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AM´BITUS which literally signifies “a going about,” cannot be more nearly expressed than by our word “canvassing.” After the plebs had formed a distinct estate at Rome, and when the whole body of citizens had been 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. As the elections recurred annually, there was frequent opportunity for practising the various modes of corruption. The piece entitled “L. Ciceronis de Petitione Consulatus ad M. Tullium Fratrem,” 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 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 Mur. ch. 34

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 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 munwicipia, in which the citizens had the suffrage; thus Cicero proposed to visit the Cisalpine towns, when he was a candidate for the consulship. (Cic. Att. 1.1

Ambitus as a criminal offence signifies interference with the free choice of electors to an office by means of corrupt practices. The word for ambitus in the Greek writers is δεκασμός. Money was paid for votes; and in order to insure secrecy and to secure the elector, persons called interpretes were employed to make the bargain, sequestres to hold the money till it was paid (Cic. Clu. 26, 72), and divisores to distribute it (Cic. Att. 1.1. 6). The offence of ambitus belonged to the judicia publica, and the enactments against it were numerous.

The earliest enactment that is mentioned is the Lex Pinaria tribunicia (B.C. 432: Livy, 4.25), which prohibited candidates from “adding white to their dress.” A white dress was a sign that a person was a candidate. Thus the object of the law was to put some restriction on canvassing, i.e. on ambitio or ambitus. Still the practice of using a white dress on occasion of canvassing was usual, and appears to have been the origin of the term candidatus being applied to a petitor ( “cretata ambitio,” Pers. Sat. 5.177; Plb. 10.4). A Lex Poetelia (B.C. 358; Livy, 7.15) forbad candidates canvassing on market days, and going about to the places in the country where people were collected. The law was specially directed against 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. 40.19; Schol. Bob. p. 361). The purport of the Cornelia Fulvia de ambitu is not known, but it apparently made no change in the penalties for the offence.

The Lex 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 (Die Cass. 36.21). The Lex Tullia was passed in the consulship of Cicero (B.C. 63). It imposed a new punishment of ten years' exile, in addition to the penalties under the Lex Calpurnia (D. C. 37.29; Cic. pro Mur. 2,3; 3,5; 23, 47;32, 67; 41, 89).

This law forbad any person to exhibit public shows for two years before he was a candidate. It also forbad 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 de sodaliciis was passed (Cic.Planc. 15, 36). It was specially directed against a particular kind of ambitus, which consisted in employing agents (interpretes, divisores, sequestres) to mark out the members of the several tribes into smaller portions, and by this division of labour to carry out a complete system of corruption. The distribution of the members of the tribes was called decuriatio (Cic. Planc. ch. 18). This means of securing votes was employed by the clubs and collegia of the aristocracy (Cic. ad Quint. Fratr. 2.3, 5). There were special provisions in the Lex Licinia for the purpose of securing a fair trial of offences under it. The judices were called editicii, because the accuser or prosecutor nominated four tribes; the accused was allowed to challenge one of the tribes so nominated. 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, as under the Lex Tullia. The Lex Pompeia (B.C. 52), passed when Pompeius was sole consul for part of that year, was brought about by the murder of Clodius. It was an attempt to put down the clubs by more stringent punishments and more rapid process. The law increased the penalties of the Lex Calpurnia and Tullia. It was made retrospective to the date of the first consulship of Pompeius (Appian, App. BC 2.23, 24; Plut. Cato Min. 48; Ascon. in Milon., p. 37, Orell.). When C. Julius Caesar obtained the supreme power in Rome, he used to recommend [p. 1.101]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. Jul. 41). The Lex Julia de ambitu was passed (B.C. 18) in the time of Augustus. It appears to have consolidated earlier laws on the subject, although with some modifications. The penalties under it were expulsion from the senate, incapacity for holding any public office during five years, and a fine of 100,000 sesterces, which candidates were required to deposit before canvassing. The penalties, therefore, were milder than they had been previously. The law only applied to offices for which a popular election was held. If a candidate resorted to any violence by exciting a tumult or otherwise, he was liable to be punished under the Lex Julia de vi by exile (aquae et ignis interdictio, subsequently deportatio).

The popular forms of election were observed during the time of Augustus. Under Tiberius they ceased. Tacitus (Tac. Ann. 1.15) 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 been a substantial form. Modestinus, a Roman jurist, who wrote about the middle of the third century after Christ, thus comments on the Lex Julia de ambitu: “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 populous; 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, tit. 14.)

The laws that have been enumerated are probably all that were enacted, at least all of which any notice has been 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). 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 shown is that the divisores, or one of the class of persons who assisted in bribery, were punished (Cic. pro Planc. 23, § 55; pro Muren. 23, § § 46, 47). Thus the penalties were inflicted on the briber and his agents, not on the bribed.

The proposed Lex Aufidia (Cic. Att. 1.1. 6) declared that if a candidate promised money to a tribe and did not pay it, he should be unpunished; but if he actually paid the money, he should further pay to each tribe 3000 sesterces as long as he lived. This 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; Rinkes, Disp. de crim. amb. et de sod.

[G.L] [E.A.W]

hide References (15 total)
  • Cross-references from this page (15):
    • Cicero, Letters to Atticus, 1.1
    • Appian, Civil Wars, 2.3.23
    • Appian, Civil Wars, 2.4.24
    • Polybius, Histories, 10.4
    • Cicero, For Lucius Murena, 2
    • Cicero, For Lucius Murena, 34
    • Cicero, For Plancius, 23
    • Cicero, For Aulus Cluentius, 26
    • Cicero, For Aulus Cluentius, 72
    • Cicero, For Plancius, 18
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 4, 25
    • Suetonius, Divus Julius, 41
    • Tacitus, Annales, 1.15
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 40, 19
    • Livy, The History of Rome, Book 7, 15
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