Classic Works

Polybius, The Histories (circa 150 BC)

Although it well known that classical political science influenced the development of modern political thought, especially American political thought, it is not quite as well known that the application of Greek political theory to Rome inspired figures like Montesquieu and John Adams.

Polybius of Arcadia (200-118 BC) wrote his Histories while in Roman captivity, wondering how this once small republic conquered the world in just over fifty years. As far as Polybius was concerned, only the “idle and lazy” would not consider the universal dominion of the Romans and the regime that produced it the most important object of study, at least as far as political education goes. For while the Persians ruled over many nations, once they ventured beyond the boundaries of their realm they always failed; the Spartans attempted to gain hegemony over the Greeks, but only had it securely for twelve years; Macedonian rule, while impressive compared to what the Greek cities achieved, nonetheless left parts of the known world untouched, such as Western Europe, parts of North Africa, or Sicily. As far as Polybius is concerned, Rome is the first city to set out for world-wide rule and then actually attain it, and then, perhaps most astonishing of all, keeping it. In a sense, then, Polybius’ work is to understand the Roman regime and why it out-performed every other polity, even the Greek cities and the powerful Macedonians.



Like many of the Greeks, Polybius was a well-rounded man. In his mind, a historian should not be someone who has read much, but done little. Rather, a historian should be a “man of action,” who has taken part in shaping affairs as well as recording them. Like Thucydides, Polybius was a soldier and statesman of the Achaean League before he took to writing history. He could speak accurately about affairs leading to Rome’s universal domination because he was there. As a statesman, Polybius makes it clear that political education must first and foremost be grounded in political history.

Polybius was born and raised in what he regarded as a bastion of democracy and freedom, Arcadia, in the city of Megalopolis. Although Polybius was clearly proud of his Arcadian origins, more importantly Megalopolis was actively involved in the Achaean League (280-146 BC), the last major Greek power faced by Rome. The Achaean League was the renewal of a much older alliance system of cities, aimed at expelling Macedonian influence from the Peloponnesus. It was successful in regaining Greek freedom and in reinforcing democratic regimes, which Polybius understood to the ancestral and just form of government for the Greeks as a whole, across the Peloponnesus. The League was soon challenged by Cleomenes III of Sparta (died 219 BC) who Polybius regarded as little better than a tyrant and nearly destroyed except for the timely diplomatic maneuvers by Aratus of Sicyon, managing to forge a working alliance with the recently ousted Macedonians. The Macedonian king, Antigonus Doson (263-221 BC) rapidly subdued the Spartan threat and reformed their political institutions to be more akin to their ancestral laws. This dependency on the Macedonians lasted until the advent of the great Philopoemen (253-183 BC), also of Megalopolis, who adopted Macedonian methods of fighting. He is famous for the final subjugation of Sparta, forcing it to join the Achaean League and end its perpetual troubling of Greece.

Philopoemen’s policy towards Rome is noted by Polybius as being noble and just—he was speedy in fulfilling treaty obligations, yet insisted that the Achaean League be treated as an equal by the much more powerful Rome. Arguably, his military reforms and vivacious diplomatic conduct kept the Achaean League an independent power until 146 BC, when it refused to submit to the Roman demand of removing Sparta from the alliance system (the Spartans chafed under democratic institutions). The death of Philopoemen in trying to pacify the unruly Messenians led to the first public service of Polybius, carrying the funeral urn of Philopoemen in his funeral procession. He was later taken hostage by the Romans, along with a thousand others suspected of anti-Roman sympathies, and deported to Italy. There, he developed friendships with a number of prominent Romans, notably Scipio Aemilianus, a politician-general who commanded the siege and final destruction of Carthage.  It was during his exile that Polybius began work on the Histories.

Polybius’ origins as a servant of the Achaean League is interesting in part because he offers a vision of international politics between world domination and total anarchy—a sophisticated alliance system of similar democratic regimes that fended off, on both the strategic and diplomatic level, domination by the more powerful Sparta, Macedon, and Rome. The corollary to the rise of Rome is the decline of the Achaean League, and the Histories of Polybius marks out various possibilities for how we can envision the ordering of international life. Political history reveals that there are far more possibilities to political life than those straitjacketed by modern theory may suppose. In this regard Polybius continues the tradition of classical political science and the classical approach to political history as expressed by Herodotus, Thucydides, and Xenophon.

But while Polybius does indeed represent continuity, the nature of his political history is different from those who wrote before him. Polybius understands himself to be the first writer of “universal history,” wherein he tracks the development of the whole world and weaves together partial histories of Italy, Africa, Greece, and Asia into a complex whole covering roughly 260-146 BC. Polybius argues that universal history is necessary in a way it was not before because the rise of Rome cannot be understood without comprehending the political situation around the world. Understanding the rise of a truly universal empire requires understanding the whole of the world, and how it was prepared for the coming of that empire. Thus Polybius gives us what immediately preceded the rise of Rome by recounting the Punic Wars, the Social War of Greece, and the wars that wracked the Ptolemaic and Seleucid Empires. By comprehending these apparently disconnected events, Polybius argues that we have the material for seeing the dawn of the universal empire, and with it, universal history.

Given the vast span of history Polybius deals with, it is not unexpected that he deals with subjects sundry and surprising. He often digresses into geography, a standard trait in historical writers. He also discusses hydrodynamics, cryptology, and theology, offers polemics against inferior historians, provides sustained meditations on the nature of politics and, perhaps most famously, makes many and contradictory references to the role of chance in human affairs.

Unfortunately, most of Polybius’ history was lost. What we have left are mostly fragments, but the first five books describing the political situation in the Mediterranean prior to the Roman conquest of Greece, as well as a lengthy portion of Book Six, which deals with the Roman regime, have survived. Polybius undoubtedly saw his discussion of the Roman regime as a high point of his work, as he makes the case that the Roman form of government was superior to Greek government in that its institutions caused a level of stability hitherto unknown in Greek politics, even more stable than Sparta.

This essay will focus on the events of the first five books and offer a brief consideration of the importance of Polybius’ regime analysis. A preliminary overview of Polybius’ outlook on international politics and his political theory will provide a useful start. Certain themes will recur as we proceed to examine Polybius’ understanding of the beginnings and ends of politics, statesmanship, and regimes and the international system, culminating in his formal judgment of the Roman polity and its suitability for ruling over others.

International life from Polybius’ perspective is far from pretty. Although there is a surprising amount of cooperation, most states seem interested in attaining supremacy over their neighbors. Whether in Iberia, Italy, Greece, or Asia Minor, international politics could be accurately described as a “struggle for power.” In this struggle for power and superiority, it is no surprise that the powerful states are the ones that end up ruling other, weaker states. Whether we consider the example of Rome itself, Carthage, Macedon, the Aetolian League, or even Syracuse, we see the more powerful forcing the less powerful to fall in line. Thus it seems that whatever order we find in international politics is going to be due to the efforts of great powers. In the work of Polybius, we see Rome, Carthage, the Aetolian League, Sparta, the Achaean League, Macedon, Ptolemaic Egypt, and the Seleucid Empire all taking part in the struggle for primacy in the Mediterranean states system.

It may be tempting to describe Polybius’ vision of international life as “realist” in character, given his unflinching portrayal of human wickedness and brutality, along with an international system in which war seems to be far more common than peace. Furthermore, scholars often describe Polybius as a cold-blooded calculator himself, who reserves praise only for those statesman who pick fights they can win and make success the yardstick of political virtue. This view does violence to Polybius’ work in two ways. First, as with other Greeks like Thucydides, to describe Polybius as a realist is to simplify his views far too much and to understand him in terms of very modern categories. Second, as I will show below Polybius’ understanding of both the nature of politics, and thus what is required of true political leadership, is far more complicated than a simple appeal to success and attaining a relative gain of power over a perceived rival.


The Beginnings and Ends of Politics

Polybius presents his political philosophy at its most theoretical level in Book Six, which is largely given over to a consideration of the Roman regime and how it was capable of universal empire where everyone else had ultimately failed. Polybius posits that the success and failure of empire ultimately stems from the nature of a state’s regime.

Polybius begins his discussion of regimes by noting the traditional classification of three good regimes and three bad. He then suggests that there is a natural cycle through which the regimes become their opposite: the natural origin is kingship, which becomes a tyranny. When the tyrant is ousted by the nobility, an aristocracy is put in place that eventually becomes oligarchic, and so on.

The beginning of politics, according to Polybius, is the banding together of human beings to compensate for individual weakness. Those who are strongest and the most audacious inevitably set themselves up as rulers over everyone else – Polybius argues that because this occurs with all animals, it must be the natural order of things. At this primordial stage of political development, the sole criterion for the justice of the ruler was his strength.

Polybius argues that while rule begins by the strong dominating the weak, after human beings develop and become familial, they begin to understand good and bad. The root of what human beings take to be morally good is how children treat their parents. Children who show no gratitude for what their parents have given them are bad, while properly grateful children are good. Reflection upon gratitude leads to the beginning of justice in a community. With these notions of justice and gratitude, those who are strongest and use their strength for the benefit of the community are called kings, while those who use their strength for their own ends are tyrants.

Polybius’s fairly grim view of the beginnings of politics, namely necessity and the primacy of brute force, along with his accounts of justice and right and wrong, might lead us to the conclusion that he sees virtue as an illusion, and that politics is really a contest of strength. His view of the international system would certainly seem to support this interpretation. Nonetheless, while Polybius never explicitly claims, as does Aristotle, that the purpose of the political community is noble activity and the life of virtue, he makes it clear that an ignoble life is not worth living. Moral excellence, whatever its origin, is the height of human life, especially when it is found in a statesman. The necessity that marks the origins of politics and virtue is not the sole criterion that Polybius uses to evaluate the diplomatic conduct of statesmen.

More than once, Polybius argues that survival at all costs is not a realistic or praiseworthy way of conceiving of international politics. We can partly see this in his tendency to cast blame on the Aetolians, a people not entirely within the gambit of Greek civilization in Polybius’ estimation. In particular, Polybius notes that the Acarnanians, a poor and weak people who, unfortunately for them, shared a border with the rather ruthless Aetolians, were moved by a desire to be just in their foreign policy more than any other Greek people. He notes this in connection to their decision to go to war against the Aetolians, even though they were weak and could easily suffer invasion from Aetolia itself. Polybius applauds their commitment to duty and tells his reader that everyone should seek an alliance with the Acarnanians because they are reliable and are “lovers of freedom.” Despite material poverty, the Acarnanians are moved by a desire for nobility and thus risk war with the powerful Aetolian League.

The love of freedom is an important theme in Polybius’ work, and provides another reason for thinking that he does not see political life in terms of necessity alone. After praising the courageous and noble Acarnanians, he contrasts their conduct with that of the Epirots and Messenians, both of which tried to appease the Aetolians rather than fight them. Polybius claims, “peace with justice and honor is the noblest and most beneficial thing in the world; when joined with cowardice and evil it is the most shameful and harmful.” Thus considerations of why and how peace is sought must be brought into our evaluations of diplomatic conduct. The appeasing Epirots and Messenians are censured for pursuing peace at any price, namely the price of their honor and moral excellence.

From Polybius’ perspective, then, it seems that the purpose of political life cannot simply be reduced to human necessity and weakness. As Polybius points out, we would not praise freedom if the purpose of human life was mere survival. If the freedom of the political community is a real good, then it seems to follow that political activity is a real good in itself, and not merely a mean toward survival. Despite his grim analysis of the origins of political life and the virtues, Polybius’ view of politics ends up appearing closer to the traditional classical approach to political science as exemplified by Aristotle or Plato.


Polybian Statesmanship

As noted above, Polybius offers a vision of international relations familiar to those who style themselves “realists.” As someone well-versed in both strategy and diplomacy, he understood that war, and the possibility of war, are the preeminent issues in the foreign affairs. A statesman understanding the causes of war, Polybius argues, is like a doctor understanding the causes of disease. Knowing the causes can help mitigate the effects of war, and in some cases, prevent it. What, then, are the causes of war?

One of the chief causes that Polybius dwells upon is anger. In Polybius’ estimation, human beings are often very vain and think well of themselves and what they deserve. When they do not get what they think they deserve, they may very well go to war. He argues that Aetolian anger at Rome for not getting the credit they thought their due led to the conflict that effectively made the Greek cities puppet states of Rome. Likewise, Polybius traces the causes of the Second Punic War to Hannibal’s anger at Rome for the losses of Sardinia and Corsica, and a humiliating peace treaty. Of course, while Hannibal enjoyed initial success against Rome, in the long run he had a hand in turning Carthage in a permanent second-rate power. Polybius has no patience for this sort of conduct—war is not a tool for attaining the prestige we think we deserve.

Although anger has a prominent place in Polybius’ thought, he also observes that greed drives peoples to go to war. Polybius suggests that Rome ended up fighting Carthage in Sicily due to the greed of the Roman people, over and against the more moderate approach espoused by the Senate. Likewise, the powerful Aetolian League simply took what it liked from its neighbors, apparently unable to stay at peace. Above all, however, Polybius blames the Gauls for their unremitting greed, which led them to conflict with the more powerful Rome over and over again, until Rome finally vanquished them, tired of the recalcitrant tribesmen.

Beyond vanity and greed, love of the honor that attends rule is clearly another cause of warfare between peoples, and possibly the most common. Nearly all the characters of Polybius’ Histories are filled with the drive to rule over neighbors, not out of a sense of vengeance or a desire to possess their property, but simply to rule over them. Hence, the Achaean statesman Aratus tells the Macedonian king Antigonus that the Spartans were not so much moved by greed, like the Aetolians, but rather the desire to exercise hegemony over Greece, and perhaps beyond. Likewise, Polybius says that Xenophon’s successful escape from Persia with the mercenary Greeks went a long way toward persuading Alexander that he could rule the entirety of the Persian Empire if he so wished. Ambition and the love of ruling over other human beings seems to be the reason that Polybius tracks the rule of great powers over weaker powers as a natural consequence.

Although Polybius seemed to think that the rule of the powerful over the weak was a natural consequence, he did not think that tame submission to power was a mark excellent statesmanship. Although a statesman knows the causes of war and will use that knowledge to prudently avoid war, he also does not allow his political community to be servile. Polybius does not possess a coldly pragmatic view of diplomatic-strategic conduct; his vision is imbued with a love for noble freedom. Thus, while Polybius argues that the only “unquestionable good” among the things that men pursue is the good of peace, he qualifies his claim by saying it must be a just and fitting peace. Thus he condemns the Messenians cowardly refusal to go to war with the Aetolians, noting that peace at any price ends in denying the goods of human life. Peace with honor, that is, the peace that belongs to an independent city rather than a servile city, is the aim of statecraft. The flipside of ruling others is the desire to rule oneself, and thus ambition for the sake of noble freedom as well as ambition for the sake of rule can, and Polybius suggests sometimes should, lead to war.

Given his emphasis on history and looking into the truth of things rather than on overly abstract theory, we should not be surprised that Polybius offers a number of reasons states go to war. It is important to realize, however, that these causes are within the human soul, and not within the “nature of things.” To put it into modern terminology, states, whether great powers or not, are in no way like billiard balls, but communities of hope and fear that enact a great human drama. Although it is indeed the natural course of event that the great cities would rule the lesser, this is the product of human choice and the desire to rule others. As the example of Aratus and the Achaean League shows, weaker powers can navigate the fraught waters of international politics wisely by not directly challenging great powers, and choosing the correct allies to preserve both existence and freedom. As we shall see, the nature of that rule is indeed dependent on the kinds of men that rule. Hence Polybius’ endless emphasis on regimes and the kinds of souls formed by regimes.

It is worth noting here another aspect of Polybius’ history that appears to set him apart from his predecessors. For while he puts great stock in statesmanship and the role of human choice in determining what happens in politics, whether on the domestic or the international level, a large role is reserved for tuchē, which is best left untranslated. In Aristotelian natural philosophy, tuchē can be understood as chance, events that come about without being foreseen or intended by agents. While it sometimes seems to have that meaning in the writings of Polybius, it also at times seems to take on a near divine character, much like divine will. It would go too far to compare it to Boethius’ Fortuna—tuchē is not necessarily capricious, and it has definite sense of justice. It is far more providential than mere Fortuna, and Polybius indicates that the course of history has been formed and shaped by divine will. But he is careful to avoid fatalism—whatever the will of tuchē, and however important it might be aware of the far-reaching consequences of apparently petty schemes of less than significant men and women, Polybius never abandon’s his commitment to understanding why human beings do the things they do. Although divine will might be ultimately responsible for the rise of Rome and the eclipse of Greece, the knowledge of human nature, character, and political regimes is far more apropos to political education rather than theories of providence. This is not to say that knowledge of providence is unimportant, but that it cannot help statesman decide what to do in the here and now.


Regimes and the International System

The chaotic nature of international politics at Polybius’ time, along with the near universal drive for ruling over others, leads to the somewhat natural conclusion that whatever order can be found in the international system will be the result of ruling great powers. Although Polybius points to a shared concern for justice and piety that does spur some statesman toward nobility rather than mere tyranny, he has no illusions that power is an unnecessary consideration for statesman. Similarly, Polybius seems to take it for granted that there will be competition for supremacy in the international system. Thus, it is no surprise that Rome strove for supremacy. The question is rather how it achieved it.

Polybius points out that part of the strength of the Roman regime was its mixed character. While “pure” regimes were doomed to slide into their corrupt counterparts, a mixed regime could balance competing interests against each other and preserve what was best about monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy while guarding against their excesses. Polybius argues that during the normal operation of Roman government, it would be difficult for things to get done quickly due its divided nature. But when threats arose from the outside, the government had immense power once consuls, the senate, and the people began working together. The ability to unify quickly, and otherwise use competing ambition to keep a check on overweening authority, gave the Roman people domestic freedom combined with decisive action in foreign affairs. Domestic freedom actually aided foreign affairs in that Roman citizens had a real stake in the regime, and were willing to work unremittingly for the common good. Polybius points out that the immense naval power the Romans brought against Carthage in such a short period of time was due to private efforts of Romans committed to victory at sea.

But the Roman regime did not simply offer freedom – it in fact shaped the souls of the Roman people, making a certain kind of people that were well-equipped to take on the task of worldwide domination. The virtues that Polybius singles out are courage, justice, and piety toward the gods. He especially focuses on piety and justice, arguing that the Romans were committed to careful observance of all religious customs and that this commitment was a necessary spur toward lawful behavior and devotion to the common good. Polybius implies that irreligious peoples do not take proper care for the common good, which of course could be disastrous for foreign policy. Rome both preserved its own freedom and safety, as well as becoming ruler of the world, through a free and religious devotion to the common good that Polybius indicates the world had not seen before.

This indicates the significance of regimes in determining the character of a given international system, which in turn bears on prudent strategic-diplomatic conduct. Although Polybius argues that political communities should aim for freedom, even at the risk of war, rather than servile submission to foreign powers, he notes that in the case of Rome the calculus is different. The rule of Rome brought undeniable goods compared to self-rule. These goods included, but were not limited to, the good of a just and fitting peace and the rule of a city that was committed to the life of virtue and law. This is not to say that Rome never behaved tyrannically, but that its regime was such to produce superior individuals who, one hoped, would be less likely to be susceptible to the lure of the tyrannical life. In this context Polybius puts forward the example of Horatius Cocles as a Roman that won the respect and fear of his enemies, not because he was physically more powerful, but because he had endurance and courage requisite for nobility. One wonders whether Polybius would have held that being ruled by a man like Horatius to be servile or not. At any rate, Polybius makes it clear that the unique character of Roman rule makes the question as to whether others (especially the Greeks) ought to accept that rule a serious one. In Polybius’ view, it does not seem that one should always pursue political independence in foreign affairs. It depends a great deal on what regime one wishes to be free from, and what we wish to be free for.


For Further Reading

Unfortunately, there does not appear to be any recent careful translations of Polybius’ work. Given the difficulty in finding a good edition, I recommend using the Loeb edition as a way of easily checking the Greek.

Balot, Ryan. “Polybius’ Advice to the Imperial Republic.” Political Theory. Vol. 38. No. 4. 2010: 483-509.

Baronowski, Donald. Polybius and Roman Imperialism. London: A&C Black. 2013.

Baronowski’ work is one of the better accounts of Polybius’ attitudes toward imperial power and the proper goals of strategic-diplomatic conduct.

Eckstein, Arthur. Moral Vision in the Histories of Polybius. Berkley: University of California Press. 1995.

——-. Rome Enters the Greek East: From Anarchy to Hierarchy in the Hellenistic Mediterranean, 230-170 B.C. Hoboken: Wiley-Blackwell. 2008.

——-.Anarchy, Interstate War, and the Rise of Rome. Berkley: University of California Press. 2009.

Arthur Eckstein, as one can see, is a leading scholar on Polybius and international relations. He has provided a remarkable amount of scholarship on the subject. It is worth pointing out, however, he explicitly follows a neorealist interpretation of the rise of Rome, which is quite at odds with Polybius’ own views on the subject. One should proceed with one’s eyes open.

Gilbert, Bruce and Thomas Harrison, editors. Polybius & His World: Essays in Honor of F.W. Walbank. New York: Oxford University Press. 2013.

Harris, William V. War and Imperialism in Republican Rome: 327-70 B.C.  New York: Oxford University Press. 1985.

William Harris provides a helpful consideration of Roman foreign policy and the undeniable fact that Rome spent much of its time at war. Much of Eckstein’s work is an attempt to refute Harris’ thesis, which is that Rome became an empire because they were a peculiarly warlike people. This is not a Polybian analysis, but it provides an interesting counterpoint to Polybius.

Inglis, David and Roland Robertson. “From Republican Virtue to Global Imaginary: Changing Vision of the Historian Polybius.” History of the Social Sciences. Vol 19. No. 1. 2006: 1-18.

Walbank, Frank. Polybius, Rome, and the Hellenistic World: Essays and Reflections. New York: Cambridge. 2006.

Walbank was without doubt one of the most famous scholars on Polybius.