Born: 208 BC
Died At Age: 83
Born Country: Greece
Born in: Megalopolis, Arcadia
Famous as: Historian
Died on: 125 BC
Who was Polybius?
Polybius was a Greek historian and a statesman, whose work explained how Rome rose to prominence. He is well-known for his 40 volumes of ‘The Histories,’ which include the detailed account of the period of 264-146 BC, and also, his own experiences during the ‘Sack of Carthage & Corinth.’ Son of a Greek statesman, he got involved in the affairs of state from young age. After Rome defeated the Achaean League in the ‘Achaean War,’ Polybius was taken hostage to Rome where he penned the major parts of his historical accounts. He wrote the history based on the actual experiences and interviews of eyewitnesses. Polybius accompanied Scipio Aemilianus as his advisor during the campaign of Carthage. After the destruction of Corinth, he was asked to organize governments in the Greek cities. Polybius introduced the concepts of ‘separation of Powers’ to maintain political balance in a government and also devised the ‘Polybius Square.’ Polybius is also considered as one of the founding fathers of Roman historiography.
Childhood & Early Life
Polybius was born around 208BC in Megalopolis, Arcadia. His father, Lycortas, was a land-owner, eminent statesman, and a Strategos (military general) of the ‘Achaean League.’ He liked riding and hunting from a young age.
During his youth, Polybius penned a biography of the Achaean leader Philopoemen. He also wrote a book, ‘Tactics,’ about military treatises. However, these two books were later lost.
When his father visited different places (Rome, Egypt) as an ambassador, Polybius accompanied him and soon got interested in matters of state. In 182 BC (1), he was chosen to carry the funeral urn of the Achaean leader Philopoemen. (Possibly, in 189BC, he was a part of the Roman campaign against ‘Gauls’ in Asia Minor). In either 169 BC or 170 BC, he was appointed ‘Hipparchus’ (cavalry commander) of the ‘Achaean League.’
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During the third war of Romans against Perseus of Macedonia, Polybius’ father maintained a policy of neutrality. When King Perseus was defeated at Pydna (167 BC), the Romans took 1000 Achaean nobles to Rome as hostages. Because of his father’s neutral stand, Polybius was also included in the hostages (though he had declared his allegiance to Rome). They were to be questioned about their alleged opposition to the Roman Empire. They were detained for 17 years without any trial.
Because of his high cultural background, Polybius was allowed to live with renowned families in Rome. He lived with Aemilius Paullus, the Roman Commander who won the third war of Macedonia. The two had earlier got acquainted during the war against Perseus. While living with his family, Polybius tutored his two sons, Fabius and Scipio Aemilianus (Adopted grandson of Scipio Africanus).
Polybius shared a bond with Scipio Aemilianus, and turned his advisor when Scipio came to power. Through Lucius Aemilius Paullus Macedonicus’ ’ contacts in Roman political circles and society, Polybius learnt about the history of the place and political affairs of the state. It is likely that along with Scipio, he traveled to Spain, then African coast and went across the Alps.
In 150 BC, the hostages were released. Polybius was granted permission to return to Arcadia. In 149BC, he was called to assist in political negotiations before the last ‘Punic War.’ Before the ‘Siege of Carthage’ in 146 BC, Publius Scipio Aemilianus was appointed ‘Commander-in-Chief’ of the Roman army. Polybius accompanied him and advised him on the army and siege operations. He was present at the devastation of Carthage in 146BC.
Later, Polybius probably went on a voyage and explored places around the Atlantic. Around this period, Achaea and Rome entered a conflict. In 146BC, Corinth was destroyed. Polybius reached there shortly afterwards. He worked hard to bring back order and strove to achieve a favorable settlement for his people in Achaea.
Polybius also tried to rescue the precious treasures of arts that were being either ruined or taken along. While leaving Greece, the Roman Commissioners appointed Polybius to organize administration of the Greek cities. He was given the responsibility of forming new governments in Greek cities, this earned him high regard. He did all that he could to help his people, who showed their gratitude by installing his statues in cities, including Megalopolis, Tegea, Olympia and Mantinea.
Nothing much is documented about his life after the ‘War of Corinth.’ He probably stayed at Rome and worked on his historical books, and traveled through countries to gather actual information about cities and their histories. To obtain the details of the historical events, he seemed to have interviewed war participants/veterans. He also researched through archived material and scrolls.
Polybius most likely accompanied Scipio during the ‘Numantine War.’ He wrote a monograph about the war, which is now missing.
He is recognized for his concepts of ‘Separation of Powers’ to maintain political balance in the government. The same principle was later reflected in ‘The Spirit of the Laws’ by Montesquieu and was used in creating the US Constitution. He has been credited with ‘Polybius Square,’ which has the alphabets arranged in a 5x5 square. The letters are determined by cross-referring 2 numbers along the grid.
Polybius is believed to have died in c. 125 BC, as the result of a fall from horse.
’The Histories,’ comprising of 40 volumes, form the major part of his work, which earned him high regard. It covered a period of 118 years from 264 to 146BC, and the last book is about Index. First five volumes, major portion of 6th volume, and some parts of the rest of ‘The Histories’ have survived.
The first 5 introductory volumes deal with the politics between various Mediterranean states. The different political, military and ethical institutions of the Romans, which according to Polybius were the secret of Rome’s success, are explained in volume VI. The various wars that Polybius has written about include the First & the Second Punic War, the Battle of Trebia, the Battle of Ticinus, the Battle of Lilybaeum and others.
His writings reflect his eye for detail’ he mainly wrote about what he had witnessed and what he had garnered from the interviews of the eyewitnesses of the event. Commenting on the historian Timaeus in Vol.12, Polybius stated that it is important for a historian to be free of prejudices and should have no hesitation in speaking well of his enemies, if need be. In book 7, he says, for a historian it is necessary to have experience of politics and battle fields. The information should be collected, and though it may not be possible to be an eyewitness of all historical events, eyewitnesses should be interviewed.
Polybius himself followed what he wrote: Along with his political and military experience, he also traveled and questioned war-veterans. He researched the written sources for his initial volumes. For his main section of the period from 220 to 118BC, he collaborated with writers and oral sources. Here, he elaborated on how Rome defeated Carthage and ascended as a leading power.
Similar to Athenian historian Thucydides, the writing of Polybius shows objectivity and strong reasoning, and his presentation of history exhibits clarity, perception and comprehensive judgment. His writing does indicate some adulatory tone while mentioning friends and vindictive attitude about his enemies. His work is hailed as the best source of history of that period.