The Idea of Decline in Polybius’ Political Theory

In the study of modern warfare, military academies often turn their attention to ancient wars. The reason is simple. It is difficult to understand how all the complex weapons systems of a modern army work together. It is much easier to understand ancient weapons and tactics.

All weapons from the most primitive club to the most sophisticated directed energy weapon employ the same principles. A ray gun is merely an analog of a gun, which is an analog of a bow and arrow, which is an analog of a spear, which is an analog of thrown rock. The technology is different, but the arete is not. The principles are identical. A hand gun in close combat is best understood as a thrusting weapon with practically infinite range.

And we shouldn’t forget that ancient weapons had some advantages. One can see the course of an arrow and correct the next shot very easily. This is sometimes very difficult with a bullet. Likewise, when we consider politics, it can be helpful to look to simpler times. Let us look back to the time of Polybius.

Polybius, the Man

In all arts, a natural aristocracy arises from the operation of three particles of human fortune: talent, interest, and chance. In Polybius, all three join together to make a noble mind of penetrating historical intuition. He was born in 200 B.C. in Arcadia, the son of a strategos of the Achaean League. He was trained by his father to be a skilled horse rider and hunter. His talent was such that he was allowed to carry the ashes of Philopoemen, a great honor. At a young age, the citizens of Arcadia elected him to the position of hipparchus to command a calvary unit. Before his captivity by the Romans, he was thought to be in line for the rank of strategos like his father.

For seventeen years, he lived in Rome as a hostage, part of the 1,000 nobles exchanged after the Roman war against Perseus. Even as a captive, his talent was evident to all. He was accepted to the best houses of Rome.  Lucius Aemilius Paullus Macedonicus, the conqueror general of the Third Macedonian War, entrusted Polybius with the education of his sons.

Like his intellectual forebear, Thucydides, Polybius was a polymath who possessed practical expertise in war, high intellectual abilities, and the luck be born into the right family at the right time. Both historians eschewed the tendency of previous chroniclers to rely on explanations by poetry and myth. Instead, they looked to the physical world and patterns of experience.

Thucydides developed a theory of political realism. His theory explained political events in terms of human psychology and fears in survival situations. Polybius looks to patterns of biological birth, growth, and decline in the cycle of complex interactions among competing living organisms. He saw these cyclical patterns in human polities and the interactions between polities. He believed these intuitive patterns would allow astute diplomats to predict changes, pressures, and developments in society.


These cyclical developments repeat. Each previous form generating the next in a stable pattern.

While the form and sequence of rise and decline were constant, the time between these events was not. Polybius admired Rome. It is not too much to say that the aim of Histories is to develop a theory to explain how Rome got to where it was, the top of the ancient world, and how it stayed there so long.

The main argument of Book IV of Histories examines the constitutional republic form of government from the perspective of anacyclosis. Polybius conjectured, and then set out to prove, that a constitutional republic like Rome’s, being the best government, would stave off decline for the longest time.

[How and] by what means and thanks to what kind of constitution the Romans in less than fifty-three years had succeeded in subjecting nearly the whole inhabited world to their sway. — Polybius, Histories

There are a number of theoretical problems for Polybius, as he tries to put the constitutional republic into the cyclical framework. Not least of these problems is how the move from the mob-like primitive existence, the ochlocracy, at the end of the cycle transforms into a primitive monarchy. This is a theoretical problem, but not an empirical one. It’s a commonplace of modern anthropology: the disintegration of societies into smaller “big-men” tribes, which then war until a monarch gains enough respect and control to rule them all.

In any case, our purpose is not to explicate the theoretical difficulties. It is enough that we acknowledge that they exist and are significant. We have a more modest aim here. Is there a practical use for anacylosis as an instrument for predicting sociological and political events?

Examples oF Decline



About the author

The Javelineer

Alt-West. Veteran. Combat instructor. Applied mathematician.

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