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Polybius (1), Greek historian, c. 200–c. 118 BCEfree

Polybius (1), Greek historian, c. 200–c. 118 BCEfree

  • Emma Nicholson

Summary

Polybius was a Greek historian who documented Rome’s rise to power in the Mediterranean in the 3rd and 2nd centuries bce. Originally a leading figure of the Achaean League, he was deported to Rome after the defeat of Perseus of Macedon in 168 bce and became closely attached to Scipio Aemilianus, forming part of the so-called Scipionic Circle. While in Rome he began to write his Histories, a vast forty-book historical account of the middle-Hellenistic world and Rome’s establishment of dominion over the Mediterranean. Unfortunately, only the first five books remain complete; the rest are preserved in varying degrees of fragmentation. The Histories are the earliest surviving “universal” history and interweave events in the different geographical areas of the Mediterranean to demonstrate the increasing interconnectedness of world affairs.

The Histories are described by Polybius as pragmatikos, concerned with political and military affairs, and have a strong didactic and moral tendency aimed at current and future leaders. The work intends not only to explain what happened in the Mediterranean and why, but also to train its readers to navigate a political and military career as successfully as possible and to bear the reversals of fortune with courage. As a historian, Polybius was characterized by his deep concern for the truthfulness of his narrative, his careful consultation of documents and witnesses, his efforts to apply reason and correct judgement, his focus on human character and action, and his elucidation of cause and effect. While not immune from political bias, Polybius adheres rigorously to his principles throughout the Histories and often criticizes other historians for their lack of accuracy, judgment, or objectivity. He has long been regarded as one of the more reliable ancient historians.

Subjects

  • Greek History and Historiography
  • Greek Literature

Updated in this version

Article rewritten to reflect current scholarship. Digital materials added.

Biography

Polybius’s father, Lycortas of Megalopolis, was a leading figure of the Achaean League in the 180s bce and, along with Philopoemen, was one of the architects of the doomed Achaean attempt during those years to treat with Rome on a basis of equality. Polybius bore Philopoemen’s ashes to burial in 182 (Plut. Phil. 21.3), was appointed as envoy to Alexandria (1) in 180, and served as hipparch (cavalry commander) of the League, its second-highest office, in 170/69 (Polyb. 28.6.9). After Rome’s victory over Perseus (2) of Macedon at Pydna in 168, Polybius’s political career was cut short: he was denounced by Callicrates (2) as insufficiently friendly to the Romans and became one of the thousand prominent Achaeans who were deported to Rome and subsequently detained without trial in various towns in Italy.

While detained, Polybius was allowed to remain in Rome and became a friend and mentor to P. Cornelius Scipio Aemilianus (Polyb. 31.23–25), forming part of the so-called Scipionic Circle. It seems that it was during his time in Rome that Polybius started writing his Histories. At the same time, he continued to play an active role in politics. In 163/2 bce, he assisted (perhaps with the support of the Scipios) in the escape from Rome of Demetrius I, son of Seleucus IV, who had been a hostage since the 180s and who subsequently assumed the Seleucid throne (Polyb. 31.2, 11–15). It was also through Polybius’s efforts, with the assistance of the Scipios and Cato the Elder, that the surviving Achaean detainees were eventually released c. 150 bce (Polyb. 35.6).1

Figure 1. Cleitor Relief with portrait of Polybius. Cast of a now-lost original.

Source: Jona Lendering. Museo della Civiltà Romana, Rome. CC0 1.0 Universal.

After his release, Polybius acted as a military adviser to the Romans, and even witnessed the destruction of Carthage (146 bce) in Scipio Aemilianus’s company (Polyb. 38.19–22; cf. Plut. Regum 82; App. Pun. 132). Following the Achaean War, sack of Corinth, and subsequent dissolution of the Achaean League (146 bce), Polybius returned to a more active political role by helping the Romans usher in a new settlement in Greece and was subsequently celebrated and honoured with statues and relief portraits for appeasing Roman anger and resolving legal matters throughout the Peloponnese (Polyb. 39.2–5; cf. Strabo 8.6.23; Plut. Phil. 21; Paus. 8.30.9; cf. 7.16). A cast of a relief portrait by Cleitor (currently in Rome’s Museo della Civiltà Romana) is the only honorific image of Polybius produced in this period to come down to us.2

Polybius travelled extensively in his later life, accompanying Scipio Aemilianus c. 151 bce to Spain and Africa (where he met Masinissa), returning to Italy over the Alps in Hannibal’s footsteps, and later undertaking an exploratory voyage in the Atlantic. He also visited Alexandria and Sardis, and may have been at Numantia in 133.3 He is reported to have died at the age of eighty-two after falling from a horse c. 118 bce (Ps.-Lucian, Macr. 23; cf. Polyb. 3.39.8, with a reference to the Via Domitia, laid down in 118).

Works

Polybius’s minor works include an early encomiastic biography of Philopoemen (Polyb. 10.21), a work on tactics, a history of the Numantine war, and a treatise on the habitability of the equatorial regions. These are all, unfortunately, lost. His main work, the Histories, survives in a more substantial form, however, and he has the peculiar privilege of being the only Greek Hellenistic historian whose work has come down to us at any significant length. As a result, Polybius’s Histories are of crucial importance for our understanding of the middle Hellenistic period and dominate our understanding of Hellenistic historiography.4

Nevertheless, of the original forty books of the Histories, only Books 1–5 survive intact. After Book 5 we are dependent upon excerpts and occasional quotations preserved by other writers. The so-called Excerpta Antiqua are a continuous abridgement of Books 1–18 and provide the majority of what remains of Books 6–18. The main source for the remainder of the Histories is the slightly later collection of excerpts, from many other Greek historians as well as Polybius, made by a number of hands and collected under various headings for the emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus (912–950 ce). This collection contains no excerpts at all from five books of the Histories (17, 19, 26, 37, and 40); these were presumably lost by this time. A few quotations from Books 19, 26, and 37 are found in other authors, but Book 17 (covering the years 199–198 bce) and Book 40 (a recapitulation and chronological survey) have perished without leaving a trace.5 Book 34 (devoted to geographical matters) was much referred to, especially by Strabo, but it survives only in quotations. Certain parts of Polybius’s missing narrative can be reconstructed in broad strokes using Livy’s history of Rome, which relied heavily on the Histories as a source for Greek affairs and in places quoted them nearly verbatim.6

The Histories: Purpose, Structure, and Methodology

The Histories are a massive feat of historical writing, documenting the rise of Rome from 264 to 146 bce. Polybius’s original purpose in writing them was to document and explain how Rome rose to world dominion, and in particular to answer the question of “how and by what sort of constitution [πῶς καὶ τίνι γένει πολιτείας‎] almost the entire known world was conquered and fell under the sole rule of the Romans in just under fifty-three years” (1.1.5; the fifty-three years are those covered by Books 3–30 of the Histories, from the beginning of the 140th Olympiad in 220 bce to the end of the Macedonian monarchy in 167 bce). Polybius was profoundly impressed and inspired by this process, both by the end of the Macedonian monarchy that had dominated the affairs of Greece for almost two centuries and by the way in which the course of events seemed almost calculated to produce Roman supremacy as its final result. In the Histories, Polybius often invokes tychē (τύχη‎, “Fortune”) as a metaphor for supernatural guidance and direction, coordinating the movement of all the different political players in the known world towards this outcome (e.g., Polyb. 1.4). While Fortune seems very close to being an active, even a vengeful, agent in the Histories, it is often invoked rhetorically and never as an all-encompassing explanation for change in the world.7 Divine causation is only resorted to as an explanation for the otherwise inexplicable and for natural disasters (e.g., Polyb. 36.17); rational, human reasons for events are always preferred and sought.

Books 1 and 2, which serve to introduce the main period covered by the Histories (221/0–146 bce), span the years 264–221 bce and cover the First Punic War and the development of the Achaean League and its relationship with the Aetolian League and Macedonia. Polybius’s target audience seems to have been the Greeks (Polyb. 1.3.7–10), although he also expected Romans to consult his Histories (as is indicated at 6.11.3). In the course of writing the Histories, Polybius extended his purpose to show how the Romans subsequently exercised their dominion after obtaining supremacy, how the world they had conquered reacted to Roman dominion, and how both Romans and non-Romans were affected by this new world order (Polyb. 3.4–5). The resulting extension of the work (Books 30–39; Book 40 contained a recapitulation and chronological survey) not only allowed Polybius to cover events in which he was personally involved or which he had observed during his own lifetime, but also enabled him to do even more in support of the second of his original objectives: namely, to teach his readers about politics and leadership, and how to bear bravely the vicissitudes of fortune (Polyb. 1.1.2). For Polybius, as for many of his predecessors, history was about teaching and was considered a great aid in learning about political and military affairs. This didactic function was a fundamental principle of his work, in which we find a keen focus on explanation, cause and effect, and the evaluation of action and character, often in political and moral terms.8

To document Rome’s rise to power and offer his readers a comprehensive view of this process, Polybius developed a new structure for historical writing. Given his belief that the process was fundamentally that of the unification of the known world, his Histories needed to allow for both a wider synoptic view and a narrower regional one. This was achieved by offering broad outlines of events in the work’s prefaces (Polyb. 1.3, 3.1–3) and then combining chronological and geographical organization in an innovative way. Chronologically, the Histories proceed by Olympiads, with each book containing information relating to a four-year period associated with the cycle of the (panhellenic) Olympic games. This method of chronicling time was first used by Polybius’s predecessor Ephorus.9 The Olympiad structure was not rigidly fixed, however, and was frequently adapted by Polybius to accommodate the flow of events (for instance, the first five books do not yet adhere to this structure and in Book 14 Polybius deviates from it in outlining events in Egypt during the reign of Ptolemy IV Philopator). The framework of the Histories is also geographical, with a fixed progression from west to east: for each Olympiad, Polybius deals first with Italy (together with Sicily, Spain, and Africa), then with Greece and Macedonia, then with Asia, and finally with Egypt. The combination of Olympiads and the regular progression through geographic areas produced an interweaving structure (symplokē) which mimicked the increasingly interwoven nature of the known world in the 3rd and 2nd centuries bce (Polyb. 1.4.6–11).10 In Polybius’s mind, this interweaving of the world began in the year 217 bce (Book 5), instigated by Philip V of Macedon at the Conference of Naupactus (Polyb. 5.105), and was completed with the destruction of the Macedonian empire by Rome in 167 (Book 29). This synoptic yet detailed approach to history, cycling through various geographical regions, has resulted in Polybiusbeing credited as the earliest surviving “universal” historian.

To describe the kind of history that he wrote, Polybius may have invented the term pragmatikē historia (“pragmatic history”) to denote a particular focus on political and military affairs rather than on genealogical or other matters (πραγματικὴ ἱστορία‎, Polyb. 6.5.2; αἱ πράξεις αἱ πολιτικαί‎, Polyb. 12.25e). This type of history was specifically aimed at those readers who were or would be politically active and was designed to offer instruction in political affairs.11 This political focus was grounded in Polybius’s belief that it was because of Rome’s constitution that the Romans had been so successful in conquering the Mediterranean (Polyb. 3.118.8–12, 6.2). Book 6 is therefore dedicated to a discussion of political constitutions, the different forms of government and how they change (the cycle of constitutions, or anakyklōsis), and the uniqueness, strength, and resilience of Rome’s mixed constitution (incorporating elements of kingship, aristocracy, and democracy). Yet for Polybius the scope of the “political” was quite wide, as may be inferred from the breadth of his account of the Roman politeia, which embraces military, economic, religious, and social features of Roman society alongside political institutions and practices. In Polybius’s mind, apprehension of all these elements was necessary if one was to fully understand why Rome came to power and why the Greek and Macedonian world fell.

For Polybius, the highest form of history was that which insisted as much as possible upon truth and the accurate narration of historical action and speech. History without truth was unreliable and unhelpful for the education of the reader, and Polybius openly criticized other historians for their excessively sensational and inaccurate accounts (e.g., the criticism of Phylarchus at Polyb. 2.56–63). The quest for accuracy had to involve the careful and rigorous consultation and examination of documents (e.g., treaties), written memoirs and eyewitnesses, as well as geographical study (especially “autopsy,” or personal examination of sites) and first-hand knowledge of politics and war. Reasoning, explanation, and the demonstration of cause and effect were also of prime importance in history’s educational purpose: “The mere statement of a fact may interest us, but it is when the reason is added that the study of history becomes fruitful: it is the mental transference of similar circumstances to our own that gives us the means of forming presentiments about what is going to happen” (12.25b).12 This resembles the view held by Thucydides (2) (1.22) c. 200 years earlier, but Polybius goes beyond his predecessor in his insistence upon the element of explanation and beyond anybody else, even historians closer to his own time, in his explicit formulation of, and emphasis on, the need to distinguish between the beginnings (ἀρχαί‎), causes (αἰτίαι‎), and pretexts (προφάσεις‎) of war (Polyb. 3.6–7). For Polybius, a proper explanation of war and political change had to delineate and identify such processes and elements; such a delineation would in turn allow his readers to delineate and identify them in their own careers and thus to act with more reason and foresight, having gained a greater understanding of how political events and wars generally occur. In dealing with the wars that led to Rome's dominion, Polybius adheres rigorously to his principles, documenting and explaining the process and outcome in a truthful, reasoned, and multifaceted way. As a result, Polybius gained a reputation for reliability as to facts that has endured into modern times. Since the 1990s, however, the perception of Polybius’s reliability has been somewhat undermined following a revolution in scholarly approaches to his work—a “literary turn” which focuses on the textual character of the Histories and analyses them not only as a historical source but also as a literary construct.13

Confident in the superiority of his methodology and the structure of his work (and also the extent of his access to Rome and the Romans, which was unparalleled among his Greek predecessors and contemporaries), Polybius was regularly critical of other historians for their methods and biases, and his criticism often became polemical and was sometimes excessive. In Book 1, for example, Polybius is critical of Philinus and Fabius Pictor for their lack of accuracy and bias in documenting the First Punic War (1.14–15; 3.8–9, 26). In Book 2 he criticizes Phylarchus for sensationalism in his account of the Cleomenean War (2.56–63). In Book 8 he takes issue with Theopompus for transforming his history of Greece into a history of Philip II (8.9–11). In Book 34 he criticizes Eratosthenes for his geographical errors. Most famously, in Book 12 (which is dedicated to the topic of how to write history) he criticizes Timaeus (2) for being an armchair historian; for his lack of political and military knowledge and experience; and for his subsequent inaccuracies.

Despite his self-proclaimed adherence to truth, however, Polybius himself was manifestly not free from bias, whether positive (e.g., for the Achaean leaders Aratus of Sicyon and Philopoemen, the Achaean League as a whole, and Scipio Aemilianus) or negative (e.g., against Philip V of Macedon, the Aetolian Confederacy, many of Rome's opponents, and the masses generally), and these leanings flavour much of his commentary. Yet although not neutral, he was honest (even about Rome) and, above all, concerned about the effect of undisputed dominion upon the society that wields it and upon those who inhabit the world in which it is wielded. In the latter portion of his Histories, he could not help but warn Rome about the consequences of its increasingly heavy-handed treatment of its subjects. For instance, he documents four different Greek views regarding Rome’s annihilation of Carthage in 146 bce (36.9) and foreshadows Rome’s own eventual downfall through the words spoken by Scipio Aemilianus as the Roman statesman watches Carthage burn (38.21–22).

Legacy

While Polybius has not received the same recognition and fame as Herodotus and Thucydides, he has had a substantial impact in ancient and modern times on warfare, politics, political science, historiography, and the philosophy of history, and his legacy, interestingly, even stretches into modern telegraphy, cryptography and gaming.

In the ancient world, a number of authors used and cited Polybius’s work, including Sempronius Asellio, Cicero (1), Diodorus, Livy, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Strabo, Josephus, Plutarch, Arrian, Appian, Athenaeus, and Orosius, and he inspired further advancements in historiography, political thought, and geographical writing. Although Polybius fell into obscurity for a time, he experienced a revival of interest in Renaissance Italy, encouraged by Pope Nicholas V (1447–1455 ce), the founder of the Vatican library, when he urged Cardinal Perotti to undertake a Latin translation of the first five books of the Histories, the only ones then known to exist. Vernacular translations in French, German, Italian, and English followed in the late 16th century, and Polybius’s works found a wider audience (albeit still only among scholars and other educated people) that included Isaac Casaubon, Jacques Auguste de Thou, William Camden, and Paolo Sarpi. In the 16th century, Polybius was used as a guide to military affairs and directly impacted European warfare. Niccolò Machiavelli, in his Discourses on Livy, held him up as an exemplar of practicality and as one of the first political scientists, and in the 18th century he was important in this capacity in Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws. Like Montesquieu, the Founding Fathers of the American constitution, and particularly John Adams, were inspired by Polybius’s account of Rome’s mixed government. More recently, Polybius’s tripartite division of governments and “universal” approach to history have drawn the attention of Negri and Haart (2000) as they redefine “empire” in a modern globalized world, and Inglis and Robertson (2006) have reinforced the relevance of Polybius for human scientists today, seeing him as the first “global thinker” and an important precursor of contemporary social scientific analyses of “globalization.”14

In more practical terms, in his own time Polybius assisted (along with Cleoxenus and Democleitus, otherwise unknown) in the development of a more flexible means of communication via fire signals. Previous signalling systems had been based on a finite number of predetermined messages (e.g., “cavalry arrived in the country,” “heavy infantry,” etc.), and were not suited to every contingency. The new system, however, was based on letters and thus could be used to send any message whatsoever. Polybius’s description of this more versatile system in Book 10 (10.43–47) is the basis for what has become known in the modern world as the Polybius Square or Polybius Cipher, a five-by-five grid (sometimes extended) containing the letters of the alphabet (sometimes replaced with symbols). Numbers placed along the top and down the side of the grid are combined to indicate which letter is being signalled. Because of its versatility, the Polybius Square is still used in modern day telegraphy, steganography, and cryptography, and has even been used for “knock codes” to communicate between prison cells by tapping the numbers on pipes or walls.

Figure 2. A Polybius Square/Polybius Cipher.

Source: Courtesy of SPL/Science Source.

Perhaps the most bizarre legacy of Polybius, however, is the use of his name in titling a fictitious arcade game (referred to as “the most dangerous arcade game in the world”) that was the subject of an urban legend. Purportedly appearing in Portland, Oregon, for one month in 1981 as part of a government-run psychology experiment, the game Polybius was said to produce psychoactive and addictive effects, and side effects including amnesia, insomnia, night terrors, and hallucinations.15 This urban legend has since inspired a number of real video games of the same name.

Primary Texts

Editio princeps
  • Opsopaeus, Vincentius, ed. Polybii Historiarum libri quinq[ue]. Hagenau: Iohannes Secerius, 1530. Greek text of Books 1–5; a Latin translation by Niccolò Perotti had appeared in 1473.
Major modern texts
  • Casaubon, Isaac, ed. Historiarum libri qui supersunt. Paris: Drouard, 1609.
  • Schweighäuser, Johannes. Historiarum libri qui supersunt. 8 vols. in 9. Leipzig: Weidman, 1789–1795. With Latin translation, extensive textual notes, geographical and historical index, and a lexicon of Polybian usage.
  • Shuckburgh, Evelyn S., trans. The Histories of Polybius. 2 vols. Based on the text of Friedrich Hultsch. London: Macmilian, 1889.
  • Büttner-Wobst, Theodor, ed. Polybius: Historiae. Leipzig: Teubner, 1889–1905.
  • Paton, William R., ed. and trans. Polybius: The Histories. English translation based upon Büttner-Wobst. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1922–1927. Revised by F. W. Walbank and Christian Habicht, 2010–2012.
  • Pédech, Paul, et al., eds. Polybe: Histoires. With French translation and notes. Paris: Budé, 1969–1995.
  • Waterfield, Robin, trans. Polybius: The Histories. Introduction and notes by Brian McGing. Oxford World Classics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.
  • Walbank, Frank W. A Historical Commentary on Polybius. 3 vols. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1957–1979.
  • Mauersberger, Arno. Polybios-Lexikon. Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 1956–1975. Revised and continued by C. F. Collatz, G. Glockmann, H. Helms and others, 1998–2006.
  • Phillips, David D. Polybius Book 1: A Commentary. Ann Arbor, Michigan, 2016.

Bibliography

Realencyclopädie der Classischen Altertumswissenschaft 21.2, s.v. “Polybios (1).”

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  • Gibson, Bruce, and Thomas Harrison, eds. Polybius and His World: Essays in Memory of F. W. Walbank. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.
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  • McGing, Brian. Polybius’ Histories. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.
  • Miltsios, Nikos. The Shaping of Narrative in Polybius. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2013.
  • Miltsios, Nikos, and Melina Tamiolaki, eds. Polybius and His Legacy. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2018.
  • Moore, Daniel W. Polybius. Experience and the Lessons of History. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2020.
  • Moore, John M. The Manuscript Tradition of Polybius. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1965.
  • Moreno Leoni, Álvaro M. Entre Roma y el mundo griego: Memoria, autorrepresentación y didáctica del poder en las Historias de Polibio. Cordoba: Brujas, 2017.
  • Nicholson, Emma. “Hellenic Romans and Barbaric Macedonians: Polybius on Hellenism and Changing Hegemonic Powers.” Ancient History Bulletin 34, nos. 1–2 (2020): 38–73.
  • Pédech, Paul. La méthode historique de Polybe. Paris: Belles Lettres, 1964.
  • Petzold, Karl-Ernst. Studien zur Methode des Polybios und zu ihrer historischen Auswertung. Munich: C. H. Beck, 1969.
  • Sacks, Kenneth. Polybius on the Writing of History. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981.
  • Schepens, Guido, and Jan Bollansée, eds. The Shadow of Polybius: Intertextuality as a Research Tool in Greek Historiography. Louvain, Belgium: Peeters, 2005.
  • Smith, Christopher, and Liv M. Yarrow, eds. Imperialism, Cultural Politics, and Polybius, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.
  • Thornton, John. Polibio: Il politico e lo storico. Rome: Carocci, 2020.
  • Walbank, Frank W. Selected Papers. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1985.
  • Walbank, Frank W. Polybius, Rome and the Hellenistic World. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Notes