Polybius

First off in this series of posts about the bibliography for my book–in the category of ancient sources–is, of course, Polybius. His life is one of the most fascinating ever lived, and his importance to us–especially to us Americans, as I will explain in the follow-up post–is enormous.

Let me lead up to Polybius in three short steps:

Herodotus

Herodotus

1) The first “historian” in history was a Greek writer named Herodotus. He lived during the fifth century BCE, the golden age of classical Greece, and wrote what he called “enquiries”, or histories in Greek. So that’s where we got the word! The main matter he was “enquiring” into was the glorious victory of the Greeks over the Persians, which forever changed world history.

In style, Herodotus was a genius story-teller, and I love him for that. But he was, shall we say, liberal with the facts and the truth. He tells us that Ethiopians have black semen, and so forth. He did not lie, but he embellished. But what the heck! He was the first.

Thucydides

Thucydides

2) Next up, one generation after Herodotus, was another Greek (it’s pretty much all Greeks from here on for a few centuries), named Thucydides. He was critical of Herodotus’ methods and wanted to bring a more factual, rigorous and scholarly style to history-writing. And I love him for that just as much as I love Herodotus! Together, Herodotus and Thucydides gave us history, my passion, just as Plato and Aristotle, another pair of Greeks one generation apart, gave us philosophy.

Thucydides had another war as his subject, as important to world history as the Greco-Persian wars. He wrote about the Peloponnesian war between Athens and her allies and Sparta and her allies. As the the Greek victories over the Persians had made the Greeks (even though there was no country called Greece) preeminent in the known world, the fratricidal war among the Greeks prepared their political decline. It was a tragedy.

In the process of describing this tragedy, Thucydides brought an analysis to bear that is also considered the foundation of all International Relations, and in particular of Realism in world politics (think Kissinger). That was my subject in graduate school, in case you care.

3) Next up were several other Greeks, including Xenophon, who would be giants in their own right were they not wedged between Thucydides and our guy, Polybius. So, because this is along post already, we will skip over them.

4) And now: Polybius.

He was a Greek. No surprise. In style he took clearly after Thucydides rather than Herodotus, which is to say that he believed in facts, research, cross-examination of eye witnesses, and above all in travel. Polybius  personally traced the route of Hannibal in order to write about his war.

Polybius was born about two centuries after Thucydides died, so the Mediterranean had changed completely. The Greek city states had declined in power after the tragedy that Thucydides described and then been swallowed up by Macedonia and Alexander the Great. Then Alexander died and his generals carved up the eastern Mediterranean into huge monarchies. In the western Mediterranean, Carthage was still the superpower.

But–and this is the phenomenon that Polybius tried to explain in his Histories–all that changed during his life time. Rome survived its war against Hannibal and Carthage by a hair. Then it turned east toward the Greek world until it dominated the whole Mediterranean. Polybius wanted to explain how and why Rome was able to do all that.

The circumstances in which he did his research would make a thriller all by themselves. He was a Greek aristocrat and when the Romans got around to his part of Greece they decided to send 1,000 hostages back to Rome just to keep the Greeks well-behaved. Polybius was one of them. He went to Rome as a prisoner for sixteen years!

But the Romans had a very nuanced and complex relationship towards Greeks. They dominated them politically and militarily but they admired and envied them culturally. A big historical thesis is that Rome was both captor (militarily) and captive (culturally).

Polybius’ fate shows that. He wasn’t thrown into a dungeon in Rome but became the guest and teacher in the household of the great Scipiones. Yes, that’s the family of great Scipio, Hannibal’s nemesis. So he had access to all the family archives. He and the younger Scipiones became very close, and some scholars say that this may have biased him towards their role in the Hannibalic war. Personally, I don’t care.

Polybius also stood next to a Scipio (the adopted grandson of Scipio the Great) when the Romans finally burnt and razed Carthage to the ground.

As a practical matter, Polybius then had to tell the story of all three wars between Rome and Carthage leading up to this moment. And for that, he talked to people who had known Hannibal, to veterans on both sides, crossed the Alps and so forth. This is why he is my, and everybody’s, first and best source.

Now, there is only one huge problem with Polybius. It is this: Most of his writing was lost. You may have other things to worry about in life, but I actually cringe when I think of what that means.

In practical terms, it means that we need a few other sources. Next, After the follow-up: Livy.


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