BMCR 1995.07.06

1995.07.06, Eckstein, Moral Vision in the Histories of Polybius

, Moral vision in the Histories of Polybius. Hellenistic culture and society ; 16. London: University of California Press, 1995. 1 online resource (331 pages).. ISBN 0520914694. $48.00.

Polybius is one of the three towering figures of ancient Greek historiography. He not only chronicled but also played an important role in what is arguably the most important period in Roman history, a period which witnessed the breathtaking rise of a powerful Italian city-state to dominion over the Mediterranean basin; along with Thucydides, his rigorous methodology in historical research has provided a model for accurate and objective historical reporting from Casaubon to the present day; his famous discussion of the mixed constitution with its system of checks and balances had a profound impact on the framers of the American constitution. 1

It is surprising that an historian of such immense importance as Polybius has received relatively little scholarly attention, in comparison with his great counterparts Herodotus and Thucydides. Polybius does not enjoy hot periods; he is never trendy among classical scholars. The reasons for Polybius’ unpopularity perhaps lie in the daunting size of his work. The completed Histories comprised forty books, of which the first five survive intact, Book Six nearly so, the rest are in fragments. Yet the extant text still dwarfs other historical works of classical antiquity: 1,715 pages of Teubner text as compared with 778 for Thucydides (Hude) and 799 for Herodotus (Kallenberg). Perhaps the reason for Polybius’ unpopularity is to be found in his indifference to prose style. His is the dry, no-nonsense prose of the Hellenistic chancelleries, and Dionysius of Halicarnassus remarked that no one can endure reading his work to the end ( Comp. 4.30). Polybius’ constant presence in the text (he makes more first person, methodological statements than any other ancient historian) 2 and the fact that there seem to be few uncharted areas in his textual map, leaving little of the “gaps of indeterminacy” which Wolfgang Iser and the Receptionalists claim to be necessary for the experienced text, may contribute to impatience and ennui on the part of the reader. 3

Whatever the reasons are for the lack of scholarly attention granted to Polybius, important, full-scale works on this author have been few and far between: the major studies of Lehmann, Mioni, Pédech, Petzold, Roveri, and Walbank’s Sather lectures all are now over twenty years old, while Mohm’s Untersuchungen zu den historischen Anschauungen des Polybios appeared back in 1977 and Musti’s Polibio e l’imperialismo romano in 1978. Aside from Walbank’s monumental work on Polybius and Sacks’ study of Polybius’ historiographical technique, scholarly disregard of this author has been particularly acute among classical scholars writing in English. A new study on Polybius in English is a major event, and Eckstein’s book has been well worth the wait.

As an aristocrat from a politically important family of a key member of the Achaean Confederation, Megalopolis, Polybius expresses the values of the conservative, land-owning classes. His outlook was informed by the traditional, aristocratic ideals of honorable action, high-principled brilliance, physical bravery and extraordinary acts of courage. Polybius’ concern for these ideals is everywhere apparent in the Histories, and E. notes that “among the ancient historical writers now extant, no one more frequently breaks his narrative in order to comment in moralizing terms on human character and the lessons of life” (p. 17). Although savants from Bodin to Casaubon to Dryden to Nietzche recognized the strong moralistic strain in the history, “the current scholarly communis opinio on Polybius is that he believed success in the real world was the sole standard by which every human action should be measured and judged” (p. 18).

More than any other scholar, F.W. Walbank has been responsible for the current view of the Histories. He sees Polybius as a statesman-turned-historian whose pragmatic history must be viewed from considerations of the author’s immediate political circumstances and political prejudices. For Walbank, Polybius’ Machiavellianism is the most distasteful feature of his work, and he refers to Polybius’ general cast of mind as “ruthless, hard and realistic.”4 The view of Polybius’Histories which has emerged emphasizes the work’s utilitarianism and the minimal attention given to ethical considerations. “…Walbank has underlined Polybius’s sternly ‘utilitarian’ and ‘ruthless’ standard of judgment regarding the actions of individuals and states. Success was the main criterion: Polybius was not interested in ethics per se; he did not condemn the absence of ethics in an individual or polity on purely moral grounds; he did not regard ‘Machiavellian’ policies as evidence of moral decline. What counted was whether actions led to the maintenance or expansion of power—and he had very little sympathy for failure” (p. 18). E.’s book takes up and furthers the position of K.-E. Petzold and B. Meissner, who have seen pervasive moral and ethical elements in the Histories, and attempts to provide a corrective to modern notions of Polybius’ Machiavellianism. “The main purpose of the present study … is to reemphasize the moral dimension in Polybius’s work—to rescue his moral seriousness from the oblivion into which the past half-century of scholarship has consigned it” (p. 26).

The opening chapter summarizes the biographical details on Polybius and makes the case for Polybius’ traditional, aristocratic ethos. E. assembles passages which demonstrate that Polybius judges actions as honorable or base on grounds other than their pragmatic success (pp. 20-25), although for some the suggestion of a Homeric quality via Herodotus in Polybian moralizing (p. 21) may seem a bit strained (cf. 28 and n.1; 34 on Philopoemen; 41, 46 and n. 57, 55).

Chapters 2-4 describe the elements of Polybius’ moral world, the components of the historian’s notion of to kalon. Chapter 2 studies Polybius’ subscription to the aristocratic values of physical courage and heroism by examining passages which commend generals who expose themselves to danger in the battle line and heroic suicide. Philopoemen provides a prime example of the former, but the case must be built upon Polybian derivations in Plutarch and Livy. Moreover, the Plutarchean material is based on Polybius’ biography of Philopoemen, and, despite the comments at p. 30 and n. 9, E. perhaps has underestimated here the gulf which separated encomium from history (cf. Polyb. 10.21.8). The author points out that, “Philopoemen’s death is not all that different from the death of Marcellus [10.32.1-6, discussed on pp. 28-30]- an old general recklessly leads a troop of cavalry into a fatal ambush” (p. 33). Why does Polybius praise the action of the former and condemn that of the latter? No clear-cut answer to this question is offered. Yet the cumulative effect of the examples which E. assembles makes his case convincing. Polybius praises personal bravery in commanders in his assessments of Hamilcar Barca (2.1.7f.), Theophiliscus the Rhodian (16.5.1-7, 9.1-5), Antiochus III (10.49.1-13), and others (references assembled at p. 36 n. 30). The chapter closes with a consideration of passages on both individuals and communities which show that Polybius consistently condones the choice of death over ignoble action (pp. 40-54). The discussions of the neutral and anti-Roman politicians after Pydna at 30.6-9 (pp. 40-43), and of Astapa in Livy, 28.22, and of Abydus at 16.30-34 (pp. 48-54), should force reconsideration of earlier, widely-accepted interpretations. Polybius the utilitarian and pragmatist for whom only success matters begins to evaporate; the historian emerges as “an enthusiastic purveyor of a rather traditional moral code of heroism, glory, honor, and duty” (p. 54).

Chapter 3 focusses on Polybius’ aristocratic ethos as revealed in his attitude towards honor, wealth and war. Polybius condones perseverance in war for honor’s sake when all appears to be lost, and he condemns ignoble action even when it brings great material profit. The theoretical discussion on the causes of war (3.6.1-7.7), and the earlier comments on the reasons for going to war (3.4.10f.), seemingly evince a hard pragmatism. E. counters the well-known discussion on the causes of war in Book Three with a series of passages which again suggest that Polybius’ views are informed by traditional notions of the kalon and the aischron, rather than by a stern utilitarianism. Polybius’ statements on Acarnanians, Epirotes and Messenians at 4.30-33, and on Elis at 4.73f., support E.’s position, as earlier Machiavellian interpretations of these passages which maintain either that these sentiments on justice and honor are merely hackneyed cliches or that they were inserted for political purposes cannot sustain close scrutiny (pp. 57-62). It should be noted, however, that in terms of the honorable war, the allies failed conspicuously in one of their main objectives of the Social War of 220-217 B.C., the liberation of Delphi from Aetolian control (4.25.8), and that Polybius glosses over this failure in his account of the Treaty at Naupactus (5.105.2, cf. the detailed peace terms for the relatively minor episode between Prusias and Byzantium at 4.52). The Carthaginian refusal to come to terms after Ecnomus at 1.31.8 (pp. 62f.), and the Roman determination after Cannae at 3.118.1-9 (pp. 65-68), further demonstrate Polybius’ approbation of noble and dignified action. Discussion of Polybius’ admiration for the Gazans, a Seleucid commander, and the Prienians, all political or military losers, rounds off this section. The chapter closes with a study of Polybius’ attitude towards wealth: material profit without honor is condemned. Here E. observes that Polybius’ viewpoint conforms to general aristocratic attitudes on wealth (p. 70 and n. 53), and considers the cases of individual Romans, Paullus, Aemilianus, and Mummius, where praise of temperance in money matters cannot be motivated solely by political considerations (pp. 76f., 79-82).

Chapter 4 examines “Machiavellian” and “non-Machiavellian” passages in order to determine the historian’s position on deceit and good faith. At 21.32c, Polybius expressly states that opportunities for behavior which is both noble and practical are rare. “What, then, is the basis for the historian’s evaluation of action when … simultaneously moral and pragmatic conduct will not be possible?” (p. 85). Among E.’s Machiavellian passages, the interpretation of Scipio Africanus’ deceitful truce in preparation for a surprise night attack at the battle of the Camps in Book Fourteen seems like special pleading (pp. 86f.). Polybius refers to Scipio’s action as “most brilliant and hazardous” (14.5.15). Yet at 13.3, Polybius condemns trickery and treachery in political and military affairs. E. resolves the discrepancy by arguing that here Polybius admires only Scipio’s technical skill and daring in a difficult military operation. It seems odd, though, that there is no moral indignation over Scipio’s Locrian oath, especially in light of Polybius’ condemnation of Q. Marcus Philippus’ similar trickery in 172/171 at Livy [P] 42.47 (discussed on pp. 108f.; cf. p. 117, where E. concedes that “the dividing line between skillful political manipulation and downright double dealing was narrow and perhaps ill defined”). Here E. may be committing Quentin Skinner’s cardinal sin of forcing a mythology of coherence on Polybius’ text where none exists. Flamininus’ dealings with Philip V provide a similar case (pp. 92-96); some readers may question the suggestion that Polybius had no doubts as to Flamininus’ good faith. The closing section on non-Machiavellian passages is less problematic. E. discusses episodes including Carthage, Ptolemaic Egypt, Seleucid Syria and Polybius’ hero Philopoemen which underscore Polybius’ ethical concerns. Machiavellian interpretations of Polybius are hard-pressed to explain away Polybius’ condemnation of the Roman seizure of Sardinia in 238/7 (pp. 100-102). “[Polybius] often explicitly condemns … policies on moral grounds, as violations of justice … and he condemns them even when he is also explicit that such policies had great utilitarian value in maintaining or increasing the power of the Roman state” (p. 108).

The aristocratic, land-owning classes preserved the kalon, but noble and just conduct were threatened from various quarters. Chapter 5 categorizes the sources from which, in Polybius’ eyes, threatening amorality and irrationality could be unleashed. Forces of chaos and disorder are considered in categories which form concentric circles from outside society to the interior of the household: barbarians, mercenaries, the masses, the young and women. Barbarian irrationality, passion, lawlessness and greed create the Other in opposition to which the educated and civilized aristocratic male elite defined itself. Here Polybius is in the mainstream of Greek thought, as elucidated in Edith Hall’s Inventing the Barbarian (1989), which E. curiously fails to cite here. Mercenaries are an intermediate group whose unprincipled violence always threatens to destroy the community which employs them. The remaining groups, the masses, the young and women, all display to a greater or lesser extent the negative traits of barbarians and mercenaries, but they pose a special threat as they stand within society. The section on Polybius’ views on the masses (pp. 129-140) is a model of concision and insight, although 6.56.6-12, where Polybius advocates the use of religion to instill fear into the commons in order to cow them into submission to the agathoi, a passage which easily lends itself to Machiavellian interpretation, is relegated to a footnote without extensive discussion (p. 140 n. 88; cf. p. 244 n. 28). The section on women also is magisterial, although one may suspect that in the case of Teuta of Illyria at 2.4-12 (p. 154f.) there is considerable overlap of Polybian loathing of barbarians in general and Polybius’ misogyny. E. argues that, according to Polybius, the dangers posed by all these groups can be averted only through the stern self-control of the governing, educated male élite.

The chaos of battle provides the most severe test of rationality and self-discipline. Chapter 6 argues that, in Polybius’ mind, the commander’s primary task is the imposition of order over irrational forces. The general must master these forces in himself, in his army and in the unpredictability of combat. Philopoemen’s reforms in 210/209 were moral as well as military (pp. 163f.), and Polybius describes the superior Roman military system at 6.37.10 in moralizing terms (pp. 172-174). Hamilcar Barca (pp. 174-177), and Scipio Africanus (pp. 177-183), are exemplars of calm and level-headed generalship, and of moral rectitude. In contrast to Livy’s account, derived from Polybius, Polybius represents Flamininus and Philip V at Cynoscephalae as forces of reason and disorder, respectively (pp. 183-192). Generalship provides the greatest opportunity for exhibiting the virtues of Polybius’ aristocratic ethos.

Chapter 7 considers Polybius’ views on the political behavior of various states towards Rome from Hiero II of Syracuse to the Carthaginian and Achaean leaders in the 140s. The chapter challenges narrowly political interpretations which posit a progression in Polybius from cautious, anti-Roman to Roman quisling and collaborator. Polybius recognizes that states do what they have to do in order to survive in the uncertainties of international politics, but he nonetheless makes moralizing statements here as well, from his offhand comment on the inhabitants of Coele-Syria at 5.86.9 to the famous Second Introduction at 3.4 (pp. 196f.). Basing the discussion largely on Polybius’ experience with the Achaean Confederation and Rome, and particularly on the policies of Aratus in 225/4, Aristaenus in 199/8, and Callicrates in 180, E. argues that for Polybius, the kalon in international politics meant “the ethics of independence” (p. 200), which may have to be tempered by ananke. Polybius’ views on Cephalus the Epirote, the Athenians, and Hiero II support E.’s contention (pp. 206-208). Roman enemies are criticized in moralizing terms for a lack of quality in political conduct: carried away by irrational hopes, passionate hatreds, or sloth and indulgence, they misread actual political and military circumstances (pp. 210-221). Polybius roundly condemns conspicuous acts of servility, as displayed by Callicrates in 180 or Prusias II in 167 (pp. 221-225). Polybius subscribes to mainstream Greek notions of eleutheria, and here E. might have pointed to the loc. class., Arist. Rhet. 1367 a 32. Hegemonic powers, including Rome, also are criticized in ethical terms. Arguing against the Polybian derivation of Diod. 32.2-4, and making good use of Polybius’ views on Philip V (7.11-14) and the Carthaginians in Spain (9.11; 10.35f.), E. maintains that Polybius condemns policies of amoral political manipulation (pp. 225-229). Despite the fragmentary nature of the final books of the Histories, Polybius clearly found an increasing moral degeneration among the Roman governing class, highlighted by the actions of Q. Marcus Philippus in 172/171, and he expressed his disapproval in no uncertain terms (pp. 229-233).

The final two chapters explore Polybius’ general views on human nature, his ideas on the efficacy of education in overcoming human weaknesses, and his motivations in pursuing his historical work to its conclusion. Following von Scala, contra Wunderer and Pédech, E. regards Polybius’ views on human nature as essentially pessimistic. “Polybius’ problem was that he had only a limited confidence in the power of human rationality to dominate either the historical process or even the basic drives of human character” (p. 238). Human beings are malleable but also weak, and their positive qualities are all too easily overwhelmed by external circumstances and/or internal irrational drives. E. sees a growing pessimism in Polybius’ thought; the heroes of the early books, men such as Hamilcar, Scipio Africanus, and Philopoemen, give way in the final ten books to capricious Tyche and a series of weak-willed characters. Humanity’s only hope lies in paideia, but most people are incapable of the toil which it demands. For Polybius, the world is a grim, desperate and chaotic place, but this condition only adds luster to the aristocratic ethos of the duty to act, the ethic of personal responsibility, on the part of both the statesman and the historian.

An appendix on Polybius’ views on drinking and drunkenness demonstrates that here once again Polybius thinks in moral terms, condemning excessive drinking as indicative of a lack of self-control and an abandonment of aristocratic duty.

Moral Vision contextualizes Polybius’ moralizing within the traditional aristocratic values of Greek society. A still broader contextualization of Polybius’ moral and ethical concerns within Roman political and ethical ideology now becomes a desideratum. For example, the discussion on Polybius’ attitudes towards wealth in Chapter 3 might profit from a consideration of the Roman aristocratic conception of virtus, the sumptuary legislation of the second century, and Roman actions of this period which appear to have been driven by other than economic motivations. Polybius’ ideas on the masses (Chapter 5) find interesting parallels in the Roman aristocratic loathing of the vulgus and take on added significance in light of the rapid population growth of the urban plebs in the first half of the second century. Polybius’ criticisms of Romans(pp. 225-233) for the most part are clustered in the later books and pertain to a period in which Polybius’ contemporary Romans themselves claimed that a deterioration from pristine mos maiorum had set in. These considerations, of course, would lead back to Polybius’ pragmatic concerns and personal political circumstances. The absence of such contextualization is understandable, since the book’s primary objective is to combat modern notions of Polybius’ utilitarianism and Machiavellianism.

The great virtue of E.’s book is that it establishes Polybius as an author of greater depth and complexity than he has been given credit for in recent decades. Interpretations of the Histories which focus solely on Polybius’ immediate political circumstances and political objectives henceforth will seem grossly simplistic. Moral Vision may provide a broader and conceptually richer platform from which future Polybian studies will be launched. It should stimulate more scholarly interest, long overdue, in the neglected member of the triad of the great Greek historians. Anyone with an interest in classical historiography will want to read this book. 5

  • [1] G. Chinard, “Polybius and the American Constitution,”JHI 1 (1940) 38-58, remains useful.
    [2] See K.S. Sacks, Polybius on the Writing of History (Berkeley 1981) passim.
    [3] But see the comments of J. Davidson, JRS 81 (1991) 10-24, overlooked by E.
    [4] Polybius (Berkeley and Los Angeles) 178. E. assembles