ca. 205-ca. 125 B.C.

Greek historian

Polybius was a Greek historian who wrote an impressive account of Rome’s rise to a position of leadership in the Mediterranean world. Although only the first 5 books of his 40-book Histories exist in complete form, much of the rest of the work survives in collections of passages produced by later scholars.

Polybius was the son of Lycortas, a wealthy Greek aristocrat* who was active in an organization of Greek states called the Achaean League. Polybius himself worked for the league, attaining its second-highest position while he was still only in his 20s. After the Romans defeated the Greeks in 168 B.C., Polybius was one of 1,000 aristocrats who were deported to Italy.

Polybius spent most of the next 16 years in Rome, where he became friends with Scipio Aemilianus, the son of the Roman general who defeated Greece. Polybius traveled widely after his release from captivity, maintaining a close association with Scipio. He was with Scipio when the Romans burned and destroyed Carthage in 146 B.C., and he also helped the Romans organize Greece into a province* after the final defeat of the Greeks following the Achaean War. Polybius was more than 80 years old when he died, reportedly from falling off a horse.

* aristocrat person of the highest social class

The 40 books of the Histories cover the history of Rome from 220 B.C. and the beginning of the Second Punic War to the fall and destruction of Carthage and Corinth in 146-145 B.C. Polybius was a careful researcher who used many sources for his work. These included documents, inscriptions*, letters, public records from Rome and Greece, memoirs, and the works of other historians. Perhaps most important, he interviewed eyewitnesses of the events he described.

Polybius carefully organized his work in accordance with the Olympiads, which are the periods of time between the Olympic Games that were held in Greece every four years. During each year within an Olympiad, Polybius described events in geographical order—from west to east. First, he recounted events in Italy, Sicily, Spain, and North Africa, then those in Greece and Macedonia, then Asia and Egypt. He treated books 1 and 2 differently. These two volumes introduce the work, describing Roman history from the First Punic War (264-241 B.C.) to 220 B.C. and providing background and explaining how Rome developed its aim for domination of the known world. The careful and consistent arrangement of his work has made it easier for later scholars to place the surviving excerpts from his work in the correct order.

Polybius believed that the writing of history had two main objectives—to train statesmen and to teach people how to face disaster. His work focuses mainly on political and military subjects, but it also includes analyses of economic, religious, and social institutions. In book 6, Polybius discusses Rome’s army and constitution in detail. He describes Rome’s government as a mixture of three basic forms—a monarchy*, an aristocracy (the Roman Senate), and a democracy (the assemblies). His description of the Roman government as a system of checks and balances influenced later political thinkers, including those who created the United States Constitution.

In addition to his Histories, Polybius wrote several other works, all of which have been lost. They included a tribute to a Greek statesman, a work on military tactics, a history of the Roman war in Numantia, and a treatise on regions near the equator. (See also Achaea; Government, Roman; Greece, History of; Rome, History of.)

* province overseas area controlled by Rome

* inscription letters or words carved into a surface as a lasting record

* monarchy nation ruled by a king or queen

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