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 p76  Ambitus

Article by George Long, M.A., Fellow of Trinity College
on pp76‑78 of

William Smith, D.C.L., LL.D.:
A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, John Murray, London, 1875.

AMBITUS, which literally signifies a "going about," cannot, perhaps, be more nearly expressed than by our word canvassing. After the plebs had  p77 formed a distinct estate at Rome, and when the whole body of the citizens had become very greatly increased, we frequently read, in the Roman writers, of the great efforts which it was necessary for candidates to make, in order to secure the votes of the citizens. At Rome, as in every community into which the element of popular election enters, solicitation of votes, and open or secret influence and bribery, were among the means by which a candidate secured his election to the offices of state. The elections recurred annually, and candidates had plenty of practice in the various modes of corruption.

Whatever may be the authority of the piece intitled "Q. Ciceronis de Petitione Consulatus ad M. Tullium Fratrem," it seems to present a pretty fair picture of those arts and means, by which a candidate might lawfully endeavour to secure the votes of the electors, and also some intimation of those means which were not lawful, and which it was the object of various enactments to repress.

A candidate was called petitor; and his opponent with reference to him, competitor. A candidate (candidatus) was so called from his appearing in the public places, such as the fora and Campus Martius, before his fellow-citizens, in a whitened toga. On such occasions, the candidate was attended by his friends (deductores), or followed by the poorer citizens (sectatores), who could in no other manner show their good will or give their assistance (Cic. pro Murena, c34). The word assiduitas expressed both the continual presence of the candidate at Rome, and his continual solicitations. The candidate, in going his rounds or taking his walk, was accompanied by a nomenclator, who gave him the names of such persons as he might meet; the candidate was thus enabled to address them by their name, an indirect compliment which could not fail to be generally gratifying to the electors. The candidate accompanied his address with a shake of the hand (prensatio). The term benignitas comprehended generally any kind of treating, as shows, feasts, &c. Candidates sometimes left Rome, and visited the coloniae and municipia, in which the citizens had the suffrage; thus Cicero proposed to visit the Cisalpine towns, when he was a candidate for the consul­ship (Cic. ad Att. I.1).

That ambitus, which was the object of several penal enactments, taken as a generic term, comprehended the two species, — ambitus and largitiones (bribery). Liberalitas and benignitas are opposed by Cicero, as things allowable, to ambitus and largitio, as things illegal (Cic. de Orat. II.25; and cf. pro Murena, c36). The word for ambitus in the Greek writers is δεκασμός. Money was paid for votes; and in order to insure secrecy and secure the elector, persons called interpretes were employed to make the bargain, sequestres to hold the money till it was to be paid (Cic. pro Cluent. 26), and divisores to distribute it (Cic. ad Att. I.16). The offence of ambitus was a matter which belonged to the judicia publica, and the enactments against it were numerous.​a The earliest enactment that is mentioned simply forbade persons "to add white to their dress," with a view to an election (B.C. 432; Liv. IV.25). This seems to mean using some white sign or token on the dress, to signify that a man was a candidate. The object of the law was to check ambitio, the name for going about to canvass, in place of which ambitus was subsequently employed. Still the practice of using a white dress on occasion of canvassing was usual, and appears to have given origin to the application of the term candidatus to one who was a petitor (Cretata ambitio, Persius, Sat. V.177; Polyb. X.4 ed. Bekker). Lex Poetelia (B.C. 358; Liv. VII.15) forbade candidates canvassing on market days, and going about to the places in the country where people were collected. The law was passed mainly to check the pretensions of novi homines, of whom the nobiles were jealous. By the Lex Cornelia Baebia (B.C. 181) those who were convicted of ambitus were incapacitated from being candidates for ten years (Liv. XL.19; Schol. Bob. p361). The Lex Acilia Calpurnia (B.C. 67) was intended to suppress treating of the electors and other like matters: the penalties were fine, exclusion from the senate, and perpetual incapacity to hold office (Dion Cass. XXXVI.21). The Lex Tullia was passed in the consul­ship of Cicero (B.C. 63) for the purpose of adding to the penalties of the Acilia Calpurnia (Dion Cass. XXXVII.29; Cic. pro Murena, c23). The penalty under this lex was ten years' exile. This law forbade any person to exhibit public shows for two years before he was a candidate. It also forbade candidates hiring persons to attend them and be about their persons. In the second consul­ship of M. Licinius Crassus and Cn. Pompeius Magnus (B.C. 55) the Lex Licinia was passed. This lex, which is entitled De Sodalitiis, did not alter the previous laws against bribery; but it was specially directed against a particular mode of canvassing, which consisted in employing agents (sodales) to mark out the members of the several tribes into smaller portions, and to secure more effectually the votes by this division of labour. This distribution of the members of the tribes was called decuriatio (Cic. pro Plancio, c18). It was an obvious mode of better securing the votes; and in the main is rightly explained by Rein, but completely misunderstood by Wunder and others. Drumann (Geschichte Roms, vol. IV p93) confounds the decuriatio with the coitio or coalition of candidates to procure votes. The mode of appointing the judices in trials under the Lex Licinia was also provided by that lex. They were called Judices Editicii, because the accuser or prosecutor nominated four tribes, and the accused was at liberty to reject one of them. The judices were taken out of the other three tribes; but the mode in which they were taken is not quite clear. The penalty under the Lex Licinia was exile, but for what period is uncertain. The Lex Pompeia (B.C. 52), passed when Pompeius was sole consul for part of that year, appears to have been rather a measure passed for the occasion of the trials then had and contemplated than any thing else. It provided for the mode of naming the judices, and shortened the proceedings. When C. Julius Caesar obtained the supreme power in Rome, he used to recommend some of the candidates to the people, who, of course, followed his recommendation. As to the consul­ship, he managed the appointments to that office just as he pleased (Suet. Caes. c41). The Lex Julia de Ambitu was passed (B.C. 18) in the time of Augustus, and it excluded from office for five years (Dion Cass. LIV.16; Suet. Oct. 34) those who were convicted of bribery. But as the penalty was milder than those under the former laws, we must conclude that they were repealed  p78 in whole or in part. Another Lex Julia de Ambitu was passed (B.C. 8; Dion Cass. LV.5) apparently to amend the law of B.C. 18. Candidates were required to deposit a sum of money before canvassing, which was forfeited if they were convicted of bribery. If any violence was used by a candidate, he was liable to exile (aquae et ignis interdictio).

The popular forms of election were observed during the time of Augustus. Under Tiberius they ceased. Tacitus (Annal. I.15) observes:— "The comitia were transferred from the campus to the patres," the senate.

While the choice of candidates was thus partly in the hands of the senate, bribery and corruption still influenced the elections, though the name of ambitus was, strictly speaking, no longer applicable. But in a short time, the appointment to public offices was entirely in the power of the emperors; and the magistrates of Rome, as well as the populus, were merely the shadow of that which had once a substantial form. A Roman jurist, of the imperial period (Modestinus), in speaking of the Julia Lex de Ambitu, observes, "This law is now obsolete in the city, because the creation of magistrates is the business of the princeps, and does not depend on the pleasure of the populus; but if any one in a municipium should offend against this law in canvassing for a sacerdotium or magistratus, he is punished, according to a senatus consultum, with infamy, and subjected to a penalty of 100 aurei" (Dig.48 14).

The laws that have been enumerated are probably all that were enacted, at least all of which any notice is preserved. Laws to repress bribery were made while the voting was open; and they continued to be made after the vote by ballot was introduced at the popular elections by the Lex Gabinia (B.C. 139). Rein observes that "by this change the control over the voters was scarcely any longer possible; and those who were bribed could not be distinguished from those who were not." One argument in favour of ballot in modern times has been that it would prevent bribery; and probably it would diminish the practice, though not put an end to it. But the notion of Rein that the bare fact of the vote being secret would increase the difficulty of distinguishing the bribed from the unbribed is absurd; for the bare knowledge of a man's vote is no part of the evidence of bribery. It is worth remark that there is no indication of any penalty being attached to the receiving of a bribe for a vote. The utmost that can be proved is, that the divisores or one of the class of persons who assisted in bribery were punished (Cic. pro Plancio, c23, pro Murena, c23). But this is quite consistent with the rest: the briber and his agents were punished, not the bribed. When, therefore, Rein, who refers to these two passages under the Lex Tullia, says: "Even those who received money from the candidates, or at least those who distributed it in their names, were punished," he couples two things together that are entirely of a different kind. The proposed Lex Aufidia (Cic. ad Att. I.16) went so far as to declare that if a candidate promised money to a tribe and did not pay it, he should be unpunished; but if he did pay the money, he should further pay to each tribe (annually?) 3000 sesterces as long as he lived. This absurd proposal was not carried; but it shows clearly enough that the principle was to punish the briber only.

The trials for ambitus were numerous in the time of the republic. A list of them is given by Rein. The oration of Cicero in defence of L. Murena, who was charged with ambitus, and that in defence of Cn. Plancius, who was tried under the Lex Licinia, are both extant (Rein, Criminalrecht der Römer, where all the authorities are collected; Cic. Pro Plancio, ed. Wunder).

Thayer's Note:

a None of the penalties mentioned in this article includes the capital penalty. The generally reliable historian Polybius, however, a close first-hand observer of Roman polity, flatly states that at Rome the penalty for bribery was death: παρὰ μὲν Καρχηδονίοις δῶρα φανερῶς διδόντες λαμβάνουσι τὰς ἀρχάς, παρὰ δὲ Ῥωμαίοις θάνατός ἐστι περὶ τοῦτο πρόστιμον. (Histories, 6.56.4).

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