Polybius : biography

200 BC –


In the succeeding years, Polybius resided in Rome, completing his historical work while occasionally undertaking long journeys through the Mediterranean countries in the furtherance of his history, in particular with the aim of obtaining firsthand knowledge of historical sites. He apparently interviewed veterans to clarify details of the events he was recording and was similarly given access to archival material. Little is known of Polybius’ later life; he most likely accompanied Scipio to Spain, acting as his military advisor during the Numantine War. He later wrote about this war in a lost monograph. Polybius probably returned to Greece later in his life, as evidenced by the many existent inscriptions and statues of him in Greece. The last event mentioned in his Histories seems to be the construction of the Via Domitia in southern France in 118 BC, which suggests the writings of Pseudo-Lucian may have some grounding in fact when he states, "[Polybius] 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

The substance of Polybius’ work is based on historical information and conveys his role as a historian. His The Histories starts in 264 BC and finishes off in 146 BC. He mainly discusses the years in which Ancient Rome rose to superpower status from 220 BC to 167 BC, describing Rome’s efforts in subduing its arch enemy, Carthage, and thereby becoming the dominant Mediterranean force. Books I through V of The Histories are the introduction for the years during his lifetime, describing the politics in each powerful nation, including ancient Greece and Egypt. In Book VI, Polybius describes the way of the Romans; he discusses the powers of the different parts of the republic, as well as the rights of the plebeian. He describes the First and Second Punic Wars. Polybius concludes the Romans are the pre-eminent power because they maintain customs and traditions which promote a deep desire for noble acts, a love of virtue, piety towards parents and elders, and a fear of the gods. Also chronicled are the conflicts between Hannibal and Cornelius Publius Scipio Africanus such as the Battle of Ticinus, the Battle of the Trebia, the Siege of Saguntum, the Battle of Lilybaeum,and the Battle of Rhone Crossing. In Book XII, Polybius discusses the worth of Timaeus’ account of the same period of history. He asserts Timaeus’ point of view is inaccurate, invalid, and biased in favor of Rome. Therefore, Polybius’s The Histories is also useful in analyzing the different Hellenistic versions of history and of use as a credible illustration of actual events during the Hellenistic period.


Polybius was considered a poor stylist, even described by one author as impossible to finish. Nevertheless, clearly he was widely read by Romans and Greeks alike. He is quoted extensively by Strabo writing in the 1st century BC and Athenaeus in the 3rd century AD. His emphasis on explaining causes of events rather than just recounting events, influenced the historian Sempronius Asellio. Polybius is mentioned by Cicero and mined for information by Diodorus, Livy, Plutarch and Arrian. Much of the text that survives today from the later books of The Histories was preserved in Byzantine anthologies. Montesquieu His works reappeared in the West first in Renaissance Florence. Polybius gained a following in Italy, and although poor Latin translations hampered proper scholarship on his works, they contributed to the city’s historical and political discourse. Niccolò Machiavelli in his Discourses on Livy evinces familiarity with Polybius. Vernacular translations in French, German, Italian and English first appeared during the 16th century. Consequently in the late 16th century, Polybius’s works found 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. Printings of his work in the vernacular remained few in number — seven in French, five in English, and five in Italian. 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.Marshall Davies Lloyd, , Sept. 22, 1998. John Adams, for example, considered him one of the most important teachers of constitutional theory. Since the Enlightenment, Polybius has in general held appeal to those interested in Hellenistic Greece and early Republican Rome, while 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 the academic understanding and appreciation of him as a historian.

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

In his Meditations On Hunting, Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset calls Polybius "one of the few great minds that 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".