Monday, September 03, 2012

Ad politics in Pompeii

AD 79 was a rough year for Marcus Cerrinius Vatia. The up-and-coming young man was running for the important office of aedile, one of the two junior magistrates in the seaside town of Pompeii.

A century earlier, the Roman orator Cicero had admired the generally honest and upright campaigns conducted in this provincial town on the Bay of Naples. Unlike in Rome itself, where corruption was rampant, any hardworking Pompeian man with enough money and friends might rise to the office of aedile — unless he was a member of an undesirable profession, a public executioner, for example, or an actor.

If Vatia could clear the first hurdle and be elected aedile, perhaps in a few years he would be chosen as one of the duoviri ("two men") who presided over the city. But even as an aedile, he would be guaranteed a place on the town council and special seats for life at the local gladiatorial shows. So as the smoking crater of Vesuvius loomed over Pompeii, Vatia tried to drum up support on the usual round of guild banquets, tavern meetings and dinners with wealthy citizens.

But politics could be a dirty business, even in Pompeii. Sometime in the night, one of the professional political teams that painted signs around town whitewashed some old campaign ads from the previous year and replaced them with new graffiti, including "The petty thieves support Vatia for aedile" and "The late night drinkers all ask you to elect Marcus Cerrinius Vatia as aedile". Poor Vatia had become a victim of negative campaign advertising.