How Livy Saved Rome From The Polybian Cycle

Polybius argues that “the inexorable march of nature is all we need to convince us of this proposition” (The Rise of the Roman Empire). 57). He argues that the gradual succession of Roman constitutions promoted political stability. Livy argues that, contrary Polybius’ theory, the political evolution of a nation is unpredictable. Livy demonstrates in The Rise of Rome that political revolutions change the moral and social behavior of the public. Polybius didn’t believe in the destined nature of political change, but Livy does. Livy immortalizes certain historical events in order to highlight the importance moral values.

We should first recognize that Livy’s and Polybius’ approach to writing Rome’s history is similar. They want to explain the rise of Rome as a world power and see it as an unprecedented historical event. Polybius describes Rome’s “irresistible ability to achieve the goals that it sets for itself”. Livy aims to “celebrate…the greatness of Rome” (18) (The Rise of Rome). They show that Rome’s superiority and success is due to a government that functions well. Polybius explains the different forms of states in a logical way, while Livy provides a broad monumentum that gives broader insight into human history. However, their beliefs and methodologies about what motivates political changes are different.

Polybius’ natural cycle of changes in government types, compared to Livy’s tales, simplifies Rome’s political turmoil. Polybius is convinced that mob-rule will eliminate aristocracy. Livy ascribes, however the rape Lucretia was the singular event that triggered republican dawn (I). 59). Polybius claims that in a democratic system, “the citizens are not willing to install a king once again because they fear the injustices of the past monarchs” 9). Livy contradicts that statement, stating that most people weren’t prepared for a radical government change despite Brutus. The Roman senators were afraid “the plebs could in their terror accept a monarchical government” (The Rise of Rome, 2). 9). Livy’s writings are not only biased, but also dramatic. Livy’s theory is universally applicable, but he focuses on Roman-directed change.

Livy has a certain obsession for Rome’s enormous achievements. This is contrary to Polybius who presents his theory in a neutral manner. Livy focuses on the achievements of the powerful and ignores their plight. He believes that ordinary citizens are minor players and have little ambition in politics. Natalia King explains that Livy exemplifies the power of the individual to affect real change. He exaggerates the strength of military leadership and select individuals’ brilliance. He describes the transition from monarchy into republic as an elite member of Roman society transferring power. In the early days of the Roman Republic, members of royal families bearing the name Tarquin were not only present in the State, but were even its heads. 2). The republic was nothing but a way to consolidate power in the hands aristocrats. Livy, with her inherent bias towards the powerful, cannot be reconciled with Polybius.

Livy pays attention more to powerful men and also preserves personal achievements and failures whereas Polybius’s cycle of changes overshadows it. Polybius tries to find universal principles that can guide political change. The theory of the cyclical governments is an attempt to define a general causal pattern. It aims to explain “by what means and which political institutions the world almost fell under the Rome’s rule” (The Rise of the Roman Empire. 2). He doesn’t focus on specific individuals who made drastic changes to Rome. Livy immortalizes important episodes in order to demonstrate the virtues of Rome. To emphasize Rome’s immortality, he recite the heroic deeds performed by powerful leaders. Livy quotes Camillus who says that Rome was “where the unearthing of human heads once marked the spot where the empire would be and the head of the globe” (The Rise of Rome V. 54). Livy argues that Rome’s natural decay is not happening. He thinks that a leader ambitious enough to be able to inspire a large section of society into action is more likely to succeed. Livy believes that human activity is more important than state constitutions in influencing political change.

Livy, however, would disagree that “the internal evolution [second] is a regular process” (The Rise of the Roman Empire). 57). Polybius depicts that as long the people’s social and economic responsibilities don’t reach a threshold, no natural changes will occur in government. In Livy’s historical account, the birth of monarchy or republic was a delicate battle between antagonistic parties: the ruling class and the new ambitious class. Each side developed strategies to gain the loyalty and support of the plebeians. Kings used religious symbols and built monuments as a way to gain the support of the gods. Numa, as an example, created a fictional goddess in order to win over the people (The Rise of Rome, I). 19). By using these techniques, the ruling classes created an aura based on factuality that brainwashed plebeians to believe they were entitled to their current state. The plebeians were able to gain hope and motivation by listening to a leader who was able to use persuasive rhetoric. Brutus, for example, in his sentimental speech “stood up the audience to a level of fury so that they revoked King’s authority and ordered Lucius Tarquinius’ exile” (I. 59). Livy describes the origins both of monarchy as well as republicanism. He highlights the different conflicts, most of which were caused by conflicting interests.

Polybius has a different view of how the monarchy came into being. Livy’s Romulus myth shows how Romulus defeated a merciless power competition. Romulus became the ruler by divine command, not using his “authority to support the opinions of the majority”. 6). Polybius does not agree with Livy and believes the first monarch has to embody superiority and nobleness. Tarquinius Superbus and Tarquinius Superiscus were ruled by jealousies between their families. The clash of interests among kings, senators and their respective interests led to the fall of the monarchy. Tullius, for example, satisfied citizens’ demands while angering senators. Tarquinius Superbus gained the approval of senators of less powerful families. However, he “let the custom of consulting the senate about all issues” (The Rise of Rome). 49). The Roman monarchy was only able to survive because the power was carefully distributed between the king and the senate. The reasons that the monarchy fell apart aren’t as obvious as Polybius describes the transition from monarchy towards aristocracy.

Livy disagrees with Polybius on many points, including the founding of monarchy. Livy disagreed with Polybius when he said “the main factor that determines whether a government succeeds or fails is the state’s constitution.” (The Rise of the Roman Empire). 2). For the establishment of a republic, leadership and oratory were considered more important. Senators used political rhetoric to hypnotize the people and stay in power. They began wars and won. Peace and external conflict were short-lived, but they distracted the people from their own problems. Marcus Furius Camillus, an aristocratic ruler, catered primarily to the interests of upper-classes. The senate pleaded with him to stay in Rome when the Gauls invaded (The Rise of Rome v. 49). The plebeians did not like him and he was harshly punished, but he saved Rome from a dire situation. “[W]hen he arrived, the whole of society came to welcome him…and he was greeted with a triumph far more grand than usual” (V. 23) because he was essential to Rome’s existence. Livy shows that a politician who is savvy must have personal qualities to succeed.

Polybius did not accurately describe the Roman political battles as he simplified them in his simplistic outline. Polybius’ cycle of political power is too broad to explain the beginnings of monarchy or republic. The abolition may have benefitted the plebeians but the political arena remained dominated the powerful and wealthy. The senators were in a position of advantage after exiling the kings. The Falisci recognized the senators saying, “Senators. You and your commander defeated in a battle that neither man nor god can be angry with, we submit ourselves to” (V.27). But the masses were rarely satisfied by “slaying enemies and plundering their great wealth” (V.21). They were not exceptional fighters just because they were willing to “do anything” in order to gain a reputation of valour within their country (The Rise of the Roman Empire – VI). 52). The republic forced Romans to engage in constant war because “the freedom of the plebs is better served by war than peace, and between enemies than citizens” (The Rise of Rome II). 23). In this case, the mob’s attention would be drawn to decay and corruption within the country. Livy’s political change was not driven by the natural progress. These changes were dependent on the efforts of qualified rulers to maintain an empire that was rapidly expanding.

Livy’s interest in the social and political changes that were brought about by the revolutionaries was greater than Polybius. Livy was unable to support Polybius’ theory about cyclic revolutions and changes under Augustan imperialism. Livy remained faithful to the Roman nationalist atmosphere under Augustus by making Rome seem indestructible and eternal. In his rich history of characters in the Roman show, Livy focuses on the Ara Pacis, not Polybius. His books were a monument that he created to protect a moral sense against the decay of Rome and time.


  • bensonsimpson

    Hi! I'm Benson Simpson, a 35-year-old educational blogger and teacher. I write about educational topics such as student motivation, creativity, and effective teaching techniques. I also run a blog about creativity and learning, which you can find at



Hi! I'm Benson Simpson, a 35-year-old educational blogger and teacher. I write about educational topics such as student motivation, creativity, and effective teaching techniques. I also run a blog about creativity and learning, which you can find at