Bryn Mawr Classical Review 97.4.19

Galina S. Samokhina, Polybius: the Epoch, the Life, the Work (in Russian). St. Petersburg: St. Petersburg University Press, 1995. Pp. 192. ISBN 5-288-01129-X.

Reviewed by Sergey S. Sizov, Ancient History, Nizhny Novgorod State University, Nizhny Novgorod 603006, Russia,

This monograph follows a long-standing tradition of Polybian scholarship in Russia that goes back to a 19th-century work of Theodor Mischenko1 and is represented by a number of studies published in last decades.2 Unfortunately, almost all these works passed unnoticed in the West because of the language barrier, and most likely S[amokhina]'s book would suffer the same fate, which is the more regrettable as the monograph appears to be a comprehensive and important study. Although its title is somewhat vague, the book has a clear and definite intention to examine Polybius' approaches, both theoretical and practical, to the writing of history. S. occupies her attention with those aspects of Polybian theory and methodology that reflect his views of history as a science, and therefore it would be necessary to specify that in her book Polybius is treated as a historian, not as a source of historical data nor as a political philosopher. In the Preface (pp. 3-14) containing a short survey of preceding works on the subject S. observes that some Polybian scholars deduce his views of history primarily from his supposed adherence either to the Peripatetic or to the Stoic doctrine.3 Her own point is that Polybius worked out his methodology by developing the traditions of Greek historiography rather than by applying the ideas of one or another Hellenistic philosophical school to the writing of history.

S. has divided her investigation into four chapters, the first of which is entitled "The Life and the Work of Polybius" and deals with the historian's biography, followed by a presentation of "the basic structural characteristics" of his work (pp. 15-77). One may doubt, whether a book devoted to Polybius' views of history needs such a lengthy exposure of general information about the historian's life and work. For example, a detailed consideration of arguments in favour of one or another chronology of Polybius' voyages to Spain, Africa or elsewhere (pp. 44-46, 48-50, 53-55) does not seem to be relevant to the main purpose of the reviewed volume. On the other hand, a Russian scholar, unlike his/her Western colleague, can not simply advise the reader to look in Walbank's or Ziegler's work for the details of the discussion, since it's hard to find this literature in a library of an ordinary Russian university, and therefore such digressions, even though they do not contribute to the fulfilment of the main task set by the author, are extremely useful as a source of information about the present state of Polybian scholarship for Russian-speaking students and faculty.

The readers of the present review, on the contrary, may be more interested in what position does S. take, when she discusses one or another debatable detail of Polybius' biography. On the first pages of the chapter (16-20) S. considers the existing assumptions concerning the date of the historian's birth and rejects them all as going beyond the evidence. Her own conclusion is rather cautious: Polybius was born in the last decade of the third century and died after 132 B.C. (pp. 20, 55). However, S. does not always display the same scrupulosity in chronological issues, and in mentioning some dates of minor importance, she confines herself to a brief reference, which sometimes looks surprising. For instance, citing a couple of dates related to the activity of the historian's father Lycortas (p. 25), S. refers to the work of K. von Fritz on Polybian political theory instead of what one might expect -- F. Walbank's Commentary or some even more recent essay on Achaean history and chronology.

A separate section (pp. 26-35) surveys the political career of Polybius in the period of the Third Macedonian War. As an active member of Lycortas' party, Polybius is supposed to share its attitude towards Rome, which underwent a certain change during the war. S. asserts that the initial stance of the whole faction was based on the principle of strict neutrality, since only a balance of power between Macedonia and Rome would have permitted the Achaeans to pursue an independent policy. She identifies this line with that of the medium genus of Greek politicians described by Livy (41.31.6; cf. 42.30.5-8 and Polyb. 30.7.6). However, after the visit of a Roman delegation to Achaea in 170 the majority of Lycortas' friends recognized the necessity to adapt their policy to what the circumstances dictated, which meant to wait on time and appease the Romans. Polybius as a hipparch in 169 acted in accordance with this decision, but, although he proved a skillful and cautious statesman, the political course of Lycortas' group led the party and Polybius himself to an unfortunate result.4

All these observations seem to be convincing enough with the exception that one may doubt, whether Archon and Polybius had supported the idea of strict neutrality before they opposed it in late 170. The League had been already involved in the war on the Roman side since 171 (Liv. 42.44. 7-8), and the extremist proposal of Lycortas MH/TE PERSEI= MH/TE R(WMAI=OIS SUNERGEI=N MHDE/N (Polyb. 28.6.3) would have seemed to be impracticable long before it was discussed and rejected in 170. Although the whole party shared the commitment to the idea of independent Achaean policy, it was not so monolithic as regards the tactics, and the parley in late 170 revealed this. Therefore it is possible to understand the phrase "Lycortas remained of the initial supposition" (Polyb. 28.6.3) in the following sense: the historian's father still defended the position that he (not his party) had taken from the very beginning.

The next section covers Polybius' activity in exile and thereafter (pp. 35-56), and the most complicated issues considered here are those of chronology. S. offers the following dates for the main events of this period of Polybius' life: he was deported to Italy in late summer 167; by 162 he gained confidence of Scipio Aemilianus and, perhaps, of the whole anti-Fulvian faction (which probably stood behind his back when Polybius helped prince Demetrius to escape from Italy, p. 40); after 155 the Achaean exile participated in political discussions together with the members of the Scipio's circle; in 151 and 150 he accompanied Scipio to Spain and Africa; from 150 to 148 (or ?147 -- S. does not give an exact date) Polybius lived in Achaea. Thereafter he took again his place in the retinue of Scipio during the siege of Carthage. Before the city fell, Polybius had left the Roman camp for some time (perhaps in 147), being appointed the commander of a naval expedition that explored the coast of Africa. In late 146 he returned to Greece and did his best to protect his countrymen from the ire of the Romans. Later Polybius several times visited Rome, where he might have taken part in discussions of the social and political situation that arose on the eve of the Gracchi movement. In 136-5 the historian joined the Roman diplomatic mission headed by Scipio and travelled to Egypt and other countries of the Hellenistic East. There are reasons to assume that he also accompanied Scipio to Numantia in 134-3. Most probably, Polybius spent his last years in Greece, where he died after 132.

A survey of general characteristics of Polybian "Universal History" concludes the chapter (pp. 56-77). The following points made by S. seem to be the most important. First, she claims that the historian based his ideas concerning the rise of Rome on the old Greek theory of several world powers replacing each other in strict succession, though he modernized the whole scheme, omitting Assyria and Media as forerunners of the Persian empire, inserting Sparta as the most powerful of Greek poleis, and adding Rome to the list of great empires, the latter idea being proposed by Polybius himself, not derived from Timaeus, as had been assumed (pp. 57-60). Second, S. does not think it possible to determine when and in what order different parts of the History were completed, revised and published, leaving aside the well-known fact that the last ten books were written after 146, while the work on the preceding part had been already started in the 160s and took a long time (pp. 61-65).5 She assumes that because of continuous and substantial revisions of the text the historian's work should have been "practically perpetual" (p. 65). The section also contains a review of Polybius' sources (pp. 65-71) and an account of his chronological system (pp. 71-76).

The second chapter deals with Polybius' views of history as a science (pp. 80-114). Although the Achaean historian, like his predecessors and contemporaries, limited his object of research to the history of political events (p. 81), his views of what purpose history should serve differed considerably from those of the other Hellenistic historians. S. demonstrates this point using as evidence the countless critical remarks scattered throughout Polybius' History. She observes that the historian did not reject completely the views of the purpose of history already elaborated by his predecessors; in fact, he not only shared the opinion going back to Isocrates and his school that history should have a moral content, but also insisted on its purpose to help the reader to find approaches to a "genuine life" (1.35.7-8). He neither denied the importance of a good literary style for a historian, nor the inevitable rhetorical component of a historical work. In that sense Polybius preferred to adhere to the long-established Greek tradition of historiography, rather than to revise it completely. Nevertheless, S. holds that Polybius worked out "a new concept of the writing of history, the essence of which consists in a sharp protest against the identification of scientific history with fiction" (p. 96). This statement both is contradictory (a "new concept" coming to a "sharp protest") and also lacks a detailed confirmation, for we might expect to be told, what particular innovations make a distinction between the alleged Polybian "new concept" and the views of history already expressed by Thucydides. Indeed, Thucydides is cited in this chapter basically to demonstrate that he anticipated Polybius' concept of history in many respects (pp. 88-89, cf.104).6 Therefore it would be more correct to regard Polybian views of history as a development of the already existing "scientific" approach to history-writing than a theory invented anew, and that is exactly what S. herself does in conclusion of the chapter (p. 113).

The main aim of Polybius' polemic against his predecessors, according to S., was to defend and develop the scientific principles of history-writing, from which many historians of the fourth and third centuries B.C. had deviated. Since Polybius' positive ideas of how to write history can not be understood without considering this historiographical background, S. pays much attention to the views of history brought forward by the school of Isocrates, and to the so-called "tragic" historiography represented by Duris and Phylarchus. Raising the very complicated and much-discussed question of whether this manner of writing history had a basis in Aristotelian theory, and presenting a review of the scholarly discussion on the subject, S. comes to the conclusion that there is not enough evidence to prove the existence of a formed "tragic school" of history based on Peripatetic ideas (p. 103). Polybius, whose knowledge of Aristotelian "Poetics" is doubtful (p. 96), probably criticized what he thought to be an abuse of the dramatic elements in a historical work, no matter whether it was influenced by the Peripatetic theory or not.

Regardless whether it was, the Polybian polemic against Phylarchus and others reflected the collision between two main tendencies in Hellenistic historiography, the "scientific" one, defended by Polybius, and the view of historical essay as a work of art. Both trends descended from the same Greek idea of history as a combination of scientific research with literary creative work, and the difference consisted in which aspect of history should be considered predominant. For Polybius the scientific aspect was far more important than the literary one, and therefore he developed a whole system of preferences. S. observes that the Achaean historian made the moral purposes of history yield to the utilitarian aims, so that "history becomes almost an instruction for politicians" (p. 85). Furthermore, he treated literary style as something less important than historical content (p. 87): in the eyes of Polybius any attempt to sacrifice truth to effect or to distort real historical facts for whatever reason was incompatible with the main purpose of history (pp. 87-92). Polybius regarded history as a branch of science close to philosophy (p. 96), and being a science, history has nothing to do with tragedy. If a historian is to include speeches in his work, he should take care of their authenticity much more than of the rules of rhetoric and the charms of eloquence, and the speeches must be short, informative and supplied with clear commentaries (pp. 103-113). Each of these Polybian remarks at first sight might appear to be a commonplace, but if we evaluate his views of history in the context of the development of Greek history-writing after Thucydides, the significance of Polybian idea of history as a science becomes evident. S. also adds that Polybius' theoretical construct of history remains the most elaborate of those left by the ancient thinkers (p. 113).

The third chapter takes us into Polybian methodology of the study of history and consists of four essays, the first of which does not seem to have a close connection with methodology as such, at least judging from its heading, for the notion of AU)TOPA/QEIA examined on pp. 120-128 should be distinguished from AU)TOYI/A, the latter being a method of historical research, while the former, "one's own experience", is laid down by Polybius as a precondition of successful study of history, not a method used by a scholar already making his research. It is true Polybius (12.28.6) mentions two forms of AU)TOPA/QEIA, the "active one" (TH\N E)NERGHTIKH\N TH\N PERI\ TA\S POLEMIKA\S PRA/CEIS), and the experience gained in wandering and sight (TH\N E)K TH=S PLA/NHS KAI\ QE/AS AU)TOPA/QEIAN), but S. perhaps goes too far when she seeks to show that the "wandering and sight" means visiting the sites of historic events, looking over the documents, applying for information to the eyewitnesses (p. 125). Polybius emphasized the importance of AU)TOPA/QEIA claiming to demonstrate his own advance on Timaeus, who did not travel much and had neither political nor military experience. Hence the demand that history should be written by OI( PRAGMATIKOI\ TW=N A)NDRW=N rather than by armchair scholars (12.28.3). Therefore PLA/NH KAI\ QE/A appears to be not a method of collecting historical facts, but a way of acquiring experience and knowledge that would enable the historian to select, evaluate, and explain the information derived from different sources. S. suggests that this idea of experience as a criterion of truth might be based on Aristotelian concept of E)MPEIRI/A (p. 128); this assumption is interesting but needs more extensive argumentation.

Another Polybian concept, that of A)PODEIKTIKH\ I(STORI/A, is interpreted by S. as a complex notion implying, first, a detailed exposition of facts, second, an elucidation of causal relationship, and third, an exhaustive argumentation confirming the conclusions (pp. 128-136). Her attitude towards the modern discussion whether Polybius borrowed this concept from Aristotle or from the Stoics is rather sceptical, for the term APO/DEICIS was widely used by different schools in Hellenistic times, and its application to history most likely was the result of Polybius' own efforts (pp. 135-136). Exploring Polybian theory of causation, S. tries again to emphasize the originality of his theoretical reasoning (pp. 136-141). Having made distinctions between AI)TI/A, PRO/FASIS, and A)RXH/, the historian developed a certain scheme of causation which is apparently his own creation (Polyb. 3.6.6-7). The notions included in this scheme (E)PI/NOIA, DIA/QESIS, SULLOGISMO/S, KRI/SIS, DIA/LHYIS) S. explains through careful analysis of Polybian vocabulary and shows that they represent consecutive phases of human mental activity. Thus the Polybian conception of causal relations leaves no space for divine intervention into human affairs.

However, this rationalistic attitude obviously contradicts the well-known idea of the omnipotent Fortune (TU/XH) that manifests itself frequently in different parts of Polybius' History. On pp. 141-157 S. surveys Polybian phrases revealing his view of the part TU/XH plays in human history and comes to the following conclusions. In the Hellenistic age there were two concepts of TU/XH, a philosophical category meaning a supernatural force that organizes the world rationally, and the perception of "variant fortune" or "haphazard chance" in ordinary, low-level thinking. Both should have influenced Polybius, who sometimes introduced TU/XH into the narrative simply in accordance with the popular beliefs of his time, treating the Fortune as an irrational, incognizable force driven now by caprice, vindictiveness or even by divine envy (as in 39.8.1-2), now by the idea of justice. Sometimes the historian seeks to represent TU/XH in conformity with the Stoic doctrine, as a wise power that rules the universe. The object he pursued by making the Fortune interfere with human affairs was more didactic than scientific. S. makes a reasoned objection to the assumptions that Polybian concept of TU/XH was entirely derived from either Stoic or Peripatetic theory, and here, as well as in the preceding sections, she argues that Polybius was not a consistent follower of one or another philosophical school, so that his theory might be regarded as eclectic.

The book ends with a chapter devoted to the subject and the genre of Polybius' own study (pp. 158-182). The historian himself characterized his work as a "universal" and "pragmatic" history, and S. in this final chapter seeks to clarify the meaning of both terms. It is not absolutely clear, what kind of history Polybius designated by the notion of PRAGMATIKH\ I(STORI/A, and scholars have offered different interpretations, one of which, now shared by the overwhelming majority of Polybian students, identifies PRAGMATIKH\ I(STORI/A with political or political and military history.7 Some modern scholars, however, hold that the term also implies such connotations as "a history revealing causal relations" (M. Gelzer), "a serious history" (F.W. Walbank), "a history of contemporaneity" (P. Pedech). After a thorough scrutiny of relevant Polybian passages S. defines PRAGMATIKH\ I(STORI/A as a history of politics and state that is based on real facts unlike a study resting on a mythical tradition. The area of pragmatic history may not be restricted to contemporary events, but its chronological limits depend on the trustworthiness of the sources. Polybius was not the first historian who refused to deal with mythology and wrote the sort of history he described as "pragmatic", but the term itself seems to be his own invention (pp. 160-175).

This interpretation of PRAGMATIKH\ I(STORI/A is convincing enough, though one point needs further clarification. Polybius (9.1.4) reckoned Ephorus among those who write about colonies, foundations of cities and relationship of tribes, which is not the subject of pragmatic history. Since the starting point of Ephorus' History was the Doric migration, S. infers that Polybius moved this chronological limit down, having excluded from the area of "pragmatic history" the whole age associated with the beginnings of Greek states and the colonization (p. 173). Perhaps here she misses an opportunity to ascertain whether Polybius' negative view of myth and oral tradition going back to the early Archaic age as a historical source was really consistent, for sometimes the historian himself did not abstain from adducing that sort of information. For instance, into the digressions concerning early Achaean and early Roman history Polybius introduced such personages as Tisamenes, the son of Orestes, and Pallas, the son of Heracles (2.41.4; 6.11a.1). To be sure, the historian might not apply the same rules to the mainstream of the narrative and to an excursus, but in any case this practice was condemned by Polybius himself, who blamed some writers for inserting the MU/QIKAI PAREKBA/SEIS in the works on history (38.6.1-3). Consequently, the historian either permitted himself to transgress from time to time the rules he established (as in the case of TU/XH), or he did not have a definite idea of a chronological point, from which the "pragmatic history" could start.

As for the "universal history", the meaning of the notion is obvious, since Polybius explicitly dissociates it from the history of separate countries. So S. is entitled to focus on the methodological aspect of the Polybian concept of universal history (pp. 175-182). Following P. Pedech (La methode..., p. 496), she stresses the point that the historian understood by universal history not only the study of simultaneous events in different parts of the OI)KOUME/NH but also a method that enables the author to gain advantage over the writers who limit their subject of research to the history of a single country. The historical process in the Mediterranean by the end of the third century B.C. had become a single whole, and the genre of universal history was required to evaluate the significance of each given event and to explain their interrelation, to avoid exaggeration which is peculiar to H( KATA\ ME/ROS I(STORI/A, to develop a coherent system of causal relationship, and to use what we now call a comparative method. S. believes that Polybius was the first historian who set to substantiate theoretically the advantages of universal history (p. 176), which is doubtful because the priority might well belong to Ephorus, whose History should have contained some sort of speculation on the subject.

On the whole the reviewed work is a valuable contribution to the Polybian scholarship. It is written for the most part in an "apodeictic" manner recommended by Polybius, which implies a prudent abstention from unfounded and hasty assumptions. The conclusions do not seem so innovating and surprising as, for instance, those of D. Golan, whose book on Polybius was published almost at the same time,8 but the lack of sensations is not necessarily a shortcoming.


1. Th.G. Mischenko, Federative Hellas and Polybius (Moscow, 1890).

2. A.N. Nemirovsky, "Polybius as a Historian", Voprosy istorii, 1974, no. 6, 87-106; S.B. Mirzaev, Polybius: From the History of Political and Legal Thought (Moscow, 1986); A.J. Tyzhov, "Polybius in Rome", Antichnaya grazhdanskaya obschina (Leningrad, 1986), 92-100; id., "Polybius' Political Mission in Hellas", Gorod i gosudarstvo v antichnom mire (Leningrad, 1987), 107-117; id., "Elements of Theory in Polybius' Writing of History", Vestnik LGU, Seria: Istoria, Yazyk, Literatura, 1988, no. 4, 14-23.

3. This remark relates in particular to the works of R. von Scala (Die Studien des Polybius, Stuttgart, 1890) and P. Pedech (La methode historique de Polybe, Paris, 1964).

4. S. follows F.W. Walbank, appraising this policy as a failure (p.37).

5. In the review of different assumptions relevant to this issue S. should have also mentioned the theory propounded by K.-E. Petzold (Studien zur Methode des Polybius und zu ihrer historischen Auswertung, München, 1969), who claims that after 146 Polybius included in his History not only the last ten books, but also the Introduction (Books 1 and 2) with an implicit ideological purpose.

6. To be precise, there is one exception: Thucydides' views of the significance and the role of speeches in a historical work are characterized as "one-sided" (p.104), apparently in comparison with those of Polybius. However, since S. herself, following K. Sacks (Polybius on the Writing of History, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1981, pp.80-81), recognizes some discrepancy in Polybian remarks concerning the balance between authenticity and rhetoric in those speeches (p.110), the difference between the approaches of both historians to the use of speeches remains unclear.

7. One of the first scholars who proposed that interpretation was Th. Mischenko. (Th. Mischenko (Russian translation and commentary), Polybius: Universal History, Moscow, 1899, V.III, p.538-539)

8. D. Golan, The Res Graeciae in Polybius (Como, 1995).