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Polybius of Megalopolis (c.200-c.118): Greek historian, author of an important World History that describes the rise of Rome.

The Changing Structure of History


Carthage is at the beginning of Polybius' World History, and Carthage is at its conclusion.note Of the thirty-nine books, the first one deals with the First Punic War, according to the author "the longest and most severely contested war in history",note while the final books deal with the Third Punic War, culminating in the sack of Carthage in 146 BC. Yet, Polybius presents these two conflicts in completely different ways.

If you would only read Polybius' accounts of the First and Third Punic Wars, you will immediately notice a difference: the first story is straight-forward and uninterrupted, as if the events were allowed to proceed independent of what happened elsewhere, while the account of the last war is interrupted by reports about contemporary conflicts in Spain, Macedonia, and Greece. As Polybius himself explains:

Previously the doings of the world had been, so to say, dispersed, as they were held together by no unity of initiative, results, or locality; but history has become an organic whole, and the affairs of Italy and Africa have been interlinked with those of Greece and Asia, all leading up to one end.note

Antiochus III the Great
Antiochus III the Great

The explanation of this increasing interconnection was, according to Polybius, the rise of Rome. At the beginning of the First Punic War, in 264 BCE, the world had been divided between a couple of superpowers: the Ptolemaic and Seleucid kingdoms, Macedonia, Carthage, and the Roman republic, which had united Italy only recently. Polybius describes how the Roman conquerors defeated Carthage and Macedonia, humiliated the Seleucid king Antiochus III the Great, divided Macedonia, saved the Ptolemaic Empire as a quasi-independent vassal kingdom, and finally, in one blow, put an end to Macedonia, Carthage, and Greece. In about five or six generations, a multi-polar world system had been superseded by a superpower without rivals, a hyperpower.

1 First Punic War (264-241)
2 Rome Consolidates its Power
3-15 Fourth Syrian War (219-217); Second Punic War (218-201), with a digression on the Roman constitution
16-20 Fifth Syrian War (202-195); Second Macedonian War (200-196)
21 Syrian War (192-188)
22-25 Various matters
26-29 Third Macedonian War (171-168); Sixth Syrian War (171-168)
30-33 Various matters
34 Digression on geography
35-39 Second Celtiberian War (154-151); Fourth Macedonian War (150-148); Third Punic War (149-146); Achaean War (146)
40 Index


Born in c.200 BCE, Polybius of Megalopolis witnessed the second half of this process. In fact, he was one of the minor actors, but he had to pay a prize for his role: a temporary loss of his freedom and an involuntary stay abroad. For a Greek landowner, this was a fate only little better than death.

During his youth, one of the most important states in Greece was the Achaean League, an increasingly powerful federation of city states led by a capable general named Philopoemen (253-183), to whom Polybius dedicated a biography.note The Achaeans benefitted from the power vacuum, which Rome had created after it had retreated from Greece after it had successively defeated the Macedonian and Seleucid forces. With the cities free and autonomous, the country became unstable, and the Achaean League increased its power.

In 172, matters escalated. The Macedonian king Perseus and the Roman republic started a war that, within four years, led to the dismantling of the old kingdom. The Romans believed that the Achaeans had not offered sufficient support during this conflict, and their analysis may have been correct: perhaps, the Achaeans have indeed been dreaming of further expansion once Rome had again recalled its legions. But this time, Rome did not give a blank cheque to the Achaean League. After Perseus' defeat at Pydna in 168, the Romans demanded the extradition of about a thousand Achaeans of suspected loyalty. Polybius, who had been commander of the League's cavalry, was among the hostages. From 168 to 152, he was to live in Italy.

In Rome, to be precise, a city he started to love. Polybius had already met Scipio Aemilianus, the son of the Roman commander at Pydna and the adopted grandson of the victor of the Second Punic War. The two men remained on close terms for the rest of their lives. "Our friendship and intimacy grew so close that it was well-known, not just in Italy and Greece, but also in the countries beyond", Polybius boasts.note The Greek had something to offer to the Roman: he could introduce him to Greek political theory, literature, and a network of contacts in the Greek world.

On the other hand the Scipiones and Aemilii were among the most powerful Roman families, and offered Polybius any kind of information he might need to write his World History. He gained access to the men whose grandfathers and fathers had defeated Carthage, Macedonia, and the Seleucid Empire, and who themselves protected the Ptolemaic Empire and would destroy Carthage and Corinth. In Polybius, they found the man who would explain the fame of their families to the Greeks.

The Mutability of Human Affairs

In 151, the Carthaginians paid the last installment of the indemnity they had been forced to pay after the Second Punic War (218-201). Almost immediately, Rome declared war again, and in 149, the legionaries crossed the Mediterranean and laid siege to Carthage. It proved to be a difficult operation that dragged on endlessly, but Roman fortune was restored by Scipio Aemilianus, who had earned a reputation as an honest and capable commander during one of the Celtiberian Wars. Polybius, released from his captivity, was in his company and witnessed how the city was stormed in 146. Looting was to last more than half a month.

Scipio, beholding this city, which had flourished seven hundred years from its foundation and had ruled over so many lands, islands, and seas, rich with arms and fleets, elephants and money, equal to the mightiest monarchies but far surpassing them in bravery and high spirit (since without ships or arms, and in the face of famine, it had sustained continuous war for three years), now come to its end in total destruction - Scipio, beholding this spectacle, is said to have shed tears and publicly lamented the fortune of the enemy.

The ports of Carthage, seen from the north
The ports of Carthage, seen from the north

This anecdote, one of the most famous from Antiquity, has not survived in the existing manuscripts of Polybius' World History, but as section 132 of the Punic Wars by Appian of Alexandria, who lived three centuries later. However, the Alexandrine historian had read his predecessor. Appian continues that Scipio told his Greek friend that he had been thinking about the

rise and fall of cities, nations, and empires, about the fate of Troy, that once proud city, upon that of the Assyrians, the Medes, and the Persians, greatest of all, and later the splendid Macedonian empire. Scipio said that he did not hesitate to name his own country, for whose fate he feared when he considered the mutability of human affairs. And Polybius wrote this down just as he heard it.

In fact, the Greek historian did a bit more than that: the mutability of human affairs became the central theme of his book. He had every reason to focus on this subject. In his mid-fifties, he had witnessed the end of Macedonia, Carthage, and the Achaean League. (In 145-144, Polybius tried to help his defeated compatriots, for which he received statues in at least six cities.) As an old man - he died after 118 - Polybius saw how Rome also started on what looked like a decline: in 133 and 123-121, the tribunes Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus attacked the Roman gentry, and to a landowner like Polybius, their successes spelled doom for the new master of the world.

Explaining Rome's Success

It was easy to see why nations flourished: the main - but not the only - factor was their constitution. Polybius explains this in his fascinating sixth book. Placed after Hannibal's victories at the Trebia, Lake Trasimene, Cannae and after the treaty between Carthage and Macedonia, when Rome's fortunes had reached their lowest point, this long digression explains why the Romans could recover from a series of disasters that would have terminated any other nation's existence. It contains a famous description of the Roman army and an equally famous description of the workings of the Roman Republic.

Polybius' theory of anacyclosis
Polybius' theory of anacyclosis

It was not uncommon to discern three types of constitution and their degenerate counterparts: monarchy and despotism, aristocracy and oligarchy, democracy and ochlocracy (rule by the masses). Nor was it uncommon to maintain that successful states had mixed constitutions. Polybius' innovation was the anacyclosis, which explained why mixed constitutions were better. Assuming that every ruler will one day start to regard his special position as a personal privilege and will make the interests of the state subject to his own, Polybius postulates that monarchy will inevitably become tyrannical. A revolution will give power to the aristocracy, which in turn corrupts to oligarchy. This is replaced by a democracy, and once populists have taken over, people ask for a "strong man": the cycle has returned to its beginning. Rome's mixed constitution, which combined monarchical consuls, aristocratic senators, and democratic assemblies, was immune to this cycle, and this explains Rome's success.

Or does it? Polybius, who is usually a rational man and might have said that religion is opium of the masses, tries to identify rational causes to explain why things happened. There's no divine intervention in his story. Yet, there's also the factor of luck. No one could have expected the rise of Xanthippus, who unexpectedly restored Carthaginian hopes when the Romans had invaded Africa during the First Punic War and were only an inch from attacking Carthage itself. Nor could Rome's mixed constitution explain the lucky absence of Carthaginian troops from Carthago Nova in Spain, enabling its spectacular capture by Scipio Africanus in 210. In a digression on chance,note Polybius concedes that Fortune sometimes intervenes.


Fortune, or Tyche as the Greeks called her: in the final analysis, she always played a role. In accepting this factor, Polybius was very much a man of his age. To many intellectuals, the cult of the ancient gods was no longer satisfying, and historians were believed to be naïve when they assumed divine interventions by Apollo, Zeus, Athena or any other deity. Many intellectuals tended towards an impersonal, abstract monotheism. The philosopher Cleanthes (c.330-c.230), for example, had hailed Zeus as the "first cause who ruled everything through the laws of nature". Perhaps this trend was an autonomous development within Greek thought, perhaps Semitic influences played a role: modern scholars disagree. But however that may be, Polybius' use of abstract Fortune as explanation for human behavior is typical of his age, and so is his idea that Tyche favors those who do their best to learn from their mistakes, act with wisdom, and school themselves in great enterprises. "Fortune favors the bold," the poet Semonides had written, and Polybius agreed.

But Fortune can be capricious. She had ordained the rise of Rome, but would one day take back her favors. Nothing made by humans, not even that stable Roman constitution, could last forever. In the end, even the most powerful nations were doomed, a lesson understood by Scipio Aemilianus. The wise man was moderate when things were going well, understanding that one day, things might be different, and that he might find himself in the hands of those whom he had once treated mildly. Hopefully, they would treat him with the same prudent mildness.

The Unfortunate Historian

After the end of his captivity, Polybius traveled widely. In 146, he visited the Carthaginian towns in the Maghreb and Morocco, even venturing on the Ocean. In 133, he was present during the siege of Numantia in Spain. He visited Alexandria and Sardes. On another occasion, he traveled through the Alps, trying to find out how Hannibal had crossed these mountains.note His account of that operation is internally consistent and often believed to be better than that of Livy, but it is open to debate whether Polybius' account is based on his own experiences or that it corresponds to the Carthaginian campaign three generations before.

However that may be, one of Polybius' virtues is that he had often seen the lands he describes. He also met many of the people involved in the events, and read memoirs and other publications. Like his contemporary, the author of 2 Maccabees, Polybius quotes from treaties, accepting an awkward break in style that he found less important than truth. The same intention to write a correct story can be found in Polybius' speeches, which may be summaries of what was actually said. A case in point is the speech of the Rhodian ambassadors,note which is so terrible that it cannot have been invented.

His quest for objectivity, rationality, and truth makes Polybius one of the most important historians of Antiquity. Yet, his works have only partly survived. Books 1-6 have come down to us more or less completely; the remainder is known only from anthologies or, indirectly, through Appian's History of Rome and Orosius' World History against the Pagans. One reason for this neglect is that Polybius' theme - the rise of Rome - was no longer interesting once the Italian city had united all known nations in one empire. Nor was his explanation relevant: once Rome's mixed constitution had become a monarchy, historians looking for causes shifted their attention to the personalities of the emperors.

There's another explanation: to the Greeks, it was frustrating that they had lost power to the Romans. This was only acceptable if they could claim cultural superiority, a claim that the new masters tactfully agreed to, even after Rome had become the world's cultural capital. The Greeks of the second and third centuries CE were obsessed with their classical past, and intellectuals tried to revitalize classical Greek. Authors writing in Hellenistic Greek (Koine) were ignored and no longer copied. Polybius was one of the victims of this cultural atavism. He was among Antiquity's finest historians, but he was unfortunate that literary tastes changed. Fortune can indeed be capricious.


This page was created in 2005; last modified on 12 October 2020.

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