How to win an election

The Roman Forum

How to win an election


“At the height of the Roman Empire, a quarter of the world’s population lived under the Roman law.” 1

Rome, however, was not born as this vast, multicultural dominion backed by a mighty military machinery under the rule of one man; once it was a kingdom, once it was a republic.

The Roman Republic

After the Etruscan monarchy was overthrown, a form of government known as republic was instituted in the Italic Peninsula.

“Republic” comes from the Latin words “res” and “publica” and literally means “thing of the people.”

The period in which the city-state of Rome existed as a republican government lasted from 509 B.C to 27 B.C.

In a republic, the supreme power lays on the hands of the people, who votes their leaders in and out. Rome’s republican government is considered one of the earliest examples of representative democracy in the world. As a matter of fact, during the republican period, Romans didn’t live under the rule of a king or an emperor, but who was the “people” that ruled Rome?


The Roman Senate

The ancient Roman society and politics

The social structure of ancient Rome was based on heredity, property, wealth, citizenship, freedom and gender.

The boundaries between the different classes were rigid and legally enforced. Only the patricians – wealthy landowners from old families – and those related to them by birth were eligible for the highest republican offices: and advisory council – the tenurial Senate, and the executive authority vested into two consuls, elected every year.

Consuls were elected senators and senators were chosen by consuls, which made of the political elite of Rome quite a closed system.

There was a common perception that all the Roman citizens who were not patricians were plebeians. This is not an absolute truth, but says a lot.

Roman citizens destitute of hereditary wealth and nobility could succeed economically, constitute assemblies, vote on laws and for consul elections, become magistrates, perform judicial and administrative functions, but not hold the highest political offices of the republic.

Women in ancient Rome were considered citizens but could not vote or hold public offices and their social status was determined by their fathers’ and husbands’. Slaves and foreigners had no citizenship rights at all.


A simplified schema of class division in ancient Roma

Marcus Tullius Cicero


Marcus and his younger brother Quintus were not nobles by birth. They belonged to a wealthy family from the mountain town of Arpinum, one hundred kilometres southeast of Rome. Their father was a member of the equestrian order, a prosperous business social segment, what allowed the brothers to have a precious classical education in Greek, Latin and the possibility of rising in both the military and public careers.

Marcus had a brief passage through the army but rose as a brilliant lawyer, greatly admired for his sharp mind, communication skills and linguistics knowledge. Cicero is considered the greatest orator Rome ever had, only compared to Demosthenes.

Marcus aimed the political career and served as a quaestor, praetor and province governor with great political talent and administrative aptitude. He was qualified and had all the distinctive attributes of character to be the best candidate for the highest office of consul in 63 B.C.

“However, no man outside the noble families had been elected as a consul for thirty years, making the attainment of this ultimate goal by Marcus unlikely.”

“As the campaign for consul was beginning, Quintus wrote a short pamphlet to Marcus on electioneering in the form of a letter. The result is a little-known text that has somehow survived the centuries, called in Latin the Commentariolum Petitionis.”

Philip Freeman

This letter is the substrate of the book and the core of our review.

Screenshot (39)

How to Win an Election – by Quintus Tullius Cicero – Translation and introduction by Philip Freeman, Princeton University Press, 2012.

Always remember what city this is, what office it is you seek, and who you are. Every day as you go down to the Forum, you should say to yourself: “I am an outsider. I want to be a consul. This is Rome.”

Quintus Tullius

The guidance Quintus offers to his brother in this letter is a sensible advice on knowing one’s own strengths and weaknesses, identifying opportunities and threats, as well as scrutinizing one’s enemies’ or competitors’ strengths and weaknesses and making the best use of them.

After reading Quintus’ appealing message, you should leave absolutely convinced of the Cicero brothers’ mastering in politics, business and strategy. I did, since it is the very first SWOT analysis I have ever read about in history.

SWOT analysis is a strategic planning technique used to help a person or organization to identify strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats related to business competition or project planning. It is extensively used in political campaign strategy nowadays, but WOW, it was not something known two thousand years ago.

The origins of SWOT analysis, as codified knowledge, dates from the second half of the twentieth century. But WOW again – Quintus’ letter was written two thousand years ago.


The origins of the SWOT matrix

Then, let us use the SWOT analysis, to better comprehend his advice and turn his instructions into something intelligible for politics experts and newcomers.


The SWOT matrix figure

Marcus’ strengths:

  • Outstanding communication skills; known as the greatest orator Rome ever had – mastering of Greek and Latin.
  • Brilliant attorney, had successfully defended many important figures of the ancient Roman society, including consuls, senators, businessmen and people from all backgrounds.
  • Blazed the cursus honorum with great distinction and integrity – served the army, served as quaestor, praetor and province governor.
  • Dynamic, courageous and eloquent personality, led a honest public life, free of scandals.

Marcus’ weaknesses:

  • He is an outsider, which means not noble by birth. We must remember that the highest offices of the Roman republic were controlled and dominated by patricians.
  • He is courteous and just but does not have a flattering or populist character.


  • Running against candidates whose inaptitude was evident.

    “The poor quality of those men of the nobility who are competing against you. No one could reasonably say that their privileged birth makes them more qualified to be consul than your natural gifts.”


  • Some candidates were dangerous opponents like Antonius and Catiline, who, however, had important moral flaws and were more distinguished by their crimes than their privileged birth.
  • Bribes for votes were very common practice during political campaigns at the end of the Roman republican period.

Now, we are going to appreciate some of Quintus’ recommendations based on the SWOT analysis of Marcus’ strengths and weakness, the opportunities and threats to his campaign.

Marcus’ strengths:

  • Approach every speaking engagement as the entire future depended on that single event and use communication skills as the most valuable resource.
  • Call in all favours and remember everyone in debt or benefitted by his help that they should repay with support at this crucial moment. For those who owe him nothing, make them aware that his future position will put him in place to help them.
  • Cultivate old friendships and make sure family and close allies are backing, for almost every destructive rumour that makes its way to the public begins among family and friends.

Marcus’ weaknesses:

  • One thing that can greatly help an outsider is the backing of the nobility, particularly those who have served as consuls previously. He must diligently cultivate relationships with these men of privilege and make them think he has always been a conservative and defended traditional values.
  • Conduct a flawless campaign with the greatest thoughtfulness, industry, and care, securing the support of friends and winning the sympathy of the general public.


  • In an election he needs to think of friendship in broader terms than in everyday life. For a candidate, a friend is anyone who shows goodwill or seeks out his company.
  • Make friends with any man who holds great influence among the centuries and tribes, or who belongs to organizations or lead communities and neighbourhoods, recognizing the difference between the useful and useless men.
  • Seek out men everywhere who would represent him as if they themselves where running for office. Visit them, talk to them, get to know them. Strengthen their loyalty in whatever way works best, using the language they understand.
  • Get along even with those no decent person would have association with, since it would be perfectly acceptable during a campaign.
  • The populist and flattering strategies are, thus, lined out: impressing the voters at large. This is done by knowing who people are, being personable and generous, promoting oneself, being available, and never giving up. Work every day to recall names and faces.

You desperately need to learn the art of flattery—a disgraceful thing in normal life but essential when you are running for office.

  • Generosity is also a requirement of a candidate, even if it doesn’t affect most voters directly. Offering banquets, doing favours, being always available and having the doors of his house open for them.
  • The most important part of the campaign is to bring hope to people and a feeling of goodwill towards the candidate.
  • Make them promises their hearts desire to hear even if he cannot fulfil them later.

People will by nature be much angrier with a man who has turned them down outright than with someone who has backed out of his obligation claiming that he would love to help them if only he could.

  • Always think about publicity. Be sure to put on a good show. Dignified, yes, but full of the color and spectacle that appeals so much to crowds.


  • Once figured out who true friends are, give some thought to enemies as well. Try to convert some enemies into friends and when it is not possible or the case, scrutinize the flaws, murders and scandals that weight upon them and remind the public about it.
  • Let opponents know they might be charged on corruption. And do not to be discouraged by all this talk of bribery.

I am certain that even in the most corrupt elections that there are plenty of voters who support the candidates they believe in without money changing hands.

Great Men and Famous Women

Quintus Tullius Cicero


When I selected this book to review I had a totally different idea and expectation about it.

In my imagination, the tactics in this letter were full of surreptitious, unscrupulous stratagems to win an election at any price, even if not in a free and fair way.

Actually, this is not the case.

This book surprised me immensely. What I found is a very heart touching legacy of brotherhood, concern and love between two individuals that despite excelsior education, cultivated culture, integrity, qualification, hard work and experience, were in frank disadvantage due on their birth status.

Roman politics was not a game for amateurs, especially in times of dissolution of republican norms, breaking down of democracy and transition to an empire, under the rule of absolute power and despotic will. That’s what would happen to Rome, few years after Cicero’s term as a consul, the last true defender of the Roman republic.

“Do not blame Caesar, blame the people of Rome who have rejoiced in their loss of freedom, who hail him when he speaks in the Forum of more security, more living fatly at the expense of the industrious.”

Marcus Cicero

Obviously we are going to discover populist methods of becoming friends to whoever may help to win, promising whatever the hearts want to hear, giving people the hope they are aiming for; but in a general sense I see this letter more as a path to leadership than a path to populism, and this is the reason it can be really considered an ingenious, atemporal guide for modern politicians.




1 – The Roman Empire in the first century –

2 – How to Win an Election – by Quintus Tullius Cicero – Translation and Introduction by Philip Freeman, Princeton University Press, 2012.

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