Another request

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by Neil Godfrey

I seem to be asking for a lot of help, lately. This time, it’s for those with access to the Greek text of Polybius’s book 12 of his History and with the means of locating without much trouble the word συμπλοκή

The occasion is the following passage about ancient historians:

The existence of different voices or interpretations of a past which have the “right” to exist side-by-side shows that the accurate reporting of past events was not necessarily on the agenda of societies and their authors in Antiquity. Leaving to readers the decision of what really happened tells us much about the nature of the societies we are dealing with (Polybius, who expresses a rationalistic approach to the past, knew how to tackle this by suggesting that history should be viewed as a symploke, [intertwining]; see his Book 12).

Mendels, Doron. 2008. “How Was Antiquity Treated in Societies with a Hellenistic Heritage? (And Why Did the Rabbis Avoid Writing History?).” In Antiquity in Antiquity: Jewish and Christian Pasts in the Greco-Roman World, edited by Gregg Gardner and Kevin Osterloh, 132–51. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck. (p. 142)

I read Book 12 in an English translation and failed to notice any discussion of the sort of idea I think Doron Mendels is addressing. What would help if I knew what passage(s) in Book 12 Polybius uses συμπλοκή or some form of it.

The idea that I thought Mendels is addressing is the recording of inconsistent versions of events in historical narratives. I know that some ancient historians do this, but it appears from the reference to Polybius that I should find a discussion by an ancient historian on the fact that historians do set side by side contradictory (or at least inconsistent) narratives.

Anyone able to help with this one?



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19 thoughts on “Another request”

    1. Can you tell me how you brought up that page — which was the one I was hoping to find there. I only got as far as seeing one small snippet of each section of a chapter part at a time.

      But I don’t see anything there that looks like a form of συμπλοκή — that could be because of my ignorance, but also I suspect it has more to do with what Brad below has found …

  1. • συμπλοκή (symplokí)

    Walbank, F. W. (1975). “Symploke: Its Role in Polybius’ Histories”. In Parry, Adam (ed.). Studies in the Greek Historians. Yale Classical Studies 14. Cambridge University Press. pp. 197–212. ISBN 978-0-521-20587-0.

    Wiater, Nicolas (15 October 2013). “Politics, Aesthetics and Historical Explanation in Polybius I | Rethinking Late Hellenistic literature and the Second Sophistic”. arts.st-andrews.ac.uk.

    Polybius’ central assumption is that the rise of Roman power has resulted in a fundamental change of the very structure of the world. This new design of the world he calls the “symploke”, the weaving together of all regions of the world and their individual local histories into the new fabric of Roman power, like a net all the individual threads of which are connected and interrelated. Polybius introduces his concept of the ‘symploke’ through an image of the unity of the body. At 1.4.6-11 he says (Paton’s Loeb translation adapted):

    6 We can no more hope to have a comprehensive view of this [the new, symploke structure of the world] from histories dealing with particular events than to get at once a notion of the form of the whole world, its disposition and order, by beholding, each in turn, the most famous cities, or indeed by looking at separate plans of each: a result by no means likely. 7 He indeed who believes that by studying isolated histories he can acquire a fairly comprehensive view of the whole, is, as it seems to me, much in the case of one, who, after having looked at the dissevered limbs of a body once alive and beautiful, fancies he has been as good as an eyewitness of the creature itself in its accomplished design and beauty. 8 For could anyone put the creature together on the spot, restoring its form and the comeliness of life, and then show it to the same man, I think he would quickly avow that he was formerly very far away from the truth and more like one in a dream. 9 For we can get some idea of a whole from a part, but never knowledge or exact opinion. 10 Special histories therefore contribute very little to the knowledge of the whole and conviction of its truth. 11 It is only indeed by study of the interconnection of all the particulars, their resemblances and differences, that we are enabled to achieve a general perspective, and thus derive both benefit and pleasure from history.

  2. db beat me to it.

    I have access to the searchable online Loeb Classical Library. I searched for words starting with συμπλοκ in Polybius. I got 45 hits, none in book 12.

    I used Project Perseus to search for forms of συμπλοκή in Polybius. I got 30 hits, none in book 12:

    What you might be looking for is the last few sentences of chapter 4 in book 1:

    “For we can get some idea of a whole from a part, but never knowledge or exact opinion. Special histories therefore contribute very little to the knowledge of the whole and conviction of its truth. It is only indeed by study of the interconnection (συμπλοκῆς) of all the particulars, their resemblances and differences, that we are enabled at least to make a general survey, and thus derive both benefit and pleasure from history.”
    Polybius, The Histories, Volume I: Books 1-2 (2010)
    Loeb Classical Library 128
    Translated by W. R. Paton. Revised by F. W. Walbank, Christian Habicht.

  3. Mortley, Raoul (1996). The Idea of Universal History from Hellenistic Philosophy to Early Christian Historiography. Edwin Mellen Press. pp. 41–42. ISBN 978-0-7734-8787-1.

    This discussion provides some insight into an intriguing problem of Polybius’ language, discussed by Walbank, Gelzer, Pédech and Petzold. Polybius refers to his own method as πραγματική ἱστορία, and quite clearly his phrase must be saying more than that history is about “things” or “matters”. In IX.2.4 Polybius describes the πραγματικὸς τρόπος, and this is said to include the description and analysis of acts, to bring them up to date. But just before this passage he distinguishes himself from Ephorus in this matter, and seems to want political history to provide the limits of his enquiry: Polybius repudiates the broader ethnographical perspective of Ephorus. He does emphasize that his own brand of “pragmatic” history is intended to benefit, not to entertain, in language reminiscent of Dionysius’ description of Theopompus.

    “Pragmatic” history is probably a type of acts history which narrows the scope from anthropology in general, to politics and political acts. The scope of history had become greatly enlarged in order to include all sorts of geographical, climatic, and biological data, and it is quite plausible that Polybius should have wanted to limit it somehow. Pédech’s long and erudite discussion of this term in Polybius (op.cit. 22ff) actually links the term to pragmata rather than praxeis, but this in my view makes it less easy to understand, simply because pragmata is such a nondescript word: it has no technical sense, and it is difficult for such a banal word to have any special significance. One cannot really mount an explanation of one’s historical method by saying that it will deal with “things”. But to specify “acts” as the subject would be to say something significant, in view of the relationship of that concept with ethics, as we shall see below. Pédech himself notes (28) that the late source Eustathius defines pragmatikon as meaning “dealing with praxeis“, involving the type of history which deals with the mores of peoples. This is in exact accordance with what Aristotle had said about praxeis history many years before, and it seems to be obvious that this is what Polybius meant.

    It may be, however, that Polybius wants to take a specific view of what his kind of history should be, and so prefers to use a related term, pragmatike historia, to demonstrate his own more confined view of acts history. It is a question of nuance, not of any radical opposition, as Petzold wants to argue (Studien…4,14) and the examples chosen by him show not the rejection of praxeis history by Polybius, but the rejection of certain types of praxeis as the proper subject of history. Polybius is merely limiting the field.

    1. Mendels, Doron (1997). The Rise and Fall of Jewish Nationalism. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing. p. 36. ISBN 978-0-8028-4329-6.

      Polybius denigrates historians who are uncritical of their sources and emphasizes the necessity for a historian to possess the gnome and episteme (knowledge) of the material to be related. He mentions synchronic (simultaneous events) and diachronic (the linear movement of history) historical accounts. He argues for the writing of the “whole” (ta katholou) instead of monographs (kata meros). For this reason he himself wrote a “universal” history of the ecumene of his own day. In his opinion the historian should take care to present his reader with a symploke (intertwining, combination) after having made the cheirourgia (analysis) of his sources. Only after doing so will he be able to handle the pharmakon (remedy). In 12.25d–e, he says, ‘“‘as there are three parts of medicine, first the theory of disease, next dietetics, and thirdly surgery and pharmaceutics. . . . In the same fashion systematic history too consists of three parts, the first being the industrious study of memoirs and other documents and a comparison of their contents, the second, the survey of cities, places, rivers, lakes, and in general all the peculiar features of land and sea, and the distance of one place from another, and the third being the review of political events.”

      Here in a concise form is the analysis of Polybius’s working method as a writer of pragmatike historia. History has roles to play in the instruction of peoples—a political, a moral, and a military one—so the historian has a responsibility to recount an accurate portrayal of events. If the Greek Near East could have had a Polybius to tell its history from the third century onward, our knowledge of it would have been much greater.

      Cf. Mendels, D. (1988). “‘Creative History’ in the Hellenistic Near East in the Third and Second Centuries BCE: the Jewish Case”. Journal for the Study of the Pseudepigrapha. 1 (2): 13–20. doi:10.1177/095182078800000202.

      1. Yes, Polybius’ “symploke” is not what Neil was looking for, a term for presenting a variety of equally possible ‘truths’. Polybius very much thought that the truth of and behind public events could be established, or at least extreme probability presented, as long as the historian was himself a public ‘player’ with that experience to guide his judgement.
        Nevertheless, time spent reading Polybius 12 is not wasted, indeed should be recommended reading! It’s great fun, a detailed -and extremely vitriolic- critique of more popular Hellenistic historians. Of Timaeus, a great archival researcher who (allegedly) got everything wrong : “For while he 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 marvellous”.

        1. Indeed. The same should be compulsory reading for anyone tempted to say that the gospels conform to the historical methods of the day, insofar as people then supposedly treated myths and the miraculous as “facts” or “historical truths”.

          1. Further to this, ancient writers with a critical faculty had a particular problem with the sensationalist histories written by the companions of Alexander the Great, supposedly reliable eye-witnesses.

            Strabo 15.1.28 : “..Onesicritus, who cannot so properly be called arch-pilot of Alexander as of things that are incredible; for though all the followers of Alexander preferred to accept the marvellous rather than the true, Onesicritus seems to surpass all of them in the telling of prodigies. However, he tells some things that are both plausible and worthy of mention, and therefore they [the fantasies] are not passed by in silence even by one who disbelieves them”.

            Of Clitarchus, who had Alexander meet the queen of the Amazons, Quintilian (10.1.75) was more succinct : “Clitarchi probatur ingenium, fides infamatur”.

  4. OP: “I read Book 12 in an English translation and failed to notice any discussion of the sort of idea I think Doron Mendels is addressing.”

    Per Mendels, “[Polybius’] views on the writing of history are to be found mainly in his twelfth book, where he elaborately lays out his views on causation (aitia, prophasis, arche).” —(1997, pp.35f)

  5. I’m in interdisciplinary studies; which tries to take all the separate studies, disciplines, and put them together into the big, overall picture. Sounds like Poly was thinking about trying that. But noting how difficult it was.

    Sounds like he had his own earlier version of the story of the blind men and the elephant. But problems too with Frankensteinian syntheses. Though finally he reached some kind of acceptably integrative “symbiosis.” Or “sym”phonic overview.

    Research the Greek root “sym” …

  6. Thank you one and all for your replies, including those who sent me emails — and the one who offered “nothing more than” moral support 🙂

    I am coming to conclude that Polybius did not quite say or address exactly what Doron Mendels had been addressing, the inconsistent accounts of events in the one work. Polybius spoke of different perspectives, technical, practical, moral, etc, but that’s not quite the same thing.

  7. Inowlocki-Meister, Sabrina (September 2009) [now formatted]. “Review of: Antiquity in Antiquity: Jewish and Christian Pasts in the Greco-Roman World. Texte und Studien zum antiken Judentum, 123”. Bryn Mawr Classical Review.

    Doron Mendels’ “How Was Antiquity Treated in Societies with a Hellenistic Heritage? And Why Did the Rabbis Avoid Writing History?” (131-150) has a more theoretical approach to the question of antiquity in ancient historiography. Attempting to map the perceptions of the past in societies of antiquity, Mendels develops a model for treating the past, which is spelled out in four themes.

    Under theme I (“the relationship of societies, groups, and individuals to their past: a schematic approach”), he identifies three types of social responses towards the past:
      a) the societies who are stuck in the past (e.g. Hellenistic Sparta vis-à-vis Lycurgan past),
      b) those who manipulate memories of the past (e.g. Hecataeus of Abdera),
      c) and those who look primarily forward (e.g. I Macc.).

    Theme II (“what were the modes for using the past in antiquity?”) is explained as a “wholesale acceptance of the past material” (e.g. the recital of Homer in the Hellenistic period) and “manipulation of past material and intentional modification”.

    The latter is divided into eleven sub-sections:
      • ‘frameworks’ for the past;
      • manipulative use of historical figures;
      • manipulative use of time (past and present mixed together);
      • projection of a present ideology or condition into the past;
      • one past is projected onto another;
      • pure invention of past data;
      • translations;
      • one inscribed tradition of the past is contaminated by the ‘presence’ of another;
      • presenting the past as a linear sequence of carefully chosen key events;
      • a synoptic approach to the past;
      • and the fragmentation of the past in the public sphere.

    Theme III (“When and by whom?”) asks the question of the identification of the moments and the actors of such alterations. According to Mendels, social and political innovations, including revolutions, caused societies to manipulate their past in order to re-define their identities. The actors were the powers-that-be, all those exercising power directly or indirectly in the society, up to and including, in the views of some, God himself.

    In theme IV (“the agents are not mere transmitters of the past, but rather significantly impact how antiquity is used in antiquity”), Mendels explains how “agents” (i.e. here, historiography), which are modes of presentation in the public sphere, destroyed much of the antique heritage: the canonization of imperialistic viewpoints, epitomization, etc. led to the disappearance of a great deal of material.

    In his conclusion, Mendel speaks about “destructive social currents towards the past in the Hellenistic period and beyond…societies, groups, and individuals were imbued with fragments of their past, but did not respect their histories in their totality” (150).

    These two sentences are revealing of that which I see as misconceptions:
      a) the article seems to assume a static, “canonical” view of a past that would be “original” and later on subject to change and manipulation. Yet such a view is more and more contested–and rightfully so, especially where biblical texts, for example, are concerned.
      b) Along the same line, I wonder if the terms, “destruction”, “respect”, “manipulators” and “manipulation” are really appropriate in order to describe the remodeling and creative reworking operated in ancient historiographical texts. It seems to be an anachronistic retrojection of modern historiography into the past.

    Moreover, the assumption that there was such a thing as wholesale acceptance of past material leaves me doubtful: the example of Clement of Alexandria, who did not significantly alter the quotations of classical sources, does not indicate that he accepted them fully; the mere change of context implied a deep alteration of their initial meaning (if there is such a thing at all).

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