Polybius’s Histories are unanimously viewed by classical scholars as a basic historical source that describes Roman imperialism and the relations between Greece and Rome. Yet monographs about the Polybian view of Rome and the Romans began to appear only recently. While many have examined Polybius’s complex attitudes towards Rome and the Romans in either cultural (e.g., C. Champion) or political (e.g., D. W. Baronowski) terms separately,1 Moreno Leoni demonstrates how Polybius applied Greek cultural terms for explanation of Roman policy.
The book consists of an introduction, five chapters, conclusion, and two indexes (nominum and locorum).
In Chapter I, “The Greek cultural framework of the Histories”, the author argues that Polybius is a Greek historian who used his Hellenistic Greek cultural code on the nature of the relationship between hegemony and autonomy to explain the new Roman world (52–56). Young members of Greek communities were the main target audience of the work, but the Roman public could take advantage of it as well. Despite being “barbarians,” the Romans were a sophisticated and “civilized” people, whose history could be analyzed according to the intellectual tools of Hellenism (77–87). Polybius attempted to “reconstruct” the drama of the historical moment with the primary didactic aim of training Greek and Roman political elites by providing practical examples for action in their increasingly complex world.
Chapter II, “Achaean Μemory, Identity, and Policy”, convincingly demonstrates that Polybius was fundamentally an Achaean politician who embodied a specific social habitus (94). In his account of the Achaean historical past (the Achaica) Polybius develops two central topics: the lasting war against tyrants and the parallel liberation and unification of the Peloponnese by the Achaeans. The historian presents the historical process of Achaean expansion and imperialism as unproblematic and in the end accepted enthusiastically by the inhabitants of the whole Peloponnese (95–113). The Achaean League was thus an autonomous polity capable of expanding in a fair way and of being, at the same time, a loyal ally of the Romans.
In Chapter III, “Τhe Achaeans: between Macedon and Rome”, the author places Polybius’s views on Achaean policy in a broader historical context. From the 3rd century BCE to the consolidation of Roman hegemony after 168 BCE, the Achaean League was linked to the great Mediterranean powers within an interstate system. Moreno Leoni shows that Polybius appealed to a political language embedded in the dynamic of hegemony/autonomy in order to present Achaean autonomy in the most honorable way possible (136–142; 147–164). In Polybius’s eyes the Achaean leaders Aratus and Aristaenus were models for young Greek leaders. At the same time the model demonstrated the importance attributed to παρρησία, or “freedom of speech” (175), which was considered a main tool in Greek leaders’ hands for establishing a sincere dialogue as allies with the new hegemonic power and for defending their own areas of autonomy.
Chapter IV, “The Aetolians: between irrationality and irresponsible autonomy”, examines Polybius’s understanding of the Aetolian League. Polybius’s Aetolians are a people ruled by excess of pride and arrogance, which drives them to the final disastrous fight against Rome. The Aetolian anger (ὀργή), which Polybius stresses as the main cause of Rome’s war with Antiochus (18.39.1–2), marks the Aetolian provocation as the irresponsible act of a political elite in a middle-level polity (197–208). The Aetolians are made to provide a valuable lesson on Roman rule. Moreno Leoni particularly highlights the narrative sequence of the problems arising during the abortive Aetolian deditio in fidem before M’. Acilius Glabrio, which shows the clear difference between Roman and Greek understandings of fides and πίστις.
Chapter V, “Τwo models of hegemony: Rome in the conquest of Italy, Carthage in the Libyan rebellion”, compares Roman and Carthaginian political domination over conquered territories. The author investigates Polybius’s understanding and rationalization of the experience of Roman hegemony over Italy (2.14–35) by reference to the Hellenistic king as a defender of the Greeks against barbarism (237) and argues that in Polybius’s eyes Rome acted on behalf of its Italian allies during the Celtic wars as an ideal Hellenistic kingdom, as a hegemon able to provide protection and keep the barbarians beyond the borders. By depicting the Romans in this way Polybius was able to contrast Rome to other contemporary Hellenistic superpowers.
For Moreno Leoni the point of Polybius’s narrative of the war of the Carthaginians against their mercenaries and their Libyan subjects (1.65–88) was to contrast the Carthaginians with Rome; contrast is also the aim of his description of the actions of Philip V in Book 5. Both narratives offer concrete historical examples that provide implicit lessons on power, allowing Polybius’s readers to assess the course of Roman hegemony in the 3rd and 2nd centuries BCE. The author believes that Polybius used the ἐμφύλιος πόλεμος in Africa, the Celtic Wars, and the μεταβολή of Philip to offer warnings for the benefit of Roman leaders (258–265).
A concluding chapter, in addition to summarizing the main arguments, makes some important points about Polybius as an independent thinker. Polybius seems to have embarked on his intellectual project with a realistic assessment of the drastic reduction in the autonomy of the Hellenistic polities. But at the same time he had certain idealistic expectations regarding the future, both that the Romans would avoid an immoral exercise of power and that a new generation of Greek leaders would resort to dialogue and mutual understanding as a safer political path.
Moreno Leoni’s study contains a lengthy bibliography and a helpful index of cited passages. Polybian scholars will find little to criticize in this book. All we can recommend is that in future research a next step might be a full analysis of the Achaean historian’s views on other Hellenistic diplomatic institutions such as φιλία and συμμαχία in comparison with Roman norms, and on Roman dealing with the Seleucid and Ptolemaic kingdoms.2 This monograph is a fine piece of sustained argumentation, remarkable synthesis, and admirable scholarship.
1. C. Champion, Cultural Politics in the Histories of Polybius. (Berkeley, 2004); D. W. Baronowski, Polybius and Roman Imperialism. (London, 2011).
2. The fact that historian was aware of differences in political norms is shown in his descriptions of the negotiations between Seleucid and Roman ambassadors during the Syrian war (21.14–15). Also noteworthy is the episode from Polybius’s life when he helped the Seleucid prince Demetrius to escape from Rome (31.12, 19–23). On this case see J. Briscoe, “Eastern Policy and Senatorial Politics,” Historia 18 (1969) 56–68; A. M. Eckstein, Moral Visions in the Histories of Polybius. (Berkeley, 1995),100─103.