Polybius : biography

200 BC –

Livy made reference to and uses Polybius’ The Histories as source material in his own narrative. Polybius was among the first historians to attempt to present history as a sequence of causes and effects, based upon a careful examination and criticism of tradition. He narrated his history based upon first-hand knowledge. The Histories capture the varied elements of the story of human behavior: nationalism, xenophobia, duplicitous politics, war, brutality, loyalty, valour, intelligence, reason, and resourcefulness.

Aside from the narrative of the historical events Polybius chose to examine, he also included three 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 or laodogmatika. Book 12 was a disquisition on the writing of history, citing extensive passages of lost historians, such as Callisthenes and Theopompus. Most influential was Book 6, which describes the military and political organization of Rome; it presented Rome as a state in which monarchical, aristocratic, and popular elements were in a stable equilibrium. This enabled Rome to escape the cycle of eternal revolutions (anacyclosis). While Polybius was not the first to advance this view, his account provides the most cogent illustration of the ideal for later political theorists.

A key theme of The Histories is the good statesman is virtuous and composed. The character of the Polybian statesman exemplified in that of Philip II. His beliefs as to the character of a good statesman led Polybius to reject historian Theopompus’ description of Philip’s private, drunken debauchery. For Polybius, it was inconceivable that such an able and effective statesman could have had an immoral and unrestrained private life as described by Theopompus.Hannibal at New Carthage: Polybius 3. 15 and the Power of Irrationality Author: A. M. Eckstein, Classical Philology, Vol. 84, No. 1 (January 1989), pp. 3-4

Other important themes running through The Histories are the role of Fortune in the affairs of nations, his insistence that history should be demonstratory, or apodeiktike, providing lessons for statesmen, and 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 history’s occurrences with clearness, penetration, sound judgment, and among the circumstances affecting the outcomes, lays especial emphasis on the geographical conditions. Modern historians are especially impressed with the manner in which Polybius used his sources, and in particular documents, his citation and quotation of his sources. Furthermore, there is some admiration of Polybius’s meditation on the nature of historiography in Book 12. 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 pursuit of causation.

It has long been acknowledged that Polybius’s writings are prone to a certain hagiographic tone when writing of his friends, such as Scipio, and subject to a vindictive tone when detailing the exploits of his enemies, such as Callicrates, the Achaean statesman responsible for his Roman exile.Peter Green, Alexander to Actium

First as a hostage in Rome, then as client to the Scipios, and finally as a collaborator with Roman rule after 146 BC, Polybius was not in a position to freely express any negative opinions of Rome. Peter Green advises us to recall that Polybius was chronicling Roman history for a Greek audience, with the aim of convincing them of the necessity of accepting Roman rule – which he believed was inevitable. Nonetheless, for Green, Polybius’s Histories remain invaluable and are the best source for the era they cover. Ron Mellor also sees Polybius as partisan who, out of loyalty to Scipio, vilified Scipio’s opponents.The Historians of Ancient Rome, Ron Mellor Similarly, Adrian Goldsworthy frequently mentions Polybius’ connections with Scipio when he uses Polybius as a source for Scipio’s generalship.