Our book today is The Rise of the Roman Empire (for want of a better title) by the first century b.c. historian Polybius, a Greek living among the best and brightest of his Roman conquerors.

Polybius was born sometime toward the end of the third century b. c. at Megalopolis, in primitive, untamed Arcadia, which belonged to the venerable Achaean League of states. His family was prominent, and he received an excellent though old-fashioned education in the old Arcadian way: hunting and drinking and boy-chasing, with very little emphasis placed on the pallid disciplines of the library and the lamp. We don’t know at what point those disciplines began to exert their own pull of young Polybius’ mind; it may have been around 182 b.c., when the young man was given the singular honor of bearing the ashes of Philopoemon (one of the greatest of all Achaeans) in funeral procession. Certainly at some point, probably shortly afterwards, Polybius wrote a massive biography of Philopoemon, now lost to us but very well known to ancient writers.

Epic composition wasn’t his only accomplishment in those murky early years, however; by 170 b. c. Polybius had become prominent enough in the Achaean League to achieve the rank of commander of cavalry, and this was a problematic thing to have on your resume at the time, since the Romans had been at war with Macedon for a couple of years. When Macedon was defeated, in 168, the Romans swept through the whole of the Peloponnese with political retributions, including summoning about a thousand Achaeans into custody in Italy, including Polybius.

Most of these detainees – none of whom was ever given a trial or even much of a reason for their detainment, other than their nationality and being on the losing side – were given quarters of varying degrees of comfort in southern Etruria, but Polybius was luckier: for sixteen years, he was under the most genteel of house-arrests in custody of the family of Aemilius Paulus, the commander of the forces that had finally defeated Macedon. The great man’s young son was Publius Scipio, with whom Polybius developed a friendship and working relationship, a mentorship of remarkable depth and flexibility. Scipio and brother Fabius suddenly found in their midst this man of immense experience and hard-won wisdom, and perhaps it’s only natural they felt a bit of rivalry for his attention. In fact, Polybius could date his friendship with young Scipio to some surprising comments Scipio made to him after dinner one day, comments dealing directly with that rivalry, all of which Polybius himself relates to us:

One day when the three of them were leaving Fabius’ house, Fabius happened to turn off toward the Forum, while Polybius and Scipio walked off in a different direction. As they were walking along, Scipio, blushing a little, asked Polybius in a hesitant voice, “Sir, why is it that when you’re at a meal with my brother and me, you address all your comments to him, all your questions and conversation to him, not noticing me at all? It’s starting to look as though you have the same opinion of me as everybody else: that I’m withdrawn and lazy, that I’m not a proper gung-ho Roman just because I don’t plead cases in the law courts. ‘His family doesn’t need that kind of representative, people say, and it really irritates me.”

Polybius was shocked by the young man’s comments, for the boy was only eighteen years old. “By Jove, young Scipio,” he replied, “what are you saying? You mustn’t think such things – I don’t do the things you say because I have a poor opinion of you, far from it. It’s just that your brother is the older, and I assumed you shared the same thoughts and reactions. I’m amazed to hear different, and I’m delighted to learn that you’re bothered by the possibility people might think you unworthy of your family – it shows you have spirit. I would be very, very happy to devote myself to helping you change that impression, helping you act and think in ways worthy of your ancestors.”

Scipio might have been young, but he was no fool: he accepted gladly and used Polybius as a close advisor for the rest of the man’s life, although always allowing him the freedom to travel, explore, and write on his own. Though thus deeply enmeshed in Roman affairs, Polybius never stopped caring about Greece and his beloved Achaean League – although their fractiousness and frequent lack of judgement predictably exasperated him. The great ancient travel-writer Pausanius records an inscription he saw in Lycosura: “Greece would never have suffered if she’ listened to Polybius, and it was only through him that her suffering was relieved.”

Polybius’ subject is the rise of Rome to unparalleled power in the Mediterranean and beyond, a rise he follows through the epic events of the First Punic War and the Second Punic War, with liberal and lengthy digressions along the way for a wide variety of subjects (perhaps the most famous – and certainly the most excerpted – of which is his treatise on the Roman constitution, a treatise that cast a long shadow on the events of ensuing centuries, up to and most certainly including the American Revolution). His style is less fluid than that of Roman historian Livy (whose surviving works cover a great deal of the same subject matter), but his historical method – pursued at a time when the idea was still in its comparative infancy – is much more satisfyingly rigid.

There is no popular edition currently in print of all that survives in the single manuscript of Polybius, but the Penguin Classic (as is so often the case), translated by Ian Scott-Kilvert, will serve nicely as an introduction to the man and his work. That has been the bedrock task of the Penguin Classic series for lo, these many decades, and here as always they do their work admirably. Oxford World’s Classics, so far as we know, never got around to Polybius, but you should!

  • Greg

    Could this be a little preview of your year with the Romans?

    I await more!

© 2007-2017, Steve Donoghue