'no one else in our times has attempted to write a universal history' Polybius' ambitious goal was to describe how Rome conquered the Mediterranean world in less than fifty-three years. This great study of imperialism takes the reader back to Rome's first encounter with Carthage in 264 and forward to her destruction of that renowned city in 146. Polybius, himself a leading Greek politician of the time, emphasizes the importance of practical experience for the writing of political history as well as the critical assessment of all the evidence. He attributes Rome's success to the greatness of its constitution and the character of its people, but also allows Fortune a role in designing the shape of world events. This new translation by Robin Waterfield, the first for over thirty years, includes the first five books in their entirety, and all of the fragmentary Books 6 and 12, containing Polybius' account of the Roman constitution and his outspoken views on how (and how not) to write history. Brian McGing's accompanying introduction and notes illuminate this remarkable political 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.