Book Review: Polybius-The Histories

The Histories by Polybius is the next book in classics arc. It covers the period from the beginning of the First Punic War in 267 B.C. to 167 B.C. when he claims the Roman Empire was essentially complete and ruled most of the known world. He claims to write the first universal history and has some pretty harsh words for historians who preceded him, especially Timaeus of Locri. The complete text of the histories is available online at several sites, the one I like the best is Bill Thayer’s site LacusCurtis, he has a huge number of classic texts online as well as travelogues of many classic sites and what they look like today.

I read the Robin Waterfield translation of The Histories and they are very readable. The work of Polybius flows very well and despite the presence of numerous digressions in the text Polybius fits them in very well. He writes in a very brusque style and there are many instances where he ends a digression with a variation of “that is enough of that; now back to the real story.” I thought he related the history quite well and what I particularly like about Polybius is that eh very rarely puts words into the mouths of figures he is talking about. It was common for ancient authors to invent speeches by historical figures to make points and they are often of the variety that the speeches are what the author imagined they would say. Tacitus does not hesitate at all to invent long speeches by the figures in his history. Polybius is very judgemental and harsh in his judgment. He does not hesitate to place the blame for Roman disasters squarely on the shoulders of specific figures in very harsh terms. For example, he blames Varro in no uncertain terms for the disaster at Cannae claiming that the other Consul Aemillius was opposed to battle and protested it. (Book II, Chapter 110).

The part of the histories I found most fascinating though was Book VI. In it, Polybius describes the Roman constitution and government and the way in which the Legions were recruited and organized in detail. He presents a theory of government that has six recurring cycles and he makes some statements that are particularly stirring. Three of my favorite quotes from Book Vi are:
In regards to democracy-

Likewise, we would not describe a system of government as democracy just because the entire population has the right to follow every whim and inclination. What we call democracy is a system where the majority decision prevails, but which retains the traditional values of piety towards the gods, care of parents, respect for elders, and obedience to the laws.(Book VI, Chapter 4)

About mob rule-

While those who had experienced Oligarchic excess remained alive, they were content with the existing regime and were fully committed to equality of speech and the right of every citizen to speak his mind. But by the time a new crop of young men had been born and democracy was in its third generation, the principles of equal and free speech were too familiar to seem particularly important, and some people began to want to get ahead of everyone else. It was especially the rich who succumbed to this temptation and longed for power. But then, finding that that their own resource and merits were not enough to enable them to get what they wanted, they squandered their fortunes on bribing and corrupting the general populace in all sorts of ways. Once this inane hunger for glory had made the common people greedy for such largesse and willing to accept it, democracy in its turn was overthrown, and replaced by violence and government by main force. For once people had grown accustomed to eating off others’ tables and expected their daily needs to be met, then, when they found someone to champion their cause – a man of vision and daring, who had been excluded from political office by his poverty – they instituted government by force; they banded together and set about murdering, banishing, and redistributing land, until they reduced to a bestial state and once more gained a monarchic master.(Book Vi, Chapter 9)

Mob rule again –

I think there can be no doubt what lies in the future for Rome. When a state has warded off many serious threats, and has come to attain undisputed sovereignty and supremacy, it is easy to see that, after a long period of settled prosperity, lifestyles become more extravagant, and rivalry over political positions and other such projects becomes fiercer than it should be. If these processes continue for very long, society will change for the worse. The causes of the deterioration will be lust for power combined with contempt for political obscurity, and personal ostentation and extravagance. It will be called a democratic revolution, however, because the time will come when people will feel abused by some politicians’ self-seeking ambition, and will have been flattered into vain hopes by others, lust for power. Under these circumstances, all their decisions will be motivated by anger and passion, and they will no longer be content to be subject or even equal to those in power. No, they will want everything, or almost everything, for themselves. When this happens, the new constitution will be described in the most attractive terms, as ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’, but in fact it will be the worst of all constitutions, mob rule

The Histories will be of interest to anyone who likes Roman history but it is especially good for it’s coverage of the Punic Wars and events in the Mediterranean world that were contemporary to the Punic Wars. Polybius does an outstanding job of writing a comprehensive history of the world as he knew it. Book Vi is of interest to political theorists and also for its descriptions of Roman military organization and warmaking methods.

The Waterfield translation is easy to read and there is an extensive, easy to reference, list of explanatory notes at the back of the volume. An excellent book and one I would recommend to people who want to read the classics but are intimidated because they think they are hard to read.