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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Scope of Polybius’s History
By Polybius (c. 200–c. 118 B.C.)
 
From the ‘Histories’ of Polybius: Translation of Evelyn S. Shuckburgh

WE shall best show how vast and marvelous our subject is, by comparing the most famous empires which preceded, and which have been the favorite themes of historians, and measuring them with the superior greatness of Rome. There are but three that deserve even to be so compared and measured, and they are the following. The Persians for a certain length of time were possessed of a great empire and dominion. But every time they ventured beyond the limits of Asia, they found not only their empire but their own existence in danger. The Lacedæmonians, after contending many generations for supremacy in Greece, held it without dispute for barely twelve years when they did get it. The Macedonians obtained dominion in Europe from the lands bordering on the Adriatic to the Danube,—which after all is but a small fraction of this continent,—and by the destruction of the Persian empire they afterwards added to that the dominion of Asia. And yet, though they had the credit of having made themselves masters of a larger number of countries and States than any people had ever done, they still left the greater half of the inhabited world in the hands of others. They never so much as thought of attempting Sicily, Sardinia, or Libya; and as to Europe, to speak the plain truth, they never even knew of the most warlike tribes of the West. The Roman conquest, on the other hand, was not partial. Nearly the whole inhabited world was reduced by them to obedience; and they left behind them an empire not to be paralleled in the past or rivaled in the future. Students will gain from my narrative a clearer view of the whole story, and of the numerous and important advantages offered by such exact record of events.  1
  There is this analogy between the plan of my history and the marvelous spirit of the age with which I have to deal. Just as Fortune made almost all the affairs of the world incline in one direction, and forced them to converge upon one and the same point, so it is my task as a historian to put before my readers a compendious view of the part played by Fortune in bringing about the general catastrophe. It was this peculiarity which originally challenged my attention, and determined me on undertaking this work. And combined with this was the fact that no other writer of our time has undertaken a general history. Had any one done so, my ambition in this direction would have been much diminished. But in point of fact, I notice that by far the greater number of historians concern themselves with isolated wars and the incidents that accompany them; while as to a general and comprehensive scheme of events,—their date, origin, and catastrophe,—no one as far as I know has undertaken to examine it.  2
  I thought it therefore distinctly my duty neither to pass by myself, nor allow any one else to pass by, without full study, a characteristic specimen of the dealings of Fortune, at once brilliant and instructive in the highest degree. For fruitful as Fortune is in change, and constantly as she is producing dramas in the life of men, yet never assuredly before this did she work such a marvel, or act such a drama, as that which we have witnessed. And of this we cannot obtain a comprehensive view from writers of mere episodes. It would be as absurd to expect to do so, as for a man to imagine that he has learnt the shape of the whole world, its entire arrangement and order, because he has visited one after the other the most famous cities in it; or perhaps merely examined them in separate pictures. That would be indeed absurd; and it has always seemed to me that men who are persuaded that they get a competent view of universal from episodical history, are very like persons who should see the limbs of some body, which had once been living and beautiful, scattered and remote; and should imagine that to be quite as good as actually beholding the activity and beauty of the living creature itself. But if some one could there and then reconstruct the animal once more, in the perfection of its beauty and the charm of its vitality, and could display it to the same people, they would beyond doubt confess that they had been far from conceiving the truth, and had been little better than dreamers. For indeed some idea of a whole may be got from a part, but an accurate knowledge and clear comprehension cannot. Wherefore we must conclude that episodical history contributes exceedingly little to the familiar knowledge and secure grasp of universal history: while it is only by the combination and comparison of the separate parts of the whole,—by observing their likeness and their difference,—that a man can attain his object; can obtain a view at once clear and complete, and thus secure both the profit and the delight of history.  3
 
 
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