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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Polybius (c. 200–c. 118 B.C.)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Bernadotte Perrin (1847–1920)
 
POLYBIUS of Megalopolis in Arcadia must rank as the third Greek historian, Herodotus and Thucydides being first and second. He was also an eminent soldier, statesman, and diplomat. He took the most active part in the conduct of the great Achæan League from 181 B.C. to 168 B.C., as his father Lycortas had done before him, and as Philopœmen had done before Lycortas. By inheritance and by actual experience, Polybius was better qualified than any one else to tell of the great era of Greek federation, and he is our chief authority for this period. When Greek federation also yielded to the irresistible advance of the Roman power, Polybius had such an altogether exceptional experience that he was justified in his own eyes, and in the eyes of the best of his countrymen, in allying himself prominently with the Roman power. This exceptional experience was an enforced residence at Rome for seventeen years. During these seventeen years he won his way into public esteem, and enjoyed intimate, even affectionate intercourse with some of the most influential Romans of the age, such as Æmilius Paulus, and Scipio Africanus the Younger. He lived in the house of the former, as the instructor of his sons Fabius and Scipio. He stood by the latter’s side at the final destruction of Carthage in 147–6 B.C. One year later he returned to his native country, which in his absence and against his advice had rashly revolted from Rome. His influence with prominent Romans mitigated somewhat the horrors of the sack of Corinth by Mummius. His last political task was one intrusted to him by the Roman conquerors. It was that of reconciling his conquered countrymen to their defeat, and to the Roman rule. He accomplished this delicate task in such a way as to retain the confidence of the Romans without forfeiting the gratitude of the Greeks. This closed his active career. It had especially qualified him to write of four great subjects with a knowledge absolutely unsurpassed. These four great subjects were: The Achæan League, or Hellenic Federations; The Roman Power of the Second Century B.C.; The Roman Conquest of Carthage; The Roman Conquest of Greece. He devoted the rest of his life to the composition of the history which finally included these four themes, and died at the good old age of eighty-two.  1
  His experience in public life is unique in many ways, as is also the history which is his imperishable monument. It was a marvelous combination of events which enabled a leading Greek to become practically a leading Roman, without hearing from either side the charge of treachery. But Polybius was compelled to go to Rome, and only the force and dignity of his character prevented his seventeen years of exile from being what they were to his fellow exiles, a prolonged imprisonment. As adviser and officer of the Achæan League, which included at last all Peloponnesus, the policy of Polybius was to conform loyally to all actual agreements of the League with Rome, but yet to maintain the dignity of the League, and to guard jealously all the independence and power still left it. Polybius, that is, was a Nationalist. But there was a party of Romanizers in the Achæan League. These were willing, for the sake of private gain, to further a more rapid advance of Roman interests, a more speedy absorption of Greece by the Roman Empire. The political situation was not unlike that of the previous century, when Demosthenes fought a losing fight for Hellenic as opposed to Macedonian nationalism. Polybius had a sturdier and more philosophical nature than Demosthenes, and his antagonists were not so disinterested as was Phocion, the greatest opponent of Demosthenes. But in other respects the political situations were similar. Rome is merely to be substituted for Macedon, and Macedon is to be ranged along with Athens and Sparta as a subject power. For in 168 Rome had conquered Macedon; and soon after, ten Roman commissioners had appeared in Achaia to establish more firmly there the Roman power. They went as far as they could go without actual conquest, aided by the Romanizing party in the League. One thousand of the most influential Achæans of the Nationalist party were arrested and deported to Italy, to be tried there for their lives.  2
  Polybius was of course one of these. His companions were never brought to trial, but distributed about for imprisonment in the small towns of Italy. After seventeen years of deferred justice, the three hundred surviving exiles were contemptuously sent home by the Roman Senate. Cato, brutal even in his mercy, had said that “the only question that remained was whether the undertakers of Italy or of Greece were to have the burying of them.” But Polybius had obtained permission to reside during those long years at Rome, doubtless through the influence of Æmilius Paulus, who, as proconsul of Macedonia, had disbelieved the charges brought against the exiles. Polybius even entered the family of the greatest Roman of his age, and became the teacher, counselor, and beloved friend of his greater son Scipio Africanus the Younger. His seventeen years of exile brought him, therefore, unsurpassed opportunities to become acquainted with the Roman State. He was free from perplexing political turmoil, free also from all the restraints of a prisoner. The highest circles of Roman society were open to him, and the liberality of Scipio enabled him to devote himself to historical studies.  3
  So when his exile also was closed by decree of the Senate, he was specially qualified to take the part of mediator between Rome and his own distracted country. Fervor of loyalty, romantic patriotism, might have led him to a forlorn-hope attempt to stay the advance of Roman power. But Polybius had neither fervor nor romance. He was eminently practical by nature, a Roman by temperament rather than a Greek; and his long residence in Rome, among the chief Romans, had only emphasized his natural tendencies. He seems to have been especially gifted and trained by Providence to be an acceptable guide for the Eastern world in its transition from Greek to Roman sway.  4
  The history of Polybius was in forty books. Of these only the first five have come down to us intact. Of the rest we have more or less generous fragments. But the plan of the whole is clear. The main part, Books iii.–xxx., covers the events of those wonderful fifty-three years, 220–168 B.C., during which the Romans subdued the world. “Can any one,” he asks at the outset, “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 a period of not quite fifty-three years?” This was an event, as Polybius thought, for which the past afforded no precedent, and to which the future could show no parallel. Books i. and ii. are introductory to this main body of the work, giving a sketch of the earlier history of Rome, and of contemporary events in Greece and Asia. The last ten books gave a history of the manner in which Rome exercised her vast power, until Carthage was annihilated and the Achæan league finally shattered,—the history of the years 168–146.  5
  Polybius had the highest possible standard of the calling and duties of the historian. The true historian, he says, will be a man of action, versed in political and military affairs. He will not confine himself to the study of documents and monuments merely, although he will not neglect these. He will study carefully and in person the topography of the actions he describes. He will ask questions of as many people as possible who were connected in any way with the events or places which he is describing, and he will believe those most worthy of credit, and show critical sagacity in judging all their reports. He will be a man of dignity and good sense. When he resolves to retaliate upon a personal enemy, he will think first, not what that enemy deserves, but what it is becoming in himself to do to that enemy, what his self-respect will allow him to say of that enemy.  6
  Two aims distinguish his history from that of all his predecessors: first its comprehensiveness, second its philosophical nature. He aims to give a general view of the events of the civilized world within the limits of the period chosen for treatment, and he aims to trace events to their causes, and show why things happened, as well as what happened. And what catastrophic events fall within the limits which he sets for himself! The devastations of Hannibal, the annihilation of Carthage, the sack of Corinth! Surely in matter his work can never fail to interest. His spirit also is eminently truthful and sincere. He labors to be impartial, and succeeds far better than most of his predecessors. Only in method and form is he disappointing. As he had no romance or fervor, so he had no grace. His literary style is absolutely tedious. He carries to the utmost extreme that revolt against mere grace of form and style which had been instituted, not without some justification, by Thucydides as against Herodotus. But he has not the severe control of Thucydides in his very severity. His sense of proportion is false,—or wanting entirely. He is inclined to be unjust toward his predecessors. He devotes a whole book, for instance, to a laborious and repetitious attack upon Timæus, the historian of Sicily. Besides this, he is forever preaching and moralizing. To sum up, he treats a grand period capably but tediously.  7
  Dionysius of Halicarnassus, the great critic of the Augustan age, said that Polybius so neglected the graces of style that no one was patient enough to read his works through to the end. And one of the best modern estimates of the historian—that of Strachan-Davidson in Abbott’s ‘Hellenica’—begins thus: “No ancient writer of equal interest and importance finds fewer readers than Polybius.” No better example of painstaking, conscientious, but wearisome fidelity, as compared with brilliant, graceful, artistic invention, can be found than the accounts of the Hannibalic wars as given by Polybius and Livy. For the ultimate facts we go of course to Polybius. But for the indescribable charm which brings tears to the eyes of the poor Latin tutor in the ‘Autocrat of the Breakfast Table,’ we go to Livy.  8
  The best texts of Polybius are those of Hultsch (Berlin, Vols. i. and ii., 1888, 1892; Vols. iii., iv., 1870, 1872), and Büttner-Wobst (Leipzig, 5 vols., 1882–1904). The best English translation—and a very good one too, with admirable introduction—is that of E. S. Shuckburgh (2 vols., Macmillan & Co., 1889).  9
 
 
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