The ads of ancient aspirants

March 07, 2000|By Mark R. Horowitz

IT'S the season for political mudslinging in what many consider to be a modern invention: political advertising.

But as bewildered Americans watch their candidates fire off venomous volleys over the airwaves to the tune of many millions of dollars, we might note that, when it comes to such political posturing, we are rather backward compared with the pointed, frank and refreshingly honest ads of the Romans some 1,800 years ago. The walls of the town of Pompeii, buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79, are dotted with political ads in the form of graffiti, paintings and signs.

We may think that political action committees (PACs) and special-interest groups are modern inventions. But consider the fruit dealers who supported Marcus Priscus for the office of duovir (magistrate): "The fruit dealers -- unanimously urge the election of Marcus Holconius Priscus as douvir with judicial power." (The goldsmiths wanted Gaius Cuspius Pansa, and the muleteers supported Gaius Julius Polybius.)

Often, advertising was of a personal nature. Someone who agreed with the muleteers wrote: "I ask you to elect Gaius Julius Polybius -- he gets good bread." Another wrote: "If upright living is considered any recommendation, Lucretius Fronto is well worthy of the office." Sure has a modern ring to it.

Today, media buyers worry about ads appearing at the right time in front of the right target audience. In Pompeii, some worried about ads lasting out the day. One supporter wrote: "His neighbors urge you to elect Lucius Statius Receptus duovir with judicial power; he is worthy. Aemilius Celer, a neighbor, wrote this. May you take sick if you maliciously erase this!"

In today's elections, a candidate's dark past is carefully guarded and guided by handlers. Not so with the Romans. Two happy-spirited writers offered: "We ask you to elect Marcus Cerrinius Vatia to the aedileship. All the late drinkers support him."

"The petty thieves support Vatia for the aedileship." Broad-based support or smear campaigning? We'll never know.

Advertisements touting candidates will inundate the public until it becomes weary and declares "enough."

It may have happened in Pompeii. One anonymous writer probably reached the point of ad exhaustion -- ad nauseam may be more appropriate -- when he wrote: "I wonder, O wall, that you have not fallen in ruins from supporting the stupidities of so many scribblers."

Mark R. Horowitz, a marketing consultant and historian, is the author of "Stonehenge to Star Wars: Discovering the Present by Exploring the Past."

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