Nipissing University  -- History 2055 -- Ancient Civilizations

Reading for January 31, 2001

Polybius:  Histories

This document is an excerpt from a fuller translation posted on the  Ancient History Sourcebook at  This version has been excerpted and posted by permission.
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Introduction (Muhlberger):

Polybius was a Greek historian of the 2nd c. B.C.  He was actively involved in politics and spent years in Rome as a hostage for the good behavior of Greece.   Despite this, he was a great admirer of Rome and especially its constitution, which he believed was the basis for its success. (Polybius's detailed discussion of Roman institutions can be found at   In the following excerpt, he compares the two great western powers, Carthage and Rome, which had battled for supremacy during the previous century.

Polybius probably gave a wider meaning to the concept "constitution" than we would.   What important aspects of the Roman "constitution" which Polybius is praising fall outside our own definition?   What does Polybius find particularly admirable about the Roman way of life?

     The government of Carthage seems also to have been originally well contrived with regard to those general forms
     that have been mentioned. For there were kings in this government, together with a senate, which was vested with
     aristocratic authority. The people likewise enjoy the exercise of certain powers that were appropriated to them. In
     a word, the entire frame of the republic very much resembled those of Rome and Sparta. But at the time of the
     war of Hannibal the Carthaginian constitution was worse in its condition than the Roman. For as nature has
     assigned to every body, every government, and every action, three successive periods; the first, of growth; the
     second, of perfection; and that which follows, of decay; and as the period of perfection is the time in which they
     severally display their greatest strength; from hence arose the difference that was then found between the two
     republics. For the government of Carthage, having reached the highest point of vigor and perfection much sooner
     than that of Rome, had now declined from it in the same proportion: whereas the Romans, at this very time, had
     just raised their constitution to the most flourishing and perfect state. The effect of this difference was, that among
     the Carthaginians the people possessed the greatest sway in all deliberations, but the senate among the Romans.
     And as, in the one republic, all measures were determined by the multitude; and, in the other, by the most eminent
     citizens; of so great force was this advantage in the conduct of affairs, that the Romans, though brought by
     repeated losses into the greatest danger, became, through the wisdom of their counsels, superior to the
     Carthaginians in the war.

     If we descend to a more particular comparison, we shall find, that with respect to military science, for example, the
     Carthaginians, in the management and conduct of a naval war, are more skillful than the Romans. For the
     Carthaginians have derived this knowledge from their ancestors through a long course of ages; and are more
     exercised in maritime affairs than any other people. But the Romans, on the other hand, are far superior in all things
     that belong to the establishment and discipline of armies. For this discipline, which is regarded by them as the chief
     and constant object of their care, is utterly neglected by the Carthaginians; except only that they bestow some little
     attention upon their cavalry. The reason of this difference is, that the Carthaginians employ foreign mercenaries;
     and that on the contrary the Roman armies are composed of citizens, and of the people of the country. Now in this
     respect the government of Rome is greatly preferable to that of Carthage. For while the Carthaginians entrust the
     preservation of their liberty to the care of venal troops; the Romans place all their confidence in their own bravery,
     and in the assistance of their allies. From hence it happens, that the Romans, though at first defeated, are always
     able to renew the war; and that the Carthaginian armies never are repaired without great difficulty. Add to this, that
     the Romans, fighting for their country and their children, never suffer their ardor to be slackened; but persist with
     the same steady spirit till they become superior to their enemies. From hence it happens, likewise, that even in
     actions upon the sea, the Romans, though inferior to the Carthaginians, as we have already observed, in naval
     knowledge and experience, very frequently obtain success through the mere bravery of their forces. For though in
     all such contests a skill in maritime affairs must be allowed to be of the greatest use; yet, on the other hand, the
     valor of the troops that are engaged is no less effectual to draw the victory to their side.

     Now the people of Italy are by nature superior to the Carthaginians and the Africans, both in bodily strength, and
     in courage. Add to this, that they have among them certain institutions by which the young men are greatly
     animated to perform acts of bravery. It will be sufficient to mention one of these, as a proof of the attention that is
     shown by the Roman government, to infuse such a spirit into the citizens as shall lead them to encounter every kind
     of danger for the sake of obtaining reputation in their country. When any illustrious person dies, he is carried in
     procession with the rest of the funeral pomp, to the rostra in the forum; sometimes placed conspicuous in an
     upright posture; and sometimes, though less frequently, reclined. And while the people are all standing round, his
     son, if he has left one of sufficient age, and who is then at Rome, or, if otherwise, some person of his kindred,
     ascends the rostra, and extols the virtues of the deceased, and the great deeds that were performed by him in his
     life. By this discourse, which recalls his past actions to remembrance, and places them in open view before all the
     multitude, not those alone who were sharers in his victories, but even the rest who bore no part in his exploits, are
     moved to such sympathy of sorrow, that the accident seems rather to be a public misfortune, than a private loss.
     He is then buried with the usual rites; and afterwards an image, which both in features and complexion expresses
     an exact resemblance of his face, is set up in the most conspicuous part of the house, inclosed in a shrine of wood.
     Upon solemn festivals, these images are uncovered, and adorned with the greatest care.

     And when any other person of the same family dies, they are carried also in the funeral procession, with a body
     added to the bust, that the representation may be just, even with regard to size. They are dressed likewise in the
     habits that belong to the ranks which they severally filled when they were alive. If they were consuls or praetors, in
     a gown bordered with purple: if censors, in a purple robe: and if they triumphed, or obtained any similar honor, in a
     vest embroidered with gold. Thus appeared, they are drawn along in chariots preceded by the rods and axes, and
     other ensigns of their former dignity. And when they arrive at the forum, they are all seated upon chairs of ivory;
     and there exhibit the noblest objects that can be offered to youthful mind, warmed with the love of virtue and of
     glory. For who can behold without emotion the forms of so many illustrious men, thus living, as it were, and
     breathing together in his presence? Or what spectacle can be conceived more great and striking? The person also
     that is appointed to harangue, when he has exhausted all the praises of the deceased, turns his discourse to the
     rest, whose images are before him; and, beginning with the most ancient of them, recounts the fortunes and the
     exploits of every one in turn. By this method, which renews continually the remembrance of men celebrated for
     their virtue, the fame of every great and noble action become immortal. And the glory of those, by whose services
     their country has been benefited, is rendered familiar to the people, and delivered down to future times. But the
     chief advantage is, that by the hope of obtaining this honorable fame, which is reserved for virtue, the young men
     are animated to sustain all danger, in the cause of the common safety. For from hence it has happened, that many
     among the Romans have voluntarily engaged in single combat, in order to decide the fortune of an entire war.
     Many also have devoted themselves to inevitable death; some of them in battle, to save the lives of other citizens;
     and some in time of peace to rescue the whole state from destruction. Others again, who have been invested with
     the highest dignities have, in defiance of all law and customs, condemned their own sons to die; showing greater
     regard to the advantage of their country, than to the bonds of nature, and the closest ties of kindred.


    When Hannibal, after the battle of Cannae, had taken prisoners eight thousand of the Romans, who were left to
     guard the camp; he permitted them to send a deputation to Rome, to treat of their ransom and redemption. Ten
     persons, the most illustrious that were among them, were appointed for this purpose: and the general, having first
     commanded them to swear that they would return to him again, suffered them to depart. But one of the number, as
     soon as they had passed the entrenchment, having said that he had forgotten something, went back into camp,
     took what he had left, and then continued his journey with the rest; persuading himself that by his return he had
     discharged his promise, and satisfied the obligation of the oath. When they arrived at Rome, they earnestly
     entreated the senate not to envy them the safety that was offered, but to suffer them to be restored to their families,
     at the price of three minae for each prisoner, which was the sum that Hannibal demanded; that they were not
     unworthy of this favor; that they neither had through cowardice deserted their post in battle, nor done anything that
     had brought dishonor upon the Roman name; but that having been left to guard the camp, they had been thrown by
     unavoidable necessity, after the destruction of the rest of the army, into the power of the enemy.

     The Romans were at this time weakened by repeated losses; were deserted by almost every one of their allies;
     and seemed even to expect that Rome itself would instantly be attacked; yet when they had heard the deputies,
     they neither were deterred by adverse fortune from attending to what was fit and right, nor neglected any of those
     measures that were necessary to the public safety. But perceiving that the design of Hannibal in this proceeding
     was both to acquire a large supply of money and at the same time to check the ardor of his enemies in battle, by
     opening to their view the means of safety, even though they should be conquered, they were so far from yielding to
     this request, that they showed no regard either to the distressed condition of their fellow citizens, or to the services
     that might be expected from the prisoners: but resolved to disappoint the hopes and frustrate the intentions of this
     general, by rejecting all terms of ransom. They made a law also, by which it was declared that the soldiers that
     were left must either conquer or must die; and that no other hope of safety was reserved for them, in case that they
     were conquered. After this determination they dismissed the nine deputies, who, on account of their oath were,
     willing to return, and taking the other, who had endeavored to elude by sophistry what he had sworn, they sent him
     bound back to the enemy; so that Hannibal was much less filled with joy from having vanquished the Romans in
     the field, than he was struck with terror and astonishment at the firmness and magnanimity what appeared in their

     From: Oliver J. Thatcher, ed., The Library of Original Sources (Milwaukee: University Research Extension Co.,  1907), Vol. III: The Roman World, pp. 166-193.
     Scanned by: J. S. Arkenberg, Dept. of History, Cal. State Fullerton. Prof. Arkenberg has modernized the text.
     This text is part of the Internet Ancient History Sourcebook. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and  copy-permitted texts related to medieval and Byzantine history.
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     © Paul Halsall May 1998