Home Page Home Page
Lecture 7B -- Polybius and Livy Lecture

Polybius & Livy

Today is citizenship day in our class. In honor of that, let's begin with a passage from "Rip Van Winkle."

Having nothing to do at home, and being arrived at that happy age when a man can do nothing with impunity, he took his place once more on the bench, at the inn door, and was reverenced as one of the patriarchs of the village, and a chronicle of the old times "before the war." It was some time before he could get into the regular track of gossip, or could be made to comprehend the strange events that had taken place during his torpor. How that there had been a revolutionary war-that the country had thrown off the yoke of old England-and that, instead of being a subject of his Majesty, George III, he was now a free citizen of the United States.

The change in the relationship between the individual and the state (from a subject of the king to a citizen of the republic) was at the time so revolutionary that Winkle had trouble grasping the concept. We, however, have lived so long as a republic that we sometimes forget what's necessary for us as citizens to give back if our republic is to endure.

A successful republic has numerous ingredients, but two necessary ones are the republican form of government, which we find in Polybius and many other sources, and the republican (small 'r') citizen, whose virtues are embodied in the stories we find in Livy.

I. Polybius

We can't really know who we are if we forget where we came from. Yet there is widespread confusion among some of our fellow citizens about the origin of our system. For example, consider the painting "One Nation Under God" by Jon McNaughton, an artist who sells bad art to dumb people. In his imagination, Jesus handed down the Constitution to the founders as a kind of divine inspiration. I suppose his thesis is that the United States is a Christian nation, as though such a thing were possible. So if our republican form of government didn't come floating down from heaven while angelic choirs sang in the background, where did it come from?

The answer of course is Rome. Ancient Rome famously booted out its last rex (king), and replaced the monarchy with the republican government:

2 consuls
10 tribunes

If this looks familiar, it should. We replaced the consuls with a president and vice-president. The tribunal power was to limit the other powers by forbidding it - the Latin word is veto. The president has the tribunal power to block bills from taking effect, and the judiciary has the tribunal power to limit what powerful people can do the the weak. There the power is called habeas corpus. Our Senate is based on Rome's Senate, obviously, and the House of Representatives is based on the Comita. And Rome was exceedingly proud of its legal system. Justinian eventually systematized Roman law into a code (as opposed to a mishmash of sometimes contradictory laws that had been cobbled together ad hoc over the centuries) into the Justinian Code. Later still it was systematized once again by Napoleon into the Napoleonic Code. Louisiana adopted the civil portion of the code; Rome is never very far away.

So why Rome? Because it's always Rome.

It's ALWAYS Rome.

It's always Rome.

So then why is it always Rome? Consider the ancient world for a moment: ancient Sumer gave way to the Babylonians, the Perians, and eventually to Islamic rulers; each civilization led to one more advanced than the one before. Egypt was followed by Greece - Alexandria, Egypt was built in honor of Alexander the Great and was the greatest center of learning of its time. Then Rome followed and eventually the Islamic countries. And similar processions of civilizations occurred in Japan, China, India, etc. Until you get to the Western Roman Empire. When it collapsed, the following period came to be known as the Dark Ages. A period which lasted for hundreds of years. The little flicker of civilization that survived during those centuries was the Catholic Church, headquartered in Rome.

The attempts to rebuild civilization all sought in some way to re-establish Rome. From the Holy Roman Empire forward, there were attempts to re-kindle civilization. When the Euro was introduced in 2002, the speaker pointed out that this was the first Europe-wide currency. Since Rome. And now the Euro is mired in crisis. Sometimes it takes a long time indeed to put Humpty Dumpty together again.

Western conservatism is rooted in the belief that civilization is a fragile edifice, like a Jenga block, and that changes should be moderate and careful lest the whole thing collapse. Of course, in current America we see a form of right-wing radicalism that plays Jenga with bowling balls. Their radical plans for extreme experimenting with society and no clear path to a positive outcome do not belong to any recognizable form of conservatism. And if our civilization collapses, this time it will be the Dark Ages with nukes. Soooo — are you feeling lucky, punk?


Giant Jenga fail.

“They call it Daylight Savings. They said it would help the farmers. They didn’t expect it to destroy everything else.”

II. Livy

The question then is, which Roman do we wish to become? The answer most often has been Caesar. The Holy Roman Empire led up to a Holy Roman Emperor. Napoleon had himself crowned Emperor and First Consul, just to cover his bases. This ambition affected the very languages involved. What do the German 'Kaiser' and the Russian 'Tsar' have in common? Both words are derived from 'Caesar.' Caesar started as a name, but after his death, Octavian adopted the name as his own, and it gradually became a title.

In contrast to these examples, the leader of the young United States chose other Roman heroes. Heroes like the first Brutus (not the one who assassinated Caesar; the one who set up the Republic and served as one of the first two consuls). George Washington took as his personal hero Cincinnatus. Cincinnatus was a Roman senator and general. When word reached Rome that they were threatened by imminent attack, the Senate appointed him dictator for 6 months. Because their system of government was so inefficient (by design), the dictator had absolute power over all the elements of government and could pass laws, try people, and exile or execute them. The messengers found him plowing his field (the plow is behind him in the statue below). The gave him the fasces that represented his power (in his right hand). He took over the army, repelled the enemy quickly, and with months of absolute power ahead of him -- resigned his commission and returned to his plow. Washington followed his example twice; once at the end of the Revolutionary War, and the next time after the second term of his presidency. Since the USA eventually amended the Constitution to limit a President to two terms because of Washington's example, Cincinnatus has influenced our constitution. This is one example of good citizenship from the ancient world making its impact on American ideas of citizenship. Livy is full of dozens of these.


Early Americans were constantly studying ancient Roman virtues, which they called civic virtue or republican virtue. It usually involved putting Rome's welfare ahead of their own welfare and self-interest. Romans were deeply suspicious of the consolidation of too much power in the hands of too few people. In many area, leaders were put on a pedestal -- Gilgamesh was 2/3s god, the Pharoah was the incarnation of divinity on earth, the king of Israel was a Messiah chosen by God and anointed by his prophet. The Roman rulers were mere mortals chosen by their fellow citizens. Not God but the Godfather. It's from the Romans we got the concept of the consent of the governed and that authority comes up from the bottom instead of down from the top. The later example of the Emperor should warn us that when we hand all our power over to a few rich people or powerful politicians, we might be a long time getting it back. When you read Livy, you aren't simply learning his stories or Rome's stories; you're learning about yourself and your country.

Every moment think steadily as a Roman and a man to do what thou hast in hand with perfect and simple dignity, and feeling of affection, and freedom, and justice; and to give thyself relief from all other thoughts. And thou wilt give thyself relief, if thou doest every act of thy life as if it were the last, laying aside all carelessness and passionate aversion from the commands of reason, and all hypocrisy, and self-love, and discontent with the portion which has been given to thee. Thou seest how few the things are, the which if a man lays hold of, he is able to live a life which flows in quiet, and is like the existence of the gods; for the gods on their part will require nothing more from him who observes these things.

Maucus Aurelius

It's almost impossible to overestimate the importance of Rome to the founders. Just as Rome was named for its pater patriae (father of the country), Romulus, the new country built a capital city named for our pater patriae, Washington. When they bought the land for D.C., one of the farmers they bought it from renamed a creek through his land the Tibur. (Note to McNaughton, it wasn't renamed the Jordon, and the city wasn't named Jerusalem.) They hired eminent French architect Pierre "Peter" Charles L'Enfant to design the new city; Jefferson, who was assigned to work with him, told him to make it look like Rome. The main public buildings in Washington from that time and for decades thereafter remind us of Rome. The Lincoln Memorial is a Doric Temple. Even McNaughton's distressingly bad art fails to completely eliminate the Roman influence from the background. This is not a secret that we need Nick Cage to excavate from underneath the Capitol Building; the buildings scream it. It's also on our money (check the back of the $1.00 bill. There's Latin on it. What verses of the Bible does the Latin come from? Take the challenge!) The statue in the New York harbor isn't a statue of Moses freeing the Israelites; it's the old Roman goddess Dea Libertas; when ancient Roman slaves achieved their freedom, they underwent the ritual of manumission in the temple of Dea Libertas in Rome. If you examine the feet of the Statue of Liberty, you'll see her feet are surrounded by the broken chains of freed slaves.

Finally, the Romans measured years by A.U.C. (Anno Urbis Conditae, from the Founding of the City). Early Americans experimented with a new dating system, A.I.A. (Anno Independentiae Americanae, in the year of American independence). This dating system is still preserved in obscure documents like the United States Constitution ("done in Convention by the Unanimous Consent of the States present the Seventeenth Day of September in the Year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and Eighty seven and of the Independance of the United States of America the Twelfth In witness whereof We have hereunto subscribed our Names") and the Gettysburg Address ("Four score and seven years ago").

I teach the civic virtues of Rome because they are under a systematic attack in our nation by forces that want our people to forget that power comes from us, and that we can take that power back from the ones who want to put all that power into the hands of some new emperor. If you want to destroy a republic, convince the citizens to give up their civic virtue.

Home Page
Home Page