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.

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    • 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.

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      • 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.

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        • 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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          Political Theory and Later Influence

          Polybius has left an indelible influence on subsequent Western political theory, to the extent that Arnaldo Momigliano once remarked that he should be considered as an honorary founder of the Constitution of the United States. Von Fritz 1975 provided an important work on the theory of the mixed constitution, which is Polybius’s most enduring legacy to political theory. Nippel 1980 furthers von Fritz’s work, with more attention to mixed constitution theory in modern times. Several of the essays in Momigliano 1977 discuss Polybius’s political theory and its impact in their broadest terms. Lintott 1999 is an excellent account of the historical Roman republican constitution. McGing 2010 summarizes Polybius’s political theory and later influence, and Richard 1994 gives an engaging account of Polybius’s theory and the origins of the early American republic.

          • Lintott, Andrew W. 1999. The constitution of the Roman Republic. Oxford: Clarendon.

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            Historical account of the evolution of the Roman constitution, with consideration of Polybius’s representation of it.

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

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              Good introduction to Polybius’s political theory and posthumous influence, pp. 169–222.

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              • Momigliano, Arnaldo. 1977. Essays in ancient and modern historiography. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan Univ. Press.

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                Wide-ranging collection of essays, one of which is devoted to Polybius’s reappearance in Europe.

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                • Nippel, Wilfried. 1980. Mischverfassungstheorie und Verfassungsrealität in Antike und früher Neuzeit. Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta.

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                  Study of mixed-constitution theory in Antiquity and early modern times.

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                  • Richard, Carl J. 1994. The founders and the classics: Greece, Rome, and the American Enlightenment. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

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                    Good account of classical influences on statesmen of the early American republic, and the importance of Polybius’s mixed-constitution theory for them.

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                    • von Fritz, Kurt. 1975. The theory of the mixed constitution in Antiquity: A critical analysis of Polybius’ political ideas. New York: Arno.

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                      An exhaustive account of the theory of the mixed constitution in Antiquity, with special emphasis on Polybius’s political ideas. Originally published in 1954.

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                      Works and Textual Transmission

                      Champion 2004 provides a concise overview of Polybius’s literary output. Polybius wrote a massive history of the Roman Empire, in forty books (originally conceived to be a thirty-book work; later the chronological coverage was extended from 168 to 146 BCE and an additional ten books were added). He also wrote an encomium of his political hero, the Achaean statesman Philopoemen, a monograph of the Numantine War in Spain in 133 BCE, a work on military tactics, and perhaps a separate study on geography. Only his history survives, and that in a fragmentary state. Books 1–5 survive intact, Book 6 is nearly complete, and beyond the sixth book we must rely on the compilations of Byzantine epitomators of the 10th century CE, who have preserved numerous extracts from the later books, some of which are quite extensive. Momigliano 1974 is important for an assessment of Polybius’s historiographical influences, and Moore 1965 is the definitive study of the manuscript tradition of Polybius’s text.

                      Texts (Greek Edition, English Translations, and Commentaries)

                      The standard Greek text of Polybius was edited by Büttner-Wobst in Polybius 1993–1995. Paton (Polybius 1922–1927) provides Greek text and facing English translation. Schuckburgh (Polybius 1889) is a good English translation, without the Greek text; Schuckburgh (Polybius 1980) and Waterfield (Polybius 2010) are English translations of selections of the text. Walbank 1957–1979 is an exhaustive and excellent commentary on the history; it is one of the great monuments of 20th-century classical scholarship.

                      • Polybius. 1889. The Histories of Polybius. Translated by Evelyn S. Shuckburgh. 2 vols. London and New York: Macmillan.

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                        Good English translation; more reliable in certain instances than Paton’s original translation.

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                        • Polybius. 1922–1927. The Histories. Translated by W. R. Paton. 6 vols. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

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                          Paton’s Loeb edition provides a good English translation facing the Greek text; now being revised and improved (volumes 1 and 2 were published by Harvard University Press in 2010, with revisions by F. W. Walbank and Christian Habicht).

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                          • Polybius. 1980. Polybius on Roman imperialism (abridged text). Translated by Evelyn S. Shuckburgh. South Bend, IN: Regnery.

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                            An abridgement of Shuckburgh’s (Polybius 1889) English translation of the history.

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                            • Polybius. 1993–1995. Polybii Historiae. Edited by Theodor Büttner-Wobst. 5 vols. Stuttgart: Teubner.

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                              The standard critical edition of the Greek text of Polybius’s history.

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                              • Polybius. 2010. The Histories. Translated by Robin Waterfield. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

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                                New translation of the history, with introduction by Brian McGing and with updated bibliography.

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                                • Walbank, Frank W. 1957–1979. A historical commentary on Polybius. 3 vols. Oxford: Clarendon.

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                                  Excellent commentary on Polybius’s history; one of the great monuments of 20th-century classical scholarship.

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                                  Biography

                                  Walbank 1972, Derow 1982, Eckstein 1995, Champion 1997, and McGing 2010 all provide reliable and concise accounts of Polybius’s life and times. Polybius of Megalopolis (c. 200–c. 118 BCE) was an important Greek politician and statesman, and the historian of the rise of the Roman Empire during its greatest period of conquest and expansion. Scholars have disputed the dates of Polybius’s lifetime, but the dates given here are now reasonably certain (see Eckstein 1992, with references to earlier literature). He was born into a leading political family of the Peloponnesian league of Greek states known as the Achaean Confederation or League (Greek, koinon), a more or less successful Greek political experiment with federal government. Polybius’s father, Lycortas, was elected to the strategeia, or presidency, of the Confederation several times in the 180s BCE. Polybius’s own political rise was meteoric, until the climactic Roman defeat of the Macedonian king Perseus at the battle of Pydna in 168 BCE. In the aftermath of that battle, the Roman authorities rounded up some one thousand Greek statesmen whom they suspected of pro-Macedonian leanings and deported them to Italy, where those who survived would spend the next sixteen years or so as political hostages. Polybius was among the hostages, having fallen under Roman suspicion for his neutral political stance. He soon befriended the sons of Perseus’s conqueror, L. Aemilius Paullus, forming an especially close relationship with P. Cornelius Scipio Aemilianus, soon to become one of the most important Roman leaders of his generation. In these years, as a result of his connections with elite Romans, Polybius enjoyed a seemingly comfortable political arrest, based in Rome with considerable freedom of movement and other privileges. During this time he probably wrote the bulk of his great history of Rome. After the Roman destruction of Corinth and dissolution of the Achaean Confederation in 146 BCE, Polybius worked as a sort of Roman agent in Greece, assisting with the establishment of new governments in the Greek cities that would be acceptable to Rome. He was present with Scipio at the Roman sack of Carthage in 146 BCE, and he may also have been with Scipio during his siege of Numantia in Spain in 133 BCE. After 150 BCE, Polybius was free to return to his homeland in Greece, where honors were bestowed upon him for his role as mediator between the Greek states and Rome. He continued working on his massive history of Rome until late in life, and he is said to have died from injuries sustained when he fell from his horse on a hunting expedition at the age of eighty-two, probably in 118 BCE.

                                  • Champion, Craige B. 1997. Polybius. In Dictionary of literary biography. Vol. 176. Edited by Ward W. Briggs, 330–334. Detroit, Washington, DC, and London: Gale.

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                                    Concise account of Polybius’s career, with emphasis on his literary influence.

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                                    • Derow, Peter S. 1982. Polybius. In Ancient writers: Greece and Rome. Vol. 1. Edited by T. J. Luce Jr., 525–539. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

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                                      Good treatment of Polybius as politician and historian in his historical and political contexts.

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                                      • Eckstein, Arthur M. 1992. Notes on the birth and death of Polybius. American Journal of Philology 113.3: 387–406.

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                                        A definitive study of the dates of Polybius’s birth and death.

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                                        • Eckstein, Arthur M. 1995. Moral vision in the Histories of Polybius. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

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                                          Fully annotated account of Polybius’s life and career, pp. 1–16.

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

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                                            A detailed account of Polybius’s life, with fresh perspectives, pp. 129–147.

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                                            • Walbank, Frank W. 1972. Polybius. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

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                                              Masterly essay on Polybius, the man and his history, by the greatest Polybian scholar of modern times, pp. 1–31.

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                                              Historical Context

                                              Polybius was a contemporary witness of profound historical changes in the Mediterranean world. Within his lifetime, the Greek states had fallen to Roman power, and Greek political independence had come to an end. After the defeat of Rome’s archenemy, Carthage, in the so-called Second Punic War (218–202 BCE), the Roman Republic went on to conquer the Hellenistic Greek kingdoms of Antigonid Macedonia and Seleucid Syria (see Derow 1979, Derow 1989, Habicht 1989). By about 150 BCE, the Roman Republic had no serious rival to its Mediterranean hegemony. Polybius’s history covered this period (c. 220–146 BCE), and as he asks (1.1. 5–6), “For who is so worthless or indolent as not to wish to know by what means and under what system of polity the Romans in less than fifty-three years have succeeded in subjecting nearly the whole inhabited world to their sole government—a thing unique in history? Or who again is there so passionately devoted to other spectacles or studies as to regard anything as of greater moment than the acquisition of this knowledge?” There are widely divergent modern interpretations of this imperial process. Badian 2000 famously suggested that the Roman patron-client social system provides a key to understanding Roman interstate relations; Harris 2006 focused on Roman bellicosity and aggression; Gruen 1984 and Ferrary 1988 stressed Greek diplomatic and cultural influences. Most recently, Eckstein 2008 has argued—utilizing international relations theory—that the harsh international system in which Rome existed was largely determinative in the development of Roman imperialism. Champion 2004 assembles seminal essays and primary sources on the growth of Roman interstate power.

                                              • Badian, Ernst. 2000. Foreign clientelae, 264–70 BC. Oxford: Clarendon.

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                                                Groundbreaking study, suggesting that Roman social relations informed Roman diplomacy and foreign policy. Originally published in 1958.

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                                                • Champion, Craige B., ed. 2004. Roman imperialism: Readings and sources. Oxford and Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

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                                                  Collection of primary sources and seminal modern essays on Roman imperial expansion.

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                                                  • Derow, Peter S. 1979. Polybius, Rome, and the East. Journal of Roman Studies 69:1–15.

                                                    DOI: 10.2307/299054Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                    A classic article on Roman expansion into Greek lands and Polybius’s interpretation of it.

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                                                    • Derow, Peter S. 1989. Rome, the fall of Macedon, and the sack of Corinth. In Cambridge ancient history. Vol. 8. 2d ed. Edited by Alan E. Astin, 290–323. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

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                                                      Narrative account of Roman political and military developments in the Greek world.

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                                                      • Eckstein, Arthur M. 2008. Rome enters the Greek East: From anarchy to hierarchy in the Hellenistic Mediterranean, 230–170 BC. Oxford and Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

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                                                        Historical reconstruction of the period covered by Polybius, utilizing international-relations theory.

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                                                        • Ferrary, Jean-Louis. 1988. Philhellénisme et impérialisme: Aspects idéologiques de la conquête romaine du monde hellénistique. Paris and Rome: École Française de Rome.

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                                                          Influential study on the ideological and cultural dimensions of Roman imperialism, especially in relation to Hellenism.

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                                                          • Gruen, Erich S. 1984. The Hellenistic world and the coming of Rome. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

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                                                            Comprehensive history of the times Polybius lived through and wrote about, with an emphasis on Roman diplomacy and foreign policy.

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                                                            • Habicht, Christian. 1989. The Seleucids and their rivals. In Cambridge ancient history. Vol. 8. 2d ed. Edited by Alan E. Astin, 324–387. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

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                                                              Excellent account of the geopolitical background for Roman expansion into the Greek East.

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                                                              • Harris, William V. 2006. War and imperialism in Republican Rome, 327–70 BC. Oxford: Clarendon.

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                                                                The most influential interpretation over the last generation of the nature of Roman republican imperialism. Originally published in 1979.

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                                                                Greek and Roman Culture and International Politics

                                                                One of the most fascinating aspects of Polybius’s work is the historian’s representation of the Roman conquerors. Were the Romans to be seen as barbarians or as quasi-Greeks? In other words, are Romans portrayed as brutish heathens or as civilized collaborators with Greek statesmen in Polybius’s text? These are questions that do not admit of easy answers. Indeed, we find both images of Romans in the history, and this inconsistent representation of Romans is best understood by attending to the political circumstances in which Polybius found himself as a Roman hostage. He clearly was writing for two audiences: members of the Roman senatorial aristocracy and members of the political elite in Greece. His careful and subtle—and seemingly conflicting—representations of Romans allowed for the historian to emerge with a somewhat ambiguous self-image: neither anti-Roman revolutionary nor Roman quisling (see Champion 2004 for Polybius’s “politics of cultural indeterminacy”; Ferrary 1988, Gruen 1992, and Gruen 1996, for broad contextualization of the question of Greek culture at Rome and its political dimensions; and Smith and Yarrow 2012, for Polybius’s “cultural politics,” following the publication of Champion 2004).

                                                                • Champion, Craige B. 2004. Cultural politics in Polybius’s Histories. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

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                                                                  In-depth study of Polybius’s politico-cultural response to Roman international hegemony, pp. 18–23.

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                                                                  • Ferrary, Jean-Louis. 1988. Philhellénisme et impérialisme: Aspects idéologiques de la conquête romaine du monde hellénistique. Paris and Rome: École Française de Rome.

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                                                                    Important study of the politico-cultural problem of philhellenism at Rome in Polybius’s lifetime and beyond.

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                                                                    • Gruen, Erich S. 1992. Culture and national identity in Republican Rome. Ithaca, NY: Cornell Univ. Press.

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                                                                      Further reflections on the impact of Greek culture in the forging of a Roman national identity.

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                                                                      • Gruen, Erich S. 1996. Studies in Greek culture and Roman policy. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

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                                                                        A collection of essays on the political and cultural intersections of Greek influence and Roman state policy. First published in 1990 (Amsterdam: Brill).

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                                                                        • Smith, Christopher, and Liv M. Yarrow, eds. 2012. Imperialism, cultural politics, and Polybius. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

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                                                                          Collected essays on Polybius’s cultural politics, furthering the theme of Champion 2004.

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                                                                          Historiographical Conventions and Polybius’s Place in Historiography

                                                                          Polybius remarks on proper historiographical method more than any other ancient historian, so that his history is invaluable for understanding ancient historiographical ideas and practices (see especially Pédech 1964, Sacks 1981). Along with Thucydides, he set the standard for painstaking and accurate historical research, as well as the longstanding idea about history’s proper subject matter (now fortunately challenged by other types of historical inquiry): contemporary or near-contemporary politics and warfare. More than any other ancient historian, Polybius discussed the criteria for authoritative historiography (see Marincola 1997 and Marincola 2001). Momigliano 1977, Walbank 1985, and Walbank 2002 contain important essays on Polybius’s historiographical conceptions, their historical contexts, and their subsequent influences. Davidson 1991 is a classic article on Polybius’s “focalizing” of his narrative, which has stimulated scholarly interest in his narrative techniques. Schepens and Bollansée 2005 consider how Polybius may be employed to learn about other ancient historians whose works exist in a fragmentary condition.

                                                                          • Davidson, James. 1991. The gaze in Polybius’ Histories. Journal of Roman Studies 81:10–24.

                                                                            DOI: 10.2307/300485Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                            Important article on Polybius’s narratological perspectives.

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                                                                            • Marincola, John. 1997. Authority and tradition in ancient historiography. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

                                                                              DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511584831Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                              Masterly study on ancient Greek and Roman historiographical conceptions and practices.

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                                                                              • Marincola. John. 2001. Greek historians. New Surveys in the Classics 31. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

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                                                                                Good overview of Polybius and his work, with excellent bibliography, pp. 113–149.

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                                                                                • Momigliano, Arnaldo. 1977. Essays in ancient and modern historiography. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan Univ. Press.

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                                                                                  Wide-ranging collection of essays on various aspects of ancient and modern historiographical conventions; one essay devoted to Polybius’s reappearance in Europe, and several others on some of Polybius’s sources.

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                                                                                  • Pédech, Paul. 1964. La Méthode historique de Polybe. Paris: Les Belles Lettres.

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                                                                                    Groundbreaking, classic study of Polybius’s working methods and historiographical conceptions and practices.

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                                                                                    • Sacks, Kenneth S. 1981. Polybius on the writing of history. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

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                                                                                      Penetrating analysis of Polybius’s historiographical conceptions and working methods.

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                                                                                      • Schepens, Guido, and Jan Bollansée, eds. 2005. The shadow of Polybius: Intertextuality as a research tool in Greek historiography. Leuven, Belgium: Peeters.

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                                                                                        Excellent collection of essays considering the limitations and potential of Polybius’s history for attempting to recover fragmentary Greek historians, for whom Polybius’s history provides our primary lens for analysis.

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                                                                                        • Walbank, Frank W. 1985. Selected papers: Studies in Greek and Roman history and historiography. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

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                                                                                          Papers on various aspects of Greek and Roman history and historiography relevant to Polybius’s history.

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                                                                                          • Walbank, Frank W. 2002. Polybius, Rome and the Hellenistic world: Essays and reflections. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

                                                                                            DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511482953Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                            This volume assembles more of Walbank’s seminal essays on Polybius and his historical period not included in Walbank 1985.

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