Issues in Philosophy Speaking Pro Re Publica in Ancient Rome and Today (Part 3)

Speaking Pro Re Publica in Ancient Rome and Today (Part 3)

by Chris Barker

Donald Trump and Mark Antony’s Playbook

Marco Rubio suspended his campaign—and perhaps ended his political career—after his defeat in Florida on March 15. During the debates, Marco Rubio did not exactly take the higher ground. He plunged into the rhetorical swill with Trump, whose personal attacks and large toolbox of rhetorical figures—paralipsis/praeteritio, and so on—have been widely discussed. An important feature of Rubio’s own populist rhetoric is his continual denigration of philosophy, and by extension liberal arts education. As he ironized during the South Carolina Town Hall, “the market for Roman philosophers has tightened significantly.” While others point out that America’s top universities have a de facto common core that consists of such books as The Republic, Leviathan, and The Prince, Rubio wants Americans to head in the direction of Joe the Plumber.

However, if the opponents of Donald Trump had read “Roman philosophy,” they would be better prepared to understand their current predicament, and if they had read and reread orators such as Cicero, they would be better equipped to do something about it.

If Trump somehow manages to attain the presidency, his success would be unprecedented. There is an American equivalent to the Roman cursus honorum, which consisted of a graduated series of public offices: quaestor, aedile, censor, praetor, and finally consul. (It significantly weakened Marco Rubio when Chris Christie excoriated him for not having any relevant decision-making experience, which, again, is what a U.S. governor or Roman aedile—tasked with road maintenance and the grain and water supplies—would say to the ambitious young guy trying to grab the highest office.) For Cicero (On the Laws III.iii.6–9), and for prospective presidents, the succession of offices is strict. Only three people in U.S. history have attained the presidency without political experience: Zachary Taylor, Ulysses S. Grant, and Dwight D. Eisenhower. All three were wartime generals. Donald Trump would be number four. However, both a former CIA Director and a retired general have questioned whether the military would even obey President Trump if he were elected.

Closer to Trump’s home, businesspeople such as Wendell Wilkie have secured the nomination at the Convention in 1940. Ross Perot won 20% of the popular vote. Populist demagogues from the Left, such as Huey Long or William Jennings Bryan, or Joseph McCarthy on the Right, have come close to power. What does Rome teach about these types of candidates?

Without a sky-is-falling comparison between the present majoritarian moment and the end-of-republic violence in 1st-century-B.C.E. Rome, there is a lesson to be learned from the Roman rhetorical playbook. Cicero, as I noted in my first post, was not the perfect man for the job of mediating between factions. Cicero himself tragically chose Pompey to counter Caesar, and Octavian, Caesar’s adopted son, to counter the power of Mark Antony. To prove his loyalty to the second triumvirate, Octavian gave up Cicero to proscription, and Cicero was captured, killed, and beheaded. Antony’s wife, Fulvia, took possession of Cicero’s head in order to pierce the tongue with her hairpins, and the offending head and hands were placed on the rostra to awe and satisfy the public. No one would consider this a model of successful dissent, especially since Octavian took the name of Augustus in 27 B.C.E., effectively ending the republic.

More important than Cicero’s political miscalculation of alliance politics, however, was the centrality of personal animus to his failed defense of the common good. As Anthony Trollope insightfully observes in his Life of Cicero, Cicero was not killed because he was feared, but because he was hated by Antony and Fulvia. Cicero had Antony’s stepfather, P. Lentulus Sura, executed during the Catiline conspiracy, and his personal attacks on Fulvia (he noted that her husbands had a habit of dying, in Philippics II.11) attracted her undying ire. How, then, can one successfully criticize the demagogue without being hated by the demagogue and threatened by his or her angry followers?

At the end of Philippics I, Cicero argues that “to be feared and an object of hatred is….weakness, a sign of decay” (I.33). The Machiavellian playbook agrees: Chapter 17 of The Prince instructs us that it is better to be feared than loved, and better to be anything else than to be hated. Thus, Lindsay Graham’s recent lines about Ted Cruz are not a good sign for his electability: “If you killed Ted Cruz on the floor of the Senate, and the trial was in the Senate, nobody would convict you.” Lost in the current American moment is Cicero’s advice that the “true path of glory” runs not through fear or hatred, but through glory for honorable deeds.

But Cicero was not an idealist. A Handbook on Roman Electioneering—likely written by Cicero’s younger brother, Quintus—lays out a model of campaigning that remains instructive. The key distinction is between campaigning for the support of your friends and for the support of the people (1.16). Friends, taken broadly, are gained through kindness, duty, and charm. They, in turn, are attracted to a candidate by past benefits; hope of future reward; or by spontaneous attraction (1.21). We know that the Donald has shown little respect for public duties, but we are told that his personal manner is very effective. What is fascinating is that his rhetorical overtures to the people seem so unconvincing and crass. Surely the Roman playbook did not anticipate this? Yes, it did. A candidate deals with the people by (a) a memory for names, (b) an ingratiating manner, (c) constant attendance on the people, (d) generosity, (e) publicity, (f) wealthy show, and (g) hope in the republic (1.41). Trump checks many of those boxes: blunt speech, radicalism, a constant presence, 24/7 media exposure, displays of wealth, and brassy confidence. The key, though, is ingratiation (blanditia): “facial expression and conversation must be modified and adapted to the humor and the inclinations of all whom he meets.” It does not say that the humor to which one must appeal is elevated, or that the expression and conversation is noble.

In my next post, I will explain how the people can get what they truly want, which, as the Romans argue, is a mixed constitution combining liberty and wise counsel.

Other posts in Chris Barker’s series can be found as follows:


Chris Barker teaches political thought at Southwestern College. He has previously held positions at Ohio University, Boston College, and Harvard University, and recently completed his first book manuscript on John Stuart Mill’s liberalism.

Image: Marcus Antonius | Wikimedia Commons


The aim of this series is to provide APA members with a platform to discuss how philosophy can inform political debate, from a variety of sources and perspectives. If you would like to submit a contribution, we’d love to hear from you. Please contact us via the submission form here.



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