Polybius was a Greek historian of the Mediterranean world famous
for his book called The Histories or The Rise of the Roman Empire,
covering the period of 220 BC to 146 BC.
As the former tutor of Scipio Aemilianus , the famous adopted
grandson of the famous general Scipio Africanus, Polybius remained
on terms of the most cordial friendship and remained a counselor
to the man who defeated the Carthaginians in the Third Punic War.
The younger Scipio eventually invaded Carthage and forced the
Carthaginians to surrender unconditionally.
was a member of the governing class, with first-hand opportunities
to gain deep insight into military and political affairs. His
political career was devoted largely towards maintaining the independence
of the Achaean League. As the chief representative of the policy
of neutrality during the war of the Romans against Perseus of
Macedonia, he attracted the suspicion of the Romans, and was one
of the 1000 noble Achaeans who in 166 BC were transported to Rome
as hostages, and detained there for seventeen years.
Rome, by virtue of his high culture, he was admitted to the most
distinguished houses, in particular to that of Aemilius Paulus,
the conqueror in the First Macedonian War, who entrusted him with
the education of his sons, Fabius and the younger Scipio. Through
Scipio's intercession in 150 BC, Polybius obtained leave to return
home, but in the very next year he went with his friend to Africa,
and was present at the capture of Carthage that he described.
the destruction of Corinth in the same year, he returned to Greece
and made use of his Roman connections to lighten the conditions
there; Polybius was entrusted with the difficult task of organizing
the new form of government in the Greek cities, and in this office
gained for himself the highest recognition.
succeeding years he seems to have spent in Rome, engaged on the
completion of his historical work, and occasionally undertaking
long journeys through the Mediterranean countries in the interest
of his history, more particularly with a view to obtaining first-hand
knowledge of historical sites. It also appears that he sought
out and interviewed war veterans in order to clarify details of
the events he was writing about, and was given access to archival
material for the same purpose. After the death of Scipio he returned
once again to Greece, where he died at the age of eighty-two,
from a fall from his horse.
Livy used him as a reference and Polybius had excellent sources.
Polybius narrated events which came within his own experience.
He is one of the first historians to attempt to present history
as a sequence of causes and effects, based upon a careful examination
of tradition, conducted with keen criticism; partly also upon
what he had himself seen, and upon the communications of eye-witnesses
and actors in the events.
a classic story of human behavior, Polybius captures it all: nationalism,
xenophobia, duplicitous politics, horrible battles, brutality,
etc.; along with loyalty, valor, bravery, intelligence, reason
and resourcefulness. With his eye for detail and characteristic
critically reasoned style, Polybius provided a unified view of
history rather than a chronology.
by some to be the successor of Thucydides as far as 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 occurrences with
clearness, penetration, sound judgment and, among the circumstances
affecting the result, lays especial stress on the geographical
conditions. It belongs, therefore, to 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 seeking for the
cause of events.
Polybius's writing has come under more critical assessment. In
Peter Green's view (Alexander to Actium) he is often partisan,
aiming to justify his and his father's careers. He goes out of
his way to portray the Achean politician Callicrates in a bad
light, leading the reader to suspect that this is due to Callicrates
being responsible for him being sent to Rome as hostage.
fundamentally he, as first hostage in Rome, then client to the
Scipios and then finally as collaborator with Roman rule after
146 BC, is not free to express his true opinions. Green suggests
that we should always keep in mind that he was explaining Rome
to a Greek audience and that further of the need to convince his
fellow countrymen of the necessity of accepting Roman rule which
he believed as inevitable. Nonetheless, for Green, Polybius's
histories remain invaluable and the best source for the era he
Polybius was responsible for a useful tool in telegraphy which
allowed letters to be easily signaled using a numerical system.
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
Polybius was not especially admired by his contemporaries, to
whom his lack of high Attic style was seen as a detriment. Later
Roman authors writing on the same period, Livy and Diodorus especially,
adapted much of his material for their own uses and followed his
work extensively. As the Roman position was cemented in Europe,
however, Polybius began to decline in popularity. Tacitus sneered
at his description of the ideal mixed constitution, and later
Imperial writers were generally ignorant of him. Polybius lived
on in Constantinople, although in something of a mangled form,
in excerpts on political theory and administration.
it was not until the Renaissance that Polybius' works resurfaced
in anything more than a fragmentary form. His works appeared first
in Florence. Polybius gained something of a following in Italy,
although poor Latin translations of his work hampered proper scholarship
on his work, where he contributed to historical and political
discussion. Machiavelli appears to have been familiar with Polybius
when he wrote his Discourses. Vernacular translations, in French,
German, Italian and English, first appeared in the sixteenth century.
political beliefs have had a continuous appeal to republican thinkers,
from Cicero, to Charles de Montesquieu, to the Founding Fathers
of the United States. Since the Enlightenment, Polybius has generally
held most appeal to those interested in Hellenistic Greece and
Early Republican Rome, and his political and militarial writings
have lost influence in academia. More recently, thorough work
on the Greek text of Polybius and his historical technique has
increased academic understanding and appreciation of Polybius
as a historian. According to Edward Tufte, Polybius was also a
major source for Charles Joseph Minard's figurative map of Hannibal's
overland journey into Italy during the Second Punic War.