Polybius' theory of anacyclosis is the most sophisticated theory of political (r)evolution to have emerged from ancient Greek and Roman political thought. In this episode we explore what precisely anacyclosis is and how Polybius came up with the theory.
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The full text where Polybius lays out his theory of anacyclosis can be found here.
If you are interested in further reading about anacyclosis and its implications for today, check out the following articles, written by yours truly:
Partial Transcript of the Episode
Our world is increasingly dominated by models. And I don’t mean the kind that walk down runways. I mean mathematical models, computer generated models, AI driven models. We have models that can supposedly predict the weather, market trends, climate change, the next word you’ll type, your next purchase online, you name it. But is there a model that can help predict the fate of nations?
As we saw in the last episode, Plato thought so. He thought that for any given regime, you could predict what kind of regime it would most likely turn into next. In other words, the next stage in its political evolution. Two hundred years later, Polybius agreed with him, and he tried to improve on Plato’s model.
Last time I promised that we would do an episode on Polybius and his theory of anacyclosis, and see how it stacks up against Plato’s model of political revolution given in the Republic. So, that’s what we’re going to do today. In fact, we’re going to read Polybius’ account together and discuss it.
But first, who was Polybius and why should we care about him? Polybius, my friends, is the most underrated of all ancient historians. I mean, I’m sure most of you have heard of Herodotus and Thucydides on the Greek side, and possibly Livy or Tacitus if you like Roman history. But chances are you’ve heard little to nothing about Polybius. And that’s because he’s become unfashionable in recent decades. But he used to be all the rage. To the Founding Fathers of the United States, he was number one. Thucydides was probably number 2, and Herodotus was not even on the map.
Polybius was writing probably in the 140’s and 130’s BC in Rome. He is sometimes referred to as a Roman historian since he wrote in Rome and about Rome. But he wrote in Greek, being himself a Greek from the city of Megalopolis, which was in the Achaean League, a confederation of poleis that had recently come under Roman control. And in order to ensure the obedience of their new “allies” (or subjects, depending on who you ask) the Romans did what they often did, which was to take a bunch of local aristocrats hostage to Rome, so that their families back home didn’t get any ideas about revolting or anything.
So, Polybius spent 17 years as a hostage in Rome and, as luck would have it, he was taken in or adopted by one of the most important families there: the household of Lucius Aemilius Paullus Macedonicus, who had led Rome’s conquest of Macedonia, and whose son Scipio Aemilianus would go on do destroy Rome’s arch-enemy Carthage.
Polybius became the young Scipio Aemilianus’ tutor, and later remained his friend and close adviser. He was there with Scipio in north Africa as Carthage was burned to the ground. Apparently he tried to save some of the Carthaginian archives from destruction. In the same year that Carthage burned, the Romans put another historic, even legendary, city to the torch: Corinth in Greece was leveled.
With this double-blow to the geo-political status quo, Rome sent an unmistakable message to the entire Mediterranean world. We are now in charge. And if anyone starts getting any delusions of independence, just remember Corinth and Carthage before you do anything stupid.
So, Polybius’ massive work, called the Histories, had one overarching goal which framed and unified his entire work, and that was to understand and explain how Rome took over the world.
On the very first page of his work he writes, “Who could be so indifferent or lazy that they wouldn’t want to know by what means and with what kind of constitution in place the Romans succeeded in less than fifty-three years in subjecting nearly the whole inhabited world to their sole rule — a thing unique in history?”
In his attempt to explain this remarkable feat of the Roman Republic, Polybius pursues two avenues of investigation hinted at in that sentence. He wants to explain “by what means” and “with what kind of constitution” the Romans kicked so much butt. To answer the “by what means” part, he gives a historical account of all the major players and movements on the geopolitical chessboard from around 260-150 BC. It’s very game of thrones-esque. Like, "here’s what was happening in Italy, while this was brewing in Greece, but in the realm of Egypt this occurred. Meanwhile in Carthage, this was going down." And it’s all interconnected with far-flung alliances, betrayals, and intrigue. And Rome is involved in all of these theaters. And so, in that way, Polybius shows how, decade by decade, conflict after conflict, the Romans kept coming out on top and bringing more and more states under their sway.
It’s a gripping narrative of which perhaps the highlight is the story of Hannibal’s expedition into Italy against Rome, which we talked about way back in episode 10. Just to give you a sense of why I think Polybius is amazing and totally underrated, consider the Hannibal story. A lot of Roman history buffs today will tell you that the later Roman historian Livy offers a better account of Hannibal’s expedition, because it’s more literary, more polished, and perhaps more cinematic. But see, when Livy was writing about Hannibal’s expedition over the Alps into Italy, the “research” he did was done in a library. He gathered all the sources he could, read them all very carefully, compared them, and made his own version. When Polybius was trying to understand how Hannibal crossed the Alps with elephants in the winter, you know what he did? He went and climbed the fricking Alps. That is just badass. There’s no other way to put it. But I digress.
Now, to answer the second question hinted at in that first page, “with what kind of constitution” the Romans accomplished so much, Polybius undertook an examination of Rome’s constitution. And just to clarify, when scholars today speak of an ancient state’s constitution, we’re not talking about a single document with the word Constitution at the top in bold letters like the US Constitution. No ancient state had that. We just mean the sum total of the laws of a state and the structure of its government. That is one of the meanings of the Greek word politeia, which is what Polybius uses in this context, and it’s also one of the accepted meanings of the term “constitution” in modern political science: the sum total of a state's laws, the full body of laws if you will.
Anyway, Polybius thought there had to be something unique or special about Rome’s politeia or constitution, some hidden superpower within the nuts and bolts of the Roman system that could explain its incredible performance. And so, after many accounts of epic battles, when he gets to book 6 of his histories he takes a break from his action story and waxes philosophical.
He offers first a theory of political evolution, much like Plato’s, which sees all the archetypal regimes as being locked into a natural sequence or cycle. And then, once he’s laid out that theory of ἀνακύκλωσις or anacyclosis, which means “recurring cycle” or “cycle of revolutions,” he then gives his analysis of the Roman constitution and why it has proved so remarkably resistant to that greater cycle that he and Plato thought dragged every polity eventually towards tyranny.
So, that, in a nutshell, is who Polybius was and why his histories are worth reading.
What I just gave you was the biographical account of why Polybius matters. But there’s another way to look at him and his importance – a king of “big history” take, if you will. And for that, let’s zoom out briefly and consider the entire first millennium BC. What I like to call "the amazing millennium."
The Mediterranean world of the first millennium BC was very different from what it had been in earlier times and from what it has been ever since. You see, from about 900BC to let’s say 100 BC, an incredible and unique ecosystem of states emerged along the entire Mediterranean and Black Sea coastlines. We talked a bit about this last time. There were thousands of such city-states. And they weren’t just Greek. There were also Etruscan, Italic, and Phoenician ones. For a number of complicated historical reasons which we need not get into right now, it was only during that first millennium BC that the city-state model was a viable option in that region of the world for a sovereign community. And so, the Greeks and Italians and Phoenicians just copy-pasted that model again and again until they covered the entire coastlines of the Mediterranean and Black Seas and ran out of space.
This process started at the beginning of the first millennium BC after the collapse of the great Bronze Age kingdoms, and by the middle of that millennium there were over a thousand city states. What made this galaxy of small, independent states so interesting and different from earlier and later periods is that most of them seem to have experimented with non-monarchical rule. They innovated new forms of government like oligarchy, democracy, and republicanism. But eventually, especially after the rise of Macedon and the conquests of Alexander in the late 300’s BC, the city-state stopped being a viable model. You just couldn’t hold your own against the new superpowers on the block as a single polis. So, what you start to see in response to the huge successor kingdoms of Alexander’s empire is groups of poleis forming leagues, like the Achaean League that Polybius was born into, and you also see the rise of super-sized republics like Rome and like Carthage.
The way I like to think of this is to imagine each of these poleis as an amoeba – you know the microscopic organism that can swallow other microorganisms whole. Well, imagine that in around 500 BC there’s like a thousand of these amoebas in the Mediterranean. But over the next four centuries, they start to swallow each other. And so they get bigger, but there’s fewer of them. And eventually, by the time Polybius is writing in 130 something BC, there are only a handful of states left that can claim to be independent, and Rome is by far the biggest. And over the next century Rome officially swallows all the remaining ones, and so what was once a thousand tiny amoebas, is now one super-amoeba.
This explosion and then implosion of the city-state ecosystem during the first millennium BC generated so many political experiments and so much data on different regime types, more than any other period of history. Because every one of those amoebas represents a political experiment. Different communities tried implementing different regime types, with different laws, and they suffered different fates. Also, hundreds of these city-states remained independent for many centuries, during which time they experienced revolutions and changes of regime. Thus, this data set is not only huge, but long lasting, so it’s incredible for analyzing long term trends of political evolution.
We today only have a small fraction of that data set. Now, suppose that you, as a historian, could travel back in time to recover that data, but you could only go to a specific time and place. Where would you go? Well, you’d probably choose some time towards the end of that millennium, so you could look back at the entire history of the polis ecosystem. And you’d probably choose Rome, because it’s the power center. And it would help a lot if you had some powerful friends there, who could help you research and travel all over the place to collect information. And it wouldn’t hurt if you were an intrepid and tireless traveler yourself.
I think you can see where I’m going with this. That’s Polybius. He lived at the tail end of this ecosystem, in Rome, with the most powerful friends you could have, and he had all the time in the world and energy and funding to go and do limitless research.
So, of all the ancient Greek authors whose writings have survived, I think Polybius was the best situated to study the evolutionary patterns of political communities. He was the right man at the right time and the right place. Now of course that in and of itself doesn’t guarantee that he made the best historical model. But if you had to put your money on who of the ancient historians was best situated to come up with a good model, you’d bet on Polybius. So, that is the big history perspective on who Polybius was and why he matters.
From his research, Polybius concluded that there is a sequence of regime types that a polity will cycle through if it is allowed to develop naturally over time (viz. if it is not destroyed by a major disaster or interfered with by powerful external forces). According to his historical model, which he calls anacyclosis, there are six archetypal regimes, which all other regime types are variations of or combinations of. And these six archetypes tend to arise in the following sequence: kingdom, tyranny, aristocracy, oligarchy, democracy, and finally ochlocracry, which means mob rule. The Greek is ὀχλοκρατία, where ὄχλος means "mob" and κράτος "power."
Kingship comes first because, well, virtually all countries in the world can trace their history back to a time when they were ruled by kings and queens. But over time, according to Polybius, a kingdom will gradually degenerate into tyranny. In reaction to that, the nobility may overthrow the tyrant and establish an aristocracy, i.e. a constitutional regime led by a small group of accomplished leaders. In time, this aristocracy will degenerate into an oligarchy, in which wealth becomes the sole criterion for power. But if the middle class is galvanized, it may overthrow the oligarchs and establish a democracy. In due course, democracy degenerates into ochlocracy or “mob rule,” plagued by demagogues and factional strife. Finally, the state descends into civil war, which results in an autocrat taking power, thus bringing the cycle back to a form of one-man-rule.
So, what do you think? Does that sequence ring true at all?
As hinted at at the top of the show. I’d like to try something different today. See I was talking to one of my listeners a couple weeks ago, who said to me, howcome you never read any ancient texts on your show? And I said, well, cause most of the texts we talk about are very long works. But in this case, the passage where Polybius lays this all out, is only like five pages long. So, I thought, let’s give this a shot, and see how you guys like it. So, for the remainder of this episode, we’re going to read the passage together and I’ll be pausing along the way to offer some commentary. If you guys end up liking this format, I can do more episodes like it in the future. And if you don’t, let me know, and we’ll stick to the type of shows we’ve been doing thus far.
Let’s dive in. This is from book 6 of Polybius’ Histories. The translation is by W R Paton, though I have changed a few words here and there based on my own study of the ancient Greek text. And If you want to follow along, or read it on your own later, click here.