1902 Encyclopedia > Polybius

Greek historian of the Hellenistic Period
(c. 203-120 BC)

POLYBIUS, the historian, was a native of Megalopolis in Arcadia, the youngest of Greek cities (Paus. viii. 9), but one which played an honourable part in the last days of Greek freedom as a staunch member of the Achaean league. Polybius's father Lycortas was the intimate friend of Philopcemen, himself also a citizen of Megalopolis, and on the death of the latter, in 182 B.C., succeeded him as leader of the league. The date of Polybius's birth can only be fixed approximately. He tells us himself that in 181 he had not yet reached the age ("o 30 years, Polyb., xxix. 9) at which an Achaean was legally capable of holding office (xxiv. 6). We learn from Cicero (Ad Fam., v. 12) that he outlived the Nu-mantine war, which ended in 132, and from Lucian (Macrob., 22) that he died at the age of eighty-two. We may therefore follow the majority of authorities in placing his birth between 214 and 204 B.C. Little is known of his early life. As the son of Lycortas he was naturally brought into close contact with the leading men of the Achaean league. With the foremost of them, Philopcemen, he seems to have been on intimate terms. Plutarch (_____, 12) describes him as sitting at the feet of the great Achaean soldier, of whom Polybius himself always writes in terms of affectionate admiration; and after Philopce-men's tragic death in Messenia (182) he was entrusted with the honourable duty of conveying home the urn in which his ashes had been deposited (Plut., Phil., 21). The next year (181) witnessed what seems to have been his first entry into political life. Together with his father Lycortas and the younger Aratus, he was appointed, in spite of his youth, a member of the embassy which was to visit Ptolemy Epiphanes, king of Egypt,—a mission, however, which the sudden death of Ptolemy brought to a premature end (xxv. 7). The next twelve years of his life are a blank, but in 169 he reappears as a trusted adviser of the Achaeans at a difficult crisis in the history of the league. In 171 war had broken out between Rome and the Macedonian king Perseus, and the Achaean statesmen were divided as' to the policy to be pursued : to side with Macedon would have been suicidal; Lycortas himself was in favour of neutrality, but there were good reasons for fearing that the Roman senate would regard neutrality as indicating a secret leaning towards Macedon, and indeed both Lycortas and Polybius himself had already incurred suspicion at Rome on this ground. Polybius therefore declared for an open alliance with Rome, and his views were adopted. It was decided to send an Achaean force to cooperate with the Roman general. Polybius was selected to command the cavalry, and was at once despatched to the Roman camp tc-announce the decision of the league (xxviii. 10 sq.). The Roman consul declined the proffered assistance, but Polybius accompanied him throughout the campaign, and thus gained his first insight into the military system of Rome. On his return home he was able to render an important service to his countrymen by checking the unauthorized attempt of a Roman officer to raise troops in Achaia (xxviii. 13). In the next year (168) both Lycortas and Polybius were on the point of starting at the head of 1200 Achaeans to take service in Egypt against the Syrians, when an intimation from the Roman com-mander that armed interference was undesirable put a stop to the expedition (xxix. 23). The success of Rome in the war with Perseus was now assured, and it is possible that the readiness of Lycortas and Polybius to serve abroad was partly due to a belief that the fate of Macedon must soon be shared by Achaia. If this was so, the belief was but too well founded. The final defeat of Perseus was rapidly followed by the arrival in Achaia of Roman commissioners charged with the duty of securely establishing Roman interests there. As a result of their proceedings 1000 of the principal Achaeans were arrested and carried off to Italy. Polybius was among the number, but, while his companions were condemned to a tedious incarceration in the country towns of Italy, he obtained permission to reside in Rome. This privilege he owed to the influence of ^Emilius Paullus, and his two sons Scipio and Fabius (xxxii. 9), who seem to have made his acquaintance in Macedonia. At any rate Polybius was received into iEmilius's house, and became the instructor oof his sons (Appian, Pun., 132). Between Scipio, the future conqueror of Carthage, and himself a friendship soon sprung up which ripened into a lifelong intimacy. To the last Scipio so constantly relied upon the advice and ocounsel of Polybius that it could be said by the country-men of the latter that Scipio never failed when he followed the advice of his friend (Pausan., viii. 30). To Polybius himself his friendship with Scipio was not merely the chief pleasure of his life but of inestimable service to him throughout his career. It protected him from interfer-ence, opened to him the highest circles of Roman society, and enabled him to acquire a personal influence with the leading men, which stood him in good stead when he after-wards came forward to mediate between his countrymen and Rome. It placed within his reach opportunities for a oclose study of Rome and the Romans such as had fallen to no historian before him, and secured him the requisite leisure for using them, while Scipio's liberality more than once supplied him with the means of conducting difficult and costly historical investigations (Pliny, N. H., v. 9). In 151, after seventeen years of banishment, the few surviv-ing exiles were allowed to return to Greece. But the stay of Polybius in Achaiawas brief. The estimation in which he was held at Rome is clearly shown by the anxiety of the consul Mamilius (149) to take him as his adviser on his expedition against Carthage. Polybius started to join him, but broke off his journey at Corcyra on learning that the Carthaginians were inclined to yield and that war was unlikely (xxxvi. 3). But when, in 147, Scipio himself took the command in Africa, Polybius hastened to join him, and was an eye-witness of the siege and destruction of Carthage (Appian, Pun., 132). During his absence in Africa, the Achseans had made a desperate and ill-advised attempt to assert for the last time their independence of Rome,—a passionate outbreak which Polybius had dreaded, and which his presence might have prevented. As it was he returned in 146 to find Corinth in ruins, the fairest cities of Achaia at the mercy of the Roman soldiery, and the famous Achaean league shattered to pieces (Pol. ap. Strabo, p. 381). But there was still work to be done that he alone could do. All the influence he possessed was freely spent in endeavour-ing to shield his countrymen from the worst consequences of their rashness. The excesses of the soldiery were _checked, and at his special intercession the statues of Aratus and Philopcemen were preserved (xxxix. 14). An even more difficult task was that entrusted to him by the Roman authorities themselves, of persuading the Achseans to acquiesce in the new regime imposed upon them by their conquerors, and of setting the new machinery in working order. With this work, which he accomplished so as to earn the heartfelt gratitude of his countrymen (xxxix. 16), his public career seems to have closed. The rest of his life was, so far as we know, devoted to the great history which is the lasting monument of his fame. He died at the age of eighty-two of a fall from his horse (Lucian, Macrob., 22).

Of the forty books which made up the history of Polybius, the first five alone have come down to us in a complete form ; of the rest we have only more or less copious fragments. But as to the general plan and scope of the work there is no room for doubt, thanks mainly to the clearness with which they are explained by Polybius himself. The task which he set himself was that of making plain, for the instruction of his own and future generations, how and why it was that "all the known regions of the civilized world had fallen under the sway of Rome " (iii. 1). This empire of Rome, unprecedented in its extent and still more so in the rapidity with which it had been acquired, was the standing wonder of the age, and "who," he exclaims (i. 1), "is so poor-spirited or indolent as not to wish to know by what means, and thanks to what sort of constitution, the Romans subdued the world in something less than fifty-three years ? " These fifty-three years are those between 220 (the point at which the work of Aratus ended) and 168 r>.c, and extend therefore from the outbreak of the Hannibalic war to the defeat of Perseus at Pydna. To this period then the main portion of his history is devoted from the third to the thirtieth book inclusive. But for clearness' sake he prefixes in books i. and ii. such a preliminary sketch of the earlier history of Rome, of the first Punic "War, and of the contemporary events in Greece and Asia, as will enable his readers more fully to understand what follows. This seems to have been his original plan, but at the opening of book iii., written apparently after 146, he explains that he thought it desirable to add some account of the manner in which the Romans exercised the power they had won, of their tempera-ment and policy, and of the final catastrophe which destroyed Carthage and for ever broke up the Achsaan league (iii. 4, 5). To' this appendix, giving the history from 168-146, the last ten books are devoted.

Whatever fault may be found with Polybius, there can be no question that he had formed a high conception of the task before him, and of the manner in which it should be executed. He lays repeated stress on two qualities as distinguishing his history from the ordinary run of historical compositions. The first of these, its synoptic character, was partly necessitated by the nature of the period with which he was dealing. The interests, fortunes, and doings of all the various states fringing the basin of the Mediterranean had become so inextricably interwoven that it was no longer possible to deal with each of them in isolation. The his-torian must deal with this complex web of affairs as a whole, if he would be able either to understand or to explain it properly. Polybius therefore claims for his history that it will take a compre-hensive view of the whole course of events in the civilized world, within the limits of the period with which it deals (i. 4). In doing so he marks a new point of departure in historical writing, " for we have undertaken " he says '' to record, not the affairs of this or that people, like those who have preceded us, but all the affairs of the known world at a certain time." In other words, he aims at placing before his readers at each stage a complete survey of the field of action from Spain in the "West to Syria and Egypt in the East. This synoptic method proceeds from a true appreciation of what is now called the unity of history, and to Polybius must be given the credit of having first firmly grasped and clearly enforced a lesson which the events of his own time were especially well cal-culated to teach. Posterity too has every reason to be grateful, for, though, as will be seen later, this synoptic method frequently inter-feres with the symmetry and continuity of his narrative, yet it has given us such a picture of the 2d and 3d centuries before Christ as no series of special narratives could have supplied.

The second quality upon which Polybius insists as distinguishing his history from all others is its "pragmatic" character. It deals, that is, with events and with their causes, and aims at an accurate record and explanation of ascertained facts. This '' pragmatic method " (ix. 2) has a double value. First of all it makes history intelligible by explaining the how and the why; and, secondly, it is only when so written that history can perform its true function of instructing and guiding those who study it. For the great use of history according to Polybius is to contribute to the right conduct of human life (i. 35), by supplying a storehouse of experience for the assistance of those who will use it. But this it can only do if the historian bears in mind the true nature of his task. Above all things he must not content himself with merely writing a pleasant tale. He must remember that the historian should not write as the dramatist does to charm or excite his audience for the moment but to edify and instruct all serious students in the future (ii. 56). He will therefore aim simply at exhibiting events in their true light, setting forth "the why and the how" in each case, not con-fusing causes and occasions, or dragging in old wives' fables, prodi-gies, and marvels (ii. 16 ; iii. 48). He will omit nothing which can help to explain the events he is dealing with : the genius and temperament of particular peoples, their political and military systems, the characters of the leading men, the geographical features of the country, must all be taken into account. To this conception of the aim and methods of history Polybius is on the whole consistently faithful in practice. It is true that his anxiety to instruct leads often to a rather wearisome iteration of his favourite maxims, and that his digressions, such as that on the military art, are occa-sionally provokingly long and didactic. But his comments and reflexions are for the most part sound and instructive (e.g., those on the lessons to be learnt from the revolt of the mercenaries in Africa, i. 65; from the Celtic raids in Italy, ii. 35 ; and on the Roman character), while among his digressions are included such invaluable chapters as those on the Roman constitution (book vi.), the graphic description of Cisalpine Gaul (book ii.), and the account of the rise and constitution of the Achamn league (ii. 38 sq.). To his anxiety again to trace back events to their first causes we owe, not only the careful inquiry (book iii.) into the origin of the Second Punic "War, but the sketch of early Eoman history in book i., and of the early treaties between Rome and Carthage in iii. 22 sq. Among the many defects which he censures in previous historians, not the least serious in his eyes are their inattention to the political and geographical surroundings of the history (ii. 16 ; iii. 36V and their neglect duly to set forth the causes of events (iii. 6).

Polybius is equally explicit as regards the personal qualifications necessary for a good historian, and in this respect too his practice is in close agreement with his theory. He has a profound distrust of closet students and a profound belief in the value of a personal knowledge of affairs. Without such experience a writer will, he says, be guilty of endless blunders and omissions, and will inevitably distort the true relations and importance of events. History, he asserts, will not be satisfactorily written until either men of affairs undertake to write it, not as a piece of bye-work but as an honourable and necessary task, or until intending historians realize that some actual experience of affairs is indispensable (xii. 28). Such ex-perience would have saved accomplished and fluent Greek writers like Timfeus from many of their blunders (xii. 25a), but the short-comings of Roman soldiers and senators like Q. Fabius Pictor show that it is not enough by itself. Equally indispensable is careful painstaking research. All available evidence must be collected, thoroughly sifted, soberly weighed, and, lastly, the historian must be animated by a sincere love of truth and a calm impartiality. What follows where any or all of these conditions and qualifica-tions are absent Polybius illustrates abundantly in his frequent and scathing criticisms on previous writers. In the case of Timseus, against whom he seems to cherish a peculiar animosity, nearly all that remains of book xii. is devoted to an exposition of his short-comings. Q. Fabius Pictor and Philinus are charged both with ignorance of important facts and with partiality (i. 14 ; iii. 9), while in the second book Phylarchus's account of the war between the Achsean league and Cleomenes of Sparta is mercilessly dissected.

It is not possible here to discuss the question whether Polybius has been just to his predecessors ; it is more important to consider how far he himself comes up to the standard by which he has tried others. In his personal acquaintance with affairs, in the variety of his experience, and in his opportunities for forming a correct judgment on events he is without a rival among ancient historians. A great part of the period of which he treats fell within his own lifetime (iv. 2). He mayjust have remembered the battle of Cynoscephalse (197). He must have been sixteen or seventeen years old at least when the power of Antiochus was broken at Magnesia (189), while of the events from 168-146 he was, as he tells us (iii. 4), not only an eye-witness but a prominent actor in them all. As the son of Lyeortas he lived from his early youth in immediate contact with the foremost statesmen of the Pelopon-nesus, while between 181 and 168 he was himself actively engaged in the military and poiitical affairs of the Achsean league. The period of his exile in Rome served to add largely to his stores of experience : he was able to study at close quarters the working of the Roman constitution, and the peculiarities of the Roman temperament; he made the acquaintance of Roman senators, and became the intimate friend of the greatest Roman of the day. Lastly, he was able to survey with his own eyes the field on which the great struggle between Rome and Hannibal was fought out. He left Eome only to witness the crowning triumph of Roman arms in Africa, and to gain a practical acquaintance with Roman methods of government by assisting in the settlement of his own beloved Achaia. When, in 146, his public life closed, he completed his preparation of himself for his great work by laborious investigations of archives and monuments, and by a careful personal examination of historical sites and scenes. If to all this we add that he was deeply read in the learning of his day (/Elian, Tact. i., apvjp 7ro\u^afli)j), above all in the writings of earlier historians, we must confess that, as at once scholar, states-man, soldier, and man of the world, he was above all others fitted to write the history of the age of transition in which he lived.

Of Polybius's anxiety to get at the truth no better proof can be given than his conscientious investigation of original documents and monuments, and his careful study of geography and topography —both of them points in which his predecessors, as well as his suc-cessor Livy, conspicuously failed. Polybius is careful constantly to remind us that he writes for those who are 4"Xop.a9eis, lovers of knowledge, with whom truth is the first consideration. He closely studied the bronze tablets in Rome on which were inscribed the early treaties concluded between Romans and Carthaginians (see for these Rhcin. Mus., 32, 614; iii. 22-26). He quotes the actual language of the treaty which ended the First Punic War (i. 62), and of that between Hannibal and Philip of Macedon \,vii. 9). In xvi. 15 he refers to a document which he had person-ally inspected in the archives at Rhodes, and in iii. 33 to the monument on the Lacinian promontory, recording the number of Hannibal's forces. According to Dionysius, i. 17, he got his date for the foundation of Rome from a tablet in the pontifical archives. As instances of his careful attention to geography and topography we have not only the fact of his widely extended travels, from the African coast and the Pillars of Hercules in the west to the Euxine and the coasts of Asia Minor in the east, but also the geographical and topographical studies scattered throughout his history, such as the description of Sicily (i. 42), of Cisalpine Gaul (ii. 14), and of the Euxine (iv. 10), the discussion of Hannibal's route over the Alps, and the graphic picture of the scene of the battle of Lake Trasimene. Lastly, to judge from its extant fragments, book xxxiv. seems to have been actually a treatise on geography in general.

Next to the duty of original research, Polybius ranks that of impartiality. Some amount of bias in favour of one's own country may, he thinks, be pardoned as natural (xvi. 14) ; but it must not be gratified at the expense of truth. It is unpardonable, he-says, for the historian to set anything whatever above the truth. And on the whole Polybius must be allowed here again to have practised what he preached. It is true that his own sympathies-and antipathies are not entirely concealed. His affection for and; pride in Arcadia appear in more than one passage (iv. 20, 21), as also does his dislike of the ^Eolians (ii. 45; iv. 3, 16). His-treatment of Aratus and Philopcemen, the heroes of the Achaean league, and of Cleomenes of Sparta, its most constant enemy, is perhaps open to severer criticism—it is at any rate certain that Cleomenes does not receive full justice at his hands. Similarly his-views of Rome and the Romans may have been influenced by his firm belief in the necessity of accepting the Roman supremacy as inevitable, and by his intimacy with Scipio, the head of the great patrician house of the Cornelii. He has evidently a deep admira-tion for the great republic, for her well-balanced constitution, for her military system, and for the character of her citizens. He shares too the dislike of the Eoman aristocracy for such men of the people as Flaminius (ii. 21) and Varro (iii. 116). But, just as his patriotism does not blind him to the faults and follies of his-countrymen (xxxviii. 4, 5, 6), so he does not scruple to criticize Rome. He notices the incipient degeneracy of Borne after 146-(xviii. 35). He endeavours to hold the balance evenly between Rome and Carthage ; he strongly condemns the Roman occupation of Sardinia as a breach of faith (iii. 28, 31) ; and he does full justice to the splendid generalship of Hannibal. Moreover, whether his liking for Rome was excessive or not, there can be no doubt that he has sketched the Roman character in a masterly fashion. Their ambition, their invincible confidence in themselves, their dogged courage which made them more dangerous the harder they were pressed, and their devotion to the state are all clearly brought out. Nor does he show less appreciation of their practical sagacity, their readiness to learn from other peoples, their quickness in adapting their tactics both in war and diplomacy to changing circumstances, and their mastery of the art of ruling.

His interest in the study of character and his skill in its delineation are everywhere noticeable. He believes, indeed, in an over-ruling Fortune, which guides the course of events. It is Fortune which has fashioned anew the face of the world in his own time (iv. 2), which has brought the whole civilized world into subjection to Rome (i. 4); and the Roman empire itself is the most marvellous. of her works (viii. 4). But under Fortune not only political and geographical conditions but the characters and temperaments of nations and individuals play their part. Fortune selects the best instruments for her purposes. The Romans had been fitted by their previous struggles for the conquest of the world (i. 63); they were chosen to punish the treachery of Philip of Macedon (xv. 4); and the greatest of them, Scipio himself, Polybius regards as the especial, favourite of fortune (xxxii. 15; x. 5).

The praise which the matter of Polybius's history deserves cannot be extended to its form, and in this respect he contrasts sharply with Livy, whose consummate skill as a narrator has given him a popularity which has been denied to Polybius. Some of the most serious defects which spoil Polybius's history as a work of art are due to an over-rigid adherence to those views of the nature of the task before him which have been described above. His laudable desire to be comprehensive, and to present a picture of the whole political situation at each important moment, is fatal to the continuity of his narrative. The reader is hurried hither and thither from one part of the field to another in a manner at once wearisome and confusing. Thus the thrilling story of the Second Punic War is broken in upon by digressions on the contemporary affairs in Greece and in Asia. More serious, however, than this excessive love of synchronism is Polybius's almost pedantic anxiety to edify and to instruct. For grace and elegance of composition, and for the artistic presentation of events, he has a hardly concealed contempt. Hence a general and almost studied carelessness of effect, which mars his whole work. On the other hand he is never weary of preaching. His favourite theories of the nature and aims of history, of the distinction between the universal and special histories, of the duties of an historian, sound as most of them are in themselves, are enforced again and again at undue length and with wearisome iteration. No opportunity is lost of pointing out the lesson to be learnt from the events described, and more than once the reader is irritated, and the effect of a graphic picture is spoilt, by obtrusive moralizing. Nor, lastly, is Polybius's style itself such as to compensate for these defects. It is, indeed, often impressive from the evident earnestness and sincerity of the writer, and from his sense of the gravity of his subject, and is unspoilt by rhetoric or conceit. It has about it the ring of reality ; the language is sometimes pithy and vigorous ; and now and then we meet with apt metaphors, such as those borrowed from boxing (i. 57), from cock-fighting (i. 58), from draughts (i. 84). But, in spite of these redeeming features, the prevailing baldness of Polybius's style excludes him from the first rank among classical writers ; and it is impossible to quarrel with the verdict pronounced by Dionysius of Halicarnassus, who places him among those authors of later times who neglected the graces of style, and who paid for their neglect by leaving behind them works "which no one was patient enough to read through to the end" (_______, 4).

It is to the value and variety of his matter, to his critical insight, breadth of view, and wide research, and not least to the surpassing importance and interest of the period with which he deals, that Polybius owes his place among the writers of history. What is known as to the fortunes of his histories, and the reputation they enjoyed, fully bears out this conclusion. The silence respecting him maintained by Quintilian and by Lucian may reasonably be taken to imply their agreement with Dionysius as to his merits _as a master of style. On the other hand, Cicero (Be Off., iii. 32) describes him as " bonus auctor in primis " ; in the De Republica {ii. 14) he praises highly his accuracy in matters of chronology, "nemo in exquirendis teinporibus diligentior"; and Cicero's younger contemporary, Marcus Brutus, was a devoted student of Polybius, and was engaged on the eve of the battle of Pharsalia in ocompiling an epitome of his histories (Suidas, s. v.; Plutarch, Brut., 4). Livy, however, notwithstanding the extent to which he used his writings (see LIVY), speaks of him in such qualified terms as to .suggest the idea that his strong artistic sensibilities had been wounded by Polybius's literary defects. He has nothing better to say of him than that he is " by no means contemptible " (xxx. 45), and "not an untrustworthy author" (xxxiii. 10). Posidonius and .Strabo, both of them Stoics like Polybius himself, are said to have written continuations of his history (Suidas, s.v.; Strabo, p. 515). Arrian in the early part of the 2d and jElian in the 3d century both speak of him with respect, though with reference mainly to his excellence as an authority on the art of war. In addition to his Histories Polybius was the auttior of the following smaller works:— a life of Philopoemen (Polyb., x. 24), a history of the Numantine War (Cic, Ad Fam., v. 12), a treatise on tactics (Polyb., ix. 20; Arrian, Tactica; ____, Tact., i.). The geographical -treatise, referred to by Geminus, is possibly identical with the thirty-fourth book of the Histories (Schweigh., Prxf, p. 184.

The complete books (i.-v.) of the Histories were first printed in a Latin translation by Nicholas Perotti in 1473. The date of the first Greek edition, that by Obsopseus, is 1530. For a full account of these and of later editions, as well as of the extant MSS., see Schweighiiuser's Preface to his edition of Polybius. Our knowledge of the contents of the fragmentary books is derived partly from quotations in ancient writers, but mainly from two collections of excerpts; one, probably the work of a late Byzantine compiler, was first printed at Basel in 1549 and contains extracts from books vi.-xviil. (_____); the other consists of two fragments from the " select passages from Greek historians compiled by the directions of Constautine Porphyrogenitus in the 10th century. To these must be added the Vatican excerpts edited by -Cardinal Mai in the present century.

The following are the more important modern editions of Polybius :— Ernesti (3 vols., 17113-64); Schweigh Suser (8 vols., 1793, and Oxford, 1823); Bekker (2 vols., 1844); L. Dindorf (4 vols., 1866-68, 2d ed.,Teubner, 1882); Hultsch (4vols., 1867-71). For the literature of the subject, see Engelmann, Biblioth. Script. Class.: Script. Graeci (pp. 646-650, 8th ed., Leipsic, 1880). (F. A. P.)

The above article was written by: F. A. Paley.

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