Long Live Polybius, the Noble Historian

“Which do you prefer, ” the Roman senate asked, “war in Macedonia…or to wait until Philip brings the war here to Italy like Pyrrhus and Hannibal did?”


I recommend Polybius‘ “The Rise of the Roman Empire” to anyone who wants a good overview of the Roman Empire and the ancient world (well, more than an overview – but not as thorough as, say, Livy). For the Christian, there is some really helpful background on some of the prophetical chapters of Daniel. Three of the four “heirs” of Alexander are described. Hannibal, the Carthaginian, is described in sympathetic detail. Reading the accounts of his life you get the impression that he was certainly more noble than many of his countrymen.

He not only reports facts but reasons as well. In fact in several digressions he chides other historians for seeing the events of history as mere coincidence or fate. Rome excelled because they were – at the time – morally and technically superior to their ever-present enemies. The beginnings of their conquests were done out of a necessity to have a buffer zone between their citizens and the barbarians. Even in the war with Macedonia, the war that would eventually mean the end of Greece as a world-power, Rome was fearful of invasion.

“Which do you prefer, ” the senate asked, “war in Macedonia…or to wait until Philip brings the war here to Italy like Pyrrhus and Hannibal did?”.

Carthage and Greece declined in importance, according to Polybius, because of national character flaws. The Carthaginians were faithless oathbreakers and the Greeks had no sense of national unity.

Style and integrity meant a lot to Polybius. Some historians, he complains, just don’t get their facts straight or they don’t go out and do the footwork and research. Other historians he castigates for being sensationalist and dwelling, for instance, on “graphic scenes of women clinging to one another, tearing their hair…”. He knows about war personally, having been taken captive by the Romans. It was by his friendship with the powerful Scipio that he not only was able to write an insiders assessment for the ascendancy of Rome, but also was able to help determine its course of action. Scipio’s respect for Polybius was so great that he was called as an advisor during the final assault on Carthage.

“Polybius” means “long-lived”; his life was “cut short” when he fell off his horse – at the age of 82. But his life seemed to have quality as well as longevity. He was one of the pivotal characters in the demise of Greek civilization as a world power.

About asterisktom

I breathe, therefore I blog.
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