The Histories (Polybius)
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Polybius’ Histories (Greek: Ἱστορίαι Historíai) were originally written in 40 volumes, only the first five of which are extant in their entirety. The bulk of the work is passed down to us through collections of excerpts kept in libraries in Byzantium, for the most part.
The arrival of texts of Polybius in the west did not begin until the 15th century AD. As an interesting footnote to Polybius’ appearance in the 15th century, there is an argument made by J. H. Hexter as to the appearance of Polybius in Machiavelli, especially the section that survives in Book 6, the section which covers the description of the Roman constitution as a mixed constitution. The work survives from this period in the West in the works of such renowned authors as Montesquieu and others, and is in part the basis for the theory of the United States Constitution.
The Histories are now read more for their insight on Hellenistic Greek and the beginnings of the Koine Dialectice or Common Dialect of this Hellenistic period.
The content of Polybius’ Histories runs the gamut from historical information, to a discourse on tuche (τύχη) or fortune, to a discourse on mixed constitution and with the overarching theme of his role as the “pragmatic” historian. Polybius’ begins in the year 264 BC and ends in 146 BC (Polybius was born around 200 and died around 117 BC). His primary concern, aside from the presentation of pragmatic history, is the 53 years in which Ancient Rome became a dominant world power. This period from 220 BC to 167 BC see Rome subjugating Carthage becoming the dominant Mediterranean power. Books I through V are the introduction and background for the years in which he was concerned and they generally cover the affairs in each nation of import at the time; Ancient Egypt, Greece, Spain and deals extensively with the first and second Punic Wars. Then in Book VI he begins on a tangent and describes the constitution of the Romans, outlining the powers of the consuls, senate and people. He comes to the conclusion, by virtue of his Hellenistic attitude, that the Romans are so successful because their constitution is mixed. The remainder of the book is a treatment of the affairs during the critical 53 year period mentioned above and considering the remains of the text that survive the particularly interesting episodes are the treatment of Hannibal and Scipio and as a notable digression from his theme, Timaeus (historian). In Book XII he discusses the merits of Timaeus’ particular brand of history and concludes in a snide manner that Timaeus is not worth very much. So, Polybius is notable for his treatment of Rome’s rise to power, in a historical sense but he is also useful in assessing the Hellenistic manner of writing and as a window into this Hellenistic period.
Polybius on tyche
Tyche, which means fate or fortune, plays an integral role in Polybius’ understanding of history and he is useful for gaining an understanding of the concept in the Hellenistic period. Tyche, to Polybius, takes on something of a double meaning in his work. It is first of all understood as a force by which things come about, or happenstance, luck if you will. There is, however, the element of Tyche as a goddess, which was a Hellenistic convention. This personification of Tyche is particularly important because at times Polybius uses her, that is Tyche, to justify seemingly sensible events rather than see them as an accumulation of rightful judgments by the persons involved in any circumstance. Thus Tyche is both an elemental force that is a way of understanding acts of God and at the same time it is a goddess capricious in nature and finally can be seen as a goddess who doles out retribution for wrongdoing or foolishness perpetrated by leaders. The exploration of Tyche is also the impetus for Polybius beginning his work, it is in exploring the fortunate events that lead to Rome’s domination of the inhabited world that cause Polybius to begin on his history and is an integral part of his understanding that history. Due to this fact it becomes necessary for Polybius to discuss history in a universal manner, that is to say, to address history not as the events that take place in one region or the other but to analyze events with an eye for the big picture. This is the primary attribute of Polybius’ pride in his history, its universal nature in attempting to explain the coming to power of Rome.
Polybius on government
In Book VI Polybius digresses into an explanation of the Roman constitution and he shows it to be mixed. The purpose for this is involved in the Hellenistic nature of the work, particularly his audience, Greeks. Greeks at this time believed that the strength of a state is manifested in the strength of its constitution. The mixed constitution was touted as the strongest constitution as it combined the three integral types of government: monarchy, aristocracy and democracy. Polybius makes further distinction in the forms of government by including the nefarious counterparts to the ones mentioned above; tyranny, oligarchy, and ochlocracy. These governments, according to Polybius cycle in a process called anacyclosis, which begins with monarchy and ends with ochlocracy. The Roman model avoids this problem when it sets up the republic and becomes a mixture of the three types. The Consuls represent Monarchy and have power over the army in the field and the expenditures in Rome. A noted exemption from consular authority is the Tribune of the Plebs. The Senate is responsible for the appointment and approval of Consuls and Censors and is the driving force behind the business that needs to be done in the city and with respect to foreign policy. Of course, none of this can happen without the censure of the people and no man can be installed in any position without the vote of the people. It is in this way, as Polybius understands it, that the strength of the Roman state is shown and held together.
Polybius in English
The first English translation, made by Christopher Watson, was published in London in 1568 as The hystories of the most famous and worthy cronographer Polybius. Dindor’s 1886 translation of Polybius is considered an exemplary modern translation. F. W. Walbank wrote a comprehensive commentary on the Histories in three volumes, which was published in 1957.
- 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, Jan. 23, 2008, The Modern Antiquarian 
- Polybius; Frank W. Walbank, Ian Scott-Kilvert (1979). The Rise of the Roman Empire. Penguin Classics. ISBN 0-14-044362-2.
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