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Poetry in Polybius: The Source Material of Hellenistic Historiography

Scott Farrington

In his ninth book, Polybius contrasts his own style with the style of historians who
employ all the parts of history to attract readers to their works. He divides these parts of history
into three particular styles. These are the genealogical style (9.1.4: ὁ γενεαλογικὸς τρόπος), the
style suited to stories of colonies, foundations, and kinship (9.1.4: ὁ περὶ τὰς  ποικίας καὶ κτίσεις
καὶ συγγενείας), and Polybius’s style, which is suited to political and military affairs (9.1.4: ὁ
περὶ τὰς πράξεις τῶν ἐθνῶν καὶ πόλεων καὶ δυναστῶν).

The language here is remarkable: accounts of genealogy, colonies, and the foundations of
cities had long been the matter for lyric and elegiac poetry, and such poems played an important
role in the early development of historiography (e.g. Bowie 2001, Corcella 2006, Rösler 1990.).
Starting with this observation, I will examine Polybius’s citations of Homer, Simonides, Pindar,
and other poets, alongside his description of Timaeus’s source research, to argue that the
Histories provide strong evidence that Polybius and his contemporaries found source material in
lyric and elegiac poetry.

Numerous studies have considered the influence of poetry on the narratives of Herodotus
and Thucydides (e.g. Boedeker 2000, Hornblower 2004), but despite the keen interest in
identifying Polybius’s sources, the possibility that he consulted poetry has received little
attention. This possibility is tantalizing, however, because Polybius so vehemently rejects the
presence of tragic elements in historiography. If his criticism of poetry does not extend to epic,
lyric, and elegy, the consequences for the development of Greek historiography will be

Polybius’s attitude toward Homer is well studied (Vercruysse 1990). Though he
considers Odysseus the finest model for a historian (12.28.1), he believes Homeric epic is a
mixture of fabrications and historical truth (34.2.2; 34.4.4). Nevertheless, Polybius’s citations of
Homer reveal little about how he may have used poetry as source material. Most often, he cites
the epics to add emphasis or variety to his narrative, as when he compares the confused
multilingual war cry of the Carthaginian army at Zama to that of Homer’s Trojans (15.12.9).
Occasionally, he takes ethnographic and geographic detail from Homer, like the information
about fish and fishing near the Scyllaean rock (34.2.14). Similar is Polybius’s citation of
Simonides, whose opinion that it is hard to be good is adduced by Polybius to illustrate
Antiochus’s decision to renew the war with the two Ptolemies (29.26.1). Most illustrative,
however, is his citation of Pindar, whom he believes advised the Thebans to medize (4.31.5-6). In
this instance, Polybius takes the content of lyric poetry as historical fact.

Polybius also gives some information for precisely how poetry preserves source material
for historiography. He praises the practice of the Arcadians, who are required by law to learn the
hymns and paeans of their local gods and heroes (4.20.8). Next, they memorize the nomes of
Poetry in Polybius: The Source Material of Hellenistic Historiography Philoxenus of Cythera and Timotheus of Miletus. Philoxenus is known mainly for his Cyclops, but it is possible that this poem was part of a longer narrative (Hordern 1999); fragments of Timotheus’s Persae, an account of the battle of Salamis, still survive (Hordern 2002). The Cyclops and the Persae circulated widely, and Polybius’s praise of their study suggests his own familiarity with their content. The poems of local gods and heroes were more likely preserved in
public records, like those Timaeus boasted of consulting (Plyb. 12.10-11).

The language Polybius uses to discuss types of history—genealogies, foundations,
kinship tales—describes traditional subjects of lyric and elegiac poetry. This fact, in light of the
poetic citations in the Histories, suggests that he and his contemporaries mined lyric and elegiac
poetry for source material. The historical value of such poetry for Polybius is underscored by his
distrust of dramatic poetry. Whereas tragedy and comedy are wholly unsuitable to lend either
emphasis or credibility to historical narrative, lyric and elegy suitably furnish both.

Session/Panel Title

Historia Proxima Poetis: The Intertextual Practices of Historical Poetry

Session/Paper Number


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