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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 ruins. As Greece was never to be free again until AD 1827, Polybius had time to find compatriots who would appreciate what he had done for them. In the second century AD the traveler and antiquarian Pausanias saw many monuments in honor of Polybius. One declared that “Greece would not have fallen at all, if she had obeyed Polybius in everything, and when she met disaster, her only help came from him.” Another, slightly more realistic, inscription praised Polybius who “roamed over every land and sea, became an ally of the Romans, and stayed their wrath against the Greeks.”

Polybius must have had an instinctive understanding of the state of mind of those Roman aristocrats who, though Hellenized in culture, employed much of their time in sacking and destroying centers of civilization. In one of the few autobiographical details provided by his history, we are told that a common interest in books had put Polybius in touch with the eighteen-year-old Scipio Aemilianus and his elder brother. The books may have been those of the king of Macedon which Paulus Aemilius had transferred to his house in Rome as part of his booty. The friendship with Aemilianus developed into platonic love, with Polybius self-consciously playing Socrates to a better Alcibiades. Twenty years later Polybius stood beside Scipio Aemilianus as he contemplated Carthage burning. With tears in his eyes, “turning round to me at once and grasping my hand, Scipio said: a glorious moment, Polybius, but I have a dread foreboding that some day the same doom will be pronounced upon my own country.”*

Having decided that it was foolish to question Rome’s rise to world power, Polybius saw deeply enough into his own masters to realize that ruling the world was a perturbing business. The more so if you belonged to an aristocracy like the Roman one, for which glory was real only if one’s ancestors had contributed to it and the generations to come could be expected to share in it. Such understanding immediately made Polybius a good educator and adviser of Roman leaders. It would not have been enough to make him the unique historian of Roman imperialism he is if it had not been supported by a penetrating study of the means by which power is gained and lost.

There was professional care and pride in the way in which Polybius went about preparing his historical work. He even suggested that one of the advantages of the new political situation was that it provided the Greeks with greater leisure for intellectual activities. He believed in the use of intelligence for practical purposes. He would certainly not imitate the emotional, theatrical accounts of his predecessor Phylarchus, nor—unlike the first Greek historian of Rome, Timaeus, a century before—would he be satisfied with what he could learn in libraries. Direct experience of war and diplomacy, first-hand acquaintance with places and men, consummate skill in cross-questioning witnesses, and finally a sober investigation of causes, with due allowance for chance and luck, were the qualities which Polybius claimed for his work. His heavy-going and intermittently boastful pages reflect his uneasiness in writing for two publics: the more sophisticated, but not necessarily more sympathetic, Greek readers, and the select, far from homogeneous, group of Hellenized Roman masters who could not be trusted to take a point quickly.

Polybius’s education in Arcadia had obviously been very good according to local standards, but he had nothing of the Alexandrian finesse. He knew his historians, especially Thucydides, and may have read some Plato and Demosthenes. But fifth-century Athens was to him a distant, unattractively democratic world. One wonders whether he ever read a whole Athenian tragedy or comedy. He had the stamina of a keen hunter and horseman. From his arrival in Italy in 167 until his death at the age of eighty-two after a fall from his horse, ca. 118 BC, he worked on the history of the rise of Rome to a world power beginning in 220 BC. He planned it first in thirty books, to reach 168 BC (with books 1 and 2 serving as an introduction to the events between 264 and 220 BC). Then he enlarged the work to forty books to include the events of 168-145 BC; and explained in a second preface in book 3 that this was necessary in order to judge Roman rule by its effects. Finally, he wrote a separate account of the Roman war in Spain which ended with the fall of Numantia in 133 BC, the last triumph of Scipio Aemilianus. A treatise on tactics may belong (like the life of Philopoemen) to the pre-exilic, Achaean, period.

It was Polybius’s most original thought that the virtual unification of the known world under Rome made a new genre of historiography both possible and necessary. For the first time a historian could write authentic universal history with a unified theme—Rome’s ascent to world power. What in the fourth century Ephorus had presented as a universal history was to Polybius a mere conglomeration of special histories. The new epoch required a new historiography, and this in turn implied new narrative techniques in order to register the convergence of events. Chronology had to be kept tight; and the developments in different areas had to be correlated without creating confusion in the minds of readers who could not be expected to have maps at their disposal.

The texture of Polybius’s history has been very satisfactorily analyzed by the scholar most qualified to do so. Professor F. W. Walbank, as the author of a monumental commentary on Polybius (of which two volumes have appeared and the third and last is in an advanced stage of preparation), has a unique knowledge of Polybius’s craftsmanship. The invitation to deliver the Sather Lectures at Berkeley in 1971 gave him the opportunity to present a comprehensive view of the historical art of his author. His emphasis on the craftsmanship of a historian represents a departure from the subjective style of historical analysis made fashionable among students of ancient historiography by Sir Ronald Syme’s brilliant books and articles. Syme attributes his own moods and tastes to the historians he studies. His images of Thucydides, Sallust, Livy, Tacitus, and the anonymous author of the Historia Augusta have a common denominator which is Syme himself. By contrast Walbank never identifies himself with Polybius. He keeps him at a distance and even accentuates his obscurities and logical weaknesses. If one compares his book with a French counterpart which appeared a few years ago (P. Pédech, La méthode historique de Polybe, Paris, 1964), it becomes immediately apparent that Walbank is much less systematic and therefore much closer to the spirit of Polybius.

Walbank goes so far as to see a break in the continuity of Polybius’s historical interests and hence in his method of working. Whereas in the original plan for thirty books Polybius had a clear thesis to develop—how Rome reached world power—the last ten books, according to Walbank, were lacking in direction and amounted to personal memoirs. If there was something that kept the last ten books together, it was his unconditional support of the policies of Rome, even of the destruction of Carthage and Corinth. “What I am suggesting [says Walbank in his conclusion] is that Polybius wrote his main Histories under the stimulus of an idea, but that he wrote the last ten books mainly because he had material to hand and a personal story to tell…. The Histories begin by being focused on Rome. They end by being focused on Polybius, perhaps an anti-climax, but one which throws some light on the man who wrote them.”

Here there is perhaps place for disagreement both on the function of the last ten books and on the political attitude which they represent. We shall soon see that the question involves the whole of Polybius’s historical outlook.

  1. *

    Translated by W. R. Paton, Loeb Library edition.

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