Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.04.12

Donald Walter Baronowski, Polybius and Roman Imperialism.   London:  Bristol Classical Press, 2011.  Pp. xiv, 242.  ISBN 9780715639429.  $80.00.  

Reviewed by Paul Burton, Australian National University (

Donald Baronowski’s new book announces itself as a kind of companion piece to Craige Champion’s masterful 2004 study, Cultural Politics in Polybius’s Histories (Berkeley). But whereas the latter examined Polybius’ complex attitudes towards Rome and Romans in general terms, Baronowski focuses in on the specific issue of the Greek historian’s views on Roman imperialism, that is, “how [Polybius] reacted to the expansion of Roman power over other peoples” (ix). It is thus a very welcome full-length study on a particularly vexed question that scholars have chipped away at for years, but upon which there has yet to be much consensus. In addition, like Champion’s book, Baronowski’s is a valuable addition to the growing list of works that recognize Polybius as a complex and original thinker, and a man of great personal and intellectual integrity rather than a mindless apologist for and flatterer of the Romans.

The first third of Baronowski’s book is given over to background and prefatory material, including an Introduction that provides a brief biography of Polybius, a discussion of the scope of his Histories, a review of scholarship on Polybius’ attitude towards Roman imperialism, and a survey of Polybius’ conception of imperialism (1- 13). There then follow three chapters outlining the opinions of Hellenistic Greek philosophers (17-28), poets and prophets (29-42), and historians other than Polybius (43-60) on the issues of imperialism and Roman power. Baronowski discovers that the overwhelming majority of these imperialized Greeks (and a few non-Greeks—e.g. the Hellenized Jewish author of 1 Maccabees) “not only accepted imperial domination as a normal feature of the international structure,” but also “usually admired or defended Rome or some other imperialist nation” (15); these include the philosophers Carneades and Panaetius (whose views come to us via Laelius in Cicero’s De Republica) (17-28), the poets Alcaeus of Messene, pseudo-Lycophron, Melinno of Lesbos, Limenius of Athens, and pseudo-Scymnus (29-32), and the historians Aristotheus of Troezen, perhaps Zenodotus of Troezen, and, with qualifications, Posidonius, the continuator of Polybius (52-60). The exceptions are relatively few: Polybius’ contemporary, Agatharchides of Cnidus, who abhorred imperialism in all its forms and especially that of Rome (22- 23, 53-54); Antisthenes the Peripatetic, the compiler of anti-Roman tales as reproduced in Phlegon of Tralles’s On Marvels (32-33); the Hellenizing Jewish writers of books 3 and 4 of the Sibylline Oracles (33- 40); and the pro-Carthaginian historians Philinus of Agrigentum (47-48) and Sosylus of Sparta (48-50). Thus Polybius, who, as demonstrated in Part II of Baronowski’s book, was a proponent of imperial power generally and of Roman domination in particular, belongs squarely in the mainstream of Hellenistic intellectual opinion on the subject.

But Polybius is at the same time a much more complex thinker, as Baronowski elegantly demonstrates. Like his Greek contemporaries, Polybius admired imperial power and Roman domination, regarded Roman rule as largely moderate and beneficial to others, and yet maintained critical distance from Rome. On the other hand, uniquely among the Greeks, Polybius “eschewed the vain conceit that Roman power would prevail indefinitely,” typical of the poets pseudo-Lycophron, Melinno and Limenius (62), but rather believed that Roman power was destined to decline and fall through self-indulgence, greed and ambition brought on by imperial success (succinctly: 61-63, 164-75).

Part II of Baronowski’s study begins building the case by considering Polybius’ attitude towards legitimate imperial expansion (Chapter 4, 65-86). Polybius believed that in most cases imperialism was a noble pursuit by virtuous men, and that the Roman imperial achievement, aggressively pursued and justified on plausible pretexts, was particularly moderate and beneficial. Polybius is sometimes critical of Roman foreign policy and sharp practice, but often tempers his criticism with an explanation of extenuating circumstances and stronger condemnation of foreign leaders. Chapter 5 (87-113) asserts that Polybius systematically and consistently promulgates the view that successful empire-building depends on beneficence and moderation during all three phases of the imperial project— acquisition, expansion, and preservation. Rome, in Polybius’ view, satisfied these criteria throughout the period covered by the Histories; thus the view that Polybius passed a negative judgement on Roman imperial conduct after 168 B.C. can be safely dispensed with. The hard case here is, of course, Rome’s treatment of Carthage in the run-up to the destruction of that city in 146 B.C. Baronowski carefully argues that in his famous summary of four Greek opinions on Roman behaviour toward Carthage (Polyb. 36.9), Polybius, despite some reservations about Roman deviousness and severity, sided with those who believed that, ruthless though it was, Roman behaviour was designed to achieve a noble end—the perpetuation of (largely benevolent) Roman supremacy (101-106). Equally boldly, Baronowski argues that the thesis of two likely Polybian-derived passages in Diodorus Siculus (Diod. 32.2 and 32.4)—that empire is best maintained through fear and terror—reflects neither Polybius’ nor Diodorus’ own opinion, but that of Greek observers of the Roman-Carthaginian conflict, reported originally by Polybius in his now lost thirty- fifth book (106-113).

With his main points established, Baronowski moves on in Chapter 6 (114-31) to a consideration of Polybius’ judgements of Rome’s enemies. He argues that Polybius’ inveterate hostility to Rome’s enemies in Books 36-39, in contrast to earlier books, where “censure alternates with more favourable observations” (114), derives not from a shift in the historian’s opinion from cynical detachment to strong support for Rome (as Walbank famously argued many times: 178 n. 32), but from his impatience with independent-minded powers who acted after 168 B.C., when Roman supremacy had been established, as though they were still living in a pre-Pydna world, when Roman power was still a work in progress and subject to credible challenges. The Carthaginians in the run-up to the Third Punic War, the Macedonians who followed Andriscus in the latter’s attempt to revive the Macedonian monarchy, and the Achaeans who provoked a Roman war in the 140s all come in for censure in this regard. In his pre-Pydna books (1- 29), by contrast, Polybius praised those powers that stood a fighting chance, such as Macedon under Philip V and Carthage, for standing up to Rome, and indeed criticized them for not challenging Rome more effectively. Thus Polybius’ criticisms of Rome’s enemies did not originate in strong identification with Rome, but from a detached and realistic assessment of how weaker powers should accommodate themselves to that power.

Chapter 7 (132-48) treats Polybius’ role as a participant and agent in Roman activities in and after the 140s B.C. Here Baronowski argues that Polybius participated in Roman projects in North Africa during the Third Punic War because “of political necessity [to obey Roman requests], personal obligation [to Scipio Aemilianus] and historiographical vocation [to provide an eyewitness report of what he knew would be a key event in world history]” (135), and in Achaea after 145 B.C. because, again, he was obliged to obey Roman requests and because he genuinely believed that the conservative regimes imposed by Rome, which he helped implement, were the best form of government. Chapter 8 (149-52) continues the theme of Polybius’ critical and intellectual distance from Rome by arguing that in certain moods the historian considered the Romans barbarians and their supremacy as having been brought about by supernatural forces (Fortune, Tykhē) rather than through any intrinsic merit in the Roman character. Chapter 9 (153-63) is devoted to exploring in detail Polybius’ view, unique among Hellenistic intellectuals, that the Roman empire was destined to decline and fall, although Polybius emphasizes that this would take a long time (thanks to the Roman mixed constitution), and that future generations would find much to admire and emulate in the nature of Roman rule. A concluding chapter (164-75) rounds out the discussion and summarizes the main points, including some analysis of the widely differing policies of Achaean League politicians and Polybius’ own position in his year as hipparch of the League (170/169 B.C.). The conclusion, in addition, makes some important points about Polybius as an independent thinker: the historian “concentrated not on justifying but on [morally] shaping imperial rule” (165), “always fixed his regard on the horizon of Greek interests,” and his “deepest loyalty was to his own country” rather than to Rome (172).

Baronowski has done a great service to Polybian scholarship by providing the first book-length treatment of a very complex topic; it is a product of decades of learning and scholarship, as the lengthy bibliography and copious references attest. His engagement with other ongoing controversies thrown up by Polybius’ text—the role of Fortune (Tykhē) in historical causation (151-52), for example—also deserves credit. Indeed, it is in one of these sidebars that one of the book’s most important contributions occurs: Baronowski’s discussion of Polybius’ “doctrine of pretexts” (prophaseis) (73-77). Baronowski resolves previous scholarly confusion on the issue by arguing that, for Polybius, a good pretext is not a smokescreen or a sham cynically disguising a state’s true motives for action, but is rather a reasonable explanation based on facts that would be justification enough on its own for that action were it the true cause (aitia) of it; “its function is to establish a veridical appearance of justice” (74 with Polyb. fr. 99 B-W). Polybius consistently criticizes individuals and states not because they invent pretexts to disguise real motives but rather because they fail to do so, or cite spurious and unconvincing pretexts. So, for example, Polybius faults Hannibal for asserting that his attack on Saguntum was undertaken to avenge injured subjects of Carthage (3.15.4-8) when what really bothered him was the seizure of Sardinia and the additional tribute imposed in 237. Pretexts can, of course, be subject to manipulation, such as when the Roman senate released the murderer of Gn. Octavius after Demetrius I of Syria delivered him into Roman custody: according to Polybius, the Romans wanted to keep the grievance open in order to use it in future (Polyb. 32.3.11). In Polybius’ moral universe, such behavior is not in itself objectionable since it is in the service of a good, noble, and eminently justifiable activity —imperial expansion.

The book is well presented with no typographical or typesetting errors that I could see (except for two double-length indents on pp. 136 and 137). The index of passages cited is very helpful. Polybian scholars will find a few things to quibble about here, but these are largely unresolvable differences of opinion rather than outright mistakes. In this regard, it is disheartening to see Baronowski lend his considerable authority to the view that the “Treaty of Philinus,” dismissed by Polybius as malicious fabrication, actually existed. Interested BMCR readers might want to consult the latest shot fired in this little war (Eckstein in CQ 60.2), which appeared too late for Baronowski to consult. One might also challenge Baronowski’s definition of imperialism (13), which reduces all motivation for empire to political and economic gain. Things like security, control, strategic imperatives and honour are simply left out of account. Another cause for concern is Baronowski’s lack of caution (or at least caveats) when using Cicero’s De Republica as a source for Greek political and philosophical thought in Chapter 1 (17-27). A substantial part of his argument that Polybius is within the mainstream of Hellenistic thought on imperialism in general and Roman imperialism in particular depends on inferring the views of various Greek philosophers (Carneades, Panaetius, etc.), whose works are now lost, from speeches put in the mouths of the De Republica’s interlocutors by Cicero himself. There are thus two degrees of separation between the ideas of the (fragmentary) text of the De Republica and their alleged (lost) sources. There is more room for error here than most scholars would be comfortable with.

Fortunately none of these criticisms individually or collectively damages a fine piece of sustained argumentation, remarkable synthesis and admirable scholarship. Baronowski’s book can occupy a well-deserved place on the shelf next to the seminal Polybian studies of Walbank, Pédech, Welwei, Musti, Petzold, Tränkle, Sacks, Eckstein and Champion—to say nothing of the great Megalopolitan historian himself.

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