hands of Cicero were displayed in the Roman Forum. Before it was removed Antony's wife Fulvia took the head in her hands and spat on it. She then pulled out Cicero's decaying tongue and stabbed it repeatedly with her hairpin as a final act of revenge against his oratory brilliance.

Whatever the outcome of the election both Rudd and Abbott can take comfort that such a fate will not befall them.

Dustin Halse headshotDustin Halse teaches politics and history at Swinburne University and is a member of Swinburne Institute for Social Research. He has written political opinion for The National Times, The Drum, The Conversation, New Matilda and Australian Policy Online. Follow him on Twitter @Dustinhalse

Original artwork by Chris Johnston.

Cicero image from Shutterstock

Topic tags: Dustin Halse, Cicero, Kevin Rudd, Tony Abbott, election 2013



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Existing comments

A brilliant article, so true of today's politicians.

Alex | 09 August 2013  

Ancient Rome can teach us many things about political power plays. I was interested to read of Fulvia's gruesome revenge strategy. I thought perhaps my Country Women's Association cookbook may have a recipe for tongue. But, alas, only tripe and onions!

Pam | 10 August 2013  

And Cicero wrote De Officiis, which I thought dealt with proper conduct when in office. Politicians!

Joe McGirr | 12 August 2013  

Ouch! But well & truly said.

Patricia R | 12 August 2013  

I remember well being encouraged in the 1950s by my Classics (Latin & Greek) teacher to pursue these subjects at university level because, if nothing else, they would help me with cryptic crosswords if I ever ended up in the Common Room of an English college. If I were silly enough to enter politcs they would show me not only the vindictiveness to expect from my enemies but also betrayal at the hands of my friends. I see a lot of Cicero in Malcolm Turnbull. He too believed in The Republic.

Uncle Pat | 12 August 2013  

@Uncle Pat: I think Tony Abbott looks a bit like Cassius. You know - "Yond Cassius (aka Tony) has a lean and hungry look".

Pam | 12 August 2013  

Due to the lack of compassion shown to refugees ( to be created in the Image of God means we are called TO BE the Image of God by imitating his mercy, compassion and goodness towards all. When we fail to imitate God's mercy, compassion and goodness, we create an 'image' or 'idol' that represents who we have really chosen to be ), Mr Rudd and Mr Abbott will not be getting my families vote nor mine this year. As non-cooperation with evil is as much a duty as is cooperation with good. http://ombresblanches.files.wordpress.com/2007/04/doriangrayaudience.jpg

Game Theory | 12 August 2013  

I think somebody has a subscription to Foreign Policy.

medialapse | 14 August 2013  

Yes! the last defender of the doomed Roman Republic! I'm reading Cicero's biography at the moment, by an Everitt, who mentioned the many weaknesses of that Republic, which Cicero tried to save. Unfortunately, I don't see a Cicero in this election. Time to vote informal??

Nathalie | 14 August 2013  

Totes, Dustin. This is a great read - thank you. Yes, the electorate is indeed 'gullible and self-interested' in equal measure. After today's miserable announcement about getting even 'tougher' on asylum seekers and refugees, and the arrogant refusal of Mr Abbott to cost a single policy until the 11th hour, I cannot see any 'hope' though. There is nothing but contempt - especially for those who will be most vulnerable to cruel and indifferent policy after the dust settles.

Lydia | 16 August 2013  

Neither major party deserves victory and until a party emerges with Leadership and Governance qualities,neither of them get my vote.I will settle for another hung parliament

Brian T. Manning | 17 August 2013  

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