You are here

View to a Deception: Distrust and “Cretan Behavior” in Polyb. 8.15-21

Stephanie Craven

This paper presents a close reading an episode in Polybius’ Histories (8.15-21) that considers the role of pistis (trust, or an indication of trustworthiness) in an act of delegation to an untrustworthy subordinate. The episode in question is a rollocking tale of ancient espionage. Bolis, a Cretan of the Ptolemaic court, agrees to orchestrate the escape of Achaeus, a rival claimant to Antiochus III’s throne, from the citadel where Antiochus has besieged him at Sardis; in characteristically Cretan fashion, Bolis switches sides, and instead apprehends Achaeus on Antiochus’ behalf. The tale has a didactic purpose, with two lessons stated at its conclusion: not to trust too easily, and not to become enthralled by great expectations when things go well. Bolis is the only character who fully emobdies these lessons.

Polybius’ ability to present accurate information through his own experience, his vetted sources, or his military and political know-how is crucial to his authorial persona (Marincola 1997). A fragment of Polybius posits the relationship between autopsia and pistis thus: “Judging things from hearing about them is not the same as being present to see them for oneself (γενόμενον αὐτόπτην), but these differ greatly; the individual’s participation in something is by far the best assurance for fact (ἡ κατὰ τὴν ἐνάργειαν πίστις).” (20.12.8) The Bolis episode is perhaps difficult to process as history because, although the capture and execution of Achaeus might have been relatively easy for Polybius to verify, the secretive elements of the story are of a sort that neither the modern historian, nor even Polybius himself (e.g. Polyb. 29.5) would feel confident to take as written. Indeed, the story’s shifting of perspectives among characters make it a good candidate for narratological approaches such as J. Davidson’s 1991 article on Polybius’ use of the gaze (opsis) to control action in the Histories and, more recently, N. Miltsios’ 2009 analysis of the Bolis episode, which asserts that Polybius, through pacing and limited presentation of information, is a master of suspence. This relationship between sight and information shows up again and again in the course of the Histories, so the Bolis episode potentially has wider import, as a paradeigma that concretely dramatizes ideas that Polybius would also present elsewhere as didactic arguments.

Although no character truly trusts Bolis, they ultimately cede control of the narrative to him because of the possibilities of what his Cretan cleverness can deliver. For instance, Sosibius, the minister of Ptolemy IV Philopator asks Bolis to facilitate Achaeus’ escape; he advances Bolis the money for the project and provides him with encrypted letters (as pisteis) to arrange matters with Achaeus’ contacts. He only imagines two outcomes – failure, or success because of Bolis’ cleverness and military expertise – and tries to inflate Bolis’ sense of purpose with great expectations for further reward afterwards. Polybius attributes Bolis’ calculated decision to switch sides to his being Cretan: as a Cretan, he would be moved by neither loyalty nor compassion. Yet, to characterize this as instance of Polybian anti-Cretan bias (e.g. Walbank 1957:I.580) ignores a number of interests and motives. Bolis is not making a truly bad calculation: a glance to the beginning of the 4th Syrian War would remind the reader that Philopator could be a truly lousy patron to his military men (5.40.2). Furthermore, Sosibius, a longtime and effective practitioner of kakopragmatosune (15.25.2) for Philopator, need not have sent Bolis to sabotage Antiochus. Sosibius’ failure of imagination, combined with his desire to accomplish something that would be beyond the abilities of any but a Cretan, positions Bolis at the center of a web of trust; because Bolis adheres to Polybius' lessons to neither trust too easily nor expect too greatly, he is able to use this vantage, eventually, to entrap Achaeus.

Session/Panel Title:

Truth and Lies

Session/Paper Number

62.2

Share This Page

© 2019, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy