Changes of fortune: Polybius and the transformation of Greece

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In the introduction to his Histories the Achaean politician and historian Polybius stresses how history is about change: the study of the disasters of others helps us cope with the changes we have to face in the present. But Polybius’ subject is not merely change but change that was totally unexpected. For he had witnessed the overthrow of the established order in the eastern Mediterranean. The great Hellenistic kingdoms that had been the dominant powers for so long were now replaced by the Italian city of Rome and the cities of the Greek world had to adjust to a new political landscape. The Histories are both an account of Rome’s rise to world power and Polybius’ personal response to these events, which had a major impact on his city and on himself.
In exploring the Greeks developing relationship with Rome he is also exploring his own. Achaea’s relationship with Rome reached its nadir with the destruction of Corinth in 146, Polybius hit that point some years earlier with his detention in Rome. As Polybius looks back over Greece’s dealings with Rome he not only picks out key points in the process of transformation he also gives an insight into the changing mood and in doing so he offers something more personal than a straight narrative of events.
First there is apprehension and hostility as Aetolia allies with Rome in 212/11, then relief and optimism with Flamininus’ announcement of the freedom of the Greeks in 196, but the battle of Pydna in 168 transforms that into universal obedience, everyone obeys Roman orders. Finally after some twenty years there is widespread rejection of Rome’s authority, followed by resignation and acceptance.
Polybius’ own trajectory is somewhat similar, an advocate of an independent Achaea in the face of Rome, then detainee in Rome and he is involved in the reconstruction of Greece after its failed resistance to Rome, a role in which he was closely aligned to Rome.
One might be tempted to see these events as constituting a lengthy ‘Second Century Crisis’, but it is unlikely that Polybius would have viewed it like that. The wars that decided the fate of the Greeks were fought between Rome and the Macedonian and Seleucid kingdoms. They made things difficult for the Greeks and speakers within the Histories often warn against what’s coming, warnings that seem to reflect Polybian hindsight rather sentiments expressed at the time. If Polybius was to identify a crisis, it would have been the events of the 140s, an irrational and hopeless attempt to change what Polybius had come to see as inevitable. Here in particular Polybius can see the study of history as a way of coping.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationAfter the Crisis
Subtitle of host publicationRemembrance, Re-anchoring and Recovery in Ancient Greece and Rome
EditorsJacqueline Klooster, Inger N.I. Kuin
Place of PublicationLondon
PublisherBloomsbury Academic
Number of pages17
ISBN (Electronic)9781350128576, 9781350128569
ISBN (Print)9781350128552
Publication statusPublished - 6 Feb 2020

Publication series

NameBloomsbury Classical Studies Monographs
PublisherBloomsbury Academic


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