Cretans, Spartans, Carthaginians, and Romans: Polybios on superior and inferior societal organization (second century BCE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Cretans, Spartans, Carthaginians, and Romans: Polybios on superior and inferior societal organization (second century BCE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified March 25, 2023,

Ancient author: Polybios, Histories 6.43-56 (link).

Comments: In this excursus aimed at establishing the superiority of Roman societal organization and power, Polybios (also transliterated Polybius) goes into a comparison between Cretan (or: Cretan) and Spartan civic organizations, establishing the superiority of the Spartans over the Cretans (contrary to authors such as Ephoros who suggested both were very similar). In the process, Polybios also expresses his stereotypes regarding the supposedly inferior character and customs of the Cretans (or: Cretans). Polybios never really delivers on explaining much about the Mantinians. Polybios then moves on to comparing the Carthaginians to the Romans, with the Romans coming out on top in terms of courage and in terms of their customs regarding the gods. It is noteworthy that Polybios starts out by excluding both the Athenians and the Thebans from the contest, since he believes that their temporary success was due to specific leaders rather than customs pertaining to the organization of their societies.

Source of the translation: W.R. Paton, Polybius: The Histories, 6 volumes, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1922-27), public domain (Paton passed away in 1921), adapted by Harland.


Book 6

[Introduction on which civic organization is superior among Spartans, Cretans, Mantineans and Carthaginians]

43 One may say that nearly all authors have handed down to us the reputation for excellence enjoyed by the civic organizations (politeumata) of the Lakedaimonians (Spartans), Cretans (or: Cretans, if Latinized), Mantinians, and Carthaginians (Karchedonians). Some make mention also of those of Athens and Thebes. I leave these last two aside; for I am myself convinced that the civic organizations of Athens and Thebes do not need to be dealt with at length, considering that they neither grew by a normal process, nor did they remain for long in their most flourishing condition, nor were the changes they underwent immaterial. Rather, after a sudden high-point (so to speak) that was caused by chance and circumstance, they experienced a complete reverse of fortune, even though they still are apparently prosperous and have prospects for having a bright future.

[Thebans’ and Athenians’ reputation for superiority due to leading men, not civic organization]

For the Thebans, striking at the Lakedaimonians through their mistaken policy and the hatred their allies bore them, due to the admirable qualities of one or at most two men, who had detected these weaknesses, gained in Greece a reputation for superiority. Indeed, that the successes of the Thebans at that time were due not to the form of their civic organization (politeia), but to the high qualities of their leading men, was made manifest to all by Fortune immediately afterwards. For the success of Thebes grew, attained its height, and ceased with the lives of Epaminondas and Pelopidas [fourth century BCE]. Therefore, we must regard the temporary splendour of that state as due not to its civic organization, but to its men. 44 We must hold very much the same opinion about the Athenian civic organization. For Athens also, though it perhaps enjoyed more frequent periods of success, after its most glorious one of all which was coeval with the excellent administration of Themistokles [fifth century BCE], rapidly experienced a complete reverse of fortune due to the inconstancy of Athen’s nature. For the Athenian populace always more or less resembles a ship without a commander. In such a ship when fear of the billows or the danger of a storm induces the mariners to be sensible and attend to the orders of the skipper, they do their duty admirably. But when they grow over-confident and begin to entertain contempt for their superiors and to quarrel with each other, they are no longer all of the same way of thinking. Then with some of them determined to continue the voyage, others putting pressure on the skipper to anchor, some letting out the sheets and others preventing them and ordering the sails to be taken it, not only does the spectacle strike anyone who watches it as disgraceful due to their disagreement and contention, but the position of affairs is a source of actual danger to the rest of those on board. The result is that often, after escaping from the perils of the widest seas and fiercest storms, they are shipwrecked in harbour and when close to the shore. This is what has more than once happened to the Athenian civic organization. After having averted the greatest and most terrible dangers due to the high qualities of the people and their leaders, it has come to grief at times by sheer inability to listen and to reason in seasons of unclouded peace. Therefore, I do not need say anything more about this civic organization or that of Thebes, where everything is managed by the uncurbed impulse of a mob in the one case exceptionally headstrong and ill-tempered and in the other brought up in an atmosphere of violence and passion.

[Cretans’ civic organization inferior and not similar to that of the Lakedaimonians]

45 To move on to the civic organization (politeia) of the Cretans, two points here demand our attention. How was it that the most learned of the ancient writers – Ephoros, Xenophon, Kallisthenes, and Plato – state in the first place that it is one and the same with that of Lakedaimon [Sparta] and in the second place pronounce it worthy of commendation? In my own opinion neither of these assertions is true.

The following observations will show whether or not I am right. First I will deal with its dissimilarity with the civic organization of the Lakedaimonians. The first of its peculiar features are said to be the land laws by which no citizen may own more than another but all must possess an equal share of the public land. Secondly their is there view of money-making. Since money is considered of no value at all among them, this does away with jealous contention due to the possession of more or less. Thirdly there is the fact that among the civic leaders by whom or by whose cooperation the whole administration is conducted, the kings hold a hereditary office and the elders (gerontes) are elected for life.

[Stereotypes about Cretans]

46 In all these respects, the Cretan practice is exactly the opposite. Their laws go as far as possible in letting them acquire land to the extent of their power, as the saying goes, and money is held in such high honour among them that its acquisition is not only regarded as necessary, but as most honourable. So much in fact do shameful greed and lust for wealth prevail among them, that the Cretans are the only people in the world in whose eyes no gain is disgraceful. Again their civic leaders (archontes) are annual and elected on a democratic system.

[Refutation of Ephoros and others]

So it is often surprising that these authors [including Ephoros] claim that these two civic organizations whose nature is so opposed are allied and akin to each other. Besides overlooking such differences, these writers go out of their way to give us their general views, saying that Lykourgos [the eighth century BCE legendary law-giver of the Spartans] was the only man who ever saw the points of vital importance for good government. For, there being two things to which a civic body owes its preservation, courage against the enemy and unity among the citizens, Lykourgos by doing away with the lust for wealth did away also with all civil discord and fights. In consequence of which the Lakedaimonians (Spartans), being free from these evils, excel all the Greeks in the conduct of their internal affairs and in their spirit of union. Although these authors witness that the Cretans – due to their ingrained lust of wealth are involved in constant fights both public and private and in murders and civil wars – they nonetheless regard this as immaterial, and they have the audacity to say that the two are similar. Ephoros actually, apart from the names, uses the same phrases in explaining the nature of the two civic organizations. So that if one did not pay attention to the proper names [“Cretan” and “Lakedaimonian”] it would be impossible to tell which one he is talking about.

[Further negativity about Cretan civic organization and customs]

47 Such are the points on in which I consider these two as different, and I will now give my reasons for not regarding the Cretan civic organization (politeia) as worthy of praise or imitation. In my opinion there are two fundamental things in every civic organization, by virtue of which its principle and civic organization is either desirable or the reverse. I mean customs (Ä“thÄ“) and laws (nomoi). What is desirable in these makes men’s private lives righteous and well ordered and the general character of the city gentle and just, while what is to be avoided has the opposite effect. So just as when we observe the laws and customs of a people to be good, we have no hesitation in pronouncing that the citizens and the civic organization will consequently be good also. So when we notice that men are covetous in their private lives and that their public actions are unjust, we are plainly justified in saying that their laws, their particular customs, and the civic organization as a whole are bad. Except in some rare instances, it would be impossible to find personal conduct more treacherous or a public policy more unjust than in Krete. Holding then the Cretan civic organization is neither similar to that of Lakedaimonia nor in any way deserving of praise and imitation, I dismiss it from the comparison which I have proposed to make.

Nor again is it fair to introduce Plato‘s republic which also is much praised by some philosophers. For just as we do not admit to athletic contests artists or athletes who are not duly entered and have not been in training, so we have no right to admit this civic organization to the competition for the prize of merit, unless it first gives an exhibition of its actual working. Up to the present it would be just the same thing to discuss it with a view to comparison with the civic organizations of Lakedaimonia, Rome, and Carthage, as to take some statue and compare it with living and breathing men. For even if the workmanship of the statue were altogether praiseworthy, the comparison of a lifeless thing with a living being would strike spectators as entirely imperfect and incongruous.

[Lakedaimonians’ civic organization superior]

48 Dismissing, therefore, these civic organizations, we will return to that of Lakedaimonia. It seems to me that, with regard to the maintenance of unity among the citizens, the security of the Lakonian territory, and the preservation of the freedom of Lakedaimonia, the legislation of Lykourgos and the foresight he exhibited were so admirable that one is forced to regard his institutions as of divine rather than human origin. For the equal division of landed property and the simple and common diet were calculated to produce temperance in the private lives of the citizens and to secure the entire community from civil strife, as was the training in the endurance of hardships and dangers to form brave and courageous men. Now when both these virtues, strength and temperance, are combined in one soul or in one city, evil will not readily originate within such men or such peoples, nor will they be easily overtaken by their neighbours. Therefore, by constructing his civic organization in this manner and out of these elements, Lykourgos secured the absolute safety of the whole territory of Lakonia, and left to the Lakedaimonians themselves a lasting heritage of freedom.

[Negative sides to their attempts at expansion]

But as regards the annexation of neighbouring territories, supremacy in Greece, and, generally speaking, an ambitious policy, he seems to me to have made absolutely no provision for such contingencies, either in particular enactments or in the general civic organization of the state. What he left undone, therefore, was to bring to bear on the citizens some force or principle, by which, just as he had made them simple and contented in their private lives, he might make the spirit of the entire city likewise contented and moderate. But now, while he made them most unambitious and sensible people as regards their private lives and the institutions of their city, he left them most ambitious, domineering, and aggressive towards the rest of the Greeks.

[Spartans’ subjugation of Messenians and imperial ambitions]

49 For who is not aware that they were almost the first of the Greeks to cast longing eyes on the territory of their neighbours, making war on the Messenians out of covetousness and for the purpose of enslaving them? Is it not narrated by all historians how, out of sheer obstinacy, they bound themselves by an oath not to desist from the siege before they had taken Messene? It is no less universally known that, due to their desire for domination in Greece, they were obliged to execute the commands of the very people they had conquered in battle. For they conquered the Persians when they invaded Greece, fighting for her freedom. But when the invaders had withdrawn and fled they betrayed the Greek cities to them by the peace of Antalkidas [fourth century BCE], in order to procure money for establishing their sovereignty over the Greeks. Here a conspicuous defect in their civic organization revealed itself. For as long as they aspired to rule over their neighbours or over the Peloponnesians alone, they found the supplies and resources furnished by Lakonia itself adequate, as they had all they required ready to hand, and quickly returned home whether by land or sea. But once they began to undertake naval expeditions and to make military campaigns outside the Peloponnesos, it was evident that neither their iron currency nor the exchange of their crops for commodities which they lacked, as permitted by the legislation of Lykourgos, would suffice for their needs, since these enterprises demanded a currency in universal circulation and supplies drawn from abroad. So they were compelled to be beggars from the Persians, to impose tribute on the islanders, and exact contributions from all the Greeks, as they recognized that under the legislation of Lykourgos it was impossible to aspire, I will not say to supremacy in Greece, but to any position of influence.

[Comparison of Spartan and Roman power]

50 But what is the purpose of this digression? It is to show from the actual evidence of facts that, for the purpose of remaining in secure possession of their own territory and maintaining their freedom, the legislation of Lykourgos is amply sufficient. Those who agree that this is what a civic organization is for must admit that there is not and never was any system or civic organization superior to that of Lykourgos. But if anyone is ambitious for greater things and considers it better and more honourable to be the leader of many men and to rule and lord it over many and have the eyes of all the world turned to him, it must be admitted that, from that point of view, the Lakonian civic organization is defective while that of Rome is superior and better framed for the attainment of power, as is indeed evident from the actual course of events. For when the Lakedaimonians endeavoured to obtain supremacy in Greece, they very soon ran the risk of losing their own liberty. Whereas the Romans, who had aimed merely at the subjection of Italy, in a short time brought the whole world under their sway, with the abundance of supplies they had at their command contributing in no small measure to this result.

[Carthaginians’ civic organization inferior to the Romans’]

51 The civic organization (politeuma) of Carthaginians (Karchedonians) seems to me to have been originally well contrived as regards its most distinctive points. For there were kings, and the house of Elders was an aristocratical force, and the people were supreme in matters proper to them. The entire framework much resembles that of Rome and Lakedaimonia. But at the time when they entered on the Hannibalic war, the Carthaginian civic organization had degenerated, and that of Rome was better. For every body or state or action has its natural periods first of growth, then of prime, and finally of decay, and as everything in them is at its best when they are in their prime, it was for this reason that the difference between the two states manifested itself at this time. For by as much as the power and prosperity of the Carthaginians had been earlier than that of the Romans, by so much had the Carthaginians already begun to decline; while the Romans were exactly in their prime, at least with respect to their civic organization. Consequently the multitude at Carthage had already acquired the chief voice in deliberations; while at Rome the senate still retained this. And so, as in one case the masses deliberated and in the other the most eminent men, the Roman decisions on public affairs were superior. Although they met with complete disaster, they were finally by the wisdom of their counsels victorious over the Carthaginians in the war.

[Carthaginians and Romans compared with respect to skills in war]

52 But to pass to differences of detail, including the conduct of war to begin with, the Carthaginians naturally are superior at sea both in efficiency and equipment, because seamanship has long been their national craft, and they busy themselves with the sea more than any other people. But as regards military service on land the Romans are much more efficient. They indeed devote their whole energies to this matter, whereas the Carthaginians entirely neglect their infantry, though they do pay some slight attention to their cavalry. The reason for this is that the troops they employ are foreign and paid mercenaries, whereas those of the Romans are natives of the soil and citizens. In this respect also we must pronounce the civic organization of Rome to be superior to that of Carthage, the Carthaginians continuing to depend for the maintenance of their freedom on the courage of a paid mercenary force but the Romans on their own courage and on the aid of their allies. Consequently even if they happen to be outdone at the beginning, the Romans redeem defeat by final success, while it is the contrary with the Carthaginians. For the Romans, fighting as they are for their country and their children, never can lessen their fury but continue to throw their whole hearts into the struggle until they get the better of their enemies. It follows that. though the Romans are, as I said, much less skilled in naval matters, they are on the whole successful at sea due to the courage of their men. For although skill in seaman­ship is of no small importance in naval battles, it is chiefly the courage of the marines that turns the scale in favour of victory.

[Italians compared with Phoenicians and Libyans on strength and courage, and the example of Roman funerary customs]

Now not only do Italians in general naturally excel Phoenicians and Libyans in bodily strength and personal courage, but by their institutions also they do much to foster a spirit of bravery in the young men. A single instance will suffice to indicate the pains taken by the state to turn out men who will be ready to endure everything in order to gain a reputation in their country for courage: 53 Whenever any illustrious Roman dies, he is carried at his funeral into the forum to the so-called “rostra”, sometimes conspicuous in an upright posture and more rarely reclined. Here with all the people standing round, a grown-up son, if he has left one who happens to be present, or if not some other relative mounts the rostra and discourses on the virtues and successful achievements of the dead. As a consequence, the multitude and not only those who had a part in these achievements but those also who had none, when the facts are recalled to their minds and brought before their eyes, are moved to such sympathy that the loss seems to be not confined to the mourners, but a public one affecting the whole people.

Next after the interment and the performance of the usual ceremonies, they place the image of the departed in the most conspicuous position in the house, enclosed in a wooden shrine. This image is a mask reproducing with remarkable fidelity both the features and complexion of the deceased. On the occasion of public sacrifices they display these images, and decorate them with much care. When any distinguished member of the family dies they take them to the funeral, putting them on men who seem to them to bear the closest resemblance to the original in stature and carriage. These representatives wear togas, with a purple border if the deceased was a consul or praetor, whole purple if he was a censor, and embroidered with gold if he had celebrated a triumph or achieved anything similar. They all ride in chariots preceded by the fasces, axes, and other symbols by which the different civic leaders are accustomed to be accompanied according to the respective dignity of the offices of state held by each during his life. When they arrive at the rostra they all seat themselves in a row on ivory chairs.

There could not easily be a more ennobling spectacle for a young man who aspires to fame and virtue. For who would not be inspired by the sight of the images of men renowned for their excellence, all together and as if alive and breathing? What spectacle could be more glorious than this? 54 Besides, when the person who gives the oration for the man about to be buried finishes speaking about him, he recounts the successes and exploits of the rest whose images are present, beginning with the most ancient. By this means, by this constant renewal of the good report of brave men, the celebrity of those who performed noble deeds is rendered immortal, while at the same time the fame of those who did good service to their country becomes known to the people and a heritage for future generations. But the most important result is that young men are thus inspired to endure every suffering for public welfare in the hope of winning the glory that attends on brave men. What I say is confirmed by the facts. For many Romans have voluntarily engaged in single combat in order to decide a battle, not a few have faced certain death, some in war to save the lives of the rest, and others in peace to save the republic. Some even when in office have put their own sons to death contrary to every law or custom, setting a higher value on the interest of their country than on the ties of nature that bound them to their nearest and dearest.

[Another Roman example of superior courage]

Many such stories about many men are related by historians concerning the Romans, but one told of a certain person will suffice for the present as an example and as a confirmation of what I say: 55 It is narrated that when Horatius Cocles was engaged in combat with two of the enemy at the far end of the bridge over the Tiber that lies in the front of the town, he saw large reinforcements coming up to help the enemy, and fearing lest they should force the passage and get into town, he turned round and called to those behind him to retire and cut the bridge with all speed. His order was obeyed, and while they were cutting the bridge, he stood to his ground receiving many wounds, and arrested the attack of the enemy who were less astonished at his physical strength than at his endurance and courage. The bridge once cut, the enemy were prevented from attacking. Cocles, plunging into the river in full armour as he was, deliberately sacrificed his life,​ regarding the safety of his country and the glory which in future would attach to his name as of more importance than his present existence and the years of life which remained to him. Such, if I am not wrong, is the eager emulation of achieving noble deeds engendered in the Roman youth by their institutions.

56 Again, the laws and customs relating to the acquisition of wealth are better among the Romans than they are among the Carthaginians. Among Carthaginians, nothing which results in profit is regarded as disgraceful; among Romans, nothing is considered more so than to accept bribes and seek gain from improper channels. For no less strong than their approval of money-making is their condemnation of unscrupulous gain from forbidden sources. A proof of this is that at Carthage candidates for office practise open bribery, whereas at Rome death is the penalty for it. Therefore, as the rewards offered to merit are the opposite in the two cases, it is natural that the steps taken to gain them should also be dissimilar.

[Superiority of Romans with respect to customs about the gods]

But the quality in which the civic organization of the Romans is most distinctly superior is, in my opinion, concerning the gods. I believe that it is the very thing which among other peoples is an object of reproach – I mean superstition (deisidaimonia) – which maintains the cohesion of the affairs of the Romans. These matters are clothed in such ceremony and introduced to such an extent into their public and private life that nothing could exceed it, a fact which will surprise many. My own opinion at least is that they have adopted this course for the sake of the common people. It is a course which perhaps would not have been necessary had it been possible to form a state composed of wise men. But since every multitude is fickle, full of lawless desires, unreasoned passion, and violent anger, the multitude must be held in by invisible terrors and similar pageantry. For this reason, I think, that ancient peoples did not act rashly and in a haphazard manner in introducing among the people notions concerning the gods and beliefs in the terrors of Hades, but that the moderns are most rash and foolish in banishing such beliefs. The consequence is that among the Greeks, apart from other things, members of the government, if they are entrusted with no more than a talent, though they have ten copyists and as many seals and twice as many witnesses, cannot keep their faith. Whereas among the Romans those who as civic leaders and legates are dealing with large sums of money maintain correct conduct just because they have pledged their faith by oath. Elsewhere it is a rare thing to find a man who keeps his hands off public money, and whose record is clean in this respect, but among the Romans one rarely comes across a man who has been detected in such conduct. . . .

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