Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.11.54 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.11.54

David D. Phillips, Polybius, Book 1: A Commentary.   Ann Arbor:  Michigan Classical Press, 2016.  Pp. 269.  ISBN 9780979971372.  $65.00 (hb).  

Reviewed by Daniel Walker Moore, University of Virginia (

Teachers and students reading Polybius in Greek will find this commentary to be a useful asset for understanding the language and context of the first book of the Histories. Since the publication of Walbank’s monumental commentary in three volumes (1956, 1967, and 1979) on the surviving portions of Polybius’ Histories, scholars have been wary of producing commentaries in English on this historian. Perhaps Walbank’s extensive efforts have seemed to exhaust the need for further comment, or perhaps his shadow has simply been too intimidating. But, as Phillips notes in his preface (p. 1), Walbank’s invaluable contribution to Polybian scholarship focuses primarily on historical (and historiographical) issues while offering little aid with grammar, syntax, or vocabulary to first-time readers of Polybius. This new commentary fulfills that need. By its own account (p. 1), “the majority of the notes here are intended to explain Polybius’ Greek.” This effort is especially welcome since, while Polybius’ relatively simple prose makes this an accessible text for students learning to read Greek, the type of assistance provided by this commentary becomes an important guide for the unique style of koinē Greek and often technical vocabulary of this Hellenistic historian. I recommend this commentary as a companion text for students reading Polybius in Greek at the advanced undergraduate, post-baccalaureate, or early graduate levels. Students reading Greek at the intermediate level would require a commentary of this sort, but I am skeptical that Polybius is an appropriate author for this level. Career scholars and graduate students pursuing advanced research on Polybius will find that Walbank remains the primary resource for in-depth analysis of the difficult questions arising from Polybius’ first book.

After addressing the purpose of this commentary in the preface, Phillips includes an eight-page, general Introduction to Polybius’ life and work. The brief overview of what is known about Polybius’ life is supported by cross-references to relevant passages in Polybius’ text beyond what is found specifically in Book One. While useful, this practice – frequently employed by the author throughout the commentary for historical references as well – means that complete understanding of the notes requires access to a full translation of the rest of Polybius’ work. The discussion which follows in the Introduction contains a summary of the contents of the entire Histories as well as sections presenting Polybius’ views on the important historiographical topics of pragmatikē historia, universal history, and causation (pp. 5-11). Here, the author’s general approach is to let Polybius speak for himself through quotations from the Histories, while there is less discussion of the broader significance of these passages. Again, the purpose here is to provide enough context for the reader to understand the text of Book One, not to produce a complete account of the extensive scholarship on these topics. This is followed by a more specific outline of the contents of Book One and discussion of the distinct nature of Polybius’ first two books as introductory material (prokataskeuē) to the more extensive narrative beginning in Book Three (pp. 11-14). The Introduction concludes with a section on the distinctive language, style, and tone of Polybius’ Greek (pp. 14-18). Phillips acknowledges the relatively simple style of Polybius’ prose but shares the view of an increasing chorus of scholars suggesting that this text is, nevertheless, composed with some degree of artistry and skill. The author concludes by rightly emphasizing the importance of Polybius both as a historical source and for the insights which he provides on the nature of Hellenistic historiography.

This book next includes the complete text of Book One of Polybius. Just like the Loeb edition by Paton (1922; revised by Walbank and Habicht, 2010-12), Phillips’ text is based on the Teubner edition of Büttner-Wobst (1905) with minimal emendation. For sixty- three pages (pp. 19-82), the Greek text continues unbroken by a single English word and only divided by the standard chapter (88) and section divisions. In a classroom setting, this format offers the advantage of forcing students to engage directly and exclusively with the Greek text (as opposed to commentaries which offer running vocabulary or translation assistance on the same page). While the visual effect of this layout is daunting – especially for students relatively new to extended Greek texts – this format is ultimately preferable for teaching (and learning) Greek.

Phillips’ extensive commentary on the text of Book One follows (pp. 83-245). Here, Book One is divided into thematic sections corresponding to the outline provided in the Introduction (pp. 12-13). While these divisions are helpful both for mitigating the intimidating effects of the unbroken Greek text and for orienting readers in the broader narrative of Book One, brief introductions at the start of each new section might have further benefited readers.

The notes on Polybius’ Greek provided in this commentary are thorough and well-researched, as consistent cross-references to the LSJ, Denniston, Smyth, and (less frequently) Goodwin demonstrate. Such references are a valuable tool for training students in the use of these necessary resources for mastery of ancient Greek. Whenever possible, Phillips’ approach is to provide just enough assistance for readers to work out Polybius’ meaning on their own. Thus, his notes frequently describe the grammar and syntax of a passage or provide definitions for atypical vocabulary without giving a full translation. For example, instead of translating the verb ἐγεννᾶτο (1.67.2), the author advises readers “distinguish from ἐγίνοντο below.” For especially difficult passages, such as Polybius’ overly technical description of the so-called crows (κόρακες) used by the Romans to grapple enemy ships (1.22.4-10), Phillips offers his full translation of the passage; but, even here, he includes explanations of grammar and vocabulary that guide readers through the process of translation. Such an approach again makes this commentary especially appropriate for students learning to read Greek, as it enables them to arrive at proper translations themselves. Phillips does not, however, include any further discussion of the significance of this technological innovation by the Romans; Walbank (1: 77-8) remains the chief resource for such in-depth commentary. For words and phrases repeated by Polybius throughout Book One (e.g ἔχων, 1.22.4), Phillips frequently refers readers back to his initial comment on the subject; thus, it will be necessary for students to have access to the complete commentary even if only reading later sections of Book One. When Polybius’ expression or grammar differs significantly from what one would expect in Attic Greek, Phillips is keen to note this with parallel Attic constructions. In explaining his translation “through the punishment (inflicted) on them” (1.7.12), for example, he notes that “in place of εἰς ἐκείνους Attic Greek more usually employs an objective genitive ἐκείνων.”

In his notes, Phillips provides only enough historical context to orient the reader, rather than offering extended historical analysis such as one would find in Walbank. At the introduction of Philip V (1.3.1), for example, the author briefly summarizes the historical background of this Macedonian king but does not discuss Polybius’ characterization of this figure. When Polybius makes mention in Book One of events narrated in more detail elsewhere in his work, Phillips provides cross-references to Polybius rather than recount events himself (e.g. 1.3.1 on the Social War). Where applicable, he will also cite passages from other historians – such as Livy – for more complete narratives. Phillips helpfully provides more historical context than usual in his notes on Polybius’ summary of Roman history (1.6-10, pp. 94-102), because of the rather oblique nature of Polybius’ outline.

In his notes on specific words and phrases in Greek, Phillips proves an astute reader of Polybius. At the conclusion of Polybius’ opening paragraph, where the historian claims that his reader will benefit from the empeiria provided by his work, Phillips – unlike others who simply translate this word here as “knowledge” – is careful to note the more literal definition of “experience,” although he does not comment on this significance of Polybius’ unorthodox application of the term here to the study of history. For complicated but historiographically significant terms in Polybius, Phillips again offers useful but limited commentary. On the definition of historia in Polybius (1.3.8), Phillips discusses three meanings of the term, all related to the study, the record, or the events of history. He does not discuss the more general definition of “inquiry” found outside of Book One in Polybius (e.g. 9.14.1) nor, in this case, does he provide references to the use of the term in other Greek authors (most notably Herodotus, 1. praef). On the especially fraught meaning of tuchē in Polybius (1.4.1), Phillips offers an excellent and easily digestible summary of the various definitions employed by Polybius with brief citation of secondary literature on this much-discussed topic. I do question Phillips’ translation of Polybius use of the phrase ὡς ἔπος εἰπεῖν (1.1.2; cf. 1.66.10) to qualify the generalization that all (πάντες) previous historians have asserted the benefits of history. Phillips’ translation of “so to speak” – although an often used and (seemingly) literal translation of this Greek phrase – is more typically used in English to mark an unusual or metaphorical turn-of- phrase. A more appropriate example of this in Greek is Polybius’ subsequent use of the phrase ὡς ἂν εἰ (1.3.3), which Phillips alternatively (but accurately) translates “as it were,” to qualify the use of the term σποράδας (scattered) as applied the nature of historical events prior to the outbreak of the Second Punic War. A more fitting translation of the initial phrase (ὡς ἔπος εἰπεῖν) would be “to put it in a word” or simply “almost,” i.e. to acknowledge the over-generalization inherent in the adjective πάντες (LSJ s.v. ἔπος, II.4).

Phillips’ commentary includes notes on unusual Greek accentuation (e.g. Φόλουιον, 1.36.10); difficult to recognize verb forms (e.g. ἐπανενεχθεισῶν, 1.17.1); and rhetorical figures (e.g. prolepsis, 1.4.3; and hendiadys, 1.4.10) with cross-references to Smyth. Dog owners will especially appreciate Phillips’ astute observation of the various implications of canine tail-wagging as it relates to Polybius’ cryptic use of the verb συσσαίνομαι to describe common reactions to listening to the Phoenician language (1.80.6).

The Glossary to this book is an exhaustive list of Greek words discussed in the commentary. There is no index of topics, events, or names mentioned in the text or notes. For such matters, the scholar of Polybius must continue to consult Walbank; for basic help understanding the Greek text of Polybius’ first book, this commentary by Phillips is now the primary resource.

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