Roman HistoryRoman Republican politicians were drawnlargely from an ancient elite of wealthy families. These families,known as the nobility, dominated access to the consulships; between themthey held over 80% of the consulships in the last century of the Republic. Active politics took place within this framework, and was characterisedlargely by personal and political feuds between individual members of theelite.
Because this elite was defined by office holding (the nobilityconsisted of those descended from consuls), political activity took placewithin a context of magistracies and public events. Individual membersof the nobility had to pursue careers in politics, not just from theirown ambition, but to preserve the standing of their families: the Sergiiin the middle years of the republic, and the Fabii towards the end aretwo examples of famous families shrunken in power. The ideal politicalcareer was set out in the Lex Villia of 180 BC: military service in one’stwenties, quaestor at thirty (conferring membership in the Senate), aedileor tribune in one’s mid-thirties, praetor at 39 and consul at 42. But the question arises: how were Roman politicians able to gain electionto these offices and thus be politically successful?The essential ingredient for an aspirantpolitician, whatever his family background, was wealth: the Roman elitewas a moneyed elite. Constant outlay was important in public life:a politician had to spend freely on his clients, on his household, on slaves(particularly gladiators, for personal protection) and on investment. The expenses for elections were also astronomical.Order now
Candidates hadto provide themselves with a magnificent retinue and had to provide spectaclesand gifts for the populace: chariot races, theatrical shows, wild beasthunts and particularly gladiators. Direct bribery was also common,and represented a massive outlay – in the late 60s, Caesar had accumulateddebts of several thousand talents due to his aedileship, his praetoriancampaign, and his pontifical campaign. In cases of prosecution, wealthwas also necessary to bribe jurors, and all this wealth had to come fromsomewhere -normally the hapless provincials. Indeed, by the lateRepublic it was a standard joke that a governor had to amass three fortunes:one to pay for his election expenses, one to bribe the jury for his extortiontrial, and the third to keep.
In most cases, a candidate’s pedigreewas also important. As many statistical studies have shown (particularlythose of Broughton, Badian and Gruen), the nobility dominated access tothe consulship. Most of the other consuls came from long establishedpraetorian or senatorial families: the actual New Man (one without anysenatorial antecedents who gained the consulship) was a very rare creature:the most famous cases were Marius and Cicero. The importance of goodbreeding was such that Cicero could describe Ahenobarbus as consul-designatefrom the cradle. However, the important question is why nobilitymeant so much.
The matter was partly one of actual influence – theamount of clientage and money one could bring to bear. But therewere other factors, such as the friendliness of powerful politicians (Ti. Gracchus being the most important example), previous military success (Sullain the 90s) or the public reputation of one’s family (Scipio Aemilianusin 148). One necessity for ensuring election toimportant posts or for securing legislation was the support of other membersof the nobility. In many cases, the factor that secured the electionof a candidate was the support of powerful politicians, who the candidatewould be expected to help while in office. The most obvious examplesare Pompey’s pet consuls in 61-58, who were able to secure his land legislation,but probable others include Catulus in 102 (for Marius), and L.
Scipioin 190 (for his brother). In other cases, a broader familial or factionalsupport base can be guessed at, such as with Hortensius in 69, Sulla in88 or Bibulus in 59. These were all cases in which sharp politicalissues informed campaigns. However, there were also cases in whichobligations and friendships (referring to political friendship or amicitia)had been built up over time. The classic example is Cicero, who despitebeing a New Man, was elected senior consul in suo anno in 63, simply byhaving a large group of grateful defendants whose support he could callon, and by having very few enemies.
These horizontal connections within theelite also had to be supplemented by vertical connections with the lowerorders of Roman society. The most enduring and stable of these connectionswas that of clientage. Roman politicians could call on their clientsto campaign for them, solicit for them and even fight for them, as wellas voting for them (although this could not be enforced, with the introductionof the secret ballot). However, as Brunt’s and Badian’s studies haveshown, clientage was a most complicated institution. Its stabilitywas relative, since people and groups could have more than one patron andthey could change over time. Still, the more clients a politicianhad, particularly those of influence or urban residence, the more supportin the lower orders he could gain.
Particularly important to the nobilityand their ethos, and also to political success and popularity in as militaristica state as Rome, was success and bravery in battle. Rome was a societyfounded upon war, and her history was one of strife and conquest. One of the greatest attractions of the praetorship and consulship was thatthey conferred imperium, which gave the bearer the right to command armies. This was the main purpose of Rome’s magistrates for most of her history,and even when they had become mostly civilian magistrates, as propraetorsand proconsuls they still went out to govern provinces and wage wars.
War provided an opportunity for reputations to be made, for prizes to beawarded to young nobles: we need only think of Scipio Africanus92 roleat Cannae or Caesar’s civic crown at Mytilene. For those commandingthe army, war provided many more opportunities. They could establishtheir names in history and achieve personal glory (one thinks particularlyof Caesar in Gaul). They could make massive fortunes (for in theancient world war normally brought home a handsome profit to the victors)from the amassing of booty or the sale of large numbers of slaves (AemiliusPaullus in 167, Marius and Catulus in 101, Caesar in 58 and 57). All of these gave successful commanders an important position in politics,resting on the twin bastions of their wealth and fame.
A few commanderscould also hope for future support from their soldiers, although the circumstancesseems unclear. It seems, however, that only those commanders whohad made their soldiers rich (Sulla in the East 88-83, Pompey in the East66-62, Caesar in Gaul 58-50) realistically hoped for political supportfrom their veterans. However, with a few unfortunate exceptions,all of this military activity after the beginning of the third centurytook place a long way from Rome, the centre of public life. For apolitician to advance his career, he had to do so in full view of the populusRomanus, in the Senate-house and in the Forum.
From the mid thirdcentury, the concept of largesse (largitio) takes hold in public life. This meant that the approval of the people had to be sought by a candidatethrough showing magnificence: expending wealth and other private resourcesin the service and the interests of the people. Through the expansionand enrichment of the Roman empire, and the intense competition of theRoman elite, the sums necessary became very large. Indeed it becamesuch a problem that at some stage a law was passed forbidding games givenby candidates for public office. This largesse could take many forms.
The normal mode was the giving of games. Normally games were theproperty of aediles, who spent enormous sums on their games to make surethey would be remembered when they campaigned for the consulship. Aediles could also stage games for their friends who were candidates: thesewere normally funeral games in honour of a deceased ancestor, and consistedof pairs of gladiators (the most spectacular were, predictably, Caesar’sin honour of his father, during his aedileship). The other type ofgames were votive games, celebrated by victorious generals (Sulla in 80and Pompey in 70). Another popular form was a public feast (possiblySulla during his dictatorship, and Crassus in 70), or the provision ofgrain at private expense (Crassus in 70 again, or Spurius Maelius in 439). A more permanent benefaction was the erection of structures near the Forum,such as the many basilicas erected during the middle and late Republic(by the Porcii, Sempronii, Aemilii and Opimii), or the astonishingly expensiveForum of Caesar, begun during the late 50s.
Roman politicians lived in a competitiveatmosphere where they vied with other members of the senatorial elite foradvancement. This advancement was expressed through the holding ofmagistracies which had to be sought from the People. There were manyfactors which contributed to the outcome of this competition. Whichpoliticians were able to advance depended on those with the best resourcesin wealth, birth, alliances, clients, military success and public repute. It was all of these factors, in varying degrees of importance with differentpersonalities, circumstances, and eras, which were the secrets of politicalsuccess under the Republic.