Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.12.51 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.12.51

Bruce Gibson, Thomas Harrison (ed.), Polybius and his World: Essays in Memory of F. W. Walbank.   Oxford; New York:  Oxford University Press, 2013.  Pp. xvi, 416.  ISBN 9780199608409.  $150.00.  

Reviewed by Michael Kleu, Historisches Institut - Alte Geschichte, Universität zu Köln (


In 1957 Frank W. Walbank (1909-2008) published the first volume of his Historical Commentary on Polybius. In order to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the publication and Walbank’s life and work in general, a conference was held in Liverpool in July 2007. The results of the conference are published in this volume, edited by Bruce Gibson and Thomas Harrison.

In the introduction (pp. 1-35) the editors illuminate Walbank’s academic life, emphasizing the relationship between his profession as a historian on the one hand and his political attitude and engagement on the other. Within this frame they also explore the influence of global political circumstances on Walbank’s academic writing. Subsequently, Gibson and Harrison present a very brief summary of recent Polybian scholarship before they summarize the contents of the volume’s articles (pp. 33-35).

John Henderson uses a combination of Walbank’s unpublished memoirs and his decades-long correspondences with the publishers of the Historical Commentary on Polybius to present a vivid account of Walbank’s road to classics in general, to Polybius in particular, and subsequently to the writing of the commentary (pp. 37-72).

In chapter 3 (pp. 73-90) John Marincola reconsiders Polybius’ criticism on Phylarchus and his tragic history and suggests that Polybius does not, as is often assumed, attack Phylarchus’ style, his rhetorical means or his application of emotions. His criticism concentrates rather on the question of whether the historical narrative is truthful or not. Furthermore, Marincola argues for regarding Polybius’ criticism not only in relation to Aristotle’s Poetics but also in the wider context of ancient discussion on the differences between literary genres and inter-generic competition.

Andrew Meadows demonstrates the high likelihood that after the memoirs of Aratus of Sikyon had ended – probably in August 220 –, Polybius used Aratus’ unpublished journals for the events of 219/218 (pp. 91-116). For the time between August 220 and the end of 219 Polybius had to follow other sources that he did not manage to bring in conformity with each other, leading to several mistakes in his account of that time.

In a short chapter, John Briscoe presents ‘Some Misunderstandings of Polybius in Livy’ and explains their possible reasons (pp. 117-124).

In chapter 6 Hans Beck examines ‘Polybius’ Roman prokataskeuē’ (pp. 125-142) and stresses, on the basis of comparisons with the account of Cassius Dio/Zonaras and epigraphic sources, that Polybius, due to the conceptual approach of his Roman introduction and its didactic and moral goals, took some liberty in over-simplifying or even rewriting the accounts of his sources.

Craige Champion suggests that Polybius’ discussion of the Mamertine Crisis is intentionally vague because he wanted to illustrate third-century Rome as a moral authority. As a result, Polybius left it to his readers to decide by themselves how they should interpret the Roman intervention in Sicily in 264 (pp. 143-157).

Bruce Gibson wonders in chapter 8 (pp. 161-179) why Polybius pays so much attention to the Mercenary War and comes to the conclusion that the account shows Carthage in a situation in which she was most threatened, an analogy to Rome’s situation after the battle of Cannae. While in Rome’s case the crisis proves the excellence of the Roman constitution and the virtues of the Roman people, Polybius wants to demonstrate in the case of Carthage that her moral decline had already begun. By comparing the account with Xenophon’s Anabasis Gibson can also show that Polybius used Xenophon’s description as a model in order to contrast the mercenaries of Carthage with Rome’s legions and allies.

On the basis of Polybius’ account of Philip V, Brian McGing examines the description of youthfulness in the Histories and shows that Polybius’ narrative has much more subtlety than is usually supposed (pp. 181-199). In this context the article stresses particularly the roles of expectation and focalization in the work of Polybius.1

Boris Dreyer examines whether the description of the last years of Philip V in the Histories measures up to Polybius’ own standards concerning history-writers (pp. 201-211). In Dreyer’s opinion this is the case since Polybius followed a Macedonian court source which was responsible for the tragic elements of the account.

Following approaches from the political sciences John Thornton regards the Histories as a diplomatic speech in the dialogue between Greeks and Romans in the middle of the 2nd century (pp. 213-229). From this point of view Polybius’ work is a response to the question of how the Greeks should shape their relations to Rome. At the same time Polybius wants to suggest to the Romans the advantages of a sovereignty characterized by leniency.

Andrew Erskine reconsiders book 6 of the Histories and concludes that Polybius characterizes the Roman politeia in an over-schematic way, describing rather a model or the Platonic form of it in order to explain the enormous success of the Romans (pp. 231-245). Erskine stresses in this context that for Polybius the army is an important part of Rome’s politeia.

Robin Seager’s rather short article also discusses Polybius’ account of the Roman constitution and reasons that despite all efforts Polybius fails in convincingly presenting the Roman constitution as a mixed constitution (pp. 247-254).

In chapter 14, Erich S. Gruen points out the parallels in the biographies and works of Polybius and Flavius Josephus (pp. 255-265).2 Both authors were intellectuals and political leaders whose works broached the issue of the Roman conquest of their motherlands and both of them enjoyed a privileged treatment by the Romans that gave them a special insight into the ruling power. Although Polybius and Josephus both respected Roman success they did not conceal the bad aspects of Roman rule and even foreshadowed that this rule would find its end at some point.

Christel Müller demonstrates that the excursus on decadence in Polybius’ account on the rise and fall of the Boeotians has to be regarded as a literary construct (pp. 267-278). Based on this result Müller argues that in a broader context of intertextuality ‘the Polybian narrative must therefore be studied as an object in itself […]’ (p. 278).

By analyzing the traditions of Polybius and Diodorus Siculus, Hans-Ulrich Wiemer reconstructs as far as possible the historiographical work of Zeno of Rhodes (pp. 279-306). Wiemer arrives at the conclusion that on the one hand Diodorus offers aspects of Zeno’s work which Polybius does not mention at all, while on the other hand Diodorus confirms Polybius’ criticism of the glorifying and exalting of the Rhodians in Zeno’s history. Comparisons with other Rhodian sources show that even works of local historiography could differ from each other in illustration, elaboration and interpretation.

In chapter 17 Michael Sommer looks into the friendship between Polybius and Scipio Aemilianus in order to examine the role the former played in the latter’s life and the impact both men had on Rome’s intellectual climate (pp. 307-318). Related to this are the questions of how far Greek philosophical thought influenced the Roman nobility and to what extend Polybius’ perception of the senatorial class was influenced by his close contact to some of its members.

J. K. Davies (pp. 319-335) stresses the remarkable potential of the Histories as a source for economic information about large parts of the Mediterranean in the 3rd and 2nd century. In Davies’ opinion this economic information is invaluable since Polybius offers economic facts rather casually or even unconsciously in the context of his actual topics. In this manner he passes on raw data without processing it within an interpretative framework. Comparisons with recent studies about Hellenistic economies concentrating on primary sources underline the value of Polybius as a source for economic information because he ‘almost seems to be describing a different world’ (p. 335).

Josephine Crawley Quinn shows that Polybius’ synoptic approach constructs a pan-Mediterranean community covering more or less the geographical area controlled by Rome in 167 (pp. 337-352). Nevertheless, Polybius does not regard this community from a strictly Roman perspective but includes Rome into the Greek world. By comparing this synoptic approach with alternative approaches from both inside and outside the Histories, Crawley Quinn points to the likelihood that concerning the rise of Rome Polybius is no historicist in Benjamin’s terms but shows his awareness of alternative ways of understanding the events and of alternative conceptions of the Mediterranean.

‘Growing up with Polybius: A Daughter’s Memoir’ is the title of the book’s last chapter written by Walbank’s daughter Mitzi Walbank who offers a very personal insight into the Walbanks’ family life (pp. 353-358).

The volume is completed by a bibliography (pp. 359-388), an index locorum (pp. 389-404) and a general index (pp. 405-416).

Chapters 3 to 19 cover a wide range of topics related to Polybius and, to various extents, also to Walbank’s fields of interest. Irrespective of whether or not one agrees with the results of each article, most of the studies offer new insights or approaches and will certainly stimulate further discussions and research.

No less interesting are the three chapters about Walbank’s academic career, his political attitude and his family life. Since ‘There can be no modern scholar more closely associated with an ancient author than Walbank with Polybius’ (p. 1), the articles make clear that from several points of view a detailed biography of Walbank is definitely a desideratum.

All in all the volume is highly recommended to everyone concerned with Polybius, the Histories and the life of Frank W. Walbank.


1.   Referring to Pol. 16.34.6 McGing confuses Philip V with Attalus I (p. 183).
2.   This article has been previously published in J. Pastor, M. Stean, M. Mor (eds.), Flavius Josephus: Interpretation and History, Supplements to the Journal for the Study of Judaism 146, Leiden 2011, 149-162.

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