The Special Function of History

“Now the special function of history, particularly in relation to speeches, is first of all to discover the words actually used, whatever they were, and next to establish the reason why a particular action or argument failed or succeeded.  The mere statement of a fact, though it may excite our interest, is of no benefit to us, but when the knowledge of the cause is added, then the study of history becomes fruitful.  For it is the ability to draw analogies between parallel circumstances of the past and of our own times which enables us to make forecasts as to what is to happen: thus in some cases where a given course of action has failed, we are impelled to take precautions so as to avoid a recurrence, while in others we can deal more confidently with the problems that confront us by repeating a solution which has previously succeeded.  On the other hand, a writer who passes over in silence the speeches which were actually made and the causes of what actually happened and introduces fictitious rhetorical exercises and discursive speeches in their place destroys the peculiar virtue of history.” Polybius, The Histories XII. 25b, trans. Ian Scott-Kilvert (London: Penguin, 1979), p. 440.

Polybius wrote a history of the Roman Republic’s rise to becoming the greatest power in the Mediterranean world from 264 to 146 BC.  He was a Greek noble who spent seventeen years as a hostage among the Romans.  In Rome he became close to some of the most powerful Roman leaders including Scipio Aemilianus, who oversaw the destruction of Carthage in 146 BC.  Polybius traveled with Scipio to North Africa and most likely Spain also.

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