Who was Polybius?

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

Growing up Polybius gained experience on the topics he would later write about, particularly 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 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 produced his literary works.

Polybius is cherished by many historians for his unique historiography in which he proposed an objectivist methodology and means of critical data collection. Polybius was even critical of several other historians who appeared to fail to meet this method, such as Phylarchus (255 – ? BCE), for their sensationalist claims and attempts to thrill and charm their audiences.

Polybius went to great lengths to obtain his information. This included him traversing Mediterranean countries to examine historical sites, interviewing persons of interest, engaging with 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. These means of data collection might seem common practice for modern historians but it has not always been the case. Polybius is unique for being one of the earliest writers to provide a careful examination of source materials and present history as a sequence of cause and effect.

Polybius held to the moral superiority of Rome because of its just law, power, and stability. He also used history to teach moral lessons which gave a “moral vision” to his writing.

The Histories, the work for which Polybius is most remembered, is an extensive engagement with crucial historical events in the Mediterranean world from 264 BCE to 146 CE. 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 it and the Carthage Empire. Some of those conflicts are remembered for constituting the longest naval wars in antiquity. Rome, Polybius tells us, defeated Carthage and became the most powerful force in the region. He also described politics within Mediterranean states and countries like Greece and Egypt. This information makes The Histories a valuable source from which to learn about the Hellenistic period. Polybius also produced other works which have been lost. One of these was Tactics, a work likely detailing Greek and Roman military tactics.

Polybius’ writings were considered valuable by a number of other ancient thinkers, Roman and Greek alike. He was both quoted and/or referred to by Cicero (106-43 BCE), Diodorus Siculus (90-30 BCE), Strabo (63 BCE – 23 CE), Livy (59 BCE – 17 CE), Plutarch (46-120 CE), and Athenaeus (170-223 CE). Polybius also gained a following in Italy during the Renaissance of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries CE when thinkers looked to revive classical history.

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