“Greece would not have fallen had it obeyed Polybius in everything, and when Greece did meet disaster, its only help came from him” Pausanias, 8.37.2, Inscription on the Temple of Despoina near Arakesion.

Polybius relief sculpture found in Cleitor. Source

Polybios or Polybius of Megalopolis (c. 203 BC - 120 BC) the son of Lycortas, Greek historian, famous for his book called The Histories or The Rise of the Roman Empire which covers 220 BC to 146 BC.

As the former tutor of the Scipio Africanus the Younger, the famous adopted grandson of the famous general Scipio Africanus, Polybius remained on terms of the most cordial friendship and remained a counsellor to the man who defeated the Carthaginans in the Second Punic War by routing them from Spain and then defeating Hannibal himself in Africa at the Battle of Zama. The younger Scipio eventually invaded Carthage and forced them to surrender unconditionally. In a classic story of human behavior, Polybius captures it all: Nationalism, Racism, duplicitous politics, horrible battles, brutality, etc.; along with, loyalty, valor, bravery, intelligence, reason and resourcefulness. With his eye for detail and characteristic critically reasoned style, Polybius provided a unified view of history rather than a chronology.

Polybius was a member of the governing class, with firsthand opportunities to gain deep insight into military and political affairs. His political career was devoted largely towards maintaining the independence of the Achaean League. As the chief representative of the policy of neutrality during the war of the Romans against Perseus of Macedonia, he attracted the suspicion of the Romans, and was one of the 1000 noble Achaeans who in 166 BC were transported to Rome as hostages, and detained there for seventeen years. In Rome, by virtue of his high culture, he was admitted to the most distinguished houses, in particular to that of Aemilius Paulus, the conqueror in the Macedonian War, who intrusted him with the education of his sons, Fabius and the younger Scipio. Through Scipio's intercession in 150 BC, Polybius obtained leave to return home, but in the very next year he went with his friend to Africa, and was present at the capture of Carthage that he described.

After the destruction of Corinth in the same year, he returned to Greece and made use of his Roman connections to lighten the conditions as Greece was converted into a Roman province; Polybius was intrusted with the difficult task of organizing the new form of government in the Greek cities, and in this office gained for himself the highest recognition.

The succeeding years he seems to have spent in Rome, engaged on the completion of his historical work, and occasionally undertaking long journeys through the Mediterranean countries in the interest of his history, more particularly with a view to obtaining firsthand knowledge of historical sites. It also appears that he sought out and interviewed war veterans in order to clarify details of the events he was writing about, and was given access to archival material for the same purpose. After the death of Scipio he returned once again to Greece, where he died at the age of eighty-two, from a fall from his horse.

The Historian

It is neither possible for a man with no experience in warfare to write well about what happens in war, nor for one unversed in the practice and circumstances of politics to write well on that subject. So that as nothing written with experience or vividness, their works are of no practical utility to readers. For if we take from history all that can benefit us, what is left is quite contemptible and useless. Histories, 12.25g.1-2

Livy used him as a reference and Polybius had excellent sources. Polybius narrates events which came within his own experience. He is one of the first historians to attempt to present history as a sequence of causes and effects, based upon a careful examination of tradition, conducted with keen criticism; partly also upon what he had himself seen, and upon the communications of eye-witnesses and actors in the events. Considered the successor of Thucydides as far as objectivity and critical reasoning, he is the forefather of scholarly, painstaking historical research in the modern scientific sense. His work sets forth the course of occurrences with clearness, penetration, sound judgment, and love of truth, and, among the circumstances affecting the result, lays especial stress on the geographical conditions. It belongs, therefore, to the greatest productions of ancient historical writing.


Polybius was responsible for a useful tool in cryptography which allowed letters to be easily signalled using a numerical system. This idea lends itself to cryptographic manipulation. See: Ancient Greek Communication Methods


His writings had a great influence upon Cicero, the Founding Fathers of the United States and upon Charles de Montesquieu (http://www.sms.org/mdl-indx/polybius/intro.htm).


At Perseus Project: English & Greek version (http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/cgi-bin/ptext?lookup=Plb.+toc)

Polybius Cipher

Cryptography of Polybius

Ancient Greek Literature Timeline

Albin Lesky, History of Greek Literature , Hackett Publishing Company; Reprint edition (November, 1996)

History, Jefferson Building, USA. History (with mythology and tradition) with an inscription of historians such as Herodotus, Thucydides and Polybius. In the background a Pyramid, the Parthenon and the Colosseum representing the three civilizations of Egypt, Greece and Rome.

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