Posted: March 18th, 2023
In Polybius’ Histories he outlines the beginning of the Roman Empire
and describes the early period from which Rome came to power and become the
dominant empire in the known world. Polybius was a Greek historian who
knew Rome, and was writing to a Greek audience. In his first book in his
Histories, he discusses the early days of Roman power. In particular, in
the first chapters on Book I, he outlines how and why the Romans came to
take power in Sicily and win over the Carthaginians. His outline of
history is largely military based and goes through the history of the
events primarily by the course of action in determining the military
outcome of the conflict. But he does so often reflecting on other
historians views as well as his own viewpoints from largely a pro-Roman
perspective. Furthermore, the causes behind the events to Polybius seem to
be the inevitable rise of Rome, and while he gives credit to the
Carthaginians, he has a great respect and belief in the Roman destiny, but
leaves out of causes for the conflict that a realistic modern perspective
would take into account.
Polybius begins his history of the rise of the Roman Empire with an
introduction on history and this is that he believes there should be a
“praise” of history (Polybius 5). This is because he mentions that the
history that he is going to recount is one of utmost importance and should
have great value to those who care, and that is how the Roman Empire rose
to power in less than fifty three years. He writes that people are “so
worthless or indolent” if they do not care about how the Romans
accomplished such an admirable goal as they did not in which they became to
greatest power in the known world (Polybius 5). He calls this “a thing
unique in history,” thus reflecting his position as to the role of the
Roman Empire (Polybius 5). He then outlines his work and sets out to
explain how the Romans came to power, something that is a major theme for
historians of his time because it is very significant that such strong
empires of the past had now given way to the Romans, including his own
people, the Greeks.
Polybius’ history begins with the Punic Wars and tells of the Roman
conflict with the Carthage forces. In particular, if looking at the
history told by Polybius, he gets much of the details correct. The Romans
and Carthaginians clashed beginning in 264 BC and was a largely naval
conflict in which Sicily was also a main focus of the war (UNRV History).
In particular Messina and Syracuse were the original sources of the
conflict and Messina betrayed the Carthiginians by going to the Romans for
help after asking for Carthaginian support. The causes of the conflict in
real life were therefore the details which Polybius relays, and in relating
the details in his history in comparison to the real life equivalent
Polybius appears to be doing justice to the story.
However, to Polybius the causes of the conflict that resulted in the
Punic Wars is purely factual. He relays the military events and the causes
with accuracy, but does not go into anymore depth. For example he writes
about Hiero II and Mamertines of Messene and the Roman’s involvement in the
conflict as a local conflict gone bigger. Furthermore, he makes an effort
to ensure that other historians do not inaccurately portray the Roman
invasion and that the Roman’s were not routed. For instance he explicitly
writes, “An equally powerful motive with me for paying particular attention
to this war is that, to my mind, the truth has not been adequately stated
by those historians who are reputed to be the best authorities on it,”
which suggests that his goals are something other than just a factual
account of the war (Polybius 37). That does not mean his account is not
factual, but that he has a perspective that he wants to be expressed and he
is willing to express his intentions to express these facts. This is
similar in how the beginning of the history he outlines the importance and
value to what he is about to write, thus trying to make it very clear to a
reader the extent and value of the events he is portraying.
This means that Polybius’ account on the causes of the history he is
presenting is something fairly superficial. He does not evaluate the
events of history without looking at a deeper level. And if he does take
into account a deeper level, it is that the Romans were meant to fight the
war, and win the war. He begins his history by noting that it is a
description of how the Roman’s came to power, so thus the rest of his
history has to fall into line. He does not account for divine intervention
or superstitious reasons for the Roman successes, but hints that the
Roman’s were meant to be successful and justified in their success. If
anything, the Romans were a rising Empire on the level of the Carthaginians
and it was a battle between two able and successful powers of the world,
one for ultimate power. While Polybius does consider the role of
individuals in the conflict, his history is reflected more so as a history
of two empires, and the inevitable rise of the Romans as the greatest in
the world. Polybius not only writes as a believer of the Roman destiny,
but as an active participant, and thus his history of the Roman
justification to world domination is shrouded in further bias.
As a Greek in Rome, and since his people were conquered by Romans,
Polybius needs to share his feelings of justification for Roman domination.
This means that he frequently refers to the Roman strengths and
righteousness and his history sees no other alternative to an end than
Roman domination. For example he writes, “King Hiero having placed himself
under the protection of the Romans,” went on “, treating the Greeks in such
a way as to win from them crowns and other honours” (Polybius 43). This
means that the policy towards the Greeks was important to Polybius, and a
fair policy towards the Greeks meant for a more than fair portrayal of the
Romans. In fact, he writes of King Hiero that he should be regarded, “as
the most illustrious of princes and the one who reaped longest the fruits
of his own wisdom in particular cases and in general policy,” which is a
direct interjection of personal opinion resulting from his relationship to
the involved parties of the Punic Wars (Polybius 43).
Writing from the perspective of the victors therefore dictates
Polybius’ account of his history. While fair to the Carthaginians, it is
perhaps only to demonstrate the great forces that Rome had to overcome, and
was destined to overcome, to be come a world power in less then 53 years.
This is because Polybius set out to write a history that described the
“Roman dominion the most famous empires of the past,” and therefore the
Carthaginians must be portrayed as a formidable opponent (Polybius 6).
There is no glory in crushing a lesser opponent or fighting an unjustified
war. That is not to say that real evidence points to the Carthaginians as
a lesser power than the Romans, but rather to illustrate that Polybius had
motive to portray the events as fair as he did. While denying Roman
defeats, he described the events of the first Punic Wars as an admirable
war fought on both sides, but one in which Rome was meant to win as it was
the first and most necessary step for Rome to become the world power that
it eventually became. Writing as a Greek in Rome, he needs to justify
Rome’s domination over his people and he does so by explaining the
greatness in which Rome has treated the Greeks, and the greatness of Rome
in military combat and the greatness that they had to defeat to establish
themselves as a world power.
Modern historians would mainly view this conflict as an inevitable
battle between two powers with similar interests and not the inevitable
course of events for Roman interests. Carthagian was a power to the south
and Rome to the north and in between there was a conflict of interests.
From a realistic perspective on history, both sides must have feared the
other and wanted to secure their own personal interests as well as expand.
The expansion of one empire meant a loss to the other. For instance if
Rome increased influence in Sicily, this meant a loss of influence for the
Carthaginians and thus the central Mediterranean can be seen as a zero-sum
game in which all out war was an inevitable result of political interests
and international security concerns as well as domestic designs on
expansion. It was not inevitable outcome for Roman greatness, but it was a
necessary war to be fought because of the situation of Rome and Carthage in
the world. There were was much more to the conflict than a small battle
over Sicily exploding into an all out Naval conflict. It just so happened
that a local conflict involved two powers, but like many other wars
throughout history, it only took a spark to ignite a much bigger battle
that was waiting to be instigated.
From the perspective of an ancient historian Polybius leaves out very
little necessary information and his level of information is consistent
with that of ancient histories. However, to modern historians it would be
helpful if other information was included. Some statistics as the nature
of Rome’s growth and expansion perhaps would help to show how Rome was a
burgeoning power rising to the level of the Carthaginians. There must have
been much more to the conflict than just the military tactical maneuvers
and subsequent domestic responses that were made to the events of the war.
Polybius leaves out much of these details, or maybe he is not aware of the
details or they are not necessary to further his perspective and his goal
in writing his history. He writes that he, “shall, however, attempt to
narrate somewhat more carefully the first war between Rome and Carthage for
the possession of Sicily,” meaning his story is just that at its core- a
narration of historical and military events (Polybius 35). Modern
historians delve much farther beneath the surface to find another level to
the conflict, one not rooted in simple cause and effects but as part of a
much bigger picture. Therefore any information as to Rome’s expansionist
policies or eventually military growth, and even domestic reasons for
Rome’s ascension to a world power would be much appreciated. Similar
information from the Carthaginian side would help as well, as two powers do
not engage in a war simply because of a local conflict or because it is one
power’s destiny. There are other forces at work which Polybius does not
recognize or does not want to recognize as they would not further his goals
of the history.
In his histories, Polybius writes about the early days of the
Romans rise to power of the known world. He does so from the perspective
of the victor and this means that to him, Rome’s accomplishments are
destined and great and to be celebrated. His perspective on history is a
reflection on this viewpoint. In particular, if looking at his
introduction to the first book and his subsequent retelling of the
military events of the first Punic War that led to the defeat and rise of
Rome, the perspective of Polybius on history is rather superficial. He
sees things for what they are, but also he sees things from a Roman
perspective. A modern historian may consider the conflict between two
powers in the same region inevitable, but Polybius recounts the facts as if
they are the only thing that matters. While he is unbiased, there may also
be ulterior motives for his lack of bias. Ultimately, his history is
accurate, but lacking in important details that could have contributed to
the conflict. A modern perspective would look at realistic concerns of
international security, expansion, and political issues. Also, Rome may
have been expanding economically and needed to find new markets or areas
for production. There could have been a wide range of factors leading to a
war between two powers in this zero-sum game on Mediterranean power.
Polybius does not see it this way, however, as he is writing to Greeks
about Rome and for Rome’s expansion to be for greed related motives would
reflect bad on the fact that his people were conquered for political or
economic motives. Instead, he portrays the Roman expansion as inevitable
destiny which means that Rome has a right and it is justified that the
former power of Greece is now under Roman influence.
Polybius: the Histories. LacusCurtius. 18 Apr. 2007
“Roman History Timeline.” UNRV History. 2007. 18 Apr. 2007
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