Page:EB1911 - Volume 22.djvu/33

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19
POLYBIUS

view of the whole course of events in the civilized world, within the limits of the period (i. 4). He thus aims at placing before his readers at each stage a complete survey of the field of action from Spain to Syria and Egypt. This synoptic method proceeds from a true appreciation of what is now called the unity of history, and to Polybius must be given the credit of having first firmly grasped and clearly enforced a lesson which the events of his own time were especially well calculated to teach. It is the great merit of his work that it gives such a picture of the 2nd and 3rd centuries B.C. as no series of special narratives could have supplied.

The second quality upon which Polybius insists as distinguishing his history from all others is its “pragmatic” character. It deals, that is, with events and with their causes, and aims at an accurate record and explanation of ascertained facts. This “pragmatic method” (ix. 2) makes history intelligible by explaining the how and the why; and, secondly, it is only when so written that history can perform its true function of instructing and guiding those who study it. For the great use of history, according to Polybius, is to contribute to the right conduct of human life (i. 35). But this it can do only if the historian bears in mind the true nature of his task. He must remember that the historian should not write as the dramatist does to charm or excite his audience for the moment (ii. 56). He will aim simply at exhibiting events in their true light, setting forth “the why and the how” in each case, not confusing causes and occasions, or dragging in old wives' fables, prodigies and marvels (ii. 16, iii. 48). He will omit nothing which can help to explain the events he is dealing with: the genius and temperament of particular peoples, their political and military systems, the characters of the leading men, the geographical features of the country, must all be taken into account. To this conception of history Polybius is on the whole consistently faithful. It is true that his anxiety to instruct leads often to a rather wearisome iteration of his favourite maxims, and that his digressions, such as that on the military art, are occasionally provokingly long and didactic. But his comments and reflections are for the most art sound and instructive (e.g. those on the lessons to be learnt gem the revolt of the mercenaries in Africa, i. 65; from the Celtic raids in Italy, ii. 35; and on the Roman character), while among his digressions are included such invaluable chapters as those on the Roman constitution (bk. vi), the graphic description of Cisalpine Gaul (bk. ii.) and the account of the rise and constitution of the Achaean League (ii. 38 seq.). To his anxiety again to trace back events to their first causes we owe, not only the careful inquiry (bk. iii.) into the origin of the Second Punic War, but the sketch of early Roman history in bk. i., and of the early treaties between Rome and Carthage in iii. 22 seq. Among the many defects which he censures in previous historians, not the least serious in his eyes are their inattention to the political and geographical surroundings of the history (ii. 16, iii. 36), and their neglect duly to set forth the causes of events (iii. 6).

Polybius is equally explicit as regards the personal qualifications necessary for a good historian, and in this respect too his practice is in closing agreement with his theory. Without a personal knowledge of affairs a writer will inevitably distort the true relations and importance of events (xii. 28). Such experience would have saved accomplished and fluent Greek writers like Timaeus from many of their blunders (xii. 25a), but the shortcomings of Roman soldiers and senators like Q. Fabius Pictor show that it is not enough by itself. Equally indispensable is careful painstaking research. All available evidence must be collected, thoroughly sifted, soberly weighed, and, lastly, the historian must be animated by a sincere love of truth and a calm impartiality.

It is important to consider how far Polybius himself comes up to his standard. In his personal acquaintance with affairs, in the variety of his experience, and in his opportunities for forming a correct judgment on events he is without a rival among ancient historians. A great part of the period of which he treats fell within his own lifetime (iv. 2). He may just have remembered the battle of Cynoscephalae (197), and, as we have seen, he was actively engaged in the military and political affairs of the Achaean League. During his exile in Rome he was able to study the Roman constitution. and the peculiarities of the Roman temperament; he made the acquaintance of Roman senators, and became the intimate friend of the greatest Roman of the day. Lastly, he was able to survey with his own eyes the field on which the great struggle between Rome and Hannibal was fought out. He left Rome only to witness the crowning triumph of Roman arms in Africa, and to gain a practical acquaintance with Roman methods of government by assisting in the settlement of Achaea. When, in 146, his public life closed, he completed his preparation of himself for his great work by laborious investigations of archives and monuments, and by a careful personal examination of historical sites and scenes. To all this we must add that he was deeply read in the learning of his day, above all in the writings of earlier historians.

Of Polybius's anxiety to get at the truth no better proof can be given than his conscientious investigation of original documents and monuments, and his careful study of geography and topography—both of them points in which his predecessors as well as his successor Livy, conspicuously failed. Polybius is careful constantly to remind us that he writes for those who are φιλομαθεῖς lovers of knowledge, with whom truth is the first consideration. He closely studied the bronze tablets in Rome on which were inscribed the early treaties concluded between Romans and Carthaginians. He quotes the actual language of the treaty which ended the First Punic War (i. 62), and of that between Hannibal and Philip of Macedon (vii. 9). In xvi. 15 he refers to a document which he had personally inspected in the archives at Rhodes, and in iii. 33 to the monument on the Lacinian promontory, recording the number of Hannibal's forces. According to Dionysius, i. 17, he got his date for the foundation of Rome from a tablet in the pontifical archives. As instances of his careful attention to geography and topography we have not only the fact of his widely extended travels, from the African coast and the Pillars of Hercules in the west, to the Euxine and the coasts of Asia Minor in the east, but also the geographical and topographical studies scattered throughout his history.

Next to the duty of original research, Polybius ranks that of impartiality. Some amount of bias in favour of one's own country may, he thinks, be pardoned as natural (xvi. 14); but it is unpardonable, he says, for the historian to set anything whatever above the truth. And on the whole, Polybius must be allowed here again to have practised what he preached. It is true that his affection for and pride in Arcadia appear in more than one passage (iv. 20, 21), as also does his dislike of the Aetolians (ii. 45, iv. 3, 16). His treatment of Aratus and Philopoemen, the heroes of the Achaean League, and of Cleomenes of Sparta, its most constant enemy, is perhaps open to severer criticism. Certainly Cleomenes does not receive full justice at his hands. Similarly his views of Rome and the Romans may have been influenced by his firm belief in the necessity of accepting the Roman supremacy as inevitable, and by his intimacy with Scipio. He had a deep admiration for the great republic, for her well-balanced constitution, for her military system, and for the character of her citizens. But just as his patriotism does not blind him to the faults and follies of his countrymen (xxxviii. 4, 5, 6), so he does not scruple to criticize Rome. He notices the incipient degeneracy of Rome after 146 (xviii. 35). He endeavours to hold the balance evenly between Rome and Carthage; he strongly condemns the Roman occupation of Sardinia as a breach of faith (iii. 28, 31); and he does full justice to Hannibal. Moreover, there can be no doubt that he sketched the Roman character in a masterly fashion.

His interest in the study of character and his skill in its delineation are everywhere noticeable. He believes, indeed, in an overruling fortune, which guides the course of events. It is fortune which has fashioned anew the face of the world in his own time (iv. 2), which has brought the whole civilized world into subjection to Rome (i. 4); and the Roman Empire itself is the most marvellous of her works (viii. 4). But under fortune not only political and geographical conditions but the characters and temperaments of nations and individuals play their part. The Romans had been fitted by their previous struggles for the conquest of the world (i. 63); they were chosen to punish the treachery of Philip of Macedon (xv. 4); and the greatest of them, Scipio himself, Polybius regards as the especial favourite of fortune (xxxii. 15; x. 5).

In respect of form, Polybius is far the inferior of Livy, partly owing, to his very virtues. His laudable desire to present a picture of the whole political situation at each important moment is fatal to the continuity of his narrative. Thus the thrilling story of the Second Punic War is broken in upon by digressions on the contemporary affairs in Greece and Asia. More serious, however, than this excessive love of synchronism is his almost pedantic anxiety to edify. For grace, and elegance of composition, and for the artistic presentation of events, he has a hardly concealed contempt. Hence a general and almost studied carelessness of effect, which mars his whole work. On the other hand he is never weary of preaching. His favourite theories of the nature and aims of history, of the distinction between the universal and special histories, of the duties of an historian, sound as most of them are in themselves, are enforced with wearisome iteration; more than once the effect of a graphic picture is spoilt by obtrusive moralizing. Nor, lastly, is Polybius's style itself such as to compensate for these defects. It is, indeed, often impressive from the evident earnestness of the writer, and from his sense of the gravity of his subject, and is unspoilt by rhetoric or conceit. It has about it the ring of reality; the language his sometimes pithy and vigorous; and now and then, we meet with apt metaphors, such as those borrowed from boxing (i. 57). from cock-fighting (i. 58), from draughts (i. 84). But, in spite of these redeeming features, the prevailing baldness of Polybius's style excludes him from the first rank among classical writers; and it is impossible to quarrel with the verdict pronounced by Dionysius of Halicarnassus, who places him among those authors of later times who neglected the graces of style, an who paid for their neglect by leaving behind them works “which no one was patient enough to read through to the end.”

It is to the value and variety of his matter, to his critical insight, breadth of view and wide research, and not least to the surpassing importance and interest of the period with which he deals, that Polybius owes his place among the writers of history. What is known as to the fortunes of his histories, and the reputation they enjoyed, fully bears out this conclusion. The silence respecting