Cross-posted from and first published by the LA Times.
All images added to OEN version.
Friends, donors and countrymen
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There's a clear precedent to follow: In Rome in AD 193, two politicos went monetarily mano a mano. Their goal? To win the top-toga position in the Roman Empire, that of emperor.
The rivals apparently skipped those dismal debates and went straight to the bidding war. To distinguish themselves from other toga-wearing males, candidates wore special togas whose wool fabric had been whitened with sulfur. They were called candidus (Latin for "bright shining white"), which later led to our words "candidate" and "candid."
One of the imperial hopefuls, a city administrator named Titus Flavius Sulpicianus, made a strong showing because he was the father-in-law of the recently assassinated emperor, Pertinax. His opponent, a chirpy 60-year-old senator of substantial means called Marcus Didius Julianus, boasted equally impressive nepotism and career credentials.
Instead of being run by the Roman Senate or the people, this "pay us to play" electoral process was handled by the Praetorian Guard, a once-elite special military force that had awakened to the beauty of selling the imperial seat rather than guarding it.
If the idea of high offices for sale on EBay is too unseemly, another ancient precedent could offer our political candidates a higher-minded challenge.
Beginning in 5th century BC Athens, the city's wealthiest citizens were tapped for the obligatory honor of financing big civic projects. These prestigious philanthropic assignments, called liturgies (original meaning: "work for the people") included such undertakings as building a new aqueduct and paying the annual cost of maintaining one trireme ship in the Athenian navy.
In Rome and throughout the early Roman Empire, liturgies also became a tombstone-worthy boast. Women of means often took part; their names and philanthropic deeds, in Latin or Greek, still adorn ancient monuments around the Mediterranean. Female benefactors and well-known figures such as Pliny the Younger also funded modern-sounding social programs, such as food and educational subsidies for low-income children. The budgets of drama and music festivals alone required 100 well-heeled underwriters each year.
Greek/Roman theatre, from mural at villa Oplontis near Naples, Italy
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Liturgies would work beautifully today. Instead of panhandling citizens and special-interest groups for donations, political candidates could spend some of their wealth to fix bridges, build schools and support the arts.
Let the men and women who want to be servants of the people earn back our trust the old-fashioned way and show their commitment by carrying out voter-specified works in the public interest. Instead of liturgy, we could call it an investment in the greater good. That puts a satisfying new spin on the term "buying American," doesn't it?
While doing research in the Greek city of Perge (Turkey today, Asia Minor back then), author Vicki Leon discovered hard evidence of yet another female liturgist. This well-known woman, called Plancia Magna, lived in the second century A.D. A mover, shaker, and multi-tasker, she was not only a priestess and a magistrate, she became a civic benefactor who built an entrance complex at Perge's south gate. Like other liturgists, she didn't mind bragging a bit about her generous deeds. On the stone pillar in the photo, she's called a "goddess-like priestess." On lines 2 and 4, her name appears in both Latin and Greek!
Read more about long-ago liturgies and political antics B.C. in the pages of Working IX to V , the first of Vicki Leon's quirky trilogy of nonfiction books on the ancient world.