Polybius of Megalopolis: History Isn’t Always Written by Victors

Georgina Longley

The common saying that history is written by the victors is of uncertain origin. Whilst it may be true that the victors in a conflict (or, at least, those with superior power) can have a stronger influence over the prevailing version of events after the fact, it is certainly not true that historical accounts only ever emanate from the victors. This is perhaps especially difficult to appreciate in an age where information is more widely available than ever, and public expression of opinion (and thus of varying versions and viewpoints) is now far more widely accessible than it has ever been.

However, on rare occasions we are still able to glimpse historical views from the ‘other’ side. One particularly interesting example of this in action is the Greek second-century BC historian, Polybius of Megalopolis. Not only was he not one of the victors, but he was an eyewitness and active player in the events he describes. He did find favour with the victors, but not immediately. It is believed he began writing his famous work of history in the 150s BC, after over ten years’ detainment in Rome. In his work, he seeks to explain the Romans’ successful rise to power to a primarily Greek audience. He dwelt among the victors (the Romans), he conversed with them, and, in the end, they in turn sought his help.

In this article I want to examine the background to Polybius’ work and to ask how he went from initially being deported to being later a favoured detainee. We will look also at his views and the regard in which he was held by his captors.

Polybius, as depicted on a relief stele by Kleitor, 2nd cent. BC (Museum of Roman Civilisation, Rome, Italy).

Rome and the Greek World (229 and 168 BC)

Polybius had been making a promising career for himself in the Greek Achaean League, a federal-style organization of cities, united to maintain their freedoms against the kingdoms that arose from Alexander the Great’s splintered empire. Onto this tense stage the Romans made their first proper entrance in 229 BC against the Illyrian Ardiaeae tribe, then under the rule of queen Teuta, wife of the former king Agron. Following their victory in this encounter, the Romans were cordially welcomed and thanked by the Greek city-states of the Achaean League, even being invited to the Isthmian games by the Corinthians (Histories, 2.12.4–8).

Just over 60 years later, in 168 BC, it was a dramatically different state of affairs. Following their defeat of Perseus, king of Macedon, the Romans were the dominant power in the Mediterranean, and not just over Greece. Another consequence of the conflict was that a thousand Greek statesmen, made up primarily of men from the Aetolian and Achaean Leagues, found themselves bound for Italy. They were under suspicion of collusion with Perseus, and of being in active opposition to the Roman power’s presence in the Greek world. Polybius was among them. To understand why he was in this group, how he effectively ended up on the ‘losing side’, and how his experience connects to the spread of Roman influence over the Greek world, a little further examination of the historical context is essential.

Silver tetradrachm of Perseus, struck in Pella or Amphipolis, under the magistrate Zoilus, 178-174 BC: diademed head of Perseus on obverse; ΒΑΣΙΛΕΩΣ ΠΕΡΣΕΩΣ (“of King Perseus”) surrounding an eagle with spread wings on reverse.

Rome and The Tensions in Greek politics (196–167 BC)

Polybius saw the Roman victory in the war against Hannibal, the Carthaginian general, as a watershed moment (202 BC). Rome’s greatest rival had been defeated, her power had been proven. Victory over Philip V of Macedon, who had made a treaty with Hannibal, followed quickly in 198 BC. Despite an apparent show of respect for Greek freedom in the Isthmian proclamation of 196, which declared key Greek cities autonomous and free from tribute, Roman presence was certainly not withdrawn from Greece. This brought the Romans into conflict with Antiochus II of the Seleucid empire, the most powerful of the surviving successor kingdoms (those which were established following the break-up of Alexander the Great’s empire). Following Antiochus’ defeat, it was abundantly clear that Roman power could be neither cast off nor ignored.

What this meant for the Greeks, and how they were to deal with this new reality, stoked the fires of debate and division across the Greek-speaking world. Polybius portrays this issue as divided  irreconcilably between roughly three camps of thought: the cautiously cooperative, though not slavish advocates (like his own father Lycrotas, hero politician Philopoemen, and, at least originally, himself); the pragmatists who believed that Roman orders should be accepted to avoid hostile reprisals (see Polybius 18.13 on the urgings of Aristaenus in the 190s, when he cast off the Achaean alliance with Philip of Macedon); and finally – the group Polybius so evidently despises – the sycophantic types who favoured embracing Roman orders and who betrayed those who were less enthusiastic for their own aggrandisement.

The expansion of the Roman Emperor from 201 BC (green) to 100 BC (orange).

On an embassy to Rome, after a debate in the League about whether to follow League procedure or Roman orders, a fawner, Callicrates, offered the Roman Senate some advice. He told them, essentially, that if they wanted to secure a foothold in Greece, they should support sympathetic ‘advocates’ like himself who could silence the more recalcitrant Greeks. Following this policy seems to have worked (24.12.1–4), as direct Roman micro-management seems to have escalated after that point.

Several scholars have argued that this brought a ‘new wisdom’ or ‘new policy’ from Rome, as their more active meddling and fostering of division now affected the Greek cities.[1] These are not, however, Polybian coinages, nor do I think they reflect his view. At 24.12, Polybius does say that the Romans adopted a new policy of promoting those Greeks who favoured them, and of undermining those whom they perceived to be more hostile to Roman interests. However, what he is highlighting is a new method in enforcing Roman orders, not a new aim in terms of securing Greek obedience.

This state of affairs persisted, and deteriorated. The Roman Senate even tried to meddle in the Macedonian succession, promoting the older son of Philip V, who was favourable to their influence, as successor. He was murdered, Perseus succeeded, and – if you believe Polybius – he inherited his father’s hatred of Rome as much as the throne (23.7–8), a hatred which ironically hastened his downfall.

Statue of Polybius, Alois Düll, 1899 (Vienna, outside the Parliament of Austria).

What did Polybius do wrong?

Polybius was certainly not going to advocate surrendering the freedoms of his league to curry favour for himself, but he was cooperative. Yet, despite this, in 168, he was deported as a hostile collaborator. Polybius himself attributed his exile to the following incident during the Roman war against Perseus.

At 28.13, Polybius describes how, while leading, troops that the League had voted in support of the Romans against King Perseus, he arrived to meet the Roman general Marcius. This suggests he was by no means on the side of the enemy. Marcius, however, greeted him by informing him that these troops were no longer needed. Polybius makes clear that he and the Achaeans with him were anxious to emphasise their willing cooperation and acceptance of the request that had come from the Romans for these soldiers. And Polybius himself remained to assist.

King Perseus before Aemilius Paullus (after his defeat at the Battle of Pydna in 168 BC), Jean-François-Pierre Peyron, 1802 (Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest, Hungary).

A further demand for extra troops then came from the Roman commander Cento, who was in Epirus. Polybius was sent back to the Peloponnese, having been told by Marcius that Cento had no reason to make such a demand and that Polybius should prevent compliance with this unnecessary expense for the Achaeans. Upon returning, Polybius was presented again with Cento’s request in the League assembly.

This left him in something of a quandary. Should he reveal Marcius’ private instructions? If so, he would risk disloyalty to another Roman general. He decided he could not openly oppose the demand. Instead, he suggested that the assembly should consult the Roman consul before they proceeded. However, the slavish pro-Roman sycophants among the Greeks had their ammunition to attack Polybius. This sequence of events could be twisted into a tale of Polybius trying to thwart the efforts of a Roman commander (Cento) by failing to provide the assistance he had sought. Polybius might as well have been on the losing side: his loyalty to Rome was in question.

Detail from The triumph of Aemilius Paullus, Carle Vernet, 1789 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA).

Polybius and Rome

Polybius was fortunate. He ended up in Rome during a period of exile from Greece, acting as tutor to the boys of Aemilius Paullus, one of whom was Scipio Aemilianus, the future sacker of Carthage. He was uniquely placed. It is thought that he began writing his great Histories in the 150s BC, after just over ten years of seeing Rome and the Romans up-close-and-personal, so to speak. Polybius had come to understand his captor-city and sought to explain her.

At least two possible objections can be raised to the image of Polybius as “the captive who wrote history”:

  • Polybius was not really a typical captive. His closeness to Rome and the Romans effectively made him a token victor.
  • He was biased in favour of the Romans and thus a privileged token victor.

However, Polybius never appears a slavish advocate of Rome in his work. When Fergus Millar asked whether Polybius really ‘liked’ Rome, he raised an important distinction between admiration (yes) and liking (no). A further distinction must also be made between his liking and respect for individual Romans, especially the Scipios, and his attitude to Roman power more generally. A pro-Scipio bias is certainly evident,[2] but this does not equate to a pro-Roman bias. Polybius’ attitude can be summed up as follows: he was admiring but pragmatically cautious. Let’s look at why.

Scipio Aemilianus with Polybius in the ruins of Carthage, engraving by Jacobus Buys, 1797.


In explaining Roman success, for Polybius the form of the Roman politeia was key and to its exposition he devotes the entirety of Book 6. Sections 11–18 of that book explain the workings of Roman government. According to Polybius, this was based on a division of powers between the consuls, the Senate, and the people. Each division possessed its own sphere of power (11–14):

  • Consuls – leading magistrates in Rome and commanders-in-chief of the armies in the field.
  • The Senate – held the public purse strings, deliberated, controlled foreign policy in the hearing of embassies. They were not a legislative body.
  • The People – in theory the sovereign power, voting on war and peace, laws, elections, and the juries in capital cases.

Much debate exists over whether Polybius is overly schematic, over precisely which period he is describing, and over whether he overstates the power of the people.[3] Here I leave these debates to one side. Of primary relevance for me is his depiction of how political cooperation is fostered at Rome.

The famous acronym S(enatus) P(opulus)Q(ue) R(omanus): the Senate and People of Rome (mosaic in the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, Milan, Italy).

Polybius gives a picture of how the three spheres of power create a mutual interdependency, which requires the cooperation of the three elements for effective government (15–18). As a result of this cooperation, the Romans are able to check and restrain the faults and vices that can so easily topple simpler politeiai. However, the term politeia refers to much more than just the organs of government. In Book 6, Polybius describes the arrangement of the army, its system of disciplines and rewards, while making comparisons between Rome and other peoples in terms of their attitude to money, customs, public spectacles, acquisition of wealth, and their stout-heartedness after Cannae. All this forms part of the working whole of the Roman politeia. Particularly splendid is Polybius’ account of the funeral procession of imagines at 6.53,[4] which Polybius emphasizes as a crucial practice for encouraging cooperation and emulation among the young. He clearly admired Rome’s political setup and practices. However, there is no obvious celebration or promotion of Roman power, just an explanation of how the Romans achieved it.

The Battle of Cannae, follower of the Luçon Master, 1390–1400 (illumination in a manuscript of Pierre Bersuire’s French translation of Livy’s Roman history Ab Vrbe condita, London, British Library Royal MS 15 D VI).

Pragmatic caution

Polybius comments on the Achaean statesman Aristaenus’ attitude to the Romans as follows (28.13):

If Aristaenus had not at this time opportunely caused the Achaeans to leave their alliance with Philip and join that of Rome, it is clear that the whole league would have been utterly ruined. But as it was, this man and this policy were confessedly the sources, not only of security to individual Achaeans at the time, but of the aggrandisement of the whole league. Therefore, he was not looked upon as a traitor, but universally honoured as a benefactor and saviour of the country. The same principle will hold good in the case of all others who regulate their policy and measures by the necessities of the hour.

This, I would argue, is very much what Polybius’ own approach came to be. He was no fawner, but drew on his own experience in seeking to look out for Achaean safety. By Polybius’ own time, the question was not whether Roman orders should be accepted, but how Roman power was to be banaged most safely. At the opening of Book 1 of his Histories, Polybius’ question was about the form of the people whose empire spread so rapidly (1.1.5). At the opening of Book 3, new questions are asked: how did the Romans manage their success and how did those they ruled deal with the reality of their new masters (3.4)?

Polybius was assisting the Romans for much of the period 155-146 and saw their conduct on the field. Could this suggest he had become a card-carrying, pro-Roman Greek, of a sort I have just argued he was not? Two passages suggest otherwise.

Polybius observed an increasingly ruthless approach from the Roman senate and from certain individuals, making the lessons of his Histories all the more pressing. In Book 12, he speaks of how he negotiated relief from military obligation for the Italian Locrians when troops were demanded by the Romans for service in the Dalmatian and Numantine wars (12.5). The Locrians seem to have been struggling to meet military demands, but the Romans pressed on regardless.

The last day on Corinth, Tony Robert-Fleury, 1870, in which Lucius Mummius Achaicus is depicted entering the city (Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France).

Meanwhile, when the Romans were brutally sacking the city of Corinth, following an ill-conceived final stand against their power made by the Achaeans, Polybius was present. His actions here were telling. He succeeded in convincing Mummius, the Roman general leading the sack of the city, not to allow revered Achaean statesman Philopoemen to be retroactively maligned as an opponent of Rome and instead to preserve his reputation and the statues voted in his honour. In other words, he prevented the Roman victors from rewriting history.

Polybius was witnessing an escalation of the direct meddling that Callicrates’ ‘invitation’ had unleashed on Greece. He sought to cooperate and mitigate as far as he could.

To close, let us look at a remark Polybius makes about the disastrous resistance the Achaeans mounted against the Romans in 146:

For not only are the Greeks to be pitied for what they suffered, but we cannot fail to think that what they did was still more disastrous to them when we know the truth in detail. The ruin of Carthage is indeed considered to have been the greatest of calamities, but when we come to think of it the fate of Greece was no less terrible and perhaps even more so. For the Carthaginians at least left to posterity some ground, however slight, for defending their cause, but the Greeks gave no plausible pretext to anyone who wished to support them and acquit them of error.

Is this Polybius saying that the Greeks deserved all they got? I think not. He is certainly finding fault with their suicidal decision. This is hardly the same as saying “they have wronged Rome and must be punished”. The tone is one of resigned sadness that they failed to learn the lesson from being on the ‘wrong side’ before.

We can read Polybius, then, as the ‘loser’ or captive who wrote in an attempt to explain his captors to his people. His admiration for the Romans was sincere, but so was his warning. Behave wisely towards Rome, and you could do well. Go against Rome, though, and look out!

Georgina Longley wrote her doctorate on Polybius looking at his analysis of peoples and their political behaviour. Having taught at university and in schools for several years, she now divides her time between writing about Classics, teaching, Classics blogging, and Classics meme-ing.

Further Reading

P.S. Derow, “Polybius,” in T. J. Luce (ed.), Ancient Writers: Greece and Rome (Charles Scribner’s, New York, 1982) 525–39.

P.S. Derow, “Polybius,” in S. Hornblower & A.J. Spawforth (eds.), Oxford Classical Dictionary (3rd ed., Oxford UP, 1996) 1209–11.

C. Champion, Cultural Politics in Polybius’ Histories (Univ. of California Press, Berkeley, CA, 2004).

A.M. Eckstein, Mediterranean Anarchy, Interstate War, and the Rise of Rome (University of California Press, Berkeley, CA, 2006).

F.W. Walbank, Polybius (Univ. of California Press, Berkeley, CA, 1972).

Other items can also be found in the footnotes to this article.


1 See, for example, J. Briscoe, “Q. Marcius Philippus and Nova Sapientia,” Journal of Roman Studies 54 (1964) 66–77; id., “Rome and the Class Struggle in the Greek States, 200–146 BC,” Past & Present 36 (1967) 3–20.3–20; K-E. Petzold, “Die Freiheit der Griechen und die Politik der ‘nova sapientia’,” Historia 48 (1999) 61–93.
2 31.24–30: Scipio confides in Polybius and boosts his public reputation; 38.22: Scipio weeps before burning Carthage.
3 See for example, Walbank (1943) 73–89; Brink and Walbank (1954) 97–122; Walbank (1995); Seager (2013) 247–54.
4 Imagines were the wax masks of family ancestors that were worn by actors at Roman funerals. See also, Flower (1996) passim.