Polybius

Polybius was born in Arcadia in about 200 BC. He was the son of Lycortas, a Greek politician who became Cavalry Commander of the Achaean League. His opposition to Roman control of Macedonia resulted in him being taken into custody. Polybius was deported to Rome, where Lucius Aemilius Paulus, employed him to teach his two sons.

Polybius was given the opportunity to return to Macedonia in 152 BC he decided to stay as he was now converted to the merits of the Roman Empire. He became a close friend of the Roman military commander Scipio Africanus, and accompanied him to Hispania and Africa. His book Universal History gives a detailed account of how Rome built up its large empire and included his eyewitness accounts of the Roman victory over Hannibal and the destruction of Carthage in 146 BC. Polybius believed that historians should only write about events when they could interview the people who took part in them.

Polybius died in 118 BC after falling off his horse.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Polybius, The Rise of the Roman Empire (c. 110 BC)

In old times, then, those who were once thus selected, and obtained this office, grew old in their royal functions, making magnificent strongholds and surrounding them with walls and extending their frontiers, partly for the security of their subjects, and partly to provide them with abundance of the necessaries of life; and while engaged in these works they were exempt from all vituperation or jealousy; because they did not make their distinctive dress, food, or drink, at all conspicuous, but lived very much like the rest, and joined in the everyday employments of the common people. But when their royal power became hereditary in their family, and they found every necessity for security ready to their hands, as well as more than was necessary for their personal support, then they gave the rein to their appetites; imagined that rulers must needs wear different clothes from those of subjects; have different and elaborate luxuries of the table; and must even seek sensual indulgence, however unlawful the source, without fear of denial. These things having given rise in the one case to jealousy and offence, in the other to outburst of hatred and passionate resentment, the kingship became a tyranny: the first step in disintegration was taken; and plots began to be formed against the government, which did not now proceed from the worst men but from the noblest, most high-minded, and most courageous, because these are the men who can least submit to the tyrannical acts of their rulers.

(2) In his book The Rise of the Roman Empire, the historian, Polybius described how Hannibal took his elephants across the River Rhone. (c. 110 BC)

A number of solidly built rafts were constructed... The elephants were accustomed to obey their Indian mahouts until they arrived at the edge of the water, but they would on no account venture into it. Then they led the elephants along with two females in front, whom the rest obediently followed. As soon as they were standing on the last rafts, the ropes holding these were cut... At this the animals panicked and at first turned round and began to move about in all directions, but as they were by then surrounded on all sides by water, their fear eventually compelled them to stay quiet. In this way... they managed to get most of the animals over on these rafts, but some became so terror-stricken that they fell into the river when they were half-way across. The drivers of these were all drowned, but the elephants were saved, because through the power and the length of their trunks they were able to keep these above the surface and breathe through them, and spout out any water which had entered their mouths.