Omnia Mutantur, Nihil Interit
A classicist in No 10: Boris and his worldview
Times may change, but it is said that everything still remains the same. That sentiment is often attributed to a 19th century French writer, but it actually harks back far longer, as Jacob Rees-Mogg acknowledged by posting his first message on Twitter in Latin. As the poet Ovid put it in his Metamorphoses, appropriately enough a great poem on change: “Omnia mutantur, nihil interit”. In other words, everything changes, but nothing fades away.
That aphorism rings true when looking at the state of modern politics. No matter how breathless pundits get about how fast everything is changing in a world rife with power-hungry politicians ready to say or do whatever it takes to get to the top, the ancient Romans were well-versed in it all.
Without impeccable connections, it was only possible to get that far up the ladder by showing remarkable talent
The greasy pole ambitious politicians sought to climb was known back then as the ladder of offices. The first step up the cursus honorum tended to begin with a spell in the military, and then one would go on to compete for a series of increasingly important civic posts in the hope of becoming one of the most powerful people in Rome as consul.
Without impeccable connections, it was only possible to get that far up the ladder by showing remarkable talent. That was how Marcus Tullius Cicero, a political outsider but hotshot lawyer, became consul in 63BC.
Cicero did not just rely on his silver tongue, honed over hours of practise and high-stakes arguments in the law courts, to be elected. The advice he received from his brother Marcus lays bare how calculating his election strategy had to be.
As a candidate, Cicero was advised to cosy up “diligently” to influential members of Roman society, whose support would encourage others to pile in behind him. Even if they did not back him, he was reassured “they will confer prestige on you by mere association”. Sycophancy became a political art form in Rome, as one veteran politician showed in his twist on bootlicking by begging Messalina, the wife of Emperor Claudius, for one of her shoes, which he would then parade around in public and kiss.
While Cicero never plumbed such depths, he was urged to “call in all favours” to ensure as many people supported him as possible on election day. Anyone was worth tapping up“who shows you goodwill or seeks out your company”, he was advised, with his brother suggesting that his allies be assured that “the more they work for your election, the closer your bond to them will be”. The crucial thing for him was to bring hope to people. So much so that he was advised not to worry about promising anything he could not deliver on in office, as voters would appreciate his positive intention.
The Roman candidate – often a well-to-do patrician sort – could not rely on their peers and social network for the necessary support, as they did not have the numbers. They needed the support of the plebes, the ordinary people who the elite would prefer to keep at a distance, were it not for the fact they needed their votes. This became painfully apparent for one election hopeful who was intrigued by the rough hands of a man he met on the campaign. “My goodness, do you walk on them?’ he quipped. The man’s hands had been hardened from good honest work in the fields, and so his remark went down like a lead balloon among those who overheard. Once word spread of his gaffe, his campaign was finished.
Wooing the Roman masses was a necessary task, but not an easy one. Cicero was urged to be tenacious in his campaign efforts and stay firmly around Rome, with no time for a quick break. To be a good candidate, he needed to be in the public eye as much as possible, ‘speaking constantly with voters, then talking with them again the next day and the next’. Failure to heed this carried risks, as Rome was as much a hive of gossip as Westminster or Washington. The city, as the historian Tacitus put it, “found a meaning in everything”. Emperor Tiberius fell foul of this after dashing off to the island of Capri, leaving the captain of his Praetorian guard to hold the reins in his stead. He had fled over fears – stoked by his scheming bodyguards – that his life was in danger. But his absence fed lurid speculation about what he was up to on that island, with tales abounding of the orgies he purportedly was busy hosting. Historians record that it was even claimed he had an erotic library festooned with images he could point to ‘in case a performer should need an illustration of what was required’, which may remind some readers of the notorious “bunga bunga” parties Silvio Berlusconi embroiled himself in.
Elections at the time were riddled with corruption as candidates, with no enforceable limits on campaign spending, were free to splash the cash in order to sway voters
The best way to win the campaign, and allay such rumours, was to be constantly out and about meeting the electorate. The Romans pressed the flesh in their face-to-face campaigning with such panache that it rubbed off on foreign spectators. On returning home after a decade as a prisoner of war in Rome, the Syrian King Antiochus IV Epiphanes is said to have showed off exotic habits he had picked up from watching years of Roman campaigns by putting on a white toga to tour the capital city of Antioch, talking with whoever he met, handing out presents and even joining his citizens in the public baths and bars. His subjects were most bemused by the unelected monarch begging for their votes as if he was actually running for an election.
Roman electioneering was not just about schmoozing the voters, as political rivals had to fight hard to win. And they were not afraid to get down in the gutter, with Cicero well-skilled in throwing out vitriol after appearing in court to prosecute a variety of wrongdoers. “Consider Antonius,’ his tactician of a brother wrote to him about an opponent, ‘who once had his property confiscated for debt … then after he was elected as praetor, he disgraced himself by going down to the market and buying a girl to be his sex slave.’ Such faults were well worth bringing up, he suggested, so voters were in no doubt about the “scoundrels” they risked electing. “Smear these men at every opportunity with the crimes, sexual scandals, and corruption they have brought on themselves,” Cicero’s brother rounded off, in one of the earliest examples on record of opposition research in a political campaign.
Elections at the time were riddled with corruption as candidates, with no enforceable limits on campaign spending, were free to splash the cash in order to sway voters. The bribery got so out of hand at one point that Cicero claimed that the interest rate temporarily doubled. This was a symptom of a society that revolved around rich “patrons” buying the loyalty of their “clients” in the expectation of securing their support at election-time.
The rise of the Empire cast Roman elections in a different light, as the consulship became little more than a foil to the Emperor. But one could not ascend to the throne without being a skilled political operator as anyone useless ended up meeting a swift end.
Julius Caesar was a master of spin who knew the power of a good sound-bite, always ready with a pithy summary of his latest achievement. After conquering the Gauls, he reported back to the Senate – “Gallia est pacata” (Gaul has been subdued). He later came out with his snappiest line in another letter after winning a quick war in the East: “Veni, vidi, vici” (I came, I saw, I conquered). Caesar’s enemies feared he would seize power, and were hellbent on stopping him. They could have succeeded, if Caesar had not ensured the public were on side by ensuring they were kept informed about his exploits by writing his own reports on them – in a suitably heroic fashion – for their consumption. Such efforts meant the all-conquering hero could return to Rome with the way paved to take power as dictator.
Rome’s first Emperor, Augustus, learned at his feet. He won the public’s love with lavish entertainment and feasts, starting a trend of imperial indulgence that was later dismissed scornfully as “bread and circuses” by the satirist Juvenal. He was as hypocritical as many a modern-day politician, posing as an arch-moraliser by passing legislation outlawing adultery and exiling his own daughter for defying him only to indulge in it flagrantly himself with whichever senator’s wife took his fancy. But the self-glorifying memoirs he wrote helped ensure that the term ‘August’ nowadays is used as a term of respect, not dishonour.
Meanwhile, humble elected politicians went to their own efforts to ensure they were remembered well. Cicero wrote scores of letters to friends begging those who were talented writers to wax lyrical about his political career, only to do it himself once they all turned him down.
Not everyone was destined for greatness. One Emperor was summed up by the historian Tacitus in the gloriously backhanded phrase – “omnium consensu capax imperii, nisi imperasset” – he was deemed by everyone to be capable of governing, until he governed.
Still, that did not stop the ambitious from trying to scrabble their way to the top, whether it be by climbing the ladder of offices or hoping the politics of the imperial court would see them take the throne.
The politicking, mud-slinging, backbiting and dodgy deals at the heart of Roman politics leave it looking like a hall of mirrors to the present day. As long as you changed the dress code and the level of technology, our ancient Roman ancestors would feel right at home.
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