In Book 6 of his “Histories,” Polybius describes the funeral rites given to an “illustrious man” after he dies (Polybius 53). In doing so, he reveals the manner in which prominent individuals were honored in Roman society and how, through these honorific rituals and processions, the Romans maintained and perpetuated their esteem for the virtues of honor and glory. This particular discourse amply demonstrates Polybius’s character as a historian writing for a foreign audience trying to explain the unique aspects of the Roman state which contributed to its rise.
The structure of Polybius’s passage indicates that it was written for a foreign audience. He begins his discourse with an outline of Roman funerary rites procedures, detailing the speeches and funeral celebrations which would occur following a death of a prominent individual. Roman citizens, however, would have already be familiar with their funerary rites and would therefore have had no need for the description Polybius provides. As such, it is apparent from his elaborate descriptions that Polybius was writing for an audience unfamiliar with the particulars of such customs. He continued his passage with an analysis of the roles these funerary rites play in displaying and perpetuating the value of honor in Roman society. For example, he wrote that such rites inspired young men “to endure every suffering for public welfare in the hope of winning the glory that attends on brave men” (Polybius 54.3.) Again, Roman citizens would have been familiar, either explicitly or implicitly, with the practical purposes that these customs served. Polybius’s analysis is thus more pertinent and explanatory when seen as being targeted at a foreign audience unaware of the purpose these rites served.
It is important to consider the historical circumstances contemporary to Polybius’s writings. Rome during that time was rising rapidly to a position of the primacy in the Mediterranean. In doing so, it was coming into contact with and dominating foreign peoples and civilizations, particularly the Hellenistic world. The people living under the recently-established Roman rule would undoubtedly have been curious about the character of the unfamiliar yet increasingly visible Roman state. Furthermore, they would have been interested in elements of the Roman character and other factors which explained Rome’s rapid and unprecedented rise, as well as their own conquest.
Through his explanatory analysis in Book 6, Polybius set out to accomplish just that. Indeed, he prefaced the book with such a justification for his work, saying “that readers of my work may gain a knowledge how it was and by virtue of what peculiar political institutions that in less than in fifty-three years nearly the whole world was overcome and fell under the single dominion of Rome” (Polybius 2.2.). An analysis of Rome’s institutions and rituals revealed the character of the Roman people, in turn explaining the success of their state. Polybius argued that Roman funerary rites reinforced and perpetuated the Roman esteem for honor and glory, qualities which powered the Roman drive for conquest, and it is thus no surprise that he chose to include an analysis of them in Book 6.
By justifying his work as being an explanation to readers for Rome’s unique political and social character and its rapid rise to eminence, Polybius was clearly targeting a non-Roman audience. Roman funerary rites are a significant enough part of that character to warrant Polybius’s inclusion of them in Book 6, and his descriptive analysis can be seen as most suited for an audience unfamiliar with them. A final aspect of Polybius’s work particularly reinforces this point: Polybius wrote in Greek instead of Latin. His work is thus clearly targeted at a Greek audience, an audience which, at the time of his writings, had recently come under the domination of Rome and would have been deeply interested in the contents of his analysis.