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Polybius' Life And Historiography Notes

Classics Notes > Roman History 241 BC to 146 BC Notes

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Polybius' Life and Historiography Polybius' life, position in the Greek historiographical tradition, audience and whether he was pro-Roman or not are all very important issues when considering the nature and purpose of his work. He has numerous authorial intrusions into the narrative throughout the extant work in which he reveals he has a very focused concept of what he wants his writing to achieve; all the above factors have a bearing upon this and Polybius is often helpful by himself explaining how they are relevant. The proposed aim of the work, which is set down in the prologue at the beginning of books one and three and then again in the epilogue in book thirty nine, is to explain to his audience, "by what means and under what system of polity the Romans in less than fifty-three years have succeeded in subjecting nearly the whole inhabited world to their sole government- a thing unique in history" (1.1). He does this over the course of some thirty books and then finds cause to add another ten in which he provides a description of the world under Roman rule so that present and future generations can assess whether it was fair and just or harsh and tyrannical. This, then, is the general aim behind Polybius' work, but how he goes about this is what is of interest here. Firstly it is important to place Polybius within his proper context within the Greek historiographical tradition; Herodotus is the first historian of note, whose work still survives in any quantity, but it is to his successor, Thucydides, one must turn to start getting a grasp of the methods and aims of Polybius' work. Thucydides was the first to focus predominantly on contemporary political events and criticised those writers, like Herodotus, who transmitted myths and stories which were delighting to the ear but clearly untrue, furthermore he also criticised their historical method which involved a total lack of autopsy and investigation. In chapters 1.22/23 of his work he promises his reader that he will only transmit speeches that he heard or that he researched with all due diligence, his history will not be pleasant to hear but will be profitable for a man who wants to look into the truth of things because they will inevitably happen again and finally that, "it is compiled rather for an everlasting possession than to be rehearsed for a prize." These two short chapters give the essence of the Thucydidean method but also indicate his three most important traits as a historian which Polybius adopts in his own work; truthfulness, diligence of method and, above all, usefulness. Polybius consistently shows an awareness of the importance of all three things and thereby shows the impact of the historiographical traditions begun by Thucydides upon his own work. On several occasions he, like Thucydides did before him, uses invective against other historians whose method he regards as poor in order to provide negative examples of what a history should not be and thereby what his history is. At 3.9 he describes the account of Fabius Pictor on the causes of the Hannibalic War in order to show to his audience that they must rely on the facts of the situation rather than the reputation of the man writing; he may have been a Roman senator but this does not necessarily mean what he writes is true. Furthermore in 2.56 he launches into an invective against Phylarchus, saying that his work is random and careless, but also that his needless creation of overly emotional passages gives his work a womanish quality; a historian should certainly not have

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