Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Polybius, The Histories


War, War and More War - A Review of Polybius, The Histories, in the Oxford World's Classics series.

Polybius was one of the major Greek historians of the Ancient World and is also one of the least read. His work The Histories, of which only a fraction survives, purported to explain and elucidate Rome's ascendancy and supremacy over the known world towards the end of the second century BC.

Ultimately, what survives of The Histories deals in the main with political history and especially warfare between city states. The high point for me was the account given of the Hannibalic war between Rome and Carthage with Carthaginian general Hannibal's crossing of the Alps with his troops and elephants making for particularly gripping reading.

Less captivating and harder to follow are the long drawn out accounts of internecine warfare in the Greek world before it came under Roman control. I found myself reading without ingesting so to speak when it came to this part of the narrative.

Aside from tactical warfare, Polybius makes many outspoken remarks - an unusual tendency in those days - on how history should be written and the proper task of the historian which should be essential reading to modern students of historiography; for instance, armchair historians who rely solely on book learning and lack direct experience of politics and warfare come in for a serious beating in Book 12.

Finally there is most famously the incomplete but nonetheless influential account of Rome's so-called 'mixed constitution' in Book 6 which I studied in my Roman history class years ago and came to inform writers like Machiavelli and Monstesquieu in their theorising about the state.

Reading the book cover to cover I got a sense of how all pervasive and constant war was in the Ancient World, particularly the Mediterranean area, and also how bloody tough and unforgiving life must have been back then, even though Polybius sadly does not cover the day to day life of the many as opposed to the mighty - and why should he since that was a given at the time he was writing.

The greatest value of the book may precisely lie in undoing romantic notions of the Greco-Roman world in its constant conflict and battles for supremacy which - surprisingly - become rather tedious to read about after so many pages but have the merit to put the ills of the Modern World - also ridden with conflict - in perspective.

As regards the translation, I have not read the Greek or any other English translation of this work but suffice it to say that the rendering in English was tolerably clear and even at times quite enjoyable to read, which comes as little surprise the translator, Robin Waterfield, being a writer rather than an academic by trade - at least according to the bio in the book. The introduction is competent and helps make sense of the narrative contained in Polybius' discourse.

My score for the book is four stars because while the highs are very high there is plenty in Polybius that is of little interest to the modern reader except as a reminder that the struggle for power was as pronounced back then as it is now.