BMCR 2022.09.46

Polybius: experience and the lessons of history

, Polybius: experience and the lessons of history. Historiography of Rome and its empire, 6. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2020. Pp. 168. ISBN 9789004426115 €94,00.

Daniel Walker Moore’s book aims to explore Polybius’ view of history as a form of knowledge based on experience (8). Indeed, Polybius in his introduction states that history is the most important empeiria (Pol. 1.15). Moore examines the ways in which statesmen could draw empiric lessons from reading a vivid account of historical events. According to Moore, Polybius simultaneously promoted two seemingly opposed approaches to education: personal experience (empeiria) and second-hand inquiry (historia). This paradox is implicitly resolved in the epistemological composite of what Polybius calls ‘scientific study’ (methodike empeiria), a dialectical understanding of the individuals’ intellectual and experiential capacities.

At the centre of the examination is a cognitive problem: what is the most effective way to acquire pragmatic knowledge? Moore tackles this question straightforwardly in his first chapter by evaluating a specific type of knowledge grounded on personal experience. By contextualizing Polybius within the Hellenistic intellectual tradition (and more specifically in relation to the Empiricist school of medicine), Moore interrogates Polybius’ proposition that the intellectual exercise of reading history can become an experiential form of cognition. Crucially, Moore suggests a close connection between empeiria and episteme in Polybius’ pragmatic take on the universal and didactic goals of historiography. Moore’s extensive attention to the philological aspects of these concepts illustrates Polybius’ conviction that empeiria is a kind of knowledge that can be acquired from reading written accounts. Perhaps this discussion would have been richer if Moore had explored the ways in which this experiential knowledge might be achieved through enargeia, i.e. a vivid representation of events.[1] That being said, Moore is not afraid to show Polybius’ apparent inconsistency in favouring either first-hand experience or vicarious learning through reading as the occasion requires it (25). According to Moore, Polybius offers a third option for learning: scientific study (methodike empeiria) which is “the most abstract category of the three” (26). However abstract it mat be, Polybius emphasises the practical side of these scientific studies, for example when he argues that the most important aspect of astronomy is calculating the length of days and nights so commanders could adjust their strategies. (Pol. 9.14.16).

Chapters two and three are where Moore’s argument shines. Hannibal Barca and Scipio Africanus are presented as models of statesmen who learn from personal experience in the same manner that students of history learn from the past. According to Moore, in Polybius’ mind a true leader is able to ascertain his situation objectively in situ; basing his decision on past experience, he then takes appropriate action. Moreover, the reinterpretation of previous experiences shape his education as a form of episteme.

In chapter two Moore focuses on Hannibal, who as a young man encounters a Roman embassy for the first time and yields to emotions and irrationality (Pol.3.15). Hannibal here serves as an example of the wrong way to assess historical causation: he was unable to understand his situation and the consequences of a premature direct conflict with Rome (38–41)[2]. Later on Hannibal learnt from his own mistakes and instead of being led by his emotions during his campaign to Italy, Polybius shows him as calculating and reasonable. Crucially, Moore demonstrates how Hannibal’s acquisition of both knowledge and experience is sustained by solid research parallel to that of a historian. A comparison with Xenophon’s Cyropaedia, in which Cyrus learns from his youthful mistakes and masters his leadership skills through practice (Cyr. 1.5), would have been an useful addition to Moore’s discussion.

Moore provides three ways in which Hannibal behaves like a historian. First, he is a researcher. Hannibal is adamant about the necessity to acquire knowledge of the terrain and the people before invading the country (43– 48). Secondly, Hannibal in the manner in which he interprets the past. In an insightful analysis of Hannibal’s march across the Alps, Moore shows how Hannibal creates a new past to suit his own purposes. In a speech to the troops (Pol. 3.62–63), Hannibal famously brings forth the Gallic prisoners and recreates a fight that serves as a metaphor for the Carthaginian past, present, and future (48–53). Finally, in the later years of his career Hannibal again resembles an historian when he reflects on the mutability of fortune and the change in his own circumstances. In his encounter with Scipio Africanus (Pol.15.6–7), he shows himself as someone who has learnt from reflection on personal experiences, and who is willing to educate others through relating these experiences (60–69).

Chapter three expands on the practical lessons of history. Although Hannibal behaves like a historian, Moore argues that “a broader knowledge extending beyond his own experience is notably absent”, a trait he shares with most of the characters in Polybius’ Histories (70–79). Scipio Africanus, the focus of the chapter, proves to be the exception. Moore argues that Africanus’ point of distinction is “his willingness to investigate and learn from the lessons offered by the past” (81). According to Moore, Polybius insists that Africanus examined failures of his predecessors in an effort to correct the mistakes of the past (79–87). Significantly, Moore determines that the parallel portraits of Hannibal and Scipio show the latter’s superiority as a historian, since Hannibal’s research is focused on present circumstances whilst Africanus’ interest is in the past. In a comparison between history (represented by Africanus) and experience (represented by Hannibal), Moore concludes that a regard for history proves to be generally more useful for statesmen. According to Moore, in Polybius’ opinion Africanus is the ultimate pragmatikos aner because he is able to augment his own experience with research into the past (91).

Chapter four is an examination of the Roman constitution (studied by Polybius in Book 6), particularly concerning the practical lessons the Romans acquired through the progressive development of the anakyklosis from a primitive state of monarchy to more civil forms of government (93-102). Crucially, Moore argues, this evolution is only possible because the collective is able to learn from first-hand experiences about the good and bad behaviour of their leaders (95–96). Through an analysis of the aristocratic funeral (Pol. 6.53–54) Polybius shows how the Romans regarded the spectacle of the past as the first component of their success because it encouraged young men to aspire to achieve similar accomplishments (103–110). An important aspect of this spectacle was the use of imagines, the masks of the deceased and glorious ancestors, which served to bring heroic actions “before their eyes” (107–110). Similarly, the perpetuated memory of such heroes as Horatius Cocles (Pol. 6.55) played a role in building the Roman identity. An integrated reading of these two examples shows the importance that Polybius attaches to the Roman constitution as a reservoir of cultural knowledge which is continually refreshed through the combination of practical experience and historical memory. Overall, the chapter offers an adequate albeit unoriginal take on a much-discussed subject.

Moore explores in chapter five the progression in Roman learning through innovative thinking. Using the experiences of the First Punic War, the Romans were able to imitate the examples of others (namely their enemies) and learn from their own mistakes in order to secure dominance over the Mediterranean. The initial failures in the naval battles resulted in a series of innovations to Roman ships and naval strategies. An illustrative example is the invention of the ‘ravens’ allowing the Romans to board the enemy’s ships (Pol. 1.22), and the imitation of the captured Rhodian trireme (1.59) which was a more efficient vessel. Interestingly, Moore emphasises the collective nature of such innovations (114–116), but leaves out the fact that the narrative of the First Punic War was part of the introductory books of the Histories, books which were composed as summaries and thus indicate that such details might have seemed less consequential to Polybius. Further on, Moore suggests that the strength shown by Rome in the Second Punic War was a deliberate development of the lessons learnt from their previous experiences against Carthage. During the war with Hannibal, Rome displayed a capacity to develop knowledge that helped them endure almost assured destruction (120–128).

The last chapter makes several interesting points with potential for further discussion. Moore hopes to illustrate the shift in focus in Roman culture from collective to individual leadership in the wake of the victories at Zama and Pydna. Aemilius Paulus and Scipio Aemilianus serve as primary examples, a wise choice particularly in the case of the latter. From an early age, Aemilianus show himself as emulator of his ancestors in the pursue of noble deeds. However, Moore fails to notice that Aemilianus seems to be more concerned with his own personal reputation and appearance than with the collective well-being of the Romans.[3] In this sense, Polybius’ positive portrayal of Aemilianus denotes a change in motivation, which Moore implies but does not assert. Although Aemilianus seeks to emulate the deeds of his ancestors and to serve as a model for future generations, the shift from collective to individual leadership results in a more egocentric approach to heroism, a point that Moore omits. Nevertheless, like his predecessors, Aemilianus is willing to take lessons from the past and, at the climax of his career at the sack of Carthage, is aware of the destructive nature of the anakyklosis and that Rome one day will share Carthage’s destiny (Pol. 38.19).

Moore’s book illustrates the growing interest in Polybius’ writing style, which has been particularly striking in the last decade. Some examples of this are B. McGing’s Polybius (2010), N. Miltsios’ The Shaping of the Narrative in Polybius (2013), and the essays in N. Miltsios and M. Tamiolaki ed. Polybius and his Legacy (2018). Moore’s book is a commendable addition due to its careful consideration of the philological issues, which is paired with narratological analyses that further the understanding of Polybius’ thought.



[1] E.g. J. Davidson, “The Gaze in Polybius’ Histories”, JRS (1991) 81: 10–24; for energeia in Hellenistic historiography e.g., R. Webb, Ekphrasis, Imagination and Persuasion in Ancient Rhetorical Theory and Practice. Farnham (2009); C. Roby, Technical Ekphrasis in Greek and Roman Science and Literature: The Written Machine Between Alexandria and Rome. Cambridge (2014)

[2] For similar interpretations P. Pédech, La Méthode Historique de Polybe Paris (1964); A. Eckstein, “Hannibal at New Carthage: Polybius 3.15 and the Power of Irrationality” CP (1989) 84: 1–15; Moral Vision in the Histories of Polybius. Berkeley (1995).

[3] Cf. L. Hau, Moral History from Herodotus to Diodorus Siculus. Edinburgh (2018)