August 2017

Timeless Thinking: On Generalship, Fragment From Polybius'

By Carlos Fuentes

Polybius (c. 200 BCE – c. 118 BCE) was a Greek historian of the Hellenistic period. Although most of his works have been lost, parts of his Rise of the Roman Empire survive. In it, Polybius describes events that took place from 264 BCE to 146 BCE, including the wars between Rome and Carthage that resulted in the annihilation of the latter. Polybius’s skillful narrative of the rivalry and mutual respect between two of the great leaders of history, Scipio Africanus and Hannibal, is a tour de force. The close resemblance between military and business strategies is not coincidental, of course, and surely not lost to the reader, even in a world dominated by recipe-style attempts at strategic thinking.

“The hazards which are inseparable from military operations demand great vigilance, but it is possible to achieve success in any of these situations, provided that the measures taken in the execution of a given plan are soundly thought-out. Now it is easy to deduce from the history of former wards that far fewer operations are carried out openly and by employing direct force than by stratagem and the use of opportunity. On the other hand, experience also shows that in those actions which depend on the choice of the right moment, failure is more frequent than success. Nor can there be any doubt that the majority of these failures are due either to error or to negligence on the part of the commander. We may now consider how the competence I have referred to above can be attained.

“I believe in the first place that all those events which occur in war and fall outside the scope of human calculation should be described not as actions but as accidents or coincidences. Accordingly, since they fall under no fixed rules nor form any part of a system, I propose to leave them aside; my subject is the conduct of a campaign according to a settled plan, which I shall now proceed to describe […]

“[…] Of these essentials some are learned by routine experience, some by inquiry, and some by experience scientifically acquired. Ideally the commander should have a first-hand knowledge of the roads by which he is to march, of the place he is bound for, and of the nature of the ground, as well as of the people by whose agency and in whose company he intends to act. Failing this, the next best thing is that he should make careful inquires and not rely on chance informants; it is also essential that the pledges of good faith given by his guides should always be in the hands of those who are following their guidance […]

“[…] We may therefore praise Homer’s judgement because he represents Odysseus, the man fitted above all others for leadership, as observing the stars so as to guide not only his course at sea but also his enterprises on land. The fact is that those accidents which arise unexpectedly and defy accurate forecasting—such events as sudden rains and floods, exceptional frosts and snowfalls, foggy or cloudy weather and the like—are quite enough to cause great and frequent difficulties for us. But if we omit to provide even for those things which can be foreseen then we are almost certain to fail in the majority of enterprises, and we shall have only ourselves to blame. None of these factors, then, can be neglected, if we are to avoid those errors into which many other generals are said to have fallen, as well as the particular instances which I shall quote.”

Carlos Fuentes, FSA, MAAA, is president at Axiom Actuarial Consulting. He can be reached at