Electoral Squabbles in Pompeii and the Iulius Polybius Incident

In the cities of Roman Italy, elections were the most important moment of a citizen’s participation in public life, even though this moment of democratic life was entrenched in a political and social context that it would be improper or, at the very least, rash to define as democratic. Thanks to Pompeii, we have detailed information on such elections. Administrative elections took place once a year and enabled a very limited number of Pompeians – emancipated, free, male citizens only – to directly elect the executive branch, which was composed of two supreme magistrates, the duumviri iuri dicundo, two identical figures equivalent to our mayors but also, at one and the same time, civil law judges, and two aediles, who could be considered the equivalent of town councillors. Voters were grouped into five constituencies and, in order to win, candidates had to prevail in the majority of them. This meant that the candidate had to have a well-distributed electoral base in the various territorial areas, which could also be achieved through alliances between two candidates. In March, the Municipal Council, i.e., Ordo Decurionum, made up of former magistrates who, after completing their term, remained in office for life, thereby embodying the real continuity of municipal power, chose the candidates to be admitted to the electoral competition from among those who had expressed the desire to enter the judiciary. Before admission, a check was run to ensure that they had the necessary requirements. At this point, the real election campaign began. The fight could become very bitter indeed, impacting the lives of the entire population.
When the election was over, for their entire one-year term of office the successfully elected candidates had to pay the salaries directly to the staff of collaborators and aides already in place, and either finance a public works project or, alternatively, hold public games. This was a major economic commitment, which also explains why the population would exhort certain citizens to run for office. The reward for this costly undertaking was the right to remain among the caste of the elite for the rest of their lives.
The huge number of election posters documenting the candidates and their followers as they sought to win over the public provide invaluable evidence as to just how heated the campaigns could become.
These posters would generally highlight the name of the candidate and the office he was running for, followed by a recommendation to vote for him (oro vos faciatis) together with the name of the rogatores, i.e., those backing his election. They would be placed at strategic points of the city, along the main roads, on the facades of the houses, and at the headquarters of guilds and typical meeting places. They demonstrate how the hard-fought election campaigns affected the lives of the entire city and all its people.
But of course, first and foremost, the support of the “great electors” was sought, since they had the power to manipulate several votes, those of the guilds, for example, and of influential dignitaries, in a game involving exchanges of favours and alliances sometimes developed over the course of several years, and designed to enable candidates to exchange the weight of their electoral base with one another. It was, in fact, common to see posters addressed ad personam such as those in front of the entrance to Trebius Valens’ house: “O Valens, get Popidius Ampliatus, son of Lucius, elected as an aedile. He in turn will support you”; and another: “Trebius, hurry up and get Ampliatus elected as an aedile.” Fac qui te fecit, i.e., let the one who got you elected be elected, is in fact a public admission that candidates did not shrink from making, but there were also those who looked towards the future with similar promises: fac et ille te faciet (let him be elected and then he, in turn, will get you elected when you run for office). On the other hand, it was often even humble Pompeians, who sometimes did not even have the right to vote, who would take sides publicly on posters in favour of one or other of the candidates, exhorting their fellow citizens to vote for them. Additionally, in the competitive mechanism that gave great formal weight to those micro-territorial values that should have spontaneously characterised the life of the city, a major role was played by the vicini (neighbours), i.e., the inhabitants of the same area, in promoting the election of a candidate. Sometimes, indeed, it is possible to detect, within the same neighbourhood, animosity towards certain candidates expressed through a series of counter-propaganda posters designed to belittle them. This is what happens, for example, in the district of the forenses, the inhabitants of the city centre, where in order to gain votes for Cerrinius Vatia they form an alliance with the dormientes (sleepyheads), the furunculi (petty thieves), the seribibi (late drinkers) and the sicari (hired assassins), while in other areas it seems that the drapetae (runaway slaves) also appear on the scene. These are all unlikely groupings of people to whom it would be difficult to give credence, but they provide evidence of a more widespread electoral phenomenon, typical throughout history, that of the “destruction in effigy” – in this case through the electoral poster – of the undesired candidate.
A notable example of the various expedients used by a man whose ambition was to undertake a career in politics is provided by Caius Iulius Polybius, perhaps the eponymous nephew of the freedman and trustee of Emperor Octavianus Augustus, mentioned by Svetonius, and son of that Caius Iulius Philippus whose seal was found inside an austere building on the Via dell’Abbondanza dating to the Samnite period, where a graffito offers a vote for a return from a military expedition.
Moreover, an electoral inscription found right in front of the house expressly addresses this Philippus with an invitation to vote in the duumvirate, probably for Rustius Verus, with these words: Iuli Philippe fac, et ille Polybium faciet (O Iulius Philippus, direct your votes [to Rustius Verus?] and he will then direct them towards Polybius). Another electoral inscription, this time on the very front of the house reads: “Colleague Polybius, let Aulus Rustius Verus become a duumvirum iuri dicundo.” Evident here is not only the exchange of votes that took place between the “great electors” of Pompeii, but also the close relationship between Iulius Philippus and Iulius Polybius. 

Very comfortably-off and well-established in Pompeii, where they certainly generate economic interests, this family is now seeking visibility, and this, in the closed circle of a “provincial” community, can only be achieved by being accepted in the restricted elite of those holding political power, i.e., the city’s prominent figures.
The frantic endeavour of these two men named Iulius, newcomers to Pompeii, to create an electoral consensus so as to commence their rise to power already seems discernible from their house. Although maintaining its austere appearance, it has three electoral inscriptions for Polybius as magistrate placed inside, and, on the far side of the peristyle, there are three large intercommunicating triclinia, indicating a need on the part of the owner to gather a large and indeed considerable number of guestsaround him frequently. Opposite the tablinum of the house’s secondary atrium, moreover, where the professional “study” of the dominus was probably located, there is a large waiting room where the crowd of clientes waiting to be received were seated, so that they were not left to wait outside, in the sun or outdoors, on those benches commonly found outside the main houses of the Pompeian nobility.
A clear need for consensus, which resounds and is clarified by the reference to the electoral messages, which show our Polybius intent on establishing political alliances with the most prominent families of Pompeii, and the holders of political power for generations, with whom he, even as a homo novus, seeks to fit in, almost as though he were heir to the traditions of the ancient Pompeian bourgeoisie, and to whom he has given the support of the votes of his clientele in the course of the years as part of a precise strategic plan aimed at securing their support when he decides to run for the office of magistrate.
A candidacy which, among other things, has a large electoral support base. In addition to the unwavering vicini (neighbours), there are the powerful guilds of muliones (mule drivers) and pistores (bakers). Indeed, he must have been extremely interested in baking, if one poster praises him as a studiosus et pistor (a man of culture and a baker), and the findings from the house show him to be a refined art collector, while another poster, with a brilliantly saucy double entendre, ensures its readers that he panem bonum fert (offers good bread).

Inscription that the Aselline place in favour of Lollio Fusco, photographed in the current state of conservation. Courtesy Archaeological Park of Pompeii

Perhaps this was the reason why he, as a candidate, had to leap into action to fend off a blow which, although unintentional, might have been detrimental to his victory. In fact, he rapidly had the names of two women with less than impeccable morals, who had dared to take a public stand in his support, covered with a layer of white lime: one, Cuculla, whose name, “Cowl,” already reveals her erotic speciality and on whom we have no further information; the other, Zmyrina, “the girl from Smyrna,” who, together with the equally exotic Aegle and Maria, was supposed to entertain the customers with exquisitely feminine arts in the nearby Thermopolium of Asellina, and who was perhaps admired every morning as she passed in front of the Polybius’s shop surrounded by her entourage on her way to the Forum. Not that our Polybius was, by any means, a misogynist. In fact, we see him willingly accepting among his supporters women named Fabia, Lollia “along with his own,” Chypare and Specla. Women were not, of course, entitled to vote, but the power that they have always wielded in human affairs is no secret. But perhaps these two women had gone too far in presenting themselves as his supporters. These women, with their way of life, lavishing praise on him, the propagator of ancient customs, the preserver of ancestral traditions! It would have been counter-productive to accept their support; it might have undermined the moral character he had been patiently constructing over the years. Much better to have an errand boy slink out during the night to cover the names of those two inopportune women on the election messages.
So, what judgement does our Polybius deserve? A social climber, therefore, but also a shrewd politician; an old-fashioned conservative, but attentive to the needs of those seeking his help; a moralist in name only, certainly not a zealot; a reckless man capable of daring manoeuvres in politics, but able to deliver benefits to his base; a man who is undoubtedly rich, but definitely not penny-pinching, ready to squander his money, as long as he has something to gain from it; a pleasure-seeker, but with a certain restraint, also capable of appreciating and enjoying the beauty offered by his own vision of art.
But what became of our Zmyrina? What could she do, a woman, a slave, of easy virtue to boot, against such a rich, powerful man, with connections in high places in Pompeii? The poor girl is forced to hold her tongue and suffer the formal disgrace of having her name erased, a true death in effigy. But the story does not end here. On the contrary, it has an unexpectedly happy ending that demonstrates how the astuteness of women, irrespective of their social status, can enable them to take revenge with elegance even against unchivalrous power.
In a subsequent election, the son of one of the oldest Italic families decides to run for office. His name is Caius Lollius Fuscus and he certainly has no need to “elbow and jostle” his way to the forefront of local politics, so he probably smiles indulgently when perhaps, but it is fair to assume,the girls of Asellina’s thermopolium ask him discreetly for permission to support his candidacy.
Of course, we will never know whether this actually happened or not – we can only state the facts.
On the facade of their thermopolium one morning the following electoral inscription appears: “The girls of Asellina urge you to vote for Gaius Lollius Fuscus as aedile,” followed by an explosive scholium: “And Zmyrina is one of them.”
Vengeance is complete. The girl’s name is publicly rehabilitated and all that Polybius can do is learn how a real gentleman behaves.


Antonio Varone, former director of Pompeii excavations