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Drawing upon Greek political theory, Polybius describes Rome’s ‘mixed constitution’ as the source for her unprecedented success (Polyb. 1.1.5; 6.2(1).3). Yet according to many scholars, Polybius’ combination of various theoretical models (the biological life cycle of states; the anacyclosis-theory of simple constitutional forms; and the theory of the stable mixed constitution) and their application to the Roman politeia show troubling incongruities (cf. Brink and Walbank 1954: 102-7; Champion 2004, 69).

In a philological and socio-historical analysis this paper seeks to show that Polybius achieved consistency within his models: by drawing upon his own experience in Rome, he modified and advanced Greek political theory. In particular, I argue that Polybius introduced the culturally specific phenomenon of ambitus into his Greek political models to make the anacyclosis-theory compatible for his analysis of the current state and the prediction of the future development of the Roman politeia.

The crucial role attributed to moral integrity in pursuing public office is evident from Polybius’ syncrisis of Carthaginian and Roman mores during the Second Punic War: while in Carthage candidates gain offices by openly handing out bribes (δῶρα φανερῶς διδá½¹ντες λαμβάνουσι τá½°ς á¼€ρχάς), this conduct (called ambitus) constitutes a capital crime in Rome (Polyb. 6.56.4).

Characteristics of ambitus feature prominently in two different contexts: in Polybius’ prognosis of the future decay of the Roman mixed constitution into ochlocracy (6.57.5-7) and in the description of how democracy turns into mob rule within the anacyclosis-theory (Polyb. 6.9.5-7). According to Polybius’ prognosis, Rome’s decay into an ochlocracy will happen in two separate steps. First, the moral decline sets in within the ruling class itself. Prosperity leads to extravagance and makes the candidates fiercer in their rivalry for offices (φιλονεικοτέρους περί τá½°ς á¼€ρχá½°ς). This craving for offices (φιλαρχία) ushers in the constitutional change. But the second, final step towards ochlocracy is made by the masses, which have been corrupted and puffed up through flattery by over-ambitious elite office seekers (κολακευÏŒμενος διá½° τá½´ν φιλαρχίαν) (6.57.5-7). In this passage Polybius clearly echoed contemporary complaints about the political disgrace of ambitus. He mentions the candidates and their ambition for office, which implies the context of elections. He identifies the masses as the target of the office seekers’ reprehensible canvassing methods, which he calls flattery.

Surprisingly, the same characteristics of the Roman phenomenon of ambitus also appear within the Greek anacyclosis-theory (Polyb. 6.9.5-7), in the transition from democracy to mob rule. Members of the upper-classes are driven by a craving for offices (ὁρμήσωσιν ἐπὶ τὸ φιλαρχεá¿–ν), and since they cannot attain them through their own merits, they take recourse to reprehensible means. They use their money to get elected, by baiting and corrupting the masses (δελεάζοντες καὶ λυμαινÏŒμενοι τá½° πλήθη). The context of elections is thus clearly implied. And just as later in his prognosis of the decay of Rome’s mixed constitution, Polybius describes the constitutional change as a two-step process. First, the change from democracy to ochlocracy, which he calls cheirocracy here (rule of fists), begins with the φιλαρχία of the upper classes, but it is completed by the uncontrolled masses, which have been corrupted and are greedy for bribes (δωροδÏŒκους καὶ δωροφάγους).

I make the case that Polybius, observing disintegration among the Roman nobility and increased rivalry for public offices (cf. Lintott JRS 1990), regarded ambitus as instrumental in causing the erosion of the Roman constitutional system. In order to scientifically predict Rome’s decay into mob rule on the basis of Greek political theory, he manipulated the Greek anacyclosis-theory by introducing this specific Roman phenomenon.

This particular modification of the Greek anacyclosis theory suggests that Polybius indeed viewed the development of simple constitutional forms in the anacyclosis and the development of the Roman politeia as parallel processes, with mob rule as beginning and end points (cf. Cole Historia 1964; Blösel Hermes 1998).


  • Blösel, Wolfgang: “Die Anakyklosis-Theorie und die Verfassung Roms im Spiegel des Sechsten Buches des Polybios und Ciceros de re publica, Buch II,” Hermes 126 (1998) 31-57
  • Brink, C.O. and Walbank, F.W.: “The Construction of the Sixth Book of Polybius” CQ 48 (1954) 97-122
  • Champion, C.: Cultural Politics in Polybius’s Histories (Berkeley 2004)
  • Cole, T.: “The Sources and Composition of Polybius VI.” Historia 13 (1964) 440-86
  • Lintott, A.: “Electoral Bribery in the Roman Republic,“ JRS 80 (1990) 1-16

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