Historical Figures


We can pin Polybius' date of birth to around 210-200 BC. in Megalopolis, a city located in the Greek region of Arcadia and capital of the Achaean League, of which his father, Licortas, was an outstanding leader. We know little about his youth, although it seems that, as a member of a family of the local elite -and according to what can be deduced from his works- he enjoyed a careful education that allowed him to acquire advanced knowledge in the humanities, medicine, music and military strategy, the latter Practically mandatory discipline for the young nobles of Arcadia who were reputed to be great warriors. His military training would be accentuated by the influence he received from the Achaean general Philopemen, with whom he had a close relationship. One of the most discussed aspects about Polybius is related to which of the Greek philosophical schools had a greater influence on him, if the Peripatetic, continuation of Aristotle, or the Stoic school.

Given his family ties, it is inevitable that he had an active role, from a young age, in the political life of the city. The first news in this sense corresponds to his appointment as ambassador in the diplomatic mission sent to the Egyptian court of Ptolemy V Epiphanes in the year 181 BC. It is possible that when he was younger he had participated, together with the Romans, in the wars against the Seleucid king Antiochus III between 190-188 BC. although we are not certain about the role he played.

Later, in the year 170 BC. he was elected hipparchus of the Achaean League. At that time, the third Macedonian War was taking place, which pitted Rome against the Macedonian king Perseus. After having a hesitant initial position on what strategy to follow, the Achaean League finally decided to support the Romans. However, his support came late and the consul Paulo Emilio, who had already resolved the fight, rejected the Achaean collaboration and in the year 168 B.C. he completely defeated the Macedonians at Pydna.

The lukewarm support shown by some Achaeans during the Macedonian war led to a list of a thousand men being drawn up, including Polybius, who a year later were sent to Rome as hostages. Most of them were dispersed through the Etrurian cities, but Polybius managed to remain in Rome where he associated with the most important senatorial families, becoming the tutor of P. Cornelius Scipio Emiliano, and had some freedom of movement. He seventeen years he remained in this situation, until in the year 150 B.C. his freedom was granted and he was able to return to Greece. During that period he came to know and deeply appreciate the Roman political system. Therefore, when years later Rome asks for his advice during the Third Punic War, he gladly accepts. From then on we lack precise data on the life of Polybius although we know that in the year 146 B.C. he witnessed the capture and destruction of Carthage and that same year he also witnessed the fall of Corinth, where he intervened, at the request of the Roman Senate, to establish the basis for pacification. The last years of his life are unknown and it is believed that he visited Alexandria, Rhodes and even Spain. He died around the year 127 BC

The only work that has come down to us from Polybius, and also partially, is the Histories of him . There is evidence that he wrote other minor works, such as The Life of Philopemen and a treatise on military tactics, but these have been lost. Cicero also attributes to him the authorship of a book on the Numancia war, although today the veracity of this statement is questioned.

Stories It consists of forty books and can be divided into two large blocks:the first covers from the year 220 B.C. (when the Second Punic War begins) until the year 168 B.C. (date of the Roman victory at Pydna). The first two books, however, deal in an introductory way from the First Punic War (256 BC) to the beginning of the second. The second great block goes from the year 168 B.C. until 146 BC. (end of the Third Punic War and destruction of Corinth). The date of composition of this work is subject to controversy, although the last years of his captivity in Rome are generally taken as the starting point.

There have been many works by historians prior to Polybius who have addressed the issues he dealt with and based on them to write his work, after applying a harsh critical bias. He uses the various documentary sources and direct testimonies as a basis for recounting the events and also highlights his preference for geography and the description of battles. He did not hesitate to personally visit the most important enclaves in his narrative, as he did traveling to the Alps to learn about the vicissitudes that Hannibal had to face when crossing them.

Polybius' objective was to recount the Roman expansion and extol its political constitution, and this is seen in the treatment of the Second Punic War when he emphasizes that Rome was only able to overcome the great threat that hung over his head thanks to his virtue. He states that “ the work and the object of our company consists solely and exclusively in writing how, when and why all the known parts of the inhabited world came to fall under Roman domination ”.

Polybius tries to avoid the defects of his predecessors, whom he reproaches for his disjointed narration, his naive accounts or the taking of previous positions. For him, the purpose of the historian must be the search for the causes that generate the events, without it being enough to relate them, since it is necessary to provide them with an explanation. For this purpose he enunciates some categories to classify historical phenomena:mode, time and cause. Of the three, the cause is the most important category, since it is the plans, reasoning and feelings that lead individuals to make a decision. With Polybius there is a subordination of the will to the understanding. On the other hand, he proceeds to differentiate between cause, pretext, and initiation. The pretext would be the justification for the action and the beginning of the first real actions carried out, while the cause is a mental activity that precedes these two. As can be seen, the historiographical concept of Polibius is complex and markedly intellectual.

Along with the search for causality in history, individuals also take on a special importance in the work of Polibius . The historical character, whom he also calls "causative", is the one who controls the political game. History will depend, therefore, on the spirit, on the capacity for calculation and foresight of these subjects. Polybius puts reason before emotion and passionate elements, so that he divides men into rational ones (who will normally be the ones who come out victorious) and irrational ones (those who lose).

Despite the rationality that prevails in Stories, the role attributed to Fortune appears as an element that has puzzled scholars of Polybius because it fits poorly with the logic that characterizes all of his work. Its scope and meaning have been widely discussed. Part of the doctrine considers that Fortune plays a relevant role for Polybius and, therefore, predetermines the destiny of man regardless of the causality of the facts; while others consider that he uses Fortune only in relation to isolated and minor phenomena to explain how well-planned events go awry by chance.

Finally, many have seen in Polybius a political sociologist. Book VI of Histories it is devoted entirely to explaining the Roman constitution and developing a cyclical theory of political regimes. Suffice it to say that Polybius considers the Roman political system as the closest to the perfect or ideal system, insofar as it meets the requirements of other political systems while avoiding falling into any of the degenerations of those that previously existed (monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy). The adoption of this model of government is closely linked to the hegemony that Rome will have.

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