BMCR 2007.08.62

The Shadow of Polybius: Intertextuality as a Research Tool in Greek Historiography: Proceedings of the International Colloquium, Leuven, 21-22 September 2001. Studia Hellenistica, 42

, , The shadow of Polybius : intertextuality as a research tool in Greek historiography : proceedings of the international colloquium, Leuven, 21-22 September 2001. Studia Hellenistica ; 42. Leuven: Peeters, 2005. xiv, 345 pages ; 24 cm.. ISBN 9042916583 €65.00.

[The reviewer apologizes for the lateness of this review.]

This volume of papers aims to offer up, in the words of its editors, “a systematic investigation into the manner in which Polybius put his forerunners’ writings to use within the framework of his own work; into how he has, in fact, cast his shadow over them by twisting, turning and distorting them according to his personal views and/or prejudices; and, finally, into how those judgements have hovered above later historical writing” (X). Frank Walbank’s introductory piece, “The Two-Way Shadow: Polybius among the Fragments”, is followed by fourteen studies of the relationships between Polybius and particular authors: “Los claroscuros del Éforo de Polibio” (Antonio L. Chávez Reino); “Polibio e Teopompo: osservazioni di metodo e giudizio morale” (Cinzia Bearzot); “Polibio e Callistene: una polemica non personale?” (Luisa Prandi); “Timeo, Polibio e la storiografia greca d’occidente” (Riccardo Vattuone); “Aratus and the Achaean Background of Polybius” (Karen Haegemans and Elizabeth Kosmetatou); “Polybius’ Criticism of Phylarchus” (Guido Schepens); “Polibio e gli storici contemporanei di Agatocle (Duride tra Polibio e Diodoro)” (Sebastiana Nerina Consolo Langher); “Polybe et les ‘fragments’ des historiens de Rhodes Zénon et Antisthène (XVI 14-20)” (Dominique Lenfant); “Fabio e Filino: Polibio sugli storici della prima guerra punica” (Delfino Ambaglio); “La critique de Sosylos chez Polybe III 20” (Véronique Krings); “Historians of Agathocles of Samus: Polybius on Writers of Historical Monographs” (Jan Bollansée); “La geografia di Pitea e la diorthosis di Polibio” (Serena Bianchetti); “‘ Polubiasasthai‘? Plutarch on Timaeus and ‘Tragic History'” (Luc Van der Stockt); and “Polybius and Plutarch on Roman Ethos” (José Maria Candau Morón). This collection evinces flaws in structure and arrangement, and the quality of the contributions is somewhat uneven. Nonetheless, it merits the attention of anyone interested in Polybius, Hellenistic historiography, or the conflux of the two.

The volume title speaks of “intertextuality as a research tool in Greek historiography”, and the collection does focus on the relationship between the texts of Polybius and his predecessors in the writing of history. What is at stake in most of the papers, however, is not the sort of intertextuality which often concerns contemporary students of, e.g., Latin poetry: the prime concern is not the textual dynamics of Polybius’ moves to appropriate earlier authors; rather, the lion’s share of attention is paid to how Polybian intervention affects understanding of a vanished or imperfectly attested predecessor. A slightly clearer subtitle, given the ambit of the actual collection, might have been “Polybian intervention as a research problem in Greek historiography”.

The editors’ preface suggests (X) that this intervention makes Polybius “the most suitable object of critical scrutiny according to the ‘cover-text analysis’ method. . . presented at the Heidelberg conference on ‘Collecting Fragments'”(reviewed at BMCR 1998.01.23). This method “focuses on the consequential and multiple functions which texts containing ‘fragments’ perform in the process of transmitting the very passages they quote”. The metaphor of the “cover” aside, this “method” does not seem to differ much from the perception that “fragments” have to be assessed with due regard to the aims of the author who guarantees their transmission. This is an insight of older vintage than the Heidelberg conference. It already informs, e.g., Catherine Osborne, Rethinking Early Greek Philosophy (London, 1987).

The “cover” metaphor itself is not one with which all the contributors fruitfully engage, either. Some do indeed find it helpful [e.g., Walbank (2-3); Lenfant (184)]. Others ignore it. Whatever the value of the metaphor, however, the perception which gives it its force remains an important one. Its systematic application to Polybius, in line with P. A. Brunt’s warning, more than a quarter of a century ago, against taking this historian’s aspersions on his predecessors at face value,1 is therefore a very useful endeavour.

“Systematic”, however, is not a description which The Shadow of Polybius merits without qualification. The absence of both a consolidated bibliography and a general index undermines its status as a synthesis. True, an index locorum and an index nominum antiquorum mitigate the latter absence. Neither, however, is much help to the reader who wants, for example, to know what the contributors have to say on such matters as “tragic history” [Haegemans/Kosmetatou (136-7); Schepens (158-64); Lenfant (192 n35);Van der Stockt (298-305)) or the nature of the epimetron logos (Chávez Reino (40-9); Krings (225); Bollansée (245-7); Van der Stockt (287)]. Pursuit of historiographical themes, rather than particular passages, is not an exercise which this collection makes easy.

The problem could, perhaps, have been addressed to some extent by proper cross-referencing among contributions. In fact, linkage between papers is patchy, at best. Bollansée, for example, discussing modern treatments of “the consistency between Polybius’ historiographical theory and praxis” (242), cites “F. W. Walbank’s contribution to this present volume” in the associated footnote. He omits Bearzot’s more detailed treatment of this very question with regard to Theopompus (66), and the citation of Walbank lacks page references, a defect characteristic of the other sporadic cross-referencing in this volume. The general failure to point up key parallels and contrasts between the papers means that the whole comes across as less a “systematic investigation” than an assortment of disparate researches loosely connected by a main theme.

The Shadow of Polybius, then, is not much more than the sum of its parts. This consideration should not, however, obscure the very real interest of its constituent elements. It is invidious to single out highlights, but this reviewer was particularly taken with Walbank’s demonstration of the non-Polybian provenance of two passages in Athenaeus (6-10); Krings’ insistence upon the historiographical tropes of Sosylus (225-30, although her attempt to relate those on display in the Annibou Praxeis papyrus to those implied at Polyb. 3.20 is perhaps a little strained); and Bollansée’s sensitive reading of the fall of Agathocles of Samos in terms of Polybius’ political thought (250-3). The collection also contains more than one intriguing analysis of how a particular understanding of Polybius’ stance on his predecessors has shaped their subsequent reception. Chávez Reino on Ephorus (20-31), Bearzot on Theopompus (68-71), and Vattuone on Timaeus (89-92) are especially interesting in this regard. What the volume lacks in organic unity, it makes up in its array of instructive material.

No review on the subject of Polybius would be true to the spirit of the master without a spot of captious nit-picking. Here it is. 11: for “Timaeus’s reliance on the ears rather than the eyes”, cf. now D. S. Levene, “Polybius on ‘seeing’ and ‘hearing’: 12.27”, CQ 55.2 (2005) 627-629. 134 with n42: the claim that Thucydides “used the imagery that is usually associated with tragic messengers’ speeches” at Thuc. 7.84-87 is vague to the point of meaninglessness, and unsupported by any close textual reference. The most obvious ways one might argue for the “tragic” character of the end of Thucydides 7 are the iambic trimeter at 7.87.52 (which is not a matter of “imagery”), the register of the word katepheia at 7.75.5 (which is not in the passage cited), and the similarity between Eur. Bacch. 1131 and Thuc. 7.71.4 (which is not in the passage cited either). 136: again, no close textual reference is presented to back up the claim that Polybius is “echoing Aeschylus’ Persians, in which the poet chose to glorify the deeds of the Greeks in the Persian Wars by having their enemies praise them”” when “Philip V pays tribute to his own enemies” at Polyb. 23.11.7-8. In fact, the trope of a hostile witness attesting to an enemy’s capacities is well-established in historiography before Polybius (cf., e.g., Thuc. 1.70). 143 n5: the description of Phylarchus as “the only historian who covered the period 272-220/219 B.C.” forgets Psaon of Plataea ( FGrHist 78). 272: Van der Stockt may be interested to know that he is not the first to have been tempted by the possibility of puns on Polybius’ name, if Moles’ ingenious interpretation of “haud diuturna” at Tac. Ann. 4.33.1 is correct.3 As a whole, the volume shows a rather poor standard of proof-reading. I note in particular a mix-up of Greek vowel quantities at the end of the list of virtues on the penultimate line of 57, “enthousiastic” (145 l.1), “thaught” (152 l.24), “happiously” (276 l.14), “penouriessness” (285 l.9), and a crop of intrusive accentuation (243 l.8; 275 l.14; and 296 l.17 and l.19). Schepens’ article bears a different title when it actually appears from the one it has in the Table of Contents.

In summary, then, The Shadow of Polybius shares the fate of many volumes of conference proceedings. Despite the excellence of some of the individual ingredients, the whole does not add much that is distinctive. On the other hand, the light the contributors shed on the “‘ Trümmerfeld‘ of Hellenistic historiography” (IX) more than justifies the exercise. And, if the collection’s achievement is sometimes not quite in line with its professed agenda, that only makes it all the more Polybian.


1. P. A. Brunt, “On historical fragments and epitomes”, in CQ 30 (1980), 477-494, at 480 (quoted in the present volume by Walbank, 2 n3).

2. I am indebted to Prof. S. Hornblower for this observation.

3. In J. Moles, “Cry Freedom: Tacitus Annals 4.32-35′. Histos 2 (1998) 1-54, here.