Negative Campaigns and Big Money: Election Season in the Ancient World

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Cicero Denounces Catiline (Cesare Maccari/Wikipedia Commons)

In a recent edition of The New Yorker, staff writer and Harvard historian Jill Lepore chronicled the rise of political consulting and the negative campaign. Clem Whitaker and Leone Baxter founded Campaigns, Inc. in the 1930s and their work helped defeat Upton Sinclair in his bid for Governor of California. 

Whitaker and Baxter may have started the first political consulting firm, but the truth is that negative campaigns have a much longer history, as Ellen Millender, professor of classics and humanities at Reed College explains.

The campaigns and elections of ancient Greece and ancient Rome have a great deal in common with American politics today. From Cicero's speeches against Marcus Antonius to the campaign war chests, Roman politicians might feel at home in today's Washington. As the ancient Greek historian Thucydides once wrote, "Human nature is constant," and Professor Millender explains that she remembers this statement whenever she sees modern politicians debate and thinks of the political similarities to ancient Rome and ancient Greece. 

"You would be floored at how similar things are," Millender says. Many of the tactics that politicians used in ancient Rome - slandering opponents, making promises to voters - sound eerily like modern campaign strategies.

There are other aspects of the democratic process that have changed dramatically. "The way in which you would get people to like you," she says, "would be putting on a gladitorial show, or putting on a wild beast hunt."

"I think the Romans would be terribly confused in some ways by these debates," Millender says.    

Special thanks to Oregon Public Broadcasting for their help on this segment.


Ellen Millender

Produced by:

Jillian Weinberger

Comments [2]


Too, too hilarious. You might want to note to this prof that there may be a couple of differences she overlooked. Ancient Greece and Rome were SLAVE based economies, where women weren't allowed out of the house without a man, let alone being allowed to vote. Talk about binders. On this criteria, you might want to start comparing our democracy with the Taliban's who do have a similar electoral system to the Ancients, except they're a little more enlightened in that they don't believe in slavery. Oh, and on that point you might want to note that the Ancient Greeks forbade Greek citizens from any sort of work, ie paid employment, including banking, which was also "outsourced" to slaves (things haven't changed that much in Greece come to think of it.) Most of their best ideas were stolen from those they conquered, the extent to which we will never know because they had the funny habit of burning their libraries. I know Romney might have a lot of sympathy with Ancient Greek society, but do thinking people really want to keep celebrating it? These silly myths and comparisons of our society with the golden days of Ancient Greece, really need to be exploded guys, come on.

Oct. 18 2012 03:39 PM
Larry Fisher from Brooklyn, N.Y.

Bring back Ostracism, hanging out with Gladiators and Wild Beast Hunts...Who would win the yearly Ostracism? Obama, Romney, Snooki?

Oct. 18 2012 01:18 PM

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