Elections in the Roman Republic were an essential part of its governance, with participation only being afforded to Roman citizens. Upper-class interests, centered in the urban political environment of cities, often trumped the concerns of the diverse and disunified lower class; while at times, those already in power would pre-select candidates for office, further reducing the value of voters’ input. The candidates themselves at first remained distant from voters and refrained from public presentations (in fact, formal speech-making was at one point forbidden in an effort to focus on the policies rather than the charisma of the candidate), but they later more than made up for time lost with habitual bribery, coercion, and empty promises. As the practice of electoral campaigning grew in use and extent, the pool of candidates was no longer limited to a select group with riches and high birth. Instead, many more ordinary citizens had a chance to run for office, allowing for more equal representation in key government decisions.
During the Roman Republic the citizens would elect almost all officeholders annually. Popular elections for high office were largely undermined and then brought to an end by Augustus (r. 27 BC - 14 AD), the first Roman emperor (earlier known as Octavian). However, Roman elections continued at the local level.
Elections were a central element to the history and politics of Rome for some 500 years, and the major historians such as Livy and Plutarch make frequent references to them. No comprehensive account exists on how elections worked. Historians have reconstructed details from scattered accounts from different eras, but much is still uncertain and there is scholarly debate over several elements.
Sallust gives a valuable account of Marius' campaign of 107 BCE in the Jugurthine War. The most important sources are writings by Cicero. While his major works touch on elections, his daily life was immersed in late Republican politics, and his surviving letters and orations are the most valuable. Two important ones are Pro Murena and Pro Plancio, both legal speeches to defend candidates accused of bribery.
The most comprehensive surviving source is the Commentariolum Petitionis (Little Handbook on Electioneering) by Quintus Tullius Cicero. It is a how-to guide on running for consul, written by Quintus for his brother's campaign in 64 BCE. Unfortunately, there are many doubts as to its authenticity, accepted by some as authentic to the period, others date it a century later to an author who would not have direct knowledge of election realities.
Structure and process
At the origin of the Republic, the only elected positions were the two consuls; over the course of the Republic new public offices were added, and by the end of the Republic 44 public offices were elected. All were elected annually to one-year terms except the censor, whose term covered a lustrum of five years. The only public offices which were not elected positions were the dictator and his deputy the Master of the Horse, who were appointed, but only in emergency circumstances.
The officeholders were elected by different assemblies. The Centuriate Assembly elected the highest offices of consul, praetor, and censor. This assembly divided all adult male citizens in 193 centuries. Its organization was descended from that of the early Roman Army, and the centuries were organized into tiers rank and property with cavalry equites at the top and unarmed and unpropertied at the bottom. Quaestors, and curule aediles were elected by the Tribal Assembly, while tribunes and plebeian aediles were elected by the Plebeian Council. These were divided into 35 tribes, geographical units of voters. The membership of the two is almost identical, with the only difference that patricians were excluded from the Plebeian Council.
For the Centuriate, voting was in descending order by status and wealth. The first property class would divide itself first into their 35 tribes and then split each tribe by age forming the iuniores (juniors) and the seniores (seniors). This would form 70 centuries, each with a vote. The iuniores would vote first, and one of them would be chosen by lot. This group, known as the centuria praerogativa, would be the first to vote, and it would have its results announced before every other century voted. Cicero put great weight on the ability of this first announced result to sway other voters. After the centuria praerogativa the other 34 iuniores would have their results announced simultaneously. Next, the 35 seniors and the 18 equites would cast their ballots. The first property class and the equites combined for 98 votes, and if they were unanimous a candidate would be declared elected and no other centuries would vote. If no majority was reached, balloting would continue through the lower property classes until a majority was reached.
The Tribal Assembly did not have a similar order of precedence. Each of the 35 tribes voted simultaneously. The results were then counted and announced in an order determined by lot. Once a candidate had reached a majority of 18 tribes, counting would stop.
Voting itself was originally oral and initiated via a magistrate's call for a public meeting. Candidates would stand before the electorate, without having prepared any sort of formal speech, and voters would separate to different sections of the saepta (a large unroofed wooden structure with 35 divisions) according to tribe. Each division was connected to the magistrate’s tribunal by a pons (plank) over which the voters would pass to cast their ballots. Each compartment had their votes taken individually and then given to tabulators on the tribunal. Until 139 BC, citizens cast their votes verbally by stating a desired candidate’s name while rogatores (tabulators) marked off the votes on wax tablets.
The lex Gabinia tabellaria of 139 BC introduced the secret ballot, where each voter wrote the initials of the desired candidate on a small wax tablet to be placed in a box known as the cista at the exit of each of the pontes. To prevent dishonesty, poll watchers guarded the ballot boxes, and the official tabulators, now called custodes, counted the votes. The process of voting itself occurred either in the capital’s forum before the temple of Castor and Pollux or before the Rostra, although limited space prevented all the tribes from voting at once.
A core campaign activity was canvassing in the Forum. The candidate would walk to the forum surrounded by a group of supporters, to meet another cluster of allies in the Forum. At the forum, the candidate would shake hands with the eligible voters. Whispering into the ear of some candidates would be a nomenclator, a slave who had been trained to memorize the names of all the voters, so that the candidate could greet them all by name. The person running for office would wear an especially whitened toga, known as the toga candida. It is from this term that we get the modern word candidate. Some candidates may have extended their canvassing to the rural markets around Rome, once those outside the city were allowed to vote.
Political rallies were not permitted in Roman elections. To attract voters candidates instead held banquets and gave away free tickets to the games. To pay for these either a candidate had to be wealthy, or rely on the sponsorship of wealthy friends. There are cases of people going ruinously into debt to fund their campaigns. There were no attempts to restrict who could donate or how much, but there were several laws passed attempting to limit candidate spending on banquets and games.
Development of Candidacy
Public voting in Rome was originally a process that did not allow for a true choice from the people. After the Senate prepared a list of candidates, it was the magistrate that narrowed the list to the two candidates that could contend for the nomination. Later on in the Roman Republic a practice called professio was established, in which potential candidates started to “profess to the magistrate” their wish to be nominated for candidacy. This led to the nominated candidates publicly advertising their aspirations to office and even “[conducting] their own canvass,” clearly campaigning with the idea of voters’ choice in mind. Still, the people’s power could be limited, as there were a few instances in 201 BC and 169 BC when candidates suspiciously became elected just a day after they declared themselves a candidate, which would of course allow no real time for the people to be aware of, much less vote for, such last-minute choices. In the later century, however, more concrete rules were established regarding the behavior and canvassing of candidates. These laws kept people from declaring candidacy the day before an election, requiring the profession to be made before a certain set date.
Politicians running for a position of power in the Roman Republic followed campaigning strategies similar to those used by modern politicians. In a contemporary letter written to consul candidate Marcus Cicero by his brother, Quintus, during Marcus’ campaign, Quintus wrote on the various campaigning strategies that would help Marcus be elected. One of the most important tips Quintus emphasized was that Marcus should create friendships with men of higher status because these were the men that had the most influence. In addition to creating relationships with the wealthy, Quintus also advised Marcus to “remind everyone in your debt that they should repay you with their support.” To have a chance to be elected, politicians needed to recall any favors owed to them because they needed all the support they could receive. Furthermore, in a similar fashion to modern politics, politicians in the Roman Republic needed to please everyone, whether that meant making promises they knew they could not keep or simply being very polite. In Marcus’s response to his brother, he noted that “people would prefer you give them a gracious lie than an outright refusal.”
Thus, all that mattered was that the politician kept everyone happy, even if that meant lying to their supporters. In addition to flattery and favor-trading, politicians would even resort to ad hominem tactics; in particular, one can find inscribed on the walls of public buildings in Pompeii numerous attacks on the character or constituency of opponents running for office. Some clever candidates (or their supporters) apparently scrawled derisive messages implying that only unsavory characters such as “the sneak thieves... the whole company of late drinkers [and] late risers” supported the opposing candidate.
Since most voters saw elections as irrelevant to their own lives, many candidates resorted to bribery to convince the people to cast their votes. Bribery became such a commonplace practice in the later Republic that it was seen as a normal part of the political process, and ranged anywhere from the blatant promising of money to simply hosting games and entertaining the people. Sometime during the mid-second century, Polybius noted the prohibition of bribery, but this proved to be useless as it continued to be prominent in elections and was very difficult to differentiate between bribery and the patronage system. Some evidence suggests that as the dominance of the practice grew, the number of men who gained the consulship without any consulates in his family grew as well. Political office, then, was no longer restricted to those of noble birth, and the Republic began to transition from an aristocratic government to become more oligarchic in nature. Some sources assert that the money gained from bribes actually helped common voters afford the cost of voting. In fact, the biggest target of this corruption was these poorer citizens, revealing that these voters still had considerable influence in the outcome of elections. However, the consequences of such corruption caused a lack of faith in the constitution and the political process, which led, in part, to civil war.
Corruption posed the greatest problem in the later Republic when the lucrative benefits of high office led to more competitive elections. Candidates were frequently accused of breaking the laws restricting spending, and also of directly bribing voters. Electoral crimes were known as ambitus, and there was a long series of laws passed trying to eliminate it, seemingly to little effect. In the consular election of 59 BCE, both Julius Caesar and his rival Bibulus committed to large bribes. In the election of 54 BCE two candidates promised the vast sum of the 10 million sesterces to the centuria praerogativa for its vote.
Representation and electorate
Elections in the Roman Republic were often characterized by the tension between the patricians and the plebeians and, as modern scholarship has shown, were dominated by the oligarchic elite. The Tribal Council on its surface was equitable, for example, but actually worked in favor of elites who had the resources to travel to the city to participate in the election. The Roman system clients and patronage also ensured that votes of the lower classes were tied to an elite. While voting was more open, running for office was much more restricted. Being a candidate had more stringent property tests, and required ten years of military service. Throughout the entire history of the Republic running and winning office was dominated by elite families.
The plebeian group, consisting mostly of rural farmers, gained greater political representation only slowly over time. By the middle of the 5th century BCE, the plebeians had gained enough political power that an assembly of them called the Concilium (a consolidation of a number of other disjointed plebeian assemblies) was able to elect ten tribunes, or representatives, annually. The Concilium was notable in that it was the first to represent all plebeians, not just those in the city. It was also one of few assemblies of its time to employ group voting, in which each tribe of plebeians agreed on a single vote to cast, similar to the United States electoral college and some processes of English Parliament. When it came to electing officials and magistrates higher up, though, that responsibility still lay with the Centuriate Assembly, which was for the most part controlled by patrician interests. Eventually, that too changed to include the votes of more than 35 countryside plebeian tribes. Once the lower class had greater political representation, there came a greater opportunity for them to finally ascend the political and social ladder, making the “rule by the people” a more attainable goal.
Electorate and turnout
Voting for most offices was open to all full Roman citizens, a group that excluded women, slaves and originally those living outside of Rome. In the early Republic, the electorate would have been small, but as Rome grew it expanded. The Lex Julia of 90 BCE extending voting rights to citizens across Italy greatly expanded the franchise. By the final Republican census of 70 BCE, there were 910,000 possible electors.
One unknown is how the Romans kept track of who was eligible to vote. Debates over the franchise were frequent, and differentiating voters from non-voters must have been done. One possibility is that as voters gathered as a tribe the members would be well known enough to each other that an outsider could be spotted, but as populations grew this would have been difficult. Historians have proposed that a central voters list was kept or that citizens were given some form of voter identification, but no sources or archaeological evidence survives for either.
Another debated issue is turnout. No contemporary source indicates how many cast ballots in an election. One clue to an approximate number is the size of the voting area. As consul, Julius Caesar began the construction of a structure on the Campus Martius to hold the population while voting. The size of the structure, if completely filled with voters could have held between 30,000 and 70,000 people. This is almost certainly a high estimate, as open spaces for conducting polling itself would at the least have been required. Cicero mentions in one work that the voting for a single consul in 45 BCE took 5 hours, with the equites and the first and second classes voting. From what we know of how the voting was structured historians have estimated that at most between 6,000 and 16,800 could have voted in that election. With an electorate of 910,000, even the most generous guesses put voter turnout below 10%.
End of elections
The reign of Caesar Augustus saw the final decline of democratic elections in Rome. Augustus undermined and lessened the significance of the election results, eventually eliminating elections entirely. He also diminished the importance of the offices themselves - the senate was full of his supporters, so candidacy was based on flattery and not on merit since he could nominate senators freely and essentially controlled all membership. Augustus had extensive influence over the magistrates as well; he was given the power to grant commendation to candidates for office, which became a guarantee of winning the election. He later nullified the power of the elected tribunes by assuming the powers of a tribune without actually holding the office itself, allowing him to act as one without other tribunes challenging him. This included casting down any legislation proposed by the others, significantly decreasing the power of the tribunes. Because of this, even though elections still occurred, the results mattered far less than they had under the Republic. Eventually, late in his principate, Augustus eliminated direct election entirely, establishing designation by a group of senators and equites. Citizens were still allowed to elect municipal officers, but filling higher-level posts was left entirely to those already in power.
There is evidence that elections continued at the municipal level for some time after outside of Rome. The remains of Pompeii found several graffiti inscriptions lauding one candidate or another, indicating that contested elections were still underway there in 79 CE.
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