Polybius is possibly our main guide to learn about the seventy or so years during which Rome achieved domination over the mediterranean. His account helped scholars to understand Rome’s constitution. He is a unique historian though. F. W. Walbank wrote that even though “Polybius is regarded as a rational and factual historian, his work reveals an obsession with what the author call historical patterns” (Walbank F. W. 2002: 246).
He is considered to be a pragmatic historian, a follower of Thucydides. However, he placed great importance on the role of Tyche, or fortune, in the historical development of his time. It appears as a force that directs events towards a planned end. This power, or Tyche, was acting “arbitrarily in human affairs or as a power exacting retribution”. (Walbank F. W. 2002: 251) It is a divine power, a prophecy, “the Hellenistic goddess who acts either capriciously to put down the mighty from their seats or retributively to punish wrong-doing and reward virtue”. (Walbank F. W. 2002: 250)
Events such as Macedonia’s plan to go for war against Persia, or the Macedonian and Seleucid alliance against the Ptolemies, Polybius believes that brought Tyche against the Macedonians and the Seleucids. Demetrius of Phalerum had already foreseen what was going to happen, when Persia was overthrown by Macedonia. Demetrius foresaw that Macedonia was going to be overthrown by another raising power. “The rise of Rome – the counterpart of the fall of Macedon – is seen as part of a transcendental plan, engineered by Tyche” (Baronowski D. W. 1995: 6). The importance of the Macedonian Philip II is related to the rise of Rome to world power. His initial attempts to conquer Persia brought Rome’s fortune. His wrong doing brought Rome to power.
Polybius believes that Tyche and the events favouring the rise of Rome are connected to Rome worth. He attributes Roman success to its military success and mixed constitution. He said to be interested in “by what means and under what form of constitution the Romans succeeded in less than fifty-three years in bringing under their rule almost the whole of the inhabited world” (Walbank F. W. 2002: 246). He writes about the concept of anacyclosis, which is a cyclical process “by way of primitive monarchy, kingship, tyranny, aristocracy, oligarchy, democracy, mob-rule (ochlocracy), and so back to monarchy where it began” (Walbank F. W. 2002: 247). This process follows a biological pattern of “birth, growth, prime, decay and end” (Walbank F. W. 2002: 281).
Polybius sees Rome constitution not integrated within this cycle. Instead, Rome constitution is a mixture of these forms of government, which it acquired by a process of trial and error. It is an evolution of those forms of government. A mixed constitution that provided Rome with stability, which was an advantage against other Mediterranean regions. He claims that Carthage had also a mixed constitution, and that the winner of the struggle between these two Mediterranean powers became the new world power.
Rome military success and expansion was fruit of an initial psychological feeling that aroused among Romans after victories over the Gauls, the Latins, Etruscans and Samnites. The victories might have given Rome an expansionist feeling. It is though during the initial struggle and the second encounter with the Carthaginians, that this expansionist Roman policy is established. Right after this conflict, Rome spreads to the East. Polybius believes that the second war played a fundamental part in the development of Roman imperial policy.
In the East, according to F. W. Walbank, it is “after the Second Macedonian war, that orders / obedience (or failure to obey) syndrome permeates Rome’s dealings with the Hellenistic world” (Walbank F. W. 1979: 4).
Polybius claims that during this war Rome behaves as a world power trying to control all the Mediterranean.
It was also through the army that Rome became world power from the years 220 to 167 BC. When looking at how war conflicts started, Polybius claims that in all wars, there is a cause, a pretext and a beginning of the war. He understands cause, as anything which leads someone to decide on war. Polybius has a peculiar way of seeing who decides to go for wars as, on three occasions at least, he claims that the rulers that take decision to go for war are previous rulers to the ones that waged the war. As F. W. Walbank wrote, “if a decision to fight a war had already been taken by a predecessor, clearly the interconnection between one war and another is thereby reinforced”. (Walbank F. W. 2002: 246) Polybius believed that only universal historians as him were able to explain such events. The interconnectivity amongst regional events made the task of explaining history impossible for a historian that just focussed on a specific conflict.
Polybius believes that “Roman imperialism is explained rationally as the result of natural and conscious ambition” (Baronowski D. W. 1995: 6). Rome finds pretexts to go for war against their neighbours. He believes that Rome went for war against the Hellenistic kingdoms to subdue them, to obtain their obedience. He sees Rome fundamentally aggressive in nature. Polybius given motives for Rome last war against Carthage were the control over North Africa, land owning and booty. The third Punic war was of an aggressive Roman nature and against the Carthaginians. Polybius considers aggression not to be immoral. He understands imperialist expansion as “laudable, glorious and beautiful” (Baronowski D. W. 1995: 22). He claims that “victory and conquest are not ends in themselves but means towards goals such as pleasure, good or utility” (Baronowski D. W. 1995: 28).
Polybius sees Rome’s expansionist and imperialist policies as motives for its success. The Romans though “carefully sought a means of justifying their decision that would conciliate public opinion” (Baronowski D. W. 1995: 17), which seems to point out at Rome’s need of public acceptance for all their interventions abroad.
Polybius thought that Tyche was behind Rome’s universal and expansionist policy on the East. He tells of a certain logical inevitability on the development of the events in the Mediterranean, which ignores the detailed analysis of the actual events and the specific motives of those that participate on these events. When Polybius speaks of Tyche and the rule of Rome, “he seems to be envisaging a power akin to Providence” (Baronowski D. W. 1995: 22), which is a view that would definitely have been criticised by any pragmatic historian such as Thucydides.
Images taken from:
Polybius. (2016, February 26). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 07:27, March 16, 2016, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Polybius&oldid=707099280
Second Punic War. (2016, March 15). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 07:07, March 15, 2016, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Second_Punic_War&oldid=710132449
D. W. Baronowski, ‘Polybius on the Causes of the Third Punic War’, Classical Philology vol. 90, No. 1 (Jan., 1995), 16-31 [JSTOR: http://www.jstor.org/stable/270689%5D
F. W. Walbank, Polybius, Rome, and the Hellenistic World : Essays and Reflections, Cambridge 2002 [available from Net-Library, http://www.netlibrary.com]
F. W. Walbank, ‘Polybius and Rome’s Eastern Policy’, The Journal of Roman Studies vol. 53 (1963), 1-13 [JSTOR: http://www.jstor.org/stable/298359%5D
M. Eckstein, ‘Notes on the Birth and Death of Polybius’, American Journal of Philology vol. 113 (1992), 387-406 [JSTOR: http://www.jstor.org/stable/295460%5D
P. S. Derow, ‘Polybius, Rome, and the East’, The Journal of Roman Studies, Vol. 69 (1979), 1-15 [JSTOR: http://www.jstor.org/stable/299054%5D