Polybius: A Greek Contributor to Roman Historiography

Michael G. Stroud

The Greeks of antiquity gave to the world important contributions ranging from philosophy, mathematics, and astronomy to literature and the arts. Yet it would be their development of the study and methodology of history, more commonly known as historiography, that would rank among the upper echelon of their lasting achievements in the Western world.

The rise of the early bards that recounted the tales of fabled Troy while extolling heroic virtues to the rise of the polis and their resulting concepts of history as a continuous accounting of the past, would lead to an evolution of Greek historiography over the centuries. The emergence of the Roman historian Polybius in the second century BC would see the introduction of the concept of cause and effect in the study of history that would forever change Greek historiography. Polybius (c.200-118 BC) was born in the Greek city of Megale Polis or Megalopolis as the Romans referred to it, in Arcadia. The son of a prominent politician in the Achaean League and himself a Cavalry Commander in the League, Polybius would effectively become a political prisoner of the Roman Republic in 168 BC for the Leagues’ support of the now conquered Macedonians. Polybius would become beholden to Lucius Aemillius Paullus and his son Scipio Aemilianus during his Italian captivity while being exposed to the growing power of the Roman Republic. During this time, the Greek historian would become enamoured with all things Roman (at least initially, though his views of Rome would sour with time) and turn his inquisitive, systematic mind to the history of Rome and its rise to power. The Greek historian segmented historiography into three categories. The first was genealogical in nature; the second was associated with colonies and personal relationships; and the third was concerned with places, cities, and people of prominence. Genealogical historiography was the study and effort to create a consistent and cohesive narrative of the many Greek heroes and myths. According to many Greeks, these were one and the same, though the historian Herodotus (c. 484-425 BC) viewed them as distinctly different. The second historiography category, that of colonies and personal relationships, featured prominently in the works of the Greek historian Ephorus (c. 400-330 BC). Polybius credits Ephorus specifically for this category of historiography, which is intriguing as Ephorus’ writing is somewhat flat and uninspiring and would not seem to be an appropriate fit for the study of personal relationships. Additionally, Ephorus would be one of a very few fellow historians that Polybius would view with a degree of professional admiration. The third category, that of places, cities, and people of prominence, is from where Polybius dwelled in his approach to Roman historiography. Believing strongly in the system of cause and effect as first laid out by Thucydides (c. 460-400 BC), Polybius would expand the process further. The Greek historian firmly believed that only by getting to the root or first cause of an event, could the historian properly identify and narrate the effects of its consequences. The details in doing so were everything to Polybius in getting to the heart of a particular cause and effect. Its subsequent narrative was ‘not so much to entertain readers as to benefit those who pay careful attention.’ For Polybius to get to the heart of an event or an accurate recounting of an individual, he utilised three methods of historical research. They included political experience, written documentation, and the ‘inspection of various cities and places, rivers, lakes, and generally the particular features and distances on land and sea.’
Polybius: A Greek Contributor to Roman Historiography
Polybius, a statue in Vienna.

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Polybius: A Greek Contributor to Roman Historiography
Hannibal Barca, in Italy.

Polybius focused his historical research on contemporary history, such as Rome’s rise to power in the Mediterranean as told in his The Histories, which he defined as beginning in 220 BC.

The historical methods previously mentioned were the way for the historian to uncover the truth in Polybius’ opinion and that ‘personal inquiry’ was ‘the most important part of historical research.’ Therefore, Polybius introduced the importance of the personal interview in historical research, as he felt that eyewitnesses and others of a reputable nature and disposition were the most reliable sources of information for the topic at hand. Case in point for this methodology is found in his recounting in Book IX, Chapters 22-26 of The Histories of one aspect of Rome’s chief rival and enemy of the day, Hannibal Barca (c. 247-181 BC). It is here, where Polybius states that Hannibal was ‘Fond of money indeed he does seem to have been to a conspicuous degree, and to have a friend of the same character—Mago, who commanded in Bruttium. That account I got from the Carthaginians themselves; for natives know best not only which way the wind lies, as the proverb has it, but the characters also of their fellow-countrymen.’ Polybius as a historian, recognized those that had come before him and what they contributed to historiography, though often with derision and enmity. He decided as a historian that his utmost duty was to arrive at the truth and to do so would require him and other historians to examine the cause-and-effect. The cause-and-effect could be the war between Carthage and Rome at the time (Second Punic War) or an examination of the motivations of an individual, such as Hannibal. Polybius felt that these could only be arrived at by the ‘historian…inquir[ing] from as many people as possible’ and that historians who failed to apply such historical methods, were beneath him and unworthy of the title of historian. Greek historiography up to this point was a mix of narrative myth and legends, political ideology, and self-serving neo-nationalism in a sense. Polybius, though borrowing heavily from historians before him and of his time, evolved historiographical practices to include the careful examination of cause-and-effect, as he felt that those that came before him (and during his own time) were severely lacking in their research methodology and that their work provided no value to those in the present and the in the future. The main historiographical tool for Polybius was that of the personal, direct interview of witnesses and those that could provide direct (and indirect) first-person information. This diligence for the first-person source as a method to arrive at a historical truth and therefore explain a cause-and-effect, is Polybius’ most significant contribution to Greek historiography and one that forever changed its landscape.
Polybius: A Greek Contributor to Roman Historiography

Michael G. Stroud

Michael G. Stroud is a U.S. based Military Historian that has published many military history articles in various mediums from print magazines to academic journals, and military history websites in both the UK and the U.S. He completed his undergraduate degree in Military History from American Military University, Summa Cum Laude and is currently pursuing his master’s degree in military history with the same university. Michael has been an invited guest on numerous history themed podcasts from the UK and the US and maintains a strong presence on LinkedIn and Twitter where he can be reached and followed at www.linkedin.com/in/michaelgstroud and @StroudMichaelG.
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