Ambitus, among ancient Romans, signified the act of suing, or making interest for candidates of offices.

The candidates went about the city and into public places and assembles, to beg voices, which was called "ambitus"; "am" in the ancient Latin, signifying "circum" ("about", or "around"), and "ire" ("to go").

After the plebs had formed a distinct estate at Rome, and when the whole body of the citizens had become 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. In Ancient 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. The elections recurred annually, and candidates had plenty of practice in the various modes of corruption.

Whatever may be the authority of the piece entitled "Q. Ciceronis de Petitione Consulatus ad M. Tullium Fratrem," it 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 the 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.ref|ref01 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 which could not fail to be generally gratifying to the electors. The candidate accompanied his address with a shake of the hand ("prensatio"). The term "benignitas" comprehended generally any kind of treating, such as shows or feasts. Candidates sometimes left Rome and visited the "coloniae" and "municipia", in which the citizens had the suffrage; thus Cicero proposed to visit the Cisalpine towns, when he was a candidate for the consulship.ref|ref02

That "ambitus", which was the object of several penal enactments, taken as a generic term, comprehended the two species — "ambitus" and "largitiones" (bribery). "Liberalitas" and "benignitas" are opposed by Cicero, as things allowable, to "ambitus" and "largitio", as things illegal.ref|ref03 The word for "ambitus" in the Greek writers is δεκασμω ("dekasmo"). Money was paid for votes; and in order to ensure secrecy and secure the elector, persons called "interpretes" were employed to make the bargain, "sequestres" to hold the money until it was to be paid,ref|ref04 and "divisores" to distribute it.ref|ref05 The offence of "ambitus" was a matter which belonged to the "judicia publica", and the enactments against it were numerous.ref|ref22 The earliest enactment that is mentioned simply forbade persons "to add white to their dress", with a view to an election (B.C. 432).ref|ref06 This seems to mean using some white sign or token on the dress, to signify that a man was a candidate. The object of the law was to check "ambitio", the name for going about to canvass, in place of which "ambitus" was subsequently employed. Still the practice of using a white dress on occasion of canvassing was usual, and appears to have given origin to the application of the term "candidatus" to one who was a "petitor".ref|ref07

Laws and restrictions

A Lex Poetelia (B.C. 358) forbade candidates canvassing on market days,ref|ref08 and going about to the places in the country where people were collected. The law was passed mainly to check the pretensions of "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.ref|ref09 The Lex Acilia Calpurnia (B.C. 67) was intended to suppress treating of the electors and other like matters: the penalties were fine, exclusion from the Roman Senate, and perpetual incapacity to hold office.ref|ref10 The Lex Tullia was passed in the consulship of Cicero (B.C. 63) for the purpose of adding to the penalties of the Acilia Calpurnia.ref|ref11 The penalty under this lex was ten years' exile. This law forbade any person to exhibit public shows for two years before he was a candidate. It also forbade 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 was passed. This lex, which is entitled "De Sodalitiis", did not alter the previous laws against bribery; but it was specially directed against a particular mode of canvassing, which consisted in employing agents ("sodales") to mark out the members of the several tribes into smaller portions, and to secure more effectually the votes by this division of labour. This distribution of the members of the tribes was called "decuriatio".ref|ref12 It was an obvious mode of better securing the votes.ref|ref13 The mode of appointing the judices in trials under the Lex Licinia was also provided by that lex. They were called "Judices Editicii", because the accuser or prosecutor nominated four tribes, and the accused was at liberty to reject one of them. 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, but for what period is uncertain.

The Lex Pompeia (B.C. 52), passed when Pompeius was sole consul for part of that year, appears to have been rather a measure passed for the occasion of the trials then had and contemplated than any thing else. It provided for the mode of naming the "judices", and shortened the proceedings. When C. Julius Caesar obtained the supreme power in Rome, he used to recommend 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.ref|ref14 The Lex Julia de Ambitu was passed (B.C. 18) in the time of Augustus, and it excluded from office for five years those who were convicted of bribery.ref|ref15 But as the penalty was milder than those under the former laws, we must conclude that they were repealed in whole or in part. Another Lex Julia de Ambitu was passed (B.C. 8) apparently to amend the law of B.C. 18.ref|ref16 Candidates were required to deposit a sum of money before canvassing, which was forfeited if they were convicted of bribery. If any violence was used by a candidate, he was liable to exile (aquae et ignis interdictio).

The popular forms of election were observed during the time of Augustus. Under Tiberius they ceased. Tacitus observes, "The comitia were transferred from the campus to the patres," the senate.ref|ref17

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 a substantial form. A Roman jurist, of the imperial period (Modestinus), in speaking of the Julia Lex de Ambitu, observes, "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 "populus"; 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".ref|ref18

The laws that have been enumerated are probably all that were enacted, at least all of which any notice is 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). Rein observes that "by this change the control over the voters was scarcely any longer possible; and those who were bribed could not be distinguished from those who were not." One argument in favour of ballot in modern times has been that it would prevent bribery; and probably it would diminish the practice, though not put an end to it. But the notion of Rein that the bare fact of the vote being secret would increase the difficulty of distinguishing the bribed from the unbribed is absurd; for the bare knowledge of a man's vote is no part of the evidence of bribery. 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 proved is, that the divisores or one of the class of persons who assisted in bribery were punished.ref|ref19 But this is quite consistent with the rest: the briber and his agents were punished, not the bribed. When, therefore, Rein, who refers to these two passages under the Lex Tullia, says: "Even those who received money from the candidates, or at least those who distributed it in their names, were punished," he couples two things together that are entirely of a different kind. The proposed Lex Aufidia went so far as to declare that if a candidate promised money to a tribe and did not pay it, he should be unpunished; but if he did pay the money, he should further pay to each tribe (annually?) 3000 sesterces as long as he lived.ref|ref20 This absurd 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.ref|ref23 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 .ref|ref21


# Cic. "pro Murena", c34
# Cic. "ad Att". i.1
# Cic. "de Orat". ii.25; and cf. "pro Murena", c36
# Cic. "pro Cluent". 26
# Cic. "ad Att". i.16
# None of the penalties mentioned in this article include the capital penalty. The generally reliable historian Polybius, however, a close first-hand observer of Roman polity, flatly states that at Rome the penalty for bribery was death ("Histories", 6.56.4).
# Liv. iv.25
# Cretata ambitio, Persius, Sat. v.177; Polyb. x.4 ed. Bekker
# Liv. vii.15
# Liv. xl.19; Schol. Bob. p361
# Dion, "Cass". xxxvi.21
# Dion, "Cass". xxxvii.29; Cic. "pro Murena", c23
# Cic. "pro Plancio", c18
# In the main this is rightly explained by Rein, but completely misunderstood by Wunder and others. Furthermore, Drumann confounds the "decuriatio" with the "coitio" or coalition of candidates to procure votes ("Geschichte Roms", vol. iv p93).
# Suet. "Caes". c41
# Dion, "Cass". liv.16; Suet. "Oct". 34
# Dion, "Cass". lv.5
# Tacitus, "Annal". i.15
# Dig. 48 14
# Cic. "pro Plancio", c23, "pro Murena", c23
# Cic. "ad Att". i.16
# A list of them is given by Rein.
# Rein, "Criminalrecht der Römer", where all the authorities are collected; Cic. "Pro Plancio", ed. Wunder


*Smith, William, D.C.L., LL.D. "A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities". John Murray, London, 1875.
* Peter Nadig, Ardet Ambitus. Untersuchungen zum Phänomen der Wahlbestechungen in der römischen Republik, Peter Lang, Frankfurt am Main - New York 1997 (Prismata VI), ISBN 3-631-31295-4

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