Politics, Aesthetics and Historical Explanation in Polybius I

What are the political implications of universalizing projects like that of Polybius? This was one of the questions I considered in my paper at our September conference.

Polybius’ central assumption is that the rise of Roman power has resulted in a fundamental change of the very structure of the world. This new design of the world he calls the “symploke”, the weaving together of all regions of the world and their individual local histories into the new fabric of Roman power, like a net all the individual threads of which are connected and interrelated. Polybius introduces his concept of the ‘symploke’ through an image of the unity of the body. At 1.4.6-11 he says (Paton’s Loeb translation adapted):

6 We can no more hope to have a comprehensive view of this [the new, symploke structure of the world] from histories dealing with particular events than to get at once a notion of the form of the whole world, its disposition and order, by beholding, each in turn, the most famous cities, or indeed by looking at separate plans of each: a result by no means likely. 7 He indeed who believes that by studying isolated histories he can acquire a fairly comprehensive view of the whole, is, as it seems to me, much in the case of one, who, after having looked at the dissevered limbs of a body once alive and beautiful, fancies he has been as good as an eyewitness of the creature itself in its accomplished design and beauty. 8 For could anyone put the creature together on the spot, restoring its form and the comeliness of life, and then show it to the same man, I think he would quickly avow that he was formerly very far away from the truth and more like one in a dream. 9 For we can get some idea of a whole from a part, but never knowledge or exact opinion. 10 Special histories therefore contribute very little to the knowledge of the whole and conviction of its truth. 11 It is only indeed by study of the interconnection of all the particulars, their resemblances and differences, that we are enabled to achieve a general perspective, and thus derive both benefit and pleasure from history.

The association of Polybius’ concept of the unity of the world and the beauty of complete, functioning body is essential for persuading his readers of the validity of this interpretation of the world under Roman rule. We must not forget that the symploke is not an objectively verifiable description of what the world looks like, but an interpretive concept of understanding the world under Rome in a certain, distinctly positive, way that Polybius wants his reader to adopt.

The body metaphor plays a crucial role in this process, as it associates Polybius’ vision of the unified Roman world with beauty, while conceptualizing the pre-Roman state of the diversity of many autonomous Greek city states in terms of severed limbs and, hence, undesirable. The image of the unified body invests the idea of the unification of the Greek world under Rome with distinctly pleasing aesthetic properties, something to desire and appreciate.

There is no reason to suppose that this is only a cheap trick to advertise the benefits of Roman power to the reader. I think we can safely assume that Polybius did, indeed, find the idea of a unified world aesthetically pleasing and inherently preferable to a world split up into a multitude of autonomous little states. The point I want to stress here is that we do not go deep enough if we approach the question of Polybius’ attitude towards Roman imperialism on an entirely rational basis, collecting all the passages where he either says something positive or something negative about the Romans and then calculating the sum total of each. This will not get us any closer towards Polybius’ attitude towards Roman power because Roman power as an idea, a concept, is much more than concrete examples of individual Romans exerting their power in a good or a bad way. People can still like communism as a concept but reject, even condemn, the attempts to realize it in, say, the Soviet Union or the GDR. Roman power is more than the sum of its parts, and understanding Polybius’ attitude towards Roman power is more than calculating that sum.

This is where the body metaphor comes into play, because it conceptualizes the very idea of the world under Roman rule, independent of the failure of some Roman officials to use their political power as they should, and this idea – to Polybius – is beautiful. Polybius does not (at least initially) like Roman power because its concrete material or cultural advantages; Polybius likes Roman power because he the idea of an organic, body-like unity of the world appeals to him. In the image of the world under Roman rule as a body, the political and the aesthetic form an inseparable unity.

At this point it becomes clear how deeply imperialistic Polybius’ own historical project is. His aim is to translate the new unity of the world into literature, his Histories mirroring in their very structure and design the symploke (see 3.1.4-6) In the symploke, literary aesthetics and historical explanation overlap. In order to achieve this aesthetically pleasing representation of the world under Rome, Polybius is happy to sacrifice the individual and local for the sake of the greater good (29.12.3-9):

[W]hen dealing with a subject which is simple and uniform they [‘local’ historians] wish to be thought historians not because of what they accomplish, but because of the multitude of their books, and to make such an impression as I have described, they are compelled to magnify small matters, to touch up and elaborate brief statements of fact and to convert quite incidental occurrences of no moment into momentous events and actions, describing engagements and pitched battles in which the infantry losses were at times ten men or it may be a few more and the cavalry losses still fewer. 4 As for sieges, descriptions of places, and such matters, it would be hard to describe adequately how they work them up for lack of real matter. 5 But writers of universal history act in just the opposite manner. 6 I should not therefore be condemned for slurring over events, when I sometimes omit and sometimes briefly report things to which others have devoted much space and elaborate descriptions; but I should rather be credited with treating each event as it deserves. 7 For those authors, when in the course of their work they describe, for instance, the sieges of Phanotea, Coronea, and Haliartus, find it necessary to place before their readers all the devices, all the daring strokes, and in addition to this describe at length the capture of Tarentum, the sieges of Corinth, Sardis, Gaza, Bactra, and above all Carthage, adding inventions of their own; and they by no means approve of me, when I simply give a true and unvarnished account of such matters. 9 The same remarks apply to descriptions of battles, the reports of speeches, and the other parts of my history.

Compared to the greatness of unity through Roman power, who cares about what happens at Phanotea, Coronea, and Haliartus? The people who live in these places and whose friends and family members have died in these battles, one obvious answer would be. Looking at Greek inscriptions provides an excellent corrective to the all-too-tempting idea of simply adopting Polybius’ pleasant unifying point of view: local history mattered, it was written down and remembered, and it defined local identities. The ‘truth’ that Polybius is trying to sell to his readers, by contrast, is a global and, as such, deeply Roman one: accepting it is tantamount to accepting Roman power – not because everything the Romans do is good, beneficial and advantageous, but because a unified world under Roman rule is just such an appealing idea.

This entry is getting much longer than I ha planned, and I should probably stop here. I should like to add, though, that this is only one half of the story: in a move that is unique in what remains of ancient historiography, Polybius deliberately throws the unity of his own work, and with it the concept of the beauty of the world unified under Rome, over board by adding another ten books to the original design of his work. I will talk about this in my next entry.