BMCR 2014.09.03

Polybios und seine Historien. Alte Geschichte

, , Polybios und seine Historien. Alte Geschichte. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2013. 359. ISBN 9783515104777. €62.00.

Table of Contents

The second edited volume devoted to Polybios in 2013,1 Polybios und seine Historien promises to offer more than just a haphazard selection of contributions to our understanding of this author. As the editors state in their brief introduction (pp. 7-11), the aim of this collection is to study Polybios’ work in the context of more recent scholarship of the Hellenistic world that is focused on documentary sources, the idea being to more appropriately situate The Histories according to the broad themes that currently define Hellenistic research, such as economic, religious, and diplomatic history. Grieb and Koehn do not claim to be comprehensive—social and cultural history, while important, are not touched upon significantly in any of the articles—and beg off treating the oft-examined topic, “Polybios and Rome.” The historian’s background is, in their minds, firmly situated in the Greek East.

Unfortunately, this useful and exciting overarching goal does not seem to have been sufficiently communicated to the majority of the contributors, despite being the principle as well for the 2010 conference in which this volume originated. Of the 15 articles in the collection, a generous estimate counts six that fit the editors’ description of what the book purposes to do. The remaining nine pieces either offer interesting but literary-focused studies (usually) relevant to Polybios’ work, or contain musings on aspects of his work whose originality is difficult to detect. The result is, of course, only disappointing if one takes the introduction at its word; there is much in most pieces to enlighten and to provoke further discussion.

Of those who attempted to consider Polybios in light of Hellenistic documentary sources, the editors are unsurprisingly among the successful. Koehn (pp. 159-181) considers the extent to which the historian’s style was influenced by that of contemporary official documents, as represented in inscriptions and papyri, and concludes that, despite some influence, historiography and epigraphy evince distinct stylistic developments. He concludes with a fascinating demonstration of this minor influence: Polybios’ use of stelê in connection with the Achaean League mirrors the technical sense of the term in the league’s official language to refer to the inclusion of new members.

Grieb (pp. 183-218) builds on his earlier reading of Polybios’ views on democracy from his 2008 monograph on (four cases of) Hellenistische Demokratie. Polybios’ aristocratic ideology leads to a tendentious and negative representation of democratic states, which are contrasted with the “true democracy” of states like the Achaean League, defined according to Grieb by its approximation to Rome with its more powerful elite. While the positive aspect of Grieb’s argument is convincing, I found certain assumptions (e.g., that we can measure Polybios’ accuracy against “die historischen Realität” represented on officially inscribed documents), textual readings (most of his examples of negative assessments of democracies in Polybios criticize the decisions of the elite or blame ochlocratic measures), and lacunae (Grieb neglects most of the work on Hellenistic democracy published in the last decade other than his own and that of Carlsson) problematic for the first part of his thesis.

Tombrägel (pp. 251-267) discusses Polybios’ approach to the art of his day, attempting to explain the overall paucity of artistic references in The Histories as well as the keen interest of the historian in reporting episodes of destruction, damage, or theft of art. He speculates that antipathy to Athens and an appeal to his Roman audience, who in Tombrägel’s mind would have been interested in more practical matters, may lie behind the first phenomenon. On the other hand, a biographical explanation is adduced for the emphasis on vandalism and looting of art. Polybios would have grown up amidst the ruins from Megalopolis’ destruction in 223 by Kleomenes, as recent excavations have confirmed both the destruction and the inclusion of the ruins in rebuilding efforts, which lasted into the second century. This personal experience would have thus created empathy for those victims of destruction that appear in his history. That the sack of Megalopolis included destruction or looting of art is, however, completely suppositious.

Bresson’s consideration of “Polybius and the Economy” (pp. 269-283) pairs nicely with J.K. Davies’ piece in Polybius and his World (see note 1), and one can only echo the lament of Grieb and Koehn (p. 11) that time constraints prevented the cross-examination of these two volumes. Bresson is interested in explaining why Polybios is not an ancient economic historian and what sort of “nuggets to help make sense of the economy of the ancient Mediterranean” can be found in The Histories. Polybios is interested in economic data, but only as a backdrop to his investigation of human actions, and so not worth investigating in themselves. He can even be seen to neglect demographic and financial aspects that Thucydides found an essential part of his own explanatory framework. Economic information also accompanies moral judgments of behavior in Polybios, and is included to serve this purpose.

Partially successful in meeting the stated aim of the volume are Weisehöfer and Dreyer. The former (pp. 59-69) asks when Rome was included in the schema that saw a series of world powers succeeding each other, and argues for a first-century BC date coincident with Pompey’s eastern campaign. Polybios thus does not play a significant role in his argument, making the inclusion of this article a bit forced. Dreyer (pp. 233-249) complements his contribution in Polybius and his World by arguing against the influence of bias in Polybios’ assessment of Hellenistic kings. Rather, he measures them primarily against the standards of their own intentions. Dreyer’s consideration of the sources used by Polybios is particularly valuable here.

I now turn to those articles which neglect the stated goal of the volume, but which nonetheless represent valuable contributions to our understanding of Polybios. Mehl presents an interesting comparative study of continuations in Greco-Roman historiography (pp. 25-48), looking specifically at Thucydides, Xenophon, Polybios, and Cato. In every case, whether an author chooses to continue his own work or that of another historian, the decision to re-evaluate and/or correct the aims and scope of the original is due to the contemporary nature of the historical work (i.e., the passage of time calls into question the viability of the original aim). Xenophon is seen as exceptional insofar as he leaves his own work open to such continuation and correction.

Deininger (pp. 71-111) reviews Polybios’ usage and discussion of Tyche to argue a middle road between views that Tyche simply serves a rhetorical function (Walbank, McGing, Hau) and that it represents an almighty divine force (Pédech) for Polybios. He asserts that it is a real force that factors in history in situations beyond the grasp of human reason, though this reader wondered if insisting that Polybios be consistent with respect to Tyche is justified. Daubner (pp. 113-126) analyzes several passages describing Illyria to assert the subordination of geographical description to Polybios’ didactic aims, which places Polybios outside the development of the ancient science of Geography. It was unclear how Daubner differs from or advances the conclusions of Maier.2

Meißner looks at “Polybios als Militärshistoriker” (pp. 127-157), aiming to describe Polybios’ function as a writer of military history through an interesting statistical analysis of the use of terms deriving from -strat-, -polem-, and -polit-. He concludes that although Polybios’ expectations for a military historian are oriented to the canonical topoi of fourth-century military literature, his terminology reflects his view that war, as a planned and intentional phenomenon that helps to explain larger historical processes, should be embedded in social, institutional, and mentality-related contexts. Günther (pp. 219-232) argues that Polybios is generally a trustworthy source for the form of diplomatic relations (when these are not implicated in his apologia of Rome’s rise), but the historian’s personal view of historical causality influences his account and evaluation of the motives behind such relations.

The final two contributions treat philosophy and religion in The Histories. Scholz (pp. 285-299) notes several similarities between Polybios’ views and the Middle Stoic turn to politics as represented by Diogenes and Panaitios, and argues for influence but not a close connection between these thinkers and the historian. Spickermann (pp. 301-318) claims that Polybios holds forth inconsistently on religion, emerging neither as a strict atheist (Walbank), nor obviously religious (Pédech), nor an adherent of Stoic “civic religion” (van Hoof). This inconsistency is a product of his authorial distance. Yet it seemed to me that Polybios’ objection to acts of asebeia, the main counterargument to Walbank’s position, can be understood according to a practical rationale, i.e., as driven by the lack of benefit and even harm that results for the perpetrators of impiety.

As a whole, it should be clear that, my objections aside, this volume promotes the conversation about a variety of topics relevant to Polybios, and in some cases advocates for his relationship to other pieces of evidence from the Hellenistic World. Those interested in the topics treated will find much of value, particularly in gaining a firm grasp of the Polybian scholarship in German. Of greatest benefit is the suggestiveness of the volume’s partially attained ideal: there is much work still to be done in using more recent discoveries to help elucidate Polybios’ Hellenistic context.

That being said, many of the contributions need to be read with caution. The excellent and substantial bibliography at the end (pp. 319-335) belies an almost shocking variability in use of sources across individual articles. Some are very thorough; others hardly reference previous scholarship at all (e.g., Kloft); some are selective in unpredictable ways. For instance, though appearing in the bibliography, Sacks’ important monograph is almost entirely absent, though this would have been helpful especially where the distinction (or non-distinction) between the practical and moral in Polybios was relevant (e.g., Dreyer). Even more concerning is the lack of dialogue among the contributions, of which I give but two examples. Several pieces discuss, albeit briefly, the role of Tyche in Polybios without any serious mention of Deininger’s study. Tombrägel assumes that Polybios unilaterally characterizes kings in morally negative terms, in direct contradiction to the conclusions of Dreyer.

The volume concludes with two indices, nominum et locorum (pp. 337-359). A few errata litter the book’s pages, most of minor import, though “Geschichskonzeption” instead of “Geschichtskonzeption” as the title of the section on p. 155 is somewhat glaring.

In summary, this volume is a welcome addition to the study of Polybius as well as to Hellenistic studies more broadly, but one wishes that it were a bit shorter, more focused and consistent, and gave its contributors more time to engage with each other before publication.


1. Bruce Gibson and Thomas Harrison, eds., Polybius and his World: Essays in Memory of F. W. Walbank, Oxford, 2013. See BMCR 2013.12.51.

2. F.K. Maier, “‘…zu vertrauten Vorstellungen führen’—Die Function der Geographie im didaktischen Geschichtsbild des Polybios”, in GeogrAnt 19 (2010): 47-63.