Tag Archives: Polybius

Hannibal and Rome – What’s the Angle for Polybius and Livy?

One of the most important things to keep in mind about many ancient sources is that, frequently, they were written many years after the events described in those sources. This leads to two things: the event described will be flawed in some way – possibly a large way – and the narrative will tell the reader as much about the time of the author as it will about the event in question.

Polybius hung out with some pretty powerful people. How do you think that may have affected his work?

A good example of this are two accounts of the Battle of Cannae and its aftermath, provided to us by Polybius and Livy. In each historian’s narrative, they rightfully praise Hannibal’s tactical brilliance and describe him as a legitimate danger to the existence of Rome. I think that Hannibal’s tactical achievements stand for themselves, and would be apparent no matter who tells the tale. I also think that even though Polybius and Livy contribute to his legend, they do so in a way that speaks for the glory of Rome. By painting Hannibal as a terrible and cunning opponent, Polybius and Livy cast the Roman Republic as a determined and unbreakable entity that can withstand a threat like Hannibal, take on any challenge, and stand the test of time.

Both Polybius and Livy had personal connections to powerful Roman aristocracy. Polybius was the tutor of Scipio Aemilianus, the grandson (by adoption) of Publius Scipio Africanus, the hero of the Second Punic War. Livy frequented the court of Augustus Caesar and was known in the halls of power at the time. Being close to powerful people, neither writer is motivated to paint Rome as easy to defeat, or the victory over Carthage as anything but a glorious act of national willpower by Rome. Praising Hannibal is in line with this notion. After all, who could defeat the terrible and brilliant Hannibal but the more brilliant and resourceful citizen-soldiers of the Roman Republic?

Both Polybius and Livy were writing large-scale histories of the Republic. In telling the story of Cannae and the ravages of Hannibal upon Italy, ultimately their focus is on Roman fortitude and determination – the unbreakable Roman character.

Following his account of Cannae, Polybius brings the reader’s attention back to the real story. “Yet the Senate neglected no means in its power, but exhorted and encouraged the populace, strengthened the defences of the city, and deliberated on the situation with manly coolness. And subsequent events made this manifest. For though the Romans were now incontestably beaten and their military reputation shattered, yet by the peculiar virtues of their constitution and by wise counsel they not only recovered their supremacy in Italy and afterwards defeated the Carthaginians, but in a few years made themselves masters of the whole world.” [1]

Livy also brings the post-Cannae focus back to Roman resilience: “Certainly there is no other nation that would not have succumbed beneath such a weight of calamity.”[2]  Livy later praises the Roman civic traits of remaining level-headed and cool under threat of extermination: “… no one anywhere in Rome mentioned the word ‘Peace,’ either before the consul’s return or after his arrival when all the memories of their losses were renewed. Such a lofty spirit did the citizens exhibit in those days that though the consul was coming back from a terrible defeat for which they knew he was mainly responsible, he was met by a vast concourse drawn from every class of society, and thanks were formally voted to him because he ‘had not despaired of the republic.’ Had he been commander-in-chief of the Carthaginians there was no torture to which he would not have been subjected.”[3]

Because the Livy and Polybius make sure the focus is in the proper place, on the glory of Rome, it becomes safe to praise Hannibal. By the time Polybius and Livy wrote their histories, the Carthaginian leader and all his people had long been vanquished. The city of Carthage itself lay in ruin, never to revive. What harm could it do to praise a valorous enemy, who threw his best punch at Rome, but still could not finish the job?

Over the years, the Roman defeat at Cannae remains more famous than the Roman final victory at Zama, where Hannibal ran for his life and lost tens of thousands of men. Why?

The Roman victory at Zama ended in a peace treaty. There’s nothing more to say after that battle, which ended the Second Punic War. Cannae, however, is not the end of the story. It’s the high point of the story, in which Rome’s survival is hanging in the balance. Enter the final act, in which Rome recovers and a hero, Scipio Africanus, emerged. Polybius and Livy take the opportunity to cast Hannibal as the tactically brilliant but doomed villain, who defeated the soldiers of Rome, but not the spirit of Rome.

There are more factors that come into play than just Roman moral fortitude, but it’s interesting that the writers choose focus on this. As an institution, Rome was always very concerned with its image, both to its own people and to people outside of Rome. It was important for the people of Rome to feel as though they came from good stock, that their ancestors were morally righteous and virtuous, worthy of the ancestral veneration practiced in their homes and in the Senate. Livy and Polybius acknowledge that need with their writing, which elevates the idea of Rome. But the nitty-gritty of how Rome won is another story.

The GOAT of transcontinental road-trips involving elephants.

Keeping an invasion force well supplied deep into enemy territory was quite the challenge for any nation in the ancient world, but for Hannibal, it was almost a worst-case scenario. Hannibal’s only hope for resupply would be what he could forage from the countryside or wiggle out of Rome’s shakier Italian neighbors. For supplies to come from Carthage, they would have to come the same way Hannibal came, over the Alps. The sea wasn’t an option. Rome had control of the Western Mediterranean at the time (thanks to the First Punic War), and surely if Hannibal could have launched his invasion by sea, he would have done so.

Resupply would have been essential in a protracted siege of Rome, which had walls, manpower and, most importantly, river access.  Perhaps Hannibal’s best options, strategically, were to either force a political settlement to end the war, or find a way to rally the Italian cities and countryside against Rome.

Communication also played a vital role. It was much easier for Rome to communicate the will of the Senate to its people and nearby allies than it was for the Carthegians to coordinate strategy with Hannibal, across a sea that they did not control.

Surely, if we can see the difficulty/near impossibility of capturing Rome in this scenario, then Hannibal himself could as well. Is it possible, then, that Hannibal underestimated Roman resolve? In that case, the mistake would have been in assuming that the Romans thought like everyone else did. They clearly do not. That was one tough town, and it is a culturally unique element of Romans. The uniqueness of Rome – the things that make them exceptional – are the traits that the people of Rome celebrated most about themselves, and wanted to hear most from their writers and see from their artists. Busts, statues, arches, triumphs, celebratory games, theater, legends, and histories were all dedicated to their city, its heroes and its ancestors. It’s quite the multimedia public relations machine. The extent to which Livy and Polybius contribute to that machine is worth much consideration.


[1] Polybius: The Histories II, W. R. Paton, trans., (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1979), 293.

[2] Livy, The History of Rome, Vol III, 22.54. http://web.archive.org/web/20080709091744/http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/toc/modeng/public/Liv3His.html

[3] Ibid., 22.61.

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A Closer Look at Sources: Herodotus, Polybius, and Aeschylus

It would be great if all sources we used to create history were complete, with perfect viewpoints, and no agendas of any kind, but that’s simply not true. It’s never been that way, even among the earliest of historians. Limitations due to point of view, time, and distance affect us all. In this post, I’m going to take a look at three ancient writers, Herodotus, Polybius, and Aeschylus, and show some of the characteristics and factors that affect their view of certain events.

One of the big issues when it comes to describing naval warfare, as opposed to land warfare, is point of view. In most situations, unless the battle was near an elevated terrain feature, it would be difficult for an eyewitness to describe the exact movement of naval forces against each other. Eyewitnesses are limited to the ship they occupied and its view. Herodotus and Polybius show us that there can be hundreds of ships in any ancient naval battle, and the spread of forces had the potential to be much wider than in a land engagement. Land battles in the ancient world are usually more compact affairs, and the potential to observe coordinated movement of troops would be greater, for observers and participants.

The general body of knowledge regarding naval warfare is not as well-known as that of land warfare. A typical historian writing well after the fact can  more easily imagine the movements and collision of forces on land than the specialized tactics and movement of ships. The exception, of course, is the historian experienced in that sort of warfare.

Herodotus, the “Father of History.”

Herodotus’ account of the Battle of Salamis suffers from a lack of detail regarding the tactics of what happened during the battle. In   fact, he almost dismisses the collision of the main body of ships: “For as the Greeks fought in order and kept their line, while the barbarians were in confusion and had no plan in anything that they did, the issue of the battle could scarce be other than it was”[1]. That, according to Herodotus, sums up what happened in one neat little line. Apparently that was enough?

Though Herodotus is light on tactics, he does provide however, a who’s who of participants in the battle, a summary of how the squadrons were lined up, and the fates of several groups of participants. He provides a good deal of information on the actions of Queen Artemisia of Halicarnassus [2], which could be due to Herodotus himself being from Halicarnassus.

It seems that the biggest problem Herodotus faced when recounting Salamis was not the strategic meetings and maneuvering before the battle but the actual tactical disposition of the ships during the battle. This could have been because the history was written 40 years after the fact, when larger details would have stood out more than smaller ones, particularly if eyewitnesses by that time were hard to come by. We also have to remember that Herodotus was one of, if not the first person to bring together historical accounts into record. He did not have the benefit of much that was written down before him. Had there been written accounts of what happened at Salamis before Herodotus created his history, he may have been able to provide a more accurate account of the tactics of the battle.

Polybius, on the other hand, benefited from more than 200 years of historiographic practice between Herodotus and himself. His accounts of Roman naval tactics are much more detailed, presumably because he was able to draw from more accurate sources.

Polybius on a pedestal.

Polybius gives a highly detailed tactical account of the naval Battle of Ecnomus, which resembled the land Battle of Cannae, with an attempt by the Carthaginians to execute a pincer maneuver on the Roman fleet.  Polybius describes the movements of all of the Carthaginian and Roman squadrons, including the pivotal moment when the two Roman squadrons in the center were able to flip direction and attack the flanking Carthaginians in the rear [3].

Elsewhere, Polybius also very accurately describes the structure of the corvus boarding ramp [4] and gives details of how it was used for the first time in battle [5]. Polybius wisely relates to his readers how this device worked near the beginning of his account of the major naval actions of the First Punic War. As this was a primary Roman naval machine used throughout war, the reader has the function of the corvus in mind while reading the tactical accounts of a battle like Ecnomus. Polybius, also being a close ally of the Scipio family, had access to information about the Punic Wars that other writers did not possess.

Even a poet in the right place and time can provide insight into a battle. Aeschylus’s play, The Persians, fills a different sort of role for those seeking information on the Battle of Salamis. We know from the play, written eight years after the battle, that the Battle of Salamis was viewed by the Greeks as an event worthy of dramatic retelling, and worthy of inclusion in a sacred event. Greek theatre was intended to honor the gods, and Aeschylus demonstrates Xerxes’s offense against the gods, bridging the Hellespont, as an act of hubris:

“Remember Athens: henceforth let not pride,

Her present state disdaining, strive to grasp

Another’s, and her treasured happiness

Shed on the ground: such insolent attempts

Awake the vengeance of offended Jove.

But you, whose age demands more temperate thoughts,

With words of well-placed counsel teach his youth

To curb that pride, which from the gods calls down

Destruction on his head” [6]

Aeschylus, warrior-poet.

Through the course of the play, Aeschylus recounts the names of many Persian lords who perished at the hands of the Greek fleet. Whether this list can be trusted is debatable, as Aeschylus could be just making up names for dramatic effect. However, Aeschylus is believed to have been a veteran of the Battle of Salamis, so he might have had privileged knowledge of the commanders involved in the battle.

Aeschylus’s status as a veteran of the battle lends credence to the play’s usage as a primary source for the Battle of Salamis. While it can provide little in the way of tactical description of the battle, it does demonstrate the mindset of at least one veteran, who believed that his actions, and the actions of his fellow sailors, were a divine instrument of punishment against a prideful and reckless foreign leader. By bridging the Hellespont, Xerxes laid offense to the people of Greece, the gods and the land itself. Furthermore, it also shows an attitude of acknowledgement by the people of Greece that the gods played a role in the victory, and that victory was definitely not assured otherwise. If the Greeks were confident that the victory was entirely their doing, the play would be celebrating themselves, and not the gods. This would indicate that to the Greeks, the Battle of Salamis was indeed a desperate and serious battle for the survival of Greece itself.

Take a moment and look at the featured image above this blog post. The painting is Wilhelm von Kaulbach’s Die Seeschlacht bei Salamis (1868). Notice that the idea of divine intervention in this battle is one that has lasted through the centuries. Those figures floating in the upper right corner of the painting are gods. Aeschylus helped create the lasting notion that the gods were watching and acting at Salamis. You can actually see Aeschylus’s influence reflected in the painting, more than 2,300 years after Aeschylus fought at Salamis.


[1] Herodotus, The History of Herodotus, trans. George Rawlinson, accessed June 24, 2015, http://classics.mit.edu/Herodotus/history.8.viii.html.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Polybius, Histories, trans. W.R. Paton, accessed June 25, 2015, http://penelope.uchicago.edu/thayer/e/roman/texts/polybius/home.html, 28.10.

[4] Ibid., 22.3.

[5] Ibid., 23.5.

[6] Aeschylus, The Persians, trans. Robert Potter, accessed June 25, 2015, http://classics.mit.edu/Aeschylus/persians.pl.txt.

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