BMCR 2013.01.33

Imperialism, Cultural Politics, and Polybius

, , Imperialism, Cultural Politics, and Polybius. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012. xiv, 351. ISBN 9780199600755 $150.00.


The present volume is an act of pietas in honor of the late Peter Derow from his former students. The conference out of which the volume’s essays grew was planned for April, 2007, in Oxford to coincide with Derow’s 65 th birthday and imminent retirement. Unfortunately, Derow died unexpectedly in December, 2006. The conference thus became an in memoriam celebration. Due to space constraints, this review of the conference proceedings will deal with substantive issues raised in several of the essays rather than provide a comprehensive, inevitably superficial overview of all sixteen (the table of contents is fairly self-explanatory).

Many of the essays in this volume reflect Derow’s scholarly preoccupations and the controversies he joined. A case in point is the introductory chapter by the volume’s editors. Rather than restrict themselves to providing context, personalia about the volume’s honorand, and a brief description of the contents, as one would expect from a collection of this sort, the authors begin with an attack on one of Derow’s chief scholarly antagonists in his later years, Arthur M. Eckstein.1 There is good reason for this: Eckstein’s recent work has posed a very serious challenge to Derow’s view of the Romans as exceptionally aggressive imperialists. Eckstein’s International Relations (IR) Realist interpretation of Hellenistic and Roman Republican interstate relations has made a strong case that the Romans were not exceptionally violent, aggressive, or warlike, but, like their system competitors (the expansionist Hellenistic kingdoms), were subject to pressures and strains generated by an anarchic international system that encouraged aggression in all players.2 And, in fact, Roman exceptionalism lay, precisely, and in contrast to their system competitors, in their tendency to temper their aggressive conduct by seeking iustum bellum justifications for undertaking wars.3 Smith and Yarrow subject Eckstein’s realist thesis to the usual criticisms levelled at that school: that it “suited one particular Cold War situation, and is not universalizable,” that it “assumes that states [rather than humans] are actors,” and that “a persistent discourse of pessimism is itself constitutive of a destructive world order” (7). As an IR Constructivist, I am for the most part sympathetic with these positions (especially the third—a pithy summation of the Constructivist position), which is where Eckstein and I part ways. Leaving all that aside, however, the editors wrongly accuse Eckstein of “driv[ing his] book towards a justification of a policy rather than an academic argument” (9), insinuating his advocacy of a particular response by the US government to the attacks of 11 September 2001. Eckstein’s personal politics are neither here nor there, and this sort of innuendo is no substitute for legitimate counter-arguments to Eckstein’s critiques of Derow. The Introduction at no point tries to prove, on the basis of the evidence, that the Romans were especially aggressive or militaristic compared to their nearest system competitors. The closest the editors come is when they accuse Rome of extraordinary “meddling” (11) in Hellenistic royal affairs when accepting offers of friendship from Greek city-states— as though Hellenistic kings did not do precisely the same thing in their perpetual struggles against each other.

Part I, dealing with historiographical matters, opens with Andrew Erskine’s discussion of the realities of Polybius’ detention in Rome. The following four papers deal more closely with historiographical issues, especially intertextuality. McGing suggests that Herodotus must have had a profound effect on Polybius’ historical consciousness and methodology, while Longley compares Thucydides’ and Polybius’ views on human nature in order to reinforce the latter’s reputation as a humanist when it comes to thinking about historical causation.

Tim Rood’s chapter also examines the influence of Thucydides on Polybius’ historical method, and, like McGing, Rood seeks to demonstrate a deeper engagement by Polybius with Thucydides than is usually thought, and to shift attention away from the extent to which Polybius used the earlier historian to how he used him (53). His intertextual analysis is interesting and thought-provoking, but occasionally goes too far in questioning Polybius’ integrity and skill as a historian. So, for example, Rood thinks that the debates in which the Romans expressed fear about Carthage’s threatening designs on Italy during the run-up to the First Punic War (Polyb. 1.10.5) were modelled on Alcibiades’ speech before the Spartans in which he describes the grand Athenian plan for the conquest of the West after subduing Sicily (Thuc. 6.90.2). For Rood, this may “hint that Polybius’ account reflects Roman apologia” (56), that is, that the scenes of deliberation in Polybius are literary fiction rather than a record of actual historical events. But it is more likely than not that Polybius is reporting historical fact here, for as seen earlier, deliberating over the justness of undertaking war was pattern behavior for the Romans. Sometimes a Thucydidean echo is just a Thucydidean echo—and need not indicate mendacity on the part of the historian who uses him in this way.

Part II, “Mechanisms of Imperialism,” contains David Potter’s excellent contribution on Roman imperialism in which he argues that 197—the year of the Roman settlement with Philip V of Macedon, ending the Second Macedonian War, and the division of Hispania into two praetorian provinces—represents a turning point in Roman foreign policy, one that is typified by “no new development [and] an unwillingness to be caught up … in conflicts” in the Greek East, and “a failure in planning” in Spain (151). Potter’s analysis of fetial procedure, deditio in fidem, and the foedus is remarkable for its clarity, brevity, and accuracy.

A contemporary note is introduced by Olivier Hekster’s paper, “Kings and Regime Change in the Roman Republic.” Hekster traces a pattern of regime change in friendly kingdoms going back to the Day of Eleusis in 168, when the Romans ordered Antiochus IV out of Egypt (192), and in the Numidian kingdom (184-91). In the late Republic, domestic Roman politics (including civil war) began to impinge directly on the friendly kingdoms so that, although the realities of Roman power exercised a constraining effect on friendly kings’ choices, the inherent flexibility of Rome’s arrangements allowed these rulers increasingly to align themselves opportunistically with Roman dynasts rather than adhere to the will of a united senate. This opened up more space for potential rulers of friendly kingdoms to effect regime change with Roman support (such agency is, incidentally, why these should not be called “client kingdoms”). The successful manipulation of the senate by Ptolemy XII Auletes is a case in point (192-99). But these circumstances also “made the balance which these kings had to keep to hold on to their kingdom[s] all the more precarious” (191). Choosing the wrong side could end in disaster, as it did for Juba I (190).

Part III on “Cultural Politics” opens with an essay by Nikola Čašule, which revisits the issue of the depth of Roman interest and involvement in Illyria before and after the first Roman military intervention there in 229. Čašule argues that a score of inscriptions discovered along the Croatian coast containing Roman names show deep engagement, interaction, and indeed integration of migrant Romans in the region before the First Illyrian War. Unfortunately, because precise dating of the inscriptions is impossible, solid proof of a Roman settler presence in the eastern Adriatic before the late third century is unobtainable. Thus the idea that the Roman senate knew the area well and was interested in protecting its citizens there must remain speculative. Until more definitive or securely datable evidence emerges, the Roman military intervention in Illyria in 229 must remain “unpredictable, sudden, and surprising” (206) to those living there.

Hugh Bowden’s analysis of the visit of (the) Battakes, priest in the temple of Magna Mater at Pessinous, in 102 BC is a welcome explication of an obscure episode. But, although Bowden and I must agree to disagree on the question of the provenance of the Roman Great Mother cult (Bowden prefers Mt Ida over Pessinous: 254-56),4 his theory, on the basis of no evidence (and against the explicit evidence of two sources), that the purpose of (the) Battakes’ visit to Rome in 102 was to ask for Roman military protection from an invasion by Mithridates VI a full six years earlier fails to convince. There is also no evidence for the priest’s visit in 102 being the origin of the story that the Magna Mater came from Pessinous in 205, or that the cult stone came in 102 with (the) Battakes rather than in 204. Disagreement there may be between Bowden and me on the Magna Mater’s place of origin, but there is no need for such radical revisionism and dismissal of reasonable evidence.

The final chapter, by Jonathan Williams, engages with two modern controversies: the repatriation of archaeological objects, and the protection of cultural property in wartime. Although Williams urges caution about pushing the ancient parallel with modern circumstances too far, he notes that Polybius’ account of the Romans’ spoliation of the treasures of Syracuse in 211 (Polyb. 9.10) has been central to the modern controversies since the seventeenth century. The passage, however, “is clearly more about the Romans than about art” (282), that is, Polybius is making a moral and pragmatic point about the Romans’ behavior (which jeopardized both their character and international reputation) rather than arguing for “’art’ or ‘cultural property’ [being] accorded a special status in wartime as a matter of principle” (282-83). Similarly, throughout his work, Polybius condemns the spoliation and destruction of temples not because cultural property must be protected for its own sake, but because such acts amount to sacrilege. My only quibble here is Williams’ certainty, in the face of no evidence (and some to the contrary), that Polybius has covered up Roman plundering of religious sanctuaries in Syracuse to make them look better than the “evil madman” Philip V, who destroyed a shrine at Thermum (290). Williams never considers for a moment that Polybius might be telling the truth. Moreover, and despite Williams’ assertion to the contrary, Livy 25.40.1-3 and Plut. Marc. 21 do not prove that “Marcellus took [spoils] from [Syracusan] temples” (287), but only that he dedicated spoils (provenance unknown) in Roman temples. Livy states quite clearly that Marcellus’ spoils were taken according to the laws of war (which forbid plundering shrines: Polyb. 5.9.1), and it was only after the sack of Syracuse ( inde) that the Romans began to plunder sacred objects in wartime. This evidence is perfectly consistent with what Polybius—and Cicero ( Verr. 2.2.4, 4.121; cited but dismissed by Williams)—say: Marcellus did not plunder Syracusan holy sites.

This volume is a welcome addition to Polybian studies, especially where it breaks new ground by treating the historian as a literary artist as well as a skilled historian. The varying quality of the essays, however, is disappointing, as is the apparent indifference to proper editing and copy-editing. There are literally hundreds of spelling, grammatical, and punctuation errors (too many to list here), in addition to several egregious copy-editing oversights (e.g., 115 n. 4). OUP must take more care with its editing if it is to remain a premier publisher of academic works.


1. Full disclosure: Eckstein was my PhD supervisor, and, like the editors of the volume under review, my response to their critique of his work is, in part, motivated by pietas. This does not mean, however, that I myself am in full agreement with Eckstein’s interpretation of the evidence; see P.J. Burton, Friendship and Empire: Roman Diplomacy and Imperialism in the Middle Republic (353-146 BC) (Cambridge, 2011), and below. Eckstein himself reviews Smith and Yarrow in Histos 6 (2012). All dates are B.C.

2. A.M. Eckstein, Mediterranean Anarchy, Interstate War, and the Rise of Rome (Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA, and London, 2006), and Rome Enters the Greek East: From Anarchy to Hierarchy in the Hellenistic Mediterranean, 230-170 BC (Malden, MA, and Oxford, 2008).

3. Eckstein, Mediterranean Anarchy, 229, and Rome Enters the Greek East, 19-20.

4. Contra P.J. Burton, “The Summoning of the Magna Mater to Rome (205 B.C.,” Historia 45 (1996), 35-63.