(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

Polybius c. 200 B.C. - c. 118 B.C.

Greek historian.

A Greek historian of the second century B.C. whose Histories provides the most detailed contemporary account of the rise of the Roman empire, Polybius is credited with being the first historian to formulate a methodology of history. Writing during a period when the entire Mediterranean basin was quickly falling under the domination of a single power—Rome—Polybius was also the first to postulate and practice the need for a "universal" history emphasizing concurrent events and their interrelationships throughout the known world. His ideas about the superiority of mixed constitutions influenced seventeenth- and eighteenth-century political philosophers and are a source of the system of checks and balances in the United States Constitution, while echoes of his theory of the cyclical nature of history can be found in Marxist thought and in the works of twentieth-century historians Oswald Spengler and Arnold Toynbee.

Biographical Information

Born in Megalopolis in Arcadia, central southern Greece, around 201 B.C., Polybius was the son of Lycortas, a prominentpolitician of the Achaean League, which united most of the city-states of the Peloponnesian peninsula. Although nominally allied with Rome, the League offered only tepid support to the Roman army in its campaign against the Kingdom of Macedonia. When Rome crushed the Macedonian forces at Pydna in 168 B.C., the League was punished for its lack of enthusiasm by seeing a thousand of its young upper-class men deported to Italy. Among them was Polybius, who had served as an Achaean cavalry officer during the Macedonian war. Despite his unenviable status as a foreign internee, Polybius thrived in Rome, becoming friend and mentor to young Scipio Aemilianus (later known as Scipio Africanus Minor), whose father had commanded the Roman forces at Pydna. Allowed to remain in Rome while most of the other detainees were sent to remote areas of Italy, he circulated freely among the members of Rome's ruling class; scholars believe that he may even have been allowed to travel outside Italy before the official release of the Achaean detainees in 150 B.C. It was apparently during his first years in Rome, around 167 B.C., that he began writing his Histories, drawing information from Roman archives as well as from his personal experiences and his contacts with Roman political and military leaders. He accompanied Scipio as a military advisor during the siege of Carthage during the Third Punic War and was present at the destruction of the city in 146 B.C. When a revolt by the Achaean League led to its being crushed and disbanded by Roman forces in that same year, Polybius was dispatched to aid in the political reorganization of the Peloponnese. Although the exact dates of his trips are not known, information in his Histories indicates that he travelled extensively throughout the Mediterranean and also took part in an exploration of the Atlantic coast of northern Africa and Portugal. Polybius died in Megalopolis, tradition has it, of a fall from his horse at the age of 82, in about 119 B.C.

Major Writings

By his own account, before leaving Greece in 168 B.C. Polybius had written a biography of the Achaean leader Philopoemen, but no trace of this work remains. He also appears to have written several monographs (also lost) during the course of his lifetime, including one on military tactics and others on the Numantine War and on the habitability of the equatorial regions. The work for which he is now best known is his forty-volume Histories, of which only fragments have survived. This massive study describes the events in the Mediterranean basin from the middle of the third century B.C. to 146 B.C. Polybius began writing the Histories in about 167 B.C. as an account of the expansion of Roman rule to encompass virtually the entire known world. He originally intended the work to cover the period up to 167 B.C, but later decided to extend the period covered to include the destruction of the cities of Corinth and Carthage in 146 B.C, and he appears to have continued to revise and add to the Histories until his death. The stated purpose of the work was to determine the value of Roman policies as well as to provide present and future statesmen with practical instruction in military and political matters. Of the surviving sections the best known and most widely studied is Book VI, in which the historian provides a theoretical account of the development of society and government. He saw the history of government as falling into a recurring cycle by which kingship inevitably gave way to successive stages of tyranny, aristocracy, oligarchy, democracy, and anarchy, at which point a strong leader would emerge and establish himself as king, thus starting the cycle over again. The only hope of breaking the cycle, Polybius maintained, lay in a "mixed" government on the Roman model, which combined elements of kingship, aristocratic rule, and democratic representation.

Textual History

With the exception of the first five books, which have survived intact, Polybius's Histories have come down to us in a fragmentary state. Scholars still debate the correct order of some of the fragments and the extent to which they are representative of the entire work. Parts of the missing thirty-five volumes have been pieced together from an abridged version of books six to eighteen prepared in the tenth century A.D. or earlier (the Excerpta Antiqua) and from a collection of excerpts copied by the order of the tenth-century Byzantine emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus. Italian bishop Niccolò Perotti translated Books I-V into Latin in 1455 and published them in 1473. A Greek edition of the first five books appeared in 1530, followed by French and Italian translations in the mid-seventeenth century and the first English translation, of Book I, in 1568. A Latin translation and commentary prepared by Johannes Schweighaeuser and published in Leipzig from 1789 to 1795 formed the basis for subsequent Latin editions by F. Hultsch (1870-92) and Theodorus Buettner-Wobst (1889-1905). English translations of the complete extant Histories have been carried out by Evelyn S. Shuckburgh (1889) and W. R. Paton (1922-27); Shuckburgh's translation, based on Hultsch, is considered more accurate, but it does not reflect subsequent conclusions about the correct order of the fragments.

Critical Reception

While the historical methodology of Polybius is inadequate by modern historiographical standards, his Histories continue to be valued by historians for their detailed and insightful treatment of the period they cover. His thoughts on politics and on the writing of history have been a recurring focus of critical attention throughout the centuries since his death. Later Roman writers criticized his writing as stuffy and pedantic, but nonetheless used him extensively as a source; the statesman and philosopher Cicero was influenced by his theory of mixed constitutions, and the historian Livy derived much of his material about the rise of Rome from the Histories. According to Wesley E. Thompson, the selection of excerpts preserved under Byzantine emperors indicates an acute interest in his accounts of Roman military strategy. After several centuries of neglect, interest in Polybius revived during the Italian Renaissance, when Niccolò Machiavelli and other political theorists mined the surviving volumes of the Histories for historical information as well as for the historian's thoughts on political and military matters. Polybius's preference for mixed constitutions was taken up by the English philosopher John Locke and the French philosopher Montesquieu. The German historian Barthold Niebuhr, considered the founder of modern historiography, relied on Polybius extensively as a source and praised his emphasis on personal experience and eyewitness accounts in the writing of history. As Polybius remains the major source of historical information about the rise of the Roman empire, he continues to invite critical commentary and analysis. Historians still debate his attitudes towards the events he recounts as well as the exact nature and acuity of his views on the purpose and methodology of history. F. W. Walbank, a British professor considered the leading modern authority on Polybius, has published a detailed three-volume commentary on the Histories as well as a more general book-length study and numerous shorter articles. Arthur M. Eckstein has also published extensively on Polybius, with much of his work focusing on the political and personal context of the historian's views and on his attitude toward the role of ethics in statecraft.