BMCR 2011.08.29

Polybius, The Histories. Oxford World’s Classics

, Polybius, The Histories. Oxford World's Classics. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. xliii, 501. ISBN 9780199534708. £11.99 (pb).


The translations of Greek authors by Robin Waterfield should be familiar to both teachers and students.1 The present book, a new addition to the series “Oxford World’s Classics,” is a welcome translation of the most frequently read books of Polybius’ Histories : Books 1-5, the fragments of Book 6 on the Roman constitution and army, and the fragments of Book 12, Polybius’ polemic against Timaeus. The translation includes an Introduction by Brian McGing, author of a very recent study of Polybius’ Histories for the series Oxford Approaches to Classical Literature.2 Waterfield adds a Translator’s Note and Select Bibliography. A Chronology (of the period covered by Polybius), Maps of Italy, Greece, and the Mediterranean, and Notes, divided into Explanatory and Textual Notes are also included. A Glossary and an Index of Proper Names conclude the book.

The introduction by McGing is written with almost Polybian plainness and clarity. McGing sketches the historical context of Polybius’ work and life before he discusses the Histories themselves. He briefly summarizes the contents of the books translated by Waterfield and notes some of their peculiarities for readers who are unfamiliar with Polybius’ work. McGing then devotes several pages to some of the most outstanding characteristics of Polybius as a writer: his “Outspokenness,” the relationship between “The Historian and Practical Experience,” interest in “Geography,” belief in “The Usefulness of Political History” and “The Need for Universal History,” devotion to “Clarity and Truth,” criticism of “Sensationalism and Speeches,” and emphasis on “Causation”; and, finally, the meaning of references to “Fate/Chance (Tyche)” in the work. McGing concludes with a few words on the significance of Polybius’ work since the Renaissance.

Waterfield’s brief Translator’s Note inspires confidence in the quality of the text. Waterfield is a veteran translator who is sensitive to the idiosyncrasies of ancient originals and chooses the difficult task of rendering them in good, natural English. The successful realization of these ambitions will set his work apart, indeed above, the translations by Scott-Kilvert for Penguin Classics and by Paton for the Loeb Classical Library.

The translation by Paton has recently been rereleased with the revisions of Walbank and Christian Habicht. The first volumes have been reviewed in BMCR 2011.05.40. It will naturally be the choice of those who work “with the Greek text by their elbows,” to borrow Waterfield’s words (xxxviii), or on books omitted from the present volume. For classroom use and casual reading and referencing, however, Waterfield is by far superior.

To take a sample of the translation that has no small historiographical interest, Waterfield translates Polybius’ attack on the speeches of Timaeus as follows (12.25a, p. 433):

However large the jug, we can tell the contents, they say, from a single drop. The same principle applies to the issue we are discussing at present. When we come across one or two instances of misleading information in a book, and then find that they are actually deliberate lies, clearly we can no longer trust or believe any information given by this author. But some people of a more argumentative disposition might still need to be persuaded of this, and so I should say more, particularly about his [sc. Timaeus’] approach to all the various kinds of speeches—political, military, diplomatic, and so on—that act, as it were, as summaries of events and give a historical narrative overall coherence. It is impossible for any reader of the book not to realize that Timaeus’ versions of speeches are deliberate falsifications. He does not reproduce them verbatim, nor does he even give us an accurate paraphrase, but he first assumes what they should have said, and then runs through all the arguments he has heard and all the possible consequences of events, as though he were a student of rhetoric arguing against a set position. He seems to be more concerned to display his rhetorical flair than to give an account of what was actually said.

The same passage was translated by Ian Scott-Kilvert, whose translation appeared in the Penguin Classics series in 1979, with far less verve:3

There is a proverb which tells us that a single drop, taken from even the largest vessel, is enough to reveal to us the nature of the whole contents, and the same principle may be applied to the subject we are now discussing. Accordingly when we find one or two false statements in a book and they prove to have been deliberately made, we know that we can no longer treat anything that is said by such an author as reliable or trustworthy. However if I am to convince those who are inclined to be captious, I must say something of the principle which Timaeus applies in composing the speeches of politicians, the addresses of generals, and the discourses of ambassadors, in short all such kinds of public utterance which summarize events and bind the whole history together. Can any of Timaeus’ readers have failed to observe that his reports of these pronouncements disregard the truth and that this is done deliberately? The fact is that he has neither set down what was said, nor the real sense of what was said. Instead, after first making up his mind what ought to have been said, he catalogues all these imaginary speeches and the accompanying details, just as if he were exercising on a set theme in the schools: in other words he tries to show off his rhetorical powers, but provides no account of what was actually spoken.

The wording and tone of the same passage as translated by Paton (Loeb vol. IV, p. 369-371) is largely similar (one senses that Scott-Kilvert may have been influenced by Paton). Waterfield’s translation, however, is obviously independent and far better captures the cranky, peremptory tone of Polybius’ Greek. Throughout the translation, the reader feels as if one were genuinely in the presence of the blunt and supremely confident Polybius.

Polybius’ authorial personality, namely his tendency to interrupt the narrative with incidental details, is also well conveyed by the typographical decision that Waterfield has made to reproduce lengthy asides as footnotes. Few readers will object to this innovation, which is used sparingly. An incidental description of the geography of the river Aufidus, for instance, which Polybius inflicts on the reader just before Hannibal’s speech to his men at Cannae, seems naturally relegated to a note (216). Other asides and references to other parts of the history likewise seem to belong in notes. Teachers, however, should take care to warn students that these footnotes are also part of the original text, since few students will read the Translator’s Note, where Waterfield explains this convention.

Waterfield warns (p. xxxvi) that he has made Polybius “marginally less stiff than he is,” but the result is entirely convincing. The translation also offers advantages that its competitors lack: Waterfield has incorporated several emendations, some of them his own, into the translation. These are indicated and briefly discussed in the Textual Notes. More immediately useful to readers of the book, however, will be the explanatory notes by McGing, which strike a balance between the essential and the incidental, guide the reader through the course of events, and elucidate noteworthy passages of the text. The notes are far more extensive than those of Scott-Kilvert or Paton.

In short, this new translation of Polybius will be a valuable resource for teachers and students of Polybius and Roman history. The authors deserve no small praise for permitting one of the most highly regarded ancient historians, yet also one of the least read, speak to a new generation.


1. A list of translations is available on Waterfield’s website.

2. B. McGing, Polybius’ Histories (Oxford 2010), reviewed favorably here 2010.09.09.

3. I. Scott-Kilvert (trans.), Polybius: The McGing, Polybius’ Histories Rise of the Roman Empire (London: Penguin Classics, 1979), 439f.