Polybius (/pəˈlɪbiəs/; Greek: Πολύβιος, Polýbios;
c. 200 – c. 118 BC) was a Greek historian of the
Hellenistic period noted for his work The Histories, which covered the
period of 264–146 BC in detail. The work describes the rise of the
Roman Republic to the status of dominance in the ancient Mediterranean
world and includes his eyewitness account of the Sack of Carthage in
Polybius is important for his analysis of the mixed constitution or
the separation of powers in government, which was influential on
The Spirit of the Laws
The Spirit of the Laws and the framers of the United
2 Personal experiences
3 At Rome
4 The Histories
5 As historian
8 See also
9 Notes and references
9.1 Editions and translations
9.2 Other ancient sources
9.3 Modern references
10 External links
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
who became strategos (commanding general) of the Achaean League.
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
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 (cavalry officer), an event which often
presaged election to the annual strategia (chief generalship). His
early political career was devoted largely towards maintaining the
independence of Megalopolis.
Polybius’ father, Lycortas, was a prominent advocate of neutrality
during the Roman war against Perseus of Macedon.
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
Polybius was admitted to the most distinguished houses,
in particular to that of Lucius Aemilius Paullus Macedonicus, 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).
Polybius remained on
cordial terms with his former pupil
Scipio Aemilianus and was among
the members of the Scipionic Circle.
When Scipio defeated the
Carthaginians in the Third Punic War,
Polybius remained his counsellor. The Achaean hostages were released
in 150 BC, and
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 Sack of Carthage in 146, which he later described.
Following the destruction of Carthage,
Polybius likely journeyed along
the Atlantic coast of Africa, as well as Spain.
After the destruction of Corinth in the same year,
to Greece, making use of his Roman connections to lighten the
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.
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
He later wrote about this war in a lost monograph.
returned to Greece later in his life, as evidenced by the many
existent inscriptions and statues of him there. 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
Lucian may have some grounding in fact when they state,
"[Polybius] fell from his horse while riding up from the country, fell
ill as a result and died at the age of eighty-two".
Main article: The Histories (Polybius)
Polybius’ Histories cover the period from 264 BC to 146 BC. Its main
focus is the period 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 leading Mediterranean states, including ancient Greece and
Egypt, and culminating in their ultimate συμπλοκή or
interconnectedness. In Book VI,
Polybius describes the political,
military, and moral institutions that allowed the Romans to succeed.
He describes the First and Second Punic Wars.
Polybius concludes the
Romans are the pre-eminent power because they have customs and
institutions which promote a deep desire for noble acts, a love of
virtue, piety towards parents and elders, and a fear of the gods
He also chronicled the conflicts between
Hannibal and 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 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.
In the seventh volume of his Histories,
Polybius defines the
historian's job as the analysis of documentation, the review of
relevant geographical information, and political experience. Polybius
held that historians should only chronicle events whose participants
the historian was able to interview, and was among the first to
champion the notion of factual integrity in historical writing. 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 well travelled
and possessed political and military experience. He did not neglect
written sources that proved essential material for his histories of
the period from 264 BC to 220 BC. When addressing events after 220 BC,
he examined the writings of Greek and Roman historians to acquire
credible sources of information, but rarely did he name those sources.
Polybius wrote several works, the majority of which are lost. His
earliest work was a biography of the Greek statesman Philopoemen; this
work was later used as a source by
Plutarch when composing his
Parallel Lives, however the original Polybian text is lost. In
Polybius wrote an extensive treatise entitled Tactics, which
may have detailed Roman and Greek military tactics. Small parts of
this work may survive in his major Histories, but the work itself is
lost, as well. Another missing work was a historical monograph on the
events of the Numantine War. The largest Polybian work was, of course,
his Histories, of which only the first five books survive entirely
intact, along with a large portion of the sixth book and fragments of
the rest. Along with
Cato the Elder
Cato the Elder (234–149 BC), he can be
considered one of the founding fathers of Roman historiography.
Livy made reference to and uses Polybius' 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,
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
Theopompus. Most influential was Book 6, which describes Roman
political, military, and moral institutions, which he considered key
to Rome's success; it presented
Rome as having a mixed constitution in
which monarchical, aristocratic, and popular elements existed in
stable equilibrium. This enabled
Rome to escape, for the time being,
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 as virtuous and
composed. The character of the Polybian statesman is exemplified in
that of Philip II. His beliefs about Philip's character 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. In recounting
the Roman Republic,
Polybius stated that "the Senate stands in awe of
the multitude, and cannot neglect the feelings of the people".
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
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, he lays especial
emphasis on geographical conditions. Modern historians are especially
impressed with the manner in which
Polybius used his sources,
particularly documentary evidence as well as his citation and
quotation of 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
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.
As a hostage in Rome, then as client to the Scipios, and after 146 BC,
a collaborator with Roman rule,
Polybius was probably in no position
to freely express any negative opinions of Rome. Peter Green advises
Polybius was chronicling Roman history for a Greek audience, to
justify what he believed to be the inevitability of Roman rule.
Nonetheless, Green considers Polybius's Histories the best source for
the era they cover. For Ronald Mellor,
Polybius was a loyal partisan
of Scipio, intent on vilifying his patron's opponents. Adrian
Goldsworthy, while using
Polybius as a source for Scipio's
generalship, notes Polybius' underlying and overt bias in Scipio's
favour. H. Ormerod considers that
Polybius cannot be regarded as an
'altogether unprejudiced witness' in relation to his betes noires; the
Aetolians, the Carthaginians, and the Cretans. Other historians
perceive considerable negative bias in Polybius' account of Crete;
on the other hand, Hansen notes that the same work, along with
Strabo and Scylax, proved a reliable guide in the
eventual rediscovery of the lost city of Kydonia.
Polybius was responsible for a useful tool in telegraphy that allowed
letters to be easily signaled using a numerical system (mentioned in
Hist. X.45.6 ff.). This idea also lends itself to cryptographic
manipulation and steganography.
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 prearranged 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
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).
Part of the Politics series on
Jean Jacques Rousseau
Republic of Venice
Republic of Genoa
Republic of Florence
Spanish American wars of independence
French Revolution of 1848
5 October 1910 revolution
German Revolution of 1918–19
Turkish War of Independence
Mongolian Revolution of 1921
11 September 1922 Revolution
Spanish Civil War
Birth of the Italian Republic
Egyptian Revolution of 1952
14 July Revolution
North Yemen Civil War
1969 Libyan coup d'état
Cambodian coup of 1970
Third Hellenic Republic
1987 Fijian coups d'état
Nepalese Civil War
Marcus Tullius Cicero
Polybius was considered a poor stylist by Dionysius of Halicarnassus,
writing of Polybius' history that "no one has the endurance to reach
[its] end". 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,
Plutarch and Arrian. Much of the text that survives today from
the later books of The Histories was preserved in Byzantine
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
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
Printings of his work in the vernacular remained few in number —
seven in French, five in English, and five in Italian. Polybius'
political analysis has influenced republican thinkers from
Montesquieu to the Founding Fathers of the United
States. John Adams, for example, considered him one of the most
important teachers of constitutional theory. Since the Age of
Polybius has in general held appeal to those interested
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 José Ortega y
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".
The Italian version of his name, Polibio, was used as a male first
name - for example, the composer
Polibio Fumagalli - though it never
became very common.
The University of Pennsylvania has an intellectual society, the
Polybian Society, which is named in his honor and serves as a
non-partisan forum for discussing societal issues and policy.
Polybius (urban legend)
Notes and references
^ John Ma. (2013). Statues and Cities: Honorific Portraits and Civic
Identity in the Hellenistic World. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
ISBN 978-0-19-966891-5, pp 281-282.
^ "Titus Livius (Livy), The History of Rome, Book 39, chapter 35".
www.perseus.tufts.edu. Retrieved 2016-11-02.
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
Polybius on the Senate and People (6.16) from Perseus Digital
Library at Tufts University
^ Peter Green, Alexander to Actium
^ The Historians of Ancient Rome, Ronald J. Mellor
^ Piracy in the Ancient World, p141 H Ormerod
^ 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
^ Robert Pashley, Travels in Crete, 1837, J. Murray
^ "C. Michael Hogan, Cydonia, Modern Antiquarian, January 23, 2008".
Themodernantiquarian.com. Retrieved 2010-02-28.
^ Comp. 4
^ Polybius; Frank W. Walbank; Ian Scott-Kilvert (1979). The Rise of
the Roman Empire. Penguin Classics. ISBN 0-14-044362-2.
^ Burke, Peter (1966). "A Survey of the Popularity of Ancient
Historians, 1450-1700". History and Theory. History and Theory, Vol.
5, No. 2. 5 (2): 135–152 . doi:10.2307/2504511.
^ Burke, Peter (1966). "A Survey of the Popularity of Ancient
Historians, 1450-1700". History and Theory. History and Theory, Vol.
5, No. 2. 5 (2): 135–152 . doi:10.2307/2504511.
^ Marshall Davies Lloyd,
Polybius and the Founding Fathers: the
separation of powers, Sept. 22, 1998.
^ "Minard's figurative map of Hannibal's war". Edwardtufte.com.
Editions and translations
Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Usher, S. (ed. and trans.) Critical
Essays, Volume II. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985.
Polybii Historiae, editionem a Ludovico Dindorfi curatam, retractavit
Theodorus Büttner-Wobst, Lipsiae in aedibus B. G. Teubneri, vol. 1,
vol. 2, vol. 3, vol. 4, vol. 5, 1882-1904.
Polybius (1922–1927). Polybius: The Histories. The Loeb Classical
Library (in Ancient Greek, English, and Latin). Translated by Paton,
W.R. London; New York: William Heinemann; G.P. Putnam's Sone.
—— (1922A). Polybius. Volume I. ISBN 0-674-99142-7.
Loeb Number L128; Books I-II.
—— (1922B). Polybius. Volume II. ISBN 0-674-99152-4.
Loeb Number L137; Books III-IV.
—— (1923). Polybius. Volume III. ISBN 0-674-99153-2.
Loeb Number L138; Books V-VIII.
—— (1925). Polybius. Volume IV. ISBN 0-674-99175-3.
Loeb Number L159; Books IX-XV.
—— (1926). Polybius. Volume V. ISBN 0-674-99176-1. Loeb
Number L160; Books XVI-XXVII.
—— (1927). Polybius. Volume VI. ISBN 0-674-99178-8.
Loeb Number L161; Books XXVIII-XXXIX.
Polybius (2012). Polybius: The Histories. The Loeb Classical Library
(in Ancient Greek, English, and Latin). Translated by Paton, W.R.
Chicago: University of Chicago (LacusCurtius).
The Histories or The Rise of the Roman Empire by Polybius:
At Perseus Project: English & Greek version
At "LacusCurtius": Short introduction to the life and work of Polybius
1670 edition of Polybius' works vol.1 at the Internet archive
1670 edition of Polybius' works vol.2 at the Internet archive
Oscar Wilde, The Rise of Historical Criticism: (in CELT)
Polybius and the Founding Fathers: the separation of powers
Polybius: "The Rise Of The Roman Empire", Penguin, 1979.
"Books 1–5 of History. Ethiopian Story. Book 8: From the Departure
of the Divine Marcus" featuring Book I-V of The Histories, digitized,
from the World Digital Library
Other ancient sources
Titus Livius of Patavium (Livy), libri XXI — XLV
Paulus Orosius libri VII of Histories against Pagans
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)
Rome and the Hellenistic World: Essays and
Reflections (Cambridge University Press, 2002) ISBN 0-521-81208-9
Momigliano, Arnaldo M.: Sesto Contributo alla Storia degli Studi
Classici e del Mondo Antico (Rome, 1980)
—— Vol. V (1974) "The Historian's Skin”, 77–88 (Momigliano
Bibliography no. 531)
—— Vol. 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,
Moore, John M: The Manuscript Tradition of
University Press, 1965)
Wikisource has original text related to this article:
Quotations related to
Polybius at Wikiquote
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Polybius at Wikisource
Polybius at Project Gutenberg
Works by or about
Polybius at Internet Archive
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