Frank Walbank: Classical scholar who dominated the field of Hellenistic history dies

Frank Walbank, Emeritus Rathbone Professor of Ancient History at Liverpool University, was one of the great ancient historians of the 20th century. For around half a century he defined and dominated the field of Hellenistic history. Above all he was the unchallenged expert on the Greek politician and historian Polybius, who composed his history of Rome around the middle of the second century BC. Walbank's magnum opus is the monumental three-volume Historical Commentary on Polybius – a project launched in 1944 and completed in 1979 – which is widely regarded as the finest commentary ever composed on a historical author from antiquity.

Walbank also published the monograph Polybius (1972), and many of his 350-odd papers concerned the historian. Some of these papers were collected in two volumes (of 1985 and 2002); the second of these has an introductory chapter, "Polybian Studies c1975-2000". Walbank, remarkably, not only remained abreast of Polybian scholarship but was still contributing to it virtually until his death at the age of 98: his last article, on Fortune (tyche) in Polybius, appeared in 2007.

The collection of 2002, as indicated by the title, Polybius, Rome and the Hellenistic World, points to his mastery of Hellenistic history in general. In this area, one thinks especially of the two prize essays published as Aratos of Sicyon (1933) and Philip V of Macedon (1940), the Fontana Hellenistic World (1981, widely translated), and the three volumes of the revised Cambridge Ancient History which he co-edited and wrote for.

Curiously, the book for which he is best known in other fields of history and other cultures is an essay on the later Roman Empire, published in 1946 as The Decline of the Roman Empire in the West and reissued in 1969 as The Awful Revolution (recalling Gibbon). Walbank later distanced himself from some of its conclusions and from the Marxist views that inspired it, but nevertheless justified its composition as "a tract for the times", and stood by his attempt therein to explore the relevance of ancient history to the contemporary world.

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