The Greek historian Polybios (ca. 203-120 B.C.) is considered by some the greatest ancient historian after Thucydides. His view of Roman history presumed to provide the reader with historical means for individual self-improvement.
Polybios was born in Megalopolis in Arcadia, the son of Lycortas, general and statesman of the Achaean League. Through his father Polybios became involved early in the Achaean League, which he served both as ambassador to Egypt and as cavalry commander. Polybios tried to maintain the independence of the League, although in 169 B.C. he was dispatched to aid the Romans (who declined his help) in their combat against Perseus of Macedon.
Suspected by the Romans of halfhearted support of the Roman cause, Polybios, along with a thousand others, was shipped to Rome as a hostage in 166 B.C. and remained there until he obtained permission to return to his native land in 150 B.C. While in Rome, he was admitted to the most important circle of Aemilius Paulus (who had defeated Perseus of Macedonia in 168 B.C.), who appointed him tutor of his sons Fabius and Scipio the Younger. Polybios became the very close friend of Scipio, whom he accompanied to Africa in 147-146 B.C. and elsewhere upon his return from Greece.
Polybios was present at the capitulation of Carthage in 146 B.C.; and when Corinth was destroyed by the Romans in the same year, the Achaean League crushed, and Greece turned into a Roman province, it was Polybios who was entrusted with the task of reorganizing the Greeks. Apparently he did so to the satisfaction of Greeks and Romans alike, because he was honored by both. His later years were devoted to writing his Histories. It is reported that he died as the result of a fall from his horse while in his early 80s.
Polybios was an eyewitness to the great historical events of his day, including the war against Antiochus III of Syria (192-189 B.C.), the Third Macedonian War (171-168 B.C.), the Third Punic War (149-146 B.C.), and the defeat of Carthage and the conquest of Greece in 146 B.C. Polybios originally intended to write a universal history, with special emphasis on Rome's conquest of the then known world, which would conclude at 168 B.C. However, the sack of Corinth and destruction of Carthage were necessary additions.
Of Polybios's 40-book work only the first 5 books have survived. Because of the great mass of information which he covers (from 220 to 145 B.C.), Polybios is very generous with his explanatory notes. His first two books are large preludes to the main history, which does not begin until the third book. Polybios was influenced greatly by Thucydides and believed that a knowledge of history is an absolutely necessary guide to present action. His pragmatic view emphasizes the didactic element in history. For Polybios—no antiquarian—history was practical knowledge needed in present experience. Three essentials for the historian, according to Polybios, are geographical knowledge; a knowledge of practical politics, including the art of war; and the ability to collect, classify, and synthesize written sources.
Polybios lacked the artistic qualities of Herodotus or Thucydides, but he insisted on travel to the spots where history was made, closely examined written and oral evidence, invoked his own military experience and that of others, and utilized firsthand knowledge.
It was Polybios, a Greek, who illuminated the rise of the Roman Empire. He does not merely recount; he analyzes in terms of causal relations. In Polybios Greek and Roman historiography merge because the whole Mediterranean world was merging with Rome.
Further Reading on Polybios
It is virtually impossible to find a work in English devoted to Polybios exclusively, aside from texts and commentaries. The Loeb Library translations of Polybios's The Histories, by W. R. Paton (6 vols., 1922-1927), are always valuable and useful. A recent translation of The Histories is by Mortimer Chambers, edited, abridged, and with an introduction by E. Badian (1967). Dealing with the manuscripts is John Michael Moore, The Manuscript Tradition of Polybius (1965). Frank William Walbank's projected three-volume work, A Historical Commentary on Polybius (2 vols., 1957-1967), is a scholarly, encyclopedic work that will become the standard commentary on Polybios. Walbank, in Ancient Societies and Institutions: Studies Presented to Victor Ehrenberg on His 75th Birthday, edited by E. Badian, deals with "The Spartan Ancestral Constitution in Polybius." Also useful is Kurt von Fritz, The Theory of the Mixed Constitution in Antiquity: A Critical Analysis of Polybius' Political Ideas (1954). For a discussion of Polybios and his place in ancient historiography see Stephen Usher, The Historians of Greece and Rome (1970).