Cultural Politics in Polybius's Histories

By Craige B. Champion | Go to book overview

Introduction

Polybe n'est pas seulement pour nous un historien. Il est un fait culturel en soi.

Polybius, for us, is not only a historian. He is a cultural fact in himself.

CLAIRE PRéAUX

The act of reading in classical antiquity strikes the modern reader as a daunting cognitive task. Ancient readers had to contend with cumbersome papyrus scrolls, with none of the conveniences the modern reader may take for granted, such as chapter and section headings, paragraph divisions, cross-referencing, and indices. Reading in antiquity meant grappling with the awkward scroll and sifting meaning through line after line of continuous letters (scriptio continua), with no spaces between words and the most rudimentary forms of punctuation. It is small wonder, then, that ancient Greek and Roman prose authors placed the highest importance on their prooemia, or introductory overtures. Given the laborious task the medium of the papyrus scroll imposed, we have reason to believe that these opening lines afforded the author but a slim opportunity of capturing the attention of the reader, whose interest or curiosity would have to be great enough to compensate for the formidable effort of reading the work through to its end. Consequently, classical prose authors took the greatest pains in composing their introductions.1

Polybius, the Greek historian of the rise of the Roman empire, is no exception in this regard. In his introductory chapters he underscores the benefits to be derived from serious history (1.1.1–3). He stresses the unparalleled historical significance of his subject matter, the expansion of Roman power to encompass the oikoumene, or known inhabited world, and this in the brief period of some fifty-three years (1.1.5–6). For the first time in world history, according to the historian, all the events of the inhabited

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1
On reading materials, handwriting conventions, and readers in antiquity, see Knox 1985; Easterling 1985; Turner 1987: 1–23. Polybius apologizes for the unwieldy bulk of his work at 3.32.1–2.

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