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