Campaigning Across the Ages: An Interview with Professor Philip Freeman

How to Win an Election: An Ancient Guide for Modern Politicians is the latest publication by Professor Philip Freeman, the Orlando W. Qualley Chair of Classical Languages at Luther College, in Decorah, Iowa. In 64 BCE, Marcus Cicero (106-43 BCE) ran for consul and faced the challenge of a lifetime: winning the highest office in the Republic. Fortunately, his younger brother, Quintus Cicero (102 – 43 BCE), was able to impart advice on managing a successful political campaign: The Commentariolum Petitionis. Although the Cicero brothers lived an age in which politics was localized and intensely personal, Quintus’ short maxims to his brother delineate many political truths still valid in modern times. Accessible and entertaining, Freeman translates an “unashamedly pragmatic primer.”

JW: Welcome Professor Freeman! It’s a pleasure to be speaking with you about your recent work, How to Win an Election: An Ancient Guide for Modern Politicians. I enjoyed reading it very much and I am thrilled that you have chosen to speak with the Ancient History Encyclopedia

The Commentariolum Petitionis (“little handbook on electioneering”), also known as De petitione consulatus (“on running for the Consulship”), contains political advice, which can be characterized as devious, cynical, performative, and yet extremely shrewd. I was curious to know what it was which first attracted you to this text and why you chose to translate it?

PF: I had read the Commentariolum in graduate school along with many of the other works related to Cicero, but I didn’t think about it in relation to modern politics until I used it in an undergraduate course a few years ago. Since the book was virtually unknown outside a small circle of Latin scholars, I decided it was just too good not to be made available to the general public.

JW: There are those who argue that the Commentariolum Petitionis is apocryphal—based on analyses of content and language—and thus could not have been composed by Quintus Cicero. What is your opinion on the matter and did this disputation guide you, in anyway, when fashioning your translation?

PF: It’s true that Quintus may not have written it and I point this out in the introduction, but in many ways it doesn’t really matter. I think all scholars would agree that it is a work of the first century BCE or CE by someone who was keenly aware of Roman politics. I think it is likely Quintus was the author and so I approached the translation with that in mind.

JW: Quintus’ sole objective in writing was to aid his elder brother, Marcus Cicero, in winning one of the two annual consulships of the Roman Republic. Although Marcus was a consummate orator and brilliant lawyer, he seems to have lacked the savvy and persona needed to be successful in the cutthroat political arena of late Republican Rome.

Can you summarize the insurmountable difficulties facing him in 64 BCE and how he nevertheless managed to succeed against all odds? As I understand it, Marcus ended up winning with more votes than any other candidate!

PF: Marcus was a novus homo or new man without the noble background normally associated with consular candidates. But he was a brilliant lawyer and had served well in lower offices in the Republic. His was a long shot candidacy, but by a skillful use of alliances and because his opponents, such as the nobleman Catiline, were such an unsavory lot, he was able to gather more votes than any other candidate.

JW: Quintus, by virtue of the text, comes across as an impassioned adherent of his brother. Were the two brothers always this close and can you comment on their relationship once Marcus became assumed his consulship?

PF: The two brothers were schooled together and were always close, though they had their differences as brothers do. Quintus knew that if Marcus could achieve the consulship, his own political future would be much brighter, as it was. Quintus went on to serve in high offices in the Roman Republic and as a general under Julius Caesar in Gaul.

JW: The maxims you have translated are timeless and yet cynical. My personal favorite was “You must always think about publicity,” although the comments about broken promises being soon forgotten were brilliant as well. Do you have a preferred maxim or find one to be representative of electoral politics as a whole?

PF: There are so many good ones it’s hard to choose. I’d have to say my favorite is that a politician should be a kind of chameleon; simply, adapting himself to the crowd he is speaking to at any particular moment.

JW: In your introduction you allude to the similarities between the Commentariolum Petitionis and Niccolò Machiavelli’s Il Principe. When reading your translation, I thought that further analogs could even be made with Sunzi’s The Art of War. Although Quintus’ work concentrates on political campaigning rather than statesmanship, why is his work–if it is indeed his–so relatively unknown in your opinion? Is it due to the controversy of authorship that we have already touched upon?

PF: I’m not sure it’s the authorship question as much as it is the work being overshadowed by so many other books and letters written by or about Marcus Cicero that survive. The Commentariolum tends to get placed at the back of the Cicero corpus and is often overlooked.

JW: Thank you for taking the time to speak with me Professor Freeman. To conclude, I was wondering if you could share with the Ancient History Encyclopedia’s users and followers what project(s) are working on next? Hopefully something of a similar vein!

PF: I have a short collection of Marcus Cicero’s political writings coming out in January 2013 from Princeton University Press called How to Run a Country. It should be just in time for the American presidential inauguration.

JW: It’s been a pleasure Professor Freeman! We look forward to reading and reviewing your next publication.

PF: My pleasure. Thanks so much for having me James!

Philip Freeman earned his BA and MA from the University of Texas (1987/1989), and then pursued a Ph.D. in Classics and Celtic Studies at Harvard University. Since graduating with his Ph.D. in 1994, Freeman has been an NEH Postdoctoral Fellow at Boston University (1994-1997) in Boston, MA and an Assistant Professor of Classics at Washington University (1997-2004) in St. Louis, MO. Freeman has also been the Qualley Chair of Classical Languages at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, since 2004. Please see a list of his most recent publications directly beneath this interview.

James Blake Wiener is a Director and the Public Relations Manager for the Ancient History Encyclopedia, providing a continuous listing of must-read articles, exciting museum exhibitions, and interviews with experts in the field. Trained as a historian and researcher, and previously a professor, James is a freelance writer and who is keenly interested in cross-cultural exchange. Committed to fostering increased awareness of the ancient world, James welcomes you to the Ancient History Encyclopedia and hopes that you find his news pieces and interviews to be “illuminating.”

Recently Published Works by Professor Freeman:

  • How to Run a Country (Forthcoming: Princeton 2013)
  • Oh My Gods: A Modern Retelling of Greek and Roman Myths (Simon & Schuster, January 2012)
  • Alexander the Great (Simon & Schuster, 2011)
  • Lecture Notes: A Professor’s Inside Guide to College Success (Ten Speed/Random House, 2010)
  • A Transcription of the Latin Writings of St. Patrick from Seven Medieval Manuscripts (Mellen Press, 2009)
  • Julius Caesar (Simon & Schuster, 2008)
  • The Philosopher and the Druids: A Journey Among the Ancient Celts (Simon & Schuster, 2006)
  • St. Patrick of Ireland: A Biography (Simon & Schuster, 2004)
  • War, Women, and Druids: Eyewitness Reports and Early Accounts of the Ancient Celts (University of Texas Press, 2002)
  • The Galatian Language: A Comprehensive Survey of the Language of the Ancient Celts in Greco-Roman Asia Minor (Ancient Near Eastern Texts and Studies vol. 13) (Mellen Press, 2001)
  • Ireland and the Classical World (University of Texas Press, 2001)
Filed under: Interviews


James Blake Wiener is the Communications Director at Ancient History Encyclopedia. Trained as a historian and researcher, and previously a professor, James is chiefly interested in cross-cultural exchange, world history, and international relations. Aside from his work at AHE, James is an avid Arabist, devotee of romance languages (French, Portuguese, and Spanish), reggaetoñero, and fan of ice hockey.