From Laconian War to Seleucid War I



The Romans had originally gone to war to prevent Philip and Antiochus tearing apart the Ptolemaic Empire between them. With Philip out of the picture, Antiochus had continued with this project on his own. He had defeated the Egyptians in a number of minor engagements and in a major clash at Panion. By 198 BC he was master of most of Phoenicia, Palestine and Gaza. He made the pragmatic decision that an invasion of Egypt proper was beyond his current resources, and began swiftly mopping up Ptolemaic possessions in Asia Minor and Thrace.

As Philip’s difficulties increased, Antiochus began also to absorb cities and peoples once allied with Macedon, effectively abandoning any pretence of maintaining his former alliance. Even as Rome and Macedonia prepared to square up for their showdown at Cynoscephalae, Antiochus was mustering his forces in Antioch. That spring he drove northward and westward with his army, at the same time sending ambassadors ahead to assure the Romans that his advance in their direction was in no way intended to bring succour to Philip. To sweeten the atmosphere even further, Antiochus announced that he had not even any hostile intentions toward the Ptolemaic possessions in the area. This was also partly to assuage the fears of the Rhodians who had no wish to see trade in the region disrupted further than it had already been.

Instead, the ruler of the Seleucid Empire claimed to be reasserting his authority over those parts of his western dominions which had been allowed to go their own way whilst Antiochus and his predecessors had been otherwise engaged. This was a transparent diplomatic fiction which neither persuaded nor reassured anyone. However, the Rhodians were brought over to Antiochus’ point of view by being allowed to take several minor cities on the Anatolian mainland under their ‘protection’ and also do the same with the far-from-minor prizes of the city of Halicarnassus and the island of Samos. Other cities were pacified by the fact that all Antiochus seemed to want from them for now was acknowledgement of his suzerainty.

However, neither Pergamum nor Bithynia, both former Seleucid possessions and now minor but flourishing kingdoms in their own right, could see the Seleucid presence in the region as anything but a major threat. As a loyal ally of Rome, Pergamum appealed for Roman support, and it was partly to create a buffer zone between Pergamum and Antiochus that Rome had listed those cities of Asia which it explicitly declared to be free and autonomous.

That the Romans were prepared to make a similar buffer zone out of the whole of Greece shows how seriously they took the Seleucid threat. The relatively-mild treatment of Philip showed Roman understanding that, now he was severely weakened, Antiochus was as much – or more – of a threat to Macedon than he was to Rome, and that Macedonian and Roman interests were currently aligned in wishing to see Antiochus kept as far to the east as possible.

Plutarch claimed that Rome had timed its aggression in the east perfectly, ‘defeating Philip’s last hopes in Greece before Antiochus developed his first’, a statement which blandly overlooks the fact that were Philip not solidly defeated, Antiochus would probably not have developed any ambitions in that direction anyway. But with Macedon on the ropes, Antiochus seems to have scented an opportunity in Greece. It did not help the fast-growing Roman paranoia about Antiochus’ intentions that the Seleucid ruler had recently acquired a new advisor: Hannibal. The great Carthaginian general had been driven from his homeland when jealous rivals complained he was conspiring against Rome, and he had found shelter in the court of Antiochus. The thought of Hannibal’s genius combined with Seleucid military might sent shivers down more than a few Roman spines.

Meanwhile the Roman settlement of Greece went on apace. Freedom for the Greeks evidently did not include the freedom to arrange their own affairs. Aetolia was outraged to find that Thessaly was made an independent state, and that Larissa was included within Thessaly’s boundaries. The Aetolians were confirmed in certain minor conquests; notably the cities of Dolopia and Thessaliotis. Rather than being satisfied with this, the Aetolians indignantly pointed out that Amynander had received proportionately far more, including the strategic fortress of Gomphi which he had captured with Roman help in 198 BC. Nor had the Aetolians been granted Pharsalus, or Echinus, a town which they insisted had been promised to them by the Romans as long ago as 212 BC.

The Romans had not in fact ruled on the fate of these towns, partly to avoid inflaming Aetolian sentiment any further. They needed peace in Greece, for the next diplomatic crisis was already looming. Antiochus and the Seleucid army had landed in Europe.

Rather like Philip before him, there seems little evidence that Antiochus had any personal animus against Rome. Like any Hellenistic monarch, Antiochus was pursuing every Hellenistic ruler’s basic opportunistic, expansionist policy, and he had seen in Philip’s embarrassment a chance to consolidate his position in Anatolia and points west. The Roman insistence that Antiochus respect the freedom of the Greek cities in Asia Minor was regarded as an unwarranted interference in Antiochus’ sphere of influence, but not as a major impediment to his actions, in that there were plenty of other cities to which his empire had a legitimate claim, albeit a claim which had gone without enforcement for generations.

One such city was Lysimacheia in Thrace. Antiochus’ claim on this city was solid, in that it had been founded by Lysimachus, one of the generals of Seleucus, the man after whom the Seleucid Empire was named. As late as the 230s BC the city had been under Seleucid control, until the Macedonians had taken it over during one of their more expansionist moments. With the withdrawal of Philip’s garrisons due to the crisis of the Roman invasion, the Thracians (who strongly objected in principle to Greek cities on their territory) attacked and devastated the city.

Now Antiochus was busily rebuilding the place, whilst his army cleared the indignant Thracians from the hinterland. Antiochus could blandly claim that he was restoring an ancient part of his empire’s heritage, leaving free every city the Romans had told him to leave alone. At the same time he continued to build Lysimacheia into a staging post for a potential invasion of Greece and Macedon.

If anyone was taken in by Antiochus’ disingenuous propaganda, Philip certainly was not. Well aware of the predatory intentions of his former ally, he was well prepared to discuss the matter of the Seleucid presence in Europe with the head of the Roman commission for the settlement of Greece, a man called Gnaeus Cornelius. As has been noted before, even during those moments when their armies were poised to slaughter on another, Philip and the Roman aristocracy got on rather well. When Roman and Macedonian interests came together, the meeting was positively cordial. So well did it go that the two sides, which just the year before had been locked in combat, agreed to become allies. That this news would cause collective apoplexy amongst the Aetolian leadership was no doubt a welcome bonus to Philip.

Philip was probably also extracting some enjoyment from watching someone else now getting drawn into the snake pit of Greek politics. Problems began almost at once as Flamininus’ enforcement of the freedom of Greece drew Rome inexorably into conflict with Philip’s enemy, Nabis of Sparta. Nabis felt he had earned Argos fairly and squarely by stabbing Philip in the back after being given the city for safe keeping, and he was furious when the Romans quite literally told him to get out of town. Nabis refused, and pointed out he was a free Greek exercising his freedom. He was gambling that Flamininus was itching to get back to Rome and celebrate his triumph and would not be prepared to waste his time in a minor Peloponnesian War.

That Flamininus was prepared to remain in Greece to sort out Nabis shows how seriously Rome took Antiochus’ occupation of Lysimacheia. With a war against the Seleucids looming, the last thing Rome wanted was the treacherous and unpredictable Nabis interfering with the stability of Achaea and Roman supply ships as they made their way east along the already-tricky route around the Peloponnese.

The start of 195 BC was thus spent in edgy diplomacy. Nabis was seeking a confederation of Sparta, Aetolia and Antiochus against Rome. The Aetolians appeared willing, but Antiochus was waiting for the Romans to make good their promise to depart from Greece before he made any further moves. Consequently, when the Roman commissioners came to see him, the Seleucid monarch was polite but unyielding. When the Romans demanded the freedom of the Greeks in Asia, he asked how much discretion this allowed him in deciding the liberty of Italian cities. Anyway, the question was moot, as Antiochus himself had decided, independently of the Romans, that the Asiatic Greeks should be allowed their liberty. And, no, he would not withdraw from his ancestral city of Lysimacheia just to please the commissioners.

The Romans then turned to the subject of Antiochus’ aggression against Ptolemy, and received their most stinging setback yet. The Seleucid ruler blandly informed them that Egypt had no complaint to make against him: indeed, Antiochus’ daughter Cleopatra was about to wed Ptolemy V. As part of the wedding settlement, Egypt had agreed to relinquish her Syrian, Asian and Thracian dependencies to Antiochus. In compensation the Egyptians were to receive the revenues, but not the suzerainity, of their former possession of Coele-Syria. That Ptolemy had been forced to these terms by sheer exhaustion after years of Seleucid pressure was neither here nor there. The Romans were forced for the moment to leave Antiochus be, and turned their frustration upon Nabis.

In May 195 BC Flamininus called a meeting of Greek states and asked them what was to be done about Argos, from which Nabis militantly refused to depart. The Aetolians, practically foaming at the mouth, demanded to know whether the liberation of Pharsalus and Echinus was also up for discussion. However, flattered to be asked their opinion, the other Greek states applied themselves to the question, and concluded that Nabis was a blot on the bright landscape of liberated Greece, and ideally should be removed altogether.

Sparta traditionally had two kings at one time, but Nabis had assassinated his colleague, and launched a campaign of terror against the state’s other leading citizens. By plundering the temples he had assembled a large mercenary army which he supplemented with freed slaves and helots. He had used this force as an instrument of domestic terror and foreign expansion, and was, by some margin, Greece’s best-hated man.

Consequently a virtual pan-Hellenic army mustered against the recalcitrant Spartan leader. The Achaeans, inveterate enemies of Nabis, made up the bulk of the army, but most other states (with the notable exception of Aetolia) furnished contingents. There were even 1,500 Macedonians present as representatives of Philip’s enthusiasm for the project. Lucius Quinctius, still commander of the Roman fleet, began the naval blockade of Sparta. He was joined by Bithynian and Pergamene ships, and also eighteen warships from Rhodes. It is interesting that the trading state of Rhodes, currently aligned with Antiochus, was joining the attack against Sparta, a potential Seleucid ally. This demonstrates the veracity of Roman claims that Nabis was sponsoring wholesale piracy in the Aegean Sea.


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