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The Histories by Polybius

The Histories

by Polybius

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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This book tells the tale of the Romans’ first overseas trip in 264 BC by which they announced their arrival on the world stage. You can jump straight in and enjoy it, but by coincidence Polybius takes up pretty much where Dionysius of Halicarnassus’ history fragments and I did appreciate having read that first. In my head Rome is always the glorious empire of later years, but as Dionysius makes clear, in the beginning Rome was a barbarian city state many hundreds of miles from the nearest centre of civilisation; not much more than a fort where they kept their slaves. They were addicted to war. Literate, but not producing any literature. At the time Polybius’ history opens the first plays in Latin are just being staged – and the only way they’ve managed that is because one of their slaves is a Greek called Livius Andronicus who is adapting Greek New Comedy.

So all the more amazing that, having conquered the Italian peninsula, but never having gone to sea, they practice rowing movements on shore before taking on the Carthaginians. By turns I’d admire first one side and then the other. The Romans for their guts, but then dismay that such a band of animals could so wound such an ancient and stylish sea-faring civilisation. Yet when the Romans invade Africa and immediately capture twenty thousand slaves the scales do fall from one’s eyes somewhat. The Carthaginians may do things which panache, but isn’t panache the hall-mark of all good pirates?

After the account of this first Punic War, Polybius gives us the Numidian War, which is fantastic because the Berbers are a great bunch of lads but they really don’t get much of a look-in on the world stage. There’s also an account of the Romans’ second holiday when they establish a beach-head in the Balkans.

It’s worth saying something about Polybius’s style. Whereas Dionysius’ history is essentially a novel, using all the rhetorical techniques he can lay his hands on, Polybius’ technique is crystal clear and totally precise. His battle scenes are the best I’ve read. If you want to know how they killed each other back in the day then this is the book for you. I definitely felt as if I were reading a reliable history rather than a story and for the later events I got the impression he had spoken to eye-witnesses – which is certainly possible given the time-frame.

But then at the end of the volume he gives some Greek history. His account can be a little confusing and I was just thinking it all might be a little too close to home for him when he suddenly emits the most astounding stream of bile against a historian called Phylarchus. Is it good history? Perhaps not. But very entertaining. ( )
  Lukerik | Dec 8, 2018 |
Polybius was an Achean cavalry officer taken to Rome as a hostage. He befriended the Scipios and other notable families, during the rise of Rome, circa 200 BCE. Now he is regarded as a "Roman" historian. He wrote these Histories, which cover the period of 264–146 BC, describing the rise of the Roman Republic to dominate the Mediterranean world. He provides an eyewitness account of the Sack of Carthage in 146 BC.

This work has long been relevant for Polybius' comments on a mixed constitution providing a separation of powers in government. Montesquieu credits Polybius in "L'Espirit des Lois" which much-improved Polybius' political science. See also Federalist Papers, written by framers of the United States Constitution.

I have many questions about the translation....cf. http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Polybius/3*.html

REFERENCE: And now, with Trump and Sanders beating at our gates, the Getty Center is asking "Do demagogues inevitably unravel democracies, as thinkers from the aristocratic Greek historian Polybius to James Madison have argued, or can they help renew the system?

Reference my notes and discussions at the presentation moderated by Seema Mehta, political correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, with Eric Robinson, ancient historian and Greek democracy expert, Indiana University; and Roman historiography and conspiracy specialist Victoria Emma Pagàn, University of Florida.

Jennifer Mercieca, communications professor and rhetorician, Texas A&M University, explored and documented how democracies produce—and survive—their demagogues. ( )
  keylawk | May 25, 2016 |
An engaging read for the historically minded. He was a Greek prisoner (hostage) who became enamored of the Roman Republic and the merit of its people. This was long before Sulla and Marius started Rome down the road to autocracy. His perspective brings the Republic to life. ( )
  JVioland | Jul 14, 2014 |
Technically this is a book about the Roman Republic, not the Empire. The history of Roman antiquity can be divided into three phases: (1)the monarchy (753 B.C.- 509 B.C.), (2) the republic (509 B.C -27 B.C.) and (3) the Empire (27 B.C. -476 A.D. (West); -1453 A.D. (East)).

This book focuses on how the Republic rose from provincial city-state to become the superpower of its day. Author Polybius (~200 B.C.- 118 B.C.) was an educated Macedonian political prisoner living in Rome from 168 B.C. on. He wasn't quite a slave, but living in the enforced custody of a powerful ruling-class family, to which he was essentially a servant. He was granted leave to examine and chronicle the great question of his age: how Rome managed to become master of the Mediterranean universe in less than two hundred years. The events examined center around the conquest of Sicily, and Rome's showdown with its first major competitor, Carthage.

Shifting....er, confusing alliances in Sicily
Sicily was Rome's first big conquest, and the bounty of its rich agricultural output really gave Rome a taste for international expansion. Forget what you know about present-day Sicily. It has lately (1868) become politically and culturally integrated into Italy, but two thousand years ago, it was as foreign to the Romans as Greece. In fact, the island was populated with Greek colonists spreading Hellenist civilization from across the Ionian Sea. Unfortunately, the colonists were ill-prepared to defend their way of life. When the Mamertines in Regium (the tip of Italy's "boot") captured Messina, they appealed for Roman assistance to help them hold it. The Roman army instead took their home city of Regium! This book is filled with dickish maneuvers like that.

This caused nervous Mamertines to offer Carthaginians an alliance against Rome. It proved to be a defining historical moment, the first time Rome was brought into conflict with a major foreign power.

Punic War #1 (264 B.C.- 240 B.C.)
The entire first Punic War is a narrative of how Rome came to appreciate the value of a powerful navy, and how -by fits and starts- she came to dominate the local waters. Prior to this time, Roman power had always resided with her armies. Land forces had won Rome control of the Italian peninsula, so naturally the Roman military mindset was army-centric. When it came to Sicily, however, Rome couldn't seem to win a decisive victory over the Carthaginians. The African forces kept getting resupplied with fresh ships, which had the annoying habit of also cutting off Roman ships from supplying the Legions. It took Roman generals a while to appreciate the huge advantage the Carthaginians enjoyed with their advanced and well-trained navy. By chance, however, a Carthaginian ship ran aground in Roman waters. When they captured its crew and inspected the vessel, its superior design was apparent. The Romans adopted her design, and added a feature of their own: "the Raven"- a drop-bridge which enabled Roman marines to board enemy ships during close combat.
Suddenly Roman fortunes shifted. A string of successes beat back Carthage and gave Rome the advantage on Sicily. Over twenty years, Rome also learned some hard lessons about seamanship: She lost a fleet to insufficient protection from storms. She lost numerous humiliating defeats to the Carthaginians, owing to the initial poor training and disorganization of Roman sailors. Undaunted, Rome continued to improve her navy, until the efforts paid off. In an epic battle off the coast of Drapana (modern day Trapani), the Romans roundly defeated the Carthaginian navy, forcing the African empire to sue for peace. The first Punic War finally came to a close with Sicily becoming the first foreign territory to fall to Rome, and the Carthaginians limping home in humiliation.

Okay, this part was a little confusing...I didn't really get what Polybius was trying to do until the end of the book. He starts off describing how around 140 B.C. the Carthaginians were extending their power into Spain, but the Romans were reluctant to oppose them in battle, because Gauls kept threatening from the north, tying up Roman legions. All of the sudden, he's on this twenty-five page digression about how Rome met the Gauls in battle several times, nearly two hundred-fifty years ago, in 386 B.C...

This is the best part and the worst part. On one hand, it contains overlong passages which are little more than lists (p.136) about how many garrisons were here, and how many cavalry were there, etc: "The men capable of bearing arms were supplied to the authorities as follows: Latins, 80,000 infantry and 5,000 cavalry; Samnites, 70,000 infantry and 7,000 cavalry; Iapygians and Messapians, 50,000 infantry...." My entire experience in high school Latin class was translating militaristic humdrum like this, and reading it is no more fun than translating it was. To spice things up, however, Polybius peppers the text with little surprises, like the Gaesatae legion deciding to fight Romans naked, because (p138) "...They believed that they would be better equipped for action in this state, as the ground was in places overgrown with brambles and these might catch in their clothes and hamper them in the use of their weapons."Yes, far better to proceed into the brambles nude, surrounded by 6,000 sword-wielding buddies, charging uphill into a barrage of enemy arrows. Normally I'd want some armor to go with that, but if there are brambles around for it to get caught on... better not to risk it.

Wait, it gets better: (p140)"...the movements of the naked warriors in the front ranks made a terrifying spectacle. They were all men of splendid physique and in the prime of life, and those in the leading companies were richly adorned with gold necklaces and bracelets. The mere sight of them was enough to arouse fear among the Romans..."Yeah, brambles be damned, I'm not going into battle without my good gold bracelets and necklaces. And who wouldn't be terrified by a surging army of bejeweled, battle-hardened, naked young men in the prime of life, their necklaces and bracelets shimmering in the sun, lunging into combat with splendid physique, their swords drawn and ready for action? In a stunning upset, the naked Celts were annihilated, and their bracelets captured for the glory of Rome.

Method to the Madness
After all that, Polybius summarizes that the Romans have met the challenge of the Gauls successfully in the past. Many times, in fact, so should not have let the Galic threat deter them from opposing Carthage in Spain. The reasoning seems a bit weak, but there you have it. In an almost incidental side note, he also mentions...

The Romans in Greece
Okay, the narration is back on track in 140 B.C., although Polybius doesn't actually extend the courtesy of telling us so. You have to figure that out for yourself, thank you very much. There was no Greek nation-state at this time, only a bunch of kingdoms and city-states loosely affiliated by a common language and culture. The last thirty pages of Book II laboriously catalogues their infighting. It is not a pleasure to read. Being so discordant, the Greeks were thus easily terrorized by the stronger, more unified kingdom of Illyria to the north (roughly covering the area occupied by the once Yugoslavia).

When Rome clashed with Illyria over the issue of Illyrian piracy in the Adriatic, Greeks rushed to Roman support. Thus Rome was drawn into Greek affairs -an association which would ultimately end poorly for the Greeks.

Overall, Book II was not as tight or focused as Book I. Long story short, Carthage expanded into Spain after the First Punic War, and Polybius thinks Rome should have done more to address that threat. If this were a modern text, I'd say Book II needed better editing, but since it's an ancient classic, who would dare? It's as if the Mona Lisa had a spot that needed touching up...

Polybius has this annoying habit of starting each book by telling me what he is going to tell me, once he gets around to actually starting the book. Then he laments that he doesn't know if the gods will bless him with long enough life to get all those things down on paper. Geez, Polybius! Just tell me! Then you won't have to worry about whether you live long enough to tell me!

Punic War #2 (218 B.C. -201 B.C.) -the "Hannibalic War"
Carthage is still smarting from their embarrassing defeat in the First Punic War, when Rome kicks them out of Sardinia as well. Carthaginian general Hannibal is fuming. He starts conquering territory in Spain, pillaging cities, collecting men and loot to go after Rome. Meanwhile, the Romans take notice, and order a stop to all this. In fact, they order the Carthaginians to surrender General Hannibal and his men, or else be taken as supporting his "outrageous" actions. Words are exchanged. Feelings are hurt. Naturally, Carthage does not turn Hannibal over, and he mobilizes forces and starts heading north to cross the Pyrenees Mountains.

But first, a word from our sponsors...
At this point, the narration is a gripping tale of two great forces squaring off for control of the known world. What a great time for Polybius to launch into a six page digression about what a great historian he is. Seriously, he trash talks like a rap star, telling us (p.208) ..."I wish to correct the misapprehension of those who think my work is hard to obtain and difficult to read..." OH SNAP!!!
Then later (p.210) ..."I need not be condemned as if I were imitating those historians who try to make their inaccuracies convincing." IN YOUR FACE, UNNAMED OTHER ANCIENT HISTORIANS!!! NOW WHO'S THE PUNK(S), BE-AH-CHES?!?? WHO NEED NOT BE CONDEMNED? -YEAH, THAT'S WHAT I THOUGHT!

CisAlpine Gaul
When Polybius gets a grip and returns us to the narration, Hannibal is already across the Alps. Whoa! I figured the story of that crossing could be a book unto itself... those poor elephants trudging through the snow... hostile Celtic and Germanic tribes attacking from all sides, trapping Hannibal and his troops in narrow mountain passages. I really thought Hannibal's epic journey through Spain, Southern France, and Switzerland was going to be a centerpiece of this book. No luck- Polybius glosses over this part. Has he no sense of drama?? I was able to get over my disappointment though, because Polybius tells the tale of CisAlpine Gaul well. "CisAlpine Gaul" translates as "Gaul, this side of the Alps". From the Roman perspective, there was no concept of the Italian peninsula being an integrated area. The region we know as northern Italy

was culturally Gaul, and not regarded as a geograpically integral part of Roman Italy. At the time of Hannibal's attack, one of the major CisAlpine Galic peoples were the Boii. They had recently been defeated and subsumed by Rome. When Hannibal and his magnificent elephants entered the area, they were regarded as liberators. To Roman horror, the Boii did not oppose the invaders, but took up arms and joined them against Rome. This is one of history's recurring punchlines: how Empires assume that the people they have vanquished and pillaged actually love their imperial overlords! Fast forward to the mid 20th century, and press statements from the British government towards rebelling subjects in India and Kenya repeatedly characterize independence movements as products of an "ungrateful native mind". The Celtic support gave Hannibal's forces a much-needed boost. Rome had dispatched their most accomplished general, Scipio, to address the problem, but hadn't factored the Celtic defectors into their calculations. After some stinging defeats, a second general, Longus, was sent to assist. Longus was not the great general Scipio was, and let his personal ambitions interfere with decisions in the field. He engaged the enemy at inopportune times, when Scipio's forces were not close by to support, figuring any victory would be his alone, rather than shared or absorbed by Scipio's reputation. Needless to say, planning battles around PR considerations does not make for great leadership, and Roman forces paid the price repeatedly. Much of the rest of Book III is devoted to decriptions of battlefield movements, tactics, and the like. It is interesting reading, but too detailed to include in this review.

The entire point of Book IV is that the Greek city states fought with each other quite a lot, and the Byzantines inhabit a land which is bountiful and in an excellent strategic position. I could have said as much in less than twenty-two pages. In fact, I just did.

Now things get interesting. Greece is watching the ongoing conflict in Italy, and can't help thinking that regardless who wins, the victor will soonafter turn his attention to Greece and Illyria. King Philip of Macedon rallies fellow Greeks to band together for a strike at Rome in her homeland! It seems the docrine of preemptive war isn't so new after all.

The books are getting shorter now; it isn't just my reveiws. This book breaks from the historical narration, and discusses Polybius' general observations that history appears cyclic in nature, and that diverse societies all seem to follow a similar dialectic from monarch to tyrrany (i.e. dictatorship) to aristocracy to oligarchy to democracy to mob rule, and then back to monarchy. The American founding Fathers were in general well-versed in classical literature, and it would be interesting to know whether Polybius, and this chapter specifically, informed their views.

UPDATE: Michael just made the following comment on my thread:
Michael - rated it 4 stars 2 hours, 5 min ago

I took a foundational historical/political thought class in college, and actually yes, the Founding Fathers did read Polybius, and it's one of the intellectual underpinnings behind our Separation of Powers. The whole idea of a "mixed constitution" in Book VI is one of the more cogent pieces of classical rhetoric that get the US interested in a Republic very specifically as opposed to a democracy.

Thanks, Michael!
...See? You really should read this book.

Sicily is inhabited by Carthaginians (around Trapani and Eriche), the kingdom of Syracuse (which is politically independent and culturally Greek), and Romans everywhere else. An uneasy peace remains intact so long as Syracuse keeps to itself. When she starts talking with Carthage about increasing trade, and maybe exchanging diplomatic envoys, Rome feels threatened and begins building up arms, as a show of force. Meanwhile, Carthage makes a broad alliance with the Greeks under the command of Philip of Macedon. Essentially Carthage and the Greeks agree to support each other in any attacks upon Rome, including Hannibal's ongoing efforts. Polybius takes some time in an aside to describe Philip of Macedon's gradual transformation from a just ruler to a tyrant. Rome, under the leadership of General Appius Claudius Pulcher ("Pulcher" just doesn't sound very Roman to me), makes repeated attempts to storm Syracuse, but the Syracusans are directed by the wise old man Archimedes, who figures out how to frustrate each Roman attack.

Meanwhile, Hannibal's forces are down at the arch of the "boot" in Taranto. Using an ingenius plan to sneak his operatives (posing as local peasants) into the city during a Roman festival when most of the legions are drunk, Hannibal bypasses the city's extensive fortifications. The Carthaginians open the city gates, and allow Hannibal's army to enter. Instead of demolishing the city, they quietly go about killing Roman soliers as they lay in a drunken stupor. Under strict order, they do not harm any of the native population. When the city's inhabitants wake in the morning, the Roman forces have been wiped out, and the Carthaginian army is peacefully occupying them, eager to buy food from Tarantan merchants. The Trantans, never big fans of Rome to begin with, embrace the well-behaved new army, and even help them to route out and destroy whatever Romans remain. This is how Hannibal- so far from home, and with no supply lines to speak of, manages to maintain momentum against Italy for so long. It turns out quite a few native Italians were eager to turn against Rome, given an opportunity with a reasonable chance of success. To his credit, Hannibal was able to recognize this and capitalize on it... until the fall of Capua (in the vacinity of Naples). Something about Capua, maybe its size, maybe its proximity to Rome, gave non-Roman Italians pause. When Hannibal managed to seize Capua, southern Italians seemed to realize that maybe they were trading domination by Rome for domination by Carthage. Hannibal had laid waste to much of the countryside, and subjected the citizenry to quite a lot of violence, after all. The fall of Capua must have raised questions in many Italian minds, including "What will life be like if Hannibal defeats Rome?" and "What do we really know about this Hannibal guy, anyhow?". Maybe the known evils of Rome weren't so bad next to the unknown evils of Carthage. Suddenly, Hannibal's allies in Campaignia, Umbria, and CisAlpine Gaul weren't such ardent supporters... and Hannibal must have recognized this. He started recalling garrisons he had stationed in townships throughout Italy, fearing his forces were too spread out, and too vulnerable to uprisings, should locals turn on him. Pulling forces out of many of these towns violated Hannibal's pledge to protect his allies from recapture by Rome... thus accelerating the growing doubts about him. This is how Hannibal's support crumbled, and the Roman General Scipio was able to marshal a massive attack and bring an end to his campaigns in Itay.

This part comprises a lot of Polybius' musings about what it takes to be a great General, etc, but does contain one really interesting anecdote:

Worst General Staff Aide EVER!
Back when Hannibal was planning to march his forces on their legendary trek from Spain to Italy, he delegated the logistic details of feeding the troops to one of his assistants: Monomachus. After several weeks attending to other affairs, he came back to check on Monomachus' progress. There had been none. Monomachus basically said "Oh, I just assumed you wanted the men to march to the point of starvation, and then have the remaining forces cannibalize them. We ought to be able to get to Italy on that plan!" Hannibal's response: "WTF!!!! I never said anything like that! You're fired!"

There's still more to tell, but I've run out of alotted characters for a review. If you've read this far, you should have a good sense of what this book is like. It can be slow going at times, but overall a good read, and well worth the effort, if you are interested in antiquity.

FIN ( )
4 vote BirdBrian | Apr 7, 2013 |
Edition: First Edition // Descr: xliv, 340 p. 18 cm. // Series: The Great Histories Call No. { 878 P76 1 } Series under the General Editorship of Hugh R. Trevor-Roper Newly Translated by Mortimer Chambers Edited and Abridged with an Introduction by E. Badian Contains Glossary and Index. // //
  ColgateClassics | Oct 26, 2012 |
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» Add other authors (37 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Polybiusprimary authorall editionscalculated
Möller, LenelotteEditormain authorsome editionsconfirmed
Folard, Jean-Charles deContributorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
McGing, BrianForewordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Scott, MichaelPrefacesecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Thuillier, VincentTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Waterfield, RobinTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed

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INTRODUCTION -- Polybius was born about 208 B.C. at Megalopolis in Arcadia.


1. Had previous chroniclers neglected to speak in praise of History in general, it might perhaps have been necessary for me to recommend everyone to choose for study and welcome such treatises as the present, since men have no more ready corrective of conduct than knowledge of the past.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0140443622, Paperback)

The Greek statesman Polybius (c.200 - 118 BC) wrote his account of the relentless growth of the Roman Empire in order to help his fellow countrymen understand how their world came to be dominated by Rome. Opening with the Punic War in 264 BC, he vividly records the critical stages of Roman expansion: its campaigns throughout the Mediterranean, the temporary setbacks inflicted by Hannibal and the final destruction of Carthage. An active participant of the politics of his time as well as a friend of many prominent Roman citizens, Polybius drew on many eyewitness accounts in writing this cornerstone work of history.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:04:06 -0400)

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