How Livy Saved Rome from the Polybian Cycle

Polybius concludes that “all existing things are subject to decay is a proposition which scarcely requires proof, since the inexorable course of nature is sufficient to impose it on us” (The Rise of the Roman Empire, VI. 57). He believes that a gradual succession of constitutions promotes political stability in the Roman state. Contrary to Polybius’ theory, Livy’s account of the origins of monarchy and republic demonstrates that a nation’s political changes are truly unpredictable. In The Rise of Rome, Livy shows that political revolutions alter the social and moral behaviors of the res publica. His exemplary stories do not support Polybius’ belief that political changes are destined. Rather than focusing on the natural and gradual succession of government, Livy immortalizes specific historical events to underscore the importance of moral values. Before we examine the differences between Livy and Polybius, we should recognize their common grounds in writing the history of Rome. Their ultimate goal is to explain how Rome achieved its current status, and view Rome’s emergence as a dominant world power as an unprecedented event in the course of history. Polybius shows how Rome “possesses an irresistible power to achieve any goal it has set itself” (VI. 18), and Livy wants to “celebrate…the history of the greatest nation on earth” (The Rise of Rome, preface). By documenting Rome’s political progression, they reveal that a well-functioning government is the key to Rome’s success and superiority. Polybius’ logical explanation of various forms of the states and Livy’s broad monumentum give their audience a coherent sense of human activities in history. Nevertheless, they diverge in their methodologies and beliefs about the motivating factors behind political changes. Compared with Livy’s stories, Polybius’ cycle of natural changes in the types of government oversimplifies Rome’s political turmoil. Polybius thinks that mob rule inevitably eliminates aristocracy. Livy, however, credits the rape of Lucretia as being the single fundamental event that triggered the dawn of the republic (I. 59). Under democracy, Polybius suggests that “the people do not venture to set up a king again, for they are still in terror of the injustices committed by previous monarchs” (The Rise of the Roman Empire, VI. 9). Livy’s account contradicts this assertion because most people were not prepared for a radical change in government despite Brutus’ efforts. The senators in Rome were even afraid that “the plebs might in their terror accept monarchical rule” (The Rise of Rome, II. 9). In addition to offering dramatic stories as explanations for political changes, Livy wrote with a strong bias not found in Polybius’ impartial theory. While his theory can be universally applied, Livy focuses on uniquely Roman-directed changes. Livy embodies a degree of obsession with Rome’s monumental achievements that does not comply with Polybius’ neutral tone in presenting his theory. Livy emphasizes the accomplishments of the strong and often ignores the plight of the masses. He views ordinary citizens as minor participants in managing the state and as having little political ambition. According to Dr. Natalia King, “Livy’s use of exempla dramatizes the potential of individual actions to effect real change in the civic sphere.” He concentrates on military events and leading figures—kings, military dictators, and senators. He writes an aggrandizing account of the military strength and brilliant leadership of selected individuals. He documents the change from monarchy to republic as a transition of power among the elite members of the Roman society. For example, at the beginning of the republic, “not only were members of the royal family who bore the name Tarquin present in the state, they were even heads of state” (II. 2). The end result was nothing more than the concentration of power in the hands of the aristocrats under the name of the republic. Consequently, Livy’s account, with its inherent bias toward the strong, is incompatible with Polybius’ theory. Not only does he pay more attention to the powerful men, Livy also preserves individual achievements and failures while Polybius’ cycle of change overshadows them. Polybius seeks universal guiding principles for political changes. His theory of cycling governments tries to outline a general pattern of causation to show “what means and by virtue of what political institutions almost the whole world fell under the rule of one power, that of Rome” (The Rise of the Roman Empire, VI. 2). He does not focus on the specific people who brought about drastic changes in Rome. On the other hand, Livy immortalizes noteworthy episodes to illustrate Roman virtues. He recites honorable deeds of influential leaders to accentuate Rome’s perpetuity. Livy includes a memorable speech by Camillus, who describes Rome as “where once the unearthing of a human head was taken as a sign that this spot marked what would be the centre of empire and head of the world” (The Rise of Rome, V. 54). To Livy, Rome is not undergoing a natural evolution and decay. Instead, he believes an ambitious leader has to encourage a large portion of the society to take action. Livy recognizes human activities as agents of political change rather than the natural progression of state constitutions. Livy definitely would not agree that “the second [internal evolution] pursues a regular sequence” (The Rise of the Roman Empire, VI. 57). As long as the people’s economic burdens and social responsibilities do not reach a certain threshold, natural revolutions and changes in government, as portrayed by Polybius, will not occur. In Livy’s history, the origin of monarchy and republic involves a delicate power struggle between two antagonistic parties—the rulers against the emerging ambitious class. Each party developed methods to acquire plebeian support and loyalty. Kings constructed religious monuments and adopted symbols of power to ally themselves with the gods. For example, Numa invented a goddess because “he could not win them [people] over without some miraculous fiction” (The Rise of Rome, I. 19). Through these practices, the ruling class created an aura of factuality to brainwash the plebeians into believing that the rulers inherently deserved their status quo. Under the influence of a capable leader with persuasive rhetoric, however, the plebeians gained hope and desire to improve their living conditions. Brutus’ sentimental speech, for instance, “brought his listeners to such a pitch of fury that they revoked the king’s power and ordered the exile of Lucius Tarquinius” (I. 59). In his accounts of the origins of monarchy and republic, Livy highlights distinct conflicts, which usually involved the clash of interests from different groups of people. Polybius and Livy have different explanations for the monarchy’s origin. In his myth about Romulus, Livy shows that Romulus triumphed in a merciless competition for power. Romulus became the monarch by divine order rather than using “the weight of his authority to support the views of the majority” (The Rise of the Roman Empire, VI. 6). Contrary to Livy, Polybius believes that the first monarch must embody superior and noble quality. In addition, familial jealousies dominated the political stage in the reigns of Tarquinius Priscus, Tullius, and Tarquinius Superbus. Eventually, the clash of interests between the kings and senators led to monarchy’s downfall. For example, Tullius satisfied the citizens’ needs while angering the senators. On the other hand, Tarquinius Superbus won approval from senators of lesser families but then “allow[ed] the custom to lapse of asking advice of the senate on all matters” (The Rise of Rome, I. 49). The Roman monarchy’s survival depended on the careful distribution of power among the king, the senate, and the plebeians. The reasons for the monarchy’s failure are not as straightforward as the natural progression from monarchy to aristocracy described by Polybius. Besides the foundation of monarchy, Livy’s account of the republic’s origin does not agree with Polybius’ theory. Livy would not support Polybius’ statement “the principal factor which makes for success or failure is the form of a state’s constitution” (The Rise of the Roman Empire, VI. 2). Leadership and oratory skills were deemed more crucial to establishing the republic. The senators mesmerized the masses using political rhetoric so they could remain in power. They started wars with neighbors and reaped the rewards of victory. Short-lived peace and external conflicts distracted the masses from internal problems. For example, the aristocratic dictator Marcus Furius Camillus catered to upper class interests. When the Gauls attacked, the senate “begged him not to leave the state in such an unsettled condition” (The Rise of Rome, V. 49). He saved a Rome that was desperately in peril, despite his strict punishments and his lack of popularity among the plebeians. “[W]hen the dictator arrived, all ranks of society thronged to greet him…and his triumph was celebrated on a scale far grander than was customary” because he was necessary to Rome’s survival (V. 23). Not allowing internal evolution to run its course, Livy proves that personal abilities are essential for a savvy politician to acquire power.Roman political struggles were definitely not as well defined as in Polybius’ simplistic outline of cycling political power. The Polybian cycle is too general to explain the origins of monarchy and republic. While the abolition of monarchy might have benefited the plebeians, the political arena was dominated by the wealthy and powerful. After exiling kings, the senators were always in the upstream position to profit from Rome’s expansion. The Falisci acknowledged the senators by saying, “Senators, defeated by you and your commander in a victory that neither god nor man can grudge, we surrender ourselves to you” (V. 27). Yet, the masses were only occasionally satisfied by “slaughtering the enemy and plundering the great riches” (V. 21). They became exceptional fighters not because they would “endure anything to win a reputation for valour in their country” (The Rise of the Roman Empire, VI. 52). Instead, the republic made Romans engage in constant warfare because “the liberty of the plebs was better served in war than in peace and among the enemy than among citizens” (The Rise of Rome, II. 23). Otherwise, the mob would soon turn its attention to the decay and corruption at home. Thus, regular natural progression did not drive the political changes presented by Livy. These changes depended on qualified rulers’ efforts to maintain a stable empire undergoing rapid expansion. While Polybius wrote The Rise of the Roman Empire through the lens of a political theorist, Livy was more interested in the deeds and the people who brought about monumental sociopolitical changes. Under the influence of Augustan imperialism, Livy could not support Polybius’ theory of cyclic changes and revolution. In accordance with the fervid atmosphere of Roman nationalism under Augustus, Livy persisted in making Rome seem eternal and indestructible. His history, full of myths about the characters that participated in the Roman spectacle, coincides with the purpose of the Ara Pacis rather than Polybius’ theory. Through his books, he built a splendid monument to conserve an endangered sense of morality against time’s decay and Rome’s eventual downfall.

A Comparison of Tullus Hostilius and L. Tarquinius Superbus

Livy’s Rise of Rome is a history of Rome’s early years, bringing to the modern reader a glimpse of the civilization’s vast mythology. Its stories are populated with a rich cast of mystical kings, heroic champions, and malicious villains, who come together to form a vivid, dynamic image of Rome’s creation. Of these characters, two of the most intriguing are Tullus Hostilius and L. Tarquinius Superbus, a pair of kings who ruled approximately a century apart. Despite their similarities, Livy portrays Tullus Hostilius in a far more positive light than L. Tarquinius Superbus, citing both his honourable approach to war and his benevolent style of governance.

Tullus and Tarquin are, above all, very similar characters. Both are very combative figures, either leading Rome into battle or using violence for personal gain. This is in stark contrast to their respective predecessors– Numa Pompilius before Tullus, and Servius Tullius before Tarquin– both of whom were known for their peaceful regimes. The two also share the same influences behind their warlike actions: their famous ancestors, his grandfather in Tullus’ case and his father in Tarquin’ case. As Livy says, “[Tullus’] mettlesome nature was the product of youth, strength, and awareness of his grandfather’s prowess,” (I.22) while for Tarquin the entire reason why he seized power was because he felt his father’s blood gave him the right. Finally, both of them did much to expand Rome’s influence, with Tullus uniting the kingdom with Alba, and Tarquin building new colonies to house the plebeians, as well as bringing all the Latin states under his control.

Despite these parallels between the two characters, at heart they are very different men: Tullus embodies honourable Roman values, and while he may not be perfect, he is certainly more of a leader than the treacherous, cowardly Tarquin. This is first evident in their motivations: while Tullus fights for the glory of Rome, Tarquin does so for his own gain. When Tullus ascends to the throne, the reason why he seeks out opportunities for Rome to wage war is because he thinks the state is becoming “weak from inaction” (I.22) under Numa Pompilius’ reign. Tarquin, on the other hand, “[makes] and [unmakes] war, peace, treaties, and alliances as he [pleases],” (I.49) purely at whim, and with no deeper motivation to improve Rome’s status. Tullus’ superiority as a ruler is also evident in his actual approach to conflict: he fights with honour and discipline, whereas Tarquin uses treachery and deception. The only time Tullus’ actions are ever described as deceptive is when he tricks the city of Alba into declaring war on Rome– yet even this is for the kingdom’s benefit, as he does it to lay the blame for the war on Alba, and get the gods on Rome’s side (I.22). Furthermore, not only does Tullus try to be honourable himself, he also doesn’t support treachery among his allies: notably, after Mettius retreats during the battle against Fidenae and Veii, Tullus has him physically split in half, just as his loyalties were during the battle (I.28). In contrast, whenever Tarquin comes into conflict with someone, he is either too cowardly or too weak to face them head-on, and thus resorts to traps and deception. For instance, when Turnus Herdonius offends him during a meeting of the Latin heads of state, Tarquin frames him for plotting to kill everyone present, and has him executed– when Tullus does the same to Mettius, at least he has a valid reason (I.51). On another occasion, when Tarquin was attempting to take the city of Gabii by force, he “could not carry on a successful siege after being repulsed from the walls, [and] fell back on a wholly un-Roman stratagem, deceit and treachery” (I.53), having his son Sextus infiltrate the city and gradually kill off its leaders. Finally, Tullus follows the Roman tradition of being kind to defeated enemies, while Tarquin relies on fear. Even after executing Mettius and demolishing his city, Alba, Tullus invites all of the now-homeless Albans to live in Rome, giving them citizenship, extending the city to accommodate them, adding their noble families to the Senate, establishing new military units for them (I.30). Tarquin, on the other hand, tries to cow his enemies into submission, ranging from his own people to hostile Latin states.

Another aspect of the two kings that differentiates them is their style of governance outside of the military: while both undertook great building projects and left an impact on the city after they left it, that impact is far more positive for Tullus than for Tarquin. In terms of construction, the main difference is their motivation– Tullus’ projects are mainly for the benefit of the Alban people moving into Rome, including extensions of the city around the Caelian Hill to house them, and the Curia Hostilia to accommodate the enlarged Senate (I.30). As for Tarquin, while his Temple of Jupiter may be grander and more ambitious, his entire reason for building it is personal glory, to the point where his funds are “scarcely enough to pay for the cost of the foundation” (I.55), and he doesn’t even have enough left to pay for labourers. This leads to his use of plebeian conscription, essentially using his own citizens as slave labour to build edifices to himself– certainly not the mark of a selfless leader. Aside from construction, Tullus was also superior in his relationship with his subjects, who trust him a lot more than they do Tarquin. For instance, after Horatius, the hero who saved Rome from Alba, commits the crime of killing his sister, the people immediately bring him before Tullus, trusting in the judgement of their king on how to handle the situation (I.26). When the Alban army retreats during the battle against Fidenae, such is the trust that the Roman soldiers have in their king that they still do not lose hope, “[thinking] it [is] all part of Tullus’ plan, and so [fight] all the harder” (I.27). Even when Tullus, driven mad by sickness, becomes extremely religious and superstitious, “the people [begin] to follow his lead as well” (I.31). Tarquin and the Roman people have no such bond– he knows that they bear no affection towards him, to the extent that he feels the need to surround himself with an armed escort at all times (I.49). In return, Tarquin shows the people no trust or respect either: he sets up a charade of a law court with himself as the sole judge, doling out punishments to “execute, exile, and fine not just those he suspected or disliked, but those from whom he wanted nothing but their money” (I.49). He marries his daughter to the Latin king Octavius Mamilius of Tusculum, to protect his throne against his own people through foreign alliances (I.49). And even after using the plebeians as slave labour to build his temple, he has the nerve to send many of them off to the colonies of Signia and Circeii, feeling their “large numbers to be a burden on the city” (I.56).

It is clear that Tullus Hostilius is a superior leader to L. Tarquinius Superbus, despite whatever similarities they may share. Yet, in the end, no matter how noble Tullus was in battle or how well he treated his people, it was still he who died of the gods’ wrath, struck down by Jove’s thunderbolt. And as for Tarquin, he died in exile and disgrace, his dynasty overthrown and his kingdom overtaken. The two men, so different in life, were equal in death.