Polybius (puh-LIHB-ee-uhs) was born about 200 b.c.e. in Megalopolis, Arcadia, in Greece. He was the son of Lycortas, a prominent Achaean diplomat and political leader; nothing is known of Polybius’s mother. His family’s wealth was based on extensive and productive land holdings. During his youth Polybius developed an interest in biography, history, and military topics. He wrote a biography of Philopoenen, a legendary leader in Arcadia, and a military treatise, Tactics, which has not survived. As a young nobleman, Polybius complied with the expectation that he be trained as a warrior in order to support the policies of the Achaean League.
At the age of twenty, Polybius was named a hipparch, a commander of cavalry, in the army of the league, and he remained in that position for a decade. Shortly after 170, the fragile tranquillity of the Greek world was disrupted by the Roman war against Perseus of Macedonia. Amid this crisis, which saw a heightened Roman distrust of the various Greek states, Polybius declared his support for the Romans and offered his cavalry to assist the Roman forces, which were under the leadership of Quintus Marcius Philippus. Not only did the Romans not accept Polybius’s offer of support, which was a result of their lack of trust, but they also seized him and about a thousand other Achaeans and transported them to Italy. This episode marked a transformation in the life and work of Polybius.
On arriving in Rome, Polybius came under the protection of Scipio Aemilianus, a prominent Roman general who had befriended the exiled Achaean. Polybius traveled with Scipio to Spain, Africa, and southern France; they witnessed the destruction of Carthage in 146 at the close of the Third Punic War. In the same year, Polybius was in Corinth, which had been destroyed by the Romans. He exhibited effective diplomatic skills as he arranged an end to hostilities and a reasonable settlement for the Achaeans.
Throughout his travels and contacts with the Romans, Polybius developed his interest in history and formulated a plan to write a history of the emergence of Rome to a position of hegemony in the Mediterranean world. At first, he intended to conclude his work in 168 with the victory of the Romans over Perseus in the Battle of Pydna. He later decided, however, to continue the history through to the fall of Carthage and Corinth in 146. It appears that his history was published in forty books; although only the first five books have survived intact, fragments and collaborative evidence provide considerable information on the remaining thirty-five books.
In his work The Histories (English translation, 1889), Polybius clarified and expanded the role of the historian and the importance of the study of history. He maintained that historians must be familiar with the geography of the regions they cover, knowledgeable about the practice of politics, and informed of the appropriate documentary sources relating to their topics. Polybius viewed history as an analysis of political developments that would better equip leaders to increase political wisdom.
He advanced a philosophy of history that was based on the frequency of constitutional changes or revolutions in societies and cultures. Polybius argued that in the earliest years of a society’s history, people banded together and designated a leader whose primary purpose was to provide protection for the group; the consequence of this action was the appearance of despotism. As the society expanded and the concept of law emerged, the despotism was transformed into monarchy, which eventually led to tyranny and an aristocratic reaction. The aristocratic regime yielded to oligarchy, which was then replaced by democracy. The democracy survived for a few generations until the memory of the oligarchy passed and democracy was...
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