Polybius: The Greek historian who explained how the Roman Republic came to be great

Polybius

Polybius of Megalopolis (c.200-c.118): Greek historian and the author of the critically acclaimed The Histories that describes the rise of Rome. Image: The stele of Kleitor depicting Polybius, Hellenistic art, 2nd century BC, Museum of Roman Civilization

Polybius (c. 200 – 118 BC) was a Greek historian and politician who is best known for his work “The Histories,” which covers the period of ancient Mediterranean history from 264 BC to 146 BC, a period that included the Punic Wars between Rome and Carthage and the rise of the Roman Republic.

Polybius himself was a participant in some of the events he wrote about, as he was a member of the Achaean League, a confederation of Greek city-states that fought against Rome in the Achaean War (146 BC). After the war, he was taken as a hostage to Rome, where he became a close friend of the Roman general Scipio Aemilianus and was able to witness firsthand the workings, governance and society of the Roman Republic.

His only known surviving work “The Histories” is a comprehensive account of the political, military, and social events of the time, and Polybius was known for his detailed and impartial analysis of the causes and consequences of these events. He believed that history should be studied scientifically and that a thorough understanding of the past was necessary for effective governance.

In addition to his historical work, Polybius was also a proponent of a mixed constitution, which he believed was the best form of government. He believed that the ideal government should combine elements of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy, with each element serving as a check on the others.

His work had a significant impact on the development of historical writing and the study.

RELATED: How Rome Conquered Ancient Greece

How Polybius’ father tried to halt the rise of Rome’s influence over Greece

His father, Lycortas, was a high-ranking politician and general (strategos) of the Achaean League, a Hellenistic-era confederation of Greek city states in northern and central Peloponnese. Formed around the 5th century BC, the League came into fierce confrontation with the Antigonid dynasty of Macedon. As a result, the League allied with Rome to defeat the Macedonians.

During Lycortas’ time, many members began to grow very concerned of Rome’s rising influence in the region. Lycortas was one of the Achaean League leaders that called for measures to be taken to halt Rome’s expanding power over Greece.

Polybius would learn a great deal of politics and military affairs from his father and other Achaean political leaders, including the great Achaean strategos Philopoemen (253 BC – 183 BC). Like his father, he became a renowned statesman in Megalopolis.

The Histories – Polybius’ best-known work

The Histories, by Greek historian Polybius, mainly documents the rise of the Roman Republic from 264 to 146 BC. It explains the causes of Rome’s wars against the likes of Macedon, Carthage and the Seleucid Empire. Image: An early edition of “The Histories”

“The Histories” is a historical work written by the Greek historian Polybius in the 2nd century BC. It is considered one of the most important works of ancient history, and it covers a period of time from the rise of the Roman Republic to the end of the Third Macedonian War in 168 BC.

In The Histories, Polybius sought to explain the rise of Rome to world power and the reasons behind its success. He argued that Rome’s success was due to its political system, which combined elements of democracy, aristocracy, and monarchy. He also believed that Rome’s military prowess was due to its ability to learn from the tactics of other cultures and adapt them to its own needs.

The Histories is divided into 40 books, of which only the first five survive in their entirety, with the rest surviving only in fragments or summaries. Nevertheless, the work is considered a masterpiece of ancient historiography, and it had a profound influence on later historians, including Livy and Tacitus.

Books I-II contains the introduction and the major events of the period in Italy and Greece before 221/0 BC. It also includes an explanation for the rise of the Achaean League and its conflict with the Antigonid dynasty.

Books III-XXXIX sheds light on the various states in Mediterranean and their political and military structures. Polybius discusses states like Rome, Greece, Macedonia, the Seleucid Empire, and Carthage.

In Book VI, the Greek historian talks about the “cycle of constitutions”, explaining how political, military and moral institutions of Rome come together to aid the Republic in its quest to be the dominant power in the Mediterranean. In analyzing the reason why Rome came to be a superpower, Polybius explains that the Roman placed great emphasis on respect towards elders and parents, the fear of their gods, and love of virtue.

Did you know?

Of all the works by Polybius, “The Histories”  was the largest work.

In Polybius’ work, he credits the Greek goddess of fortune, Tyche, for bringing those fortunate events Rome’s way, which in turn helped Rome reign supreme in the Mediterranean.

To many scholars, Polybius is seen as one of the founding fathers of Roman historiography – along with Cato the Elder (234-149 BC).

Polybius’ instructions for historians and geographers

In Book XII of “The Histories”, Polybius explains how explains how historians should go about their works. He admonished them to pursue factual integrity at all cost. According to the author, historians can secure factual integrity through conducting interviews with people who witnessed the historical event.

For example, he criticizes the Greek historian Timaeus of Tauromenium (c. 356 BC – c. 260 BC) for being bias and favoring the Romans.

Polybius further states that historians ought to review relevant geographical information and historical documents of all kinds. To do this, historians need to have some form of political experience and grasp of geography, according to Polybius.

As stated above, Polybius was not just a well-travelled scholar, but he was also skilled when it came to  political and military matters. He believed that his experience chalked allowed him to examine many historical documents, including treaty documents, previous accounts – by both Romans and Greek historians and statesmen.

Other works by Polybius

It is a known fact that many of the works Polybius wrote are now lost. For example, he penned down a biography of the Greek stateman Philopoemen. That work of his was later used as source by Plutarch in writing his work, “Parallel Lives”.

The Greek historian also wrote a number of treatises, including one called “Tactics”, which describes the Roman and Greek military tactics.

Polybius’ definition of a good statesman

Polybius asserted that an effective statesman or leader should possess qualities such as political and military knowledge, virtue, rationality, and composure. He used Philip II of Macedon (reign: 359–336 BC), the father of Alexander the Great, as an example of a leader who exhibited both military and diplomatic skills. He contrasted the leadership style of Philip II against that of his distant successor Philip V of Macedon (reign: 221 to 179 BC), describing the latter as irrational, tyrannical, and impious.

Analysis of the Roman Constitution and the separation of powers

Book VI of The Histories takes an interesting turn as Polybius provides an analysis of the Roman constitution. According to Polybius, a state is as strong as the constitution it uses to govern itself. He believed that the mixed nature of Rome’s constitution is the reason why Rome came to dominate the Mediterranean.

The Greek historian and statesman admired the Roman Republic and believed that its success was due to its political system. He argued that Rome’s constitution combined elements of democracy, aristocracy, and monarchy, which created a balance of power and prevented any one group from becoming too dominant.

According to Polybius, the Roman Republic was divided into three branches of government: the consuls, the Senate, and the people’s assemblies. The consuls were elected annually and had executive power, while the Senate was composed of elder statesmen who advised the consuls and had significant influence over foreign policy and finance. The people’s assemblies, which were open to all male citizens, had the power to pass laws and elect officials.

Polybius believed that the Roman constitution was a system of checks and balances, where each branch of government had the power to check the others and prevent any one group from becoming too powerful. He also praised the Roman system of mixed government, which combined elements of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy, as a way of promoting stability and preventing tyranny.

Polybius’ analysis of the Roman constitution had a significant impact on later political thought, particularly during the Enlightenment. His ideas about checks and balances and mixed government influenced the writing of the United States Constitution and other modern democratic systems.

His rising political influence in Megalopolis

In 183 BC, when the great Achaean League general Philopoemen passed away, having been captured and invited to drink poison by the Messeneans, Polybius was chosen by his city to carry the funeral urn of the deceased Greek general (aka “the last of the Greeks”).

It is said that when he was in his early thirties, he was appointed Hipparchus (cavalry general).

Prisoner of war and imprisonment in Rome

During the Third Macedonian War (171-168 BC), Polybius came under enormous suspicion for not being completely loyal to the Romans. This was because he defended the independence of his hometown, Megalopolis.

In 168 BC, Aemilius Paulus (c. 229-160 BC) led a Roman army against the forces of King Perseus of Macedon in the Third Macedonian War. Despite facing a larger army, Aemilius Paulus was able to defeat Perseus at the Battle of Pydna in 168 BC. This victory marked the end of the Macedonian kingdom and brought much of Greece under Roman control.

With the Antigonid kingdom defeated by Rome, a great number of Achaean politicians and military figures, including Polybius, were apprehended for their shaky allegiance to Rome. Polybius and his father had been accused of staying neutral during the war.

Therefore, in 167 BC, the Greek scholar and historian was captured and taken prisoner of war by Roman soldiers.

Relationship with Aemilius Paullus Macedonicus

In Rome, Polybius was place in the care of Aemilius Paullus Macedonicus, the hero of the Third Macedonian War. The two men became friends as Aemilius too was a patron of art and literature.

Polybus even served as the tutor of Aemilius’ children – Scipio Aemilianus and Quintus Fabius Maximus Aemillianus. Both children were Roman statesmen and generals, with the former noted for his military feats in the Third Punic War (149 BC – 146 BC) against Carthage.

Polybius and the Scipionic Circle

He was originally anti-Roman; however, his sentiments against Rome gradually faded away and he became a big admirer of the Romans during his time in Rome.

Polybius also developed a strong bond with his pupil, Scipio Aemilianus, who was one of the chief patrons of the Scipionic Circle.

The Scipionic Circle was a group of influential Roman statesmen and intellectuals who gathered around the Roman general Scipio Africanus in the 2nd century BC. Scipio Africanus was a successful military commander who played a key role in the defeat of Hannibal during the Second Punic War. He was also known for his interest in Greek philosophy, literature, and culture.

Polybius came to be a member of the Scipionic Circle due to his ties with Scipio Aemilianus, who was an adopted son of one of Scipio Africanus’ sons.

The members of the Scipionic Circle were united by their shared interest in Greek culture and philosophy, which they saw as a way to improve themselves and their society. They believed that Rome could learn from the wisdom of the Greeks, and that by embracing Greek ideas and culture, they could create a more enlightened and virtuous society.

The Scipionic Circle was not a formal organization, but rather a loose network of friends and colleagues who shared common interests and ideals. Nevertheless, their ideas and influence had a profound impact on Roman society and culture, helping to shape the intellectual and moral climate of the Republic in the centuries that followed.

The Scipionic Circle

Counsellor to Scipio Aemilianus, the Roman general who defeated Carthage in the Third Punic War

Polybius mentioned going to Africa with Scipio Aemilianus to explore the continent. He also served as one of the advisors of Scipio Aemilianus during the Third Punic War. As a matter of fact, he was present when Scipio led Roman forces to sack Carthage in 146 BC. His experience and firsthand knowledge of those events is the reason why his account of the war came to be widely accepted by scholars later on.

It is also likely that Polybius had a front row sit during Rome’s sack of the Greek city-state of Corinth in 146 BC. After a few expeditions along the coast of North Africa and Iberia, Polybius returned to his hometown in Greece to take up the task of reorganizing the state institutions.

Polybius and Scipio Aemilianus

1797 engraving representing Scipio Aemilianus (left) before the ruins of Carthage in 146 BC in the company of his friend Polybius

Later years

In the last few decades of his life, Polybius lived in Rome, where he worked assiduously to finish his work, “The Histories”. He also embarked on a number of trips to many parts of the Mediterranean in order to gather more stories for his work.

Not only did he manage to gain access to some reliable secondary data, including archival material, but he also had the opportunity to interview former soldiers and political leaders that participated in wars of the past, including those against the Romans. He did all of those things in order to make sure that his descriptions of those historical events, sites and personalities were free from errors and biases.

Not much is known about Polybius’ later life other than the fact that he spent his last few years on earth writing a number of works. However, of all those works, only Histories survive.

Some scholars state that Polybius was part of Scipio Aemilianus’ council during the Numantine War (143-133 BC), a conflict between Rome and the Celtiberian tribes of Hispania Citerior.

It’s commonly accepted that the Greek historian passed away somewhere 118 BC. This is because that year was when he penned down his last known historical event in Histories.

There are some ancient historians and scholars, including the Pseudo-Lucians, who claim that the Greek historian passed away, aged 82, after falling from his horse.

Frank William Walbank (1909-2008) – a biographer of Polybius

English scholar and historian Frank William Walbank (1909-2008) is famed for his in-depth studies of Polybius. Walbank also provided detailed commentary of Polybius’ Histories.

In addition to a biography of Polybius [i.e. Polybius (1972; 1990)], the Yorkshire scholar and historian published works a number of works including Philip V of Macedon (1940), Aratos of Sicyon (1933), The Awful Revolution (1946; 1969), and A Historical Commentary on Polybius, 3 vols. (1957, 1967, 1979).

Key traits that made Polybius a good historian

  • His first-hand eyewitness of the many of the events he wrote about allowed his accounts to be relatively free of bias and personal prejudice. For example, he personally witnessed the last few battles of the Third Punic War, including the sack of Carthage in 146 BC.
  • He had a strong sense of historiography than many of his contemporaries and historians that lived before him.
  • Polybius has been praised for expressing his points in a very clear and relatively prejudice-free way. The Greek author believed that being a historian requires being unbiased at all times in the narration of the historical events. This is why he criticized fellow ancient Greek historian Timaeus (c. 345 BC-c. 250 BC) for making unfounded statements that were often based on bad judgment and a great deal of prejudice in favor of Rome. This point also explains why Polybius rightly heaped praise on the Carthaginian general Hamilcar, describing him as brave and genius commander.
  • He stated that historians ought to be knowledgeable in politics and military affairs as those fields enabled the historian to better interpret historical events in a proper way.

Questions and Answers

When and where was Polybius born?

The generally accepted view is that the Greek historian was born around 200 BC in the Arcadian city of Megalopolis in southern Greece. The city, along with other Achaean states in the region, came to some bit of prominence in the 3rd century BC.

However, in some accounts, Polybius lived from 208-125 BC.

Who were some of the scholars Polybius influenced?

This Greek historian and scholar had tremendous influence on historians and scholars that came after him, including Roman historian statesman Cicero. Other scholars that he influenced are Strabo, Diodorus, Athenaeus, Livy, Plutarch, and Arian. Modern scholars like Niccolò Machiavelli, John Locke, Montesquieu, Edmund Burke, and Joseph De Maistre took some bit of inspiration from Polybius’ works and ideas.

For example, Polybius’ work and Livy’s History of Rome are generally seen as the main accounts of the Second Punic War (218-201 BC).

To some extent, Polybius’ analysis of the Roman constitution and his views on the separation of power influenced Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws, and John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government. Similarly, the framers of the US Constitution, including John Adams, took some bit of inspiration from the historical works of Polybius.

Who were the historians and scholars that inspired Polybius?

Polybius quest for objectivity and unbiased reporting of historical events and personalities were undoubtedly influenced by 4th century BC Greek historian Thucydides. This is the reason why some consider Polybius the successor of Thucydides. Another person Polybius likely drew inspiration from was Sempronius Asellio (c. 158 BC – c. 91 BC). Like Polybius, Asellio penned down history of the events in which he was engaged. It is said that Polybius had influence on Asellio, who was his co-writer. Both historians tried to go beyond reporting the history of the events by aiming to analyze the causes of those events. It is safe to say Asellio tried to fill the shoes left behind by Polybius by covering events up to early first century BC.

Polybius and Sempronius Asellio

Why are Polybius’ works important?

He provided an unbiased look at how the Roman Republic rose in the 3rd and 2nd centuries BC. The advantage he had was that he partook in some of the historical events he talks about. Thus, he not only looked at the extant historical works, but he managed to record events in an unbiased way as they unfolded.

As a result, his works have been compared to the likes of Thucydides, whose exploits as a general allowed him to write a historical account relatively free of errors and bias.

Those experiences he had allowed him to create a relatively unbiased historical account of those events

Bibliography

Astin, A. E., Scipio Aemilianus, Oxford University Press, 1967

Champion, Craige B. Cultural Politics in Polybius’s Histories. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 2004.

Eckstein, Arthur M. Moral Vision in the Histories of Polybius. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1995.

Gibson, Bruce & Harrison, Thomas (editors): Polybius and his World: Essays in Memory of F.W. Walbank, (Oxford, 2013).

Marshall Davies Lloyd, Polybius and the Founding Fathers: the separation of powers, Sept. 22, 1998.

McGing, Brian C. Polybius: The Histories. Oxford Approaches to Classical Literature. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2010.

John Ma. Statues and Cities: Honorific Portraits and Civic Identity in the Hellenistic World. Oxford University Press, 2013.

Polybius, The Histories, 35, 4.8–14

Polybius, The Histories, 35.4.1–7

Polybius, The Histories, Oxford World’s Classics, OUP Oxford, 2010

Polybius; Frank W. Walbank; Ian Scott-Kilvert. The Rise of the Roman Empire. Penguin Classics, 1979.

Sacks, Kenneth S. Polybius on the Writing of History. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1981.

Trans. W. R. Paton; Revised by F. R. Walbank & C. Habicht. Loeb; Polybius’ Histories, Vol. IV, Books 9- 15. Harvard University Press,, 2011.

Walbank, F.W. Polybius. University of California Press, 1990.

Ward, A. M., Heichelheim, F. M., and Yeo, C. A., A History of the Roman People, Pearson; 3rd edition, 1998.

Warmington, B.H. Carthage, A History, Barnes & Noble, New edition, 1994.

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