Roman History Roman History Roman Republican politicians were drawn largely from an ancient elite of wealthy families. These families, known as the nobility, dominated access to the consulships; between them they held over 80% of the consulships in the last century of the Republic. Active politics took place within this framework, and was characterised largely by personal and political feuds between individual members of the elite. Because this elite was defined by office holding (the nobility consisted of those descended from consuls), political activity took place within a context of magistracies and public events. Individual members of the nobility had to pursue careers in politics, not just from their own ambition, but to preserve the standing of their families: the Sergii in the middle years of the republic, and the Fabii towards the end are two examples of famous families shrunken in power.
The ideal political career was set out in the Lex Villia of 180 BC: military service in one’s twenties, quaestor at thirty (conferring membership in the Senate), aedile or tribune in one’s mid-thirties, praetor at 39 and consul at 42. But the question arises: how were Roman politicians able to gain election to these offices and thus be politically successful? The essential ingredient for an aspirant politician, whatever his family background, was wealth: the Roman elite was 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. Candidates had to provide themselves with a magnificent retinue and had to provide spectacles and gifts for the populace: chariot races, theatrical shows, wild beast hunts and particularly gladiators.
Direct bribery was also common, and represented a massive outlay – in the late 60s, Caesar had accumulated debts of several thousand talents due to his aedileship, his praetorian campaign, and his pontifical campaign. In cases of prosecution, wealth was also necessary to bribe jurors, and all this wealth had to come from somewhere -normally the hapless provincials. Indeed, by the late Republic 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 extortion trial, and the third to keep. In most cases, a candidate’s pedigree was also important. As many statistical studies have shown (particularly those of Broughton, Badian and Gruen), the nobility dominated access to the consulship.
Most of the other consuls came from long established praetorian or senatorial families: the actual New Man (one without any senatorial antecedents who gained the consulship) was a very rare creature: the most famous cases were Marius and Cicero. The importance of good breeding was such that Cicero could describe Ahenobarbus as consul-designate from the cradle. However, the important question is why nobility meant so much. The matter was partly one of actual influence – the amount of clientage and money one could bring to bear. But there were other factors, such as the friendliness of powerful politicians (Ti.
Gracchus being the most important example), previous military success (Sulla in the 90s) or the public reputation of one’s family (Scipio Aemilianus in 148). One necessity for ensuring election to important posts or for securing legislation was the support of other members of the nobility. In many cases, the factor that secured the election of a candidate was the support of powerful politicians, who the candidate would be expected to help while in office. The most obvious examples are 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. Scipio in 190 (for his brother).
In other cases, a broader familial or factional support base can be guessed at, such as with Hortensius in 69, Sulla in 88 or Bibulus in 59. These were all cases in which sharp political issues informed campaigns. However, there were also cases in which obligations and friendships (referring to political friendship or amicitia) had been built up over time. The classic example is Cicero, who despite being a New Man, was elected senior consul in suo anno in 63, simply by having a large group of grateful defendants whose support he could call on, and by having very few enemies. These horizontal connections within the elite also had to be supplemented by vertical connections with the lower orders of Roman society.
The most enduring and stable of these connections was that of clientage. Roman politicians could call on their clients to campaign for them, solicit for them and even fight for them, as well as voting for them (although this could not be enforced, with the introduction of the secret ballot). However, as Brunt’s and Badian’s studies have shown, clientage was a most complicated institution. Its stability was relative, since people and groups could have more than one patron and they could change over time. Still, the more clients a politician had, particularly those of influence or urban residence, the more support in the lower orders he could gain. Particularly important to the nobility and their ethos, and also to political success and popularity in as militaristic a state as Rome, was success and bravery in battle.
Rome was a society founded upon war, and her history was one of strife and conquest. One of the greatest attractions of the praetorship and consulship was that they 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 propraetors and proconsuls they still went out to govern provinces and wage wars. War provided an opportunity for reputations to be made, for prizes to be awarded to young nobles: we need only think of Scipio Africanus92 role at Cannae or Caesar’s civic crown at Mytilene. For those commanding the army, war provided many more opportunities.
They could establish their names in history and achieve personal glory (one thinks particularly of Caesar in Gaul). They could make massive fortunes (for in the ancient world war normally brought home a handsome profit to the victors) from the amassing of booty or the sale of large numbers of slaves (Aemilius Paullus 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 commanders could also hope for future support from their soldiers, although the circumstances seems unclear. It seems, however, that only those commanders who had made their soldiers rich (Sulla in the East 88-83, Pompey in the East 66-62, Caesar in Gaul 58-50) realistically hoped for political support from their veterans.
However, with a few unfortunate exceptions, all of this military activity after the beginning of the third century took place a long way from Rome, the centre of public life. For a politician to advance his career, he had to do so in full view of the populus Romanus, in the Senate-house and in the Forum. From the mid third century, the concept of largesse (largitio) takes hold in public life. This meant that the approval of the people had to be sought by a candidate through showing magnificence: expending wealth and other private resources in the service and the interests of the people. Through the expansion and enrichment of the Roman empire, and the intense competition of the Roman elite, the sums necessary became very large.
Indeed it became such a problem that at some stage a law was passed forbidding games given by candidates for public office. This largesse could take many forms. The normal mode was the giving of games. Normally games were the property of aediles, who spent enormous sums on their games to make sure they would be remembered when they campaigned for the consulship. Aediles could also stage games for their friends who were candidates: these were normally funeral games in honour of a deceased ancestor, and consisted of pairs of gladiators (the most spectacular were, predictably, Caesar’s in honour of his father, during his aedileship).
The other type of games were votive games, celebrated by victorious generals (Sulla in 80 and Pompey in 70). Another popular form was a public feast (possibly Sulla during his dictatorship, and Crassus in 70), or the provision of grain 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 expensive Forum of Caesar, begun during the late 50s. Roman politicians lived in a competitive atmosphere where they vied with other members of the senatorial elite for advancement. This advancement was expressed through the holding of magistracies which had to be sought from the People.
There were many factors which contributed to the outcome of this competition. Which politicians were able to advance depended on those with the best resources in wealth, birth, alliances, clients, military success and public repute. It was all of these factors, in varying degrees of importance with different personalities, circumstances, and eras, which were the secrets of political success under the Republic.