How Powerful was Roman Patronage?

Its origins lying with the myth of Romulus, the patron-client relationship had long been central within the workings of ancient Roman society. Dionysius of Halicarnassus wrote of Romulus giving the plebeians over to the patricians as a “sacred trust”[1], and Cicero described the relationship between the two with the poor devoting themselves as escorts to the powerful as a means of reciprocating support, using the phrase “a time honoured way of fulfilling their obligations.”[2] These views of patronage serve to present it as both relevant and respected, and given Cicero’s time of writing, it can be assumed to be so during the Late Republic. As is to be expected, the wealth of evidence that remains from this period has resulted in the development of a range of different interpretations by historians regarding the importance of patronage in elections. As Morstein-Marx appositely states, much of the controversy surrounding discussions of Roman patronage is the product of the phenomenon’s shifting definitions[3]. He draws attention to the fact that owing to the ‘terminological etiquette’ of the day, the appearance of explicit uses of terms like cliens, patronus and patrocinium cannot be insisted upon, and despite Romans likely having considered it impolite to call amici, clientes, they are believed to have often been the same in the modern sociological sense.[4] Furthermore, not all political friendships were examples of patronage, often simply being deals or exchanges of services, something confirmed by Cicero.[5] With these distinctions in mind, an interpretation of ancient sources with emphasis on Q. Cicero’s Commentariolum Petitionis, can show that patronage, while very much practiced at the time, was not so important in influencing the outcomes of elections as is often supposed. This can be achieved by splitting the art of electioneering into the appeasement of a selection of private associates, and public appeasement of the masses. Thereupon it can be demonstrated that neither approach is particularly related to patronage.
Firstly, the authenticity of the Commentariolum must be considered, however briefly. Today, there seem to be only two tenable schools of thought: that it is, as is claimed, an advisory essay from Quintus Cicero to his brother, Marcus Cicero, ostensibly helping him in his upcoming consular election; or that it was written as an exercise in rhetoric by a later author. Either way, its content is so richly informative that Nardo appropriately suggested that “the problem of authenticity appears to have overwhelmed every other interest”.[6] Given the strength of cases advocating the Commentariolum’s authenticity[7], it seems suitable as a source for this essay.

One of the most powerful arguments against the importance of patronage in elections is that Quintus makes very little reference to it as a beneficial tool for Cicero, thus showing that the private side of electioneering was not necessarily dominated by activity between patrons and clients. Morstein-Marx draws attention to the fact that the explicit term clientes is used but once in the Commentariolum[8]; a serious point given how far patronage had permeated Roman society. In order to demonstrate the reality of the patron-client relationship in the Late Republic, the trial of C. Marius in 115 BCE should be considered. Despite being called upon to testify against Marius for electoral bribery, C. Herennius refused on the grounds that the Marius family had long been clients of the Herennii. Though Plutarch claimed Marius rejected this argument as his imperium as magistrate overruled his client status[9], the fact that being a patron constituted a valid excuse not to testify suggests that if patronage were to play a significant role in electoral success, it would be alluded to more in the Commentariolum. However, as stated above, the mere absence of the use of clientes is not in itself conclusive. As such, it’s interesting to note that whilst Quintus advises Cicero to acquire and maintain the favour of high ranking Romans, there is no reference to the assumed ability of such nobles to mobilise masses of their voting clients. Those nobles vying against Cicero for the consulship, P. Sulpicius Galba and L. Cassius Longinus are not considered as serious competition despite the clientele they would have enjoyed[10]. Instead, Quintus recommends impressing nobles, especially the existing consuls, because it would have increased the candidate’s dignitas, being “a point in your favour… to whose position and rank you are wishing to attain.”[11] The public favour of the elite was deemed more beneficial than the use of clients. In fact, he seems to place more emphasis on gaining the support of the homines gratiosi, men with the ability to “become sure of getting from their tribesmen what they sought.”[12] These men, as Morstein-Marx rightly labels vote-brokers[13], were evidently seen to be of more use in canvassing for elections than having a large clientele, by virtue of their ability to deliver the vote of an entire century. Similarly, Cicero was urged to befriend those capable of amassing popularity amongst their century or tribe “at the moment for the sake of one to whom they owe or wish to do a favour.”[14] This point also strengthens the credibility of the Commentariolum as a source, for there is the possibility that Quintus wrote the letter with Cicero’s specific status as a novus homo in mind, but if noble candidates, with all their clients had little advantage on that fact alone, then it is better to consider Quintus’s advice suitable for all candidates.

<style=”text-align: justify;”>When considering the vote-broker, it is easy to see them as a sort of client. However, it is necessary to examine the possibility that these private relationships were not part of the network of patronage, but rather of favours, an entirely different phenomenon. By distinguishing between the two, it can be shown that patronage was very much the less important factor for an electoral candidate. Deniaux places emphasis on the importance of patronage, believing nobles to have had the best chance of success in elections owing to ‘numerous inherited clients who could be mobilized at election time”[15] and considered the invaluable vote-brokers of Cicero across the Italian peninsula to be clients[16]. She even states that it was his ‘mobilization of a large clientele created by himself [that] made it possible… for a “new man”, exceptionally, to be elected”.[17] Certainly, it was this body of vote-brokers which contributed considerably to his success, but they did not have to be clients. Morstein-Marx posits an alternate view of the candidate-voter relationship that sits more accurately with the ancient sources. Cicero would have been able to put many in his debt through his legal defences, and Quintus stresses that Cicero must make the indebted ‘thoroughly understand that they will never have any other opportunity of showing their gratitude’[18] other than in the upcoming election. Conversely, Cicero could have offered to place himself ‘under an obligation’[19], as Quintus puts it, to those who will aid him in canvassing. In the Pro Murena, Sulpicius calls Cicero out on a breach of friendship, to which Cicero responded that his ‘debt had been paid’[20]. Morstein-Marx considers these ‘manifestly exchanges of finite-favours’[21], contrasting with Deniaux’s assurance that ‘patrons and clients could not vote against each other’.[22] There would be little reason for Quintus to be so emphatic about getting invaluable people indebted to the electoral candidate if they were already clientes in the legal sense of the term. This demonstrates the difference between favours and patronage, and again, the absence of any conspicuous reference by Quintus to patronage further discredits it as particularly important in Roman elections.

Another argument against the importance of patronage can be found in proving the power of the populus Romanus in elections. By demonstrating that candidates had to publicly acquire the masses’ favour as a whole for electoral success, instead of mobilising particular clients, it reduces the importance of patronage. Proponents of the “Frozen Waste” theory, that largely indefensible view of an inherently undemocratic Roman system, maintain that the patronage of a ‘narrow hereditary oligarchy’ upheld the entire electoral structure, enabling the dominant families of Rome to control all levels of politics.[23] The arguments against this theory are myriad, and outlining but a few can deal a fatal blow to it, and seriously undermine the importance of patronage. Firstly, the dominant families of Rome could not have been so close-knit, as evidenced by the rise of new men such as Cicero, demonstrating that, as opined by Hopkins and Burton, their status and electoral success depended, at least partially, on achievement rather than inheritance.[24] This point can be expanded upon when the importance of military prestige in the Late Republic is considered. Military and political affairs were intertwined, and Cicero stated that it was military ability, alongside oratorical, that can ‘raise a man to the highest peak of distinction’[25]. A candidate with neither of these things would have had a poor species in re publica. Though Cicero said this with persuasive intent at the trial of Murena, the jury clearly agreed with him, suggesting that he was voicing the social consensus. In addition to a good public appearance, Quintus listed five more electoral aids to attain success: remembering people’s names; an ingratiating manner; “talk”; persistence and generosity. Collectively this list suggests Quintus considered the support of the people, especially the urbanites around Cicero, to be something well worth putting in a lot of effort for, supporting the view that there was far more to an election than patronage alone. Furthermore, the example of Scipio Nasicus is used by both Deniaux and North to demonstrate the power of the people.[26] While canvassing, Nasicus derided the calloused hand of a worker and promptly lost the election.[27] Another example, used by Brennan, involves the electoral success of Mancinus who, despite a poorly executed military campaign, won the next consulship through a charming visual presentation to voters.[28]

Quintus’s insistence that Cicero should secure ‘the votes of all the centuries’[29] is telling of the voters’ power. This is an especially important point when the centuria prerogativa is considered. Given the existing superstition that surrounded auspices, it is not absurd to reject the idea that the centuries would have considered the vote of the first century an omen to follow. In proving that the views of the populace mattered, the importance of patronage is reduced. A hypothetical candidate who was not popularis, but had many clients would have had difficulty cultivating a voting majority in the relevant assembly.

To conclude, it is clear that patronage was not as all-important in magisterial elections that proponents of the “frozen waste” theory would have people believe. That the phenomenon of patronage existed in the Late-Republic is not to be doubted, but its influence did not extend particularly far into elections. Quintus seems to emphasise that it was equally important for the candidate to both publicly cultivate the support of the masses, and privately that of advantageous associates. Furthermore, these private associates, whilst a few possibly being clients, have been shown to be more than likely vote-brokers exempt from the more stringent regulations of patronage. By viewing electoral success as the product of cultivating private and public favour, then demonstrating that the private side was not patronage, it is thusly evident that whilst some clients may have been employed to vote, the part patronage played in Late Republican elections has been largely overstated. Finally, one must constantly bear in mind that elections in the Late-Republic were inherently unpredictable[30] and no matter how big the clientele or body of support, success was never guaranteed. 



Berry, D. H. (2000), Cicero. ‘Defence Speeches (Pro Murena)’. Oxford.

Brennan, T. C. (2004), ‘’Power and process under the Republican ‘constitution’’, ch. 2. in H. Flower, ed., ‘The Cambridge Companion to the Roman Republic’: 19-53.

Brugisser, P. (1984), ‘Le “Commentariolum Petitionis”, acte électorale?’ LEC 52: 115-30.

David, J. M. (1973), ‘Le “Commentariolum Petitionis” de Quintus Cicéron. État de la question état prosopographique.’ ANRW 1.3: 239-277.

Deniaux, E. (2006), ‘Patronage’, A Companion to the Roman Republic. Wiley-Blackwell: 401-20.

Morstein-Marx, R. (1998), ‘Publicity, popularity and patronage in the Commentariolum Petitionis’, Classical Antiquity 17.2: 259-88.

Nardo, D. (1970), ‘Il “Commentariolum Petitionis”: la propaganda elettorale nellla “ars” di Quinto Cicerone’. Padua.

North, J. A. (1990), ‘Democratic politics in Republican Rome’, Past and Present 126: 3-21.

Ramsay, J. T. (1980), ‘A Reconstruction of Q. Gallius’ Trial for Ambitus: One Less Reason for Doubting the Authenticity of the “Commentariolum Petitionis”. Historia 29: 402-21.

Richardson, J. S. (1971), ‘The “Commentariolum Petitionis.”’ Historia 20: 436-42.

[1] Ant. Rom. 2.9.2-3

[2] Cic. Mur. 71

[3] Morstein-Marx 1998:275

[4] ibid

[5] Cic. Mur. 7

[6] Nardo 1970:7

[7] Richardson 1971; David 1973; Ramsay 1980; Brugisser 1984

[8] Morstein-Marx 1998:275

[9] Plut. Mar. 5.4.

[10] Morstein-Marx 1998:278

[11] Cic. Comm. Pet. 1             

[12] Ibid 5

[13] Morstein-Marx 1998:278

[14] Cic. Comm. Pet. 6

[15] Deniaux 2006:9

[16] ibid:10

[17] ibid:11

[18] Cic. Comm. Pet. 1

[19] ibid

[20] Cic. Mur. 7-8

[21] Morstein-Marx 1998:281-282

[22] Deniaux 2006:2

[23] North 1990:21

[24] ibid 11

[25] Cic. Mur. 30

[26] Morstein-Marx 1998:269

[27] Val. Max. vii.5

[28] Brennan 2004:41

[29] Cic. Comm. Pet.  8

[30] Cic. Mur. 36