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Weathering the Wheel of Fortune: On Enduring tyche in Polybius' Histories

Rebecca Katz

In this paper I argue for a new reading of part of Polybius' programmatic statement as it appears first at 1.1.2 and again in a slightly modified form at 6.2.6. Taken together, these two variations on the same theme speak directly to the explicitly didactic nature of Polybius' work: the only way to learn how to endure nobly the reversals of Fortune (Tyche) is by understanding how others have done so in the past, which is in turn accomplished by perusing the history in the reader's hands. This much is fairly straightforward and lends itself to a very generalized reading of Polybius' purpose, one that applies across cultural and temporal boundaries.

I propose that these statements can be read in another way as well, one that specifically addresses both elements of Polybius' dual Greek and Roman audience (for which see especially Champion 2004). I will begin by showing that Polybius' Tyche—a problematic figure for Walbank and Pédech—is portrayed above all as the final determinant of the rise and fall of imperial powers such as Carthage and Rome. By reading τύχη as the director of imperial power at 1.1.2, we can interpret Polybius' apparently generalized claim there in a new way: Polybius' work will serve as a recollection (ὑπόμνησις, much like the Hypomnemata of Aratus of Sicyon) of his own experiences in dealing with the changes of Tyche that put him in the position of being subjected to the dominant imperial power of his time, namely Rome. The adverb γενναίως may also be read as a marked class term set in deliberate opposition to the φαῦλος who has no interest in history. According to this new reading, Polybius' work is aimed at peers who find themselves in a similar situation to his own, i.e. under the unexpected and ultimately unaccountable thumb of an imperial power.

Polybius' restatement of the phrase at 6.2.6 is equally important to consider. Here he claims that the only test of a perfect man is the ability to endure violent changes of Tyche not only nobly but also with magnanimity (μεγαλοψύχως). This additional adverb is by no means insignificant. In Polybius' work the term μεγαλόψυχος is used of people who act with clemency towards those over whom they have power.  For the most part it is applied to generals or kings, with the two Scipiones accounting for more instances of the word than any other individual. Not coincidentally, these two men are credited by Polybius with an unparalleled understanding of (and hence connection to) Tyche. Throughout Polybius' work it is clear that Tyche is attributed with allowing Rome to achieve universal rule, a sentiment expressed at the very beginning of his work (1.4.1) and reiterated later (e.g. 8.2.3–4; cf. esp. 21.16.8). The close connection between Tyche, magnanimity, and the Scipiones in particular justifies a new reading of the "perfect man" (6.2.6) as one exemplified by these two Romans, especially Polybius' Scipio. The restatement at 6.2.6 may therefore be interpreted as speaking to those who find themselves in the position of dominance as a result of Tyche and for whom the behavior of the Scipiones should serve as a model.

In sum, like many parts of Polybius' Histories, his programmatic statement as found at 1.1.2 and again in a slightly different form at 6.2.6 can be shown to speak both to Greeks and to Romans, conquered and conquerors alike.

Session/Panel Title

Roman Imperial Interactions

Session/Paper Number

51.1

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