Born: c. 200 BC
Birthplace: Megalopolis, Arcadia, Greece
Died: c. 118 BC
Cause of death: unspecified
Race or Ethnicity: White
Nationality: Ancient Greece
Executive summary: Histories
Greek historian, a native of Megalopolis in Arcadia, the youngest of Greek cities, which, however, played an honorable part in the last days of Greek freedom as a stanch member of the Achaean League. His father, Lycortas, was the intimate friend of Philopoemen, and on the death of the latter, in 182, succeeded him as leader of the league. The date of Polybius's birth is doubtful. He tells us himself that in 181 he had not yet reached the age (perhaps thirty years) at which an Achaean was legally capable of holding office. We learn from Cicero that he outlived the Numantine War, which ended 132, and from Lucian that he died at the age of eighty-two. The majority of authorities therefore place his birth between 224 and 204 BC. 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 Philopoemen he seems to have been on intimate terms. After Philopoemen's tragic death in Messenia (182) he was entrusted with the honorable duty of conveying home the urn in which his ashes had been deposited. In 181, 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. 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; there were good reasons for fearing that the Roman senate would regard neutrality as indicating a secret leaning towards Macedon. 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, and Polybius was selected to command the cavalry. 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. 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 commander that armed interference was undesirable put a stop to the expedition. The success of Rome in the war with Perseus was now assured. The final victory was rapidly followed by the arrival in Achaea of Roman commissioners charged with the duty of establishing Roman interests there. Polybius was arrested with 1000 of the principal Achaeans, 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 L. Aemilius Paullus and his two sons, Scipio and Fabius. Polybius was received into Aemilius's house, and became the instructor of his sons. Between Scipio (P. Cornelius Scipio Africanus the younger), the future conqueror of Carthage, and himself a friendship soon sprang up, which ripened into a lifelong intimacy, and was of inestimable service to him throughout his career. It protected him from interference, 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 afterwards came forward to mediate between his countrymen and Rome. It placed within his reach opportunities for a close 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. In 151 the few surviving exiles were allowed to return to Greece. But the stay of Polybius in Achaea was brief. The estimation in which he was held at Rome is clearly shown by the anxiety of the consul Marcus Manilius (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. But when, in 147, Scipio himself took the command in Africa, Polybius hastened to join him, and was an eyewitness of the siege and destruction of Carthage. During his absence in Africa the Achaeans had made a last desperate attempt to assert their independence of Rome. He returned in 146 to find Corinth in ruins, the fairest cities of Achaea at the mercy of the Roman soldiery, and the famous Achaean League shattered to pieces. All the influence he possessed was freely spent in endeavoring 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 Philopoemen were preserved. An even more difficult task was that entrusted to him by the Roman authorities themselves, of persuading the Achaeans 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, 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. The base of a statue erected to him by Elis was found at Olympia in 1877.
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 the general plan and scope of the work are explained by Polybius himself. His intention was to make plain how and why it was that all the known regions of the civilized world had fallen under the sway of Rome. 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, "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 BC, 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 temperament and policy and of the final catastrophe which destroyed Carthage and forever broke up the Achaean League. 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. 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. The various states fringing the basin of the Mediterranean had become so inextricably interwoven that it was no longer possible to deal with them in isolation. Polybius therefore claims for his history that it will take a comprehensive view of the whole course of events in the civilized world, within the limits of the period. He thus aims at placing before his readers at each stage a complete survey of the field of action from Spain to Syria and Egypt. 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 calculated to teach. It is the great merit of his work that it gives such a picture of the 2nd and 3rd centuries BC 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" 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. But this it can do only if the historian bears in mind the true nature of his task. He must remember that the historian should not write as the dramatist does to charm or excite his audience for the moment. He will aim simply at exhibiting events in their true light, setting forth "the why and the how" in each case, not confusing causes and occasions, or dragging in old wives' fables, prodigies and marvels. 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 history Polybius is on the whole consistently faithful. It is true that his anxiety to instruct leads often to a rather wearisome iteration of his favorite maxims, and that his digressions, such as that on the military art, are occasionally provokingly long and didactic. But his comments and reflections are for the most part sound and instructive (e.g. those on the lessons to be learned from the revolt of the mercenaries in Africa, from the Celtic raids in Italy, and on the Roman character), while among his digressions are included such invaluable chapters as those on the Roman constitution, the graphic description of Cisalpine Gaul and the account of the rise and constitution of the Achaean League. To his anxiety again to trace back events to their first causes we owe, not only the careful inquiry into the origin of the Second Punic War, but the sketch of early Roman history in book I, and of the early treaties between Rome and Carthage. 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, and their neglect duly to set forth the causes of events.
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. Without a personal knowledge of affairs a writer will inevitably distort the true relations and importance of events. Such experience would have saved accomplished and fluent Greek writers like Timaeus from many of their blunders, but the shortcomings 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.
It is important to consider how far Polybius himself comes up to his standard. 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. He may just have remembered the battle of Cynoscephalae (197), and, as we have seen, he was actively engaged in the military and political affairs of the Achaean League. During his exile in Rome he was able to study 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 Rome 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 Achaea. 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. To all this we must add that he was deeply read in the learning of his day, above all in the writings of earlier historians.
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 successor Livy, conspicuously failed. Polybius is careful constantly to remind us that he writes for those who are 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. He quotes the actual language of the treaty which ended the First Punic War, and of that between Hannibal and Philip of Macedon. He refers to a document which he had personally inspected in the archives at Rhodes, and to the monument on the Lacinian promontory, recording the number of Hannibal's forces. According to Dionysius, 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.
Next to the duty of original research, Polybius ranks that of impartiality. Some amount of bias in favor of one's own country may, he thinks, be pardoned as natural; but 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 practiced what he preached. It is true that his affection for and pride in Arcadia appear in more than one passage, as also does his dislike of the Aetolians. His treatment of Aratus and Philopoemen, the heroes of the Achaean League, and of Cleomenes of Sparta, its most constant enemy, is perhaps open to severer criticism. Certainly 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. He had a deep admiration for the great republic, for her well-balanced constitution, for her military system, and for the character of her citizens. But just as his patriotism does not blind him to the faults and follies of his countrymen, so he does not scruple to criticize Rome. He notices the incipient degeneracy of Rome after 146. He endeavors to hold the balance evenly between Rome and Carthage; he strongly condemns the Roman occupation of Sardinia as a breach of faith; and he does full justice to Hannibal. Moreover, there can be no doubt that he sketched the Roman character in a masterly fashion.
His interest in the study of character and his skill in its delineation are everywhere noticeable. He believes, indeed, in an overruling fortune, which guides the course of events. It is fortune which has fashioned anew the face of the world in his own time, which has brought the whole civilized world into subjection to Rome and the Roman Empire itself is the most marvellous of her works. But under fortune not only political and geographical conditions but the characters and temperaments of nations and individuals play their part. The Romans had been fitted by their previous struggles for the conquest of the world; they were chosen to punish the treachery of Philip of Macedon; and the greatest of them, Scipio himself, Polybius regards as the especial favorite of fortune.
In respect of form, Polybius is far the inferior of Livy, partly owing to his very virtues. His laudable desire to present a picture of the whole political situation at each important moment is fatal to the continuity of his narrative. Thus the thrilling story of the Second Punic War is broken in upon by digressions on the contemporary affairs in Greece and Asia. More serious, however, than this excessive love of synchronism is his almost pedantic anxiety to edify. For gace, 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 favorite 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 with wearisome iteration; more than once the effect of a graphic picture is spoiled 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 of the writer, and from his sense of the gravity of his subject, and is unspoiled 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, from cock-fighting, etc. 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."
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 describes him as" bonus auctor in primis"; in the De republica he praises highly his accuracy in matters of chronology; 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 compiling an epitome of his histories. Livy, however, notwithstanding the extent to which he used his writings, 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", and "not an untrustworthy author." Posidonius and Strabo, both of them Stoics like Polybius himself, are said to have written continuations of his history. Arrian in the early part of the 2nd and Aelian in the 3rd 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 author of the following smaller works: a life of Philopoemen, a history of the Numantine War, a treatise on tactics. The geographical treatise, referred to by Geminus, is possibly identical with the thirty-fourth book of the Histories.
The complete books (I through 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 Obsopaeus, is 1530. For a full account of these and of later editions, as well as of the extant manuscripts, see Schweighäuser's Preface to his edition of Polybius (first printed in eight volumes in 1793). 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 to XVIII; the other consists of two fragments from the select passages from Greek historians compiled by the directions of Constantine Porphyrogenitus in the 10th century. To these must be added the Vatican excerpts edited by Angelo Mai in the early 20th century.
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