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Polybius and the Ideal Historian

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Polybius, considered one of the greatest influencers of modern historiography, was a prominent historian during the Hellenistic Era whose influence still stands strong today. Although not all of his work was preserved, what we do still have sheds incredible insight into past affairs. Not only did Polybius simply record history, he also sought to provide a model of the ideal historian-- which he himself felt as if he lived up to. In book twelve of his collection entitled The Histories, Polybius further examines the role of a historian within society.

In book twelve, Polybius does not simply come out and say exactly what the features of an ideal historian are. Instead, he devotes much of his effort into critiquing Timaeus, his historiographical predecessor. It is through this examination of Timaeus that one can discover what traits Polybius thought the ideal historian should exhibit. Although his critique of Timaeus is quite extreme at many points throughout this book, Polybius believes that Timaeus should be punished for his infallible crimes against history. Not only was Polybius a pioneer for the history discipline, but one must infer that he also sought to improve the reputation of his work by tarnishing that of Timaeus'. It would be downright impractical to assume Polybius did not seek to acquire political gain from his brutal analysis of Timaeus. Whatever his motive may have been, there is no denying the importance of Polybius's work.

To identify the features of the ideal historian as Polybius presents them, let us examine his critique of Timaeus. Regarding Corsica, Polybius says that, "Timaeus has no information on this subject and seems of set purpose to tell the exact opposite of the actual facts#." Polybius argues that while Timaeus says that there are many wild goats, sheep and cattle here as well as deer, hares, and wolves, in actuality, there is not a single wild goat or wild ox, but there are not even any hares, wolves, or deer. Polybius then goes on to tell us that there are goats and oxen, they are, however, not wild, they simply do not respond to people in the way that Timaeus is accustomed to. He says that for this reason the animals give one the impression of being wild, and Timaeus, "after inadequate and casual inquiry, made this random statement#." From this valuable passage, one can assume that Polybius believes the ideal historian should, first and foremost, be acquainted with the subject they are presenting and secondly, use reasoning rather than careless investigation when making assumptions.

Polybius, in the subsequent section of book twelve, accuses Timaeus of being a hypocrite saying, "Who would continue to pardon such faults, especially when committed by Timaeus who is so fond of caviling at similar blemishes in others#?" In other words, "Why should I be kind in my critique of Timaeus when he himself enjoys exploiting the falsehoods in the work of others?" He argues that although Timaeus goes out of his way to exploit his accuracy, he is almost always very short of the truth#. From this passage, it is easy to assume that Polybius believes the ideal historian should not only be able to recognize faults in the work of others, but should also strive for complete accuracy in their own work.

In his evaluation of Locri, Polybius concludes that Timaeus is not in general uninformed, but his judgment is "...darkened by prejudice; and when he once sets himself to blame or praise anyone he forgets everything and departs very widely form his duty as a historian#." It is clear that many historians, authors, and playwrights of the time (like Timaeus), and even still today, often fall subject to powerful figures or popular belief and tend to compose celebratory works about what people want to hear rather than attempting to tell the unbiased truth. Knowing that everyone can make mistakes and fall subject to bias, Polybius believes all historians should strive for complete accuracy and those "...who make false statements owing to error should meet with kind correction and forgiveness, but those who lie deliberately deserve and implacable accuser#." Polybius makes it evident that Timaeus was not simply ignorant to the truth, but purposely chose to include falsehoods in his writings and should therefore be punished severely. Polybius says that this point is illustrated by the fact that Timaeus failed to mention dates and public records (the main cause of the reputation he enjoyed) in his description of Locrians in Greece proper-- clear proof that he knew he was deliberately lying. He goes on to say that while Timaeus "...exhibits great severity and audacity in accusing others, his own pronouncements are full of dreams, prodigies, incredible tales, and to put it shortly, craven superstition and womanish love of the marvelous#."

In the subsequent passage, Polybius outlines one of the important tasks of a historian: to record the words spoken by others. He states that, "The peculiar function of history is to discover, in the first place, the words actually spoken, whatever they were, and next to ascertain the reason why what was done or spoken led to failure or success#." Polybius argues that Timaeus, while attempting to write history, often times instead of recording the spoken words, recorded what he thought ought to have been said.

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