BMCR 2003.03.07

Polybius, Rome and the Hellenistic World: Essays and Reflections

, Polybius, Rome, and the Hellenistic world : essays and reflections. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. 1 online resource (xiii, 353 pages). ISBN 051106456X. $60.00.

Eighteen years ago, Cambridge University Press issued Selected Papers: Studies in Greek and Roman History and Historiography, a collection of twenty-one articles previously published by F. W. Walbank. The same press has now produced a further selection of nineteen such articles, introduced by a newly composed survey of recent scholarship on Polybius. The nineteen articles are organized under four headings: Historical and geographical papers (nos 2-10); Polybius as a historian (nos 11-15); Polybius on Rome (nos 16-18); and Transmission of Polybius (nos 19-20). These articles are reprinted essentially as they were written, though a few notes have been added (in square brackets), some minor corrections have been made, and references to modern scholarship have been recast throughout in standard form. The twenty papers composing this new collection are preceded by a Preface, Acknowledgements, and List of abbreviations. The volume concludes with a Bibliography and Indexes (General; Authors and passages; Inscriptions and papyri; Greek words).

Reviewing a collection of articles imposes difficult choices, especially when the papers are all of high quality. In what follows, I have selected those papers of F. W. Walbank which I consider the most interesting and important. In each case, I provide an interpretative summary designed to highlight the range, insight and learning of the author, and the substantial contribution that he has made to the solid foundation of Polybian studies.

Chapter 1: Polybian studies, c. 1975-2000 (2002)

This chapter reviews the principal trends in recent Polybian scholarship, under the headings “General survey” (covering text, translations, language and style, lexicon, conferences, collected papers, history of the Hellenistic period), “Polybius’ views on the content and purpose of history,” “Polybius and Rome,” “Contributions to history and geography” (discussing a selection of issues for which Polybius is an important source), and “The transmission and influence of Polybius since antiquity.” The last few years have seen the publication of two excellent surveys of recent work on Polybius. These are in large measure complementary, for that of John Marincola places more emphasis on literary aspects of the Histories, while F. W. Walbank gives more attention to historical questions.1

Chapter 2: The geography of Polybius (1948)

The works of Hecataeus and Herodotus show that Greek geographical writing was originally connected with ethnography and history, an association that persisted among later Greek and Roman historians. Polybius belongs to this tradition of humanistic geography featuring description and theory, which he considered an essential element of historiography. His practical application of geography to warfare and geopolitics suited his audience (especially Roman readers) but discouraged the adoption of a fully scientific attitude or an interest in the mathematical geography of the Alexandrian scholars.2

Chapter 3: Egypt in Polybius (1979)

Polybius’ attitude towards Ptolemaic Egypt is complex. He despised native Egyptians, Ptolemaic mercenaries, and the Greek population of Alexandria. He even disparaged the kings, to whose poor character he ascribed the misconduct of the mercenaries. Although his account of Ptolemy IV and Ptolemy VIII is hostile, he is on balance sympathetic towards Ptolemy V and Ptolemy VI. He censured Philip V and Antiochus III for their clandestine pact against Ptolemy V. Despite the evidence of his own account, he speaks of a revival of the Ptolemaic kingdom after 168. This judgement was conditioned by his personal contacts with the Ptolemies and by his belief that the punishment of Macedonia and Syria at the hands of Fortune implied the corresponding recovery of Egypt.

Chapter 4: The surrender of the Egyptian rebels in the Nile delta (Polyb. xxii.17.1-7) (1980)

This article deals with the closing stages of the secession of Upper Egypt from Ptolemaic rule, which occurred in the years 205-186 B. C. The principal point at issue is the relative chronology of the second Philae decree (ἀ, dated 6 September 186 (which records the end of the secession), and a fragment of Polybius, 22.17.1-7 (β dated by its position within the Constantinian excerpts to the Olympiad year 187/6 (on the execution by Ptolemy V of rebels who surrendered in the Delta). On the view that the events described in B occurred after those of A, and that Ptolemy’s age (twenty-five years), mentioned in B, is a precise figure, B must be dated in the Olympiad year 186/5 (autumn 185), a chronology defended by the tentative suggestion of a disturbance in the order of the Constantinian excerpts.

In an endnote, Walbank abandons this chronology. Interpreting the age of Ptolemy V as a round figure, and placing the events of B before those of A, he assigns B to the Olympiad year 187/6 (early 186), a date consistent with the position of B within the Constantinian exerpts, and compatible with the events of A.3

Chapter 5: Two Hellenistic processions: a matter of self-definition (1996)

Chapter 6: Polybius and Macedonia (1970)

Chapter 7: Sea-power and the Antigonids (1982)

Antigonus I and Demetrius Poliorcetes had strong navies, as did Antigonus Gonatas until he gained control of Macedonia. Although neither the Seleucids nor the Ptolemies seriously threatened Macedonia, the latter king appears to have built an important fleet in the years preceding the Chremonidean War (fought between 268 and 261 B. C.), a conflict probably promoted by Ptolemy II to counter a Macedonian challenge. Antigonus Doson required a fleet to campaign in Caria, while Philip V built ships in order to pursue his ambitions in Illyria, the Aegean, the Hellespont, Propontis and Caria. The naval projects of the Antigonids, which aimed at challenging the Ptolemies, Seleucids and Rome, were in general unsuccessful. Such ambitions led ultimately to the defeat of Philip V in the Second Macedonian War.

Chapter 8: Η ΤΩΝ ΟΛΩΝ ΕΛΠΙΣ and the Antigonids (1993)

Polybius believed that Philip V coveted world dominion and came from a house that cherished the same goal. These statements may be accepted as realistic. In an epigram, Alcaeus of Messene satirized the vast ambitions of Philip V. Polybius, moreover, following Antigonid claims, treated the Antigonids and the Argeads as a single dynasty. The large-scale ambitions of Philip II, Alexander and the early Antigonids are well-known, and even some of the later Antigonids pursued expansionist aims.

Chapter 9: Hellenes and Achaeans: ‘Greek Nationality’ revisited (2000)

Fully organized cities, as well as a federal organization, were created in Achaea during the fifth century B. C. For the federal league, the crucial text is Polyb. 2.39.5-6. Combining the evidence of literary texts and archaeology, Walbank argues that the sanctuary of Zeus Homarios at Aegium was the meeting-place of the Achaean League from its earliest days. The main deities of the confederation (Zeus Homarios and Athena Homaria), who played a large part in defining Achaean identity, remained important into the time of the Roman empire.4

Chapter 10: The Achaean assemblies (1979)

This item is reprinted from the author’s A Historical Commentary on Polybius, vol. 3.

Chapter 11: Timaeus’ views on the past (1989/1990) Chapter 12: Polybius and the past (1993)

Chapter 13: The idea of decline in Polybius (1980)

By analyzing problems observed in Arcadian Cynaetha, in Boeotia, and in Greece generally, Walbank demonstrates that Polybius believed social decline resulted from moral defects. The constitutions of states decay because of external and internal factors. Decline caused by internal factors (ultimately moral) occurs according to a biological and repetitive cycle, a conception that involves logical difficulties and is scarcely applied outside of Book 6. Adoption of the mixed constitution slows down the constitutional cycle but does not permanently stop it. Even at Rome, the mixed constitution will decay. Indeed, signs of moral decline were already evident after 168. Polybius did not formulate a consistent theory of decline, or sucesssfully combine history and political philosophy.5

Chapter 14: Polyius’ perception of the one and the many (1995)

Although in the Hellenistic period the term “democratic” often meant “self-governing,” it could still be used to describe a community in which all citizens had access to the assembly and other organs of government. Polybius, who disliked genuine popular rule, praised the democracy of the Achaean League, because here the masses had limited influence and the government was dominated by a narrow elite. On the other hand, he hated tyranny, and viewed kings with suspicion. At Rome, the one and the many interact in the evolution of the constitutional cycle and within the mixed constitution, both discussed in Book 6. The many play a leading role in destroying both democracy and the mixed constitution. Some signs of decay are already visible within the mixed constitution of Rome after 168, though Scipio Aemilianus stood out as an example of right conduct in relation to the masses.6

Chapter 15: Profit or amusement: some thoughts on the motives of Hellenistic historians (1990)

Chapter 16: Supernatural paraphernalia in Polybius’ Histories (1994)

This article examines Polybius’ use of supernatural motifs in the structuring of the Histories. In citing the prophetic words of Demetrius of Phaleron, Polybius treats Fortune (Tyche) as an arbitrary force responsible for overthrowing the empires of Persia and Macedonia. But Tyche is also the purposeful divinity who guided the Romans to world domination in the period 220-168 B. C. and the retributive power that punished Macedonia and Syria through the agency of Rome for the iniquitous pact formed by Philip V and Antiochus III against Egypt in the previous generation. Nevertheless, the growth of Roman power is also explained in rational terms, and a rational explanation can be offered for Polybius’ selection of the Syro-Macedonian pact as the key incident leading to the overthrow of Macedonia.

Chapter 17: ‘Treason’ and Roman domination: two case-studies, Polybius and Josephus (1995)

Both Polybius and Josephus confronted the problem of Roman power. Both historians wrote about a war between their own nation and Rome; both found a welcome among the Romans, Polybius before and Josephus during the conflict; both composed histories facilitated by their relationship with Rome; both described the superior power of Rome and the merits of her leaders; both advocated accommodation with Rome; both censured the leaders who supported conflict with Rome; both maintained that Roman power was connected with a divine purpose. Were they traitors? The situation of Josephus seems more compromising for he abandoned a Jewish military command in the course of a war against Rome, while Polybius had been deported to Rome well before the outbreak of the Achaean War. Although the choices made by Polybius and Josephus were unheroic, they were based on considerations of prudence, were in no way harmful to their own people, and resulted in the production of two major works of history. Given the difficulty of the case, modern historians might do well to abstain from moral judgement.7

Chapter 18: A Greek looks at Rome: Polybius VI revisited (1998)

Chapter 19: Polybius, Mr Dryden, and the glorious Revolution (1989)

In 1692, Sir Henry Sheeres published an English translation of Polybius, Books 1-5 (a second edition appeared in 1698). Both editions included a “Character of Polybius” by John Dryden. As a military engineer who wrote on geography and technical matters, and a supporter of the Stuarts who incurred the distrust of the house of Orange, Sheeres possessed valuable qualifications for translating Polybius. Dryden, also disadvantaged for his Stuart connections, accepted the publisher’s invitation to write the “Character,” the first extensive critique of Polybius in English. Both Sheeres’ translation and Dryden’s “Character” heralded the new trend of writers looking to a wider reading public to support their work.

Chapter 20: Polybius through the eyes of Gaetano De Sanctis (1981)

The typographical errors in this book are usually of a minor nature. Among those which might cause the reader some difficulty are: p. 36, line 26: read “steep” for “sleep”; p. 75, line 10: read “186” for “196”; p. 78, line 5: read “after” for “before”; p. 127, n. *: read “5, vol. 3” for “3”; p. 193, n. *: read “R.” for “S.” Koselleck.

In the Bibliography, the following corrections may be noted: Austin (p. 322): read CQ“36” for “56”; Brunt (p. 323): read “225” for “275”; Foulon (p. 327): read “Polybe, x, 2-20” for “Polybe. x. 10. 20”; read “Carthagène” for “Cartagine”; read “1989” for “1984”; Fraser, Ptolemaic Alexandria (p. 327): read “3” for “2” vols.; Holleaux, Études III (p. 329): add “ed. L. Robert”; perhaps the second edition of Mauersberger, Polybios-Lexikon 1.1, by Collatz, Helms and Schäfer (p. 324), and the continuation (read “2.1” for “1.1”) by Glockmann and Helms (p. 328), could more conveniently be listed under the name of Mauersberger.

In the Abbreviations, the item MRR (p. xii) omits vol. 3 (Atlanta 1986); the Index of Greek words (p. 353) does not include the terms σύγκλητος and σύνοδος; most scholars would probably value a list of Professor Walbank’s publications covering the period 1985-2002, to complement that of the earlier collection.

F. W. Walbank is one of the giants among British historians of ancient Greece. This volume, which enhances our appreciation of Polybius’ intellectual achievement, also demonstrates how the author’s personal attachments, his Achaean patriotism and political droitisme, his penchant for theory and moralizing, and his invocation of supernatural forces, helped to shape the Histories. The present selection is especially valuable because a good number of the papers included were originally published in journals and collections that many scholars will not find easily accessible. The appearance of this book will do much to focus attention on the attitudes underlying Polybius’ work.


1. J. Marincola, Greek Historians, Greece & Rome: New Surveys in the Classics 31, Oxford 2001, 113-149.

2. On the association of geography, history and ethnology in Greek literature see K. Clarke, Between Geography and History: Hellenistic Constructions of the Roman World, Oxford 1999. On humanistic and mathematical geography see P. Pédech, La géographie des Grecs, Paris 1976 (which deserves a place in the Bibliography).

3. Walbank’s later view seems preferable, for it avoids the need to posit a disturbance in the order of the excerpts, and places the surrender of the rebels (B) before (rather than after) the general pacification (A).

4. In my view, Paus. 7.7.2 is consistent with Walbank’s position, for the chief point may be taken to be not that the meeting-place of the Achaean League had once been Helice but merely that Aegium was now the only logical choice because, ever since the destruction of Helice, it had been the most distinguished city of Achaea.

5. M. F. Williams, Polybius on Wealth, Bribery, and the Downfall of Constitutions, AHB 14, 2000, 131-148, discusses in more detail how the moral decline observed by Polybius at Rome after 168 relates to the corruption of the mixed constitution.

6. See the previous note.

7. Polybius advocated prudent cooperation with Rome as the only sensible policy for less powerful states (see A. M. Eckstein, Polybius, Syracuse and the Policy of Accommodation, GRBS 26, 1985, 265-282). This outlook was shared by Josephus ( BJ 2.345-401; 3.70-109), whose social rank disposed him to prefer accommodation with Rome (see T. Rajak, Josephus: The Historian and His Society, Philadelphia 1983).