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Bill Thayer

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Quare historiae huius non postrema haec laus est, quod in parte versetur rerum Romanarum longe nobilissima, sive virorum virtutem species, sive publica instituta aut mores, sive gestorum magnitudinem. Cum autem inter excellentis historiae condiciones doctissimi veterum hanc cum primis ponant, ut certi intervallo temporis circumscribatur, et a notabili principio ad notabilem finem perducatur, hanc historiae legem, ut quidem illis placet, a Polybio mirifice esse observatam invenimus.



Polybius was born about 208 B.C. at Megalopolis in Arcadia. His father, Lycortas, who spent the greater part of his life — more especially the years 181‑168 B.C. — in the service of the Achaean League, was a friend and supporter of Philopoemen; he went as ambassador to Rome in 189, to Ptolemy Epiphanes, king of Egypt, in 186 and again in 181; and he was Strategus of the League in 184. In his youth Polybius began to take part in public affairs. He seems to have served with the Romans in the campaign of 189 against the Gauls in Asia Minor; he carried the urn of Philopoemen to burial in 183; he was associated with his father Lycortas in the embassy to Egypt in 181; and he was Hipparchus of the Achaean League for the year 169‑8.

Throughout the period (181‑168) of political association with his father Polybius consistently maintained the view that the supremacy of Rome in Greece must be accepted, and that the Greek states must conduct their affairs, whether singly or collectively, and preserve their freedom, without giving any offence, or cause of complaint, to the Roman republic. But there was much intriguing, in Greece and at Rome, against this policy of legal independence; and the suspicions of the Romans were so far aroused that they came to regard the independents with no less displeasure than the avowed enemies of the republic. Thus, though Achaean League maintained correctly enough this policy of a strict legality during the third war between Rome and Macedon (172‑168), its leaders were quickly brought to account after the defeat of King Perseus at Pydna (168 B.C.),a and no less than a thousand Achaeans were transported to Italy to be tried for their alleged opposition to the sovereignty of Rome. Of this company was Polybius — we hear nothing more of his father Lycortas: he may have died about this time. Quartered in Italian cities, these Greeks waited for the trial which never came; and at last in 151 B.C., when after sixteen years liberty was given them to return home, there were less than three hundred of the thousand left to go back.

Polybius was more fortunate than the rest. He had become acquainted with Aemilius Paulus and his two sons during the campaign against Perseus and afterwards in Macedonia, and now in 167 he was allowed to remain in Rome in the house of Aemilius, to act as tutor to the two boys. This was the beginning of that famous friendship between Polybius and the younger son, who became by adoption Publius Scipio Aemilianus. Panaetius, the Stoic philosopher, was also an inmate of Aemilius Paulus' house about this time, exercising — perhaps in rivalry with Polybius — a tutorial influence upon the sons. Polybius had access through Aemilius Paulus to the best of Roman society during those sixteen years of expatriation in Italy, and he made good use of his opportunities. He studied the history and institutions of Rome, doubtless with a view to the history that he meant to write himself; he observed Roman life and character, in the individual and in the state;1 he hunted the boar with the younger sportsmen.

The Romans appreciated the ability and the versatility of Polybius, and in 149 B.C. — less than two years after his return to Arcadia — invited his assistance in the diplomatic discussions that preceded the last Punic War. And when Publius Scipio rejoined the army before Carthage in 147 as commander-in‑chief, Polybius was in close attendance, to advise on questions of siege operations, or to conduct explorations on the coast of Africa in ships officially supplied. He stood by Scipio's side while Carthage was burning (146 B.C.); and when that destruction was finished he returned to Greece, in time, if not to witness the sack of Corinth by Mummius, at any rate to modify the executions of the Romans and to rescue some of the treasures of art from destruction or deportation. And when the Roman commissioners withdrew from Greece, they left Polybius with authority to settle the details for the administration of each surviving city. Thus he came to be regarded as a public benefactor, for he had done his work well; and statues were raised to him in Megalopolis, Mantinea, Tegea, Olympia, and elsewhere.

Polybius lived for some twenty years after this work was done, but we know little or nothing about his employments. He may have joined Scipio during the siege of Numantia in Spain (134‑132): he visited Egypt again: his travels in Europe, Asia, and perhaps in Africa, may have been continued and extended in this period; and his literary work — there were, in addition to the History, a Life of Philopoemen in three books, a Treatise on Tactics, and a History of the Numantine War — must have occupied much of his time. A sportsman to the last, he met his death at eighty-two by an accidental fall from his horse as he was returning from the country.

The project of writing a history of the age probably suggested itself to Polybius, and was certainly developed, during the years of his detention in Italy. Expatriation loosened the links with Greece, and tightened the connexion with Rome. His original scheme was to record the rise of Rome to supremacy over the Mediterranean states in the years 220‑168 B.C., i.e. from the beginning of the Second Punic War to the end of the Third Macedonian War. He subsequently extended this scheme in order to include an account of events from the first expedition of the Romans outside Italy (i.e. from the beginning of the First Punic War, in 264 B.C., the point where the history of Timaeus had ended) and to continue the record to the year (146 B.C.) which witnessed the destruction of Carthage and of Corinth. In the end the History consisted of forty books, of which the first two were introductory (προκατασκευή), the next thirty dealt with the main subject, and the last eight with the corollary. Of the forty books the first five only are preserved complete: of the rest there are only sections and fragments — numerous, it is true, but of varying length and importance — gathered from epitomes and excerpts.

Polybius was keenly alive to the greatness of his subject: he never forgot it himself, and he did not allow his readers to forget it. "Fruitful as Fortune is in change, and constantly as she is producing dramas in the life of men, yet assuredly never before this did she work such a marvel, or act such a drama, as that which we have witnessed."2 "What man is so indifferent or so idle that he would not wish to know how and under what form of government almost all the inhabited world came under the single rule of the Romans in less than fifty-three years (220‑168 B.C.)?"3 Thus at the outset he stated the scheme of his work; several times in the earlier books4 he repeated the formula, for such it was, explaining in due course the extension of the scheme5 in order to provide a proper introduction and conclusion; and in the last surviving chapter of the last book6 he acknowledged the completion of his purpose. Careful to observe throughout the proportion and the continuity of things, he composed his systematic history (πραγματεία) to be at once "catholic" (καθ᾽ ὅλου) in its relation to the general history of the world, and "pragmatic" or "apodeictic" in its conscious demonstration of the principle of cause and effect.7 And so he made his work "perhaps the greatest universal history, or history of the civilized world, attempted in old times."8 Was there ever a book, indeed, written so strictly according to plan, by a person so well qualified?

For indeed it seemed that destiny itself had called and trained Polybius to this task. The son of a statesman, he spent the first forty years of his life in actual connexion with politics, diplomacy, and war; and he naturally came to regard it as an indispensable qualification of a historian that he should be able to record his own experiences of peace and war, describing from his own knowledge men and circumstances, events and localities. As a man of action himself, he felt the necessity of first-hand evidence wherever it was obtainable, and spared no pains to obtain it; and he had no opinion of stay-at‑home historians (like Timaeus) who lived in libraries and wrote as bookmen. Nevertheless, in the technical preparation of his work Polybius was cautious and painstaking beyond all others: he was a practical man, but he did not despise theory. So for and with his travels, extensive and systematic9 as they were, he made a special study of geography — embodying many of his observations in Book XXXIV, which is almost entirely geographical; and with his visits, official or unofficial, to various countries, he combined an examination of documents and records — and all, no doubt, to make his work correct, continuous, and complete. He may not have been a great general, or diplomat, or even topographer; but he was always careful, and generally right in his conclusions. He was impelled and guided by a natural instinct for truth: "For as a living creature is rendered wholly useless if deprived of its eyes, so if you take truth from history, what is left but an idle unprofitable tale?"10 Truth, he says elsewhere, is shown by nature to mankind as supreme in divinity and power: sooner or later, truth must prevail over all opposition.11

It is worth while to consider a little further what was the position of Polybius in Greece — for in a sense it was typical of his age — and what his point of view. He was a native of Megalopolis, a city whose very foundation in the fourth century had been an experiment in federal unity. By birth and instinct an aristocrat, he had no sympathy with democratic survivals or demagogic outbreaks. As a statesman he realized that the old Greek ideas of freedom and independence, centred in the city-state, were gone, nor ever likely to return, except so far as was possible under the suzerainty of Rome — or rather, in the reconciliation of Roman rule and Greek intellect. Early in his career he saw that the Roman power was inevitable and irresistible; and therefore he strove by skilful diplomacy to guide and keep the Achaean League, and the Greeks in general, in ways that were correct and unexceptionable. He was a Stoic, and he believed that the Roman order of things was part of a divine Providence that ruled the world. This belief, confirmed by his closer acquaintance with the Romans, and by their progress in conquest, he expounded in his History, with such detail of causes, circumstances, and consequences as to show that he understood the position and the prospects of the Romans in the Mediterranean world far more clearly than at that time they themselves were able to do.

Polybius lived in a self-conscious age, when criticism was mostly captious and destructive, and standards of right and wrong, of truth and falsehood, were unsteady and uncertain. In the History he himself criticizes other writers freely enough, often at great length,12 and with a severity that became proverbial. Was he not nicknamed ἐπιτίμαιος for his treatment of Timaeus in particular? He divides historians into three classes: those who write for pay — to suit the pleasure or the plans of kings and states; those who write for rhetorical display; those who write for truth, and for the good of mankind.13 He appreciates the power of rhetoric in history for good and ill; but he avoids such assistance in his own work, for fear that he may fail to tell "the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth." He employs the vocabulary of ordinary usage; and though his statements are always clear, and generally adequate, the style is seldom remarkable or attractive. Yet in the opinion of a great historian "the narrative is a model of completeness, simplicity, and clearness":14 it is the concentration of intellect upon a task — a vital century in the history of Rome — for which something besides intellect was needed, something of moral judgement, of spiritual understanding. In this respect — the larger humanity, where a sense of imagination joins with a sense of humour to modify the mechanism of intellect — Polybius is certainly lacking; and his narrative, for all its simplicity and clearness, fails often to interest just because it is so uniformly correct, so invariably instructive.

The work of Polybius was valued in ancient times, and not least by the Romans. Was his History intended primarily for Roman readers? Possibly: but at first it would scarcely be comprehended by more than a few of them, such as the Scipionic circle. And to many, if not most, of the Greeks of his own day he must have seemed something of a suspect, and no proper patriot, who could devote forty books to an outspoken appreciation of all things Roman. Yet, save for his lack of rhetoric, he was thought to have exemplified every virtue of history: his opinions were frequently quoted, his works were compressed into epitomes and reproduced in excerpts. The pity is that by such abridged editions we have been deprived of the means of forming a just estimate of his work as a whole. For what was chosen for survival in epitome or excerpt, because it appeared most interesting or important in the generations that followed his own, cannot give us the whole story as Polybius told it — the σχῆμα καθ᾽ ὅλου καὶ μέρος, we might almost say — nor reveal the whole mind of Polybius. Yet enough remains to establish his worth, as a historian who was generally right in point of fact and reasonable in point of view, who "accomplished what he had intended, a history to guide life, to proclaim truth, and in all sagacity to forecast the future from the past."15

For the books (IV) which are still extant in complete form the best Manuscript is A, Codex Vaticanus 124, of the eleventh century. Fragments of the lost books are to be seen in F, Codex Urbinas 102, of the eleventh century, in the Constantine Excerpts, and in M, Codex Vaticanus 73, of the tenth century, a palimpsest containing excerpts. The Constantine Excerpts, so called because they were made by direction of the Byzantine Emperor Constantine (A.D. 912‑959) as part of an Encyclopaedia of History and Political Science, give passages of Polybius arranged under various headings according to the subject matter.

Col. H. J. EDWARDS, C.B.

The Translator died suddenly in 1921, and the Editors have seen the work through the press. The Introduction has been supplied by Colonel Edwards, C.B.

Thayer's Note: The following paragraph remains under copyright (© Harvard University Press 1978). It is so brief as surely to fall under fair use.

Bibliographical Note

Polybian scholarship has now been signally enriched by F. W. Walbank's A Historical Commentary on Polybius (Oxford: volume I, on Books I-VI, 1957; volume II, on Books VII-XVIII, 1967; volume III, on Books XX-XXXIX, forthcomingb), and to this work the reader is referred for a detailed bibliography. But the following also deserve mention here:

P. Pédech, La Méthode historique de Polybe, Paris, 1964;

J. M. Moore, The Manuscript Tradition of Polybius, Cambridge, 1965.

G. P. G.

The Loeb Editor's Notes:

1 Cf. VI.56, on the moral tone of the Romans.

2 I.4.

3 I.1.

4 e.g. III.1‑3, 31, 32.

5 III.4.

6 XL.14.

Thayer's Note: So the Loeb edition; the 40th Book of Polybius hasn't come down to us, though; the last surviving chapter of the last book — in which the historian does in fact acknowledge the completion of his purpose — is XXXIX.8.

7 III.6‑8.

8 Mahaffy, Greek Life and Thought, p556.

9 e.g. he crossed the Alps by the pass which Hannibal was believed to have used.

10 I.14.

11 XIII.5.

12 e.g. Timaeus in Book XII.

13 XVI.14.

14 Mommsen, History of Rome (English translation), vol. III p467.

15 Wyttenbach, Praefatio ad selecta principum historicorum.

Thayer's Notes:

a The battle of Pydna, though the date is usually given in the English-speaking world as 168 B.C., was probably fought in 172: see Plut. Aem. 17.7 and my note there. Since the eclipse before the battle, commonly misidentified, is one of the rare fixed points of chronology for the period and the main source of the dates of the Macedonian War, those dates should be adjusted as well, to 176‑172 B.C.

b Since the Loeb edition's note was written in 1978, this third volume has appeared: Prof. Walbank's Commentary, now complete, is widely considered one of the great 20c works of classical historiography.

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