At Atrax in 198 BC, Quinctius Flamininus threw up a siege embankment to
carry rams up to the wall, and although his troops entered the town through the
resulting breach they were repulsed by the Macedonian garrison. The siege tower
that Flamininus then deployed almost fell over when one of its wheels sank in
the rutted embankment, and the Romans finally gave up (Livy 32.18.3). Their
failure can probably be attributed to inexperience in mechanized siege warfare:
first, their siege embankment was obviously insufficiently compacted to bear
the weight of heavy machinery; and second, they seem rarely to have used a
siege tower before.
PHILIP V. Philip V of Macedon reigned more than a century after
Alexander the Great. His family were the Antigonids, who had risen to power
some 80 years before. Mercurial by nature, capable of military brilliance as
well as acts of colossal stupidity, Philip was a brave and charismatic general
who spent his entire reign fighting enemies to the north, south, east and west.
The war with Rome was to prove his nemesis.
TITUS QUINCTIUS FLAMININUS. Flamininus was a fine example of the
politician who let nothing get in his way. Serving as various types of
magistrate during the war with Hannibal, he succeeded in becoming consul – one
of the two most senior magistrates in the Republic – at the tender age of 30.
Unusually for the time, he could write and speak Greek, but his love of all
things Hellenic did not stop him spearheading a successful invasion of Macedon.
MACEDON AND ITS NEIGHBOURS IN 202BC
Under Philip II and his son Alexander the Great, Macedon
rose to a position of pre-eminence never equalled by any Greek city state
before or after. By the late third century BC, the kingdom had seen better
days. That said, although it was much reduced in size, it remained the dominant
military power in Greece and continued to exert huge influence over the region.
Naturally, this made it unpopular. Macedon ruled the central region of
Thessaly, and through three well-situated fortresses (Chalcis, Demetrias and
the Acrocorinth, the so-called `Fetters of Greece’) exerted military control
over the area around Athens, as well as on the Peloponnese peninsula. Macedon
also ruled part of the coastline of Asia Minor, as well as some of the islands
in the Aegean Sea.
The rest of Greece remained divided into city states, small
powers ruled by their own citizens. It’s important to stress here that there
was almost no sense of `Greekness’ at this time. People identified themselves
by the place they lived in, and were often at odds with those from other towns
or city states. Powers such as Athens and Sparta, which had ruled supreme
centuries before, were but shadows of their former selves. Thebes no longer
existed, having been crushed by Alexander, and Corinth lay under Macedonian
control. Aetolia, in west-central Greece, was one of the stronger city states,
and a bitter enemy of Macedon. Other powers included Argos, Elis and Messenia
on the Peloponnese, tiny Acarnania in southwest Greece, and Boeotia, the latter
two both being allied to Macedon.
Carthage, Macedon and the Seleucid Empire – had all been
beaten by Rome in war. In a mere 50 years, the Republic had morphed from a
regional power with few territories into one that utterly dominated the
Mediterranean world. This seismic change set Rome on the road to becoming an
empire, a self-fulfilling path from which there was no turning back.
The Republic’s war with Carthage lasted for 17 bitter years,
from 218 BC to 201 BC. It was a conflict initiated by the Carthaginian military
genius Hannibal Barca. Invading Italy by crossing the Alps in winter, he
inflicted crushing defeats on the Romans at the Trebbia, Lake Trasimene and
Cannae. Yet Hannibal never succeeded in forcing his enemies to surrender.
Obdurate and resilient, Rome recruited new legions to replace those that had
been annihilated, and fought on. It was a long, drawn-out war that spanned four
fronts: mainland Italy, Sicily, Spain and, lastly, Carthage, in what is now
Old grudges die hard
One might think that the Romans would have had enough of war
once victory over Hannibal and Carthage had been secured. Far from it. Less
than two years after the decisive Battle of Zama, the Republic opened
hostilities with King Philip V of Macedon. his wasn’t a conflict that had come
from nowhere, however: the Romans and Philip had history with one another.
In 215 BC, the year after the Battle of Cannae, the chance
interception of a ship off the southern coast of Italy had brought to light a
most unwelcome revelation. Documents seized by the Roman navy proved that
Philip and Hannibal had come together in secret alliance against the Republic. The
Senate immediately sent a fleet to the east, its task to contain the Macedonian
King. Events in Illyria soon took on a life of their own, and in 214 BC, war
broke out between Rome and Macedon.
The conflict lingered on until 205 BC, a stop-start affair
that played out all around the Greek coastline. Macedon fought alone, while the
Romans had allies throughout the region. here were sieges, lightning-fast raids
and withdrawals, victories and defeats on both sides. When peace was finally
negotiated, the Republic’s war with Hannibal was nearing its final act – it
suited the Romans to end the conflict with Macedon. Aetolia, Rome’s chief Greek
ally, had had enough too. Philip, on the other hand, had reason to be content,
having lost none of his territories and gained part of Illyria.
In the five years that followed, Hannibal was defeated by
Scipio at Zama, while Philip busied himself campaigning on the coast of Asia
Minor, where he had some successes against Rhodes, the Kingdom of Pergamum and
others. For every achievement, however, it seemed Philip suffered a setback. He
besieged but failed to take the city of Pergamum, and in a naval battle at
Chios he lost a large part of his fleet, as well as thousands of sailors and
soldiers. he most humiliating incident was the six months in the winter of
201-200 BC that Philip spent barricaded in a bay in western Turkey by a
Pergamene and Rhodian fleet. Finally escaping by night, slipping past the ships
of his enemies, he made his way back to Macedon.
Whatever other misjudgements Philip had made, he had been
astute enough to avoid conflict with the powerful Seleucid Empire, which
controlled most of modern-day Turkey and sprawled eastwards into the Middle
East, Afghanistan and India. He also entered into a secret agreement with the
Seleucid ruler, Antiochus III, that allowed both powers to attack settlements
belonging to Ptolemaic Egypt.
Philip’s actions in Asia Minor were to have major
repercussions. In the autumn of 201 BC, Rhodes and Pergamum both sent embassies
to Rome pleading for aid against him. Despite having rebuffed Aetolian
emissaries asking for the same help only a few years before, this time the
Senate listened – but its first motion for war was rejected by the Centuriate,
the people’s assembly.
It is no surprise that the very people who had bled and died
in vast numbers during the struggle against Hannibal were reluctant to pick up
their swords and shields again so soon, but their resistance was short-lived.
Politicians have always been prone to ignoring decisions made by plebiscite,
and after six months – and in all likelihood, after some significant back-room
politicking – the Centuriate reversed its decision.
It was late in the summer of 200 BC before an army was
dispatched to Illyria. he chosen commander was Publius Sulpicius Galba, an
experienced politician and leader who had served in various positions during
the war with Hannibal, including that of consul. Setting up base near the city
of Apollonia by September, Galba sent a legion up one of the several mountain valleys
that led to Macedon. After a short siege, the town of Antipatreia was taken and
sacked. Prudently deciding to end his year’s campaign before winter arrived,
Galba consolidated his position in Apollonia and waited for the spring.
Philip did the same in Macedon, but as soon as the weather began
to improve in early 199 BC, he marched his army west from his capital of Pella.
It was difficult to know which route Galba would use to invade; history doesn’t
record whether Philip had scouts watching every valley, but it would have made
sense to do so.
In the event, Galba chose the Apsus Valley. Philip rushed to
defend it, but Rome’s legions smashed past his phalanx and into western
Macedon. Although the defeat was incomplete – Philip’s army escaped almost
entirely – this was a pivotal moment in the war, when the extraordinarily maneuverable
Roman maniple proved itself superior to the rigidly structured phalanx.
Galba’s army marched eastward in search of Philip’s host,
and a game of cat and mouse ensued through the summer, with each side seeking
battle on its own terms. A victory for the Romans at Ottolobus, when Philip
almost lost his life recklessly leading his Companion Cavalry against the
enemy, was countered by a Macedonian win at Pluinna. Sadly, the locations of
both Ottolobus and Pluinna have been lost to history.
The harvest of 199 BC arrived without a conclusive outcome.
Galba, far from his base of Apollonia, with his supply lines at risk of being
cut by snow or the Macedonians, took the sensible option and retreated to the
In many ways, the politics of 2,000 years ago were no
different to today: the new man always likes to take control. Although it was
common in the mid-Republic for a general to be left in command of the war he
was prosecuting, Galba found himself supplanted by the current consul, Villius,
soon after his return to Apollonia. Villius in turn was replaced only a few
months later, in early 198 BC, by the brand-new consul, Titus Quinctius
Flamininus thirty years old – a young age to be in command of a large army – he
was a formidable figure who took the invasion in his stride. A lover of all
things Hellenic, he could speak and write Greek, something unusual for Romans
of the time.
Flamininus decided to try a different valley to Galba, that
of the River Aous. He found his path blocked by Philip’s phalanx and an
impressive series of defences, leading to a 40-day stand-off during which the
Romans must have mounted many unsuccessful attacks. A dramatic meeting between
Flamininus and Philip took place during this time, across the Aous. The Roman
historian Livy records that Flamininus demanded Philip remove his garrisons
from all Greek towns and pay reparations to those whose lands he had ravaged:
Athens, Pergamum and Rhodes. Unpalatable though these demands were – being
issued to a Hellenic king on his own territory by a non-Greek invader – Philip
conceded. Unsurprisingly, he balked at Flamininus’ next demand, that he should
surrender the towns of Thessaly to their own populations, reversing a legacy of
Macedonian control of more than 150 years.
The impasse resumed, but soon after a local guide was found
to lead a Roman force up and around the Macedonian positions. Attacked from in
front and behind, Philip’s army broke and fled; it was thanks only to the
phalanx that a complete slaughter was prevented. Pursued eastward, Philip had
to abandon the same Thessaly he had refused to deliver to Flamininus only days
before. It was a humiliating moment for the Macedonian King, all the more so as
he had to torch his own farmland and towns to deny supplies to the enemy.
Defeat seemed imminent, but redemption was to come from an
unexpected quarter. Despite the loss of the strategically important fortress of
Gomphi, Philip’s forces proved victorious at another stronghold, Atrax. When
the Roman catapults battered a hole in the wall and the legionaries charged in,
they were faced by the phalanx in a tightly confined space. he sources are
silent on details, but what happened there persuaded Flamininus to retreat from
Fine September weather meant that the year’s campaign did
not come to an end at the usual time. Flamininus’s considerable successes saw
the Greek city states, many of which had been playing neutral, move towards the
Roman camp – or in the case of Aetolia and Achaea, join it outright. Several
towns in Boeotia fell to the legions, and the mighty fortress of the
Acrocorinth was besieged by a combined force of Romans, Pergamenes and
Achaeans. his attack failed, but it signalled the end of Philip’s ability to
retain territories outside Macedon. he future looked bleak.
The Romans had been fighting the Macedonian phalanx for more
than a century. Pyrrhus defeated the Romans with it in the early third century,
the Carthaginians in Africa in the middle of the century did as well, and
Hannibal did the same later. In 197 bc the Romans had won a terrifying victory
against Perseus’s father at Cynoscephalae, a battle that vividly illustrated
the terrible power of the phalanx’s charge, even on unsuitable ground. In the
year 198 bc before Cynoscephalae, the Roman siege of Atrax had failed when a
Macedonian phalanx drawn up in a breach in the wall had proved quite impervious
to Roman attack. Polybius’s judgment that “when the phalanx has its
characteristic virtue and strength nothing can sustain its frontal attack or
withstand the charge” will have been no news to Roman commanders. The phalanx’s
fatal flaw, Polybius says, is that it requires flat terrain so that it can
preserve its close order. Perseus’s father’s unwise decision to fight on broken
ground allowed the Romans to defeat him at Cynoscephalae. But Aemilius Paullus
consented to fight the Macedonian phalanx on a plain, ideally suited to it, on
ground that Perseus had chosen for exactly that reason.
Crisis of conference
In likely recognition of this, Philip agreed to a conference
with Flamininus and his allies in November 198 BC. It also suited the wily
Flamininus to negotiate, because in Rome, consular elections were around the
corner. If he was to be replaced (as he had done to Villius) then a peace
treaty with Philip was the best option; if his command was renewed, on the
other hand, Flamininus could fight Macedon to a finish.
Three days of heated negotiations without agreement saw
Philip request to send an embassy to Rome; he would abide, he said, by the
decision of the Senate. Flamininus agreed, knowing full well that once there,
Philip would be asked to surrender the three fortresses that protected Macedon
to the south – the so-called `Fetters of Greece’, Acrocorinth, Chalcis and
Demetrias. And so it proved. Flamininus’ command was renewed, and Philip’s
outwitted ambassadors could not agree to the Senate’s demand to evacuate the
Fetters. Both parties retired for the winter.
In spring 197 BC, the war resumed. Rather than in mountain
valleys, this year the fighting would take place in Thessaly. By May, both
armies were marching towards each other on the coast. Taking account of his
allies, Flamininus had about 26,000 men; Philip’s troops were of similar
strength, including 16,000 phalangists.
Skirmishes and maneuvering saw both parties march westward,
separated by a range of hills. As is often the case with battles of vital
importance, the fighting began by accident when Flamininus’s scouts clashed
with Philip’s advance force in bad weather, atop the hills of Cynoscephalae.
Reinforcements were sent by both sides as the skirmish spiralled out of control
and, before long, both commanders had deployed their armies.
The phalanx falters
Unhappy with the ground and lacking half of his phalanx
(which was out scouting), Philip went to battle reluctantly. At first, things
went well, with his phalangists driving the Roman left flank down the hillside
towards their own camp. Victory might have seemed possible, but things changed
fast when Flamininus led his right flank up towards the second half of Philip’s
phalanx, which had arrived late to the battle. Panicked by the Romans’
elephants, these disorganised phalangists broke and ran.
Misfortune then turned into disaster for Philip when a
quick-thinking Roman officer broke away from Flamininus’ position with several
thousand legionaries and attacked the exposed flank and rear of the remaining
half of the phalanx. Unable to defend themselves, the phalangists were slain in
large numbers; the rest fled the field.
The defeat did not see Philip removed from his throne by
Flamininus. Rome was well aware of the threat posed by the wild peoples to the
north of Macedon and the Seleucid Empire to its east. Philip could serve nicely
as a buffer, while also paying reparations and sending one of his sons to Rome
as a hostage.
Effectively, Cynoscephalae signalled the end of Macedonian
and Greek independence. he city states that had allied themselves to the
Republic would realise this too late, and just a year later, in 196 BC, the
Aetolians lamented how the Romans had unshackled the feet of the Greeks only to
put a collar around their necks.