The Greek statesman Polybius (c.200-118 BC) wrote his account of the relentless growth of the Roman Empire in order to help his fellow countrymen understand how their world came to be dominated by Rome. Opening with the Punic War in 264 BC, he vividly records the critical stages of Roman expansion- its campaigns throughout the Mediterranean, the temporary setbacks inflicted by Hannibal and the final destruction of Carthage. An active participant of the politics of his time as well as a friend of many prominent Roman citizens, Polybius drew on many eyewitness accounts in writing this cornerstone work of history.
So all the more amazing that, having conquered the Italian peninsula, but never having gone to sea, they practice rowing movements on shore before taking on the Carthaginians. By turns I’d admire first one side and then the other. The Romans for their guts, but then dismay that such a band of animals could so wound such an ancient and stylish sea-faring civilisation. Yet when the Romans invade Africa and immediately capture twenty thousand slaves the scales do fall from one’s eyes somewhat. The Carthaginians may do things which panache, but isn’t panache the hall-mark of all good pirates?
After the account of this first Punic War, Polybius gives us the Numidian War, which is fantastic because the Berbers are a great bunch of lads but they really don’t get much of a look-in on the world stage. There’s also an account of the Romans’ second holiday when they establish a beach-head in the Balkans.
It’s worth saying something about Polybius’s style. Whereas Dionysius’ history is essentially a novel, using all the rhetorical techniques he can lay his hands on, Polybius’ technique is crystal clear and totally precise. His battle scenes are the best I’ve read. If you want to know how they killed each other back in the day then this is the book for you. I definitely felt as if I were reading a reliable history rather than a story and for the later events I got the impression he had spoken to eye-witnesses – which is certainly possible given the time-frame.
But then at the end of the volume he gives some Greek history. His account can be a little confusing and I was just thinking it all might be a little too close to home for him when he suddenly emits the most astounding stream of bile against a historian called Phylarchus. Is it good history? Perhaps not. But very entertaining.