“A good general not only sees the way to victory; he also knows when victory is impossible.” Polybius

"A good general not only sees the way to victory; he also knows when victory is impossible." Polybius

Who was Polybius?

Polybius was a Greek historian of the Hellenistic period noted for his work, The Histories, which covered the period of 264–146 BC in detail. The Histories, describes the rise of the Roman Republic to the status of dominance in the ancient Mediterranean world and included his eyewitness account of the Sack of Carthage in 146 BC.

Polybius is important for his analysis of the mixed constitution or the separation of powers in government, which was influential on Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws and the framers of the United States Constitution.


Polybius was born around 200 BC in Megalopolis, Arcadia, when it was an active member of the Achaean League.

His father, Lycortas, was a prominent, land-owning politician and member of the governing class who became Cavalry Commander of the Achaean League. Consequently, Polybius was able to observe first hand the political and military affairs of Megalopolis.

He developed an interest in horse riding and hunting, diversions that later commended him to his Roman captors. In 182 BC, he was given quite an honor when he was chosen to carry the funeral urn of Philopoemen, one of the most eminent Achaean politicians of his generation. In either 169 BC or 170 BC, Polybius was elected hipparchus (cavalry officer), an event which often presaged election to the annual strategia (chief generalship). His early political career was devoted largely towards maintaining the independence of Megalopolis.

The Histories

Polybius’ Histories cover the period from 264 BC to 146 BC. Its main focus is the period from 220 BC to 167 BC, describing Rome’s efforts in subduing its arch-enemy, Carthage, and thereby becoming the dominant Mediterranean force.

Polybius concludes the Romans are the pre-eminent power because they have customs and institutions which promote a deep desire for noble acts, a love of virtue, piety towards parents and elders, and a fear of the gods (deisidaimonia). Therefore, Polybius’s Histories is also useful in analyzing the different Hellenistic versions of history and of use as a credible illustration of actual events during the Hellenistic period.

Wikipedia contributors. “Polybius.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 30 Sep. 2016. Web. 30 Sep. 2016.

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