"A Well-Trimmed Ship":
The Republican Legacy of Polybius
Clifton R. Fox
Professor of History
Draft Version presented to the Raleigh Tavern Society December 5, 1996
The Founding Fathers of the United States occupied a world of ideas where the experiences of classical Greece and Rome were fundamental touchstones. George Washington, for example, although no classical scholar, founded his understanding of personal honor on models drawn from ancient Rome: men like Cato were his inspiration. After Washington had led the Revolutionary army, his contemporaries not only accepted Washington’s identification with Roman models, but hailed him as the new Cincinnatus, the farmer turned warhero who had returned to his plow after victory. Other Americans of the late eighteenth century also looked to Rome, and less often Athens and Sparta, in various ways. Political pamphlets were often signed with Roman or Greek pseudonyms. No one needed to be told the significance of names like Phocion, Brutus, Fabius or Scipio. This was the common currency of contemporary culture which reached down to all levels of society. In old age, John Adams remembered that as a child, he and his playmates had battled one another in mock combats of Romans and Carthaginians.
The impact of classical models, especially Roman models, on the thinking of the Founders did more than simply supply a surface vocabulary of names and allusions. A preoccupation with Roman history supplied Americans with an instinctive awareness of the fragility of liberty. After all, the Roman Republic collapsed from the weight of its own internal stresses in spite of its great wealth and power. The Roman Republic yielded to the Roman Empire, a tyrannical political edifice built on the rubble of Republican liberty. Washington’s hero Cato fell on his sword after his defeat at the hands of the dictator Caesar in North Africa. In their understanding of history, the Founding generation possessed an edge of pessimism, even of fatalism, which later generations of Americans have often forgotten.
The political literature of the Revolutionary era often stressed that tyranny, not liberty, was the usual condition of human societies. Free societies were rare and short-lived. In creating a free society, many of the Founders, especially the more conservative among them like John Adams, knew that their creation would have a limited lifespan. Their hope was to maximize the lifespan of liberty, and to assure that at the inevitable end of their experiment in liberty, Americans would leave a legacy of deeds and words to inspire future acolytes of liberty, however distant in time and space they might be.
In their efforts to maximize the lifespan of the Republic which they were creating, the Founders consulted the experience of the Romans: they sought to benefit from the legacy of the past, in the same way that they hoped to leave a legacy of their own to the future. Among the ancient writings which described the Roman Republic, none served as a more important guide to the strengths of the Roman Republic at the zenith of her vitality than the works of Polybius.
I: The Life
[Dates BC, unless moted]
Although Polybius devoted his intellectual energies to the study of Rome, he humself was Greek. Polybius wrote in Greek, and he wrote primarily to enlighten his fellow Greeks. As with all Greeks, however, the original allegiances of Polybius were fixed on a single city. Polybius entered the world as a citizen of Megalopolis, situated in the heart of the Peloponnesus peninsula. Megalopolis stood only fifty miles northwest of Sparta, and the same distance southeast of the stadium at Olympia. Polybius’ birth year is not exactly known, but can be placed between 205 and 200 based upon the available evidence.
Megalopolis had been build in 368 as a planned capital city of the Arcadian League, a federal union. Arcadia, famous for its the unspoiled beauty of its scenery [the word "Arcadian" remains in the lexicon], had earlier been a region of small, self-governing communities bound together by only the closest ties. Early in the fourth century, however, the nearby Spartans had become highly aggressive after their defeat of Athens in the Peloponnesian War. At the suggestion of their Theban ally Epaminondas, the Arcadians collected themselves into a strong a strong federal union, and build a common capital city at Megalopolis.
Although the building of Megalopolis served a useful purpose in protecting the Arcadians against the encroachment of the Spartans, it did not protect the Arcadians from submitting to an dfangerous adversary later in the fourth century: the kingdom of Macedonia. In 338, King Philippus II of Macedonia compelled nearly all of Greece, including the Arcadian League, to accept himself as "Hegemon" or Leader in an Hellenic League. After the death of Philippus, his son Alexander III [Alexander the Great] inherited the positions of King and "Hegemon." Alexander, of course, led Greek armies into Asia as far afield as India, but he also remained Leader of the Hellenic League until his death in 323. Before departing to attack the Persian Empire, Alexander had made an example of the rebellious city of Thebes by destroying it and selling its surviving population into slavery. The Greeks did not again question Alexander’s authority as long as he lived. After Alexander’s death, later Kings of Macedonia continued as Leaders of the Hellenic League, although no Macedonian King intimidated the Greeks as Philippus and Alexander had.
The peoples of Greece were often restive under Macedoniaian domination, hoping to reacquire the independence which they had once enjoyed. After 250, the cities of Achaea, joined together in the Achaean League, emerged as an independent force. Achaea was located on the northwestern side of the Peloponnese, north of Arcadia. Under the leadership of Aratus of Sicyon, the Achaean League expanded beyond Achaea proper. In 235, Megalopolis, with other Arcadian cities in tow, joined the Achaean League. Megalopolis immediately carried great weight in the federal institutions of the Achaean League. After Aratus passed from the scene, a Megalopolitan named Philopoemen replaced him as the most prominent leader in the affairs of the League. Several centuries later, the biographer Plutarch called Philopoemen the "last of the Greeks," the last great leader of the Greeks before the Roman conquest.
At the time of Polybius’ birth [?205-200], Philopoemen, stood at the height of his powers. He extended the Achaean League to cover the entire Peloponesus, even forcing the Spartans to join in 192. Polybius’ father, Lycortas served as the principal lieutenant of Philipoemen. After the death of Philopoemen in 183, Lycortas served three terms as "Strategos" [annual Commander-in-chief] of the Achaean League. Polybius, the son of a prominent man, rose to prominence himself early on. In 170, the Achaean League elected Polybius to the position of "Hipparch" [Cavalry Commader, deputy to the Strategos].
In his new role, Polybius found himself embroiled with the Romans. Before the birth of Polybius, any Achaean would have considered Macedonia as the great enemy of Greek freedom, as it had been for more than century. Logically, therefore, the Achaean League regarded as potential allies those who were enemies of Macedonia. The Roman Republic had become most definitely an enemy of Macedonia. In 215, at a time when the very existence of Rome seemed to hang by a thread while the Carthaginian army of Hannibal ran amuck in Italy, King Philippus V of Macedonia declared war on Rome. Macedonia and Rome had an existing rivalry centered on control of the Adriatic Sea and its coast. In hopes of advantage against the Romans, Philippus placed himself in alliance with Hannibal’s home city, the Phoenician stronghold of Carthage in Tunisia. In view of their troubles close to home, the Romans could only treat the conflict with Macedonia as a secondary theater of war, but the Romans did seek by diplomatic means to stir up the pot in Greece and make trouble for Philippus where they could. The Achaean League had to carefully consider whether to yield to Roman entreaties: in the Achaean assenbly, opinion divided. Philopoemen and Lycortas, the father of Polybius, both urged their colleagues not to trust the Romans. The Achaeans did not assist the Romans in this conflict, later called the First Macedonian War.
The Romans would not forget the Achaean slight of denying help, although their revemge would take years to be realized. Although the Achaeans did not assist the Romans, another Greek power, the Aetolian League did lend aid. The cooperation of the Aetolian sufficed to force Philippus V of Macedonia to make peace, although no one imagined that the respite could last. In 201, the Roman war with Carthage ended in victory. The Romans had survived their ordeal, and found renewed strength in the aftermath. After a brief interval, the Romans declared a new war against Macedonia, the Second Macedonian War, and sent an army into Greece under the command of Titus Quinctius Flaminius. In 197, the Roman army smashed Philippus’ forces at the Battle of Cynoscephalae. In the flush of victory, Flaminius advanced to Corinth, the headquarters of the Hellenic League which the Macedonians had used to dominate Greece. Flamonius declared the Hellenic League dissolved. Philippus was no longer "Hegemon." Flaminius spoke in glowing terms [in fluent Greek] of the "liberation of the Greeks." Many Greeks accepted Flaminius’ words at face value: Flaminius was hailed as a hero, and Greeks considered the possibility that the Romans were not barbarians. Still, adulation and joy was not universal. Could these Romans be trusted? Another quarter century would pass after the triumph of Flaminius before the proposition was tested. Polybius was still a child.
In 170, while Polybius was Hipparch of the Achaean League, a new war broke out between Rome and Macedonia, the Third Macedonian War. Old King Philippus V had died in 179, and his son Perseus has determined to redeem Macedonian power by reversing the disgrace of Cynoscephalae and restoring the Hellenic League. The Roman commander in Greece, Quintus Marcius Philippus, requested the Achaean League to soldiers to serve alongside the Romans in the conflict. The response of the Achaeans, lead now by Lycortas, was to temporize. Instead of responding to the Roman request with a clear answer, Polybius, the Hipparch, was dispatched to visit Quintus Marcius Philippus and discuss the situation. The details of the mission to Quintus Marcius Philippus are not entirely clear, but a few facts seem evident. First, Polybius himself fought in the Roman army with courage and distinction. Second, Polybius did not offer Achaean soldiers, other than himself, until the campaign had ended. By risking hbis own life, Polybiujs sought to prevent Achaean participation in the war without giving personal offense.
After his mission to Quintus Marcius Philippus, Polybius’ term as Hipparch ended. Nonetheless, these events would effect the rest of his life. Quintus Marcius Philippus was succeeded as Roman commander in Greece by Lucius Aemilius Paullus. In 167, Paullus defeated King Perseus of Macedonia at the Battle of Pynda. The Kingdom of Macedonia was dissolved, and divided into four weak tribal confederacies. Roman domination of Greece now appeared secure, although pious sentiments on the subject of Greek freedom were uttered. The Romans refrained from imposing Roman provincial administration on the Greek cities, but they took other actions to quash any Greek freedom of action. To assure an end to resistance, the Romans arrested hundreds of prominent leaders on suspicion of anti-Roman activity. Polybius was among those arrested.
The arrest of Polybius should not surprise us: he was identified with his father’s attitude of mistrust towards Roman. Moreover, Polybius’ own action could be regarded as duplicitous. In addition, the Romans had their own candidates for leadership of the Achaean League. A man named Callicrates had long been the leader of pro-Roman sentiment in the Achaean League. Polybius himself held Callicrates responsible for his arrest, and that might be correct. One point seems clear: the Romans treated Polybius with honor and consideration, which they would not have done had they thought him an implacable foe of Rome. The arrest of Polybius was political in nature; it was prentative more than punitive: the arrest removed Polybius from the Achaean political scene. Polybius also served as a hostage against the future loyalty of the Achaean League.
Polybius had little to complain of in his treatment, except the fact of exile. Although a prisoner and hostage, he suffered no deprivation. Polybius was "sentenced" to live in Rome. Apparently, the personal property of Polybius and his family was not confiscated, and he enjoyed a comfortable income in his exile. Polybius lived a life of wealth and leisure. Denied a life of political activity in his home city of Megalopolis, Polybius took up a life of scholarship at the center of world power in Rome.
There is one important aspect of Polybius’ life in Rome which requires inquiry: his extensive social and intellectual contacts with the elite of Roman politics. It seems that soon after his arrest, Polybius established a close friendship with the man who ordered his arrest, Lucius Aemilius Paullus, and with Paullus’ two sons. This connection brought Polybius into the highest circles of Roman society.
Lucius Aemilius Paullus was a member of one of Rome’s most distinguished families. Although Rome, as a Republic, was governed by annual elected magistrates, these magistrates were most often drawn from noble family or their protegees. Among nobles, there existed a clear pecking order based on the honor or prestige of the family lineage. A clear distinction was made between higher status patrician families, who could trace their lineage back many centuries to the mythic world of heroes, gods and kings, and the lower status plebian nobles, who could only point to a father or grandfather or great-grandfather who had distinguished himself in the service of the Republic. Among the patricians, further distinction was made between the so-called "gentes maiores" [the Great Houses] and the "gentes minores" [Lesser Houses]. The number of "gentes maiores" still active in Roman politics in the second century amounted to five families: the Aemilii, the Claudii, Cornelii, the Fabii and the Valerii. Paullus belonged to the younger branch of the Aemilii clan. His father, of the same name, had served twice in the office of Consul of the Roman Republic, one of two annual magistrates who were heads of state. The father died at the hands of Hannibal at the Battle of Cannae in 215. The elder branch of the Aemilii clan, Paullus’ cousins, were the Lepidii. At the time of the Battle of Pynda, Marcus Aemilius Lepidus was both Princeps Senatus [Chief of the Senate] and Pontifex Maximus [High Priest], the highest in honor of all living Romans.
Paullus, Polybius’ friend, had served, like his father, twice in the Consulship, in 182 and 168. Later on, Paullus capped his career with election in 164 as Censor of the Republic, one of the two ex-Consuls elected ever five years to serve as assessors of moral conduct, tax liability and military service; no elected office signified greater honor in the eyes of contemporary Romans. Paullus was at least twenty years older than Polybius when they met.
Paullus married twice, with two sons by each of his wives. Among Roman noble families, it was an insult to the household gods to allow the family to die out. If a noble had no sons, he adopted a son from another family, preferrably of similar rank and related by blood, who had "extra" offspring. When the great house of Fabii was threatened with extinction, Paullus permitted his eldest son to be adopted by the last of the Fabii with the new name Quintus Fabius Maximus Aemilianus. The unusual point here is that Paullus adopted out his eldest son, not the youngest as would have been usual. It appears that Paullus doted on his second wife and their sons. He wanted her boys to carry on the Aemilii Paulli lineage.
After the adoption out of his oldest son, Paullus also adopted out his second son. In his case, the receiving family were the Cornelii Scipiones, also one of the Great Houses. The head of the Cornelii family until his death in 183 was the greatest hero of the Republic, Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus: the man who had defeated Hannibal. Africanus had been twice Consul, elected Censor and chosen Princeps Senatus, the first in honor of all Romans [this was before Lepidus]. The great tragedy of Africanus’ live was that his only son, Publius, was burdened by handicaps [perhaps cerebral palsy] which debarred him by Roman standards from political office and military command, as well as the possibility of marriage and fatherhood. The solution was that Publius, the son of Africanus, adopted Paullus’ second son, who became Publius Cornelius Scipio Aemilianus. The fact that Africanus’ wife was the sister of Paullus made the move appear still more sensible to Romans. Both of Paullus’ older sons -- or ex-sons -- were with him in Greece in the Third Macedonian War and after. Both men were younger than Polybius. For the sake of completeness, let it be noted that Paullus’ sons of his second wife, slated to be his heirs, died in childhood. Paullus’ own death ended his line.
Polybius’ closest relationship in the Roman elite developed with Scipio Aemilianus. In time trusted developed between Polybius and men who counted in Rome. Moreover, the loyalty of the Achaean League no longer seemed at issue. In 151, Polybius was allowed to return home to Megalopolis. Nonetheless, his relationship with Scipio Aemilianus continued. In 147-146, Scipio Aemilianus, elected Consul, commanded Roman forces in the final siege of Corinth. Polybius accompanied Scipio Aemilianus to Africa, and witnessed the fall of Carthage. Polybius returned to Greece after the African campaign at a time when Greece had again felt the lash of the Roman whip. Macedonia and some other parts of Greece had rebelled against Rome in 149. The rebels were crushed by Romans armies, crowned by the sack of Corinth. Polybius stepped in and used his influence to mitigate the punishment of his countrymen. The attitude of Romans towards Polybius had grown so warm, that he not only succeeded in saving many survivors from confiscation of property and slavery, but Polybius was placed in charge by the Romans of Greece’s reconstruction after the war. Polybius’ influence may have helped to convince the Romans to incorporation Macedonia into their Imperium as a province, but to leave the rest of Greece with self-government as Roman "allies." Statues were erected to honor Polybius in many parts of Greece to mark his work of intercession and reconstruction. The Greek cities were not placed under Roman provincial administration until 27.
Although now old by the standards of his time, Polybius remained active. In 134, Scipio Aemilianus served as Consul again. Again, Polybius joined him on campaign in Spain against the indigenous Celts and Iberians resisting Roman rule.. Not long after the end of this campaign, Scipio Aemilianus died. Polybius continued to travel. At age 82, [?123-118], Polybius died in a fall from his horse, a fitting end perhaps for the former Hipparch of the Achaean League.
II: The Works
The works of Polybius do not survive complete, but his HISTORIA still fills six volumes of the Loeb Classical Library editions. Like other ancient authors, Polybius work was published on rolls of papyrus of standard length. A roll was called in Latin a volume, literally "rolled." In English editions, the volumes of ancient works [tome in Greek] are called "books." Polybius’ HISTORIA originally contained forty books. In his work, Polybius sought to tell the history of both Romans and Greeks in the period of Rome’s ascent to greatness. Polybius wanted to explain to his fellow Greeks how the Romans had risen to world power in a short span of time. The bulk of his work narrated Rome’s wars -- the Three Punic Wars with Carthage, the Four Macedonian Wars, the Syrian War against Antiochus the Great won at the Battle of Magnesia  and many lesser conflicts. It seems that Polybius first wrote the part of the book relating to the years 220-167 while living in Rome. He later added the opening section of the work, pushing the story back to 264, and the closing books extending forward to the sack of Corinth in 146.
Polybius came to attribute Roman success to their virtues as a people and a polity. There is little doubt that in praising Roman virtues, Polybius meant also to criticize Greek deficiencies: each Roman virtue represented a virtue which the Greeks once had had, but now had lost. There seems little doubt, that in writing his great history, Polybius reflected changes in his own thinking. At the time of his arrest, he had been no friend of Rome, but he had come appreciate Roman virtues to point of considering their rise to summit of power as inevitable. In the end, Polybius seemed to tell his fellow Greeks, that it was foolishness, perhaps impiety, to resist the unstoppable dictates of Tyche [Fate] or Fortuna [in Latin] -- as least as long as Tyche/Fortuna stood with the Romans.
For the purposes of this paper, the key section of Polybius’ history is its Sixth Book, which Polybius called his "treatise on the constitution of the Roman Republic." Although some parts of the Sixth Book of Polybius have not survived, the bulk of Polybius’ Sixth Book is available for our scrutiny.
In the preface of the Sixth Book, Polybius set out his task: "what peculiar political institutions that in less than fifty-three years nearly the whole world was overcome and fell under the single dominion of Rome." [6.2] Note John Calhoun’s borrowing of the Polybian "peculiar institution." Polybius started out with a philosophical discussion of the forms which polities may take. Although Aristotle is not mentioned by name, Polybius’ presentation owed moch to the great philosopher of the fourth century. Polybius cited Aristotle’s argument that there are three forms of legitimate government: basileia [kingship], aristokratria, and demokratia. Polybius also accepted the Aristotlean idea that each form of legitimate government could degenerate into a corresponding illegitimate form. Polybius argued that monarchika or tyrannika, the rule of a popular demogogue or general who had seized power, is not basileia. Nor can the abusive rule of the oligarchika be called aristokratia. Nor can mob-rule -- ochlokratia -- be called demokratia. In this argument, Polybius stressed the fundamental line between legitimate governments, which act by tradition and law, and illegitimate governments who acts against tradition and law. Remeber that the nacient possessed a very weak of modern ideas of legal positivism -- Polybius’ laws were traditions. Polybius believed that men could preserce their freedom -- "eleutherios" -- under any legitimate government, but under no illegitimate government. Eleutherios meant the right of a people to be governed by their own traditions.
After defining his typology, Polybius argued that societies evolved by a natural process from type to type. In the beginning, Polybius says, was the monarchos, he employed brute force to end the primitve anarchy of earliest men. In time, the monarchos matured into a true basileus, a noble king, as people acquired an understanding of virtue and reason. Next, as the throne passed by hereditary succession to unworthy successors, basileia will yield to tyrannika. Revolution follows: the unworthy king is driven out and aristokratia rules -- until excess wealth and self-indulgence causes aristokratia to become oligarchika. Revolution comes again, leading to demokratia until it, in turn, degenerates into ochlokratia. Finally, a tyrannos seizes power and the cycle starts over.
Polybius’ cyclical view of political development emphasized the transitory nature of political stability, power and success: all things grow and decay. Rome had grown great by a natural process, and "will undergo a natural decline."[6.9] Nonetheless, Polybius seemed to believe that a good constitution which combined features of basileia, aristokratia and demokratia could delay the process of decay. His prime example of the form which the American Founders later called the "mixed republic" was the constitution of Sparta. According to tradition, the Spartan constitution had been created by the lawgiver Lycurgus. The Spartan constitution endured from the time of Lycurgus until Philipoemen had put an end to it after six cenmturies. According to Polybius, Sparta, of all states had preserved its eleutherios [liberty] the longest. By holding up Sparta, not Athens, as his model, Polybius revealed himself as no advocate of demokratia without the alloy of other influences.
Polybius’ theoretical foundations were not highly original, but later readers often found Polybius more accesible than Aristotle. Polybius believed the purpose of history writing to be the exposition and illustration of philosophical and critical ideas in order to serve future generations of statesmen in the preservation of eleutherios. Polybius criticized bitterly those writers of his time who wrote history as romance or who blindly celebrated their homelands or famous men without regard to deeper truth. Polybius’ combination of philosophical underpinnings, clear purposes and capable narrative made trhe important influence which he has been.
After erecting his theoretical scaffolding, Polybius proceeded to consider the Roman situation. Polybius believed the Romans to have achieved similar perfection, similar balance, and prolonged longevity in their constitution as the Spartans, except that they had no single lawgiver like Lycurgus. Instead, much as the British would later, the Romans perfected their system by the hard discipline of experience instead of the reasoned insight of some genius.
Polybius saw in the Roman constitution a marvelous combination of the three legitimate forms of government. The Roman Republic elected each year two Consuls as its joint heads of states. Although the terms of Consuls was short, and they could check one another, Polybius regarded the executive power of the Consuls as kingly in nature, providing the leadership which the Republic needed to manage its affairs, expecially in times of crisis. The Consuls represented to Polybius the element of basileia.
The Roman Senate represented the element of aristokratia. The Senators were selected on the basis of their wealth, moral character and experience. The Senate provided advice to the Consuls and others magistrates. They also regulated the treasury, directed military and foreign affairs and acted as a court in important cases. Polybius noted that foreigners including Greeks, often regarded the Roman Republic as aristocratic in nature. Foreign embassies dealt with the Senate, and did not see the other parts of the Roman constitution in action.
Polybius referred to the third part of the Roman constiution simply by calling them the Demos -- the people. The Demos elected the magistrates, made the laws and ratified the important decisions of the Senate. In this case, we must find Polybius’ account inadequate. It becomes necessary to add from other sources the manner in which people participated in Roman politics. All Roman citizens were eligible to participate in the Comitia [Assembly]: the vote of this body was considered to represent the will of the people. Polybius noted that "the public must be submissive to the Senate."[6.17] The procedures of the Comitia, which Polybius did not discuss, made clear the nature of this submissiveness: the Comitia voted under rules which weighted their votes in a specific manner. For example, consider the procedures used by the Comitia in the election of the Consuls each year, known as a Comitia Centuriata. Each Roman underwent an assessment of his wealth every five years by the Censors. The richest were classified as Equites; the majority of citizens were assigned to number classes according to wealth; the propertyless were called Proletarii. Each wealth classification was assigned a fixed number of votes; each vote was cast by a designated group of citizens called a centuria. To understand the system, consider these typical figures. At one time, the Comitia Centuriata included 193 centuries. Eighteen centuries were Equites; 70 centuries belong to Classis Primus [First Class]. Together, these two grouups could outpoll the rest of Rome. The Proletarii filled a single centuria.
In the passage of laws, the Comitia did not sit as a Comitia Centuriata, but under a different set of procedures called the Comitia Tributa. Here the procedure was less tightly controlled by the wealthy than in the election of magistrates. Each Roman citizen belonged to a tribe -- thirty-five tribes in the second century -- which voted as units. Eighteenth tribes could make a law. When "the people" did grow restive in Rome and protested to the magistrates and Senate, it was the Comitia Tributa which raised the alarm.
Polybius could have said more in regard to the procedures which hedged in the element of demokratia, but he elected instead to discuss the military system. Polybius choice in detailing the Roman military system revealed his own priorities. A military man himself, Polybius considered the Roman military system fundamental to the success of Rome. All citizens were expected to do military when asked; all men shared the dangers of war, and held a common stake in society. No man could be elected Consul without ten years’ service. The military system dovetailed with the political system. The standing Roman army consisted of four legions. The Equites supplied the cavalrymen, which explained the name Equites [Horsemen]. The infantry were selected from the numbered tax classes. The Proletarii were not allowed training in weaponry: they either carried supplies or served in the Navy. Not uncommonly the Proletarii were sent out in front of the army, with only light arms, to draw enemy fire. Indeed, the name Proletarii meant ‘those who go before." The more power a class wielded in society, the more burden they shouldered on the battlefield. Polybius discussed in detail the training, equipment and organization of the Roman army. He considered the quality of Rome’s army as the immediate explanation for Rome’s extraordinary success in the world. Nonetheless, Polybius also understand that the character of the Roman army was a cornerstone of her excellent constitution.
Polybius followed his discussion of the military system of Rome with comparisons between the Roman constiution and the constitutions of some Greek states, starting out with critical remarks relative to constiutions of Thebes and Athens. Polybius’ description of Athens is worth our attention, since modern writers would have us think of Athens as the paragon of democracy. Polybius pointed out that the success of Athens as a polity, although spectacular, was brief. He considered the administration of Themistocles [died 461] as the height of Athenian achievement. Themistocles led the Athenian to victory in the Persian Wars and set the foundations of the Delian League or Athenian Empire in the postwar glow of victory. Otherwide, Polybius argued, Athens was characterized by a lack of leadership. Polybius called the Athenians ‘like a ship without a commander." Here, evidently, is an excess of demokratia. Polybius did not mention Pericles.
After dismissing Athens, Polybius criticized the constitution of Crete. His main objection to the Cretan polity was that it encouraged men to pursue wealth and self-interest instead of the public good. Polybius considered the lust for wealth as a destructive force which corrupts all legitimate forms of government. Apparently, Polybius did not approve of commercial republics. Polybius argued that Crete and Sparta had, at one time, similar institutions, but the Cretans lacked the virtues of the Spartans to maintain their eleutherios. He praised, for example, the fact that the Spartans denied the right of private property to their citizens and forbid material self-indulgence. Polybius returned here to the subject of Sparta, which he had already praised earlier as an exemplar of eleutherios preserved. Although, Polybius did not lessen his praise of Sparta, he did note that in the end Sparta fell. The reason? The Spartans in their military success grew arrogant, aggressive and exceeded their grasp: hubris destroyed them. All things decay and fall, even the Spartans and their excellent constitution. In this respect, Rome had been fortunate so far: she had conquered far more than the Spartans ever had, yet the liberty of the Romans had not been undermined -- yet. It may be, suggested Polybius, that the Roman constitution is more perfect than the constitution of the Spartans.
Polybius’ view of Roman constitution, and of polity in general, was pragmatic. Constitutions which preserved liberty over a long period of time were good; the proof of the pudding was in the tasting. Polybius’ analysis also bespoke a streak of pessimism, resigned to the inevitability of decay in all things. The task of men who would make a politeia which preserves eleutherios consisted of making a constiution characterized by balance of the three legitimate forms of government. Balance is everything -- like a "well-trimmed ship" says Polybius which shall long remain afloat and reach its destined port.
Nothing is known of Polybius’ reaction to the turmoil which began to afflict the Roman Republic in the fifteen years before his death. Polybius did not live to see the events which unfolded in the century after his death. Fate dragged Rome through the horrors of repeated civil war and the end of the Republic until Augustus built his Empire on the rubble of the Republican edifice. Although only speculation is allowed to us, still there seems little reason to doubt that Polybius would have stood with those conservative forces in Rome who called themselves optimates [the best]. One could hardly doubt that Polybius saw in the radicalism of the Gracchi brothers the poison brew of ochlokratia. The professionalism of the Roman army undertaken by Gaius Marius would have struck Polybius as madness -- arming and paying the Proletarii to fight as soldiers would have seemed like madness, breaking the essential unity of the political and military systems. One imagines that Polybius would have stood with Cicero and Cato in the final failed defense of the Republic.
III. The Impact
[dates AD, unless noted]
Like many works written in ancient Greek, the knowledge of Polybius’ work was lost to Western Europeans in the long period of the Middle Ages after fall of Rome. The number of people in Western Europe who could read Greek became very minute, and few Greek books were available in any case. The revival of Greek learning began in the 12th century. After Western forces had captured strongholds of Arab learning in Spain and Sicily, books and idea not seen in the West for centuries began to resurface. The sack of Constantinople in 1204 commenced a second flux of Greek influences into Italy and elsewhere, but the real influence of Polybius did become significant until the onset of the Italian Reniassance.
The Christian humanist latched onto Polybius as one of the key texts of the ancient world. Polybius’ prnouncement of the cyclical view of history fitted in well with the sharp vicissitudes of Fortuna which men and cities of the Italian Renaissance experienceed in that turbulent age of political intrigue. Polybius’ views on promoting political stability and freedom were less relevant in many places, but the contemporary existence of the Venetian Republic suggested that Polybius’ advice might be worth attention.
One man who heeded Polybius was Niccolo Machiavelli. Today’s reader is most familiar with Machiavelli’s work called THE PRINCE, written to instruct the powerful Medici family on the techniques of holding power in Machiavelli’s home city of Florence. At another point in his life, however, Machiavelli wrote a much different book called THE DISCOURSES. At a point when Florence had become a republic free of the Medici, Machiavelli attempted to curry favor with the Florentine leadership with advice on preserving the Republic. On the surface, THE DISCOURSES were a commentary on the works of Titus Livius, an historian who lived in the time of the Emperor Augustus [27 BC -- 14 AD]. Livius works covered much of the same ground as Polybius, except that they were more widely read for two reasons: Livius wrote in Latin, which more people could read, and Livius wrote in a popular style without Polybius’ philosophical superstructure. A recent schoilar, Sebastian de Grazia, has pointed that Machiavelli’s commentary on Livius was inspired, if not lifted, from Polybius.
The tradition of political thought exemplified by Aristotle, Polybius and Machiavelli became of growing importance in the century after the death of Machiavelli. At first, the views of this "humanist" strain were viewed as a radical critique of the poliitcal theories which had been characteristic of medieval Catholic thought, but ideas which are radical in one century become conservative in the next era. The English Civil War [1642-1649] marked a critical new point of departure. The new age of political thinking began with Thomas Hobbes. The present essay is not the place to detail the origins of the English Enlightenment of the 17th century or the French Enlightenment of the 18th century, but it is critical to place the influence of Polybius in the correct context.
It is fair to say that the line of political philosophy which begins with Hobbes and passes through John Locke onwards to Jean-Jacques Rousseau contributed to main ideas to political thought: the idea of the social contract, and the idea of progress. When we come to the age of the Roman Revolution, we find some of the Founders wedded to this new ideas, notably Jefferson, but the acceptance of Enlightenment political thought was not universal. The more conservative founders -- and here the name of John Adams is fundamental -- continued to hold Polybian ideas: the idea of the cyclical evolution of polities denied both the social contract as a primordial reality of primitve man and the certainty of progress ahead. Interesting it is that our political philosophy depend so greatly on the buried past and the unformed future.
The committment to a mixed republic at the Constitutional Convention of 1787 also bespoke a conservative streak of thought. Exactly what weight did the Founders intend to give the democractic element of their Constitution? The Republic actually created in the Constutional Convention leaned more towards the aristocratic than the democratic. The historian was pointed out that the Founders decided to mate each of the three legitimate forms of government to one of the branches of their new federal government of the United States. The executive branch embodied basileia. The judicial branch embodied aristokratia -- which explains the life tenure of federal judges. The legislative branch embodied demokratia. The hope was to take advantage of the virtues which characterized each form. Later, in the nineteenth century, the Republic changed into a professed democracy in the days of Andrew Jackson. In the realms of the intellectual, those who cheered Jackson embraced Athens, which Polybius, had rejected. Even American architecture reflected the change as the Roman lines of the Federal style gave way to the Greek revival.
Although two modes of thought existed among the Founders within the larger paradigm of Republicanism, it would be a mistake to suppose that either strand existed unalloyed in any one person. Consider the case of Thomas Jefferson, often thought as a follower of the Enlightenment. Nonetheless, when Jefferson executed the Louisiana Purchase, he thought his achievement great because it would keep Americans on the farm "until 1900." As the work of Drew McCoy has shown, Jefferson believed in a society of virtuous independent farmers ready to become soldiers on demand. That is a picture reminiscent of Polybius’ Rome. Jefferson feared that if Americans left their farms, the Republic would wither. He hoped to forestall the day. Jefferson believed in the Enlightenment ideal of perfectible man, but not completely or without reservation.
In the present age, few people other than classical scholars read Greek and Latin. The relevance of Polybius seems in other ways as well quite small. Modern conservatives often seem consumed with models of capitalism, individualism and libertarianism which Polybius would have despised; he would have been puzzled to think of these ideas as conservative. Polybius believed that the whole purpose of government was to allow a people to preserve its traditions of life against both foreign and domestic enemies: a people who could do this had eleutherios, whatever the substance of the tradition might be. Of course, Polybius also believed in accepting Tyche, and a man was a fool to do otherwise. In this sense, Polybius was no Cato, who fell on his sword. Polybius may remind us in some ways of Josephus, the Jewish soldier of the first century, who joined the Romans after the Jewish Revolt had become hopeless. Were Polybius and Josephus traitors or realists or both?
Although pledged to the preservation of tradition, Polybius accepted the inevitability of change. The institutions of a mixed republic, he believed, could ride the crest of change, not to stop the flow of things, but to make the polity into "a well-trimmed ship" which could sail rough waters into safe harbor.
To conclude this presentation, a few brief bibliographical notes are appended. The complete works of Polybius are available in the six volume Loeb Classical Library edition. A useful abridgement has been publshed in Penguin Classics series under the title the RISE OF THE ROMAN REPUBLIC. In terms of works of modern scholarship, a recent book of importance is Eckstein’s MORAL VISION IN THE HISTORIES OF POLYBIUS. The best single volume on Polybius in Walbank’s POLYBIUS. Walbank, the preeminent modern scholar on Polybius also wrote the massive three volume COMMENTARY ON POLYBIUS.
Other important classical authors may be found in the Modern Library and Penguin Classics series. The complete works of Titus Livius are available in four volumes from Penguin Classics, as is Aristotle’s POLITICS. A complete Plutarch is part of the Modern Library.
Background on Roman history can be found in countless books, but Michael Grant’s popular HISTORY OF ROME is noteworthy. The standard textbook by Cary and Scullard is an indispensible reference on the fine points.