Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.10.32 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.10.32

Felix K. Maier, "Überall mit dem Unerwarteten rechnen": die Kontingenz historischer Prozesse bei Polybios. Vestigia, Bd 65​.   München​:  Verlag C. H. Beck, 2012.  Pp. viii, 373.  ISBN 9783406641718.  €70.00.  

Reviewed by Boris Chrubasik, University of Toronto (

Table of Contents

In this important book, which was also the author’s doctoral dissertation, Felix K. Maier undertakes the enormous task of offering a comprehensive analysis of the Histories of the Hellenistic historian of the second century BCE, Polybios of Megalopolis. It is an eventful time in the study of the Hellenistic author, and Maier’s monograph is published in between two collections of memorial essays in which Polybios plays a large role.1 In a close reading of the text, Maier’s study offers an exciting insight into the Histories, and raises the interpretive bar to a new level.

The book consists of five chapters followed by two thorough indices. In the introduction (pp.1-16) Maier emphasises the need for an overall analysis of the Histories, and (rightly, but perhaps too vehemently) criticises the use of Polybios as a quarry for tidbits of historical information. Analyses of Polybios’ view of history have too often been focused on methodological sections (such as book 6), rather than on the narrative itself. He gives a short but pointed historiography of Polybian scholarship to date and argues for an analysis of Polybios’ view of history, raising the question whether indeed the alleged contradiction between expectation (learned through history) and narrated events (present in Polybios’ work) means that the Histories contain contradictory views on history. Instead of arguing against the tensions within the text, Maier proposes to investigate them separately in order to demonstrate that these are deliberate and complementary concepts, thus devoting one chapter to the events of the text that follow κατὰ λόγον, and one chapter to the events παρὰ λόγον, ‘against the grain’, standing seemingly in direct opposition.

In the second chapter, Katalogie, (pp. 17-71), Maier examines Polybios’ view of history through the lens of learning from the past. Polybios himself urges readers to study history in order to fulfil their role as empowered political individuals. Historical causation and determination, moreover, are also deeply entrenched in the syntax of the text, as Maier clearly demonstrates (e.g. p. 31 and 39), and we can find these processes not only in book six, but throughout the Histories. The world seems to follow rules that allow the πραγματικὸς ἀνὴρ to learn from the past and apply this to the future (p.50).

This picture of history follows rules that stand in stark contrast to Maier’s third chapter, the Paralogie, (pp. 73-208). In a second reading of the Histories, Maier convincingly establishes that, to put it plainly, events described in Polybios’ text often do not work out as expected. Historical processes are not predetermined, but rather involve contingency, multiple possibilities, and alternative histories. Polybios’ use of counterfactual thoughts, apparent digressions as well as his construction of the narrative illustrate these different possibilities and simultaneously sharpen the Hellenistic author’s argument that events might have happened in a different way. The πραγματικὸς ἀνὴρ finds himself in a socially complex world of many πραγματικοὶ ἄνδρες, where not only many actors, but also natural events often cause unforeseeable results.

The Synthesis (pp.209-340) seeks to unite these two seemingly colliding readings of Polybios’ work. Maier’s subchapter on Tyche emphasises Polybius’ authority over the text. Maier demonstrates that the multiple possibilities of historical events created in the Histories necessitate the conclusion that the Hellenistic author has no determined view of history. Instead the world is too complex to allow any politically active person to know what will happen in the future. Nevertheless, learning and following historic rules can help an individual to obtain the best possible chance of a successful outcome, and this would be a sign of a truly virtuous πραγματικὸς ἀνὴρ (p.284). In his last section, the author seeks to place Polybios in the world of an aristocratic life within the Hellenistic period, and to show how he was influenced by contemporary thought (e.g. philosophy, comedy, and medical writings) which led him to write a history of uncertainties, alternative pathways, and individuals’ active striving for political achievement. Maier explains the dominant role of individuals in the Histories with the intrinsic need of narratives for actors, and hence the work can give the impression of a story of ‘men who can make history’, yet we should understand these only as points of reference. There are, in fact, many actors, and this creates a historical understanding of contingency, which is also interwoven in the narratives themselves. In his final pages Maier places Polybios within the last century of modern historiographical approaches to history.

The main points of his arguments are summarised in his concluding Ergebnis (pp. 341-52), where he emphasises that Polybios wrote a history that told his readers to look for the logical, but expect the illogical (p.351).

Maier’s close analysis of the text is impressive and demonstrates his deep understanding of the text. His reading of the semantic field of the noun εἴκος (pp. 77-91) exemplifies his reading skills and the persuasiveness of his overall analyses. His study is deeply convincing, even if one does not agree with him at every instance. For example, in his section on unrealised digressions (117-39) in the Paralogie, I would argue that the example of the Seleukid usurper Achaios is not well chosen (pp. 126-7). The narrative (Pol. 8. 18.1-20.11) is certainly suspenseful, and Polybios emphasizes the careful preparations the rebel had taken which could have led to a successful escape; the usurper’s fate, however, is clear much earlier in the narrative. Polybios notes already at 8. 19. 5 that Achaios was proverbially trying to ‘pull a Cretan on a Cretan’, out-tricking the trickster, thus foreshadowing the death of the rebel regardless of his plans to avoid capture. Also, in his subchapter on the influence of nature on events (pp. 197-205), Maier explains the success of Hannibal the Rhodian (Pol. 1.46. 4-47.2) with the intervention of nature. While my reading of the episode of the Rhodian sailor who managed to sail into the harbour while nobody else could would place more emphasis on the skills of the individual than Maier does, one can in the end read the story both ways (as Maier himself states). My reservations regarding Maier’s reading of these particular examples may question individual test cases in his study, yet, even if the Hellenistic author only at times used narrative digressions or natural phenomena in this manner, Maier’s analysis is persuasive, demonstrating contingency, the limitations of human planning, and emphasising alternative possibilities throughout.

Chapter four Synthese is the most complicated, and perhaps most contentious chapter of the book. While the overall argument of tying together the knots between Katalogie, and Paralogie is excellent, a few examples from chapter four will highlight some difficulties. While in the past too much emphasis has been placed on the role of Tyche in the narrative, and Maier is surely correct that Walbank and Pédech’s interpretations are out of date,2 the recent lack of emphasis on Tyche as well as some current articles which are very similar in direction as Maier’s proposition should perhaps indicate a more communal understanding of its sidelined role than Maier acknowledges.3 Also, although the overall argument in chapter four is very good, one may wonder whether the extensive introduction of concepts, such as emergent structures (pp. 250-2) or entropy (pp. 170-1), will in the end be as helpful to the reader as was intended. Moreover, a reduction of the pages on modern historical approach would have allowed more space to expand on other questions. With a more thorough look at the historical period in itself, it would perhaps not be going too far to argue that Polybios perhaps understood in contrast to, say his predecessor Thucydides, that a description of the complex histories of his time requires a deeply intricate, confusing, and perhaps even contradictory narrative, with alternative presences and an authorial model that has so far been undervalued by modern scholarship.

A reviewer should not discuss the book he would have written himself, but I wonder how Maier would have approached the Hellenistic historian’s sources as well as his modes of narrative, how Polybios chooses to characterise certain individuals, and why some protagonists fulfil specific roles that push his narrative forward.

This powerful study also opens questions regarding other fields outside the boundaries of this book, but that are crucial for our understanding of the third and second centuries BCE. If we follow Maier’s approach (e.g. p.289) that Polybios created his narrative of events as he wished (which in a post-modern world is presumably necessary), those interested in the events of the period need to step beyond the narrative and ask the question of what this tells us: for example, does this reading of Polybios allow us to think about the economic consequences of the Rhodian earthquake of 227 BCE (Pol. 5. 88. 1- 90.2), or can we only look at a second-century portrayal of Rhodian cunning and Hellenistic benefaction, narrated by an Achaean statesman? – While some might argue that it can only be the latter, for those interested in third-century Rhodes this cannot be enough, and scholarship cannot artificially try to support their arguments by claiming that this particular episode is surely relying on a Rhodian source (however likely it may be). Even if scholars might disagree with some elements or certain results of Maier’s book, this monograph is not only a deeply analytical study of a Hellenistic author and his approach to writing history, it is also a reminder for those who want to quarry the text for events to be on their methodological guard.

One should conclude with Maier himself, that one should read Polybios; in fact, despite the difficulties one should read the Histories to the end (p.350). Maier wrote an excellent book, and it is hoped that the author’s complex writing style will not prevent his study from gaining the readership it deserves. For the serious study of the Hellenistic author, and also of the history of the third and second centuries BCE, one of the first items on the reading list will certainly have to be Maier. ​


1.   Smith, Christopher J and Liv M. Yarrow (eds.), Imperialism, Cultural Politics, and Polybius, Oxford: OUP 2012 (BMCR 2013.01.33, see also the recent discussion in BMCR 2013.07.05), and Gibson, Bruce and Thomas Harrison (eds.), Polybius and His World: Essays in Memory of F.W. Walbank, Oxford: OUP 2013.
2.   see e.g: Walbank Frank M. ‘Supernatural paraphernalia in Polybius’ histories’, in: idem (ed.), Polybius, Rome and the Hellenistic World, Cambridge: CUP 2002, 245-257; Pédech, Paul, La méthode historique de Polybe, Paris: Les Belles Lettres 1964, 362.
3.   Similar: Longley, Georgina, ‘Thucydides, Polybius and human nature’, in: Smith, Christopher J and Liv M. Yarrow (eds.), Imperialism, Cultural Politics, and Polybius, Oxford: OUP 2012, 68-84, esp. 73-4. The lessoned emphasis on the role of the goddess has already filtered down to B. McGing’s introduction (p. xxxiii-xxxiv) to Robin Waterfield’s translation of Polybius: The Histories, Oxford: OUP 2010, for the Oxford World Classics series. ​

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