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Polybius (200-118 BCE) The Histories

March 3rd, 2011 Posted in Uncategorized by


Polybius was born in Megalopolis in Greece and was the son of the leader of the Achaen League, a confederation of Greek city states which had some success in reducing the domination of the Macedonian monarchy in Greece.  This was a struggle for liberty, in the ancient sense of living in an independent state, in which citizens had equal rights and participated in government.  The Macedonian monarchy under Philip II and Alexander the Great had largely undermined that antique liberty, by subordinating those states and reducing the power of their institutions of self-government.

The Achaen League found itself caught between Macedonia and the rising power of Rome.  The solution for a while was to ally with Rome.  However, Rome did not trust the League and Polybius was one of those taken to Rome as a hostage.  In the end, all of Greece came under Roman rule and was no more free than under Macedonian hegemony.  Nevertheless Polybius was deeply impressed by the Roman constitution.  Even as a hostage, he befriended Scipio Africanus the Younger, a general who played a major role in the defeat of Carthage, the north African city which was Rome’s rival in the western Mediterranean.

Polybius’ histories largely discuss the wars of the time, and are particularly famous for the discussion of Hannibal’s war with Rome.  Hannibal was the Carthaginian general who led an army, including elephants, from Spain into Italy via the Alps.  Polybius walked through Hannibal’s route through the Alps.  The other, particularly famous aspect of The Histories, is the discussion of the Roman constitution in Book Five.  Some of the best ancient discussion of ideas of liberty can be found in the work of historians.  The main examples, apart from Polybius, are the Greek Thucydides; and the Romans Livy and Tacitus.

Polybius’ discussion of the Roman constitution, and comparisons of it with the constitutions of various Greek city states, was enormously influential in the Ancient world, particularly through Cicero.  Cicero’s On the Republic, includes Polybius’ friend Scipio Africanus the Younger as a speaker.   Polybius’ influence lasted into the Italian republics of the late medieval and early modern period, like Venice and Florence, which transmitted ideas of antique liberty and republicanism to the rest of Europe.  Polybius was very well known to seventeenth and eighteenth century British political thinkers, and was one of the major references in the discussions behind the American Constitution.

The key idea that all these people drew on was a of a ‘mixed constitution’, that is a constitution which shared power between people, aristocracy and monarchy.  For the founders of the American Republic, the President was the equivalent of the monarch, the Senate was an aristocratic body, and the House of Representatives was the people.  For ancient writers, the people meant a poor uneducated majority.  Polybius, like Aristotle before him, and Cicero after him, feared ‘democracy’ as the unrestrained power of such people.  In the language, which began to develop around the American Constitution, we can think of this of the fear of the power of unrestrained temporary majorities.  Polybius’ conception of senatorial and monarchical elements in the constitution does in part refer to the idea that some people are naturally better than others, but also refers to the idea that no one part of society, or of the constitutional structure, should have unlimited power.  Unlimited democracy leads to mob rule, unlimited aristocracy leads to oligarchy, unlimited monarchy leads to tyranny.

Polybius saw a model for restraint, in the way that the Roman republican constitution set up divisions and overlaps between popular, aristocratic, and monarchical power.  For ancient and early modern writers, it was normal to think of a republic, or the Greek word that was its equivalent, polity, as consistent with limited forms of monarchy.  The Roman Republic (that is the Roman system from the overthrow of the last ‘tyrannical’ king to the emergence of the Imperial system under Julius Caesar) took the idea of a limited form of monarchy to the extreme in the Consulship, which was two aristocrats elected to rule jointly for one year only.  The aristocracy participated as a whole through the Senate; and the people were represented through meetings of all citizens, and elected tribunes with veto powers.  Polybius saw this as a system, which produced enduring strength and harmony, through creative tension between the three elements, and which always found a compromise between them.

Polybius’ second best constitution was the Greek state of Sparta.  Sparta has acquired the image of a precursor of modern totalitarianism, but Sparta was taken as a possible model for republican liberty for a long time.  That small minority of the population, who were citizens, did rule themselves through a mixed constitution of the type favoured by Polybius, with city assemblies, a senate, and a dual monarchy, but also with Ephors who shared monarchical type powers for a year.  Polybius, like other ancient republicans thought of freedom in terms of promoting common virtue and strength in war, which may not seem like liberalism now.  However, these ideas of virtue are a precedent for modern ideas of civil society, in which humans flourish, through their individual energy, and moral responsibility, in voluntary activity, and associations.  The military strength was thought of as expressing individual pride and courage, and these are precedents for modern ideas of inner responsibility and independence.

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