Fantastic Friday: Polybius on the Importance of History (1.1)

“If those who wrote down the events of the past before me had failed also to record praise for history, it might be necessary to insist upon making this choice and turning to embrace chronicles like my own because men have no readier corrective than the knowledge of past events. But since anyone who writes to any extent (we might say everyone) uses the same point to start and begin their task—namely, asserting that the study of history is the truest education and exercise for political action, that the most certain, even only, way of acquiring the ability to endure unexpected turns of fate well is the contemplation of others’ misfortunes—then it is clear that it would seem right to no one, and to me the least, to repeat things that have been said well and by so many.

It is the unexpectedness of events that I have chosen as my subject: this will be enough to provoke and enjoin everyone, whether young or old, with the desire to complete my history. What man is so foolish or lazy that he would not want to know how and by what kind of government it happened that almost all the peopled earth was first overcome and then fell under the sole rule of the Romans in barely fifty-three years, a thing which had never happened before—or who then is so dedicated to some other kind of examination or rumination that he might consider anything more relevant than this information?”

Εἰ μὲν τοῖς πρὸ ἡμῶν ἀναγράφουσι τὰς πράξεις παραλελεῖφθαι συνέβαινε τὸν ὑπὲρ αὐτῆς τῆς ἱστορίας ἔπαινον, ἴσως ἀναγκαῖον ἦν τὸ προτρέπεσθαι πάντας πρὸς τὴν αἵρεσιν καὶ παραδοχὴν τῶν τοιούτων ὑπομνημάτων διὰ τὸ μηδεμίαν ἑτοιμοτέραν εἶναι τοῖς ἀνθρώποις διόρθωσιν τῆς τῶν προγεγενημένων πράξεων ἐπιστήμης. ἐπεὶ δ’ οὐ τινὲς οὐδ’ ἐπὶ ποσόν, ἀλλὰ πάντες ὡς ἔπος εἰπεῖν ἀρχῇ καὶ τέλει κέχρηνται τούτῳ, φάσκοντες ἀληθινωτάτην μὲν εἶναι παιδείαν καὶ γυμνασίαν πρὸς τὰς πολιτικὰς πράξεις τὴν ἐκ τῆς ἱστορίας μάθησιν, ἐναργεστάτην δὲ καὶ μόνην διδάσκαλον τοῦ δύνασθαι τὰς τῆς τύχης μεταβολὰς γενναίως ὑποφέρειν τὴν τῶν ἀλλοτρίων περιπετειῶν ὑπόμνησιν, δῆλον ὡς οὐδενὶ μὲν ἂν δόξαι καθήκειν περὶ τῶν καλῶς καὶ πολλοῖς εἰρημένων ταυτολογεῖν, ἥκιστα δ’ ἡμῖν. πρὸς τὴν ἔντευξιν τῆς πραγματείας. τίς γὰρ οὕτως ὑπάρχει φαῦλος ἢ ῥᾴθυμος ἀνθρώπων ὃς οὐκ ἂν βούλοιτο γνῶναι πῶς καὶ τίνι γένει πολιτείας ἐπικρατηθέντα σχεδὸν ἅπαντα τὰ κατὰ τὴν οἰκουμένην οὐχ ὅλοις πεντήκοντα καὶ τρισὶν ἔτεσιν ὑπὸ μίαν ἀρχὴν ἔπεσε τὴν ῾Ρωμαίων, ὃ πρότερον οὐχ εὑρίσκεται γεγονός, τίς δὲ πάλιν οὕτως ἐκπαθὴς πρός τι τῶν ἄλλων θεαμάτων ἢ μαθημάτων ὃς προυργιαίτερον ἄν τι ποιήσαιτο τῆσδε τῆς ἐμπειρίας;

I have to be completely honest: I love the beginnings found in ancient historiographer’s works.  I wish Herodotus had written more; Thucydides opening is profound and denser than death; Livy, Sallust, Tacitus (although he begins and ends all over)–they all just know how to raise the rhetoric to a new level. (But let’s not talk about Xenophon and his meta tauta!)

Not enough people read Polybius.  A Greek historian writing about Rome in Greek. Choosing to work on Polybius is like choosing to be an agnostic: no one respects you. But his prose is interesting, his topic is fantastic and his perspective is unparalleled.

Polybius, Histories 1.80.8 (On the Mercenary War): Can’t Understand Them? Stone ’em!

“Then many speakers from each nation stood forth at the same time wishing to ask that the captured men be spared torture at least, because of Gesco’s benevolence towards them. But no one understood a thing of what they said, because so many spoke at once and each gave his advice in his own language. But when it was laid bare that they were pleading against the punishment—and someone of those gathered yelled “stone them”—they at once killed all the speakers.

πολλῶν δὲ προπορευομένων ἀφ’ ἑκάστου γένους ἅμα καὶ βουλομένων αὐτὴν παραιτεῖσθαι τὴν αἰκίαν διὰ τὰς γεγενημένας ἐκ τοῦ Γέσκωνος εἰς αὐτοὺς εὐεργεσίας, οὔτε μὴν τῶν λεγομένων οὐθὲν ἦν συνετόν, ὡς ἂν ἅμα πολλῶν, ἑκάστου δὲ κατὰ τὴν ἰδίαν διάλεκτον συμβουλεύοντος• ἐπεὶ δὲ καὶ παρεγυμνώθη διότι τὴν τιμωρίαν παραιτοῦνται, καί τις ἐκ τῶν καθημένων εἶπεν βάλλε,
πάντας ἅμα κατέλευσαν τοὺς προπορευθέντας.

The scene: During the Mercenary War, an interlude between the first two Punic Wars, the Carthaginians fought against a rebellion of their Libyan troops. Gesco was a Carthangian commander. The leaders of the mercenaries, according to Polybius, executed and disfigured the bulk of their prisoners.

Polybius, 1.5.2-5: We Need a Good Foundation for This House

“For this reason, we must also explain how the Romans settled affairs in Italy and with what circumstances they expanded into Sicily—for they took possession of that land first outside of Italy. It is also necessary to record the cause of their expansion without explanation, lest, if I should seek a cause for every cause, my whole investigation lack a starting point and focus. A beginning point should be in agreement with and recognizable in the right events, and one that is capable of being seen by many and evident in the events themselves, even if it demands us to go back in time a bit before the start of the affair to summarize the events between. For if there is ignorance, or Zeus forbid, dispute at a work’s inception, it is not possible for it to gain belief or trust in the end. Whenever some belief is secured at a work’s beginning, then the subsequent narrative obtains open-mindedness from its audience.”

διὸ καὶ ῥητέον ἂν εἴη πῶς καὶ πότε συστησάμενοι τὰ κατὰ τὴν ᾿Ιταλίαν καὶ τίσιν ἀφορμαῖς μετὰ ταῦτα χρησάμενοι διαβαίνειν ὥρμησαν εἰς Σικελίαν• ταύτῃ γὰρ τῇ γῇ πρῶτον ἐπέβησαν τῶν ἐκτὸς τόπων τῆς ᾿Ιταλίας. καὶ ῥητέον αὐτὴν τὴν τῆς διαβάσεως αἰτίαν ψιλῶς, ἵνα μὴ τῆς αἰτίας αἰτίαν ἐπιζητούσης ἀνυπόστατος ἡ τῆς ὅλης ὑποθέσεως ἀρχὴ γένηται καὶ θεωρία. ληπτέον δὲ καὶ τοῖς καιροῖς ὁμολογουμένην καὶ γνωριζομένην ἀρχὴν παρ’ ἅπασι καὶ τοῖς πράγμασι δυναμένην αὐτὴν ἐξ αὑτῆς θεωρεῖσθαι, κἂν δέῃ τοῖς χρόνοις βραχὺ προσαναδραμόντας κεφαλαιώδη τῶν μεταξὺ πράξεων ποιήσασθαι τὴν ἀνάμνησιν. τῆς γὰρ ἀρχῆς ἀγνοουμένης ἢ καὶ νὴ Δί’ ἀμφισβητουμένης οὐδὲ τῶν ἑξῆς οὐδὲν οἷόν τε παραδοχῆς ἀξιωθῆναι καὶ πίστεως• ὅταν δ’ ἡ περὶ ταύτης ὁμολογουμένη παρασκευασθῇ δόξα, τότ’ ἤδη καὶ πᾶς ὁ συνεχὴς λόγος ἀποδοχῆς τυγχάνει παρὰ τοῖς ἀκούουσιν.