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

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Cicero Denounces Catiline

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.