Fortune cast the life of Polybius in stirring times. His special claim to our admiration is that he understood the importance in the history of the world of the changes which were passing under his eyes, and exerted himself to trace the events which immediately preceded them, and from which they sprang, while it was yet possible to see and question surviving participators in them; to examine places, before they had lost all marks of the great events of which they had been the scene; and records or monuments before time had cast a doubt upon their meaning or authenticity. Nor is this ordinary praise. Men are apt to turn their eyes upon the past, as holding all that is worthy of contemplation, while they fail to take note of history “”in the making,”” or to grasp the importance of the transactions of their own day. But as every year has its decisive influence on the years which succeed it, the greatest benefactor of posterity is the man who understands and records events as they pass with care and sincerity.
Laborious compilation, from the study and comparison of ancient records and monuments, has its value: it may often be all that it is possible to obtain; it may not unfrequently even serve to correct statements of contemporaries which have been deformed by carelessness or coloured by prejudice. But the best compilation is infinitely inferior in interest and instructiveness to the barest report of a contemporary. And when such a man is also an eye-witness of much that he relates; when he knew and conversed with many of the chief actors in the great events which he records; when again he tells us of transactions so remote in time, that all written documents have necessarily perished, and those in more durable bronze and stone all but followed in their train, then indeed the interest rises to the highest pitch. Like Herodotus and Thucydides, then, Polybius tells us of his own times, and of the generations immediately preceding them. It is true that the part of his work which has survived in a complete form deals with a period before his own day, just as the greater part of the history of Herodotus does, but in the larger part of the fragments he is writing with even more complete personal knowledge than Thucydides. He had, again, neither the faculty for story-telling possessed by Herodotus nor the literary and dramatic force of Thucydides.
The language which he spoke and wrote had lost the magic of style; had lost the lucidity and grace of Sophocles, and the rugged vigour and terseness of Thucydides. Nor had he apparently acquired any of those artifices which, while they sometimes weary us in the later rhetoricians, yet generally serve to make their writings the easiest and pleasantest of reading. Equally remote again is his style from the elaborate and involved manner of Plutarch, with its huge compound words built up of intricate sentences, more like difficult German than Greek. Polybius had no tricks of this sort; but his style lacks logical order and clearness. It seems rather the language of a man of affairs, who had had neither leisure to study style, nor taste to read widely with a view to literature as such. But after all it is Greek, and Greek that still retained its marvellous adaptability to every purpose, to every shade of thought, and every form of literature.
Adapted from The Histories of Polybius, Vol. I by EvelynShuckburgh, 2013
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