Polybius : biography

200 BC –

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.Piracy in the Ancient World, p141 H Ormerod Other historians agree Polybius’ treatment of Crete is biased in a negative sense.Mogens Herman Hansen 1995, Sources for the Ancient Greek City-State: Symposium, August 24–27, 1994, Kgl. Danske, Videnskabernes Selskab, 376 pages ISBN 87-7304-267-6 On the other hand, Hansen notes that Polybius’ exposition of Crete supplied an extremely detailed account of ancient Crete. In fact, observations made by Polybius, in conjunction with passages from Strabo and Scylax,Robert Pashley, Travels in Crete, 1837, J. Murray allowed the discovery of the location of the lost city of Kydonia on Crete.


In the seventh volume of his book The Histories, Polybius defines the historian’s job as the analysis of documentation, the review of relevant geographical information, and political experience. In Polybius’ time, the profession of a historian required political experience (which aided in differentiating between fact and fiction) and familiarity with the geography surrounding one’s subject matter to supply an accurate version of events. Polybius himself exemplified these principles as he was traveled and possessed political and military experience. He did not neglect written sources that proved essential material for his histories from the period from 264 BC to 220 BC. When addressing events after 220 BC, he conferred with Greek and Roman historians to acquire credible sources of information, but rarely did he name those sources.


Polybius was born around 200 BC in Megalopolis, Arcadia, when it was an active member of the Achaean League. His father, Lycortas, was a prominent, land-owning politician and member of the governing class. Consequently, Polybius was able to observe first hand the political and military affairs of Megalopolis. He developed an interest in horse riding and hunting, diversions that later commended him to his Roman captors. In 182 BC, he was given quite an honor when he was chosen to carry the funeral urn of Philopoemen, one of the most eminent Achaean politicians of his generation. In either 169 BC or 170 BC, Polybius was elected hipparchus, or cavalry leader, election to which often presaged election to the annual strategia or post of chief general. His early political career was devoted largely towards maintaining the independence of Megalopolis.

Personal experiences

Polybius’ father, Lycortas, was a prominent advocate of neutrality during the Roman war against Perseus of Macedonia. Lycortas attracted the suspicion of the Romans, and Polybius subsequently was one of the 1,000 Achaean nobles who were transported to Rome as hostages in 167 BC, and was detained there for 17 years. In Rome, by virtue of his high culture, Polybius was admitted to the most distinguished houses, in particular to that of Aemilius Paulus, the conqueror in the Third Macedonian War, who entrusted Polybius 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 cordial terms with his former pupil and remained a counselor to him when he defeated the Carthaginians in the Third Punic War. The younger Scipio eventually destroyed Carthage in 146 BC. When the Achaean hostages were released in 150 BC, Polybius was granted leave to return home, but the next year he went on campaign with Scipio Aemilianus to Africa, and was present at the capture of Carthage, which he later described. Following the destruction of Carthage, Polybius likely journeyed along the Atlantic coast of Africa, as well as Spain.

Following the destruction of Corinth in the same year, Polybius returned to Greece, making use of his Roman connections to lighten the conditions there. Polybius was charged with the difficult task of organizing the new form of government in the Greek cities, and in this office he gained great recognition.