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Daily RC Article 90

Ancient Historical Interests: Societal Development, Constitutional Change, and Rise/Fall Narratives

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There are, broadly speaking, three kinds of change that are of interest to ancient historians. First, the historians shared with other thinkers an interest in the development of society from early times to their own day. Thucydides’ “Archaeology”, the first treatment of this theme in historiography, narrates the rise of Greece from its poor and powerless beginnings to the standards of wealth and surplus of his own day. Polybius takes an even larger view, treating the development of humankind from its savage beginnings to civilized states and societies, even attempting to integrate this with his discussion of political change… In all the cases, however, the treatment of this particular type of change is ancillary to the historians’ main narrative, since their interest is focused on what humans do when they have reached the “civilized” stage of their development.

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The second type of change with which the ancient historians concerned themselves was constitutional change. This interest was ubiquitous in ancient historiography and reaches a kind of theoretical peak in Polybius’ notion of the anacyclosis, a cycle whereby states are said to go through a certain progression involving the three ideal forms of government (monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy) and their debased offspring (respectively: tyranny, oligarchy, and ochlocracy).

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As Polybius tells it, men begin in a state of barbarism. The first stage is the rise of a primitive monarch ruling a rude people. He then becomes a true king, but his descendants live luxuriously and wantonly, and this causes the best men to overthrow the monarchy and establish an aristocracy. The descendants of these aristocrats, in turn, likewise fall into depravity, at which point the people rise up and establish a democracy. Over time the people in their turn become corrupted and descend into such savagery that their only hope is a monarch. And thus, the circle is completed…

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A third interest of the ancient historians was in rise and fall, both on the grand scale (a nation’s advancement and decline) as well as on the small (an individual’s reversal of fortune) … On the grand scale this could be seen in the development of the notion of the “succession” of empires, whereby one great empire eventually gave way to the next. Indeed, Polybius thought that one of his history’s most important purposes was to teach individuals how to bear reversals of fortune nobly, by recognizing that great men have often dealt with disasters in their own lives.

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This interest in rise and fall sometimes revealed itself in a concern with moral decline. The destructive and long-lasting civil wars of the late republic engendered in the Romans in particular an obsession with explaining how their city, which had risen to such prominence by defeating one foreign foe after another, could then, although mistress of the Mediterranean, destroy itself from within. Both Sallust and Livy sought answers to the question, and if their explanations – the decline of morality ushered in by the very benefits of empire, with the concomitant loss of any considerable rival that could keep Rome in a state of readiness – might strike us as inadequate, the important point is that they recognized the change, and discussed and debated the origins and causes of it.

Ancient historians delved into three significant themes: societal evolution from primitive to civilized states, constitutional transformations across monarchies, aristocracies, and democracies, and the rise and fall of nations and individuals. From Thucydides to Polybius, their narratives spanned societal progress, cyclical patterns of governance, and the moral decline underpinning the downfall of empires, pondering the intricacies of human behavior and the fate of civilizations.
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