Roman Elections were colourful affairs

Auctioning the Empire


And so the 2012 US Presidential election grinds relentlessly to a conclusion, as we in the rest of the “Free World” watch the spectacle with a mixture of shock and awe. America is still the most powerful (militarily at least) of the democratic nations, and so the rest of us in the club attend keenly to the evolutions of its democratic institutions; we cheer its triumphs and tremble with trepidation at its follies.

But what to make of the Spectacle? Surely if nothing else, it is apparent that while even the least of us may cast our vote, running for high office is a rich man’s privilege. (Yes, it’s been a long time since someone born in a log cabin got to sit in the Oval Office.)

Indeed, never before, we have been assured, has so much money been spent on campaigning for the Presidency. But it was ever thus; Caesar himself spent most of his political career one step ahead of his creditors. At the very least you must have rich friends.

I have seen an interesting statistic, though I can’t produce footnotes (hey what am I.. Wikipedia?) being that according to research conducted, in every single presidential campaign since records were kept, the candidate who spent the most money, won the election. Every time.

Thus, even unlikely a candidate as Mitt Romney, fringe religious cult member and corporate pirate, can be considered a contender, as long as they have enough money. Why not? Electing Billionaires to high office is fashionable in many countries these days.

“I just raised $181 million!”

The research also implied that it really didn’t matter exactly how the successful candidate spent the money; whether you stood on the corner handing $20 bills out to passers-by, or whether you filled the airwaves with adverts calling your opponent a child molesting monster.. the result was the same.

Clearly there’s some heavy juju going on here. Maybe the sheer Mass of all that Money gives it magic powers! Maybe you could light a big fire and toss the money in and get the same effect.

In fact, why not? Why bother voting at all? Instead, come election night, the candidates should gather on the White House lawn and there before the huddled masses, build great bonfires out of mounds of dollar bills, and they whose burning pyre casts the tallest flames shall be named the President.

Actually, now I think of it, my plan has precedent, following in the footsteps of another fine old American (Indian) political tradition, “The Potlatch”.

For those unfamiliar with the Potlatch, I refer to The Oxford Dictionary of Mythology, who defines this singular ritual as:

“An extravagant festival held by the Indians of the North pacific coast..(involving) the ceremonial destruction or giving away of possessions..One chief might “shame” another by destroying valuable pots, killing slaves and burning down houses. If the other chief failed either to give away or destroy more things he would lose public esteem” 

Yes, perhaps Mitt should kill a few slaves to win the public’s esteem. Better yet, he could throw some gladiatorial games like the old Roman politicians used to do when an election was coming up and they wanted to win the proles’ affection.

Indeed, Roman History, both Republican and Imperial, affords us many examples of rich men who successfully bought their way into the State’s highest offices, be it Magistrate, Consul or Emperor; the Roman political machine was endemically corrupt.

“This is how I pull the strings”

But perhaps the most sordid example occurred in

Rome in 193CE, when Didius Julianus became Emperor after outbidding his rival Sulpicianus for the Praetorian Guards affections, by promising each guardsman 25,000 sesterces.

The auction itself had been a rather unsavoury affair, conducted in full public view. The previous emperor Pertinax had been brutally assassinated after a brief reign of three months. Pertinax himself was decent enough chap, but had the misfortune to have to try and clear up the mess left behind by the paranoid tyrant Commodus (he of the movie Gladiator fame).

Alas, he also tried tightening up discipline for the lazy and dissolute Praetorian Guard. They responded by killing him.

This left somewhat of a power vacuum in the Roman state; Commodus had killed anyone who showed competence or potential as possible rivals. So the Praetorians, holed up in their fortified camp, announced they’d hold an auction. Pertinax’s father-in-law Sulpicianus soon appeared at their camp and started negotiating.

But meanwhile the news had reached the ears of the wealthy Julius Didianus while he lay feasting in his sumptuous mansion. His sycophants and retainers urged him on, flattering him that he, the wealthiest man in Rome, was surely the most suitable candidate for Emperor. Convinced by their sincerity, he drunkenly waddled forth to bid for the Empire.

What a scene. Didianus stood swaying outside the Praetorians’ fortress and shouted his offers up to the guards on the wall, who relayed them by shouting to the guard captains negotiating inside with Sulpicianus. Bid and counter bid were shouted back and forth as a morbidly curious crowd gathered to witness Rome’s shame.

At last Didianus trumped his rival with his massive bid of 25,000 sesterces per man. Now the gates opened for Didianus. Documents were quickly drawn up and signed and a goat sacrificed to seal the deal. The Guard lined up behind the fat and elderly Didianus and with trumpets blaring marched forth to escort him to the Senate house to announce their decision. The Senate, with their usual abject cowardice, immediately ratified their choice. But the City Crowd, safe in their anonymity, pelted him with rotting fruit and insults whenever he appeared in public.

Alas for Julius Didianus, he soon found he had no true friends,and within weeks the Praetorians, having spent their large reward, soon repented of their choice, and stood idly by watching while an angry mob tore the unfortunate Julianus to pieces. He didn’t even have time to mint any coins before his successor was marching on Rome.

Maybe before Mitt completes his purchase he should consider the cautionary tale of Didius Julianus and remember the old Roman proverb: Caveat Emptor.

“I voted for Mitt at the Potlatch!”


footnote: Perhaps I should move to America and run for President myself, for while I wasn’t born in a log cabin I did spend part of my childhood in one; dirt floor, no windows, kerosene lanterns, leaning up against an old wooden caravan on blocks. Yep, my white trash roots run deep, bring me my stove-pipe hat!



The Reverend Hellfire is a practising Performance Poet and an ordained Minister of the Church of Spiritual Humanists AND the Church of the Universe.

The only complete man in the Industry!



~ by reverendhellfire on October 7, 2012.


  1. A good one, with some facts about Rome I hadn’t heard. But I do keep telling people that NOTHING has changed since the Pharoahs or the Hittites or whoever first had cities and an administration. Power seekers every one of them. Not a statesman (or woman) in sight. Opportunists all.

    • Actually I blame the Egyptians. They were the original creators of the centralised state, bureaucracy and taxes.
      On the plus side they also invented eyeliner and fishnet stockings so they weren’t all bad.(It was Pharoahs idea of course. I forget which one, but he got his serving girls to row his royal pleasure barge down the Nile wearing only fishing nets wrapped around their bodies. The inscriptions record that “his majesty’s heart rejoiced exceedingly at the sight”-as well it might!)

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