Philopoemen David Angers Louvre LP1556

Wounded Philopoemen by David d'Angers, 1837, Louvre

Polybius (ca. 200–118 BC), Greek Πολύβιος) was a Greek historian of the Hellenistic Period noted for his book called The Histories covering in detail the period of 220–146 BC. In part, the work describes the rise of the Roman Republic and its gradual domination over Greece. He is also renowned for his ideas of political balance in government, which were later used in Montesquieu's The Spirit of the Laws and in the drafting of the United States Constitution.

Polybius was born in Arcadia in about 200 BC. He was the son of Lycortas, a Greek politician who became Cavalry Commander of the Achaean League. His opposition to Roman control of Macedonia resulted in him being imprisoned. Polybius was deported to Rome, where Lucius Aemilius Paulus, employed him to teach and mentor his two sons.

Polybius was given the opportunity to return to Macedonia in 152 BC he decided to stay as he was now converted to the allegiance of the Roman Empire. He became a close friend of the Roman military commander Scipio Africanus, and accompanied him to Hispania and Africa. His volume of books "The History" gives a detailed account of how Rome built up its large empire and included his eyewitness accounts of the Roman victory over Hannibal and the destruction of Carthage in 146 BC. Polybius believed that historians should only write about events when they could interview the people who took part in them, and invented the notion of having factual integrity when writing about history, and not being biased.


Polybius was born around 200 BC in Megalopolis, Arcadia, which at that time was an active member of the Achaean League. His father Lycortas was a prominent landowning politician and member of the governing class. This gave Polybius firsthand opportunities to gain an insight into military and political affairs. Polybius developed an interest in horse riding and hunting, diversions which later helped to commend him to his Roman captors. In 182 BC Polybius was chosen to carry the funeral urn of Philopoemen which was quite an honor as Philopoemen was the most eminent Achaean politician of his generation. In 170 or 169 BC Polybius was elected hipparch -or cavalry leader -, an office which usually presaged election to the annual strategia or post of chief general. His early political career was devoted largely towards maintaining the independence.

Personal experiencesEdit

Polybius’ father Lycortas was a chief representative of the policy of neutrality during the war of the Romans against Perseus of Macedonia. He attracted the suspicion of the Romans, and as a result, Polybius was one of the 1000 noble Achaeans who in 167 BC were transported to Rome as hostages, and detained there for 17 years. In Rome, by virtue of his high culture, he was admitted to the most distinguished houses, in particular to that of Aemilius Paulus, the conqueror in the Third Macedonian War, who entrusted him with the education of his sons, Fabius and Scipio Aemilianus (who had been adopted by the eldest son of Scipio Africanus). As the former tutor of Scipio Aemilianus, Polybius remained on terms of the most cordial friendship and remained a counselor to the man who defeated the Carthaginians in the Third Punic War. The younger Scipio eventually captured and destroyed Carthage, in 146 BC. When the Achaean hostages were released in 150 BC, Polybius obtained leave to return home, but in the very next year he went with his friend to Africa, and was present at the capture of Carthage that he described. It is likely that following the destruction of Carthage, he journeyed down the Atlantic coast of Africa as well as Spain.

After the destruction of Corinth in the same year, he returned to Greece and made use of his Roman connections to lighten the conditions there; Polybius was entrusted with the difficult task of organizing the new form of government in the Greek cities, and in this office gained for himself the highest recognition.


The succeeding years he seems to have spent in Rome, engaged in the completion of his historical work, and occasionally undertaking long journeys through the Mediterranean countries in the interest of his history, more particularly with a view to obtaining firsthand knowledge of historical sites. It also appears that he sought out and interviewed war veterans in order to clarify details of the events he was writing about, and was given access to archival material for the same purpose. Little is known of Polybius' later life. He most likely journeyed with Scipio to Spain and acted as his military advisor during the Numantine War, a war he later wrote about in a lost monograph on the subject. It is also likely that Polybius returned to Greece later in life, since there are many existent inscriptions and statues of him in Greece. The latest event mentioned in his Histories seems to be the construction of the Via Domitia in southern France in 118 BC. There is no reason therefore to doubt the evidence of Pseudo-Lucian 'Long-lived men' (Makrobioi c.22), that "he fell from his horse while riding up from the country, fell ill as a result and died at the age of eighty-two".

"The Histories" -PolybiusEdit

The substance of Polybius’ Histories is based on historical information, and has a feel that portrays his role as a historian. Polybius’ starts in 264 BC and finishes off in 146 BC (Polybius was born around 200 and died around 117 BC although there is no concrete evidence to support exactly when he was born). He mainly talks about the years in which Ancient Rome became a superpower. This era from 220 BC to 167 BC describes Rome's discourse in subduing its arch-enemy Carthage and becoming the most powerful Mediterranean force. Books I through V are the introduction for the years in which he lived, and they thoroughly describe the politics in each powerful nation. This includes ancient Greece and Egypt. In Book VI he talks about and describes the way of the Romans. He sets out the powers of the differnet parts of the government (republic) as well as the commoners rights, such as voting. He describes the first and second Punic Wars (Carthage vs. Rome). He deduces, that the Romans are the leading power because they are made up of a melting pot of people in which all people have a say and contribute. Therefore the way of thinking is varied which ultimately sparks more individuality and creativity and ultimately contributes to the greater good of Rome. The most interesting episodes are the conflicts between Hannibal and Cornelius Publius Scipio Africanus (ticunus, trebia, etc.). Some punic war conflicts that he wrote about were Saguntum, Lilybaeum, Rhone, Ticunus, and Trebia. In Book XII he discusses the worth of Timaeus’ (historian) version of history and says that Timaeus point of view is inaccurate, invalid, and biased toward Rome. Therefore, Polybius is also useful in analyzing the Hellenistic different versions of history and as a credible illustrator of what really happened during the Hellenistic period.

Sources of InformationEdit

Polybius defines the historian's job as the study and analyzation of documents, reviewing relevant geographical information, and political experience in the seventh volume of his book "The Histories." You see at the time Polybius lived, one had to have political experience and be familiar with the geography one was writing about in order to write an accurate version of events (political experience was necessary is order to differentiate between what history was biased and what was not). Polybius practiced these notions for he had traveled a lot and had good political and military experience. He also did not neglect written sources which were essential for the period from 264 to 220 BC. From 220 BC and on he talked to Greek and Roman historians in order to get credible sources but rarely named them.

As historianEdit

Polybius wrote several works, the majority of which are lost. His earliest book was a biography of the Greek statesman Philopoemen, which was used as a source by Plutarch. The Polybian text is lost. In addition, he wrote what appears to have been an extensive treatise entitled Tactics, which detailed Roman and Greek military tactics. Small parts of this work may survive in his major Histories, but the work itself is also lost. Another missing work was a historical monograph on the events of the Numantine War. The largest work was of course, his Histories, which we have only the first five books entirely intact, a large part of the sixth, and fragments of the rest. Along with Cato the Elder (234-149 BC), he can be considered one of the founding fathers of Roman historiography.

Livy makes reference to and uses him as source material in his own narrative. Polybius is one of the first historians to attempt to present history as a sequence of causes and effects, based upon a careful examination of tradition and conducted with keen criticism. He narrated his history based upon what he had himself seen ("autopsy") and upon the communications of eye-witnesses and actors in the events. In a classic story of human behavior, Polybius captures it all: nationalism, xenophobia, duplicitous politics, horrible battles and brutality, loyalty, valour and bravery, intelligence, reason and resourcefulness.

As well as the narrative of events, Polybius also included three celebrated books of digressions. Book 34 was entirely devoted to questions of geography and included some trenchant criticisms of Eratosthenes whom he accused of passing on "popular preconceptions" (laodogmatika). Book 12 was a disquisition on the writing of history, which cites extensive passages of lost historians such as Callisthenes and Theopompus. Most influential was Book 6 which describes the military and political organization of Rome. The last was especially influential since it presented Rome as a state in which monarchical elements, aristocratic elements and popular elements were in a stable equilibrium, thus enabling it to escape the cycle of eternal revolutions (anacyclosis). He was not the first to promote this ideal, but it was his account that provided the most vivid and cogent example of the ideal for later political theorists.

A key theme of The Histories is that the good statesman is virtuous and controls his emotions. An archetype of his good statesman was Philip II. This leads him to reject historian Theopompus' description of Philip's wild and drunken private life. For Polybius it is inconceivable that such an able and effective statesman could have such an immoral and unrestrained private life.[1]

Other important themes are: the role of Tyche or Fortune in the affairs of nations, his insistence that history should be "demonstratory" apodeiktike, providing lessons for statesmen and by the same token that historians should be "men of action" (pragmatikoi).

Polybius is considered by some to be the successor of Thucydides in terms of objectivity and critical reasoning, and the forefather of scholarly, painstaking historical research in the modern scientific sense. According to this view, his work sets forth the course of occurrences with clearness, penetration, sound judgment and, among the circumstances affecting the result, lays especial stress on the geographical conditions. Modern historians are especially impressed with the way that he uses sources, and in particular documents, the way he cites them and sometimes even quotes them, and the evidence in Book 12 for thoughtfulness and reflection about how history should be written. His work belongs, therefore, amongst the greatest productions of ancient historical writing. The writer of the Oxford Companion to Classical Literature (1937) praises him for his "earnest devotion to truth" and for his systematic seeking for the cause of events.

At the same time, it has long been acknowledged that he could also be hagiographic when talking of his friends, such as Scipio, and vindictive towards enemies such as Callicrates, the Achaean statesman responsible for his Roman exile.[2]

More fundamentally, he — as first a hostage in Rome, client to the Scipios and then finally as a collaborator with Roman rule after 146 BC — is not free to express his true opinions. Peter Green suggests that we should always keep in mind that he was explaining Rome to a Greek audience to convince them of the necessity of accepting Roman rule – which he believed was inevitable. Nonetheless, for Green, Polybius's Histories remain invaluable and the best source for the era he covers. Ron Mellor also sees Polybius as partisan who, out of loyalty to Scipio, vilified Scipio's opponents.[3] The British author Adrian Goldsworthy also constantly mentions Polybius connections with Scipio when using him as a source for the latter's time as a general.

Polybius has been noted to be hostile to some of his subject material. H Ormerod considers that Polybius cannot be regarded as an "altogether unprejudiced witness" in relation to his "betes noirs", the Aetolians, the Carthaginians and the Cretans.[4] Other historians agree that his treatment of Crete is biased in a negative sense.[5] On the other hand, Hansen notes that Polybius' coverage of Crete supplied an extremely detailed account of ancient Crete. In fact, observations made by Polybius (augmented by passages from Strabo and Scylax)[6] allowed deciphering of the location of the lost ancient city of Kydonia on Crete.[7]


Polybius was responsible for a useful tool in telegraphy which allowed letters to be easily signaled using a numerical system. This idea also lends itself to cryptographic manipulation and steganography.

1 2 3 4 5
1 A B C D E
2 F G H I/J K
3 L M N O P
4 Q R S T U
5 V W X Y Z

This was known as the "Polybius square", where the letters of the alphabet were arranged left to right, top to bottom in a 5 x 5 square, (when used with the modern 26 letter alphabet, the letters "I" and "J" are combined). Five numbers were then aligned on the outside top of the square, and five numbers on the left side of the square vertically. Usually these numbers were arranged 1 through 5. By cross-referencing the two numbers along the grid of the square, a letter could be deduced.

In the Histories, he specifies how this cypher could be used in fire signals, where long-range messages could be sent by means of torches raised and lowered to signify the column and row of each letter. This was a great leap forward from previous fire signaling, which could send pre-arranged codes only (such as, 'if we light the fire, it means that the enemy has arrived').

Other writings of scientific interest include detailed discussions of the machines Archimedes created for the defense of Syracuse against the Romans, where he praises the 'old man' and his engineering in the highest terms, and an analysis of the usefulness of astronomy to generals (both in the Histories).



Marcus Tullius Cicero

Polybius was considered a poor stylist, even described by one author as impossible to finish. Nevertheless it is clear he was widely read by Romans and Greeks alike. He is quoted extensively by Strabo in the 1st century BC and Athenaeus in the 3rd century CE. His emphasis on explaining causes rather than just recounting events clearly influenced the young historian Sempronius Asellio. He is mentioned by Cicero and mined for information by Diodorus, Livy, Plutarch and Arrian. Much of what survives from the later books comes from Byzantine anthologies.

His works reappeared in the West first in Renaissance Florence. Polybius gained something of a following in Italy, and although poor Latin translations hampered proper scholarship on his work, he contributed to historical and political discussion there. Niccolò Machiavelli appears to have been familiar with Polybius when he wrote his Discourses on Livy. Vernacular translations, in French, German, Italian and English, first appeared in the 16th century.[8] So, too, in the late 16th century, did Polybius find a greater reading audience among the learned public. Study of the correspondence of such men as Isaac Casaubon, Jacques Auguste de Thou, William Camden, and Paolo Sarpi reveals a growing interest in Polybius' works and thought during the period. Despite the existence of both printed editions in the vernacular and increased scholarly interest, however, Polybius remained an "historian's historian", not much read by the public at large.[9] Printings of his work in the vernacular remained few in number—7 in French, 5 in English, and 5 in Italian.[10]

Charles Montesquieu


Polybius' political beliefs have had a continuous appeal to republican thinkers, from Cicero, to Charles de Montesquieu, to the Founding Fathers of the United States.[11] Since the Enlightenment, Polybius has generally held most appeal to those interested in Hellenistic Greece and Early Republican Rome, and his political and military writings have lost influence in academia. More recently, thorough work on the Greek text of Polybius and his historical technique has increased academic understanding and appreciation of Polybius as a historian.

According to Edward Tufte, Polybius was also a major source for Charles Joseph Minard's figurative map of Hannibal's overland journey into Italy during the Second Punic War.[12]

In his Meditations On Hunting, Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset calls Polybius "one of the few great minds which the turbid human species has managed to produce", and says the damage to the Histories is "without question one of the gravest losses that we have suffered in our Greco-Roman heritage".

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Hannibal at New Carthage: Polybius 3. 15 and the Power of Irrationality Author: A. M. Eckstein, Classical Philology, Vol. 84, No. 1 (Jan., 1989), pp. 3-4
  2. ^ Peter Green, Alexander to Actium
  3. ^ The Historians of Ancient Rome, Ron Mellor
  4. ^ Piracy in the Ancient World, p141 H Ormerod
  5. ^ Mogens Herman Hansen 1995, Sources for the Ancient Greek City-State: Symposium, August, 24-27 1994, Kgl. Danske, Videnskabernes Selskab, 376 pages ISBN 8773042676
  6. ^ Robert Pashley, Travels in Crete, 1837, J. Murray
  7. ^ "C. Michael Hogan, ''Cydonia'', Modern Antiquarian, January 23, 2008". Retrieved 2010-02-28. 
  8. ^ Polybius; Frank W. Walbank, Ian Scott-Kilvert (1979). The Rise of the Roman Empire. Penguin Classics. ISBN 0-14-044362-2. 
  9. ^ Burke, Peter (1966). "A Survey of the Popularity of Ancient Historians, 1450-1700". History and Theory 5 (2). DOI:10.2307/2504511. 
  10. ^ Burke, Peter (1966). "A Survey of the Popularity of Ancient Historians, 1450-1700". History and Theory 5 (2). DOI:10.2307/2504511. 
  11. ^ [1]
  12. ^ "Minard's figurative map of Hannibal's war". Retrieved 2010-02-28. 

References and external linksEdit

Wikiquote has a collection of quotations by or about:

Editions & translationsEdit

Other Ancient sourcesEdit

  • Titus Livius of Patavium (Livy), libri XXI — XLV
  • Pseudo-Lucian Makrobioi
  • Paulus Orosius libri VII of Histories against Pagans

Modern worksEdit

  • Davidson, James: 'Polybius' in Feldherr, Andrew ed. The Cambridge Companion to the Roman Historians (Cambridge University Press, 2009)
  • Walbank, Frank W:

-- Philip V of Macedon, the Hare Prize Essay 1939 (Cambridge University Press, 1940)
-- A Historical Commentary on Polybius (Oxford University Press)
Vol.I (1957) Commentary on Books I-VI
Vol.II (1967) Commentary on Books VII-XVIII
Vol.III (1979) Commentary on Books XIX-XL
-- Polybius (University of California Press, 1972)
-- Polybius, Rome and the Hellenistic World: Essays and Reflections (Cambridge University Press, 2002) ISBN 0-521-81208-9

-- V (1974) "The Historian's Skin”, 77-88 (Momigliano Bibliography no.531)
(Review of F W Walbank, Polybius 1972; in The New York Review of Books, 21.12, 18 July 1974, 33-35)
-- VI (1973) “Polibio, Posidonio e l'imperialismo Romano”, 89 (Momigliano Bibliography no.525)
(original publication: Atti della Accademia delle Scienze di Torino, 107, 1972–73, 693-707)

  • Moore, John M: The Manuscript Tradition of Polybius (Cambridge University Press, 1965)

Template:Ancient Greece topics

NAME Polybius
PLACE OF BIRTH Kleitor, Arcadia, Greece

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