On Treason by Polybius

Some reflections made by Polybius on Treason

Hence it is difficult to define those upon whom we can properly lay the name of traitor. Perhaps the situation which comes nearest to it is one in which men at a time of public danger, for reasons either of personal safety or profit, or because of differences with the opposing party put their city into the hands of the enemy, or who by admitting a garrison or calling in foreign assistance to further their personal aims and bring their countries under foreign power. All who commit actions of this kind may fairly be regarded as traitors. And yet, as everybody agrees, the treachery practised by such men has never brought them any real profit or advantage – in fact precisely the opposite – so much that we ask with amazement what their original motives can have been, or what calculations can have possibly have impelled them to rush into such a fatal situation.

For no one has ever yet betrayed a city or an army or a fortress without being found out: If this did not happen at the moment of the action, still in the course of time the whole business has brought to light. None of these agents, once detected, has ever led a happy life thereafter, but in most cases they meet an appropiate punishment at the very people whose favour they have tried so hard to win. For generals and rulers often employ traitors to further their interests, but as soon as they have no more use for them it is precisely as traitors, as Demosthenes has remarked, that they treat them. They conclude quite naturally that a man who has betrayed his country and his former friends to the enemy can never prove loyal nor keep faith with them. And even if these men do not suffer punishment at the hands of their masters, it is not easy for them to escape the vengeance of those they have betrayed. Or if they ever contrive to slip out of the clutches of both parties, their evil reputation other men still pursues them for the rest of their lives. It creates many terrors for them, both real and imaginary, by day and by night, it helps all them who harbour designs against them, prevent them even when they are asleep from forgetting their crimes, and it makes them dream of every kind of plot and disaster, since they are constantly reminded of their alienation from the rest of mankind, and of the universal hatred they inspire. And yet, although all these facts are undenieable, it has never, with very rare exceptions, proved impossible to find a traitor whenever one was needed. All this might lead us to the conclude that man. who is reputed to be the most cunning of animals, may with good reason be consideres the most foolish.

Polybuis, The Rise of the Roman Empire, On traitors, 1979, s. 508, Penguin books, London

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