Polybius uses two terms to describe the extent of Roman power, ἡ οἰκουμένη (‘the inhabited world’) and τῶν ὅλων (‘the whole’), in his account of Rome's rise to hegemony over the Mediterranean. Scholars and translators have treated these two terms as essentially identical, yet this erases a subtle distinction in Polybius’ language. While ἡ οἰκουμένη occurs in a variety of cases, τῶν ὅλων is always in the genitive plural, regularly paired with some noun such as ἀρχή (‘rule’), δυναστεῖα (‘power’), or ἐπιβολή (‘attempt’). Polybius uses the less precise expression, τῶν ὅλων, to refer to objects of the Romans’ own ambitions; ἡ οἰκουμένη describes either the extent of Roman power or the goal towards which fortune, τύχη, directs world events. Polybius does not deny that the Romans, like most ancient states, acted aggressively. However, by not using the more exact term to describe Roman aims, he qualifies their agency, making their expansionist tendency an insufficient explanation of their hegemony over the Mediterranean. Moreover, these same passages lack the rich vocabulary that Polybius used to describe deliberation and planning. This re-evaluation of key programmatic passages suggests that they have been over-interpreted in the search for Polybius’ verdict on Roman imperialism.
I would like to thank Craige Champion and David Phillips for generously offering invaluable feedback on an early iteration of this article and immensely improving the argument. All infelicities, and translations, are my own.
1 The nuance of Polybius’ thought can be seen in his concomitant rejection of contemporary assertions that Rome's power was merely the result of chance, as in Polyb. 1.63.9. For this passage, see Walbank F. W., A Historical Commentary on Polybius (Oxford, 1957), i.129–30. For more detailed discussions, see Baronowski D., Polybius and Roman Imperialism (London, 2011), 151–4; Champion C., Cultural Politics in Polybius’ Histories (Berkeley, CA, 2004), 83–95 ; and Pédech P., La Méthode historique de Polybe (Paris 1964), 331–54.
2 For example, Walbank F. W., ‘Polybius and Rome's Eastern Policy’, JRS 53 (1963), 1–13 , finds what appears to be a contradiction between Polybius’ narrative, which presents Roman conquests as self-contained responses to individual events, and his programmatic statements, which appear to claim that the Romans set out to conquer the known world. In doing so, Walbank takes the narrative in Holleaux M., Rome, la Grèce et les monarchies hellénistiques au IIIe siècle avant J.-C. (Paris, 1935) as representative of Polybius' own. While Derow P. S., ‘Polybius, Rome, and the East’, JRS 69 (1979), 1–15 , attempts to resolve the issue by pointing out that Holleaux treats a great deal of Livian material as directly derived from Polybius, this is only a partial solution. The reading of these programmatic passages presented here, however, reduces the degree of agency attributed to Rome and removes the contradiction.
3 Passages referring to Rome are Polyb. 1.1.5, 1.2.7, 1.4.1, 3.1.4, 3.3.9, 3.118.9, 4.2.4, 6.2.3, 6.50.6, 8.2.4, 10.40.7, 15.9.5, 15.10.2, 21.16.9, 21.23.4, 29.21.4, 30.6.6, 39.8.7. Those concerning other powers are Polyb. 1.2.6, 8.10.11, 9.11a.2, 15.24.6. In addition, it should be borne in mind that Polyb. 30.6.6 describes the mindsets of Greek statesmen reckoning, not entirely happily, with the nearly unchallenged supremacy of Rome.
4 For example, see Walbank (n. 1), i.43–5 on Polyb. 1.3, arguing that this passage indicates Polybius’ belief in an articulated plan for conquest.
5 Interpretation of this passage tends to slip fluidly from Polybius’ goals to those of the Romans. Combining it with other passages mentioning Roman domination, without taking sufficient account of the specific points that Polybius is attempting to prove, can give the impression that he ascribes a masterfully articulated plan of conquest to the Romans, as in Baronowski (n. 1), 13, 67.
6 For the limitations of Polybius’ analysis here, particularly with regard to the question of ‘why’, see Gruen E., The Hellenistic World and the Coming of Rome (Berkeley, CA, 1982), 344–6.
7 For the rhetoric of this appeal, see Dmitriev S., The Greek Slogan of Freedom and Early Roman Politics in Greece, (Oxford, 2011), 263–82; Gruen (n. 6), 329–30.
8 This also supports the view that Polybius’ focus in 1.2–6 is less a historical explanation of Roman actions than the historiographical rationale for his work. For a rich discussion of τύχη in Polybius that cites many of these passages, see Pédech (n. 1), 332–6, 501–3.
9 Or, as in the case of 3.118.9, the general good management that contributed to success. See Eckstein A., Moral Vision in the Histories of Polybius (Berkeley, CA, 1995), 62–8.
10 Walbank (n. 1), i.40–2; Champion (n. 1), 19–23; and Baronowski (n. 1), 71–2, treat this passage, in connection with 1.3.6, as part of a ‘scheme of universal aggression’, a translation of τὴν τῶν ὅλων ἐπιβολήν. While Polybius does clearly describe aggressive Roman expansion, there are additional subtleties in his explanation, as below in the section on τῶν ὅλων. In addition, Polyb. 1.3–5 is more focused on explaining the coherence of this historical period, which he attributes not to Rome but to τύχη, and on his own account of it than on Roman aims. If the main point were just that the Romans set out to conquer the world, Polybius’ task would be far simpler.
11 This also corresponds with Polybius’ interest in the Roman constitution, which 1.1.5, 6.2.3, and 39.8.7 show was central to his inquiry. He also speaks to this theme with 1.37.7, in which he comments on Roman stubbornness after massive losses to storms, describing their approach as a reliance on βία (‘strength’, or ‘force’). While the characterization is unflattering, and not wholly consonant with the Hellenic virtues outlined by Champion (n. 1), Polybius nevertheless attributes a great deal of Rome's success to its single-minded continuation of enterprises in spite of adversity.
12 Polyb. 10.40.7: καὶ τὸ κάλλιστον καὶ μέγιστον μέρος τῆς οἰκουμένης ὑπήκοον ἐποίσε Ῥωμαίοις (‘And he made the most beautiful and greatest part of the world subject to the Romans’). This passage does, however, have significant resonance with passage such as 3.118.9, 15.9.5, and 15.10.2, which describe Roman ascendancy as the result of the Second Punic War.
13 Maier F., ‘Learning from History ΠΑΡΑ ΔΟΞΑΝ: A New Approach to Polybius' Manifold View of the Past’, Histos 6 (2012), 144–68, provides a persuasive analysis, developed in more detail in ‘Überall mit dem Unerwarteten rechnen’. Die Kontingenz historischer Prozesse bei Polybios (Munich, 2012), of Polybius’ integration of unintended and unexpected events into the educational paradigm of ancient historiography. For his use of abstractions such as τύχη to provide a handle for the complex interplay of actions of multiple actors, see in particular 224–5. See also Hau L., ‘Tychê in Polybios: Narrative Answers to a Philosophical Question’, Histos 5 (2011), 183–207 .
14 As Maier (n. 12; 2012b), 250–73, amply demonstrates, the unexpected is not inexplicable, but fits into a broader educational paradigm, one which also militates against seeing the eventual outcome as inevitable. This section is also quite suggestive for the introduction of ‘emergence’ into the discussion.
15 It can also be used adverbially as τὸ ὅλον, as in Polyb. 5.78.3: τὸ ὅλον ἀπειθοῦντας (‘entirely rebellious’).
16 Polyb. 1.3.6, 3.4.12, 30.6.6.
17 There are seventy-six occurrences of ὅλην, but these uses are more prosaic and largely irrelevant for this discussion.
18 Polyb. 1.3.6, 1.3.7, 1.3.10, 1.63.9, 1.64.1, 3.2.6, 3.4.6, 5.101.10, 5.102.1, 5.104.7, 15.9.3, 31.25.7. Two additional uses, 6.1.3 and 6.1.6, are actually copied by Büttner–Wöbst from 3.2.6 and 1.64.1 respectively. See Walbank (n. 1), i.636.
19 As, for example, in 29.23.11, where the decisive point of a war is described as ὁ περὶ τῶν ὅλων κίνδυνος (‘the risk of the whole enterprise’).
20 Polyb. 1.4.9, 1.4.11, 3.1.7, 5.32.5, 8.2.2. Other cases are much more common: for example, ὅλης occurs sixteen times with reference to historiographical concerns.
21 Polyb. 30.6.6 does describe supporters rallying to Perseus lest the οἰκουμένη be under the control of a single power, but that refers to the continued existence of a power capable of opposing Rome and does not mean that Perseus’ designs were as grand as universal dominion.
22 Polyb. 28.9.7 describes the result of success for Perseus as ‘conquering in war’ (κρατήσας τῶν ὅλων) and ‘establishing a great empire’ (ἐξουσίαν…ὑπερήϕανον); Polyb. 29.7.1 makes his aim ‘to conquer in war and take total control’ (κρατῆσαι τῷ πολέμῳ καὶ γενέσθαι κύριον τῶν ὅλων). In fact, Polybius’ narrative makes clear that Perseus’ aims were limited to reasserting Macedonian prestige in Greek affairs. See Baronowski (n. 1), 93, 128–9; Champion (n. 1), 218–19, demonstrates the Hellenocentric nature of Perseus’ policies.
23 Those relating to Philip V are 5.101.10, 5.102.1, and 5.104.7. These come at a point of unique programmatic importance to Polybius, the συμπλοκή (‘weaving together’), the moment at which the politics of the eastern and western Mediterranean became inextricably intertwined, largely as a result of Philip's scheming. For an overview, see F. W. Walbank, ‘Symplokē: Its Role in Polybius’ Histories’, YClS 14 (1975), 197–212.
24 See Polyb. 1.3.6, 3.2.6.
25 Walbank (n. 1), i.43–4, argues that Polybius here indicates the decisive point at which the Romans undertook an articulated plan of conquest. Walbank acknowledges that Polyb. 3.2 dates Rome's increased ambitions to after their victory in the Second Punic War, but adduces passages such as 15.10.2, in which Polybius has Scipio foresee Roman hegemony, and 1.63.9, which describes the result of the First Punic War, to argue his case. This line of argument obscures the distinction between statements of Roman intent and the result of their actions.
26 Take, for example, Polybius’ enthusiasm for the settlement after the Second Macedonian War and the withdrawal of Roman forces in 18.44–7. The standard reading of these programmatic passages forces the contradiction at the heart of Walbank (n. 2).
27 This discussion of means corresponds to the term ἀϕορμή (‘starting point’, as opposed to ‘pretext’), discussed in Pédech (n. 1), 91–2, which highlights the complex causal structures that Polybius described in his history and resists reductive interpretation of such passages.
28 See the following discussion of ἐπιβολαί.
29 See Gruen (n. 6), 345. Note that Gruen has Polybius ascribe imperial ambitions to the Romans, yet that is not necessarily equivalent to seeking a world empire.
30 As, for example, interpreted by Walbank (n. 2), 6.
31 F. W. Walbank, Polybius (Berkeley, CA, 1972), 5–11, notes that Polybius ‘clearly assumes that the Romans already have this ambition’ and uses this as an example of the gradual growth of Roman ambitions, for Scipio's statement comes at the end of the war. Yet Walbank later concedes that it is difficult to disentangle Polybius’ hindsight from his representation of Scipio's knowledge and motivations. See also Gruen (n. 6), 378–84; Walbank (n. 1), ii.451–3. A further interesting interpretation comes from Maier (n. 12; 2012b), 123–5, in which such speeches raise possibilities that subvert the reader's foreknowledge of events and offer further insight into the thought processes of historical figures.
32 The dominance that Scipio foresees is not immediate. Even if the victory at Zama decisively established Rome as the dominant power in the Mediterranean, the successor kingdoms still remained credible threats. Nor did the Romans immediately decide to impose their will over the entire Greek world. Aside from the arguably conciliatory nature of Rome's entrance into Greek affairs in the Second Macedonian War, attempts to reach a modus vivendi with Antiochus III demonstrate this quite clearly. See Grainger J., The Roman War of Antiochus the Great (Boston, MA, 2002), 120–7; Badian E., ‘Rome and Antiochus the Great: A Study in Cold War’, CPh 54.2 (1959), 81–99 .
33 Despite their attention to such detail, the two authors’ use of these words is incompatible. For the example of πρόφασις, see Thuc. 1.23.4–6 and Polyb. 3.10.7, with Pédech (n. 1), 58–9, 88–91.
34 Pédech (n. 1), 88–91. See also ibid., 121–2, for Polybius and Thucydides’ distinction among true causes in the case of the Second Macedonian War. See further Baronowski (n. 1), 73–7. Significant Polybian discussions of pretexts and causes for war occur around the outbreak of the Second Punic War (Polyb. 3.6–12) and of the Third Macedonian War (Polyb. 22.18).
35 Pédech (n. 1), 92. See also Lex. Band I, Lieferung II: 918, ‘ἐπιβολή’, definition 3, ‘Inangriffnahme’. While the second definition is given as ‘Vorhaben, Absicht, Plan’, this and other germane passages do not use this definition. One that is close is 1.59.3, but there the plan is a means to an end rather than the end in itself. In 3.52.4, in reference to Hannibal's plans, it also appears somewhat smaller-scale. This is conclusively shown by 5.48.17, in which Antiochus III's hopes (ἐλπίδας) of taking Coele Syria are contrasted with his actions (ἐπιβολάς) to that end.
36 Unfortunately, Pédech (n. 1), 178, declines to offer a significant treatment of the First Punic War because the narrative is condensed in Polybius’ introductory two books, the προκατασκευή.
37 The role of τύχη in Polybius’ work, particularly the degree to which it is a force with its own agency or merely a convenient shorthand, is a topic of great interest. Walbank F. W., ‘Fortune (tychē) in Polybius’, in Marincola J., (ed.), A Companion to Greek and Roman History (Malden, MA, 2007), 349–55, provides a recent synthesis. Compelling explanations of τύχη as a narratological device come from Deininger J., ‘Die Tyche in der pragmatischen Geschichtsschreibung des Polybios’, in Grieb V. and Koehn C. (eds.), Polybios und seine Historien (Stuttgart, 2013), 71–111 , and Hau (n. 13).
38 Persia's domination of the οἰκουμένη is hyperbolic in 29.21.4, and in 1.2.6 Polybius points out that their empire actually left out the greater part of the world. He describes the successors in 8.10.11, and Philip V in 15.24.6.
39 As Maier (n. 12; 2012b), 273 ff. demonstrates, teaching readers to recognize and deal with unpredictability is, in fact, one of Polybius’ main educational aims.
* I would like to thank Craige Champion and David Phillips for generously offering invaluable feedback on an early iteration of this article and immensely improving the argument. All infelicities, and translations, are my own.
Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.
Full text views reflects the number of PDF downloads, PDFs sent to Google Drive, Dropbox and Kindle and HTML full text views.
* Views captured on Cambridge Core between 14th March 2017 - 11th December 2017. This data will be updated every 24 hours.