Polybius of Megalopolis: History Isn’t Always Written by Victors

From Antigone Journal:

The common saying that history is written by the victors is of uncertain origin. Whilst it may be true that the victors in a conflict (or, at least, those with superior power) can have a stronger influence over the prevailing version of events after the fact, it is certainly not true that historical accounts only ever emanate from the victors. This is perhaps especially difficult to appreciate in an age where information is more widely available than ever, and public expression of opinion (and thus of varying versions and viewpoints) is now far more widely accessible than it has ever been.

However, on rare occasions we are still able to glimpse historical views from the ‘other’ side. One particularly interesting example of this in action is the Greek second-century BC historian, Polybius of Megalopolis. Not only was he not one of the victors, but he was an eyewitness and active player in the events he describes. He did find favour with the victors, but not immediately. It is believed he began writing his famous work of history in the 150s BC, after over ten years’ detainment in Rome. In his work, he seeks to explain the Romans’ successful rise to power to a primarily Greek audience. He dwelt among the victors (the Romans), he conversed with them, and, in the end, they in turn sought his help.

. . . .

Polybius had been making a promising career for himself in the Greek Achaean League, a federal-style organization of cities, united to maintain their freedoms against the kingdoms that arose from Alexander the Great’s splintered empire. Onto this tense stage the Romans made their first proper entrance in 229 BC against the Illyrian Ardiaeae tribe, then under the rule of queen Teuta, wife of the former king Agron. Following their victory in this encounter, the Romans were cordially welcomed and thanked by the Greek city-states of the Achaean League, even being invited to the Isthmian games by the Corinthians (Histories, 2.12.4–8).

Just over 60 years later, in 168 BC, it was a dramatically different state of affairs. Following their defeat of Perseus, king of Macedon, the Romans were the dominant power in the Mediterranean, and not just over Greece. Another consequence of the conflict was that a thousand Greek statesmen, made up primarily of men from the Aetolian and Achaean Leagues, found themselves bound for Italy. They were under suspicion of collusion with Perseus, and of being in active opposition to the Roman power’s presence in the Greek world. Polybius was among them. To understand why he was in this group, how he effectively ended up on the ‘losing side’, and how his experience connects to the spread of Roman influence over the Greek world, a little further examination of the historical context is essential.

Rome and The Tensions in Greek politics (196–167 BC)

Polybius saw the Roman victory in the war against Hannibal, the Carthaginian general, as a watershed moment (202 BC). Rome’s greatest rival had been defeated, her power had been proven. Victory over Philip V of Macedon, who had made a treaty with Hannibal, followed quickly in 198 BC. Despite an apparent show of respect for Greek freedom in the Isthmian proclamation of 196, which declared key Greek cities autonomous and free from tribute, Roman presence was certainly not withdrawn from Greece. This brought the Romans into conflict with Antiochus II of the Seleucid empire, the most powerful of the surviving successor kingdoms (those which were established following the break-up of Alexander the Great’s empire). Following Antiochus’ defeat, it was abundantly clear that Roman power could be neither cast off nor ignored.

What this meant for the Greeks, and how they were to deal with this new reality, stoked the fires of debate and division across the Greek-speaking world. Polybius portrays this issue as divided  irreconcilably between roughly three camps of thought: the cautiously cooperative, though not slavish advocates (like his own father Lycrotas, hero politician Philopoemen, and, at least originally, himself); the pragmatists who believed that Roman orders should be accepted to avoid hostile reprisals (see Polybius 18.13 on the urgings of Aristaenus in the 190s, when he cast off the Achaean alliance with Philip of Macedon); and finally – the group Polybius so evidently despises – the sycophantic types who favoured embracing Roman orders and who betrayed those who were less enthusiastic for their own aggrandisement.

On an embassy to Rome, after a debate in the League about whether to follow League procedure or Roman orders, a fawner, Callicrates, offered the Roman Senate some advice. He told them, essentially, that if they wanted to secure a foothold in Greece, they should support sympathetic ‘advocates’ like himself who could silence the more recalcitrant Greeks. Following this policy seems to have worked (24.12.1–4), as direct Roman micro-management seems to have escalated after that point.

Several scholars have argued that this brought a ‘new wisdom’ or ‘new policy’ from Rome, as their more active meddling and fostering of division now affected the Greek cities.[1] These are not, however, Polybian coinages, nor do I think they reflect his view. At 24.12, Polybius does say that the Romans adopted a new policy of promoting those Greeks who favoured them, and of undermining those whom they perceived to be more hostile to Roman interests. However, what he is highlighting is a new method in enforcing Roman orders, not a new aim in terms of securing Greek obedience.

This state of affairs persisted, and deteriorated. The Roman Senate even tried to meddle in the Macedonian succession, promoting the older son of Philip V, who was favourable to their influence, as successor. He was murdered, Perseus succeeded, and – if you believe Polybius – he inherited his father’s hatred of Rome as much as the throne (23.7–8), a hatred which ironically hastened his downfall.

What did Polybius do wrong?

Polybius was certainly not going to advocate surrendering the freedoms of his league to curry favour for himself, but he was cooperative. Yet, despite this, in 168, he was deported as a hostile collaborator. Polybius himself attributed his exile to the following incident during the Roman war against Perseus.

At 28.13, Polybius describes how, while leading, troops that the League had voted in support of the Romans against King Perseus, he arrived to meet the Roman general Marcius. This suggests he was by no means on the side of the enemy. Marcius, however, greeted him by informing him that these troops were no longer needed. Polybius makes clear that he and the Achaeans with him were anxious to emphasise their willing cooperation and acceptance of the request that had come from the Romans for these soldiers. And Polybius himself remained to assist.

A further demand for extra troops then came from the Roman commander Cento, who was in Epirus. Polybius was sent back to the Peloponnese, having been told by Marcius that Cento had no reason to make such a demand and that Polybius should prevent compliance with this unnecessary expense for the Achaeans. Upon returning, Polybius was presented again with Cento’s request in the League assembly.

This left him in something of a quandary. Should he reveal Marcius’ private instructions? If so, he would risk disloyalty to another Roman general. He decided he could not openly oppose the demand. Instead, he suggested that the assembly should consult the Roman consul before they proceeded. However, the slavish pro-Roman sycophants among the Greeks had their ammunition to attack Polybius. This sequence of events could be twisted into a tale of Polybius trying to thwart the efforts of a Roman commander (Cento) by failing to provide the assistance he had sought. Polybius might as well have been on the losing side: his loyalty to Rome was in question.

Link to the rest at Antigone Journal

3 thoughts on “Polybius of Megalopolis: History Isn’t Always Written by Victors”

  1. For anyone who thinks that history is written by the victors, I suggest dipping into the primary sources on the fall of the Roman Empire. Without exception, they were written by Romans – the losers. Other examples come readily to mind.

    The fact of the matter is, history is written by historians. Some cultures produce these in abundance, others don’t. The distribution of historians has precious little correlation to the distribution of successful conquerors.

  2. As to history by losers…

    Another example from Greece: Thucydides (in the end Athens lost).

    And not so long ago, the history in English of the War on the Eastern Front was dominated by the writings and views of the (losing) German generals, something that has only changed recently as it became clear that there was an awful lot of self justifying distortion of events and troop numbers in their accounts.

  3. Thanks, PG, for the reminder about Polybius, one of the Greek historians I haven’t read (yet).

    I first decided to study Greek my freshman year in college (having already bombed out of an advanced math degree… sigh…) and at that point I knew pretty much nothing about Greek history (and not a lot about Roman, either). Happily I was at the right place to fix a lot of that while doing the language (and other dead languages).

    On the one hand, I was still “math-y” enough to have a long career in tech-land, and on the other hand, I’ve never been sorry for my deep delve into Indo-European languages/cultures and their roots, something which does come in handy in my final career as author.

    This is all Tolkien’s fault. Reading the appendices to LOTR in high school is a slippery slope (but I smiled all the way down).

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