BMCR 2004.11.27

Cultural Politics in Polybius’s Histories

, Cultural politics in Polybius's Histories. Hellenistic culture and society ; 41. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004. 1 online resource (xv, 328 pages).. ISBN 9780520929890 $49.95.

The Histories of Polybius of Megalopolis — Greek statesman, Roman political prisoner, and conscientious chronicler of Rome’s rise to world power during the Middle Republican period — is a vital tract for our own transformative times. Polybius and his subject matter stand at the critical intersection of Roman and Hellenistic history, when a relatively recent player on the world stage — the city of Rome — emerged, seemingly out of nowhere, and became inextricably involved in the affairs of the venerable Greek East. What was the ageing Hellenic cultural behemoth to make of this new, somewhat uncouth interloper? How could the culturally accomplished Greeks accommodate the new reality of Roman hegemony? Craige Champion’s (C.) new book attempts to answer these questions, and many more, by investigating Polybius’ methods of constructing Roman culture and ethnicity in the Histories.

In a brief introduction (pp. 1-12), Champion outlines his thesis and defines his terms. He indicates that although his inquiry is related to the perennial question of whether Polybius was pro- or anti-Roman, his approach is designed to shift the debate in a far more interesting direction. What he sees in the Histories is Polybius practicing “a politics of cultural indeterminacy”: when the Romans behave well towards the Greeks, Polybius constructs them as “honorary Greeks” (what C. calls “a politics of cultural assimilation”); similarly, when the Romans behave badly towards the Greeks, Polybius assimilates them to barbarians (what C. calls “a politics of cultural alienation”) (p. 4). Which mask the Romans wear at any given time in the text depends on such matters as Polybius’ current political circumstances and the intended audience of his text.

In terms of his theoretical orientation, C. clearly comes down on the side of a contextual approach to literature: not for him the Foucauldian notion that authorial intent is unrecoverable, and the author category thus dispensable. On the other hand, C. also refuses to play a favourite scholarly game in Polybian studies by attempting to establish a chronology of composition for particular passages and books (cf. below, n. 2). Instead, C. chooses “to treat the work as we have it, as a unity with sustained narrative patterns, and to understand it as such in its own intellectual traditions and politico-historical contexts” (p. 9).

C.’s study is divided into three parts. The first, “Historical and Historiographical Contexts,” attempts to locate the Histories and its author in their proper historical and literary contexts. In the first chapter (“Political Subordination and Indirect Historiography”), C. provides a brisk, well-documented summary of what is known of Polybius’ career, situates the Histories within the broader context of the Greek historiographical tradition, and discusses the reception of the text during the Renaissance and beyond. C. rehearses the usual clichés about Polybius’ prose style (“crabbed”, p. 23), and his high reputation for objectivity (“ranked with Thucydides”, p. 23), which together have created Polybius’ reputation as a reliable source to be mined for historical information but decidedly not a text worthy of serious literary study. C.’s study is an attempt to correct this attitude.

What interests C. above all are those passages of apparently straightforward, objective-sounding historical narrative, but where Polybius also subtly reveals his own political prejudices (what C. defines as Polybius’ “indirect” style). C.’s particular focus within Polybius’ “indirect historiography” is group cultural stereotyping, and so he devotes the second chapter of Part I (“Greeks, Romans, and Barbarians: The Cultural Politics of Hellenism”) to exploring the literary and historical background of the traditional (and deeply-ingrained) Hellenic Greek-barbarian dichotomy, and to tracing the origins of the rather complicated integration of Rome into this framework. Long before Polybius set stylus to papyrus — as early as the second quarter of the third century B.C., argues C. — Greek intellectuals tried to cope with Rome through a cultural politics of assimilation (appeasement, flattery), as well as with fear, distrust and hatred.1 The horrific record of Roman genocides, brutal sieges, systematic plundering and mass enslavements — “terrorism,” in short (p. 52) — during various eastern campaigns between 211 and 163 B.C. caused many Greeks to regard the Romans “as the most ruthless of barbarians” (p. 54). As C. reminds us, however, Rome’s cultural reaction to Hellenism in roughly the same period was no less fraught and ambivalent.

The second part of C.’s study, “Text and Narrative,” attempts to establish a possible trajectory of Polybian cultural politics across the Histories. C. begins in medias res, as it were, with Polybius’ famous discussion of the Roman constitution in Book Six (Chapter 3: ” Genos Politeiôn : Book 6, Rome, and Hellenism”). Book 6, for C., stands at the crossroads of the Histories and at the intersection of Polybius’ cultural politics. Here the Romans are constructed both positively, as Greek-style rationalists (or even hyper -rationalists) living under an ideal Greek politeia (and thus, “Hellenic”), and negatively, as a city inevitably on the decline (and thus, “barbaric”). C. finds evidence for three distinct types of Polybian cultural politics in play here, designed for three distinct audiences: by constructing the Roman politeia as rational and “Hellenic,” Polybius practices a politics of cultural assimilation for the sake of his philhellenic Roman aristocratic audience; by constructing some Roman cultural practices (such as the aristocratic funeral: Polyb. 6.53-54) as fundamentally alien but superior to the Greeks’, he practices a politics of cultural indeterminacy for the sake of his less philhellenic Roman readers; and by forecasting that Rome too will one day decline and fall into barbaric ochlocracy (“mob rule”), Polybius practices a politics of cultural alienation, largely to appease his mostly anti-Roman Greek readership.

In subsequent chapters in Part II, C. maps out in greater detail the trajectory of Polybius’ cultural politics across the forty books of the Histories. In Chapter 4 (” Akmê Politeiôn : Roman and Achaean Virtues”), C. argues that in his first five books, Polybius represents the Romans (and his fellow Achaeans) as virtuous and rational — ideally “Hellenic,” in other words — in contrast to the other chief protagonists of the narrative: Rome’s various enemies (Gauls, Illyrians, Carthaginians and their several individual representatives, Hannibal, Queen Teuta, and so on), and the Achaeans’ traditional bêtes noires, the Aetolians, all of whom manifest barbarian characteristics. Then comes the Janus-faced Book 6, which looks both backward to the first five (culturally assimilative) books, and forward, to subsequent (culturally alienated) books. C. maps this latter trajectory in detail in Chapter 5 (” Metabolê Politeiôn : Roman and Achaean Degeneration in the Fragmentary Books”), and suggests that in the remainder of his Histories, Polybius indicated a steady “societal degeneration” in both Rome and Greece, culminating in the self-destructive and irrational behaviour famously exhibited by both cultures in the closing books. C. divides his analysis into three units here (Books 7-15, 16-29, and 30-39), arguing that in the first, Polybius constructs virtuous Romans and Achaeans (such as Scipio Africanus and Philopoemen) as exceptional in their respective polities, men who “highlight by way of contrast the pervasive societal degeneration in the Mediterranean world in the period covered by these books [7-15]” (pp. 150-51); in the second, the rot truly sets in not just at Rome and in Achaea (marked most clearly in Polybius’ condemnation of the pernicious and servile policy of the Achaean statesman Callicrates: Polyb. 24.10.3-6 [180 B.C.]) but throughout the entire Mediterranean in the immediate post-Hannibalic War period; and in the third, Rome has adopted wholesale the politics of cynicism and sharp practice, while Achaea has completely lost its ability to make rational decisions. It should be noted that even here, at the nadir of Rome’s moral virtue, there are prominent exceptions to the prevailing degeneration — the virtuous and self-controlled Scipio Aemilianus, for example — but for Polybius and his readers, C. argues, these are precisely the exceptions that prove the rule.

C.’s final section (Part III: “Ideological and Political Contexts”) is devoted to locating Polybius’ cultural politics in the context of the prevailing aristocratic ideologies, both Greek and Roman, of his day. Chapter 6 (“Collective Representations and Ideological Contexts”) argues that Polybius’ construction of Roman decline in Books 7-39 is deeply informed by Roman (and Greek) aristocratic ideas and ideals (cf. “the [persistent] Roman preoccupation with moral decline” and “fixation on the past”, p. 175), but his systematic “indirect” subversion of the applicability of those ideals to the Romans throughout the narrative (in reported speeches by Greek statesmen, for example) betrays the historian’s tendency to cater to his predominantly anti-Roman Greek audience. The final chapter (“Practical Contexts and Political Realities”) links up with C.’s starting point, Polybius’ personal biography and political circumstances as a detainee in Rome in the 160s and 150s B.C. C. argues here that Polybius’ Histories are intended to be a warning to contemporary Romans, recalling them to their ancestral virtues and diverting them from ochlocracy in a time of immense socio-economic and political change associated with the establishment of a world empire and the attendant influx of luxuria. Furthermore, C. interprets Polybius’ highlighting of the spectacular incompetence and failure of various Greek statesmen as a transparent narrative strategy designed to please Polybius’ Roman warders, most of whom were at least ambivalent in their reactions to the rising tide of Hellenism in precisely the period of Polybius’ detention. (This strategy was of course also designed to reassure the Roman ruling class — in the teeth of much evidence to the contrary — of the historian/detainee’s own impeccable conservative aristocratic credentials and pro-Roman sympathies, p. 221). Simultaneously, but in rather more subtle and oblique ways, Polybius criticizes the Romans, largely for the sake of his Greek — more specifically, Achaean — audience. Polybius’ strategy, in other words, is to pander to Roman cultural prejudice while at the same time engaging in “safe criticism” (p. 233) of his Roman masters, in order not to seem unduly compromised in the eyes of his fellow Achaeans, who were disposed to think of him as a Roman stooge. This was especially important in the 140s, when Polybius was overtly working on behalf of the Roman authorities in Greece after the Achaean War.

C.’s study is an invaluable literary appreciation of Polybius’ Histories — a work that can sit comfortably alongside A.M. Eckstein’s modern classic Moral Vision in the Histories of Polybius (1995). In addition to giving Roman historians of the Republic (and scholars of Greek literature, of course) a new way to appreciate a familiar work, C. has also come up with perhaps the most convincing means of untangling some of the more notorious cruces of Polybius’ work. So, for example, the well-known apparent contradictions and startling omissions in Polybius’ account of the Roman constitution in Book 6 may be attributable to the historian speaking to several different audiences at once, and with several political and cultural agendas in mind. My only reservation about C.’s “cultural politics” reading, in fact, is that he does not take it far enough. Thus, when he tries to argue in Part II that Books 1-5 of the Histories overwhelmingly manifest a “politics of cultural assimilation” with regard to Rome, but that Books 7-39 manifest a “politics of cultural alienation,” he risks falling into some of the same methodological traps that Polybian scholars often set for themselves — and that C. himself (rightly) criticizes — when imposing impossibly rigid frameworks on Polybius’ recalcitrant text.2 Why shouldn’t “assimilation” and “alienation” be present at the same time, regardless of the book and its location — as indeed they manifestly are — yielding, in C’s terms, a “politics of cultural indeterminacy”?3 Thankfully, by the final, strongest section of his book, C. seems to have dropped this artificial division, arguing that Polybius generates “a dramatic narrative tension” (pp. 201 and 203) throughout the Histories by representing the Romans as both “Hellenic” and “un-Hellenic.”

Overall, C.’s study is a truly original and interesting reading of an under-appreciated work of historical literature. It will be of interest not just to Roman historians and cultural critics, but also to those interested in Greek history and historiography, race and ethnicity in antiquity, and the fruitful but often profoundly troubling intersection of culture and politics in the ancient world.


1. Cf. the particularly “chilling and gruesome tale” from the Mirabilia of Phlegon of Tralles [FGrH 257 F 36 ιιι], as related by C. on pp. 49-50. In this revenge fantasy, an enemy corpse rises from a Roman battlefield to prophesy disaster for Rome; further along, a red wolf tears a Roman consul to pieces, but the consul’s head resurrects itself to utter more gloomy prophecies of Rome’s future destruction.

2. Cf. F.W. Walbank’s concern with Polybius’ attitude towards Rome, and his oversubtle attempt to divide up Polybius’ work into phases of “independent-mindedness,” “cynical and aloof detachment,” and “pro-Roman sympathies” (references at C. p. 4 n. 4).

3. Thus Polybius’ harshest overt criticism of the Romans — his repeated condemnation of Rome’s “unjust” seizure of Sardinia (and Corsica) from Carthage in 237 B.C. (3.28.1-2; cf. 3.15.10, 30.4) — occurs in the first five books, in the “Hellenic” phase of Roman cultural development rather than in subsequent books, after the Roman turn for the worse in the post-Hannibalic War period. C. recognizes the problem, of course, and so in one place (pp. 119-120) argues that the effect of the seizure on the Carthaginians, rather the seizure itself, was “the most important cause” (Polyb. 3.10.4) of the outbreak of the Hannibalic War, thus placing the responsibility for bad conduct squarely on the Carthaginians. But Polybius’ meaning is by no means clear in this passage and C.’s reading of it by no means the only possible one. For numerous other examples of “un-Hellenic” Roman behaviour in passages narrating events before (and during) the Hannibalic war, see C. pp. 187-88 and 198-202.