‘Greek historiography reached its peak in the fifth century bc with Herodotus and Thucydides’, wrote PG Walsh (Professor of Latin at the University of Glasgow).

Thereafter, things declined, and by Polybius’s time Greek history was characterised by gossip and back-biting (e.g. Theopompus), exaggeration, over-dramatising and downright invention of speeches and events (e.g. Phylarchus), and moralising on events and ascribing them to the gods (e.g. Timaeus).

Throughout his books, Polybius has a lot to say about the correct way to write history, and it clear that he wanted to ‘get back to Thucydides’; he is generally regarded therefore – as ancient historians go – as a ‘reliable’ source. 

Polybius as an Historian
As you read Polybius, you will notice that his historical method involves the following aspects:

•  An insistence on a world-view and international perspective

•  Interrogating of a wide range of sources, notably public archives and eyewitnesses

•  An insistence that history should ‘tell the truth’

•  A focus on narrative history which explains how and why

•  A focus on individuals and what they achieved – the 'heroes of history'

•  His belief in τύχη (divine fate)

•  What he calls πραγματικῆς ἱστορίας (history which teaches you 'how-to-live')

•  What he calls ‘digressions’ to discuss geography, art, science and moral issues. 



1. Strengths of Polybius

•  He had lived through many of the events he was writing about

•  He made a real effort to work from as many sources as possible

•  He interviewed eyewitnesses, including many important people

•  He assessed his sources' reliability, and rejected biased sources

•  He was an expert on politics and warfare (and interested in technology)

•  He took great care to get his geography right, and visited the places he wrote about

•  His Histories were a genuine work of synthesis

•  He sought the TRUTH.

2. Weaknesses of Polybius

•  He had lived through many of the events he was writing about

•  He believed his eyewitnesses

•  He wrote for Greeks

•  He was biased for the Romans, and especially for the Scipios (his patrons)

•  He wrote to draw out the 'moral' of the story, and to convey the 'lesson for life'

•  Although he criticised made-up speeches, he sometimes made up speeches!  




The following web pages will help you complete the task:

This document contains the relevant sections of the set
OCR Textbook.

Polybius - Mr Clare's factsheet

You may also be interested to read two articles by Mr Clare on key concepts in Polybius:

•  τύχη and παράδοξον  

•  πραγματικῆς ἱστορίας




Read the following passages from Polybius, and write answers to the questions which follow:

Book 2, Chapter 56
Phylarchus is by some received as trustworthy, so it will be useful or rather necessary for me, as I have chosen to rely on Aratus' narrative, not to leave the question of their relative credibility undiscussed, so that truth and falsehood in their writings may no longer be of equal authority. In general Phylarchus through his whole work makes many random and careless statements… [Particularly,] in his eagerness to arouse the pity and attention of his readers he treats us to a picture of clinging women with their hair dishevelled and their breasts bare, or again of crowds of children and aged grandparents weeping and lamenting as they are led away to slavery. This sort of thing he keeps up throughout his history, always trying to bring horrors vividly before our eyes… A historical author should not try to thrill his readers by such exaggerated pictures, nor should he, like a tragic poet, try to imagine the probable utterances of his characters, but simply record what really happened and what really was said, however commonplace… It is the task of the historian to instruct and convince for all time serious students by the truth of the facts and the speeches he narrates, the purpose being to confer benefit on learners .

What does this passage tell us about the way Polybius wrote his Histories. [4]


Book 1, Chapter 1
The sheer unpredictability of the events which are my subject matter will surely be enough to encourage, if not inspire, everyone whether young or old to explore these pages. No-one could be so unimaginative, so intellectually idle that he would not be fascinated to know how and under what sort of constitution in less than fifty-three years and all alone Rome came to conquer and rule almost the whole of the inhabited world, which is not found to have happened before. No-one could be so obsessed by any other kind of spectacle or interest as to consider it a more valuable subject for study than this .

Using this passage, explain why Polybius wrote the Histories. [4]


Do you think that Polybius gives us a reliable account of the Hannibalic War?
You must refer both to this passage, and to your knowledge of Polybius as a writer. [18]