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From An Introduction to the History of History, by James T. Shotwell; Columbia University Press; New York; 1922; pp. 191-201. 191`



THE historian of History need hardly describe the works or narrate the lives of Herodotus, Thucydides, Livy and Tacitus, for their achievement is universally known, their works the common possession of the whole cultured world. But the case is different with Polybius. Art withheld from him the Hellenic heritage; he was no master of style; his history is not among the world’s best literature. He is generally known to the modern reader as a name in footnotes. Yet in the long line of great historians he ranks among the first. He is par excellence the historian’s historian of antiquity, and in our own day, when the scientific ideals for which he fought have at last won their way to power, his figure emerges from the comparatively obscure place to which his literary achievement entitles him, and reveals itself as a modern among antiques, critical but not blankly skeptical, working toward constructive principles and conscious of the exacting standards of science.

Polybius was a noble Greek, born at Megalopolis in Arcadia about 198 B.C. His father, Lycortas, was the friend and successor of Philopoemen, the patriot leader of the Achæan league — that last effort of united Hellas — and Polybius himself had hardly reached manhood before he was intrusted with high responsibility both as ambassador and magistrate. But the policy with which he was identified — that of strictly maintaining the formal alliance with Rome, neither yielding to encroachment nor furnishing pretexts for aggression — had little chance of success while the Roman armies were reducing the neighbors of Greece and Greek warring factions were inviting trouble. Pretexts for aggression can always be found, and accordingly, after the battle of Pydna in 168 B.C., Polybius was carried off to Rome, along with a thousand others, nominally as prisoners to await a trial which never came, but really as hostages to insure a freer hand for practical imperialism. Polybius himself 192 fared the best of these, for he was taken into the family of the victorious general, Æmilius Paulus, and so stayed not only in Rome, but in company of the Scipios, in daily intercourse with the leading spirits of that masterful aristocracy into whose hands had fallen the destinies of the Mediterranean world. This favored position seems to have been won more by his personality than by his distinguished ancestry or position in Greece, for he tells us with winning frankness how the young Scipio Æmilianus, the future conqueror of Africa, sought his friendship and became his pupil.1

Situated thus in the centre of things, Polybius became fired with the ambition to write the history of the tremendous epoch in which he was living. “Can any one,” he asks at the opening of his work, “be so indifferent or idle as not to care to know by what means, and under what kind of polity, almost the whole inhabited world was conquered and brought under the dominion of the single city of Rome, and that too, within the period of not quite fifty-three years?”2 For those who are not “so indifferent or idle,” Polybius left to the world a scientific achievement of undimmed and perpetual worth. Forty books of history carried the story from “the first occasion on which the Romans crossed the sea from Italy,”3 in 264 B.C., through the varying fortunes of the Punic wars, down to the close of the history of Carthage and of Greece in 146 B.C. Of these forty books only the first five have come down to us entire, but lengthy portions of some of the others enable us to form a fairly clear idea of the work as a whole. Moreover, conscious of the intricacy of his subject, and of the difficulty of handling intelligibly such a mass of detail, Polybius like a true school teacher furnishes us with explanatory notes and even, in the opening of the third book, with a sort of syllabus of the whole plan, in order to make sure that the reader shall not miss seeing the woods for the 193 trees. These directions and hints are so thoroughly characteristic of the author, as we shall see later on, that we cannot do better than quote from them Polybius’ own conception of his field of work. Apart from their value as guides, they at once afford a glimpse of the half-apologetic, half-proud attitude and wholly intimate relationship which Polybius assumes and establishes with the reader:

“My History begins in the 140th Olympiad. The events from which it starts are these. In Greece, what is called the Social war, the first waged by Philip, son of Demetrius and father of Perseus, in league with the Achæans against the Ætolians. In Asia, the war for the possession of Cœle-Syria which Antiochus and Ptolemy Philopator carried on against each other. In Italy, Libya, and their neighbourhood, the conflict between Rome and Carthage, generally called the Hannibalian war.

“My work thus begins where that of Aratus of Sicyon leaves off. Now up to this time the world’s history had been, so to speak, a series of disconnected transactions, as widely separated in their origin and results as in their localities. But from this time forth History becomes a connected whole: the affairs of Italy and Libya are involved with those of Asia and Greece, and the tendency of all is to unity. This is why I have fixed upon this era as the starting-point of my work. For it was their victory over the Carthaginians in this war, and their conviction that thereby the most difficult and most essential step towards universal empire had been taken, which encouraged the Romans for the first time to stretch out their hands upon the rest, and to cross with an army into Greece and Asia.”4

The real history, therefore, begins with the third book; the first and second are but a laborious and massive prelude. The fifty-three years whose unparalleled achievements he proposes to chronicle are those from 220 to 168 B.C. That would bring the narrative down to the year in which the author himself was carried off to Rome, when the victory of Pydna ended forever any reasonable hope of the independence of Macedon or Greece. The frank subjectivity of Polybius’ outlook5 is reflected in this original plan. He proposed to stop the survey of politics where he himself had stopped; not consciously for that reason, but because from the home of the Scipios it had seemed as if the Roman conquest were over. He had 194 become an imperialist and shared the imperialistic conviction in an “inevitable destiny.” It was from this point of view that he conceived his history. Fortuna, — part chance, part goddess, — had “made almost all the affairs of the world incline in one direction, and forced them to converge upon one and the same point.” So his history was to culminate in the unification of the Mediterranean world. He knew that intrigue and hot revolt still broke out in the subdued territories but such things, properly reduced in size by distance, are always to be expected on the verge of the imperialist’s perspective. Later, however, Polybius saw that the task of imperialism was not completed but only begun by its conquests, and so he carried his narrative down to include the burning of Carthage and the sack of Corinth — at both which events he was present.6

The reason which Polybius gives for adding this later survey is interesting and important. It furnishes us with the clue for his conception of the mission of the historian. We may as well quote him in his own downright way. It is clear enough, he says, that in the fifty-three years “the Roman power had arrived at its consummation,” and that the acknowledgment of her supremacy had been extorted from all, and her commands obeyed:

“But in truth, judgments of either side founded on the bare facts of success or failure in the field are by no means final. It has often happened that what seemed the most signal successes have, from ill management, brought the most crushing disasters in their train; while not unfrequently the most terrible calamities, sustained with spirit, have been turned to actual advantage. I am bound, therefore, to add to my statement of facts a discussion on the subsequent policy of the conquerors, and their administration of their universal dominion: and again on the various feelings and opinions entertained by other nations towards their rulers. And I must also describe the tastes and aims of the several nations, whether in their private lives or public policy. The present generation will learn from this whether they should shun or seek the rule of Rome; and future generations will be taught whether to praise and imitate, or to decry it.”7


Here we come upon the practical aim of all Polybius’ work — the pragmatic character of it, which he insists upon, time and again. History was to him no mere antiquarianism. He is a practical politician, and history is simply past politics. It is justified by its utility; it is philosophy teaching by experience.8 A knowledge of history, he says, in another place, is no mere graceful accomplishment, but absolutely essential as a guide to action. It is only history which can supply the statesman with precedents. The present offers no such chances as the past for judging the relative forces of circumstances or the motives of men:

In the case of contemporaries, it is difficult to obtain an insight into their purposes; because, as their words and actions are dictated by a desire of accommodating themselves to the necessity of the hour, and of keeping up appearances, the truth is too often obscured. Whereas the transactions of the past admit of being tested by naked fact; and accordingly display without disguise the motives and purposes of the several persons engaged; and teach us from what sort of people to expect favour, active kindness, and assistance, or the reverse. They give us also many opportunities of distinguishing who would be likely to pity us, feel indignation for our wrongs, and defend our cause, — a power that contributes very greatly to national as well as individual security. Neither the writer nor the reader of history, therefore, should confine his attention to a bare statement of facts: he must take into account all that preceded, accompanied, or followed them. For if you take from history all explanation of cause, principle, and motive, and of the adaptation of the means to the end, what is left is a mere panorama without being instructive; and, though it may please for the moment, has no abiding value.”9

The key-note of this is that history must “instruct.” It is no mean task that it has in hand; the lesson which the tutor of Scipio Africanus would draw from it is nothing less than a science of politics. The story of Hannibal’s march upon Rome and of the firmness of the Romans in the crisis is told with equal and generous admiration for both sides, “not . . . . for the sake of making a panegyric on either Romans or Carthaginians, . . . but for the sake of those who are in office among the one or the other people, or who are in future times to direct the affairs of any state whatever; that by 196 the memory, or actual contemplation, of exploits such as these they may be inspired with emulation.”10 Perhaps the clearest statement of this conviction of Polybius that history is philosophy teaching by experience, — a conviction stated many times over, — is his comment on the narrative of the defeat of Regulus in the first Punic war:

“I record these things in the hope of benefiting my readers. There are two roads to reformation for mankind — one through misfortunes of their own, the other through those of others: the former is the most unmistakable, the latter the less painful. One should never therefore voluntarily choose the former, for it makes reformation a matter of great difficulty and danger; but we should always look out for the latter, for thereby we can without hurt in ourselves gain a clear view of the best course to pursue. It is this which forces us to consider that the knowledge gained from the study of true history is the best of all educations for practical life. For it is history, and history alone, which, without involving us in actual danger, will mature our judgment and prepare us to take right views, whatever may be the crisis or the posture of affairs.”11

It must be admitted that such a “pragmatic” point of view is not altogether reassuring. A historian who is mainly intent on the lessons history supplies would be given short shrift today in the courts of historical criticism. But Polybius was saved as a historian by his very commonplaceness as a philosopher. He never really got the upper hand of the facts. He does not even achieve a systematic conception of cause and effect, so necessary to the brilliant distortions of philosophers. He talks about causes, and allows himself so much as two chapters in one place to point out that a “cause” and a “pretext” are not the same thing.12 But he gets little farther than a negative criticism of his predecessor, Fabius Pictor, who had not even seen this. In spite of the best pedagogical intentions, Polybius did not lose sight of actualities in the search for final causes. He is too matter-of-fact to leave the facts. His intensely practical outlook makes him incapable of sympathy with abstractions and keeps him down to the task of securing accurate and full data in the field of realities — which is the first and indispensable 197 qualification for the historian. Polybius is intent upon supplying statesmen with lessons from experience, not with theories of what might have happened. In a discussion of the constitution of Sparta he says that it would not be fair to class the Republic of Plato “which is spoken of in high terms by some philosophers” among the systems which have actually been tried out:

“For just as we refuse admission to the athletic contests to those actors or athletes who have not acquired a recognized position or trained for them, so we ought not to admit this Platonic constitution to the contest for the prize of merit unless it can first point to some genuine and practical achievement. Up to this time the notion of bringing it into comparison with the constitutions of Sparta, Rome and Carthage would be like putting up a statue to compare with living and breathing men. Even if the state were faultless in point of art, the comparison of the lifeless with the living would naturally leave an impression of imperfection and incongruity upon the minds of the spectators.”13

This sounds less Greek than Roman. But it also reassures us that the author is not the man to be drawn into the realm of theory so long as the world is full of things for him to study. He wastes no time over “final causes,” in spite of a constant desire to bring up the question.14 Indeed his own philosophy of history is not quite settled. He begins by attributing to Fortune the great drift of events which resulted in the imperial unity; but while paying a formal tribute to the goddess of luck, he in practice reserves her for the more unexpected turns of affairs, the sudden surprises and the inexplicable.15 “It was not by mere chance or without knowing what they were doing that the Romans struck their bold stroke for universal supremacy and dominion, and justified their boldness by its success. No: it was the natural result of discipline gained in the stern school of difficulty and danger.”16 The theology of Fortune shares the fate of all the other abstractions at the hands of Polybius. He is not interested in it, but in the facts.

In keeping with this attitude was the method of work. Polybius was a student rather than a scholar; a student of men and the 198 world around rather than of books. To be sure he spared himself no pains in his investigations, and that meant much scholarly research; but he always regarded that as of secondary importance compared with a first-hand knowledge of how things had been and were being done. If anything could shock the complacency of the modern research-historian who sees the world so often through the barrel windows of an alcove in the archives, it is that attack upon Timæus, the learned antiquarian, which fills most of the twelfth book, and to which we shall revert later. Polybius holds Timæus up to scorn, because “having stayed quietly at Athens for about fifty years, during which [time] he devoted himself to the study of written history, he imagined that he was in possession of the most important means of writing it.”17 One must have served in war to know how to describe it accurately and well; one must have watched the political movements of one’s own day to be able to handle those of the past. These qualifications Polybius had in a superlative degree. Of a good deal of his story he had been “an eye-witness, . . . in some cases one of the actors, and in others the chief actor.”18 He was present at the last great tragic moment of Carthage; it was to him that Scipio turned to confide his presentiment that Rome would some day suffer the same fate.19 He knew not only Romans and Greeks but leaders on all sides, Massanissa, for example, and Carthaginians themselves.20 Then, instead of staying comfortably in Rome, he set out, like a Herodotus of the West, to see the new world which was just opening up to civilization. It was a scientific exploration. He tells us that he confronted “the dangers and fatigues of my travels in Libya, Iberia and Gaul, as well as of the sea which washes the western coast of these countries, that I might correct the imperfect knowledge of former writers. . . . ”21 His experience leads him to a wholesale distrust of former geographers; but then, as he adds, none of them enjoyed the opportunities for finding out about the world, which the pax Romana now afforded. His curiosity was insatiable. He crossed, himself, the pass by which Hannibal made the Alps; at the other end of Italy he deciphered Hannibal’s inscription on a pillar on a promontory of Brutium in 199 order to establish the distribution of the Carthaginian forces. He mapped out cities, examined records,22 transcribed treaties,23 and studied earlier histories. But he seldom found an authority with whom he did not become impatient, and perhaps his most striking personal note is his persistent criticism and distrust of historians and his frequent disgust with them. It was impossible for one of his direct business-like temperament to accept the rhetorical historians of his day, but in his scorn of rhetoric and his impatience of bookishness, he went so far as to miss the real achievements of his predecessors.

This attitude, moreover, had a personal significance; it reflects the weak side of Polybius. For, in spite of all his prodigious labor, he never learned how to tell his story effectively. He was no artist. He had none of the easy grace of Herodotus nor the masterful touch of Thucydides. It is rather characteristic of him, by the way, that he never referred to the former and mentioned the latter only in a casual remark. He had nothing to learn; chose to work out his own salvation, — and almost failed to win it. For he could not weave the intricate and elaborate pattern of world history without frequently tangling the threads in the effort not to lose them. He knew this as well as we do, and time and again came into the narrative himself with digressions which are excuses and explanations.24 This is what gives that intimate, personal character to his history, which is so un-antique. Herodotus swung into his theme with the abandon of one who knows how to tell a great story well. Thucydides worked like a dramatist, objectively, submitting only the finished product to the audience. Neither of them invited you into his workshop or interrupted a war to discuss scientific methods. But Polybius cannot keep himself out of the narrative, and once in it, he gives free rein to his feelings as well as his views. He consistently loses his temper when he finds things wrong in his sources, 200 and once heated, he becomes garrulous. Untrained — for a Greek — in literature, a man of action who had turned school-teacher, he faces his subject like a problem and presents his research like solutions. He lectures his contemporaries and berates his predecessors25 when they fail to come up to his standard — which is generally the case. Then he apologizes for the digression and settles down to a little more narrative. But the digressions are much more than apologies; for, after all, Polybius had thought deeply on his own task. They rise to the dignity of a treatise upon history, the first and the noblest statement of scientific ideals for the historian until the days of Ranke. Indeed, it is these excursus rather than his great theme which give to Polybius so high a place in the history of History. How incredible it would have seemed to him that any one should read his history for the sake of its asides instead of for the compelling interest of the theme! Yet there are some to whom even the rise of the Roman Empire is of less significance than the rise of the scientific method. After all, the one is in the past, its potentialities are well-nigh spent; the other is of the future and all time, and capable of untold possibilities.

This treatise is scattered throughout the whole history as we have indicted and indeed is exemplified in the structure and method of work. Polybius demands the truth which is “the eye of History,” and insists that the historian must give up all partisanship, all personal bias, and making himself a judge, proceed to master the facts — as they actually were. “Directly a man assumes the moral attitude of a historian he ought to forget all considerations,” such as love of one’s friends, hatred of one’s enemies. . . . He must sometimes praise enemies and blame friends. “For as a living creature is rendered wholly useless if deprived of its eyes, so if you take truth from History, what is left but an idle unprofitable tale?”26 These are noble words, worthy to be held in everlasting memory. Unfortunately they were almost never heard and — in spite of good intentions — not applied even by those who studied Polybius — Cicero, for instance. Polybius does not say that historians are given to conscious falsification, — though he does strike that note at times, — but he is keenly alive to the bias that partisanship 201 is sure to give to a narrative even in honest hands. “I would beg my own readers, whether of my own or future generations, if I am ever detected in making a deliberate misstatement, and disregarding truth in any part of my history, to criticize me unmercifully; but if I do so from lack of information, to make allowances: and I ask it for myself more than others, owing to the size of my history and the extent of ground covered. . . . ”27 This strain runs all through the work, but it is especially concentrated in the famous twelfth book in which Polybius attacks his predecessor Timæus. This digression comes near to being a treatise in itself. The student of history who fails to be stirred by it — considering its time and circumstances — has little to hope from anything that follows in this survey.

Polybius believed in the pragmatic character of the historian’s office. History must edify, must be of use. But it loses its pragmatism if it is not true; it is only an “idle tale.” And this is the pragmatic test of his own work. We are not much edified by the details of the wars in Greece. No one is now likely to become excited over the institutions of the Locrians or the policy of Diæus. But as long as history endures the ideals of Polybius will be an inspiration and a guide.


G. W. Botsford and E. G. Sihler in Hellenic Civilization (1915), Chap. XVIII, Sect. D (Historical Criticism), give appropriate extracts and a good bibliography, to which reference may be made for intensive study. For the text of Polybius see the edition by T. Büttner-Wobst (5 vols., 1st and 2d ed., Teubner, 1889-1905). The best English translation is by E. S. Shuckburgh, The Histories of Polybius (2 vols., 1889). This translation has been used in the text. The Loeb Classical Library has announced a translation of Polybius by W. R. Paton, for the year 1920. J. B. Bury in The Ancient Greek Historians (1909), (Lect. VI, pp. 191-220) is rather hard on Polybius; compare the treatment by A. and M. Croiset, Histoire de la littérature grecque, (5 vols., 2d ed., 1896-1899; 3d ed., Vols. I-III, 1910-1914); (2d ed.), Vol. V, pp. 260-295.


1  Cf. The Histories of Polybius, Bk. XXXII, Chap. X.

[For this account the text in English translation by Paton on Bill Thayer’s site which is given in a different book and chapter: The Histories of Polybius, Bk. XXXI, Chap. XXIII. — Elf.Ed.'

2  Ibid, Bk. I, Chap. I. H. Peter remarks that Polybius begins with Greek readers in mind but as his work progresses he turns to the Romans. (Wahrheit und Kunst, p. 263.) Note the frankness of this admission, in Bk. XXXII, Chap. VIII: “And if what I say appears incredible to any of my readers,” let him remember that the Romans will read it and “no one . . . would voluntarily expose himself to certain disbelief and contempt.” The extent to which he could win thoughtful Romans may be measured by the fact that Brutus made excerpts from him during the campaign of Pharsalus. (Peter, ibid.)

3  Ibid, Bk. I, Chap. V.

4  Ibid., Bk. I, Chap. III. (Shuckburgh’s translation.)

5  “He is always on the stage himself, criticizing, expounding, emphasizing, making points, dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s, propounding and defending his personal views.” J. B. Bury, op. cit., p. 211.

6  His presence at the sack of Corinth has been disputed. In any case, his account has survived in such poor fragments that the question is of secondary importance. He was evidently there, or near there, shortly afterwards. Cf. The Histories of Polybius, Bk. XXXIX, Chap. XIII. “I saw with my own eyes pictures thrown on the ground and soldiers playing dice on them.”

7  Ibid., Bk. III, Chap. IV.

8  This time-worn phrase is already found in Ars Rhetorica (Chap. XI, Sect. 2), attributed to Dionysius of Halicarnassus, in a paraphrase of Thucydides, Bk. I, Chap. XXII.

9  The Histories of Polybius, Bk. III, Chap. XXXI.

10  The Histories of Polybius, Bk. IX, Chap. IX.

11  Ibid., Bk. I, Chap. XXXV.

12  Cf. ibid., Bk. III, Chap. III. F. M. Cornford, Thucydides Mythhistoricus, p. 57, compares the looseness of terms of Thucydides (Bk. I, Chap. XXIII).

13  The Histories of Polybius, Bk. VI, Chap. XLVII.

14  Cf. ibid., Bk. I, Chaps. LXIII-LXIV; Bk. III, Chaps. VII-IX, etc.

15  Cf. ibid., Bk. XXIX, Chaps. XXI-XXII.

16  Ibid., Bk. I, Chap. LXIII. Cf. ibid., Bk. XXXVII, Chap. IX, for Polybius’ ideas on Providence.

17  The Histories of Polybius, Bk. XII, Chap. XXV, Sect. d.

18  Ibid., Bk. III, Chap. IV.

19  Cf. ibid., Bk. XXXIX, Chap. V.

[See this statement by Scipio to Polybius, preserved by Appian, here in See Paton’s translation, Bk. XXXVIII, Chap. XXI. — Elf.Ed.]

20  Cf. ibid., Bk. IX, Chap. XXV.

21  Ibid., Bk. III, Chap. LIX.

22  Cf. the chance remark in ibid., Bk. XVI, Chap. XV, that a document at Rhodes bears out his account.

23  Cf. ibid., Bk. III, Chaps. XXII, sqq.

24  The following passages are especially valuable for their comments upon style and method of handling: Ibid., Bk. II, Chap. LVI; Bk. III, Chaps. LVII-LIX; Bk. IX, Chap. I; Bk. XV, Chap. XXXVI; Bk. XVI, Chap. XVII; Bk. XXXVII, Chap. IV; Bk. XXXIX, Chap. I.

Perhaps the most thoroughly apologetic is his opening of the thirty-ninth book.

25  Cf. J. B. Bury, op. cit., Lect. VI.

26  The Histories of Polybius, Bk. II, Chap. XIV. Cf. also Bk. XII, Chap. XII.

27  Ibid., Bk. XVI, Chap. XX.

For comparison or out of curiosity, the entire English translation by Paton (not Shuckburgh) of The Histories, by Polybius, can be found on Bill Thayer’s site: Polybius: The Histories. — Elf.Ed.]


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