What Role Does Tyche (Fortune) Play in Polybios’ Histories?

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8th Feb 2020 Classics Reference this


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Polybios’ use of Tyche in his Histories, has led to a lot of scholarly debate over the past couple of centuries in which not one but several trains of thought carry weight. It is clear from these debates that no one is quite certain as to what exactly Polybios’ intentions were in incorporating Tyche in to his narrative in so many places and in so many ways. However, there are elements in these debates which when taken together could possibly shed a greater deal of light on the issue.

To start with this essay will attempt to define various different forms of Tyche and its role in the narrative through looking at specific points in the Histories. After which a look at the historiography of the subject will help to reinforce the main forms and roles Tyche takes and plays. Once a base of historiography has been set, the essay will turn to look at what Tyche actually meant, at first to the Greeks and to a degree the Romans, but primarily focusing on the Greek Stoic Tyche. After defining what Tyche meant to both the Greeks, this essay will turn to look at how and why these forms were put to use and exactly why they are used in the way they are at the point they are. After discussing these various points in an attempt to shed light on Polybios’ intentions, this work will turn to discuss my opinion on his actions, focusing on Tyche used as a rhetorical tool to urge his audience to think in a certain way about events, bringing to a close this work on the ambiguous role of Tyche.

The most common starting point for any historian studying this subject is unsurprisingly Polybios’ statement in the preface to his work;

“But all historians, one may say without exception, and in no halfhearted manner, but making this the beginning and end of their labor, have impressed on us that the soundest education and training for a life of active politics is the study of History, and that the surest and indeed the only method of learning how to bear bravely the vicissitudes of fortune, is to recall the calamities of others.”[1]

Polybios makes it clear that through education and the study of history that the student can learn to accept the reversals dealt out by fortune. This in a sense is a Stoic interpretation of understanding and their perception of Tyche. Brouwer in, Polybius and the Stoic Tyche, believes that our understanding of the Polybian Tyche should be built upon the Stoic model.[2] A little more clarity in relation to the Stoic Tyche is needed, Brouwer states that “according to the Stoics fortune may appear to be good or bad, but is really indifferent.”[3] Building on this he summarises the Stoic rational in understanding events. Which involves the perfect and the inferior person and how they process information. The perfect person will have no use for Tyche, in either a negative or positive form as he can ascertain the real reason or causality behind events, essentially nullifying any influence Tyche may have. While the imperfect person who is unable to ascertain the true causality behind events will attribute them to Tyche and will see it as a ‘divine rational force which guides all’.[4]

So, in the first instance we have Tyche displayed as a force influencing the uneducated, inferior person, however, at the same instance Polybios’ has already displayed how one can deal with this force, through the study of history. In a sense this form is a rhetorical tool used to guide the reader in to further study, and so narrow the gap between the ‘inferior’ and the ‘perfect’ person.

The second point I would like to turn to is relating to Tyche, but not as a quasi-divine force influencing the uneducated, but Tyche the deity, the decider of events. 

“Fortune has guided almost all the affairs of the world in one direction and has forced them to incline toward one and the same end; a historian should likewise bring before his readers under one synoptical view the operations by which she has accomplished her general purpose.”[5] This Tyche guiding affairs is also the reason as to why Polybios starts where he does, because Tyche had achieved ‘a complete renewal of the known world’.[6] So not only has Tyche guided events to one end but has actually recreated the civilised world, could Polybios truly have believed this? I believe in instances like this he is using Tyche to entice his reader to continue his work along while simultaneously connecting this point in his work to the preface, so as to create a form of continuity in the narrative.

In contrast to the previous point and so adding weight to Tyche being used as a rhetorical tool is Polybios’ apparently countering his own point as to why Rome is what it is, “that (despite the views of certain Greeks) powers beyond Romans’ control, such as Fortune, had no bearing on the assurance with which they set out to make themselves rulers and masters of the whole world.”[7]

Already we have two forms of Tyche playing different roles in his narrative, from the quasi-divine force that brings about the reversal of fortune and the apparent deity working behind the scenes to focus all events in one sphere, the Roman. This deity can be witnessed at various points either directing events, as an umpire policing an event such as boxing match or war.[8] Or alternatively as an avenging force such as with Chilon the Spartan, who instigates a coop at Sparta which results with his killing of the Ephors, justly as Polybios’ points out.[9]

Hua in her work, Tyche in Polybios: Narrative Answers to a Philosophical Question, discusses the historiography of Polybios’ Histories, and Tyche’s appearance in them. Stating that historical debate in the late nineteenth-century primarily focused on philosophical interpretations, to which Tyche was believed to be the answer.[10] Relating back to the point raised by Brouwer in relation to the Stoic form, both Hirzel and Von Scala believe this is the case aligning Tyche with the Stoic pronoia.[11] While others believe that Tyche changes through the course of the narrative from a random to a rational force, this has ultimately been rejected as it requires dissecting the narrative into original and later additions.[12]

In the early to mid-twentieth-century the line developed by de Sanctis and further progressed by Shorey is that Polybios’ ambiguous use of Tyche is, “no more inconsistent than that of most writers or thinkers, ancient and modern…. often rhetorical rather than conceptual.”[13] I believe that this is actually quite a realistic interpretation as more often than not Polybios’ use of Tyche can be used to progress his narrative or to explain things in an easy to understand manner and so not alienate his readers by overloading them with information. This coupled with Von Fritz’s point that “Personified expressions of tyche were so common in Hellenistic language usage that it would not have occurred to him to avoid them.”[14]

This can be reinforced by looking at the use of Tyche in other Greek literature for instance Plutarch employs it several times, “the empire was not advanced by human hand…but sped on its way by divine guidance and Fortune’s favouring wind.”[15] Or, “it was Fortune and Chance that detected the night attack” in relation to the geese sounding the alarm to alert of the attack from the Gauls on the capitol.[16] Adding to the general acceptance of employing Tyche as tool in Greek literature and language.

Later scholarship takes a different approach looking for psychological change, that is Polybios’ perception of Tyche changing throughout his life as he matures. Claiming that Polybios himself changed from an optimist to a pessimist and so his alignment of Tyche changed accordingly, from one looking for reason to one who just see’s irrationality.[17] Hua also delivers Roveri’s interpretation as, “Polybian Tyche fills the part which was played by the gods in earlier Greek thought.”[18]

Finally, we have Walbank at various points identifying three versions of Tyche, the completely random, Tyche as a justly punishing force and finally and Tyche as fate or providence.[19] From these various interpretations it becomes clear that there is no definitive answer to the question at hand, which is pretty fitting when taking in to account the ambiguity of Tyche. However, there are several good points made here, and for me the one that carries most weight is a mixture of several. The point relating to Tyche, based on the Stoic model, as a rhetorical tool which progresses throughout the narrative, in conjunction with Roveri’s apt point that Tyche is used to play the role of gods in earlier Greek thought. Finally aligning with Walbanks interpretation of three forms appears to me to create an answer that covers the majority of issues.

Walbank in, Fortune (Tyche) in Polybius, states that for Greeks as early as the composition of the Homeric Hymns, Tyche was a goddess who’s influence in human affairs was generally accepted. This differs from our modern conception of chance or fortune which is seen in a more passive manner, not directly influencing. He goes on to say that from the time of Alexander the Great the cult of Tyche became far more widespread, with the statue made by Eutychides of Sicyon becoming the standard depiction of Tyche and being recreated on coins, statuettes, and gems, and that this is to be taken as evidence for widespread influence in day to day life.[20]

In relation to Tyche as a rhetorical device some scholarship has identified a way of discerning Polybios’ meaning through how he introduces this force. Where he uses, as if Tyche or as though Tyche, this is purely a rhetorical device as opposed to when it is personified or more direct. For example, “it was as if Tyche had rebuilt the world.”[21] Again “It was as though Fortune were deliberately comparing the two sides, by giving each of them in turn opportunities for excessive vengeance against the other.”[22] Or “It was as though Fortune were deliberately using their situation to demonstrate her power to all of us, by allowing them to do to their enemies exactly what, not long before, they had expected their enemies to very shortly be doing to them.”[23] He employs this tool to urge his readers to think in greater detail about the events portrayed.

These all differ from Tyche taking a direct hand in events such as, “For this was a time when Fortune afflicted the Gauls with what one might call an epidemic of warfare.”[24] Or “For Fortune had on this occasion thrown together two commanders who were both almost equally gifted.”[25]

So, what did Tyche mean to a Greek? The Greek word Tyche had a variety of meanings ranging from blind chance to active providence.[26] That you could attempt to placate Tyche by invoking agathe (good) Tyche or by naming your son Eutyches (Goodluck).[27] Another point to bear in mind is that ancient Greek had no capitalisation so the difference between a god meddling in affairs and a force akin to chance is more ambiguous, or harder to define. Meaning the translations that we read are an historians interpretation and so there could easily be a discrepancy between Polybios’ original meaning and our later versions.

Graham Shipley points out that there were two conceptions of tyche, one as a local entity or force which had cults in various cities and the other more Roman version in line with the goddess Fortuna. However, he states that there is little evidence pointing to widespread participation in a cult ritual for the goddess, and that although they could be connected the personified goddess was generally outweighed by the local perception. Shipley goes as far as saying that many historians attribute too much importance to the goddess Tyche/Fortuna, “Tyche was not as important as that.”[28]

Interestingly at points Polybios uses Tyche to altogether bypass an event so he can discuss in greater detail something much closer to his heart, Achaea. “in recent years they (Asia and Egypt) have been spared the kind of unusual or extraordinary interventions of Fortune.”[29] Unlike the house of Macedon which has become extinct, or the remarkable rise of Achaea to a position of authority. On the subject of Achaea and their position in relation to other Greek states Polybios is clear, “this is not a case in which just glibly saying ‘Fortune’ would be an appropriate response.”[30] In fact he follows this up by stating that, “We need to look deeper for a reason, knowing the even things that seem improbable have causes, just as much as comprehensible events, because otherwise they would not happen.”[31]

Polybios in his pride for Achaea has shown his meaning in the ambiguity of Tyche, in that it is being used primarily as a rhetoric tool to influence his reader to study events, in his narrative and the world at large, in a more rational and scientific manner and not just to attribute anything and everything that is not immediately understandable to Tyche.

In conclusion, Polybios’ use of Fortune in so many ways may well have been his way of coming to terms with what happened to him following the Roman victory at the battle of Pydna 168BC, at which point he was personally and heavily influenced by Tyches reversals of fortune.[32] However, in relation to the narrative Polybios’ use of Tyche is primarily as a rhetorical tool to make his reader think about an event or situation in greater detail, and so look for connections throughout his work adding to the symploke or interweaving of events, both in the world at large and in his narrative. This coupled with a Tyche based on the Stoic model would mean that he is trying to breach the gap between the ‘perfect’ and the ‘inferior’ person, while simultaneously conveying his own belief that he is not ‘perfect’ and so therefore fallible.



  • Polybius. Trans Waterfield, R. The Histories, Oxford University Press, 2010, Oxford.
  • Plutarch, trans Russell, D. “Selected essays and dialogues”, Oxford University Press, 1993, Oxford.


  • Brouwer, R. “Polybius and the Stoic Tyche”, Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies 51 (2011) 111–132.
  • Hau, L. “Tyche in Polybius: Narrative Answers to a Philosophical Question”. Histos 5 (2011) 183-207.
  • Shipley, G. “The Greek World after Alexander 323 – 30 BC,” Routledge History of the Ancient World (2014) Routledge, Oxon.
  • Walbank, F. W. “Fortune (Tyche) in Polybius” in J. Marincola (ed.) A Companion to Greek and Roman Historiography, (2009) Blackwell-Wiley Publishing.

[1] Polybius. Trans Waterfield, R. The Histories, Oxford University Press, 2010, Oxford. (1.1.2)

[2] Brouwer, R. “Polybius and the Stoic Tyche”, Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies 51 (2011) 111–132. (112)

[3] Brouwer, “Polybius and the Stoic Tyche”, (115).

[4] Ibid. (120)

[5] Polybius. The Histories, (1.4).

[6] Ibid, (4.2)

[7] Polybius, The Histories, (1.65).

[8] Ibid, (1.58).

[9] Ibid, (4.81).

[10] Hau, L. “Tyche in Polybius: Narrative Answers to a Philosophical Question”. Histos 5 (2011) 183-207. (183-4).

[11] Ibid, Hirzel (1882), Von Scala (1890).

[12] Ibid, (183-4).

[13] Ibid, De Sanctis (1916), Shorey (1921).

[14] Ibid, (184).

[15] Plutarch, trans Russell, D. “Selected essays and dialogues”, Oxford University Press, 1993, Oxford. (135).

[16] Ibid, (136)

[17] Hau, L. “Tyche in Polybius, (184) Eckstein 1995, 238-71.

[18] Ibid, Roveri 1982.

[19] Ibid, Walbank 1957 16-26, 1972 58-65.

[20] Walbank, F. W. “Fortune (Tyche) in Polybius” in J. Marincola (ed.) A Companion to Greek and Roman Historiography, (2009) Blackwell-Wiley Publishing. (500).

[21] Polybius, The Histories, (4.24).

[22] Ibid, (1.86).

[23] Ibid, (2.4).

[24] Ibid, (2.20).

[25] Ibid, (2.66).

[26] Shipley, G. “The Greek World after Alexander 323 – 30 BC,” Routledge History of the Ancient World (2014) Routledge, Oxon. (174).

[27] Ibid, (173).

[28] Shipley, “The Greek World”, (174-5).

[29] Polybius, The Histories, (2.37).

[30] Ibid, (2.38).

[31] Ibid, (2.38).

[32] Walbank, “Fortune (Tyche) in Polybius, (501).

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