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Historical Method and Quasi-Barbaric Historians in Polybius’s Histories

Sulochana R. Asirvatham

Montclair State University

In the Histories, Polybius insists on the primacy of eye-witness knowledge for history-writing, criticizing other historians throughout (especially Timaeus, who is subject to a self-serving, full-on attack in Book 12 (Baron 2012: 58-88)) for their inexperience, dishonesty, and overreliance on tragic detail. Polybius’s sense of authority comes not only from his vast reading, which (as he explains while criticizing Ephorus) is not enough (12.25f), but also from his own travel and military and political experience. Polybius generally presents bad history as a failure of intellect and methodology, but it is also a failure of civic duty, since history is an education and a preparation for politics (καὶ γυμνασίαν πρὸς τὰς πολιτικὰς πράξεις: 1.1.2). This paper explores another possible unspoken feature of bad history-writing in the Histories, one with broader political implications for Polybius’s views on cultural hierarchy. To the degree that, for Polybius, Hellenicity reigns supreme and barbarism is the greatest threat to social order (Champion: 2004, 70-75), historians who fail to distinguish Rome’s “barbarian” conquests from more noble ones (i.e. certain Greeks, worthy foreign kings) risk becoming quasi-barbaric themselves.

            This notion is suggested by the fact that Polybius uses some of the same terminologies and imagery for bad historians as he does for various figures he would classify as barbarians. Take, for example, a man who literally embodies bad politics and immorality: the Bithynian king Prusias II. Prusias was physically ugly (εἰδεχθὴς), and although he ruled with good reasoning (ἐκ συλλογισμοῦ) he looked like a half man (ἥμισυς ἀνὴρ…κατὰ τὴν ἐπιφάνειαν), and was low-class and womanly (ἀγεννὴς καὶ γυναικώδης) in military matters, a lazy, effeminized (ἐκτεθηλυμμένος) coward who was licentious and uncontrolled in his bodily appetites, living the barbarous life of a Sardanapallus (Σαρδαναπάλλου…βάρβαρον βίον ἔζη). (36.15). While the elaborate branding of Prusias as an effeminate barbarian is absolutely cliché, it is worth noting that not only does Polybius apply similar language to the Illyrian queen Teuta, who is violent and beholden to womanly reasoning, λογισμοῖς γυναικείοις (2.4; see Eckstein 1995: 150-157), but that an exact parallel is found in his description of Phylarchus, whom our Achaean historian charges with pro-Spartan/anti-Achaean sentiment, and whose indulgence in graphic scenes of violence makes him ἀγεννὴς καὶ γυναικώδης (2.56.9)—a pairing found only in relation to Prusias and Phylarchus in the Histories. The characterization of Phylarchus in this respect as “like the tragedians” (καθάπερ οἱ τραγῳδιογράφοι: 2.56.10) may also find an echo in Prusias’s earlier shameful action of offering proskynesis to the Romans while hailing them as gods (30.18.5; recall the scene in Aeschylus’s Persians in which the elders perform obeisance to Queen Atossa as if she were a god (157)). Polybius employs this image of Prusias for the purpose of visually repelling his readers, a motivation that can be read as the opposite of Phylarchus’s desire to titillate (2.56). Other bad historians create irrational scenarios involving the brilliant Hannibal—only to have to rescue them, like τραγῳδιογράφοι, with dei ex machinā (3.48.8)—and thus reveal themselves, it is implied, to be irrational (like barbarian Teuta). And just as Prusias is full of flattery (κολακεία: 30.18), Theopompus must be either a liar or a flatterer (κόλαξ: 8.11.2) when he begins his history of Philip II by praising him, only later to characterize him as a “Sardanapallus” (also like Prusias). Finally, Prusias is also inexperienced in education and philosophy (παιδείας…καὶ φιλοσοφίας…ἄπειρος: 36.15.5) Paideia is an important value to Polybius, but while he rarely refers to philosophers beyond labeling, it is worth noting that he uses the epithet “non-philosophical” as a stick with which to beat Timaeus with (ἀφιλόσοφός…καὶ συλλήβδην ἀνάγωγος συγγραφεύς: 12.25.6) just as he did Prusias.

            Polybius has a lighter touch when it comes to criticizing historians of Rome writing in Greek like Philinus and Fabius Pictor. While Polybius presents his historiographical concerns as a function of first-hand experience—his model is Odysseus, man of action (ἀνὴρ πραγματικὸς: 12.27.10)—his highly competitive stance towards historians writing about conquered peoples in particular—here, Greeks, Macedonians, and Hannibal—may speak more broadly to his desire to set the record straight on cultural hierarchy, no idle concern for a Greek historian who sees the conquerors themselves as barbarians (12.4b.2-3; Champion 2000).In the Histories, Polybius insists on the primacy of eye-witness knowledge for history-writing, criticizing other historians throughout (especially Timaeus, who is subject to a self-serving, full-on attack in Book 12 (Baron 2012: 58-88)) for their inexperience, dishonesty, and overreliance on tragic detail. Polybius’s sense of authority comes not only from his vast reading, which (as he explains while criticizing Ephorus) is not enough (12.25f), but also from his own travel and military and political experience. Polybius generally presents bad history as a failure of intellect and methodology, but it is also a failure of civic duty, since history is an education and a preparation for politics (καὶ γυμνασίαν πρὸς τὰς πολιτικὰς πράξεις: 1.1.2). This paper explores another possible unspoken feature of bad history-writing in the Histories, one with broader political implications for Polybius’s views on cultural hierarchy. To the degree that, for Polybius, Hellenicity reigns supreme and barbarism is the greatest threat to social order (Champion: 2004, 70-75), historians who fail to distinguish Rome’s “barbarian” conquests from more noble ones (i.e. certain Greeks, worthy foreign kings) risk becoming quasi-barbaric themselves.

            This notion is suggested by the fact that Polybius uses some of the same terminologies and imagery for bad historians as he does for various figures he would classify as barbarians. Take, for example, a man who literally embodies bad politics and immorality: the Bithynian king Prusias II. Prusias was physically ugly (εἰδεχθὴς), and although he ruled with good reasoning (ἐκ συλλογισμοῦ) he looked like a half man (ἥμισυς ἀνὴρ…κατὰ τὴν ἐπιφάνειαν), and was low-class and womanly (ἀγεννὴς καὶ γυναικώδης) in military matters, a lazy, effeminized (ἐκτεθηλυμμένος) coward who was licentious and uncontrolled in his bodily appetites, living the barbarous life of a Sardanapallus (Σαρδαναπάλλου…βάρβαρον βίον ἔζη). (36.15). While the elaborate branding of Prusias as an effeminate barbarian is absolutely cliché, it is worth noting that not only does Polybius apply similar language to the Illyrian queen Teuta, who is violent and beholden to womanly reasoning, λογισμοῖς γυναικείοις (2.4; see Eckstein 1995: 150-157), but that an exact parallel is found in his description of Phylarchus, whom our Achaean historian charges with pro-Spartan/anti-Achaean sentiment, and whose indulgence in graphic scenes of violence makes him ἀγεννὴς καὶ γυναικώδης (2.56.9)—a pairing found only in relation to Prusias and Phylarchus in the Histories. The characterization of Phylarchus in this respect as “like the tragedians” (καθάπερ οἱ τραγῳδιογράφοι: 2.56.10) may also find an echo in Prusias’s earlier shameful action of offering proskynesis to the Romans while hailing them as gods (30.18.5; recall the scene in Aeschylus’s Persians in which the elders perform obeisance to Queen Atossa as if she were a god (157)). Polybius employs this image of Prusias for the purpose of visually repelling his readers, a motivation that can be read as the opposite of Phylarchus’s desire to titillate (2.56). Other bad historians create irrational scenarios involving the brilliant Hannibal—only to have to rescue them, like τραγῳδιογράφοι, with dei ex machinā (3.48.8)—and thus reveal themselves, it is implied, to be irrational (like barbarian Teuta). And just as Prusias is full of flattery (κολακεία: 30.18), Theopompus must be either a liar or a flatterer (κόλαξ: 8.11.2) when he begins his history of Philip II by praising him, only later to characterize him as a “Sardanapallus” (also like Prusias).

            It is worth noting that Polybius has a lighter touch when it comes to criticizing historians of Rome writing in Greek like Philinus and Fabius Pictor. While Polybius presents his historiographical concerns as a function of first-hand experience—his model is Odysseus, man of action (ἀνὴρ πραγματικὸς: 12.27.10)—his highly competitive stance towards historians writing about conquered peoples in particular—here, Greeks, Macedonians, and Hannibal—may speak more broadly to his desire to set the record straight on cultural hierarchy, no idle concern for a Greek historian who sees the conquerors themselves as barbarians (12.4b.2-3; Champion 2000).

Session/Panel Title

Contemporary Historiography: Convention Methodology and Innovation

Session/Paper Number

88.3

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