Are you feeling down in the dumps about the 2016 election? Did you spend Christmas hiding from your relatives’ political arguments? Take heart: as depressing as American politics can get before a presidential election, we’re still way more civil about the whole process than the ancient Romans were. To help you keep it all in perspective, here are 5 of Republican Rome’s most scandalous elections.
100 BCE: Saturninus covers his bases a little too aggressively
Wanting to secure land for his veterans despite opposition from the Senate, famous Roman general Marius entered into a political alliance with the tribune Saturninus and the praetor Glaucia. Due to the threat of violence from Marius’ veterans, the bill ended up passing despite being both vetoed and declared void due to thunder, which was understood to be a bad omen.
Understanding how unpopular he had become, Saturninus became desperate to be reelected tribune, because the holder of that office was sacrosanct—meaning it was a religious crime to kill him. Saturninus won his own seat more or less honestly, but in a desperate move he also attempted to secure the consulship for his buddy Glaucia by having his main competition assassinated on election day. This didn’t go over very well, and the Senate ordered Marius to restore order at all costs. While Marius had hoped to spare his old allies’ lives, Saturninus and Glaucia were both killed the next day by roof tiles thrown from the roof of the senate house by an angry mob.
63 BCE: Cicero shows off his armor at the polls
In a not-so-subtle dig at his enemy Catiline, then-consul Marcus Tullius Cicero came to the Campus Martius, where voting was held, wearing a breastplate under his toga so that “all good men would notice and, when they saw their consul in such fear and danger, would run to his defense and protection.” Specifically, he was hoping the public would jump to the conclusion that Cicero’s old political enemy Catiline, who, coincidentally, was running for office that year, was trying to kill him.
As Susan O. Shapiro wrote in her edition of Cicero’s Catilinarian orations,
“Cicero’s famous breastplate was more melodrama than judicious precaution; but as melodrama it was successful. The fears of violence inspired by Cicero’s armor and his bodyguard turned enough votes away from Catiline to give Murena the victory, along with Decimus Junius Silanus.”
In addition to costing Catiline the election, Cicero’s dramatic flourish cost him his reputation and alienated him from the Senate, eventually costing him his life.
59 BCE: Caesar’s reclusive frenemy keeps delaying elections
Julius Caesar didn’t cross the Rubicon until 49 BCE, but he began consolidating his power quite a bit earlier. After having his consular colleague Marcus Calpurnius Bibulus beat up by thugs because he opposed a piece of legislation supported by Caesar, Bibulus barricaded himself in his house for almost a year.
As the Roman historian Suetonius later wrote,
From that time on Caesar managed all the affairs of state alone and after his own pleasure; so that sundry witty fellows, pretending by way of jest to sign and seal testamentary documents, wrote “Done in the consulship of Julius and Caesar,” instead of “Bibulus and Caesar,” writing down the same man twice, by name and by surname.
Presently too the following verses were on everyone’s lips:
“In Caesar’s year, not Bibulus’, an act took place of late;
For naught do I remember done in Bibulus’ consulate.”
59 BCE: Claudius turns himself into Clodius to be eligible for office
The election of 59 BCE also saw the transformation of Publius Claudius Pulcher, an aristocratic playboy, into Publius Clodius Pulcher, man of the people. Why? Hoping to take down his bitter enemy Cicero, who was truly skilled at pissing people off, Clodius (as he is usually referred to) had his eye on the powerful office of tribune of the Plebs. Among other things, being elected tribune would guarantee him sacrosanctity of body. The only problem was that Clodius was born a patrician. This made him ineligible to hold the tribunate, which was created in the first place to guarantee the representation of the interests of the plebeian class in Roman government.
Clodius’s solution was simple: he convinced his plebeian friend Publius Fonteius to adopt him, despite the fact that Clodius was older than his new dad. What’s more, Clodius didn’t even take on Fonteius’s name, as custom dictated—instead, he just changed the spelling of his original family name, thinking that “Clodius” sounded less hoity-toity than “Claudius.”
Although eyebrows were raised, Clodius’s plan worked and he was elected to the tribunate for the following year. Upon taking office, he immediately got to work on the important government duty of making Cicero’s life miserable.
55 BCE: Pompey pretends to hear an omen mid-election
Four years after the “consulship of Julius and Caesar,” Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus—better known as Pompey the Great—proved that he, at least, had taken note of Bibulus’s politico-religious resourcefulness. Learning that his political enemy M. Porcius Cato was ahead in the polls on election day in 55 BCE, Pompey announced that he heard thunder—a classic bad omen. Voting was immediately stopped, and the results of the day’s election were declared invalid due to divine displeasure.
Featured image via Wikimedia