Polybius – Hellenistic Greek Historian

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

Polybius (c. 200 – c. 118 BC), born in the town of Megalopolis to a father who was an influential politician and land owner, was a Greek historian of the Hellenistic period.

While growing up, Polybius gained experience on topics he would later write on, such as through his travels and exposure to political and military affairs. He had a political career in Megalopolis and was also elected as a cavalry officer. Upon the Achaean Leagues’s defeat to the Romans, he was taken hostage to Rome, and cultivated a friendship with the great Roman general Scipio Aemilianus. Polybius became Scipio’s mentor, and was allowed to live in Rome where he worked on his literary works.

Polybius is cherished by many historians for his unique notion of historiography which led him to propose an objectivist methodology and means of critical data collection. In fact, Polybius was critical of some other historians who appeared to undermine this method, such as Phylarchus (255 – ? BC), for their sensationalist claims and attempts to thrill and charm their audiences. Polybius thus went to great lengths to obtain his information. This included traversing Mediterranean countries to examine historical sites, interviewing persons of interest, engaging oral sources, and consulting the works of other Greek and Roman historians. He also made numerous references to other works, often quoting and citing them as sources. Such means of data collection might seem common practice for modern historians but this has not always been the case. Polybius is thus unique in terms of being one of the earliest thinkers to provide a careful examination of source materials, and present history as an organic whole and sequence of cause and effect,

“[S]ince this date [220 BC] history has formed an organic whole, and the affairs of Italy and Africa have been interlinked with those of Greece and Asia, all tending towards one end.”

Polybius held to the moral superiority of Rome because of the empire’s just law, as well as its power and stability. He also used history to inform moral lessons, thus giving what some have referred to as a “moral vision” to his writing.

The Histories, the work for which Polybius is most well-known, is an extensive engagement with crucial historical events in the Mediterranean world from 264 BC to 146 BC. It consists of 40 volumes although only five have been discovered extant in their entirety. Polybius recounts Rome’s rise to supremacy, and the wars between Rome and the Carthage empire, with some of those conflicts remembered for being the longest naval wars of antiquity. Polybius speaks of how Rome’s military defeated Carthage to become the most powerful force in the region, while also also describing politics within Mediterranean states, Greece, and Egypt. This information renders The Histories a valuable source for Hellenism and the Hellenistic period. Polybius also penned other works which have been lost, one of which was Tactics, a work which likely detailed Greek and Roman military tactics.

Polybius is not only deemed valuable by contemporary historians but by a number of other ancient thinkers too, both Roman and Greek alike. He was both quoted and/or referred to by Cicero (106-43 BC), Diodorus Siculus (90-30 BC), Strabo (63 BC – 23 AD), Livy (59 BC – 17 AD), Plutarch (46-120 AD), and Athenaeus (170-223 AD). Polybius even gained a following in Italy during the Renaissance when scholars looked to revive classical history.

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