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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.

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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.

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Greece & Rome
  • ISSN: 0017-3835
  • EISSN: 1477-4550
  • URL: /core/journals/greece-and-rome
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