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.

Two circumstances make the interpretation of Polybius’s thought very hazardous. The first concerns the transmission of his work. The second touches upon the very nature of it.

The Greek readers never reckoned Polybius in the same class as Herodotus, Thucydides, and Xenophon. One influential Greek critic (Dionysius of Halicarnassus, who admittedly treated Polybius as something of a competitor, though he had been dead for a century) classed his History among the works nobody can read to the end. In a literary tradition where style came first, his clumsy, overheavy sentences were a handicap. But the main obstacle to popularity was the subject itself. It was one thing for the Greeks to recognize the benefactions of Polybius; it was quite another thing to have to read how Greece had been enslaved.

Educated Romans were affected by the inverse consideration and therefore for a while studied Polybius with care. He was Livy’s main source for the period 220-146 BC. As Cicero shows, Polybius’s interpretation of the Roman state as a mixed constitution and his general theory about the cycle of the forms of government attracted much attention in Rome. But after Augustus the Roman aristocracy progressively lost interest in the problems with which Polybius had been concerned; and knowledge of Greek declined in the West. Ultimately the survival of Polybius depended on the Eastern, Greek-speaking readers of the Byzantine period.

Here the reactions (as far as our very incomplete knowledge of the facts goes) were mixed. In the sixth and seventh centuries Polybius found many admirers. Zosimus, a pagan, took him as a model for his history of the decline of Rome which he attributed to the introduction of Christianity. But Republican Rome was not the most urgent historical theme for later Byzantine readers. Polybius’s work was of greater interest as a collection of stock examples for soldiers, diplomats, and rhetoricians.

By the time the manuscripts of Polybius were brought back to Western Europe in the fifteenth century, only the first five books had been preserved in their entirety. Even the fundamental sixth book on the Roman constitution was mutilated. A few books (the concluding one among them) had been entirely lost. The rest was partially transmitted in an anthology of books 1-16 and 18 and in those sections of the excerpts made by Constantine VII which had survived in their turn. It has been calculated that we have about one third of the original text. The most grievous lacunas are in books 31-40, which gave Polybius’s judgment on the effects of Roman imperialism after 168 BC. Much of the disagreement among modern scholars is due to our insufficient knowledge of Polybius’s last writings.

But the main difficulty about interpreting Polybius is that our evaluation of him depends on our evaluation of Roman imperialism, and our evaluation of Roman imperialism depends on our evaluation of Polybius. Inscriptions and later accounts no doubt serve to check what Polybius says, but he is the only contemporary witness we have and in all probability the only contemporary who took the trouble to collect the facts of Roman conquest and to think steadily and sharply about them. Can we find a way out of this vicious circle?

Polybius’s field of inquiry is fairly well defined by a chain of implicit or explicit assumptions. The assumption that the Roman urge to rule was natural and as such not to be questioned depended on the other assumption that conquests did not produce a serious conflict of interests within Roman society. In its turn the (alleged) absence of conflicts was explained by the assumption that Rome had a particularly stable constitution. At this point Polybius began to proceed analytically. He described the Roman state as a mixed constitution which would not easily degenerate. He showed in detail how well the Roman leaders managed the affairs of their own country while their opponents fell into all the possible traps—with the exception of Hannibal, a great man who was, however, unable to save his erratic fellow citizens.

Religion was one of the instruments in the hands of the Roman aristocracy for controlling the masses. Polybius had no hesitation in recognizing a Roman mistake when he saw one. He even admitted that the Roman conquest of Sardinia, by then in the remote past, was patently unjust. What he did claim was that the Roman system was in theory and in practice more resilient and ultimately more successful than any other political system. Few could deny that he was right.

Polybius’s position would have been impregnable if, as a Greek, he had not had to convince himself that what the Romans had done was beneficial for the conquered as well as for the conquerors. This in a sense was not too difficult. It must by now be evident that Polybius was one of those Greeks who, if they had to choose between social reforms and Roman rule, would unhesitatingly choose the Romans. The situation had changed after 168. In the decade 156-146 BC the opposition of the Greek democrats to Rome had become increasingly radical, with the liberation of slaves and a moratorium for debts: the old cry for the redistribution of land was heard again. Polybius therefore treated the rebels against Rome as madmen: “the whole country was the prey of an unparalleled attack of madness with people throwing themselves into wells and over precipices.” He was too indignant to pause to consider that the far more traditional and conservative Macedonians shared in this hatred of Rome.

But the destruction of Corinth and the obliteration of Carthage were not events a civilized man could dismiss by imputing madness to the victims. As a Roman agent Polybius was also bound to consider what the survivors of the massacres of 146 BC were likely to think of Rome. It was part of his realism (and of the realism he attributed to the Romans) to take public opinion into account. Nor was he blind to the coincidence of the increasing unrest among Macedonians, Greeks, and Carthaginians before 146 and the increasing ruthlessness of the Romans. He knew and stated that the Romans had decided to eliminate Carthage long before the Carthaginians gave them the “suitable pretext which would appear decent to foreign nations.”

This explains why he went out of his way to report at length the reactions of the Greeks to the destruction of Carthage. He recorded four different opinions of the Greeks. With skill he sandwiched the second and third opinions, which are a devastating denunciation of Roman ruthlessness and treachery, between the first and the fourth opinions, which accept the Roman action as necessary or at least as understandable. As the fourth opinion substantially repeats the legalistic arguments for destroying Carthage which Polybius elsewhere declares a mere pretext, I cannot, as Professor Walbank does, take it to be Polybius’s personal and final justification of the destruction of Carthage.

Indeed none of the four opinions can be identified as Polybius’s own. The whole debate is meant to underline the enormity of the event itself by indicating the reactions of Greek public opinion to a war which did not touch the Greeks directly. If Polybius had produced a similar debate on the destruction of Corinth he would have risked his own skin—which was not the purpose of his historical work. But at least his Greek readers would have noticed that he had previously condemned the Macedonian destruction of a Greek city with the words: “good men should not make war on wrongdoers with the object of destroying and exterminating them” (5, 11, 5).

The vicious circle by which our understanding of Polybius depends on our understanding of Roman imperialism and vice versa is broken as soon as we appreciate his real position. He was caught in the system he attempted to describe. He was not free—in the least metaphysical sense of the word. To disapprove of Rome was to perish. But by the mere effort of studying the causes and consequences of his masters’ victories Polybius created a space for himself. He never accepted the Romans wholeheartedly. He distrusted their Hellenization. He paints in a hostile way the adoption of Greek customs by their younger generation. He sympathizes with Cato’s jokes against those Romans who wrote bad Greek as if they were obliged to do so by a federal decree. He seems to be unaware that under his very eyes, and with the patronage of his own friends, gifted Roman writers were using Greek models to create an original literature in Latin. Polybius was by no means certain that the conquest of Greece would improve the minds of the conquerors.

Though we can seldom check against independent evidence what he tells us about his contemporaries, there are at least two basic facts which he underrates. One is the Roman conquest of Spain and the other is the Roman organization of Italy. In either case we may suspect that he was misled by his Greek preoccupations and prejudices.

Polybius visited northern Italy, southern Gaul, and Spain, and was certainly aware of the energies that the Romans were expending there. He could not know, as we do, that it would take the Romans two centuries (the first and second BC) to obtain complete control of Spain and that the conquest of Spain would lead to the occupation of the whole of Gaul, with the resulting destruction of Celtic culture in continental Europe. But it was already evident in Polybius’s time that after the elimination of the Carthaginians Spain could not possibly count even as a remote danger to Rome. The decision to remain in Spain and to control it was a compound of economic considerations (mines to explore and land to colonize) and of instinctive pleasure in power.

The Romans never bothered to learn the native languages of Spain and Gaul and never cared for Celtic and Iberian art. They were not faced there by a language and a culture they knew and respected, as was the case with Greece. But if there was inducement to plunder and massacre at pleasure, there was also a danger of demoralization of which the Romans themselves soon became aware. It was to fight corruption in dealing with the Spanish provinces that they first instituted special tribunals for malversation in 149 BC; and there are other signs that they became uneasy about the behavior of their generals in the Peninsula. Unless we are misled by the lacunas in Polybius’s text, he appears to be insensitive to the problems presented to Rome by the conquest of Spain. There is no sign that he realized that the destruction of Numantia by his friend Scipio raised the same moral problems as the destruction of Corinth and Carthage.

Even more characteristic is his treatment of the Italian confederation, which was the force behind Roman expansion. Whatever may have been the origins of this confederation, which existed in its essential features by the beginning of the third century BC, it was founded on a series of treaties between Rome as the hegemonic state and the various populations of central and southern Italy as vassal nations. They provided Rome with a fixed number of auxiliary troops for any war. In return Rome supported the local aristocracies. Social stability was reinforced by the expansion of Italian trade and by some share in colonization.

Polybius knows and expounds the military aspects of this organization but seems to be indifferent to its political and social aspects. Though he is particularly concerned with identifying the sources of Roman strength he misses the most important one, the cooperation between aristocracies in Italy. He applies to Rome a Greek constitutional scheme (derived, with modifications, from Plato and Aristotle) which can do no justice to the novelty of the Italian confederation. He interprets the Roman state as a city of the Greek type with a mixed constitution controlled by the Senate.

Mommsen poured on this theory well-deserved contempt, which has not prevented later scholars from repeating and expanding Polybius. It is difficult to say whether excessive confidence in Hellenic theories or excessive admiration for his Roman friends led Polybius to underrate the political importance of the Italian organization. He was too preoccupied with the policies of the Romans in the East to study with equal care their problems and achievements in Spain and in Italy.

What limited Polybius as a historian of ancient Rome—his excessive confidence in the theory of the mixed constitution, his emphasis on military technicalities, his preference for the civilized East—recommended him to the politicians and soldiers of the Renaissance. The men who among the ruins of the feudal system were searching for a new political and military machinery were anxious to get all the advice they could from the classical thinkers. What is surprising is not that this should happen, but that it should go on for four centuries. Polybius was one of the first to be exploited and one of the last to be returned after exploitation to the museum of classical philology. He was re-imported into Western Europe by the future chancellor of the Florentine Republic, Leonardo Bruni, about 1418. He became a model for military and political history before Thucydides was known. One century later Machiavelli used Polybius (whom he was unable to read in the original) both for his institutional and his military theories. About the middle of the sixteenth century Jean Bodin delighted in Polybius as a great master of historical wisdom.

At the end of the century Justus Lipsius—a Christian Stoic who moved between Protestants and Catholics without losing respectability on either side—produced his De Militia Romana, a theory about a modern army on the lines suggested by Polybius. He considered the advice of Polybius especially useful against the Turks, but of course did not exclude his employment against fellow Christians. The military reformer Maurice of Nassau, Prince of Orange (1567-1625), was Lipsius’s pupil. Another Nassau, Wilhelm Ludwig, had the account of the battle of Cannae by Polybius retranslated because the Latin translation by N. Perotti did not make sense to him as a piece of technical writing. The recent publication of the “Book of War” by a third Nassau, Johann von Nassau-Siegen (1561-1623), adds a fascinating document to this dossier.

The prodigious popularity among professional soldiers of Lipsius’s De Militia Romana was later matched by the success of the Considérations sur les causes de la grandeur et de la décadence des Romains (1734) and of L’Esprit de Lois (1748) by Montesquieu, who theorized the separation of powers on the model offered by Polybius. It is a well-known matter for regret by classical scholars on both sides of the Atlantic that Polybius should never have been recognized as one of the founding fathers of the USA. Evidence is available that he was read in the right places.

Alas, his career was interrupted by the Romantic movement. He had none of the qualities that could endear him to the Byronic age. He did not like rebels, he felt no nostalgia for simpler societies, he understood religion almost exclusively as a way of controlling the lower classes. And he wrote as badly as the professors who studied him. Our age, perhaps for contradictory reasons, is clearly returning to him with sympathy. He saved his skin and his intelligence. To be more precise, if he lost some of his intelligence in his successful effort to save his skin, what was left was enough to keep many later historians and political philosophers in business through the centuries.

This Issue

July 18, 1974