Polybius: Our Man in Rome

A Greek in Rome


In 167 BC, an intelligent, well-educated, and experienced Greek found himself bound for Italy as an exile/detainee. It would be a life-changing experience for this shrewd observer of events, history, and human beings that he would decide to commit to writing as a lesson for posterity. He had not been on the losing side. However, he was not regarded by the victors as sufficiently loyal. Although broadly on the side of now confirmed super-power Rome, the Greek Achaean League saw around one thousand members carted off to Italy for their lukewarm and so (to senatorial minds) effectively hostile stance in the recent war against Perseus of Macedon. The war proved to be the final nail in the coffin, not only for Macedon (divided into four republics by Rome), but also one could argue for Greek freedom more generally. This uprooted Greek was the Greek historian Polybius. You might well have guessed from various writings on this website that he is a great favourite of mine, not only for his admiring, but cautionary, analysis of Rome, but also for the impressive, even alarming, relevance of his observations of human nature and society that lie at the heart of his explanation of the events that surrounded him and their relevance for future generations.


So, here is a little more about this learned fellow. Polybius was born probably c.202 as the son of highly successful and well-respected Achaean statesman Lycortas. He was born into a world on the cusp of tremendous change. Rome, following victory in the Hannibalic War in 202, emerged as the new superior power player in the Mediterranean. Having already made their mark in the First Punic (264-242) and Illyrian wars (230-229, 219-218), they were already a proven force to be reckoned with. Between the Battle of Zama (the final battle in the Hannibalic War) and the Third Macedonian War in 167 (where we came in) the Greek world fell under Roman power, through a series of wars and Rome spreading her tentacles through diplomacy that always carried an expectation of obligation. It was in the midst of all this, primarily during the 170s, that Polybius began his own initially promising career.


In my recent article on Polybius for the journal Antigone, I argued that Polybius was no slavish pro-Roman ‘luvvy’ (https://antigonejournal.com/2022/06/polybius-history-victors/). He admired their power and their politeia (government, societal values), but saw how dangerous it was to get on the wrong side of them. He was fortunate enough to be tutor to Aemillius Paullus’ sons, including he great Scipio Aemilianus, leaving him ideally placed to observe Romans and their society first hand. He found favour, even accompanying the young Scipio on campaign and assisting Rome in their dealings with the Greek world.


Polybius’ work, his Histories is a rich and monumental piece covering not just Rome, but those peoples whom the Romans conquered, including some ethnographic descriptions, a book dedicated to the geographical context of the work, another to how history should be researched and written, and another, arguably his most famous sixth book, dedicated to an account of the Roman politeia, their government and organisation of their society as a whole. Broadly, in scope he was more like Herodotus, in his rigorous focus on military and political history primarily, and the role of human nature in history’s events, he was more like Thucydides. His modern relevance lies in his perception of human emotions and traits in shaping events, which are channelled through humans’ various settings and circumstances. Recently, the view of human beings’ nature and patterns as been resurrected in modern political theory and philosophy. I would argue that Polybius provides some of the richest food for thought on this matter from the ancient world.


Polybius could quite fairly claim to have been an eye-witness to the events he described, and not just a witness, but an actual player on the stage of Rome’s rise. I wonder what his sharp comparative eye would have made of the modern world. I think the parallels would have struck him at once.

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