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How Livy Saved Rome from the Polybian Cycle

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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.

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