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"Stele of Polybios"

Polybios ( ancient Greek Πολύβιος , also Polybios of Megalopolis ; * around 200 BC in Megalopolis on the Peloponnese ; † around 120 BC probably in the Peloponnese) was an ancient Greek historian who, through his main work, the partially preserved Historíai , became famous. In originally 40 books, he describes the universal history of Rome over the period from the beginning of the First Punic War to the destruction of Carthage and Corinth (264 BC to 146 BC). Polybius, who was initially a politician, is the only Hellenistic contemporary historian whose work has survived larger sections.


Polybius came from a noble family from Megalopolis in Arcadia . His father Lykortas was at times a strategist in the Achaean League . Polybios himself was politically and militarily active in the Achaean League. 170/169 BC He was Hipparch of the Achaean Covenant and was 167 BC. Brought to Rome after the end of the Third Macedonian War as one of 1000 aristocrats deported . The deportees were not regarded as enemies of Rome, the measure served rather to calm Greece politically. Therefore, men like Polybius were treated with honor in Italy.

Polybius was prominent enough to be accepted into the house of the Roman general Lucius Aemilius Paullus Macedonicus . He came from one of the most distinguished Roman families and soon entrusted him with the upbringing of his two sons. Polybios thus became a friend and advisor to the younger Scipio . The insights gained from this prompted Polybius to write a work about the rise of Rome to world power, which impressed him very much.

In 151 BC The Roman Senate decided to allow the surviving Achaean politicians to return to their Greek homeland 16 years after their deportation to Italy. First, Polybios also returned to Greece. But soon afterwards he rejoined Scipio Africanus the Younger and took part in the Third Punic War as his advisor . Among other things, he experienced the fall of Carthage in 146 BC. After a war had broken out between the Achaean League and the Roman Republic, Polybios went back to Greece. After the final defeat of the Achaeans (also in 146 BC: destruction of Corinth), he was commissioned by several Poleis to give them new constitutions that would please the Romans. The background is likely to have been its high reputation among the Romans. He was actually able to negotiate favorable terms for his defeated compatriots, who honored him with several statues.

Polybios cipher
1 2 3 4th 5
1 A. B. C. D. E.
2 F. G H I / J K
3 L. M. N O P
4th Q R. S. T U / V
5 W. X Y Z

Polybios could still Scipio in the years 134/133 BC. During the war against Numantia . The remaining years of his life, Polybius devoted himself to writing and continued his work, which originally probably ended in 167, until 146. He died around 120.

In addition to his achievements as a historian, he is known as the namesake of the Polybios cipher , which was used for message transmission and cryptography . The lunar crater Polybius and the asteroid (6174) Polybius are named after him.


Content: universal story

In addition to some lost works, Polybius wrote his main work, Historíai . This is a universal story in Greek that covers the period from 264 BC in 40 books. BC to 146 BC BC, but mainly the period from 220 BC. BC to 168 BC BC (Books 3–29). The first five books and excerpts from the others have been preserved. Books 30–39, which were probably written later, then deal with the period from 167 to 146/145, with book 34 containing a geography of the world circle at that time.

Polybius wanted to explain to his readers how and why Rome was able to rise to world power in less than a hundred years. He considered the constitution and the armies of the Romans to be decisive. In Book 6, which presents the constitution of the Roman Republic , he uses in concrete individual traits and for the time being in political sociology the theory of the cycle of constitutions , which was largely developed by Plato and Aristotle and which was later taken up by Cicero in the philosophical work De re publica as well as by Niccolò Machiavelli and others has been. Here he discusses the various forms of government (monarchy, aristocracy, democracy) by means of empirical comparisons of existing constitutions and not by means of models of thought, with a clear twist against Plato: He wants to describe people and not statues of people. He came to the conclusion that the combination of the elements from the three forms in the Roman constitution was optimal, but nevertheless judged that every constitution would perish. Rome conquered Carthage and the Greeks for two reasons: On the one hand, at the time of the conflict, in contrast to Carthage, it was not a democracy, but an aristocracy in which it was not the people but the elite who made the decisions. On the other hand, in contrast to the Greeks, Rome is free from stasis ( civil war ) and has therefore not lost its inner harmony even in crises.

On the one hand, modern research often resorts to the polybian representation of the Roman constitution, but on the other hand it has worked out that the historian ultimately saw Rome with Greek eyes and therefore misinterpreted several aspects. The sources that Polybios used for his work were probably quite diverse. Polybios mentions several authors, some of whom he also criticizes, including Ephorus of Kyme , Theopompus , Callisthenes of Olynthos or Philinos of Akragas . Polybius also criticized various Pro-Carthaginian historians, namely Chaireas and Sosylos , which he may have used anyway. A papyrus fragment also shows that Polybius' criticism of Sosylus is unjustified.

Method: Pragmatic historiography

Within his universal history, Polybios also discusses methods of historiography and names requirements that historians have to meet. In this context, Polybios coined the term pragmatic historiography ( pragmatike historia ). Its aim is to provide instruction through the presentation of deeds and facts. At the beginning of the 9th book he differentiates this term from the description of tribal relationships and colonizations .

The pragmatic historian wants the reader to understand the course of history. He should be able to draw conclusions for his future action from the complex causalities shown . Thus, pragmatic historiography is primarily aimed at politicians and military commanders. It consists of three parts that are associated with specific requirements. First the historian should study and edit the sources. Due to the complexity of the events, one has to rely on making inquiries, even if you have experienced history yourself.

The second part comprises the knowledge of the topographical conditions . This is an essential prerequisite for the writing of war history. To do this, the historian must visit the locations and locations and familiarize himself with geographical peculiarities and distances. In this context he particularly criticizes Timaeus of Tauromenion . According to his own statements, he was satisfied with a fifty-year book study in Athens .

The third part requires the historian to provide evidence of political and military acts. Polybius himself was a statesman and general. He was therefore of the opinion that only someone with appropriate experience would be able to provide an accurate representation. Polybios' own historical work often does not meet the criteria he has set. This is clearly shown in his criticism of the earlier historians: some points of criticism turn out to be paradoxical . Other points of criticism lack the familiarity he demands with geographical conditions (cf. the criticism of the historian Kallisthenes ).

Modern evaluation

Plaster model for the historicizing depiction of Polybius on the ramp of the parliament building in Vienna ( Alois Düll 1899)

The evaluation of the reliability and trustworthiness of the polybian representation varies considerably in modern research. While historians such as Gustav Adolf Lehmann and Boris Dreyer take a very optimistic position and consider Polybius to be an exceptionally resilient source striving for objectivity, other scholars point out that he, like all other ancient historians, had an interest in the To suggest a very specific reading of the events described to the reader. An example of this is his partisanship for the Achaeans and against the Aitolians. Moreover, like any ancient or modern author, Polybius was indebted to certain discourses that influenced his presentation; For example, his assessment of democracy fluctuates very strongly: on the one hand, he praises the constitution of the Achaean League as an exemplary democracy; on the other hand, he blames the democratic constitution of Carthage for the fact that the Roman Republic, ruled aristocratically in his eyes, won the Punic Wars a democracy is fundamentally inferior to an aristocracy.

In his works, Polybios often orientates himself on his model Thucydides , since he too claims to focus on critical and sober observation and questioning of contemporary witnesses. From them he tries to gain insight into causes and connections and thus to approach historical truth. While Thucydides, in contrast to Herodotus, primarily described the part of the story that he personally experienced, Polybius chooses a middle path in that he starts his story about 25 years before his own birth, but can report later events as a witness.

His style, which largely dispenses with rhetorical embellishments, is criticized as sober and sometimes cumbersome. Without Thucydides' stylistic brilliance, Polybius, whose Greek is already based on the Koine , strives , according to his own statement, to uncover historical-political truth and to understandable instruction, whereby his presentation, as I said, is not free of tendency: This is how Romans and Achaeans become generally presented positively, aristocratic states preferred over democratic ones. Furthermore, he clearly distinguishes himself from the “tragic” historiography of his time, which wanted to generate targeted emotions through garish narratives. His inserted speeches, which according to ancient historiographical tradition are not to be taken as literal reproductions of what is actually said, but as inventions of the historian, endeavor to work out the controversial situations and their judgments as pointedly as possible. Polybios was often valued as an analytical historian, but not as a writer or for his storytelling skills.

After Thucydides and Herodotus and before Xenophon , Cassius Dio and Prokop, Polybius is one of the most outstanding Greek historians of antiquity . At the same time he is the only Hellenistic historian whose work has not been passed on exclusively in fragments. In modern research, the source value of his historical work is generally assessed as very high, despite some problems, whereby not least his universal historical and strongly reflective approach arouses interest.

Editions and translations

  • Polybios: history . Translated by Hans Drexler . 2 vols., Zurich 1961/3 (library of the old world).
  • Polybius. The Histories . 6 volumes, translation by William Roger Paton , London a. a. 1922–1927 ( Loeb Classical Library ; numerous new editions).
  • Polybios: The Rise of Rome. Histories . Marix, Wiesbaden 2010.
  • Polybius. The Histories . Translated by Robin Waterfield. Oxford / New York 2010.
  • Polybios: The Constitution of the Roman Republic. Histories, VI. Book . Translated and edited by Karl-Friedrich Eisen and Kai Brodersen . Reclam, Stuttgart 2012 ( Reclams Universal Library 19012).


Overview representations

Overall presentations and investigations

  • Boris Dreyer: Polybios. Life and work under the spell of Rome . Olms, Hildesheim 2011, ISBN 978-3-487-14717-8 ( review by Christoph Michels in H-Soz-u-Kult )
  • Volker Grieb, Clemens Koehn (ed.): Polybios and his histories. Stuttgart 2013.
  • Klaus Stiewe , Niklas Holzberg (ed.): Polybios (= ways of research , vol. 347). Darmstadt 1982.
  • Felix K. Maier : "Expect the unexpected everywhere". The contingency of historical processes in Polybios (= Vestigia . Vol. 65). Beck, Munich 2012.
  • Brian C. McGing: Polybius' Histories . Oxford 2010.
  • Nikos Miltsios: The Shaping of Narrative in Polybius . New York / Berlin 2013.
  • Christopher Smith , Liv Mariah Yarrow (Ed.): Imperialism, Cultural Politics, and Polybius . Oxford 2012.
  • Frank W. Walbank : Polybius, Rome, and the Hellenistic world . Cambridge 2002.
  • Frank W. Walbank: A Historical Commentary on Polybios . 3 volumes, Oxford 1999.
  • Frank W. Walbank: Polybius . Berkeley 1972 (reprinted 1990)


  • Polybios Lexicon . Edited by Arno Mauersberger . 2nd improved edition by Christian-Friedrich Collatz, Melsene Gützlaf and Hadwig Helms. Akademie-Verlag, Berlin 2000ff.

Web links


  1. Also: Polybios square. In the Histories , from Book X 45.6 , Polybios described the use of this method of transmitting messages with torches. He used the Greek alphabet .
  2. ^ Polybios: Historien , Book III 20.5 .
  3. In the 12th book, Polybios criticizes several other historians. See also for a summary Meister, Geschistorschreibung , pp. 160f.
  4. Reinhard Koerner: Polybios as a critic of earlier historians. In: Klaus Stiewe and Niklas Holzberg (eds.): Polybios. Darmstadt 1982, pp. 327-331, here: p. 327.