Portrait of Marcus Tullius Cicero with political campaign button

Portrait of Marcus Tullius Cicero, originally published (minus campaign button) in Denkmäler des klassischen Altertums (K. A. Baumeister, 1885). Photo: Wikimedia Commons

If Karl Rove had lived in ancient Rome, he might have written something like Commentariolum Petitiones, a down-and-dirty electioneering guide from 64 B.C. published in English by Princeton University Press as How to Win an Election: An Ancient Guide for Modern Politicians. The Machiavellian little guidebook translated by classicist Philip Freeman, provides crystal-clear advice on how to bluster, maneuver, and charm your way into political office.

The author of How to Win an Election may have been Quintus Cicero, brother of Rome’s greatest orator Marcus Cicero. In 64 B.C. Marcus was running for consul, the loftiest office in the Roman Republic. A high-profile defense lawyer, he possessed a brilliant mind and an expensive education, but lacked military credentials and hailed from a family of provincial nobodies. Would the political elites of Rome support such an upstart?

Enter the fiery and ambitious Quintus, who sets Marcus straight with 58 commands ranging from maintaining a pleasant expression and manner (“You can be rather stiff at times. You desperately need to learn the art of flattery”) to wooing vested interests (“Never let them think you are a populist”).

Candidates, take note:

Make Friends. Cultivate supporters from every quarter—beginning with your spouse and kids. If you’ve done something for someone in the past, call in the chips; if you haven’t, promise to later (then conveniently forget). Sleaze is a plus: “You can eagerly and unashamedly cultivate friendships with people no decent person would talk to.”

Promise Everything. Don’t forget any segment of the electorate: the business community, wealthy elites, rural voters, youth. Appeal to all special interests simultaneously through “vague generalities.” Pledge the impossible, for “broken promises are often lost in a cloud of changing circumstances so that anger against you will be minimal.”

Manipulate. Make voters love you by acting like you care: keep your door open, remember names, inspire hope for a better future. Turn voters against your opponents by harping relentlessly on (and exaggerating) their flaws. Quintus cites the outlandish crimes of Marcus’s foe, exhorting him to brush up on all the details:

Catiline, your chief opponent in this contest, took a club and beat poor Marcus Marius, a man very popular with the Roman people. With everyone watching, the scoundrel chased Marius through the streets to a tomb where he tortured him with every cruelty. Then, still alive, he grabbed him by the hair with his left hand and decapitated him with his right and carried the head away with blood dripping between his fingers. Catiline afterwards was a friend of actors—can you imagine?—and gladiators. He lived a life of debauchery with the former group and used the latter as hired thugs in all his crimes. He never missed a chance to defile a holy shrine even if his companions refused to stoop so low….He was so impudent, so wicked, so skilled in his licentiousness that he molested young boys almost in the laps of their parents. Do I even need to remind you what he did in Africa? It’s all recorded in the indictments, which you should take the time to review carefully, by the way.

Today’s political scene may have fewer gladiators and more questionable memes, but How to Win an Election reminds us that human nature hasn’t changed much over the ages. A reviewer quoted on the book’s back flap highlights the text’s currency: “provides timeless counsel and a great read for the modern political practitioner.” The reviewer’s name? Karl Rove.