Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2000.02.07

Alexander Yakobson, Elections and Electioneering in Rome: A Study in the Political System of the Late Republic. Historia Einzelschriften 128.   Stuttgart:  Franz Steiner Verlag, 1999.  Pp. 251.  ISBN 3-515-07481-3.  

Reviewed by Darryl A. Phillips, College of Charleston, South Carolina (
Word count: 1850 words

Over the past decade and a half Fergus Millar has renewed discussion of the nature of Roman Republican government.1 Yakobson, who has already contributed two important articles to this debate,2 expands his offering with this comprehensive study of electioneering in Rome. The author sets out to investigate not just the campaign but every type of behavior of the candidate (p.1). This, he believes, is the best way to gain a complete understanding of the nature of Roman electoral assemblies. Perhaps he is right; this perspective provides a valuable counter to the structural studies that predominate. Yakobson focuses on the last two centuries B.C., with occasional reference to other periods as well. His thesis is clear and convincing: the popular element in Roman elections is far more important than is often supposed. While developing this thesis, the author contributes insightful observations on the role of political patronage in the Roman world.

The book is divided into seven main chapters, an introduction, conclusion, bibliography and brief index.3 The subject matter of each chapter is well defined and discrete, remarkable given that the same sources are often used in several discussions. Evidence for elections and electoral assemblies is often vague and open to multiple interpretations. The great strength of Yakobson's study is the wealth of evidence discussed. Some readers may disagree with his interpretation of individual examples, but the great weight of the evidence supports his view. Though the repetition of his primary thesis may at times seem excessive, the work as a whole offers a compelling reconstruction of the nature of Roman elections.

The first chapter, "The election of Marius to his first consulship," serves as a warm-up for the work as a whole. Through a close reading of Sallust's account of the campaign for the consulship of 107 B.C., Yakobson introduces the main lines of his argument: the wealthy did not dominate elections, patronage does not sufficiently explain popular participation, and electoral decisions were in part based on politics. Each of these points is discussed in further detail in subsequent chapters.

"Popular participation in the centuriate assembly," an expanded version of the author's JRS article (note 2 above), is the second chapter. Here he counters the widely held view that the rich dominated the centuriate assembly. Such a view is based on two untenable assumptions: that the first property class comprised wealthy people, and that the equites and members of the first class would, as a rule, support the same candidates. In countering the first assumption Yakobson chooses not to delve into a discussion of census qualifications for the property classes. Rather, he focuses on electoral bribery. As he notes, the sources tell us more about bribery than about how the centuriate assembly worked. The prevalence of bribery speaks to the importance of the vote of non-wealthy individuals. "If massive electoral bribery is hard to account for in an 'oligarchic assembly', should we not conclude that the assembly was less oligarchic than is often thought, rather than doubt the testimony of the sources?" (p.25). In addition to corrupt practices, legitimate gifts (largitiones) are also commonly used to win popular support. Cicero's Pro Murena provides detailed evidence, and the author also refers to the importance of the office of aedile as a step on the cursus honorum for ambitious politicians. As for the second assumption, that the first class and the equites voted for the same candidates, this too seems untenable. The candidates themselves all came from the upper class, and support for individuals would likely split these votes. Here the author would have been well served by turning to a more structural approach and might easily have supported his claims with illustrative models. Nevertheless, Yakobson has made his point. The centuriate assembly cannot simply be characterized as oligarchic.

The ability of candidates to win support is picked up again in Chapter 3, "The social dimension of elections -- personal ties and public support." Here Yakobson makes extensive use of Brunt's critique of patronage published a decade ago,4 adding to it a detailed analysis of the three primary sources for patronage and elections, the Commentariolum Petitionis, and Marcus Cicero's Pro Murena and Pro Plancio. Yakobson notes that the free use of "patron" and "client" by many Roman historians is misleading. As he succinctly states, "The more the concept of patronage covers, the less it explains" (p.81). Rather than focus on terminology, Yakobson marshals exhaustive evidence to demonstrate that candidates had to work actively to win attendants, supporters, and votes. Furthermore, the Romans themselves characterized electoral assemblies as notoriously unpredictable. Together this suggests that a candidate's personal ties (clients and amici) could not alone guarantee electoral victory. Public support was also needed. The central ideas set forth in the second and third chapters form the foundation for the rest of Yakobson's study.

Chapter 4, "Clientelism and elections -- modern theories and Roman realities," is the least successfully executed, although the points raised in this section are important. The Roman politician does not represent a geographic area and his position of power and prospects for advancement rest with the voters. These two points are further developed in chapters five and seven, respectively. Yakobson, however, spends most of this chapter illustrating how Rome is different from modern parliamentary systems. This is certainly true, but perhaps not the best way to make his points. For example, the author notes that regional patronage was a factor in British elections for many years, but that the Roman system is unusual in that voting centuries and tribes do not represent unified geographic areas. He goes on to argue that the Roman candidate / patron is somewhat like a party "apparatchick," for a Roman politician is heavily dependent on popular suffrage to maintain his position (more so than the elite in other cultures). Here Yakobson uses the Christian-Democrats in Italy as a modern parallel. Though these examples are not particularly helpful, in other places Yakobson does occasionally make use of the evidence from elections in Pompeii (see the references to Franklin's work5 on p.64 n.121, p.69 n.17). These parallels are illuminating, and further exploration may prove fruitful.

The fifth chapter, "Freeing the electoral market -- the impact of the ballot," reprints Yakobson's discussion of the secret ballot in Rome (note 2 above). Given the corporate vote of centuries and the introduction of the written ballot, the results of specific voters could not be pinned down. Thus Roman voters enjoyed an unusual level of freedom at the polls. This anonymity further undermines the perception that patrons and other political brokers wielded great influence in elections. Intermediaries might attempt to influence votes, but they could not be sure of success. Candidates needed to appeal to the voters themselves. Yakobson points out that the introduction of written ballots might have eliminated electoral bribery, for with secret votes the candidates could never be certain that their bribes were effective. Instead, our sources demonstrate that electoral bribery actually increased as candidates vied with one another to earn the gratitude of the voters.

"Roman elections and politics" is the theme of Chapter 6. The advice given to Cicero as he ran for office was that "you must not deal with politics in the senate or in mass-meetings of the people" (Com. Pet. 53). This passage has long served to illustrate the personal (as opposed to political) nature of Roman elections. Yakobson examines the context of this remark and shows that elsewhere in the work Cicero's political actions are said to have already won him supporters. Though a record of political achievements contributes to electoral support, campaigning with a political platform may alienate voters. The class structure of the comitia centuriata discourages political campaigns because a candidate needs support from all ranks in society to win office. In addition to the Commentariolum Petitionis, Yakobson discusses numerous other examples, illustrating that political influences behind electoral decisions were not exceptional. His argument is sound and the sheer weight of the evidence presented is overwhelming. Although politics are a factor, the author recognizes that the sources are not sufficient to rate the actual importance attributed to political matters by the voters.

Chapter 7, "Nobility, popularity and electoral success," begins with a precise definition of 'nobility' as "offsprings of consuls" (p.184). Yakobson argues that nobles enjoyed an edge in elections, not because of any advantage in the number of clients, but rather due to the fact that Romans generally respected the nobility and rewarded nobles with their vote. The novi homines Marius and M. Cicero demonstrate that new men were aware of the electoral advantage that nobles enjoyed, and in fact generally honored nobles themselves. Furthermore, the "struggle of the orders" in early Rome demonstrates that this respect for nobles was a basic element of Roman culture. After the plebeians won the right to appoint their own to high office, they repeatedly preferred to elect only patricians. The link between nobility and electoral success is all the more clear for electoral success itself creates nobility. As Yakobson cleverly notes, "As long as electoral success remained the source of political power and social prestige, the Roman nobility was unbeatable by definition: those who beat it, joined it" (p.200). The ruling class was constantly in need of the votes of the people, and maintained their popularity through generosity and munificence directed at the populace at large. This tradition of euergetism, Yakobson asserts, was peculiar to senatorial aristocrats, and thus "new men" were at a disadvantage in electoral contests. Throughout this chapter the author falls into a trap of terminology that he neatly avoided elsewhere. He strays from his stated definition of nobility, at times equating patricians and nobles, and viewing newly elected consuls as members of the nobility. The evidence suggests that members of the established political elite did enjoy certain advantages at the polls, though it is not entirely clear who these people were.

In sum, Yakobson is to be praised for bringing together a great wealth of evidence on the topic and for offering ingenious new approaches to old problems. The author provides a compelling new reading of the nature of Roman elections. He avoids a discussion of the structure of Roman assemblies (and many may be thankful). Specifics about the length of electoral campaigns, procedures for bribing voters, and the rules governing candidacy are conspicuous by their absence. What he does, he does well, but the book might more aptly be subtitled "A Study in the Political Practices of the Late Republic", for the political practices, not the political system, are the true focus. Yakobson does assume that his reader already has a firm understanding of the more technical aspects of the political system, and one may well want to have Taylor's work close at hand.6

Yakobson has convincingly argued that "the popular element in the Roman 'mixed constitution' was not a sham -- it was an integral and essential part of the system" (p.233). Without the obligations of patronage as the decisive motivating factor, it remains to be shown to what extent the people actually endured the longum carmen of the assemblies and participated in the political system.


1.   F. Millar, "The Political Character of the Classical Roman Republic, 200-151 B.C.," JRS 74 (1984) 1-19; id., "Politics, Persuasion and the People before the Social War (150-90 B.C.)," JRS 76 (1986) 1-11; id., "Political Power in Mid-Republican Rome: Curia or Comitium?," JRS 79 (1989) 138-150; and most recently, F. Millar, The Crowd in Rome in the Late Republic (Ann Arbor, 1998). Notable among other recent work is the collection of essays edited by M. Jehne, Demokratie in Rom? Die Rolle des Volkes in der Politik der römischen Republik. Historia Einzelschriften 96 (Stuttgart, 1995).
2.   A. Yakobson, "Petitio et Largitio: Popular Participation in the Centuriate Assembly of the late Republic", JRS 82 (1992) 32-52; id., "Secret ballot and its effects in the late Roman Republic", Hermes 123 (1995) 426-442.
3.   The bibliography is quite thorough and even includes Millar's 1998 volume. F.W. Walbank is mistakenly listed in two different places on page 245 (once as Wallbank). Other errors are minor and few. Unfortunately, there is no index of ancient sources.
4.   P.A. Brunt, The Fall of the Roman Republic (Oxford, 1988).
5.   J.L. Franklin, Pompeii: the electoral programmata, campaigns and politics, A.D. 71-79. Papers and Monographs of the American Academy in Rome, vol. 28 (Rome, 1980).
6.   L.R. Taylor, Roman Voting Assemblies from the Hannibalic War to the Dictatorship of Caesar (Ann Arbor, 1966)

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