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The Quest for Power

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           Power is a very prominent theme throughout Livy’s The History of Rome and Herodotus’ On the War for Greek Freedom. In The History of Rome, Livy talks extensively about the power struggles between the plebeians and patricians. He also is able to do a great job with portraying how citizens were able to get power and what citizens would do to keep it once they attained it. Herodotus, because he wrote primarily on the Persian War, is able to go into great detail about the Persian monarchy as well as the power struggles between the Athenians and the Spartans during the Persian War. Combined, these two writers are able to give the readers a complete description of the politics in ancient. Judging by the actions taken by politicians, opposing classes, and nations regarding power, one can conclude that it is in human nature to aim for as much power as possible and to make sure that one’s voice is being heard.



           This greed for power, and affection with it once a man has it, made many citizens in ancient times do things that most would consider unethical. Although Herodotus and Livy both show that it is human nature to be power hungry, the reasons (and ways) the people went about acquiring the power were very different. 


           Herodotus shows this thirst for power when talking about Astyages and his daughter’s child, Cyrus. “He dreamed that a vine grew from his daughter’s genitals and overshadowed the whole of Asia…When she [his daughter] arrived, he kept her under guard, intending to destroy the child, for the Magi had told him that his daughter’s child would displace him from the throne” (Herodotus, 1.108). Astyages’ was willing to kill his grandson just to keep the throne that he would eventually have to give because of a dream that had been interpreted. Astyages’ actions also show the animal instincts within mankind (survival) that allows humans to make rash decisions. Not only would his decision to try and kill his daughter’s child, Cyrus, come back to haunt him later on, but in the context of things, his actions make little sense. Astyages was very young when he inherited the throne after his father, Cyaxares, died and Herodotus makes no reference to an heir for Astyages. This begs the question, why would Astyages kill a potential successor if he did not have one yet? Astyages’ greed for power, and keeping power for as long as possible, made it acceptable in his eyes to kill his grandson. He was afraid that Cyrus would force his way to the throne as soon as possible and Astyages wanted to rule for as long as possible without any interruptions. 


           However, not all people use greed as a reason to go after power. In Cyrus’ case, it was out of revenge. When Cyrus is older, he is talked into killing Astyages in order to become king by Harpagus. Harpagus’ helped in Astyages’ takedown because he wanted revenge (Herodotus, 1.124). Harpagus was commanded by Astyages to kill Cyrus when he was a baby but he refused. Because he refused his king’s orders, Astyages killed Harpagus’ son and was able to trick Harpagus into eating him. Harpagus was able to convince Cyrus to kill Astyages and become king by telling him that Astyages intended to kill Cyrus as a baby in order to protect his reign. “Take revenge on your would-be murderer. If he had had his way, you would have died” (Herodotus, 1.124). Unlike Astyages using greed as a reason to kill Cyrus in his quest to remain king, the only reason Cyrus became king was revenge. Cyrus knew that Astyages loved power and his kingship more than anything; so taking it away from him would be a worthwhile punishment. In fact, Cyrus allowed the would-be murderer to stay at court until he passed away. Cyrus was moved by revenge instead of Astyages’ taking action because of greed. 


           Greed pushing people in their quests for (more) power is also very prevalent in Livy’s The History of Rome. Tanaquil, the wife of Lucumo (Lucius Tarquinius Priscus), was annoyed that she was married into a lesser family. Because power and status meant so much to her, she convinced Tarquinius to move to Rome because it would be easier to rise to power than in a place where their family was not highly regarded. “Provided that she could see her husband in a position of honor, she got the idea of leaving Tarquinii. Rome seemed to be the most promising place for her purpose. Among a new people, where nobility was quickly acquired and based on merit, there would, she reckoned be room for a brave and energetic man” (Livy, 1.34). Tanaquil was able to convince her husband to move to Rome because of her lust for power. Rome presented the easiest opportunity to get influence and power.    


           After Tarquinius’ family moved to Rome, they immediately rose in power. He was recognized by the king, and eventually became a close family friend, due to his “friendliness, courteous hospitality, and generosity” (52). Tarquinius used bribery to get more power. Tanaquil said that Rome was the easiest place to get power, and she was correct.  Although he did not receive a position of power within the government immediately, his friendship with the king undoubtedly helped him secure the kingship after the king passed away. 


           After Tarquinius was killed, his son, Tarquinius Superbus, did not take over the throne; instead, it was his son-in-law, Servius Tullius. Believing that he should have been king de facto after his father was murdered, Superbus caused an uproar and rallied support for his kingship. Similar to the way Tanaquil manipulated Priscus to go after the kingship in Rome, Superbus’ wife was able to persuade Superbus that he should be king. 




If you are the man that I think I married, I salute you both as a husband and kin. But if not, then the situation has changed for the worse for crime is compounded by cowardice. Why don’t you rouse yourself to action? Your household gods, the gods of your ancestors, your father’s image, the royal palace and the royal throne in your home, and the name of Tarquin declare and summon you to be king. (Livy, 1.47)



After this, Superbus decided that he should go after the kingship because, according to his wife, it was rightfully his. His wife was able to spur the greed and yearning for power that he has shown, in the past, he wanted. This longing for power led to Superbus killing Servius (Livy, 1.48) and Superbus’ eventual kingship.


           Superbus was eventually removed from the monarchy, and exiled, after he raped Lucretia. However, this did not prevent him from trying to get his power back; once he had a taste of power, and realized everything he could do with the kingship, Superbus was not going to let it go without a fight. “So, he went as a suppliant to the cities of Etruria, begging the people of Veii and Tarquinii…he wanted to regain his country and throne, and to punish his ungrateful citizens” (Livy, 2.6). The Etruscans lost the war and were unable to help Tarquin. Superbus then begs “Lars Porsenna of Clusium to make war on Rome and restore the monarchy” (Livy, 2.9). Porsenna also fails to come through as he also loses the war. Even after losing the war, Porsenna and Tarquin contacted Rome and tried to get the kingship returned. “This year was the last time an embassy came to Rome from Porsenna to discuss the restoration of Tarquin to the kingship” (Livy, 2.15). Tarquin’s multiple attempts to restore the monarchy in Rome, and thus becoming king again show his insatiable lust for power. The Romans had already moved on from the monarchy and even though he knew that, Superbus did not give up in his quest for power. 


           In Herodotus’ text and Livy’s text, there are multiple examples of people going after power and trying to keep power. However, the biggest differences are that in The History of Rome, the citizens are pushed more by greed; whereas in On the War for Greek Freedom, the quest for power began out of fear and revenge. It is very interesting that it was not the men in Livy’s text that were really interesting in acquiring power. Tanaquil and Superbus’ wife were the ones who put the idea of kingship and power into their respective husband’s minds. However, the end results, and reasons behind the actions, were the same. The examples show that to receive as much power as possible, and hold it for as long as possible, is the most important goal in ancient times. Through the means of manipulation, revenge, and greed, families’ places in society rose. Once the families had the ultimate power, they did not want to let it go. This is evident with Astyages trying to kill Cyrus who was destined to displace him from the throne as well as with Tarquinius Superbus who kept trying to return the monarchy, and his family to its royal place, in Rome after he was exiled and the monarchy was removed. Without this greed for power and a higher place in society, man would not evolve because there would be no competition between people. Although the end goal might be to have as much power as possible, the ways leaders got their powers (and the reasons why they wanted it) were very different.

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