BMCR 2011.05.40

Polybius: The Histories. Vol. I, Books 1-2; Polybius: The Histories. Vol. 2, Books 3-4

, , , Polybius: The Histories. Vol. I, Books 1-2 (revised edition). The Loeb Classical Library 128. Cambridge, MA/London: Harvard University Press, 2010. xxxviii, 466 pages. ISBN 9780674996373
, , , Polybius: The Histories. Vol. II, Books 3-4 (revised edition). The Loeb Classical Library 137. Cambridge, MA/London: Harvard University Press, 2010. v, 568 pages. ISBN 9780674996380

These welcome volumes, with their crisp translation, excellent and concise explanatory notes, useful introduction, and admirably comprehensive bibliographical advice, were long in coming. The first Loeb Classical Library edition of Polybius was published in 1922, shortly after the sudden death of W.R. Paton in 1921. Before he died, Paton had finished his translation, but had not worked up the other parts of the book. As Jeffrey Henderson explains in the preface to the present volumes, in 1964 Frank Walbank, who was already working on his Historical Commentary on Polybius, agreed to create a second edition. Walbank finished his revisions of the translation and text by the mid-1980’s, but because of a period of turmoil at the Loeb Classical Library was not contacted about publishing the volume until 1993. He was understandably no longer willing to finish production, but he offered to turn over his notes to the next editor. In 2007 Christian Habicht took over the project. Thus the triumvirate of scholars named on the dust jacket of this second edition of the Loeb Polybius: we owe these long awaited volumes to W.R. Paton, originally; next, to Frank Walbank’s long labors of revision; and finally, to Christian Habicht’s willingness to put the volume in order, and to provide an introduction, explanatory notes, an updated bibliography, and an index of proper names.

Polybius, whose life was marked by unpredictable changes, would have understood the 90 year history of these volumes very well; he also would have approved of their high quality. Habicht’s introduction gives readers an entrée into Polybius’ life and works as a whole before briefly addressing some main historiographical questions; he discusses, for instance, whether the speeches in Polybius are reliably historical, and also Polybius’ presentation of historical causality and chance. He describes Polybius’ conception of impartiality and his criticisms of the biases of other historians, outlining Polybius’ own difficulties in this regard. Polybius’ requirement that the historian possess practical experience of government and warfare, and his devotion to πραγματική ἱστορία, which Habicht defines as “political history or history of events” (xxiii), are given due attention.

Turning to the body of the text, the Greek is entirely lacking in an apparatus, even, for instance, for passages marked with square brackets or ellipses. Philological inquiries, then, must be addressed to Walbank’s commentary, or Büttner-Wobst’s edition.1 Here we find the Greek that is the basis of the translation, and on the facing page the English translation: this translation, as indicated above, is and was a model of clarity; much of the translation of the 2010 edition is unchanged from the 1922 edition.

However, important improvements and greater confidence are also evident. For instance, in the 1922 edition, the reconstructed passage at 1.2.7 reads as follows:

“But the Romans have subjected to their rule not portions, but nearly the whole of the world [and possess an empire which is not only immeasurably greater than any which preceded it, but need not fear rivalry in the future]. In the course of this work it will become more clearly intelligible [by what steps this power was acquired], and it will also be seen how many and how great advantages accrue to the student from the systematic treatment of history.”

Paton had left square brackets in his English text to indicate the insecurity of his conjectures. The same passage, based on the new (although still partly hypothetical) reconstruction of the Greek text, reads much more smoothly in 2010:

But the Romans have subjected to their rule not portions, but the whole of the world, leaving behind for those living irresistible, for those to come insurpassable prominence of their rule. As for the reasons why they excelled in everything, these will become clearer from what I have written, and it will also be seen how many and how great advantages accrue to the student from the systematic treatment of history.

As will be evident, the present version both offers a more confident translation and also cleaves to the style and tone of Paton’s original English; who would necessarily conclude, for instance, that the archaic (and wonderful) “insurpassable” was recent? Moreover, just as the translation adopts Paton’s tradition, the reconstructed Greek text of this passage, with its Periclean reminiscences (cf. e.g. Thuc. 2.63.4), leads the reader more clearly back to the Greek historiographical tradition.2

However, these elements of the new Loeb will not be visible to the student who is reading Polybius for the first time, or checking out the Loeb to see what kind of a writer Polybius was, and whether he might be interesting. For this audience, Habicht’s explanatory notes will be key. These concise and frequent notices provide indispensible political, historical, and geographical background knowledge, and frequently also help to tie the themes and important statements of the text together. They are thus useful to students, but also to scholars, since they often cite relevant epigraphical, documentary, or numismatic evidence, as well as other sources; moreover, the notes provide numerous additional references to contemporary bibliography.

Another helpful element of this edition is the insertion into the text itself of modern dates and date ranges at the point of reference to well-established events; this information supplements the dates and date ranges offered in the margins, and should help to keep readers who have even a basic knowledge of Roman history properly situated. Finally, the index of proper personal and geographic names at the end of each volume allows readers to research particular figures and the events in which they participated.

This second edition is therefore a huge improvement over the already solid achievements of the first edition, and will prove to be an incisive aid to a new generation of students and scholars seeking familiarity with an historian who deserves much greater direct attention.


1. The references here are to Walbank, F.W. (1967-1979), A Historical Commentary on Polybius (Oxford) and Bϋttner-Wobst’s Teubner edition of the text of Polybius (itself a recension of Dindorf’s text), most recently issued in 1964.

2. It would thus have been all the more useful to have even a brief reference, perhaps in a footnote, guiding the reader back to the source of this reconstruction.