Many people are saying that this year's presidential election marks a nadir not only for our nation's politics, but also for social discourse. We all seem to think the country is headed down the tubes, but for different reasons. We can't seem to untwist rhetoric from truth, the uncouth from the criminal. But is this really a new phenomenon? Sure, not so long ago an audible sigh during a debate, a strangled primal scream at a rally, or plan old flop-sweat would be enough to kill presidential aspirations. But what if we looked back to the political conventions of a much more ancient republic, Rome? Would our truth-bending spectacles and backbiting debates bewilder the likes of Caesar and Cicero, or would the old patricians school us in the art of the conniving campaign? What if nothing has changed over 2,000 years?
Historian Adrian Goldsworthy is the author of several bestselling histories of Rome and its principals, including Caesar, How Rome Fell, and his latest, Pax Romana: War, Peace and Conquest in the Roman World, all of which combine his exhaustive knowledge, research, and an unusual talent for crafting compelling narratives from a topic most of us would consider homework. He also knows a few things about classical electioneering. We asked him to compare our modern politics to those of the ancients.
By Adrian Goldsworthy
It's hard to remember a presidential race quite like this one, where opinion is so polarized, neither of the party nominees very popular and it looks as if a lot of people will vote for what they see as the lesser of two evils rather than out of true enthusiasm. There has been a lot of abuse, whether it is Trump saying that Clinton should be in prison or Clinton consigning half of Trump's supporters to into her 'basket of deplorables', and both have spent a lot of time apologizing - or at least explaining away things they have said and done in the past. Policy has taken a backseat, and it seems all about character, personality and trust.
In its way, it is all very Roman, and men like Cicero and Julius Caesar would feel more at home in such a campaign than most modern elections. It's the Romans who gave us our word candidate from candidatus, the specially whitened toga a man standing for office donned so that he would stand out as he walked through the Forum. A candidate wanted to be seen with as many important people as possible, parading their endorsement. Cicero assured his brother that during an election campaign ' ... you can make friends of any people you wish without disgrace, which you cannot do in the rest of life.' It did not matter whether you really liked or respected them, or whether they cared much for you, good candidates were expected to welcome any support. Such political friendships might not outlast the election, but that was not the point as long as they lasted until polling day. Being abandoned by supporters, who suddenly would not attend a candidate or took care not to sit near them in the Senate signposted disaster. The number of senior Republicans now distancing themselves from the Trump campaign would be a bad sign to Romans.
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Policies never played much role in Roman elections, for it was all about character. No one did more than make vague promises about doing good things - making the Republic great if you will. Cicero did not think people wanted specific ideas, but 'promises' and 'promises made in a lavish and complimentary way' and it was best to tell them what they wanted to hear. When asked to do something if elected 'whatever you cannot perform, decline gracefully or, better yet, don't decline. A good man will do the former, a good candidate the latter.' No one would hold it against a candidate if they never got around to fulfilling such promises once elected.
Money mattered, and candidates advertised themselves everywhere. Many tombs outside Rome have inscriptions forbidding anyone from posting political placards on them, but this was impossible to enforce. Men boasted of the games they had staged and gladiatorial combats changed from being a form of funeral sacrifice to lavish and gory public entertainment as politicians vied to outdo each other, so that voters would remember them and feel grateful.
The Romans had no party system, and each candidate stood as an individual, but the well established aristocratic families had big advantages on top of their wealth, because voters liked familiar names. Plenty of voters owed the family for past favours or hoped for future benefits. On top of that they had the successes of earlier generations to boast and lost no opportunity to remind people of what their brothers, fathers, grandfathers and others had done for the Republic. Even a family funeral was public event, advertising the brand. No Roman would be surprised to see the Clinton brand appearing again, or be surprised that no one apart from a true outsider dared to challenge such a big name for the party nomination. (Cicero and Caesar would be surprised to see a female candidate and women voters, so that is one area where we can genuinely be proud of our modern system. On the other hand, they never had to think about whether having the spouse of a former president holding the same office was a good thing).
Roman politicians needed to be orators, trained to project their voice as thoroughly as an opera singer, to frame and deliver a polished speech at a moment's notice. Cicero's device was to start with a fairly complicated idea, and then get simpler and deal in slogans so that the audience was flattered into thinking they were clever. The abuse of 2016 pales in comparison with Roman political invective. Rivals were routinely damned as corrupt, lazy, ignorant, vicious and perverted - accusations of incest, usually with a sister, are surprisingly common. Aristocrats could be portrayed as unworthy of their ancestors and men new to politics as base born. Some of the feuds became personal, but more often the rival of one year became the temporary ally and friend of another. Such things rarely caused comment, and Roman politicians lacked the modern enthusiasm for apologizing.
A president's term is longer than the twelve months given to a Roman magistrate, but even so he or she will struggle to fulfil all the promises made to supporters or all the warnings given by rivals. There is a danger that the hatred and contempt expressed on both sides in 2016 will do lasting damage, and it is unlikely that the deep disillusionment of so many hard-working people with the political establishment will fade. Yet we should be grateful. In Cicero's day politics became ever more violent as the democratic system broke down altogether. At least for the moment, there is no prospect of that.
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