Cultural Politics in Polybius's Histories

By Craige B. Champion | Go to book overview

Chapter 4
Akme Politeion
Roman and Achaean Virtues

When the goodman mends his armour, And trims his helmet's plume; When the goodwife's shuttle merrily Goes flashing through the loom; With weeping and with laughter Still is the story told, How well Horatius kept the bridge In the brave days of old.

LORD MACAULAY, Lays of Ancient Rome

In terms of indirect historiography, Polybius's historical narrative provides the best means for studying his Hellenic-barbarian continuum vis-à-vis Rome. I argue that in recounting historical events, Polybius indirectly promotes a consistent image of Rome and Achaea informed by the organizing principles of his Hellenic-barbarian construct. As we have seen, book 6 demonstrates that in Polybius's conception formal institutional structures and ingrained societal practices are the most important determinants of collective societal characteristics. But according to the quasi-biological process of the anacyclosis of the simple constitutional forms, communal priorities and commitment to collective well-being do not long abide in any given community, as Polybius makes clear in his account of the evolution of aristocracy into oligarchy (6.8.3–5). Scholars have long noted Polybius's essentially pessimistic outlook on humankind, and there is reason to believe that in his conception barbarism is a condition to which it is all too easy for human beings to return. Only the heroic struggle of those possessing reason to impose balance and order upon society can stave off the nearly inexorable degeneration of human beings into bestiality.1 Only where rationality, logismos, has been imposed through good laws and customs can communal values prevail over individualistic drives and appetites.

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1
Cf. 18.15.14–17, with Mioni 1949: 96; Eckstein 1995b: 238.

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