Polybius (200-118bc)



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Polybius (200-118bc)
He was born in the Greek city-state of Arcadia (a member of the Achaean League). He became active in politics, and c.169bc was made hipparchus of the cavalry. At that time he opposed the growth of Roman power in Greece and – after the rebellion and defeat of Perseus of Macedon in 167bc – he was one of 1000 hostages taken to Rome.
In Rome he mixed with many important people, and became tutor to Scipio Aemilianus (nephew of Scipio the Elder – the general who had defeated Hannibal). When the hostages were released in 154bc, Polybius stayed in Rome. He accompanied Scipio Aemilianus in the Third Punic War and witnessed the destruction of Carthage … after which (in a ship paid for by Scipio) he explored the Atlantic coasts of what are now Portugal and Morocco.
Polybius thought that no one could be so ‘cheap and lazy’ not to be interested in the rise of the Roman empire, but he started writing with the intention of explaining Rome’s success to Greek (not Roman) readers – in exile, with Greek resistance crushed, he hoped the Histories would help them adapt to Rome’s victory: ‘because they need to know what Rome’s ambitions were when she started upon this vast undertaking, where she got her resources from, and how she could afford it’. Originally, he intended to limit his Histories to the years 220-167bc, and planned them as a sequel to the memoirs of an Achaean statesman, Aratus of Sicyon. However, while he lived in Rome, his views seem to have changed, and Chapter 3 starts with a second Introduction, in which he declares his intention to continue his Histories to 146bc; this will allow his readers, he says, to judge the nature of Roman rule and whether it be ‘worthy of praise and admiration or rather of blame’. It is possible that the Histories were published after he died – perhaps after a fall from his horse – at the age of 82.
Polybius wrote what he called pragmatike historia; by which he meant a narrative political history which would explain how and why things happened (e.g. 1.1.5: ‘how and under what sort of constitution … Rome came to conquer and rule’). The Greek word pragmatike means ‘events’, but also has a sense of ‘fit for action’ – and this shows that Polybius wanted his Histories to be useful to the readers. He always sought a rational explanation of events – but at the same time he believed in Tyche (the goddess of destiny and chance in human affairs). He thus thought history was important for two reasons – firstly as an education, but secondly to make men ready ‘to endure the changes and Tyche of our mortal life’.
Polybius was very ‘modern’ in his historical method:

  • He was an eyewitness to the later events in his History, but for events before 167bc he interviewed people who had taken part (e.g. he spoke with veteran Carthaginian soldiers who had crossed the Alps with Hannibal; e.g. he also interviewed Laelius – Scipio Aemilianus’s second-in-command – and Masinissa).

  • He visited the places he was describing (e.g. he walked the battlefields, and even discovered at Lacinium a pillar erected by Hannibal) and insisted that a good historian also had to be a good geographer.

  • He used public record offices – e.g. in Rome, Rhodes and Alexandria.

  • He synthesised the writings of many other historians – it is often impossible to ascribe what he says to any individual source. Two historians he mentioned were Philinus of Agrigentum (who described events from the Carthaginian point of view) and Fabius Pictor (a Roman historian of the Hannibalic War) – though he accused them both of ‘partiality’ towards their own side. He criticised historians who wrote without an international persepctive, who attributed success and failure to the gods, or who (like Phylarchus) invented dramatic descriptions or speeches to try to make their narrative more exciting or more tragic.

  • He said that the job of the historian was to ascertain the truth – ‘if you take truth from history, what is left but an idle unprofitable tale?’

  • He believed statesmen made the best historians, because they had experience of events.

Livy relied heavily based on Polybius – some historians think that in places he simply paraphrases Polybius.
The English historian Frank Walbank has suggested that Polybius was biased against the Carthaginians and the Anatolians, and was guilty of a degree of pro-Greek patriotism. Despite his criticism of other writers who did so, it seems he sometimes invented speeches and included dramatic passages for effect. Most of all Polybius manipulated his History so that it was ‘useful’ for the reader, giving it a ‘meaning’ and a ‘moral’ which today we would not do. But Walbank thinks that this ‘amounts to very little and leaves the overwhelming impression of a reliable and conscientious writer’.
Reading this, what would you list as Polybius’s STRENGTHS and WEAKNESSES as an historian?
Read the following passages from Polybius, and answer the questions which follow:

Book 2, Chapter 56 

Phylarchus is by some received as trustworthy, so it will be useful or rather necessary for me, as I have chosen to rely on Aratus' narrative, not to leave the question of their relative credibility undiscussed, so that truth and falsehood in their writings may no longer be of equal authority.  In general Phylarchus through his whole work makes many random and careless statements… [Particularly,] in his eagerness to arouse the pity and attention of his readers he treats us to a picture of clinging women with their hair dishevelled and their breasts bare, or again of crowds of children and aged grandparents weeping and lamenting as they are led away to slavery.  This sort of thing he keeps up throughout his history, always trying to bring horrors vividly before our eyes…  A historical author should not try to thrill his readers by such exaggerated pictures, nor should he, like a tragic poet, try to imagine the probable utterances of his characters, but simply record what really happened and what really was said, however commonplace… It is the task of the historian to instruct and convince for all time serious students by the truth of the facts and the speeches he narrates, the purpose being to confer benefit on learners. 


What does this passage tell us about the way Polybius wrote his Histories? [4]

Book 1, Chapter 1

The sheer unpredictability of the events which are my subject matter will surely be enough to encourage, if not inspire, everyone whether young or old to explore these pages.


No-one could be so unimaginative, so intellectually idle that he would not be fascinated to know how and under what sort of constitution in less than fifty-three years and all alone Rome came to conquer and rule almost the whole of the inhabited world, which is not found to have happened before. No-one could be so obsessed by any other kind of spectacle or interest as to consider it a more valuable subject for study than this.

Using this passage, explain why Polybius wrote the Histories. [4]

Do you think that Polybius gives us a reliable account of the Hannibalic War?

You must refer both to this passage, and to your knowledge of Polybius as a writer. [18]


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