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Rome, the Greek World, and the EastVolume 3: The Greek World, the Jews, and the East$

Fergus Millar, Hannah M. Cotton, and Guy MacLean Rogers

Print publication date: 2006

Print ISBN-13: 9780807830307

Published to North Carolina Scholarship Online: September 2014

DOI: 10.5149/9780807876657_millar

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Polybius between Greece and Rome *

Polybius between Greece and Rome *

(p.91) Chapter Five Polybius between Greece and Rome *
Rome, the Greek World, and the East

Fergus Millar

University of North Carolina Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter discusses Polybius's analysis of the success of Rome in terms of Greek political theory. It examines the fundamental issues that shaped Polybius's historical consciousness and the range of his political analysis. Writing for a Greek audience, Polybius recorded and explained the rise of Rome to universal domination, and used the earlier history of Greece as points of reference for historical and political judgments.

Keywords:   Polybius, Rome, political theory, political analysis, Greece, political judgments

I would like to begin with some much-quoted words of Polybius himself (1, 1, 5). “For who is so worthless or so idle as not to wish to find out by what steps and overcome by what sort of political structure almost all parts of the inhabited world have, in the space of hardly fifty-three years, fallen under the domination of the Romans, a thing which is not found ever to have happened before?”

The fifty-three years which Polybius refers to were those which began in 220 B.C., the moment when, in his view, events in all parts of the Hellenised world, previously separate, began to be interconnected; they ended in 168 B.C., when, at the battle of Pydna, Rome destroyed the first of the great Hellenistic monarchies, that of the Antigonids, which had ruled Macedonia for a little over a century. By “domination” (archē) Polybius did not mean what we often mean when we think of the formation of the Roman Empire: the creation of territorial provinces and the imposition of tribute. He meant military victory, the right to decide whether or in what form a city or a kingdom might keep its independence, and the ability to command obedience by the threat of force.1

That same year, 168 B.C., saw the most spectacular of all examples of the exercise of Roman domination in this sense. Antiochus I-V, the ruler of the Seleucid kingdom, based on Syria and Babylonia, had invaded Egypt, had defeated the Ptolemies, had claimed the kingship of Egypt for himself,2 and (p.92) was outside Alexandria with his army. But at that moment there appeared a Roman ambassador, Popillius Laenas, who handed the king the text of a decree of the Senate, telling him to end his war with Egypt. When the king said that he would consult with his advisers, Laenas made the famous gesture of drawing a circle in the sand round where the king was standing and telling him to give his answer before stepping out of it. The king submitted. The earliest narrative of this famous scene comes from Polybius himself (29, 27). But the humiliation of the king made an immediate impact in the eastern Mediterranean, as we know from a pseudo-prophecy in the book of Daniel, written only a couple of years later (11:30): “For the ships of Kittim will come, and he shall be grieved and return.”3

While the two Ptolemies were still in danger from Antiochus I-V's advance, the major league of Greek cities in the Peloponnese, the Achaean league, had debated whether to send military assistance to them. Ambassadors from the two Ptolemies, brothers who were formerly at odds but now reconciled, had arrived asking for the dispatch of 1,000 foot soldiers and 200 cavalry. The infantry were to be commanded by Lycortas, Polybius' father, and the cavalry by Polybius himself, now probably in his thirties.4 The proposal, however, ran into difficulties; the pro-Roman party argued that all their efforts should be directed to helping the Romans in their current war against Perseus, the king of Macedon, in which a decisive battle was now (rightly) expected. Polybius replied that in the previous year (169 B.C.), when he had been sent as ambassador to the Roman commander, he had been told that the Romans needed no military assistance; in any case the Achaean league could raise 30,000 or even 40,000 men if need be, so 1,000 going off to Alexandria would make no difference (29, 23–25).

In fact, the force was not sent to Alexandria. In the same year, 168 B.C., the Romans defeated the Macedonians at Pydna, and the kingdom was dissolved. In the following year large numbers of political figures in Greece, regarded as anti-Roman, were taken off to exile in Rome and Italy: among these were 1,000 from Achaea, including Polybius himself. They were to remain there for seventeen years until their eventual release in 150 B.C.

It was in Rome that Polybius conceived his enormously ambitious plan for a universal history which would, first, show how events in all the different parts of the civilized (i.e., Hellenised) world came together in a set of causal interconnections, from 220 B.C. onwards. It would therefore cover an unprecedented (p.93) geographical range, from Antiochus Ill's campaigns in northern India in the last decade of the third century to the Roman wars in Spain. The work was also on an enormous scale in itself. Had it survived complete, it would have run to over 4,000 printed pages of a Teubner text, or twenty Loeb volumes. As it is, what remains occupies six Loeb volumes. This always has to be remembered when we speak of what Polybius thought—or what he seems to have omitted.

One reason the work was so long was that Polybius changed his mind about where it should end. The original stopping point was to be the destruction of the Macedonian kingdom in 168 B.C. But at the beginning of book 3 he describes why he changed his mind:

Now, if from their success or failure alone we could form an adequate judgment of how far states or individuals are worthy of praise or blame, I could here lay down my pen…. For the period of fifty-three years finished here and the growth and advance of Roman power was now complete…. But since judgments regarding either the conquerors or the conquered based purely on performance are by no means final… I must append to the history of the above period an account of the subsequent policy of the conquerors and their method of universal rule, as well as of the various opinions and appreciations of these rulers entertained by the subjects. (3, 4)

He therefore, in this second introduction, sketches the events which were to occupy the last ten books (30–39), covering the years from 167 to 146 B.C. The culminating point was to be the war of 147–146 B.C., in which the Achaean league rose in revolt against Rome and was destroyed. It is crucial to his whole historical perspective that he chose the tragic end of his own league as his conclusion; this, along with the Roman defeat of a renewed revolt in Macedon, was “the general disaster of all Hellas” (3, 5, 6).

Polybius' second intention, in his original plan, had been not merely to describe how all these complex events interlocked but to explain why the Romans had been successful. The explanation, as the quotation with which this essay begins indicated, was to be in terms of the Roman constitution or political structure, the politeia: “Who would not wish to find out … what sort of politeia had enabled the Romans to achieve domination of the whole civilised world?” The reference is of course to the famous analysis of the working of the Roman constitution and political system in book 6, which he placed just after the Romans' most crushing defeat, by Hannibal at Cannae in 216 B.C. This in other words was the moment when, if there were weaknesses in the system, they would show up. In fact the Roman system, with its (p.94) elaborate checks and balances, showed remarkable resilience, and Hannibal was ultimately defeated.

As to the question of whether Polybius' analysis of Rome was appropriate or wholly misguided, my view is that it was not in the least inappropriate to discuss Rome in terms of Greek political theory, or to compare it to well- known Greek models.5 But my main point is that to understand Polybius we have to accept that his whole perspective is that of the self-governing Greek city, or league, of the classical and Hellenistic periods. The second point is that Polybius' intention, in analysing the reasons for the success of Rome, was neutral: to give reasons for success and resilience is not in itself to recommend a system, still less to praise the results of its success.

That brings me to a third preliminary point. In going on to cover the troubled period from 167 to 146 B.C., Polybius evidently did intend to introduce an element of moral judgement into his History. How in fact had the victors used their power? There is no simple or unambiguous way of stating Polybius' conclusion. In a paper with the same title as this one, F. W. Wal- bank, the greatest modern expert on Polybius, concluded that on the whole his view was favourable.6 I think otherwise; that Polybius, though he expresses himself obliquely, took an increasingly distant and hostile view of Roman domination. At the very least, one point is surely remarkable by its absence. In the whole surviving text there is not a single word to the effect that Roman domination was a good thing or brought benefits to those who came under it. For a man who believed that the Achaean revolution of 147–146 B.C. was a tragic error, who had spent seventeen years in Rome, and who had friends in the highest Roman circles, this silence surely speaks volumes.

There is more to it than that, however. In the second to last of the surviving books (38) he comes to the Achaean war of 147–146 B.C., which destroyed his own Achaean league, which he had called in book 2 the political system best fitted of all for equality and freedom of speech—in fact, true democracy (2, 38, 6). To introduce the Achaean war he puts it deliberately in a long historical perspective: going back to Xerxes' invasion of Greece in 480 B.C., he reviews all the major calamities and conflicts in Greek history, and concludes that this was the greatest disaster of all; partly because it was the Achaeans' own fault, partly because in other cases no moral blame had been incurred, (p.95) and partly because recovery from disaster had often come swiftly. This time, by implication, no recovery was in sight (38, 2–3).

To Polybius the role of the historian was not just to record, though a history which recorded events on a universal scale gained great significance from that alone. The historian's role was to judge, to put events in a wider context, and to provide lessons for the future. For that of course the historian must himself have political and military experience; Polybius had a leading role in a major Greek league. Second, he must be able to see the events he is recording in perspective and, by setting them in context, to bring out their meaning and significance. In the quotation from the first two pages of Polybius with which I began, he suggests that no one could be so indolent as not to want to understand how Rome had achieved universal domination. The significance of that domination would become clear, however, by comparison with the empires of the past:

The Persians for a certain period possessed a great rule and dominion, but so often as they ventured to overstep the boundaries of Asia they imperilled not only the security of their empire but their own existence. The Lacedaimonians, after having for many years disputed the hegemony of Greece, at length attained it but to hold it uncontested for some twelve years. The Macedonian rule in Europe extended but from the Adriatic region to the Danube…. Subsequently, by over-throwing the Persian empire they became supreme in Asia also. But… they never even made a single attempt to dispute possession of Sicily, Sardinia, or Libya, and the most warlike nations of Western Europe were, to speak the simple truth, unknown to them. (1, 2)

In this last sentence he is emphasising a distinctive feature of Roman domination. It is not of course wrong to see Polybius as a historian of Rome and its empire. Indeed when Penguin Books brought out in 1979 a one-volume selection of Polybius, they called it The Rise of the Roman Empire and made the selection in such a way as to concentrate almost entirely on Roman history. However, to do that, though it has its uses, is to lose sight of Polybius' vastly wider geographical perspective of events from India to Asia Minor, to Syria, Egypt, Crete, and Macedonia. But above all it is to neglect the real historical perspective which Polybius brings to the events of his age. That is the perspective, first, of the Greek historical tradition of the classical and Hellenistic periods. It is worth reminding ourselves that these words, “classical” and “Hellenistic,” are our terms, not his. They can, moreover, be seriously misleading. Within the past half-century books have occasionally been published which announce that the death of Alexander the Great in 323 B.C. (p.96) marked the end of Greek freedom, the death of the Greek city-state, and the beginning of a new age.7 As regards the Hellenisation of the East, there was something in this, even though that Hellenisation neither began with Alexander nor depended entirely on his conquests.8 But that was not in any case an aspect of history in which Polybius took much interest. As regards mainland Greece, Hellas proper, it is nonsense.

For Polybius, as is absolutely clear, Greek history from the fifth century to his own time was a continuum, in which there had been many disasters but no violent break. This perspective, as we shall see, stretched back to include some mythical founders and lawgivers, like Lycurgus in Sparta, and it of course reached to the poems of Homer. But the later archaic period, on the evidence of the surviving text, did not play a large part in Polybius' consciousness; nor did the monarchies of the Near East, except by way of general allusions to the Persian Empire. His real historical starting point, or boundary, was Xerxes' invasion of 480 B.C. From that point Polybius' use of earlier history embodies an awareness of a continuous and still relevant story, all of which was of importance for the present. For instance, when he has narrated the Roman defeat of the Gauls in the Po Valley in the 220s B.C., he turns immediately to Greek examples of the successful repulse of barbarians. One of them, once again, is Xerxes' invasion; the other is the defeat of those Gauls who invaded Greece and reached Delphi in 279 B.C., a defeat celebrated throughout the Hellenistic world9 (he omits to say that the victory was gained by the Aetolians, of whom he did not approve). His motives for making these allusions are, as usual, stated with great clarity:

For indeed I consider that the writers who chronicled and handed down to us the story of the Persian invasion of Greece and the attack of the Gauls on Delphi have made no small contributions to the struggle of the Hellenes for their common liberty. For there is no one whom hosts of men or abundance of arms or vast resources could frighten into abandoning his last hope, that is to fight to the end for his native land, if he … bore in mind how many myriads of men, what determined courage and what armaments were brought to nought by the resolve and power of those who faced the danger with intelligence and coolness. (2, 35, 7–8)

(p.97) What determines Polybius' perspective is both a national tradition of Greek patriotism and, as this passage illustrates, a historiographical tradition.

As it happens, the surviving text of Polybius nowhere names Herodotus, on whom of course the tradition of the defeat of Xerxes depended. The writers of the later fifth, fourth, and third centuries, Thucydides, Xenophon, Ephorus, Theopompus, Callisthenes, and Timaeus, to name only the major figures, represented for him a continuous tradition of Greek history writing, to which he constantly makes explicit reference. Indeed, his choice of the date 264 B.C., with which he opens his preliminary narrative of Roman history, before he comes to the great conjunction of events in 220–216 B.C., was determined partly by the fact that it was then that Roman forces first crossed into Sicily; and partly by the fact that it was in that year that Timaeus' History had stopped (1, 51, 1; 39, 8, 4). Nor was there any doubt what the proper and central subject of a Greek history should be. This is made quite clear in what he says of Theopompus' History, which covered the period from 411 B.C. to the reign of Philip of Macedon:

No one could approve of the general scheme of this writer. Having set himself the task of writing the history of Greece from the point at which Thucydides leaves off, just when he was approaching the battle of Leuctra and the most brilliant period of Greek history, he abandoned Greece and her efforts, and changing his plan decided to write the history of Philip. Surely it would have been much more dignified and fairer to include Philip's achievements in the history of Greece than to include the history of Greece in that of Philip. (8, 11, 3–4)

As we shall see at the end, the tension between monarchic power, with its varied threats and possible benefits, and the freedom of the Greek cities was one of the fundamental issues which shaped Polybius' historical consciousness. There is a very real sense in which the period of Greek history within which Polybius most fully “belongs” is that which begins in the very late fifth century, and is marked by the rise and influence of monarchs, whether tyrants, like Dionysius I the tyrant of Syracuse (406–367 B.C.), or kings, like Philip of Macedon and his successors.10 If we allow ourselves to gain a sense of Polybius' historical consciousness, we might begin to feel more sympathy for the suggestion made by Hermann Bengtson that we should use the term “Hellenistic” not just of the period after Alexander, but from the first half of the fourth century onwards.11 What Polybius does not do, however, (p.98) is to treat the monarchies which played such an important part in his world as being themselves objects worthy of the serious application of political theory. In that he is quite explicitly the heir of the fourth-century Greek political theory of Plato and Aristotle, to both of whom he refers repeatedly, and whose analyses were devoted to the nuclear city-state.12 When he comes to his famous discussion of the Roman constitution in book 6, the frame of reference or comparison which he applies is first of all Sparta and the constitution given by Lycurgus (6, 10); later he returns to Sparta, once again, along with the cities of Crete, Mantinea, and Carthage. Two other candidates for consideration, Athens and Thebes, are set aside because their respective periods of dominance, in the fifth and fourth centuries respectively, were too brief, their political structures too unstable or fragile to be worth serious comparison with that of Rome (6, 43–44). In the end, Polybius makes clear, what demonstrated that the Spartan constitution was also inferior to the Roman one was the fact that it did not stand up to the strains imposed on it by controlling a foreign empire. The Spartans had succeeded in dominating their neighbours in the Peloponnese, the Messenians. But when it came, in the early fourth century, to a general domination of Greece, they found themselves compelled to be dependent on the very Persians whom they had just defeated. For they needed to ask them for the funds which their own laws, laid down by Lycurgus, prevented them from generating at home. So they made the inglorious Peace of Antalcidas (the “King's Peace”) of 387 B.C., in which they betrayed the freedom of the Greeks to Persia in return for financial support. By comparison, the Romans, having sought at first only the domination of Italy, could command the resources to control an overseas empire as well (6, 49–50).

In examining the ability of a city-state to support an empire, Polybius extends the range of political thought beyond that inherited from Plato and Aristotle. So he does also in his marvellous account in book 2 (37–44) of the history of his own Achaean league from its legendary origins, to its over-shadowing by Sparta and then Macedon in the fourth century, and its re- emergence, recovery of freedom, and rapid extension in the third. Plato and Aristotle had not given any attention to analysing the nature of federal states. Polybius did. By his own time, he says, the Achaean league had almost become a single city-state: “They have the same laws, weights, measures and coinage, as well as the same magistrates, councillors and juries, and the whole (p.99) Peloponnese only falls short of being a single city in the fact of its inhabitants not being enclosed by one wall” (2, 37, 10–11).

As has often been noted, Polybius discusses Rome also in terms of a nuclear city-state and did not devote any attention, so far as we know from the surviving text, to what moderns sometimes call the “Italian confederation.” But in that he was in fact right, for the structure of Roman Italy was that of a set of alliances between Rome and individual city-states and peoples, and was no sort of league of confederation like the Achaean league.13 Where he might have extended the range of political analysis beyond that inherited from Plato and Aristotle was in relation to monarchy. For while the resilience of Rome in the face of three major defeats by Hannibal in the years 218–216 B.C. rightly impressed him, he might well have been struck, by comparison, by the fragility of the great Hellenistic kingdoms, which would admit defeat in a war after the loss of a single battle, as Macedon did in 197 and 168 B.C., or two battles, as with those of 190 and 189 B.C. by which the Romans drove Anti- ochus III first out of Greece and then out of Asia Minor.

Perhaps we should not blame Polybius for this oversight, however, for even the most brilliant of modern accounts, say by Elias Bickermann or Claire Préaux,14 have hardly succeeded in explaining what a Hellenistic monarchy was really like as a system, or how it held together at all. Confronted with monarchies, Polybius turns either to explanations in terms of personal character or to observations on the instability of human fortune. In both approaches, once again, the framework is supplied by the earlier history of Greece. For instance, when he wants to set in context the fact that Philip V of Macedon in 218 B.C. allowed his army to destroy colonnades and statues in the Aetolian city of Thermon, he reflects on the models which the king should have followed: Philip II's clemency to the Athenians after the battle of Chaeronea in 338 B.C.; Alexander's care not to destroy the temples of Thebes in Boeotia in 335 B.C., or his preservation of temples in the Persian Empire (5,10). But Philip V, he says, was either too young or had the wrong advisers, and lost the chance of gaining the good reputation which mercy would have won him (5,11–12). Later Polybius represents Philip V, now much older and perhaps wiser, telling his sons to read tragedies, myths, and histories, and to think of the disastrous effects of strife between brothers; or, alternatively, to think of the kings of Sparta, whose success had been gained by mutual (p.100) concord and obedience to the laws and the ephors (the five annually elected magistrates). There was also the contemporary example of the two brothers, Eumenes II and Attalus II of Pergamon, whose concord had raised their kingdoms to greatness from small beginnings (23, 11).

When he comes to the great event with which I began, the Roman defeat of Perseus, king of Macedon, at Pydna in 168 B.C., and to the end of the Macedonian monarchy, Polybius turns back again to the fourth century and quotes a marvellous passage from Demetrius of Phalerum, the philosopher who was the effective ruler of Athens for a decade in the very early Hellenistic period, from 317 to 307 B.C. Demetrius in his work On Fortune had reflected on the sudden end of the Persian Empire (29, 21).

Do you think, that fifty years ago either the Persians and the Persian King or the Macedonians and the King of Macedon, if some god had foretold the future to them, would ever have believed that at the time when we live the very name of the Persians would have perished utterly—the Persians who were masters of almost the whole world—and that the Macedonians, whose name was formerly almost unknown, would now be lords of it all? But nevertheless Fortune … now also … makes it clear to all men, by endowing the Macedonians with the whole wealth of Persia, that she has but lent them these blessings until she decides to deal differently with them.

A century and a half later, as Polybius goes on to reflect, this inspired prophecy had come true, and Fortune had withdrawn from Macedon the blessings which she had briefly given.

Such reflections were of course not unique to Polybius. By his time, they had entered Roman culture as well. So, as he himself records (38, 22, 2), when the Roman general Scipio Aemilianus witnessed the destruction of Carthage in 146 B.C., he recalled the fate of the empires of Assyria, Media, Persia, and Macedon itself, and quoted two lines from the sixth book of Homer's Iliad (448–49):

  • A day will come when sacred Troy shall perish,
  • And Priam and his people shall be slain.

For Polybius the uses of history did not always need to be on so high a philosophical level as that. Writing for a Greek audience, to record and explain the rise of Rome to universal domination, he could on occasion use cross-references to Greek history purely for dating purposes, that is, to anchor events in earlier history in a context which was, or was supposed to be, familiar (p.101) to his educated readers. It is worth stressing how detailed a familiarity with Greek history he seems to presume. “Who had not read,” he says at one point, “that when the Athenians, in conjunction with the Thebans, entered on a war against the Lacedaimonians, sending out a force of ten thousand men and manning a hundred triremes, they decided to meet the expenses by a property-tax, and made a valuation for this purpose of the whole of Attica including the houses and other property?” (2, 62, 6–7). Whether his audience really did have an immediate recall of this episode or not, it belonged, once again, in the fourth century, to be precise in 378 B.C., at the moment of the foundation of the Second Athenian Confederacy.

When he applies Greek history to Roman history for dating purposes, he normally selects points of reference which were more familiar. So, for instance, the year of the earliest treaty between Rome and Carthage is identified not only as the first year of the annual pair of consuls at Rome, and the year after the expulsion of the Roman kings; it was also “twenty eight years before the crossing of Xerxes into Greece” (3, 22, 1–2)—that is, in our terms, 508 B.C. Or again, when the Gauls captured all of Rome except the Capitol, it was the nineteenth year after the battle of Aegospotamoi (which ended the Peloponnesian War, in 405 B.C.), the sixteenth year before the battle of Leuktra (in 371 B.C.), the same year as the Peace of Antalcidas with Persia, and also the same year as that in which Dionysius I, the tyrant of Syracuse, was besieging Rhegium, 387 B.C. (1, 6, 2). These multiple references can only have been helpful to an audience to whom the details of fourth-century history were familiar. Thanks to the Sicilian historian Timaeus, Polybius' Greek history in the fourth and third centuries also embraced the history of Sicily. One of the many revelations of his history, if we think of it as a Greek history, is that it gives us something rather rare, a perspective which is decidedly non-Athenian, and is instead, firstly, Peloponnesian and, secondly, Sicilian.

In the third century too, he can use the same anchoring device, relating the Roman victory at Lake Vadimon in 283 B.C. both to Pyrrhus' crossing into southern Italy in 280 B.C. and to the defeat of the Gauls at Delphi in 279 B.C. (2, 20, 6).

More significant, however, was the use of examples from Greek history as points of reference for historical and political judgements. Once again, such examples can only be useful if they are familiar and are charged with some meaning for their readers. For example, it might be right, Polybius suggests, to see Hannibal in the light of persons, or whole peoples, whom circumstances had caused to act variably or contrary to their real character. For instance, Agathocles, tyrant of Syracuse in 316–289 B.C., had been (p.102) by turns cruel and benevolent; Cleômenes, king of Sparta in the third century (235–222 B.C.), exhibited similar contradictions; the Athenian people behaved differently under the leadership of Aristides and Pericles than they did under Cleon and Chares; so also did the Spartans, under kings Cleombrotus and Agesilaus, in the early fourth century (9, 23). Again, the examples extend from the fifth century into the Hellenistic period. Examples derived from Herodotus play no part in Polybius' mental framework, at least in the surviving text, which is less than one-third of the original.

What Polybius does use from archaic or legendary Greek history does not derive from Herodotus but rather from separate traditions about early Sparta and its lawgiver, Lycurgus. It is these which he applies to Rome and its constitution in book 6, and these which he also uses in interpreting the role of the great Roman general, Scipio Africanus, commander in Spain against the Carthaginians from 210 B.C. onwards:

To me it seems that the character and principles of Scipio much resembled those of Lycurgus, the Lacedaimonian legislator. For neither must we suppose that Lycurgus drew up the constitution of Sparta under the influence of superstition and solely prompted by the Pythia, nor that Scipio won such an empire for his country by following the suggestions of dreams and omens. But … Lycurgus made his own scheme more acceptable and more easily believed by invoking the oracles of the Pythia in support of projects due to himself, while Scipio similarly made the men under his command more sanguine and more ready to face perilous enterprises by instilling into them the belief that his projects were divinely inspired. (10, 2, 8–12)

But the center of Polybius' historical culture was the experience of the Greek city-states from the fifth century onwards, and above all from the fourth century onwards, the period of the rise and intrusion of monarchic power. Thus, when dealing with the complex and catastrophic events of 147 and 146 B.C., which culminated in the more or less simultaneous destruction by the Romans of Carthage and Corinth, he defends his procedure in taking his narrative backwards and forwards between the two theatres of war by reference to existing histories of fourth-century Greece: “When dealing with Thessalian affairs and the exploits of Alexander of Pherae, they [these historians] interrupt the narrative to tell us of the projects of the Lacedaimonians in the Peloponnese or of those of the Athenians and of what happened in Macedonia or Illyria, and after entertaining us so tell us of the expedition of Iphicrates to Egypt and the excesses committed by Clearchus of Pontus” (38, 6, 2–3). Once again, these events, mainly of the 360s and 350s B.C., are assumed (p.103) to be familiar to his readers. The same historical background had also been deployed when Polybius first came to the issue of how the Romans acted in the final war against Carthage, and how their actions should be judged.

Polybius conceals his own opinion by the device of setting out four different opinions of Rome's conduct which were held in Greece. It should be emphasised, however, that none of the four opinions quoted is positively favourable: of the two more favourable, one held that it was a sign of prudence on the part of the Romans to destroy an ancient enemy when the opportunity offered; and the other maintained that the Romans had committed no actual offense in international law. Of the two unfavourable views, one held that the level of deceit used by the Romans amounted to impiety and a breach of treaty obligations. The other was that the Romans had previously taken their warfare only to the point of forcing their opponents to submit to their orders. But now they were deserting their former principles in favour of a lust for domination (philarchia) like that of Athens and Sparta and would come to the same bad end (36, 9). Here, too, the history of the fifth and fourth centuries is recalled to the reader.

But the most remarkable and detailed of all the occasions where Polybius makes use of the earlier history of Greece belongs at a previous stage in his narrative; very significantly this is at exactly the point where Roman military force first became a major factor in the life of mainland Greece. In 212 or 211 B.C. the Romans, threatened by an alliance between Philip V of Mace- don and Hannibal, themselves made an alliance with the Aetolian league, the major power in northwestern Greece.15 Then in 210 B.C. ambassadors from Acarnania, which was in alliance with Philip, and from Aetolia, now allied to Rome, presented themselves simultaneously at Sparta, each hoping to persuade the Spartans to join his side. To underline the significance of the occasion, Polybius in book 9 gives each of the two ambassadors a speech which presents a view of the historic role of the Macedonian monarchy in Greece and the light in which the Roman intervention should be viewed. (There is no way of saying how far the speeches in Polybius resemble anything that was actually said on this occasion, shortly before his birth. What matters is simply what we have in the text, two speeches designed to bring out the significance of a major turning point.)16

The Aetolian speaks first and, as so often in the text of Polybius, goes back to the mid-fourth century, to the capture of Olynthus by Philip II and his suppression of Sparta; then Alexander's destruction of Thebes, and Antipater's (p.104) victory in the Lamian War of 322 B.C. He then comes to the various Successors who ruled in Greece from the late fourth century onwards: “And who is ignorant of the actions of Cassander, Demetrius and Antigonus Gonatas, all so recent that the memory of them is quite vivid? Some of them by introducing garrisons to cities and others by introducing tyrannies left no city with the right to call itself unenslaved.” Finally he comes to the acts of violence which Philip V himself had committed in Greece. In the speech as preserved, apparently almost complete, there is no reference to the Romans, except to say that with their aid Philip was likely to be defeated (9, 28–31). Whatever the original speaker in 210 B.C. really said, Polybius could have used this point in his narrative to say something positive about the potential Roman role in Greece. He does not. The real issue, as always, lay elsewhere: the preservation of the freedom of the Greek cities in the face of the threats posed by successive kings and dynasties.

Then the Acarnanian ambassador gives a speech which reviews the same historical period, but from the opposite point of view. Philip II, he says, by defeating the Phocians in the Sacred War, that is, in 346 B.C., had saved the liberty of Greece. In the Peloponnese Philip had come in response to appeals and had used his power to arbitrate between Sparta and its enemies. His son Alexander had punished the Persians for their offenses against Greece and “in a word he made Asia subject to Greece.” As for later crimes in Greece, it was the Aetolians who were most guilty. It was the Macedonian monarchy of the Antigonids, which ruled from 276 B.C. onwards, which had protected Greece against the northern barbarians. Even Antigonus Doson, king of Macedon, in defeating Sparta it in 222 B.C., had done so in order to liberate it from a tyrant, namely King Cleômenes.

But now, the Acarnanian ambassador goes on, it is no longer a matter of alliances between Greeks: “But now Greece is threatened with a war against men of a foreign race [the Romans] who intend to enslave her, men whom you [the Aetolians] fancy you are calling in against Philip, but whom you are really calling in against yourselves and the whole of Greece.” All Greeks should beware, especially the Spartans who had once thrown into a well the ambassador sent by Xerxes to demand submission and had sent Leonidas to defend the liberty of Greece at Thermopylae. The Romans had already committed atrocities in Greece: “A fine alliance this for anyone to determine to join, and especially for you Lacedaimonians, who, when you conquered the barbarians [i.e., the Persians at Plataea in 479 B.C.], decreed that theThebans were to pay a tithe to the gods for having decided under compulsion, but alone among the Greeks, to remain neutral during the Persian invasion” (9, 32–39)·

(p.105) Once again, whatever the real Acarnanian speaker of 210 B.C. actually said, Polybius certainly had the freedom to select what to put in his own narrative, perhaps even the freedom to invent appropriate words. It is surely significant that at the moment of the first substantial Roman involvement in Greece, he makes a speaker represent them as foreigners intent on enslaving Greece, directly comparable to the Persians, those barbaroi whose defeat was the central event in Greek history.

What I want to stress, however, is not the implicit reservations in Polybius' attitude to Rome; though nothing could be more false, in my view, than the idea that, in explaining to the Greek world how and why Rome had gained universal domination, he was also recommending, or even defending, Roman rule. What is important is the fact that Polybius' History really is the product of his earlier experience as a central figure in the self-governing Achaean league of cities which occupied a large part of the Peloponnese. To Polybius that part of the past which mattered, that past from which lessons could be drawn, was the experience of the Greek city-states since the victory over Xerxes. It was a continuous history, all of which offered lessons and examples that were relevant to the present. Polybius would have been surprised to learn that something called the Hellenistic age had begun in 323 B.C., and that he himself was a Hellenistic historian. He would surely have supposed that he was simply a Greek one.


(*) First published in J. A. T. Koumoulides, ed., Greek Connections: Essays on Culture and Diplomacy (Bloomington, Ind., 1987), 1–18. The translations in the text are those of the Loeb edition.

6. F. W. Walbank, “Polybius between Greece and Rome,” Polybe (Entretiens Hardt 20, 1973), 1.

(1) . See P. S. Derow, “Polybius, Rome and the East JRS” 69 (1979): 1.

(2) . For the decisive evidence that he had, see J. D. Ray, The Archive of Hor (1976), 127.

(3) . On Daniel, see chapter 3 in the present volume.

(4) . For the dates of Polybius's life, see M. Dubuisson, “Sur la mort de Polybe,” REG 93 (1980): 72.

(5) . For this view, see “The Political Character of the Classical Roman Republic (200–151 B.C.)” JRS 74 (1984): 1–19 (= chapter 4 in F. Millar, Rome, the Greek World, and the East I: The Roman Republic and the Augustan Revolution).

(7) . See, e.g., , A History of Greece to 322 BC, 2nd ed. (1967), 651.

(8) . See, e.g., F. Millar, “The Phoenician Cities: A Case-Study of Hellenisation,” Proc. Camb. Philol. Soc. 209 (1983): 54–71 (= chapter 2 in the present volume).

(9) . For this, see G. Nachtergael, Les Galates en Grèce et les Sâtéria de Delphes (1977).

(10) . For this theme, see esp. J. K. Davies, Democracy and Classical Greece (1978), chap. 8.

(11) H. Bengtson, Griechische Geschichte5 (1977), 295ff.

(12) . For his explicit allusions to Plato and Aristotle, see the Teubner ed. by Th. Büttner-Wobst, 5, 238 (Aristotle) and 242 (Plato).

(13) . See F. Millar (n. 5).

(14) . E.J. Bickermann, Institutions des Séleucides (1939); C. Préaux, Le monde hellénistique I–II (1978), 181–294.

(15) . H. H. Schmitt, Die Staatsverträge des Altertums III (1969), no. 536.

(16) . See esp. F. W. Walbank, “Polybius and Rome's Eastern Policy,” JRS 53 (1963): 1.