Whilst the land forces of the coalition ineffectually besieged Argos, the naval force attacked Gythaeum (which served as a port to inland Sparta rather as Piraeus did Athens). The attackers went about their business with considerable vehemence, and captured the port despite a spirited Spartan defence. This forced Sparta to the negotiating table, where the Greeks, rather as the Aetolians had done with regard to Philip, insisted that nothing but the total eradication of Sparta was required. Even the far milder terms of Flamininus were rejected by the Spartans, who prepared to stand siege.
Flamininus was not prepared for a drawn-out campaign, and decided to skip the siege in favour of an all-out assault on the city with the Greek forces supplemented by the rowers from his navy. Some 50,000 men flung themselves against the walls of Sparta. It had once been Sparta’s boast that the only walls of their city were the men who defended it, but prudence and recent events had added to these walls of stone defending all the accessible points of approach. These the Romans attacked in three divisions, using a testudo formation to defend against missiles thrown from the rooftops as they pushed into the city. In desperation, the Spartans set fire to the buildings through which the Romans were advancing, and so forced at great cost a temporary Roman withdrawal. Flamininus began to muster for another attempt on the city, this time with the help of his siege train which had just arrived. However, a second assault was not required, for a chastised Nabis announced himself prepared to submit to Flamininus’ terms.
These were not unduly harsh, though they required Nabis to give up almost all his conquests and territories apart from Sparta itself, pay a 500 talent indemnity, and hand over his son as a hostage and guarantor of the peace. Argos was not included in the peace. Tired of waiting for the Romans to do the job, the citizens had liberated themselves almost as soon as Nabis’ son-in-law, the tyrannical Pythagoras, had left Argos with reinforcements for the Spartans. The Romans now delivered on an earlier promise by making Corinth a full member of the Achaean League, whilst the Laconian coastal cities once subject to Nabis were to be administered by the League without actually becoming members of it.
One by one, Roman garrisons pulled back from the great strategic fortresses of Greece. Demetrias in Thessaly was the last to be evacuated, and once Flamininus had put Thessaly and Philip’s other former possessions on a stable and independent footing, he bade an emotional farewell to Greece, leaving not a single Roman soldier behind him. He took great satisfaction in thus disproving Aetolian claims that Rome intended to permanently occupy Greece, remarking that all men could now see that lying was not a Roman habit, but an Aetolian speciality. In fact Flamininus left Greece considerably freer of Romans than when he arrived, for many of Hannibal’s prisoners of war had been sold by the Carthaginians in Greece, and Flamininus had conscientiously sought these out and liberated all he could find. These men (at least 2,000 of them) returned with him as further ornaments to the splendid triumph which Flamininus intended to be the high point of 194 BC in Rome.
Flamininus landed in Brundisium, and marched his army up through Italy in what amounted to a huge triumphal procession. Outside Rome (for a general under arms was forbidden to enter the city itself) he met the Senate and gave them a personal account of the campaign. His triumphal entry into the city took three days. Day one displayed captured statues of marble and bronze to a populace still awed by the superiority of Greek skills in the arts. This was accompanied by a parade of the armour and weapons captured from Philip’s soldiers. Day two saw the booty of the campaign, gold and silver weighing tens of thousands of pounds, in every form, from coins to statuettes to vases and simple heaped piles of ingots. On the third day came 114 gold crowns donated by grateful Greek cities, and a parade of prisoners and hostages, including Demetrius, son of Philip, and Armenes, son of Nabis. Finally, to an ecstatic reception, came Flamininus and his army, together with the freed Roman ex-slaves. It was probably the kind of return that Flamininus had dreamed of when he set out for Greece in 198 BC.
But the Greece which Flamininus had left ‘free’ behind him was founded on a fundamental cultural misunderstanding. The Greeks understood freedom as eleutheria – liberty to do as they wished. But in liberating the Greeks from Philip, the Romans felt they stood in relation to the Greek states as a patron to a freedman; that is, the latter’s freedom was constrained by strong obligations owed to the liberator. Also, a number of Greek states did not feel particularly liberated. The harshness of Philip’s rule had been felt unevenly, and some states, forced to be pro-Macedonian by Philip’s garrisons, had been thoroughly despoiled by the Romans collecting the money and statues which had so adorned Flamininus’ triumph.
And of course, despite having brought many of their problems on their own heads by their undiplomatic handling of Flamininus, the Aetolians felt, with some degree of justification, that they had been hard done by. No other state in Greece had fought the Macedonians so long or so hard, and few had suffered so much as a result. Yet the Aetolians had benefitted less than most from the peace. They were further irked to discover that the Romans, admiring the obdurate support and loyalty of the Acarnanians for Philip, had made a particularly lenient peace with this people and guaranteed their territorial integrity against Aetolian aggression.
Matters rested in this uneasy state for two years. Flamininus’ settlement of Greece had been even-handed, in that almost every major state felt that in some way it had been short-changed in favour of the others. However, the country was too bruised from the experience of hosting the recent contest against Macedon to do much. Philip himself was quiescent, diligently rebuilding his resources against the inevitable clash which he foresaw between Macedon and Rome, Antiochus or both.
Antiochus was consolidating his recent gains, and the Romans had their hands full with the Gauls in northern Italy and absorbing their recent gains from Carthage in Spain. The eastern Mediterranean was calm, but everyone knew it was the calm before the storm.
The first cracks in the peace came with renewed diplomatic contact between Antiochus and Rome. Antiochus was becoming irritated at the continued presence of free cities within his domains, and wanted the Romans to withdraw their sponsorship of these cities. Rome was amenable, but the Senate’s price was higher than what Antiochus was willing to pay; namely that the Seleucids withdraw from Thrace and quit Europe altogether. Both Romans and Seleucids were peacefully inclined towards each other, but the issues between them forced them apart. Hannibal was also a factor. He is said to have asked Antiochus for 10,000 foot and 1,000 cavalry. With these he would raise Carthage against Rome, reinvade Italy and forever put an end to Antiochus’ problems.
Antiochus, now 50 years old, was no longer an impetuous youth. He needed to decide whether to push his luck in Europe, or rest content with his many accomplishments so far. He appears to have settled for testing the waters in Greece, where many of those dissatisfied with the Roman settlement looked to the Seleucid Empire as a counterweight to their over-mighty protectors. The Aetolians, naturally, took the lead with their anti-Roman sentiments, and even suggested to Philip and Antiochus that the pair should ally with Aetolia against Rome; a suggestion which Philip rejected with incredulity. The Aetolians were received more sympathetically by Antiochus, and with enthusiasm by Nabis of Sparta. Despite Philip’s reluctance, the Aetolians felt that they had the foundations of a handy anti-Roman coalition in place.
Nabis was in fact already jumping the gun somewhat. He had reclaimed several of the coastal cities officially under Achaean administration by the simple method of paying for pro-Spartan revolts in each, and now he pushed his luck even further by attempting to retake Gythaeum by an outright attack on its Achaean garrison. Led by Philopoemen, their great commander, the Achaeans rose to the challenge and flung themselves into conflict with Sparta, despite the best efforts of Flamininus who had returned to Greece in an attempt to hold his settlement together.
With another war against Nabis inevitable, the Romans dispatched a fleet under the praetor Atilius Serranus. Romans and Achaeans quickly retook Gythaeum whilst a furious Philopoemen proceeded to ravage everything Spartan outside the city’s walls. With the wings of Nabis once again clipped, the Romans again enforced the status quo ante bellum by ordering the Achaeans to respect the Roman peace, though well aware that this added the Achaeans to the ranks of those simmering against Roman interference.
In fact the only state in the region which enjoyed ever-warmer relations with Rome was Macedon. From being a hostage Demetrius had turned into a charming and persuasive advocate for the Macedonian cause, and their own difficulties with what they considered the fractious and ungrateful peoples of Greece could only make the Romans more sympathetic to Philip’s previous experience as hegemon of the region.
All this was noted with interest by Antiochus who now sent a delegate called Menippus to the Aetolians. In the spring of 192 BC, Menippus announced to the Aetolian assembly that, like the Romans, Antiochus too stood firmly by the principle of Greek liberty. Also like the Romans, he was prepared to back his support with military force if need be. This put the Romans in something of a quandary, since they could hardly object to someone else agreeing so enthusiastically with their own stated objectives. At least, not without explicitly admitting that it was their own interference with Greek liberty that Antiochus might object to.
Nevertheless, at this point the Romans seem to have accepted that war with Antiochus was inevitable. Given that Hannibal was in the court of Antiochus, the first step which the Romans took was to look to the defence of Italy, and to secure it against a Seleucid invasion which would see Hannibal back in his old stamping-grounds of southern Italy.
The Aetolians were confident that Antiochus would come to their aid in any confrontation with Rome. Now they set about engineering that confrontation. First they sent reinforcements to Nabis in Sparta. Then, when it appeared that Nabis was unwilling to go another round with the Romans and Achaeans, these reinforcements killed the king and attempted to set up their own government in his place. However, the killers had deeply misjudged the popular mood, and the Aetolians were ejected by the infuriated Spartans amid wild rioting. In the end, after months of near-anarchy and constant clashes with the Achaeans, Philopoemen and his army took advantage of the chaos to occupy the city, which they immediately set about de-Spartanizing by replacing the city’s distinctive institutions with those more standard elsewhere in the Achaean League.
Despite this initial setback, the Aetolians continued to follow their master plan. They recognized that Corinth and its formidable acropolis were firmly in Achaean hands, but attempted lightning strikes to seize both Chalcis and Demetrias. Their strikes were double-edged, with Aetolian troops backing up the subversion of the leading figures within these great strategic fortresses. The attempt on Chalcis failed, but the Aetolians were able to take control of Demetrias, perhaps the greatest prize of all. Antiochus had now a magnificently furnished and equipped fortress, perfectly positioned to receive him into Greece from his jumping-off point in Lysimachaea in Thrace. If Appian is to be believed, the Aetolians also encouraged Antiochus by exaggerating the size of their own army and adding that Philip of Macedon was angry with the Romans and eager to join the anti-Roman coalition.
However, the Aetolians had forced Antiochus’ hand, and his army was simply not ready. It had a number of lively rebellions in Thrace to keep it occupied, and the majority of the Seleucid host had yet to be mustered. Yet there was no time for delay. Autumn was fast approaching and the Aetolians could only hold Demetrias by themselves for a limited period. A decision had to be made and the opportunity to make himself master of Hellas was irresistible to a Hellenistic monarch. Gathering his nerve and 10,000 infantry, together with half a dozen elephants and 500 horse, Antiochus set out at once for Greece, landing near Demetrias, and making his way from that fortress to Lamia in southern Thessaly, where he joined forces with his Aetolian allies. Like the Romans before him, Antiochus loudly proclaimed that he had come to give support to the freedom of Greece. But were the Greeks ready for another liberator?