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Page last updated at 10:40 GMT, Thursday, 29 April 2010 11:40 UK
Lend me your votes

Gracchus addressing the crowd

A Roman Lord Mandelson's political advice, from 2000 years ago, has some all familiar parallels with politics today, writes Cambridge classics professor Mary Beard.

In 133 BC, a young radical politician standing for election in ancient Rome ended up clubbed to death by the conservative opposition.

Mary Beard and Boris Johnson

In a time of economic crisis, Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus was seeking a second term in office, proposing all kinds of measures to help the poor with their massive overdrafts.

It was more than the bankers and their friends could bear. They killed him before he could win the vote.

Ancient Roman elections were both like and unlike own. They were less controlled (it wasn't only Tiberius Gracchus who ended up dead at a Roman vote); they happened every year; and they involved all the citizens, more than two hundred thousand of them by 133 BC, coming together in the same place to cast their vote - no wonder tempers frayed.

But Roman politicians had much the same sense of an electoral campaign as we do, and of how you might go about winning the popular vote.

And they had their own spin-doctors who were prepared to give advice and manage the campaign. One early Lord Mandelson even wrote a handbook on the best strategies for getting elected in ancient Rome.

Cleaner than clean

The advice is chilling in its familiarity. Make sure, says this Handbook on Electioneering, that you get out canvassing among the people, that you remember everybody's name, and that you go into the public eye with a mass of supporters behind you.

Roman senators debating during an election
Except for the attire, a Roman politician was much like our own

It doesn't say "wash your toga carefully" - but that is exactly what they did. In fact the modern word "candidate" come from the Latin word "candidus" which means "white" - referring to the specially whitened togas the political hopefuls wore.

More to the point, our ancient spin doctor insists that you should have no policy at all - policy only makes you enemies. And you should also make any promise you fancy to potential voters, even if you know that cannot keep it. Refusals to help only make enemies.

Anyway, who will know whether you actually keep your promise until later; and then it's too late - you're elected. Nobody, in other words, like to learn about cuts, so don't mention them.

Sandal in mouth

The Romans knew about gaffes too. They may not quite have been in the "Bigotgate" style, but not far off.

One Roman aristocrat, no doubt a member of some Roman equivalent of the Bullingdon Club, was once canvassing for election in the Forum and was doing the usual hand-shaking routine.

He shook the horny hand of one peasant farmer, and was surprised by what he found.

"What" said the toff, "do you walk on this?" Needless to say he lost the election.

Moral for the Roman politician: don't insult the poorer members of the electorate.

I was delighted to find that Boris Johnson was struck by the similarities between the lies and deceptions of Roman campaigning and our own.

"Don't mention the CUTS" they all say. Pretend it will all be OK, and only let the truth out once you re elected. How Roman!

Oddly enough, as I biked back into Cambridge, after talking to Boris, I bumped into our retiring Lib Dem MP, David Howarth, back in his old job in the University and off to a Law lecture.

I challenged him about politicians' promises and lies.

OK, he said, fair point. But there is a difference. Tiberius Gracchus is an exception. Most Roman politicians went for political office only once. They could afford to lie. If you want re-election, lies are a bit more of a liability.

We shall see.

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