Classics Polybius
by
Craige Champion
  • LAST REVIEWED: 10 November 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 June 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0047

Introduction

Polybius is the most important source for the rise of Roman imperialism during the Middle Roman Republic (c. 265–c. 150 BCE). By ancient historiographical standards, his work is of the highest quality, and in this regard he is often compared with Thucydides. To be sure, his Greek prose style is inelegant—so much so that the ancient literary critic Dionysius of Halicarnassus remarked that no one could endure reading his work to the end (On Composition, 4). But Polybius’s stringent demands for historical accuracy, as well as the monumental importance of his theme—accounting for Rome’s rise to world power—more than compensate for his deficiencies in style. His political theory, and especially his ideas on the mixed constitution and government by a system of checks and balances, has had a profound impact on subsequent political thinkers in the Western tradition.

Style

The ancient literary critic Dionysius of Halicarnassus (On Composition, 4) condemned Polybius’s prose style as rough and inelegant, and Polybius himself stated that he was concerned with the accurate reporting of facts rather than with an entertaining and engaging writing style (cf. Histories, 16.20). Nevertheless, modern scholars have exhaustively analyzed Polybius’s prose composition, with Foucault 1972 being a stellar example of close analysis of the stylistic nuances and grammatical idiosyncrasies of Polybius’s Greek prose. Dubuisson 1985 provided a fine study of the ways in which Polybius’s long sojourn in Rome and exposure to the Latin language left imprints on his Greek composition. Langslow 2012 updates research since the seminal studies of Foucault and Dubuisson on Polybius’s use of language. McGing 2010 has recently shown that despite his own protestations, Polybius was not indifferent to questions of style, and that we can genuinely talk about artistic dimensions in his history.

  • Dubuisson, Michel. 1985. Le Latin de Polybe: Implications historiques d’un cas de bilinguisme. Paris: Klincksieck.

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    Important study on the evidence for Polybius’s bilingualism and the Latin influences on his Greek prose.

  • Foucault, Jules A. 1972. Recherches sur la langue et le style de Polybe. Paris: Les Belles Lettres.

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    Exhaustive analysis of Polybius’s Greek prose style.

  • Langslow, David R. 2012. The language of Polybius since Foucault and Dubuisson. In Imperialism, cultural politics, and Polybius. Edited by Christopher J. Smith and Liv M. Yarrow, 85–112. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

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    This article takes account of the most-recent scholarly work on Polybius’s language and prose style.

  • McGing, Brian C. 2010. Polybius: The Histories. Oxford Approaches to Classical Literature. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

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    An excellent general introduction to Polybius’s techniques as historian, pp. 95–128.

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