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Polybius

(c. 200 - c. 118 BCE)

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Probable image of Polybius on the stele.
Creative Commons Attribution license - On the same terms 3.0.

Polybius, also known as Polybios of Megalopolis, lived in about 200-118 BCE. Greek historian and chronicler of the Roman Empire during the Republic period. Due to the care for historical truth and critical attitude towards sources, considered one of the most outstanding (next to Thucydides) Greek historiographers. He wrote in Greek (koine). Many prominent Roman historians, such as Livius, Pliny the Elder, Plutarch and Appian, and contemporary Polybius Sempronius Asellio benefited from his work. Like Diodorus Siculus and Dionysios of Helicarnassus. His work was continued by Strabo and Poseidonius of Rhodes.

Polybius came from Megalopolis in Arcadia. His father, Lycortas, was a strategist of the Achaean Union, a politician, landowner, member of the ruling class, thanks to which the young Polybius could closely observe the political and military affairs of Megalopolis. Young Polybius was interested in hunting and horse riding. In 170 or 169 BCE (the exact date is unknown) was in command of the cavalry (Hipparchus) of the Achaean League during the reign of Archon. It was one of the most important and honourable political functions. It was most likely then that he wrote his “Tactics” about the art of war.

It is not known whether the young Polybius took part in military expeditions at that time. We only know that he took part in the mission of Ptolemy V Epiphanes, king of Egypt. However, this message did not materialize in connection with Ptolemy’s death. Earlier in 182 BCE, he was honoured to bury the urn with the ashes of an outstanding Greek general and politician, Filopoimen, a friend of the Father, who died in 183 BCE. in Messania. In later years, Polybius would write his extensive biography. His work was later used by Plutarch in his Lives, but the original is lost.

Polybius began his political career under very unfavourable conditions. The upcoming war with Rome was certainly a hard test for the young Polybius, who behaved like a seasoned politician not guided by sentiments, but by a sober judgment of the situation. He was a supporter of maintaining the independence and neutrality of Megalopolis in the conflict of Perseus Antigonid(179-168 BCE), the Macedonian king with Rome until it was revealed whose side the victory was. It was the same attitude as his father presented. During the Battle of Pydna in 168 BCE (the Third Macedonian War – 171-168 BCE) in which Emilius Paulus smashed the Macedonian phalanx to ashes and dust, was taken prisoner. His origin and (perhaps) the fact that he showed great skill on the battlefield (for which the Romans praised him) meant that he was sent to Italy (167 BCE), together with 1000 noble Achaeans (as hostages), where due to his high personal culture, he came under the protection of consul Emilius Paulus, his victor, who was a lover of Greek culture. He was held in Rome for 17 years. With time, he became the tutor of the sons of Paulus, Fabius and Scipio, the later Scipio Africanus the Younger conqueror of Carthage, to whom he became a friend. He became his military adviser and took part in Scipio’s war campaigns against Numantia and Carthage.

Polybius was released from captivity at the age of 50 in 150 BCE. Then he returned to Greece, where there was general dissatisfaction and poverty. After a year (in 149 BCE) he returns to Rome, summoned by the consul Manlinus Manilius to go with Scipio to Africa during the Third War Punic. He observes the conquest of Carthage and its destruction in 146 BCE, which he later describes in his work.
In the same year, after the occupation of Greece by the Romans, in 146 BCE he was appointed by the Roman Senate as an assistant in the management of the country, where he worked on a new form of government in the cities of Greece. His work is highly appreciated. He travelled through Greek cities, where he softened disputes related to the new Roman order. Initially accused of treason to Greece, later glorified. They put statues on him. He performed the assigned tasks very conscientiously.

In the following years, he worked in Rome on his works, and in the meantime, he travelled in 147 BCE, to the Mediterranean countries, where he learned about their history, especially their material monuments. During his travels, he got to know Gaul, Spain and North Africa. He probably received access to archival materials from the wars of Rome, as well as the accounts of legionary veterans, which he used in his later works. In 145 BCE was in Egypt, and in 138-135 BCE he travelled to Lokroi and Epizephryroi in Greece many times.

He admired Rome, its military power, its conquests, and its political system, which had a huge impact on his work, incl. on “The History of Rome”, covering the years 264 to 146 BCE It was the Roman version of universal history in which he justified the conquests of Rome with the perfection of the Roman system. This item had as many as 40 volumes. Books 1 to 5 and extensive fragments of others have survived to our times.

Polybius also accompanied Scipio in the war in Spain with the Lusitani, as his military adviser – the Numantine War (143-133 BCE). Polybius wrote about this war in a lost monograph. During this time, he circumnavigated Spain as far as the Bay of Biscay. He returned to Rome with Scipio through the Alps. He wanted to visit them because of Hannibal’s trip to Italy during the Second Punic War. After the war, he returned to Greece, according to the inscriptions and sculptures from that period that still exist today.

Polybius was also considered an expert in setting up camps and securing them. He also knew about cryptology. He also improved the optical telegraph and described how he did it. He was also an expert in the field of communications.

Polibius checkerboard

Polybius’s chessboard

This is a kind of monoalphabetic cypher invented by Polybius to encode messages that assigns a number to each letter.

The numbers indicate the position of the letter in the table – the first digit is the row number and the second digit is the column. For example, the word:

CAESAR
after encryption, it takes the form: 13 15 55 11 42

The last undertaking in his life was reportedly working on the construction of Via Domitia in 118 BCE. (in the south of today’s France, connecting Spain with Italy.), as suggested by the writings of Lucian of Samosata (120-190 CE), Roman rhetoric and satirist writing in Greek. Perhaps he had some reason unknown to us when he stated that “Polybius fell off his horse while driving around the country, as a result of which he fell ill and died at the age of 82”. More likely, however, Polybius spent the rest of his life in Megalopolis, where he completed his work and where he died.

The work of Polybius was based primarily on historical data and sources available to him. His “History of Rome” begins in 264 BCE and ends in 146 BCE, when Rome attained the status of a superpower (220-167 BCE). It describes Rome’s political and military efforts to subdue its enemies, incl. Carthage, and the acquisition of supremacy in the Mediterranean. He also believes, which is reflected in the introduction to “The Acts of Rome”, that “history is the best school in politics, and the memories of other people’s experiences are an excellent lesson on how to change one’s fate with dignity”. Work on the first part of “Dzieje” took 10 years. Books 1-5 (264-220 BCE: the history of Rome and Carthage, and 220-216 BCE: the history of the East) have all been preserved. Extracts and fragments of the remaining books (books 17 and 40 are missing) concern the Second and Third Punic War, Second and Third Macedonian War, Syrian War, the conquest of Spain and Greece. At the end of Book 29, Polybius thanks the gods for being a mediator between the Greeks and the Romans.

His works have been read by both Greeks and Romans and have been widely commented on. The Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega Gasset wrote of Polybius: “he was one of the few great minds that the cloudy human species can produce”, also says of the lost books of “Roman History” that he is “undoubtedly the greatest loss, which we have borne in our Greco-Roman heritage”.

Sources
  • Historia Powszechna t. 4. Konsolidacja hellenizmu. Początki Rzymu i przemiany świata klasycznego, kons. prof. dr hab. E. Papuci-Władyka, prof. dr hab. J. Ostrowski
  • Tomasz Grabowski, Rafia 217 p.n.e. Ostatni triumf Ptolemeuszy, Kocewia Mała 2021

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