Beginnings & Endings: 146 BCE as an Imperial Moment, from Polybius to Sallust

Sarah H. Davies


The year 146 BCE marked an endpoint for the cities of Carthage and Corinth – two otherwise unrelated poleis that were destroyed by Rome within the space of a few months. In many ways, modern tradition has taken it for granted that these two calamities should be considered a single point in time, and that this moment (“146”) should be deemed a juncture in Roman, if not broader, history. This paper explores the earliest evolution of the “146” event horizon, from the work of Polybius to Sallust. It argues that Sallust’s well-known “theorem” – that an eliminated «fear of the enemy» inaugurated a calamitous process of internal decline – is to be understood as a multi-layered response to earlier interpretations, as pioneered by Polybius. The paper begins by reconstructing the “destructions” within their contemporary intellectual and historiographical contexts. It then explores Polybius’ views, as he considered the “synchronic” fall of Carthage and Corinth to be of unprecedented significance. For in his History, Polybius writes with an urgency, insisting that the political, pragmatic lessons to be gleaned from history were ever more pressing in his lifetime, since Fate was rapidly pulling together the myriad lifespans of all the Mediterranean states, converging upon a single polis: Rome. The events of 146 BCE, featured in the finale of the History, thus marked, in Polybius’ eyes, the full triumph of Rome as a newly minted «world-city» (kosmopolis). As such, they provided the ultimate Polybian lesson in statesmanship, for both ruler and ruled, while leaving an ominous possibility: that the convergence upon one polis would subject all to its individual lifecycle (anacyclosis), which was not immune from the corrosions of time and Fortune. And it is here, this paper asserts, that subsequent authors – Posidonius, followed by Sallust in particular – crafted their responses to the questions left unanswered by Polybius. Sallust’s unique contribution – one that was to have a lasting impact – was to explore a world in which all of the looming portents in Polybius’ History had indeed come to pass. The elimination of Carthage in particular (as a «rival for empire»), had, for Sallust, undeniably tipped the moral-political scales, bringing about despotism abroad and deterioration at home. And even worse, the very lines between Roman and foreign, public and private, and virtue and vice had themselves become irreparably blurred, and with them, the baseline notion that history itself, as a genre, was capable of fulfilling its core promises. Sallust thus viewed his own era as locked within two timescales, now inextricably confused: that of a cyclical world history, and that of Rome as an individual state. Together, in Sallust’s presentation, the two had sunk through a distorted lens into utter disarray, with the ideals and simple lessons of the past being truly beyond the grasp of the immediate, crushing present and the gaze of the historian.

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ISSN: 2281-3209                DOI Prefix: 10.7408

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