The Historian’s Skin

Polybius

by F.W. Walbank
University of California, 201 pp., $8.50

On June 22, 168 BC, in about one hour, the Macedonian phalanx was destroyed near home, on the fields of Pydna, by the Roman legions. In the Greek East there was no longer any organized force that could check the winners. The old monarchy of Macedon was split into four republics, vassals of Rome; its ruling class was systematically uprooted. The inhabitants of Epirus, who had supported their neighbors, were sold into slavery, and their towns were destroyed.

Allies” of Rome who had shown less than the required enthusiasm during the campaign were punished. The most important Greek state, the Achaean League (which included Arcadia), had to surrender a thousand young members of its upper class—that is, the greater part of it.

The thousand Achaean hostages were distributed among the cities of central Italy. A few managed to slip away, but most withered in Italy. When, seventeen years later, the three hundred survivors were allowed to go back to Greece, Cato the Censor commented that they could by now safely be left to the care of Greek undertakers.

Only one of the thousand had emerged as a personality in his own right during those seventeen years, and this in the service of the Romans. Polybius, a native of Megalopolis in Arcadia, was the son of Lycortas, one of the Achaean politicians who had never wholeheartedly embraced the Roman cause. He himself, as commander of the Achaean cavalry during the year 168, had been only moderately efficient in helping the Romans against the Macedonians. When he arrived in Italy in 167 at the age of about thirty or thirty-two, however, he was soon accepted by the Roman upper class, was exceptionally allowed to live in Rome, was given freedom to travel, and became an unofficial tutor to the future destroyer of Carthage, Scipio Aemilianus (by birth the son of Paulus Aemilius, the victor at Pydna, by adoption the grandson of the general who had beaten Hannibal).

No wonder that the Romans appreciated him. Polybius was a man of parts: a budding historian who had already written an encomiastic biography of the Achaean leader Philopoemen, he was also a military expert with technical inventions to his credit, a competent geographer who later turned into an audacious explorer—and a brilliant secret agent. Polybius himself tells the story of how he helped the Syrian prince Demetrius to flee from Rome and to recover the throne. He does not add the obvious, namely that he was acting on behalf of a senatorial group. He was at the siege of Carthage with Scipio Aemilianus. When the Macedonians and Achaeans, who had attempted a poorly coordinated rebellion against Rome, were smashed for good in 146, Polybius advised on the reorganization of Greece.

We may believe Polybius when he claims that he was able to obtain concessions from the Romans on behalf of the Greeks. They cannot have amounted to much, because the center of the rebellion, Corinth, was sacked and reduced to a heap of …

This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $94.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.

One-Week Access — $4.99

Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.

If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.