The Histories (Polybius)
Polybius , Greek ) was a Greek historian of the Hellenistic Period noted for his work, The Histories, which covered the period of 220–146 BC in detail. The work describes in part the rise of the Roman Republic and its gradual domination over Greece...

Histories were originally written in 40 volumes, only the first five of which are existent in their entirety. The bulk of the work is passed down to us through collections of excerpts kept in libraries in Byzantium
Byzantium was an ancient Greek city, founded by Greek colonists from Megara in 667 BC and named after their king Byzas . The name Byzantium is a Latinization of the original name Byzantion...

, 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
J. H. Hexter
Jack H. Hexter was an American historian, a specialist in Tudor and seventeenth century British history, and well known for his comments on historiography.-Early career:...

 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
United States Constitution
The Constitution of the United States is the supreme law of the United States of America. It is the framework for the organization of the United States government and for the relationship of the federal government with the states, citizens, and all people within the United States.The first three...


The Histories are now read more for their insight on Hellenistic Greek and the beginnings of the Koine Dialectice
Koine Greek
Koine Greek is the universal dialect of the Greek language spoken throughout post-Classical antiquity , developing from the Attic dialect, with admixture of elements especially from Ionic....

or Common Dialect of this Hellenistic period.


The content of Polybius’ Histories runs the gamut from historical information, to a discourse on tuche
In ancient Greek city cults, Tyche was the presiding tutelary deity that governed the fortune and prosperity of a city, its destiny....

(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
Ancient Rome
Ancient Rome was a thriving civilization that grew on the Italian Peninsula as early as the 8th century BC. Located along the Mediterranean Sea and centered on the city of Rome, it expanded to one of the largest empires in the ancient world....

 became a dominant world power. This period from 220 BC to 167 BC see Rome subjugating Carthage
Carthage , implying it was a 'new Tyre') is a major urban centre that has existed for nearly 3,000 years on the Gulf of Tunis, developing from a Phoenician colony of the 1st millennium BC...

 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
Ancient Egypt
Ancient Egypt was an ancient civilization of Northeastern Africa, concentrated along the lower reaches of the Nile River in what is now the modern country of Egypt. Egyptian civilization coalesced around 3150 BC with the political unification of Upper and Lower Egypt under the first pharaoh...

, Greece
Greece , officially the Hellenic Republic , and historically Hellas or the Republic of Greece in English, is a country in southeastern Europe....

, Spain
Spain , officially the Kingdom of Spain languages]] under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. In each of these, Spain's official name is as follows:;;;;;;), is a country and member state of the European Union located in southwestern Europe on the Iberian Peninsula...

 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 consul
Consul was the highest elected office of the Roman Republic and an appointive office under the Empire. The title was also used in other city states and also revived in modern states, notably in the First French Republic...

s, 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
-Classical:* Scipio, a representation of the Cornelii Scipiones, branch of the illustrious Cornelii family from Ancient Rome.* Scipio Africanus, Roman general who defeated Hannibal at Zama, the final battle of the Second Punic War....

 and as a notable digression from his theme, Timaeus (historian)
Timaeus (historian)
Timaeus , ancient Greek historian, was born at Tauromenium in Sicily. Driven out of Sicily by Agathocles, he migrated to Athens, where he studied rhetoric under a pupil of Isocrates and lived for fifty years...

. 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

In ancient Greek city cults, Tyche was the presiding tutelary deity that governed the fortune and prosperity of a city, its destiny....

, 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
Rome is the capital of Italy and the country's largest and most populated city and comune, with over 2.7 million residents in . The city is located in the central-western portion of the Italian Peninsula, on the Tiber River within the Lazio region of Italy.Rome's history spans two and a half...

’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
A constitution is a set of fundamental principles or established precedents according to which a state or other organization is governed. These rules together make up, i.e. constitute, what the entity is...

 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
Sovereign state
A sovereign state, or simply, state, is a state with a defined territory on which it exercises internal and external sovereignty, a permanent population, a government, and the capacity to enter into relations with other sovereign states. It is also normally understood to be a state which is neither...

 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
Government refers to the legislators, administrators, and arbitrators in the administrative bureaucracy who control a state at a given time, and to the system of government by which they are organized...

: monarchy
A monarchy is a form of government in which the office of head of state is usually held until death or abdication and is often hereditary and includes a royal house. In some cases, the monarch is elected...

, aristocracy
Aristocracy , is a form of government in which a few elite citizens rule. The term derives from the Greek aristokratia, meaning "rule of the best". In origin in Ancient Greece, it was conceived of as rule by the best qualified citizens, and contrasted with monarchy...

 and democracy
Democracy is generally defined as a form of government in which all adult citizens have an equal say in the decisions that affect their lives. Ideally, this includes equal participation in the proposal, development and passage of legislation into law...

. Polybius makes further distinction in the forms of government by including the nefarious counterparts to the ones mentioned above; tyranny, oligarchy
Oligarchy is a form of power structure in which power effectively rests with an elite class distinguished by royalty, wealth, family ties, commercial, and/or military legitimacy...

, and ochlocracy
Ochlocracy or mob rule is government by mob or a mass of people, or the intimidation of legitimate authorities.As a pejorative for majoritarianism, it is akin to the Latin phrase mobile vulgus meaning "the fickle crowd", from which the English term "mob" was originally derived in the...

. These governments, according to Polybius cycle in a process called anacyclosis
The sociological doctrine of Anacyclosis is a cyclical theory of political evolution. The theory of anacyclosis is based upon the Greek typology of constitutional forms of rule by the one, the few, and the many...

, 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
Roman Senate
The Senate of the Roman Republic was a political institution in the ancient Roman Republic, however, it was not an elected body, but one whose members were appointed by the consuls, and later by the censors. After a magistrate served his term in office, it usually was followed with automatic...

 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.

Studying Polybius

The text, in both ancient Greek and English translation, is available from the Perseus Project of Tufts University
Tufts University
Tufts University is a private research university located in Medford/Somerville, near Boston, Massachusetts. It is organized into ten schools, including two undergraduate programs and eight graduate divisions, on four campuses in Massachusetts and on the eastern border of France...

. The Perseus Project uses the Buttner-Wobst edition, published in 1882. Also, the Google Books database has a copy of Dindor’s edition of Polybius, published in 1866, the premier edition, which is a useful tool to get all that remains of Polybius’ Histories. Finally, there is a comprehensive commentary written by F. W. Walbank
F. W. Walbank
Frank William Walbank, CBE was a scholar of ancient history, particularly the history of Polybius. He was born in Bingley, Yorkshire and died in Cambridge.-Biography:...

in three volumes, published originally in 1957, which is useful in the translation of Polybius. Penguin Books provides a useful English translation for those not versed in ancient Greek, although the translation lacks some important passages. More recently (2010) an edition from Oxford World Classics, translated by Robin Waterfield, includes chapters omitted from the Penguin version.

External links

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