Polybius on the Value of History


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Book One
1.1. If previous writers had failed to sing the praises of the study of History, I should perhaps have felt compelled to encourage everyone to welcome a work like mine, and to make History their choice of study. Mankind has no better guide to action than the knowledge of past events.
1.2. But it is no exaggeration to say that all historians, virtually without exception, have regarded such studies as the be-all and the end-all of their existence. In fact they have all insisted that History is the most reliable education and training for a life in politics and that the clearest, if not the only, guide to how best we may endure the changes and τύχη of our mortal life is the study of the record of other men’s misfortunes. 1.3. So it is obvious that no-one, least of all myself, should now think it necessary to repeat what so many others have already said so eloquently. 1.4. But 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.

1.5. 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. 1.6. 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.
2.1. It must by now be obvious that my present subject matter is both remarkable to contemplate and extensive in its range. One need only compare and contrast Rome’s pre-eminence with the most famous kingdoms of the past, whose achievements have been the most extensively recorded by other historians. 2.2. Here is a list of those that perhaps best deserve such contrast and comparison. The Persians had a great empire and were a world power for a time. But whenever they dared to extend their boundaries beyond the limits of Asia, they risked not only their empire but even their own survival. 2.3. For long periods of history the Spartans tried to claim the leadership of the Greeks; but when they finally won it, they barely managed to keep it for a dozen years without a challenge. 2.4. Within Europe, the Macedonians controlled the lands between the Adriatic and the Danube – but that seems a rather limited proportion of the whole continent. 2.5. Later they conquered the Persian empire and became lords of Asia also, which certainly gave the impression that they were masters of the largest empire known to man. But in fact most of the known world still lay outside their control. 2.6. They failed to make any attempt to claim sovereignty over Sicily, Sardinia, and Libya and – to put it crudely – were not even aware of the very existence of the most warlike tribes of Western Europe. 2.7. The Romans, by contrast, have conquered virtually the whole of the inhabited world, not just a part of it. Their empire surpasses all those that have gone before; their power is unprecedented. 2.8. My History will help readers to understand more clearly how they achieved it, while at the same time explaining the many great benefits which students can derive from a close study of the subject.
3.1. My account of these events will begin at the 140th Olympiad with the so-called Social War, which Philip V of Macedon, the son of Demetrios and father of Perseus, together with his allies, the Achaean League, first waged against the Aetolians. 3.2. Next we have the war for Coele Syria, fought between Antiochus III and Ptolemy Philopator, and then the conflict between Rome and Carthage, usually called the Hannibalic War, which was waged across Italy, Libya and the surrounding territories. These events will serve as an immediate sequel to the concluding episodes recorded by the historian, Aratus of Sicyon.
3.3. In earlier times, human activity across the inhabited world was a random affair, lacking any coherent pattern, co-ordinated purpose, or central focus, since events tended to happen in separate geographical areas. 3.4. But ever since those times, the historical record seems much more coherent, since events in Italy or Libya have been closely linked with those of Asia and Greece and have all seemed to lead to the same conclusion. 3.5. That is the reason why I have chosen to start my history from that time. 3.6. In the Hannibalic War, mentioned above, the Romans defeated the Carthaginians. Their success convinced them that they had achieved the most important and challenging part of their plan to conquer the world. This gave them the confidence for the first time to launch an attack upon the unconquered territories, and to cross over to Greece and the Asian continent with a powerful army.

3.7. Now we, as Greeks, are not well acquainted with the two political systems which were then competing for world domination; indeed we know very little about them. Otherwise it would, perhaps, be unnecessary for me to give an account of their earlier history and to explain the sources of their power and the motivation, which drove them to such a formidable and colossal endeavour. 3.8. But in fact few Greeks have any immediate knowledge of the earlier political development of Rome or Carthage, nor of their achievements and their power. So I have decided that it is essential to add these first two books to my history as a Prologue, 3.9. so that once my readers have launched into the narrative proper they do not feel confused, because they need to know what Rome’s ambitions were when she started upon this vast undertaking, where she got her resources from, or how she could afford it. It has made her mistress of all the lands and sea around the Mediterranean, 3.10. but it should be quite clear to my readers from these two books and their initial analysis that their calculations were thoroughly soundly based, both in their approach to the whole idea for world domination, and in their assessment of the resources required.
4.1. My own History has one unique quality derived from a remarkable characteristic of the period under consideration, and that is this: τύχη seems to have directed all the affairs of the inhabited world towards one single end and driven them to focus on one specific objective. 4.2. For that reason it is essential that in his history a writer should offer a similarly single and coherent picture of how τύχη brought about those objectives for those who happened to be involved. Certainly this was the key factor which attracted and inspired me to venture upon a history of this period. But a secondary consideration was the fact that no present day historian has applied his mind to such a comprehensive survey of these same events. Had they done so, I should have been much less eager to claim the privilege.
4.3. I am now fully aware that a number of writers have given a limited account of particular wars and the events associated with them. But, to the best of my knowledge, no-one has made a comprehensive attempt to research the chronology and causes of these events as a whole, and to offer a critical assessment of their final consequences. 4.4. All this made it very important, I felt, that I should include this period in my history and not allow the noblest and most beneficial provisions of a benevolent τύχη to slip un-noticed from the memory of humankind. 4.5. Of course τύχη is always playing new tricks and adding fresh struggles to the drama of men’s lives. But never before has she achieved anything so utterly remarkable or scored such a spectacular victory as in the drama of our own times.
4.6. We can get no idea of this from the limited histories of separate areas, any more than someone can get an idea of the shape, structure, and geography of the whole world by visiting its most famous cities individually and inspecting separately the written plans of their layout. The very idea is absurd and it simply would not work. 4.7. Anyone who imagines that he can get a realistic and comprehensive view of world history by the study of the record of separate geographical areas must, I think, be off his head. It is as if someone who had looked at the limbs of a once beautiful and living animal after a dissection claimed to have gained with his own eyes a perfectly adequate impression of the animal’s beauty and vigour. 4.8. If we could put the animal together again on the spot and re-create its glorious perfection of living form and vigour, and then show it to the same person, I have no doubt that he would very quickly acknowledge that he had been a million miles away from the truth previously, and that he must have been dreaming. 4.9. Of course one can get some idea of the whole from its individual parts; but not a full knowledge or accurate understanding. 4.10. That is why we must realise that the history of individual areas can make only a very limited contribution to our understanding of the whole story or our confidence in the accuracy of the evidence. 4.11. It is only by studying how the individual sections relate to and are connected with the whole complex of events, and by analysing their similarities and differences, that we can arrive at a satisfactory method of understanding the total picture and so derive pleasure and profit from the study of History.

Book Three
Having thus explained his book and the reasons for writing it, having described the Roman and Carthaginian constitutions, and having summarised the events of 220-167bc which he intended to describe, Polybius then appears to start again!
1.1. In my first Book, I explained that I fixed as the starting-points of my work, the Social War, the Hannibalic war, and the war for Coele-Syria... 

1.8. I have already indicated the general scope and limits of this history. 1.9. The particular events comprised in it begin with the above-mentioned wars and culminate and end in the destruction of the Macedonian monarchy. Between the beginning and end lies a space of fifty-three years, 1.10. comprising a greater number of grave and momentous events than any period of equal length in the past.
4.1. Now if from their success or failure alone we could form an adequate judgement of how far states and individuals are worthy of praise or blame, I could here lay down my pen, bringing my narrative and this whole work to a close with the last-mentioned events, as was my original intention. 4.2. For the period of fifty-three years finished here, and the growth and advance of Roman power was now complete. 4.3. Besides which it was now universally accepted as a necessary fact that henceforth all must submit to the Romans and obey their orders. 4.4. But since judgements regarding either the conquerors or the conquered based purely on performance are by no means final — 4.5. what is thought to be the greatest success having brought the greatest calamities on many, if they do not make proper use of it, and the most dreadful catastrophes often turning out to the advantage of those who support them bravely — 4.6. I must append to the history of the above period an account of the subsequent policy of the conquerors and their method of universal rule, as well as of the various opinions and appreciations of their rulers entertained by the subjects, and finally I must describe what were the prevailing and dominant tendencies and ambitions of the various peoples in their private and public life. 4.7. For it is evident that contemporaries will thus be able to see clearly whether the Roman rule is acceptable or the reverse, and future generations whether their government should be considered to have been worthy of praise and admiration or rather of blame... 

4.12. So the final end achieved by this work will be, to gain knowledge of what was the condition of each people after all had been crushed and had come under the dominion of Rome, until the disturbed and troubled time that afterwards ensued. 4.13. About this latter, owing to the importance of the actions and the unexpected character of the events, and chiefly because I not only witnessed most but took part and even directed some, I was induced to write as if starting on a fresh work