THE traveller Pausanias tells us that about AD 180 there was in the market-place of Megalopolis a likeness of Polybius son of Lycortas, wrought in relief on a monument; and an elegiac inscription set forth that he wandered over every land and sea, that he was an ally of the Romans, and that he appeased their anger against the Creeks. This Polybius, he continues, wrote a history of Rome; and he adds, with the later story of Greece in his mind, that whatever the Romans did by the advice of Polybius turned out well; but it is said that whenever they did not listen to his instruction they went wrong. All the Greek states that belonged to the Achaean League obtained from the Romans leave that Polybius should frame constitutions and draw up laws for them.

It is a very fair summary of the man’s career and his significance, Polybius is a son of the Hellenistic age, bone of its bone, and a child of its mind. Born about 200 BC, he lived precisely when that Hellenistic world met the Roman “when the clouds gathering in the West broke”, and there was need for men who understood both the western and the eastern halves of the Mediterranean, and could interpret East to West and West to East on the basis of real affection and admiration for both. Were the Romans barbarians? Was there still value and life in Greek institutions, in Greek genius? What of the leagues and dynasties, and the upstart kingdoms that replaced the great traditions of Solon and Cyrus? And again was there meaning in the strange quick movement of modern history, in the re-modelling and re-grouping of everything the world had known? Not everybody recognized that the whole aspect of the world was for ever changed: to the very end the democrats and the princes would not believe that the age of Antigonus Gonatas had passed, that the age of Flamininus and the phil-Hellenes was passing only too quickly, and that they must make peace and secure the future while they could. It is one of History’s most painful lessons that the minds of practical politicians are but ill-adapted for the discovery of a new situation or of new factors, and seldom move as quickly as the events; and in this instance they were overtaken by the deluge that swept away all their landmarks and opened a wholly new age. Yet men had to live on, and to do this they had to adjust themselves at once to new conditions, which they found terribly hard to do, and to new outlooks and new conceptions, which is always harder. What did it mean, or did it mean anything, this tidal wave of change? The philosophers and the phrase-mongers were playing with the two ideas of Fate and Chance; neither of them served to explain what had happened; was there reason in it? There was a place for the bridge-builder, who should help men to pass from the old to the new, a man with a gift for reconciliation, who could bring men of different races and outlooks to understand one another, and to understand the appalling movement of history that they had witnessed. Every age is an age of transition, but there are times when the transits are horribly rapid; and Greeks and Romans were happy in having a man of the build of Polybius, Greek in race and training, Roman too in sympathy, with an eye if not for everything that was real in his world at least for most of it, a man who may be described in Lucan’s striking phrase “as capacious of the world” (mundi cupacior).

In a curious way everything in his career helped to mould him for his task. He was neither by birth nor by adoption, like so many Greek men of letters, an Athenian. If he ever even visited Athens, we have no record of it. His criticism of Demosthenes is significant : “measuring everything by the interest of his own city, thinking that nil the Greeks should keep their eyes on Athens, and, if they did not, calling them traitors, he seems to me ignorant and very wide of the truth, especially since what actually befell the Greeks then bears witness that he was not good at foreseeing the future”; and he suggests caustically that Athens owed more to Philip’s magnanimity and love of glory than to the policy of Demosthenes. Athens impressed him still less with its renunciation of Greece, its obsequious and indecent adulation of kings. He had himself borne a part in Greek political life, life on a larger scale than Athens offered, and, he would have said, a nobler. Like Herodotus, Thucydides and Xenophon, he had the advantages of exile. Exile, like war in the old phrase, is “a violent teacher”, but the great historians learn much from its dreadful lessons. Polybius in exile gained the detachment that helped to make his predecessors great; he acquired new knowledge of royal statecraft and personality; he made friendships that brought him acquainted with the face of the world and with the men who were shaping its destinies, and gave him a range and freedom unequalled by any Greek save Herodotus.

Arcady is a name of invincibly poetic associations from Theocritus and Virgil. It is strange that its one great writer should have written in prose, and the worst prose perhaps that ever a Greek of anything like his power employed. He can be readable in any language, but his own. Yet he was Arcadian and he had the Arcadian training. He implies that he learnt the Arcadian music, by his criticism of the Cynaethans who forwent it; “it is only in Arcadia that by law from their earliest childhood boys are trained to sing hymns and paeans in which they celebrate after the ancestral fashion the heroes and gods of their native place; later on they learn the airs of Philoxenus and Timotheus and dance every year with great rivalry to the music of pipers in the theatres at the Dionysia, boys in boys’ contests, and youths in the men’s”. Unlike other Greeks, when they feast, they do not hire musicians but they do their own singing; they march to music and take great pains with national dances. This is not “English, but it is still Greek, and Polybius is evidently describing with zest what he had enjoyed”. He also alludes to the Arcadian folk belief in the loup-garou which lingered long after his day. It is in the Peloponnese that men are most naturally inclined to “the quiet and human sort of life”.

Arcadia was a rough harsh land, a land of mountains, of forests of oak and pine, haunted by bear and boar and by great tortoises; and hunting was a national pastime, Polybius loved it; he kept it up in exile; he hunted with prince Demetrius, the Seleucid; he emphasizes his friend Scipio’s passion for it; and from time to time he lets fail traces of his close observation of wild life, and once he pauses to criticize the painters who paint from the stuffed animal. Greece was still devoted to athletics, of which Polybius perhaps did not think so highly, though he had some sympathy with boxing. His hero, Philopoemen, gave up the career or an athlete to serve his country.

Megalopolis was his home; he was the son of Lycortas, a man of good family, of sense, of substance, a friend of Philopoemen, and a contemporary of Lydiades. Lydiades is one of the interesting types of the period; he was somehow tyrant of the city, but he made a treaty with his citizens, abdicated, took Megalopolis into the Achaean League and became one of the League’s chief figures till his death in 227 BC. It was characteristics of Megalopolis, and of one other city alone, that Cleomenes, the socialist king of Sparta, could never buy a partisan among its citizens. In prosperity and in exile there was a nobility about the men of Megalopolis, which (heir fellow-citizen is not reluctant to record; for his tale, like that of Herodotus, “sought digressions”, and not in vain. His pride in his city must not be overlooked it we are to understand the man. Born in it and remembering its story, he could not be an admirer of the new Sparta with its faked legends of Lycurgus, its reckless dealing with property, and its essential betrayal of the Peloponnese. Perhaps the old fear of the Gauls is a reminiscence of childhood. Nor is it without influence on his whole work that he grew up a statesman’s son and was early initiated into politics in that League, and perhaps that city, where the greatest ideals of ancient Hellas had flowered into a new and vigorous life; that the old watchwords of equality, free speech, and democracy were endeared to him from boyhood; and that he not merely learnt them as Plutarch must have, but (hat he watched them in their practical application to the conduct of affairs. If he is not, as one of his critics urges lyric, if he never quite rhapsodizes like some of the later historians, but yet holds fast to great ideals, something perhaps is owed to Lycortas; and, on the other side, perhaps the too political atmosphere cost him the childhood that made Herodotus.

Polybius shared the education of his day, and as he counted if vital for the reader of Philopoemen’s life to know his early training and his boyhood’s ambitions, we may linger a little over his own; it will reveal the man and the age. We forget, he says, “the lessons in geometry we learnt as children” and judge cities and camps, by their circumferences and their slopes. He stresses the value of astronomy; he notices the negative criticism of Strata “the physicist”; he is interested in medicine and questions of diet and surgery, and has a quick glance at the poor class of physician who prefers the initial payment to the final fee and the patient who tires of medical treatment and turns to quacks and charms. It is remarkable how little on the whole he cites the authors who wrote before Alexander, yet now and then echoes may be caught of Thucydides, and at least one very striking phrase of Herodotus is three times borrowed or reproduced. His references to Plato do not suggest great sympathy; but a historian’s preference for an actual constitution to a mere ideal may be forgiven; yet he is interested in the theory of the natural transformation of governments. Homer, of course, he studied, though it might be with more thought of geography than most men of letters; yet his excuse surely touches a general principle of some import, “mere invention carries no conviction and is not Homeric”. He counts it a fine feature in a hero and leader of men that Odysseus can use his knowledge of the stars not only at sea but in land operations. He gibbets Timaeus for a piece of silly criticism to the effect that poets and historians show their own natures in what they linger over : Homer, says Timaeus, must have been a bit of a glutton at that rate. Once he quotes Homer very happily, when he speaks of the many tongues of the Carthaginian mercenaries. Other poets he quotes incidentally –Simonides (“it is hard to be good”), Pindar, Euripides, Epicharmus—and it has been suggested, perhaps not unjustly, that his treatment of them all is on the whole prosaic rather than inspired. He knew something, but thought little, of the schools of rhetoric; but Timaeus surely valued them more highly—“no child in such a school busy with a eulogy of Thersites or a censure of Penelope could eclipse him”, so childish, scholastic and unveracious is he. To his studies of the other historians we must return at a later point.





That as an Achaean citizen Polybius must have taken his share in military training and in war, is obvious; that it interested him intensely, is evident from his frequent comments. Greek war had long ceased to be the simple matter that moved the ridicule of Mardonius; it was full of intellectual interest, not least for a man trained on the field and well read in military history. The wars of the Greeks, says Polybius, were generally decided in one battle, or more rarely in two; but campaigns that involved half the Mediterranean had meant great changes in the art of war. The immense variety of scene in which men fought, the diversity of tactics required, the evolution of new types of arm and armour and of new tactics, meant a new strategy, a new attention to a hundred things never thought of in the old days. Iphicrates and Alexander represented epochs; Demetrius the Besieger marks another; and the achievements of Hannibal, and those of Polybius’ friend Scipio Aemilianus, which he had himself witnessed, made the art and the history more absorbing. Not to go outside his friend’s family, Aemilius Radius said that “the one amusement of some people, in their social gatherings and as they strolled, was to manage the war in Macedonia, while they sat in Rome, sometimes blaming what the commanders did, and sometimes expounding their omissions”. History was written in the same way, Polybius tells us, and he quotes the dreadful confession of Timaeus— “I lived away from home in Athens for fifty years without a break, and I have, I confess, no experience of active service in war or personal knowledge of the localities”. No, a man with no experience of warlike operations cannot possibly tell us what actually happens in war, and a man must see the places he describes.

Polybius wrote a work upon Tactics, which is lost, but his History shows abundantly how much the science of war was in his mind. He is convinced that the chief asset in an army is the commander—there is an immense difference between him and the man in the ranks, and “what is the use of a general who does not understand that he must as far as possible keep out of minor risks, when the fortune of the campaign is not involved? or if he does not know that many men must he sacrificed before the commander is endangered? As the proverb says  :  “Chance it with the Carian”. A commander must know that a decisive engagement must not be undertaken on a chance pretext or without a settled design; he must know when he is beaten or when he is victorious; he will do well to know the mind and temper of the commander opposed to him. He should study military records; he will find astronomy in general useful—witness the failure of Nicias; he should be careful as to climatic effects and atmospheric conditions; above all he needs detailed local knowledge, as to roads, the height of the walls he is to assault and the length of the ladders he is to use, for, if all this is methodically studied, things can be done well enough, while otherwise the futile cost in life, at the expense of his best men, may he heavy. Philopoeme made a point of clean accoutrements; bright armour inspired dismay in the enemy. There is danger in the fraternizing of troops besieging and besieged; it is often forgotten how frequently it has happened.

So much for general principles, and he is always alert for detail of interest. He discusses the strength and the weakness of the Macedonian phalanx, unassailable in frontal attack, but very dependent on level and clear ground, vulnerable in the flank, helpless if broken. He notes improvements in ballistics and siege engines and dilates on fire-signals, in which department he records devices of his own. One of the most famous (and longest) sections of his History he devotes to the Roman army. If it be maintained, as a modern scholar has recently urged, that Polybius seems in military matters to compare badly with the fragmentary Hieronymus, the fact remains that military science was definitely one of the many interests that engaged the historian of the Mediterranean; and we can hardly be wrong in believing that his experience lay behind his interest. Whether the office was more definitely military or political, he was elected Hipparch in the Achaean League.





The story of the League and of its downfall is told elsewhere. It will suffice here to note that Polybius, as became the son of Lycortas, took his part in public affairs. He records his speech on the honours of Eumenes in 169 BC, and his attitude next year on the question of assisting the Egyptian kings. “People were alarmed lest they should be thought to fail the Romans in any way”, but Lycortas and his son were for standing by treaty engagements. They were outmanoeuvred by a subservient politician, who later on incurred an unpopularity very thoroughly manifested. Men insisted on fresh water, if Callicratcs had been in the baths, and school children called him traitor on the street. Political spirit was far from dead among the Achaeans. But we need not here deal further with it; it will be enough to have noted that Polybius did not belong to the thorough-going pro-Roman party, but that, on the contrary, he was denounced by them to Rome and sent among the thousand to Italy. This manoeuvre, unheard of in Greek or Macedonian annals, is recorded by Pausanias; there is a gap in the narrative of Polybius, but a signal chapter records the disgraceful plan adopted by the Senate, who neither wished to pronounce judgment nor to let the men go, and solved the matter (and other problems with it) in the curt sentence, “We do not think it in the interest either of Rome or of your communities (demoi) that these men should return home”. The plural demoi gave an unmistakeable warning to the League that its days were numbered; for Polybius the short sentence meant sixteen years of exile.

It began with “utter loss of spirit and paralysis of mind”, as we can understand; but (one guesses) at a fairly early point came the intimacy with the circle of Scipio. The younger Scipio was the son of Aemilius Paullus, conqueror of Perseus, and the story of the beginnings of his long and intimate friendship with Polybius has been aptly called “one of the most delightful passages in all ancient literature”. The acquaintance began with the loan of books and with conversation about them; and then, when the detained Achaean were being assigned to Italian or Etrurian townships, the sons of Aemilius urgently begged the praetor to allow Polybius to remain in Rome. Their plea was granted; and the intercourse grew closer. One day Scipio, in a quiet and gentle voice, asked Polybius why he so constantly addressed himself to his brother and ignored him; did Polybius share the common opinion that he was too quiet and indolent a person? That was nonsense, rejoined Polybius; he would be delighted to help him in every way. Scipio caught him by the hand and begged him to join lives with him. It pleased Polybius, naturally, but he was embarrassed, he says, when he reflected on the high position of the family and its wealth. But from then onward they were inseparable. Books and hunting and every kind of interest drew them together; and years later Polybius was at Scipio’s side at the great moment of his life, when he watched the burning of Carthage and confided to his friend his strange foreboding that another great city might find a similar end.

A day will come when holy Troy shall fall.

Few stories of the intercourse of Greek and Roman are so pleasant; and few such friendships were ever so profitable for the men themselves or for posterity. For what proved the special function of Polybius in life and in literature —the interpretation of the two races to each other, nothing could have been happier. He had known the best of contemporary Greece; here he came to know, perhaps even more intimately, the best of Rome. He had understood from childhood the movements of Greek politics, republican and monarchical, here he stood in the inner circle of Roman government, discreet, helpful and intelligent; and its character was given to his book.

That he was already writing the book or at least preparing for it in the years of detention, is an easy guess; they were years, at any rate, of preparation. Of episode we hear little or nothing, beyond the story of Scipio’s friendship and the strange occasion when Polybius gave a king to Syria. For a hostage prince, Demetrius, was like himself held in Italy, though heir by now to the throne at Antioch. In spite of his earnest address to them for release, the Senate resolved “to keep Demetrius in Rome and to help to establish on the throne the child left (by king Antiochus). This they did, I think, because they mistrusted the manhood of Demetrius and judged that the youth and helplessness of the child on the throne would suit them better”. But they reckoned without Polybius, who urged the young prince to be his own deliverer, and whose tablets, with some very apt quotations in verse but no signature, were delivered at the critical moment. It is a bright story, well told, and one to be weighed in any estimate of the historian.

The Achaeans had never forgotten their fellow citizens in Italy and had repeatedly sent embassies on their behalf. Deliverance came from an unexpected quarter. For it was Cato who suddenly intervened, with a sentence of kindlier thought than might seem to go with the rough phrase and “horse sense” which the old man affected. Had the Senate, he asked, nothing better to do than sit all day disputing whether some old Greek fellows should be carried to their graves by Roman pall-bearers or Achaean? The argument was sufficient, and release was voted. But a few days later when Polybius was thinking of approaching the Senate again to plead for the restitution of their former honours at home, and consulted Cato, Cato smiled and said that Polybius, like another Odysseus, was wanting to re-enter the cave of the Cyclops, because he had forgotten his cap and his belt. The story suggests a friendliness, perhaps an intimacy, which we might not have guessed; and acquaintance with that great character was one way of knowing Rome.





So, after sixteen years, Polybius was free to leave Italy. Of course he went back to Greece, but he did not stay there. His historical principles, his friendships, his interest in the world, called him elsewhere; he was not ambitious to Be a Timaeus and do his research on a sofa. “To look through old records Is of service for knowledge of the views of the ancients and the impressions they had about conditions, nations, politics and events”; but it is also part of a historian’s task himself “to see the cities, places, rivers, lakes, and in general the peculiar features of land and sea and to know the distances”. So Polybius travelled, and with a freedom which must prove the possession of reasonable wealth; and he half hints as much. The dates of his life are in some cases fixed by the public events at which he was present—such as the sack of Carthage and the fall of Corinth, both in 146 BC, and the siege of Numantia, 134-133 BC, where again he was with Scipio. Pliny tells us that Scipio, while in charge in Africa, gave Polybius the historian the commission to explore with a fleet the Atlantic coast of Africa. This was indeed a chance to put a theory of his into practice; in old days, the perils of land and sea stood in the way of real knowledge of the ends of the earth, and many mistakes were made; but, since the conquests of Alexander and the Romans, nearly all regions were approachable, and, as war and politics offer so much less scope to active brains, there ought to be progress in our knowledge of the world.

He visited Alexandria in the reign of Ptolemy Physcon (145-116 BC) and retained a disgust for the place and its mongrel people. Ptolemy Philadelphus had adorned the city with many statues of a girl called Cleino clad only in her chiton, he tells us, a fit Athena Parthenos for a people of “Egyptian dissoluteness and indolence”. Those who take on trust the historian’s dryness (he pleads guilty to a “hint of austerity”), who leave him unread because Dionysius of Halicarnassus groups hint with “the writers whom nobody can finish”, will find his story of the Alexandrine massacres more vivid than they might expect. It is no mere digression into idle horror and pathos such as he reprobates in historians like Phylarchus who affect the moving accident; it is a living picture of Hellenistic civilization at its worst, a native savagery breaking through the veneer of Macedonian culture, with hideous outrage to court ladies, “the squares, the roofs, the steps, full of people, hubbub and clamour, women and children jostling with men; for in Carthage and Alexandria the little children play no less part in such tumults than the men”. Let us turn westward.

Into the old controversy of Hannibal’s pass it is not necessary here to enter. It begins always with the inquiries made by Polybius among men present when Hannibal crossed the Alps, which the historian followed up by crossing himself “to know and to see” (a Herodotean touch). Roads and distances, as we have seen, always interest him; he notes Roman milestones already in Transalpine Gaul and the sea-going traffic of the Rhone. Strabo says he is wrong in some of his estimates. Again, like Herodotus, he is apt to reflect upon climate and its effects; to note commodities, mines, and fauna. He lingers to tell us of the prosperity, the flowers, the prices of Lusitania—a fat pig 4 obols, a lamb 3 obols, a sheep 2 obols, a hare 1 obol; he describes vividly the placer-mining at Aquileia, and the nuggets of gold the size of a bean or lupine, and the effect upon the price of gold elsewhere, the Roman silver-mining near New Carthage with 40,000 labourers and the dreadful human equivalent of the stamp. Africa is not arid and desolate, as Timaeus supposed in Athens; it has in places a rich soil and abounds in animal life; Numidia indeed was counted barren, till the energy of Masinissa showed how fruitful it could be. He pauses to describe how men catch the swordfish off Sicily. The Ocean “or Atlantic sea as some call it”, he had personally sailed. But perhaps the most memorable and enjoyable of his descriptions of race and region are the pages given to the Celts of North Italy.

Their country’s fertility is not easy to describe; its wheat is so abundant as to sell at four obols the Sicilian medimnus (ten gallons), and barley at half that price. The oak forests on the plains of the Po nourish enormous herds of swine, to which he returns at a later point to describe the swineherd and his horn, and to tell us that one sow may in time produce 1000 young. Food is so cheap that travellers do not haggle over items with inn-keepers but simply ask how much they must pay per diem, and generally “it is half an as, that is a quarter-obol”. As for the Celts, “their numbers, their stature and the beauty of their persons, yes and their spirit in war, you may learn from the very events of their history”; and Hannibal was safe in counting on their hatred of Rome. The rest of Italy feared them with reason; they had invaded the Etruscans and about the time of the King’s Peace, 387/6 BC, they had taken Rome itself and held it seven months. They were natural warriors, “with a mania for war”, and their habit, long kept by Celts, was to fight naked. “The fine order of the Celtic host, and the dreadful din of innumerable trumpeters and horn blowers” impressed the enemy; “very terrifying, too, were the appearance and gestures of the naked warriors, ill in the prime of life and finely built men, and all in the leading companies richly adorned with gold chains and armlets”. To the Greek generally and to the Roman they seemed savages, a lusus Naturae disturbing the order of the universe; for long the Romans never felt safe in their own country with such neighbours. But the “Gallic shield does not cover the whole body; so that their nakedness was a disadvantage, and the bigger they were, the better chance the missiles had of going home”; and their war-swords were only good for a cut not a thrust, and would bend and then had to straightened with foot and hand. It was a more serious defect, the military critic thought, that, for all their courage, they never planned a campaign properly, nor even a battle, but would fling into both “more by instinct than calculation”. There is plainly sympathy in his admiration, and the picturesque description halts the reader and makes him realize the effect of these splendid savages upon the civilized mind, and that effect was a serious factor in Mediterranean history, as the story of Pergamum shows. The digressions of a great historian are apt to be centripetal.

The Gauls were not the only uncivilized tribe of the Mediterranean, and from time to time the historian glances at the others. Not all savages who sacrifice a horse in the eve of a battle are of Trojan descent, he caustically explains, with Timaeus before him. The Celtiberians of Spain, unlike the Greeks, were never content with one battle or two; they fought “uninterruptedly” except that in winter they did less. Even when more or less beaten, the envoys of the Aravacac (of Spain), while taking a proper and subdued attitude before the Senate, made it plain that at heart they scarcely admitted defeat; luck was against them, they owned, but they left the impression that all the same they had fought more brilliantly than the Romans.

So he goes through the world, taking pains to learn and to note the shape and nature of this and that regiot or town: Sparta, Capua, Sinope, Agrigentum; the currents and the economic advantages of Byzantium; the physical geography of the Black Sea; the country life and general wealth of Elis; the craters of the Liparaean islands. No man could be less like Herodotus, as any page will show; yet he has the same instincts, the Name interests, and much (if you except historians) of the same tolerance. He was not infallible; his account of New Carthage is adversely criticized; but a man cannot see everything, and at least principle was to see as much as he could for himself.

The epitaph already quoted from Pausanias and his comment tells all we need here of his later years. He turned his friendship with the Romans to account for his fellow countrymen, and earned gratitude. One characteristic episode must be noted. When all was over and the Achaean League wrecked and dissolved for ever, Polybius was offered with Roman tactlessness some of the property of his old adversary Diaeus, but like Virgil under closely parallel circumstances non sustinuit accipere. Lucian writing three hundred years later tells us, and it is not inconsistent with a youth of hunting and a middle age of travel, that Polybius died when he was eighty years old, of a fall from his horse.





The personal story of Polybius is in itself significant. Like Herodotus, he is a man of his age; in each case the age is reflected in the man, and the personality interprets it; for the life’s work is not to be separated from the life; the experience makes the History. We have not the whole of the pragmateia—the treatise—of Polybius. Of its forty hooks, five times the length of Herodotus and of all the work of Thucydides, six are practically complete; for the rest we depend on long selections or the references of critics, geographers, essayists, and makers of compendiums. Where others make our selections, we are dependent on their interests, which may be more misleading than the accidents of quotation and transcription. Perhaps, if we had the forty books intact, Timaeus might have less place in the memory; and that of itself might modify our judgment of Polybius. Much has been conjectured as to how historians from Herodotus and Thucydides to Lord Clarendon wrote the books they did write rather than those they designed, how soon they achieved the ultimate plan and what traces they left of former plans, how much revision was needed and how much given. Polybius has not escaped. What was his first plan, and where does the second become effective? A fresh start seems evident early in book III. Matters, so small as his wavering between the phrases “according to the proverb” and “as the saying goes”, have been noted, and he has been supplied (by conjecture) at a certain stage with a volume of proverbs, proved by his preference of the former phrase. Do his various utterances on Tyche imply progressive change in his conception of the part played by Fortune in human affairs, and, if so, can you group them into periods and roughly date the passages? It is not wholly idle, for his outlook in his captivity cannot have been that of twenty or thirty years later, when so much had altered the face of the world, when he himself had seen so much of land and sea, borne his part in great actions and shouldered high responsibilities. There is evidence of changing opinion between the parts of the work. He implies as early as book III that he has achieved his forty books; book XXXIX ends with the statement that he has reached the end of his pragmateia. It may be merely a forecast that some will think his work “difficult to acquire and difficult to read” because of its length. Probably, lingering like other authors, and with the example of Zeno the Rhodian before him who published and could not correct, he delayed publication and revised his work as new reflections occurred to him; and in a manuscript of such length and complexity it is hardly surprising if he forgot statements or allusions here and there inconsistent with some new change. Perhaps some of his repeated explanations of his design, some of his theories as to History, might have been fused or omitted, some of his references to Timaeus abridged or cancelled, if he had not kept writing and adding and revising till he was eighty. The work thus suffers in three ways: it is fragmentary (apart from the first six books) and dependent on the tribe of smaller men who excerpt and condense; it gives the impression of sorely needing the last hand of the author; and, finally, a book, like a child, may suffer from too prolonged parental care.

Like Herodotus and Thucydides, Polybius begins by explaining how he came to write his History. He had lived through times that must make any man think; he had seen the culmination of a great worldwide march of events, of a great and permanent change in all political relations. That unity of the world, which seems to have inspired Alexander and fitfully stirred his successors, which had meanwhile been altering all the thoughts of men,  Polybius had seen turned from dream to reality. In international relations, precisians may distinguish between conquest and control; Macedonia was a Roman province for a century or more, before Egypt saw its last queen die; but the realists are generally more correct than the precisions, and from the day when Popillius drew with his stick the circle in the sand round the feet of Antiochus Epiphanes, there was no doubt who ruled the Mediterranean. “Fortune had so directed the matter of Perseus and Macedonia that, when the position of Alexandria and the whole of Egypt was almost desperate, all was again set right simply because the fate of Perseus was decided; for had this not been so and had he not been certain of it, I do not think these orders would have been obeyed by Antiochus”. The small touch of style that ends the sentence with Antiochus in the nominative is significant. Greek opinion counted the action of Popillius abrupt and rude; but a Seleucid king, and that king Antiochus, stepped out of the circle to go home as he was told.

“The very element of unexpectedness in the events I have chosen as my theme is enough to challenge and incite every man, old or young, to the study of my treatise. For who among men is so worthless or spiritless as not to wish to know by what means, and under what kind of polity, the Romans in less than fifty-three years have succeeded in subjecting nearly the whole inhabited world to their sole government—a thing unexampled in history?”. So he puts his theme; and the form of it is in itself challenging. Later in his book he reveals in a quotation whence he drew the suggestion for this form; and the reader will notice at once a parallel and a marked difference. “For if you consider not boundless time nor many generations, but fifty years only, these fifty years immediately before our own day, you will read in them the cruelty of Fortune (Tycho). For fifty years ago do you think that either the Persians or the king of the Persians, either the Macedonians or the king of the Macedonians, if some god had foretold them the future, would ever have believed that today the very name of the Persians would have utterly perished—the Persians who were lords of almost the whole earth, and that the Macedonians should be masters of it, whose very name was unknown? Yet this Fortune, who makes no treaty with our life, who will baffle all our reckoning by some novel stroke, who displays her own power by her surprises, even now, as I think, makes it clear to all men, now that she brought the Macedonians into the happiness of the Persians, that she has but lent them all these blessings —until she changes her mind about them”. Polybius has much to say of Tyche, and not all of it is easy to reconcile with the rest; but while he takes a hint from Demetrius of Phalerum here, his moral is not the fickleness of Fortune, but the value and the fascination of the study of real causes. Later on he looks back, noting a confirmation of what he said at the outset, “that the progress of the Romans was not due to Tyche, as some Greeks suppose, nor was it automatic, but it was entirely reasonable that, after they schooled themselves in affairs of such character and such greatness, they not only struck boldly for universal supremacy of dominion, but achieved their project”. “To talk of Tychehe says again elsewhere, “is not proper; it is vulgar”. “What we all want to know is not what happened, but how it happened”. “What chiefly charms and profits students is the clear view of causes and the consequent power of choosing the better in each contingency as it comes”.

He has thus a real theme, and a “real problem”, an “amazing”, a “paradoxical” story—the values of which, as we shall see, he does not miss—and a genuine piece of investigation. “Tyche (here he slips a little nearer to Demetrius) having guided almost all the affairs of the world in one direction and having forced them all toward one and the same goal” (Tyche like God evidently “geometrizes”), “the historian should bring before his readers under one synoptical view the management by which Tyche has accomplished the whole”; and a little lower, though with a touch or two of the Demetrian style again, he pronounces this ascendancy of Rome “the most beautiful and the most beneficent device of Tyche. A strange judgment for a Greek, an Achaean, and the victim of a cruel piece of Roman dishonesty—but he means what he says; the Roman supremacy was a blessing to the world and it was perfectly intelligible. There were indeed Greeks who, like St Cyprian, put down the rise and fall of nations to Chance; but (in the great sentence of Gibbon) “a wiser Greek, who has composed, in a philosophic spirit, the memorable history of his own times, deprived his countrymen of this vain and delusive comfort, by opening to their view the deep foundations of the greatness of Rome”.

A problem—and without the full range of facts that hear upon it, how can a problem be solved at all? Or if the facts are misrepresented? Or what profit is there for life and statesmanship—for Polybius is always thinking of the practical value of historical enquiry—if the parallel cases are not parallel? Neither for intellectual discipline, nor moral profit, nor political example, can History serve, if any other aim he pursued but that of truth; and where the destiny of the whole world is concerned, where the keynote of the whole thing is the unity of mankind, the whole Truth about the whole world is imperative. All the arts, he says, are becoming sciences, and very highly methodized; and there too lies a point for the historian; “history must he properly written, with the exactitude of a science, if it is to be profitable, composed speeches for situations and he cut all his material ruthlessly into annual sections”. Too many historians followed him in the first of these points, hardly enough in the second; Polybius reversed the tradition, he is careful of dates and chary of speeches. Isocrates devised the character sketch which perhaps began as panegyric and might always too easily become panegyric; and Xenophon copied him and eclipsed him. Xenophon made but a poor sequel to the book of Thucydides; he was a careless annalist; but the man who wrote the Anabasis and inspired Arrian, served History and made a new pattern well. The dramatists, and the writers upon politics, and, following Isocrates, the school rhetoricians, all had their influence; all suggested matters for thought and methods of treatment. Every fresh movement in literature affected the writing of History. Whether the historian realized it or not, all the traditions played upon him;—character-drawing, scene-painting, tragic effects, marvels, self-revelation, general essay-writing, temptation beset him on every hand. One man cannot get Hannibal over the Alps without the personal inter­vention of the gods; Polybius crossed them, as we saw, without such aid, and evidently trusted Hannibal to do the same. Philinus wrote of the Carthaginians like a lover; they could do no wrong; and Fabius was as loyal to the Romans. Theopompus must tell the silly tale of men without a shadow—in Arcadia, too! where it survived to be recorded by Pausanias. Phylarchus in an ungentlemanly and womanish way overdoes the emotional, and seems not to understand that Tragedy and History are two things. There were “universal historians” who knocked off Carthaginian or Roman history in three or four pages.

Polybius aims at Truth, as he says, and his affinities are with the three great predecessors. He sees a whole world with the first; he is as exactingly precise as the second; and he reveals himself even more than the third. Thucydides set his conceptions of History in a preface; Polybius keeps returning to his views and developing them. With Truth as his object, exact but in all its breadth, the historian needs several qualifications. First we may set, though he rather characteristically sets it third, knowledge of the sources, with which, following others of his statements, we may group verbal information. Next may come his first point—seeing things for yourself; and, after that, political experience, and military experience. Research in libraries is not enough, though it helps a man to understand the past, and the movements that make the present. He offers a most significant caution as to the share of the enquirer in shaping the information he receives from the men who actually took part in the battle or the siege as it may be—a suggestion which implies a further stage of psychology than the complaint of Thucydides about the carelessness of enquirers and the partial knowledge of informants. We have already noted his emphasis on seeing for oneself as the avowed purpose of his travels, and he recurs to this, quoting Heracleitus sentence that “the eyes are more accurate witnesses than the ears”. More significant, more modern in tone, is his emphasis on personal experience as the key to historical intelligence and to life in narrative. Autopathia is a word of the later Greek sort, polysyllabic and abstract, but it was not yet in antiquity a commonplace that to understand you must first experience. Polybius adapts Plato’s epigram that for an ideal society philosophers must be kings or kings philosophers; if men of action would write history, not as they do now as a mere side-issue but in the conviction that it is “one of the most needful and noble things” they can do, or if would-be authors would count a training in affairs a pre-requisite, we might hope for real history. Plutarch is still the most charming of biographers, but he never handles a political issue without showing that he has not (in Polybius’ phrase) “taken a hand in politics and had experience of what happens on that side of life”. It may be difficult to secure that in everything the historian “has done the thing himself, as a man of action”, but in the chief things it is necessary. Nothing perhaps need be added as to his sense of the value of actual military experience. The realism with which he handles policy, the cool analysis of motive, the rather hard rationalism of his outlooks, surely speak of his experience of politicians, Greek and Roman, and, quite apart from his con­clusions, illumine the age.





The question has been raised whether he wrote primarily for Greeks or for Romans a question he neither asks nor answers. A man, whose mind is set upon the history of the whole Mediterranean world as a unity, is obviously writing for everybody; and by his day everybody of any consequence read Greek. One Roman historian, Aulus Postumius, thought it necessary to write in Greek, which, in spite of immoderate Greek studies, he felt he could not do very well, and incurred Cato’s shrewd criticism : “the Amphictyonic council had not ordered him to write in a language he knew imperfectly”. That Polybius wrote in Greek was natural. It may be noted that he makes a long digression to describe Roman institutions, and that he is constantly remarking upon Roman character, while, in what is left of his work, we have no such Greek detail, even of the Achaean League. Some things, as we saw, can be omitted in a universal history, especially if they have been done before. But the Greeks have so far hardly taken Rome seriously; they are full of admiration for the great wars of Antigonus and Demetrius, the Persian or the Peloponnesian War, but the first Punic War “lasted without a break for twenty-four years and is of all wars known to us the longest, the most unintermittent, and the greatest”. Yet it was not till 217 BC that Greek statesmen thought of “looking westward”, and Agelaus made his famous speech about “the clouds in the west” and expressed his fear that the truces and wars they were all playing at might be brought to so abrupt an end that they would be praying the gods to give them back the power to fight as they liked.

Writing, then, for all the world Polybius obviously tries to hold the balance true between Greek and Roman. A good man should love his friends and his country and share their loves and hates; but a historian has another duty, he must ignore his feelings and, if need be, speak good of the enemy and give him the highest praise, and be quite unreserved in reproach of his closest friends, if that is just; “if History be stripped of Truth what is left is a profitless tale”. Later on, he concedes that historians may have a leaning for their country but must not make statements at variance with fact. That Polybius had a patriot’s passion for the Achaean League, and its heroes Aratus and Philopoemen, is evident enough from his book and from his practical services after the conquest. Yet the blunders of the League are not concealed. He is accused of having damned the Aetolians with posterity; but it is arguable that he does not do them substantial injustice—they first invited Roman interference; yet the manly speech of Agelaus belonged to them. As to the Greeks in general, good Hellene as he is, like the good Hellenes who wrote history before him and were blamed by Plutarch and Dionysius for their revelations, Polybius makes no secret of Greek weaknesses. The Greek world about 200 BC, he says, was infested with bribery, and he contrasts Roman honesty, though even that had fallen away from earlier times. Demagogy ran to outrageous lengths; “the natural passion for novelty” swept Greeks into all sorts of change; the Cynaethans, though Arcadians, are shocking people with neverending stasis, exiles and murders; treachery was too prevalent; and it would be tedious to try to count the embassies and counter-embassies he records as sent to Rome. He cannot be accused of flattering his countrymen; yet he will write that a thing is “neither just nor Greek”—happy synonyms!

He has been reproached with becoming Roman in sentiment, which might have been called magnanimity in view of all he bore and all he knew. But he is as unsparing of Roman policy in the second century as of Greek. In Roman character, in its greatness and its meanness, he is deeply interested. Rome had looked for the moment and the pretext to destroy Carthage; she let the Greeks see how she would welcome defections from the Achaean League; was it to find a loophole for intervention that the Roman consul urged the Rhodians to reconcile Antiochus and Ptolemy? The affair of the quarrelling Ptolemies prompts the remark that “many decisions of the Romans are now of this kind; they avail themselves with profound policy of the mistakes of others to augment and strengthen their own empire, under the guise of granting favours and benefiting those who commit the errors”. A change for the worse came over Rome when Macedon fell and universal dominion was secure. Perhaps the account which he gives of Greek comment on the destruction of Carthage and the progress of the false Philip shows his balance as well as any. Let his judgment on Hannibal, foe of the Romans as the Phoenician had for centuries been of the Greek, serve to show his spirit; and if it be contrasted with the words and the mind of Livy, the greatness of Polybius will be more evident.

“Who could withhold admiration for Hannibal’s strategic skill, his courage and ability, who looks to the length of this period, who reflects on the pitched battles, the skirmishes, the sieges, the revolutions and counter-revolutions of states, the vicissitudes of events, at the whole scope of his design and its execution? For sixteen years he maintained ceaseless war with the Romans throughout Italy without once releasing his army from service in the field but kept those great numbers under his control, like a good pilot, without disaffection to himself or one another, though he had troops in his service not only of different tribes but of different races. He had Libyans, Iberians, Ligurians, Celts, Phoenicians, Italians, Greeks, who had neither law, nor custom, nor speech, nor anything else in nature common to them. None the less the skill of the commander was such, that differences so manifold and so wide did not disturb obedience to one word of command and one single will. And this he achieved not under simple conditions, but most varied, the gale of fortune blowing now fair, now foul. So one may admire the commander’s power in all this, and say with confidence that, if he had begun with other parts of the world and attacked the Romans last, not one of his projects would have eluded him”.

The passage is a noble one; but let any one turn to the Greek of it, and he will realize the feet of iron and clay mixed, beneath the head of gold. The grammar is intricate, though not here so involved as it often is; there are for the classical taste too many abstract nouns, many of which the great Attic writers would neither have wished nor needed to use, and of course the inevitable touto to meros, which may be found three times on a page. Nor will the plea be quite sufficient that he uses the jargon of the politicians and treaty-makers of his day. His sentences straggle and draggle beyond belief; he masses short syllables; and then he astonishes the reader by sedulous avoidance of hiatus. There is “something austere” in his style, as he owns, a uniformity, likely only to please one class of reader. He admits, while he criticizes Zeno for over-niceness (and some vanity) in the matter of elegance of style, that we should indeed bestow care and concern on the proper manner of reporting events, for it contributes much to History; but reasonable people ought not to count it the first and master interest; “no, no, there are nobler aspects of History, on which rather a man of practical experience in politics might plume himself”.

And so indeed there are; and for all his lumbering sentences, in spite of the soundness of his morals, his readiness to pause to point a lesson for statesman, soldier or citizen, his conscientious digressions to guard the reader against Timaeus and other sinful men, tragic, stylistic, erroneous—it is impossible to spend months with the great historian of the Hellenistic world and not like and admire him. He did know his world, and he is so large and sane and truthful; where he is our guide the path is so plain and the view so broad and clear to the horizon, that you regret more and more that the ancients did not preserve every page of his History and his Life of Philopoemen too. Dionysius and others have greatly overdone his dullness. In his deliberate way he can give you the great scene, the moving episode. That escape of Demetrius, hinted at above, stands out, says a modern historian, in ancient literature for its vividness and authenticity; and it is by no means alone. Recall the miser Alexander and his captivity, the mutiny of the mercenaries at Carthage, Hannibal’s oath to his father, the crossing of the Rhone and the elephants with their Indian mahouts, the end of Cleomenes, the wild riots in which Agathocles is killed in Alexandria, the scene of the negotiations between Philip, Flamininus and the rest, and the last awful picture of the confusion and despair of Greece before the conquest brought peace and release; and it will be hard to maintain that this man missed the great moments or failed to give them again to the reader. “He could draw fine pictures when he chose”.

The great personality did not escape him. The friend of Scipio, the writer of that judgment upon Hannibal, knew a great man when he met him, and he comes strangely near Carlyle’s doctrine of the Hero. Syracuse is to be besieged; the Romans have all in readiness, penthouses, missiles, siege material; and in five days, they hope, they are sure, their works will be much more advanced than those of the Syracusans; but in this they did not reckon with the power of Archimedes nor foresee that in some cases “one soul is more effective than many hands”. Eight months, and the city is not yet taken—“such a great and marvelous thing may be one man and one soul fittingly framed”. A similar comment is made on Xanthippus, restorer of the fortunes of Carthage—one man and one man’s judgment did it. The men are many who stand out as the story advances—the elder Scipio, with his force of character; Cleomenes, socialist, king and general; Attalus, conqueror of the Gauls, no mean enemies, as we have seen; Flamininus, the philhellene with his great proclamation and his laughing diplomacy; Perseus, not great but a character; Antiochus Epiphanes, and—one cannot resist it—the disappointing Philip himself. And yet the historian of Hellenistic civilization may be right when he says that the hero of Polybius is Rome.

Other men have drawn great scenes and given us the characters of great men, and many have done it with greater grace of speech, but we may end as we began. The Hellenistic age grows progressively in interest and significance; it is so modern, so near us, and it is at the same time so near the great days of Alexander, of “Leuctra and the most brilliant period of Greek history”. If it has not the amazing brilliance of the century of Themistocles, it yet is creative. Rome and our modern world are unintelligible without it. Polybius is its great interpreter; and at the same time he is the first true historian of Rome, the writer of a book “like the sun in the field of Roman history”. “And on every page you feel that you are dealing with a man who loves truth and sees things in perspective, who understands what he sees, and treats you as an equal”.