The Achaean War and After

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The Achaean War and After

In the summer of 147 BC when Aurelius Orestes arrived in
Corinth. The Roman legate brought with him a diplomatic bombshell. Not only had
the Senate decided that Sparta could leave the League, but Corinth, Agos,
Orchomenus and Heraclea were to leave as well. This effectively ripped the
heart out of the League, leaving basically a rump of cities in the northern
Peloponnese. It is difficult to see how the Senate expected the League to go
along with this directive, especially as none of these cities, apart from
Sparta, had shown any inclination towards independence. In the absence of clear
information about the Senate’s motivation, several theories have been advanced.

One is that, as the Epirots had discovered twenty years
before, the Romans were at their most dangerous when they were annoyed and had
a spare army in the region with which to demonstrate the fact. The League was
intended to keep the peace in Greece, and having clearly proven itself unfit to
do so, it could pay for flouting the explicit requests of Metellus to stay away
from Sparta. Now the League could either disband, or face the consequences.

Another theory is that the Romans had decided to make
Macedon a province of their growing empire, and concluded that they might as
well take over Greece at the same time. Therefore the proposal of Orestes was a
deliberate attempt to force the Achaeans into a war that would end with Greece
under direct Roman rule.

Alternatively, it has been suggested that what Orestes proposed was more of a threat than an ultimatum, and that the Achaeans were supposed to be shocked at how far the Romans were prepared to go. By this theory, the Romans expected the Achaeans to send tearful embassies to the Senate abjectly apologizing for flouting the directives of Metellus and begging to be allowed to keep the League intact. The Senate would agree, and the partition of Sparta from the League would then pass through with the Achaeans grateful things had been no worse than that.

If this latter was indeed the plan, it backfired
spectacularly, for when the Roman directive became public there was a wave of
popular outrage amongst the Achaeans that left Orestes feeling in actual
physical danger. Certainly any Spartans whom the mob could catch suffered
badly, and other Spartans in Corinth were arrested, including those who had
fled to the Romans for protection. Orestes left hurriedly and later complained
of his ill-treatment to the Senate. It is highly likely that the Senate itself
was at this point undecided about what to do about Achaea. It may well be that
different sections of the Senate held one apiece of the opinions suggested
above, and that the only consensus was that the situation in Greece needed to
be sorted out one way or the other. Certainly, Rome’s next move indicated no
fixity of purpose. A senior ambassador was sent (the consul of 157 BC, Sextus
Julius Caesar) and his tone was decidedly conciliatory.

The Achaeans too were rather regretting their strong words
and sent an equally-conciliatory embassy to Rome. The leaders of Achaea were
too sensible to fall out with their mighty neighbour, and for a while they
might have hoped that the issue of splitting the League was going to be quietly
dropped. Unfortunately, the common people of Achaea were outraged with the
Romans, and this outrage was harnessed by one Critolas to secure leadership of
the League in the autumn of 147 BC. Critolas had a delicate balancing act to
perform. He had to convince the Achaean people that he stood with them in their
anger at Rome, but at the same time he had to try as hard as possible not to
actually offend the Romans. This turned out to be an impossible task, not least
because of a cultural gulf between Greek and Roman approaches to warfare. The
Greeks regarded warfare as an extension of politics. When reason failed to
achieve a desired object, the Greeks readily enough turned to war as a way of
achieving political ends. This was not the view from Rome. The Romans had been
fighting wars almost every year since their city’s foundation. For them
politics was a way of achieving the goals of warfare without actually fighting.
When politics failed, the Romans dropped back to warfare as the default
condition. Consequently, Critolas needed to be careful of bringing Rome toward
a political impasse, but his own perceptions caused him (wrongly) to believe
that the attempted solution to any impasse would, at least initially, be
political rather than military.

Critolas invited Caesar to a conference at Tegea to discuss
the Spartan issue. But, after Caesar and the Spartans had been kept waiting,
Critolas eventually turned up alone without the Achaean delegation and
announced that whatever decision the conference came up with would have to be
ratified by the Achaean assembly, which was not going to meet for another six
months. Caesar could not reasonably be expected to kick his heels in Greece for
this period, and returned to Rome decidedly miffed about the whole business.
This probably suited Critolas. He had now six months leeway to calm the situation
before anyone committed themselves to anything, and maybe in that time
negotiations with the Romans would produce a discreet deal that Critolas could
sell to his people. This opinion would have been reinforced by a delegation
from Metellus that arrived after Caesar had delivered his report to the Senate.
Though Caesar had complained about the prevarication and high-handedness of
Critolas, Metellus’ delegates were softly spoken, and it appeared that, like
the Achaean leaders, the Romans were looking for a way back from the brink.

Unfortunately, these delegates came into contact not just
with the Achaean leadership, but also the common people of Achaea, and these
made their feelings about Rome and Sparta very clear. If Critolas wanted to
keep his job, and possibly his neck, he had to be seen to be doing something,
and he decided that the least damaging something he could do was to make highly
ostentatious moves indicating the seriousness of his intentions towards Sparta.
Consequently he began to put the country on a war footing. To Roman objections
Critolas made the point that he was dealing with an internal League matter, and
whilst he welcomed the Romans as friends, he and the Achaeans were not in any
way bound to or subordinate to Rome.

To say that this was a dangerous line to take is putting it
mildly. However, little as the Romans might have liked what they were hearing,
to some degree Critolas had a point. The Achaeans were friends and allies
rather than subjects of Rome, and the Romans themselves had repeatedly accepted
that Sparta was a part of the Achaean League. Nevertheless, in his efforts to
avoid bringing his people into conflict with Rome, Critolas had greatly
underestimated the danger of bringing Rome into conflict with his people. The Roman
response to Critolas’ vigorously-expressed opinions about Achaean autonomy was
silence; from the Roman perspective there was no more to discuss. The Achaeans
had been warned, and would take the consequences if they ignored the warning.
However, the Achaeans may have taken the lack of response as a sign that the
Romans had washed their hands of the entire business. Nevertheless, Critolas
decided to play it safe. Although he had mustered his army, it seemed a good
idea to test the waters of Roman opinion by first taking it not against Sparta,
but against the small city of Heraclea in Otea which had, like Sparta,
renounced its ties to the League. If the Romans did not object to the forcible
reintegration of Heraclea, then perhaps it would be safe to move on and deal
with Sparta afterwards.

Thus, in the early summer of 146 BC, Critolas marched on
Heraclea. His soldiers were still some distance from the city when the army’s
outriders reported hostile contact. To their appalled horror, the Achaeans
discovered that the hostile force was not the Heraclean militia but the Roman
army of Metellus. The scale of Critolas’ blunder was now fully apparent;
military action in the face of Roman objections had been interpreted as a de
facto declaration of war. The Achaeans now had to face the legions which had
conquered Andriscus, not instead of, but as well as the Heraclean levies – and

That the Achaeans were utterly unprepared for this
development is evident from the way that their army recoiled back to Locris.
Metellus followed the Achaeans there with the celeritas that was becoming his
personal trademark, and not unexpectedly defeated them soundly at a place
called Scarpheia. Critolas chose this moment to vanish from the pages of
history, leaving later commentators to ponder his fate (Livy says he committed
suicide by poison). Metellus brushed past the Arcadians at Chaeronea and
marched against the Boeotian League, at this point an Achaean ally. After
repeated setbacks and sackings in the past decades, Thebes was already in a
sorely reduced state. The population simply abandoned their city to the Romans
who proceeded to dilapidate the place a good deal further.

With Critolas vanished, Diaeus took over the defence of the
League. It must have been plain to him that Achaea was now fighting for
survival, and the chances of coming out with the League intact were minimal.
News now reached the Achaeans that in addition to Metellus, the consul L.
Mummius was on the way with an army of 23,000 men to fight a full-scale war.
With him was the same Orestes who had delivered the unacceptable ultimatum
which had sparked the present crisis. Given that Achaea had neither the
manpower nor mountain defences of Macedon, or the support of allies either in
Greece or overseas, it was evident that resistance would be futile. In a very
real sense, the end of Greek independence came with the outbreak of war rather
than with its inevitable conclusion.

This does not mean that the Achaeans failed to go down
fighting. Diaeus returned to command, and tried desperately to negotiate with
the Romans even as every town mustered troops and prepared its defences. Slave
volunteers were added to the Achaean army, which has been estimated at about
14,000 strong. The Boeotians, who had probably joined in the war under the
mistaken belief that they were simply going to terrorize the Heracleans, had
already been effectively knocked out by Metellus. Boeotian aggression had also
probably incited the Eritreans to declare for the Romans, practically the only
city in Greece to do so. Certainly nearby Chalcis did not, and later suffered
grievously for taking the Achaean side.

The advance of Metellus took him to the isthmus, where he
came to a halt against the walls of Corinth. The Corinthian resistance brought
to an end the participation of Metellus in the war. Mummius was consul to
Metellus’ praetor, and as soon as the senior politician arrived on the scene,
Metellus was sent back to his province, where he stayed to help with the
post-war settlement. Thereafter Metellus returned to Rome where he displayed
the hapless Andriscus, who was executed after the customary triumph, and he
received the cognomen (honorary nickname) of ‘Macedonicus’ for his efforts on
behalf of Rome.

Diaeus meanwhile appears to have noted that Mummius had no
great military reputation. Indeed, he had already sustained a slight reverse
from a successful Achaean ambush on part of his army. However, this success was
transitory, since when the Achaeans followed up Mummius sallied out of his camp
and drove the Achaeans back to their lines. Now, with the Roman fleet getting
established outside Corinth, the city could either stand a prolonged siege or
the garrison could risk everything on a surprise assault on the Romans as they
were digging in. Diaeus opted for the latter. It is quite possible that Achaean
morale was flagging in any case and, without a quick victory, surrender would
have come sooner rather than later. On the other hand, a short, sharp setback
might bring the Romans back to the negotiating table, where things had looked
rather promising until discussions were broken off.

Accordingly, Diaeus mustered his entire force and offered
battle at Leucopetra, just outside Corinth. Heartened by Mummius’ refusal to
draw up his army against him, Diaeus marched into the valley leading to the
Roman camp. Mummius now proved that he knew a thing or two himself about
ambushes and hit the Achaeans in the flank with a surprise attack by cavalry
charging down the hillside. With exquisite timing, the legions hastened out and
broke the Achaean vanguard whilst it was still working out what had hit them.
Thereafter the battle became a rout. Diaeus returned to his native Megalopolis,
burned his house and possessions and committed suicide. Those Corinthians who
could immediately fled the city in anticipation of the inevitable Roman sack.

This brief action was the last fought by an independent
Greek army, for thereafter the Achaean League effectively dissolved itself,
with its component cities scrambling to make peace with the Romans before they
arrived in the Peloponnese. According to Pausanias the war ended in 140 BC,
with the final settlement of the region by Roman commissioners, but to all
intents and purposes the war was over in 146 BC. Rome, which had seemed so
peripheral to Greek affairs when it had sent ambassadors to Queen Teuta of
Illyria in 230 BC, was now, eighty-four years later, the undisputed ruler of
Greece. Likewise Greece’s former hegemon, Macedon, once all-conquering, awaited
Rome’s decision as to its fate.


Mummius had won his war in a single engagement. This
engagement had been outside Corinth, the city which had been at the centre of
Achaean-Roman friction over recent years. It was in Corinth that Orestes had
been abused for his proposal to break up the Achaean League, and it was here
that Spartans who had fled to the Romans had been unable to receive protection.
It was Corinth which had baulked the advancing army of Metellus, and it was
Corinth which the Romans chose to symbolize their wrath with the Achaean League
as a whole.

Accordingly, Mummius called a final meeting of the League.
Its constituent cities, he told them, were to be ‘free’ (a word the Greeks must
by now have regarded with considerable cynicism). The exception was Corinth.
Mummius ordered that all Corinthians at the meeting should be seized and
enslaved. Many Corinthian women and children had already been enslaved in any
case, but after the taking of the city many of the men who had not been put to
the sword had fled to other cities for shelter.

The lands of Corinth were declared ager publicus – fields
belonging to the Roman people (the territories of Thebes and Chalcis suffered
the same fate). Corinth itself was sacked. Not just in the usual comprehensive
Roman fashion, but with the same thorough determination to make the place
uninhabitable for the immediate future that the Romans were also showing with
freshly-conquered Carthage on the other side of the Mediterranean. Mummius did
not go so far as to sow salt in the fields, as the Romans did at Carthage, but
his legions made sure that hardly any stone was left standing on another.

Everything of value was crated and shipped to Rome, where
the populace were so impressed with what they saw, that ‘Corinthian wealth’
became a byword for opulence. Polybius, who was to play an important part in
the post-war settlement, was at Corinth for the occasion. Though his report has
not survived, the geographer Strabo says that he wrote heartbreakingly of

the disregard shown by the army for the works of art and
votive offerings; for he [Polybius] says that he was present and saw paintings
that had been flung to the ground and saw the soldiers playing dice on these.
Among the paintings he names that of Dionysus by Aristeides, to which,
according to some writers, the saying, ‘Nothing in comparison with the
Dionysus’, refers.

Mummius himself is portrayed in legend as the archetypical
Roman philistine, incapable of understanding the scale of what he was
perpetrating. One story has him telling the dockers to be careful with
priceless statues that he was shipping off to Rome. If any of these were
damaged, he allegedly threatened, the dockers would have to replace them
personally. It is quite possible that Mummius himself perpetrated some of these
stories; the Romans of the day, and for some time after, liked to pose as bluff
soldiers immune to the decadent influence of Greece. However, what we know of
Mummius shows that he was more sophisticated than this. For example Plutarch
tells us that he freed a young Corinthian who movingly quoted Homer at him when
he was testing potential slaves for literacy. It is reasonably sure that
Mummius was well aware of the historical and cultural significance of the city
he was so comprehensively destroying.

So why did he do it? The Roman destruction of Corinth was an
act of inhumanity and cultural vandalism which has been decried by generations
since. Indeed Cicero, who visited the site in the early 70s BC, confessed
himself deeply affected by the ruins. We can rule out those apologists such as
Polybius who claim that Mummius acted impulsively and under the bad advice of
those in his entourage. Such a far-reaching act must have been decreed by the
Senate, and been carried out after due deliberation.

It was above all an act of terrorism, and as such it
succeeded. Rome was prepared to utterly destroy Corinth, a city ancient before
Rome was founded and from which, according to legend, came the ancestors of
Tarquin, king of Rome. What then would Rome do to any other Greek city which
aroused its anger? The intention was to utterly cow Greece, and so it did. If,
as others have claimed, Rome acted to destroy a trading rival (Corinth was a
centre of Mediterranean trade until its decease), then this too was successful.
It should be noted that the two motives are not mutually exclusive, but the
Roman Senate seldom acted purely from economic motives.

The Settlement

This time the Senate refrained from any social experiments
in Macedonia. The Macedonians had shown that they were happiest as a single
state under a sole ruler. This ruler, the Senate decreed, should be a Roman
governor, and henceforth Macedonia was to be ruled as a province of Rome. In
fact the province was expanded to take in Epirus, Thessaly and parts of Illyria
and Thrace. Ironically, in being conquered, the Macedonians finally realized
the ambition of their kings who had sought domination of these areas for
centuries. Building began of the Via Egnatia, the great Roman highway which
brought Macedon from its mountain fastnesses, and allowed trade with the west
to flourish.

Macedon was not left entirely in peace, as it was briefly
conquered by Mithridates of Pontus during the early 80s BC, and it suffered
considerable disruption during the civil wars which brought about the end of
the Roman Republic. However, with the accession of Augustus, Macedon became an
ever more Romanized province. As with the equally once-troubled province of
Hispania, Macedon became a quiet and productive part of the Roman Empire, and
enjoyed centuries of peace before the Gothic invasions which heralded the fall
of Rome in the west.

The rest of Greece was still ‘free’, but by now the Greeks
had come to understand that this freedom was not eleutheria, or complete
freedom in the Greek sense, but libertas, the freedom which a subordinate Roman
had under his patron, bound about with duties and obligations.

The usual Roman post-war settlement commission came to
Greece and Macedon in 146 to sort out matters once the dust of war had settled,
and Polybius earned praise by refusing to accept any rewards for the work which
he and his friends had put into ensuring that the settlement was as equitable
as possible. The commissioners stayed for six months, and the main effect of
their work was (as has been seen) to add to the province of Macedonia those
states of southern Greece which they felt were most likely, otherwise, to cause
problems for Rome in the future. Much of the commission’s time would have been
spent in drawing up the lex provincia, the set of laws under which the new
province would be governed. This was a task greatly complicated by the number
of non-Macedonian cities added to the new province, many of which would have
needed virtually new constitutions of their own. Fortunately, Metellus had
spent much of the ten months or so between his dismissal from the Achaean war
zone and his return to Rome on the organization of Macedon into a
proto-province, and the commission evidently built upon his work.

It is (almost) certain that the same commission that sorted
out the provincialization of Macedonia was also responsible for settling
affairs further south. This was guided by Mummius, and at least some cities
were pleased with the result, as shown by the fact that a number of monuments
dedicated to Mummius have since surfaced in Greece (and one in Macedonia).

At least some of the cities of southern Greece were made
subject to tribute to Rome, and laws were passed to stop members of one state
holding land in another. Steps were also taken to stop Greek cities federating
once more into leagues. Henceforth, each Greek polis was to be on its own under
Roman tutelage. Perhaps the major winner from the war was Sparta, which finally
achieved its long-desired liberation from the Achaeans, though it never
regained its former dominance of southern Greece. The traditional Spartan
constitution was restored in a somewhat modified form, and in its declining
years the city became something of a parody of itself for the benefit of the
Roman tourist trade.

Later History

Unlike Macedon, which appears to have been largely peaceful
apart from the disruption caused by the Pontic invasion of the 80s, life in
Greece was far from relaxing over the next century. Some of the bloodiest
battles in Greek history lay in the immediate future. For a start, Mithridates
invaded not only Macedonia but also central Greece.

The most enthusiastic supporters of Mithridates were the
Athenians, and they paid for their defection from Rome after a bloody siege by
Sulla in 87/86 BC. When the city fell in March 86, the killing spree which
followed was so intense that the blood was said to have run in a small stream
through the gutters and out of the city gates. Thereafter Athens, like Sparta,
was a shadow of its former self. Sulla went on to fight Mithridates at
Chaeronea, in a battle involving over 100,000 men, and then in a rematch at
Orchomenus which involved armies of the same scale. To pay for his campaign,
Sulla looted the sacred treasuries at Delphi. He was by no means alone in his
looting of Greece, and the country continued to suffer from the attentions of
Roman senators thenceforward. Though southern Greece, unlike Asia, did not have
to pay Roman taxes and largely escaped the predatory Roman publicani (tax
gatherers), the Romans had other methods of squeezing cash even from allegedly
‘free’ peoples.

One favourite technique was forcing a loan at predatory
rates of interest on a city, and refusing to accept the capital back until
compound interest had forced the city deep into debt. Even the noble Brutus,
the assassin of Caesar, used this technique of enrichment.

Before he was assassinated, Caesar too had been on Greek
soil. Greece was the unhappy host of the final rounds of the civil war between
Caesar and Pompey. In fact, Caesar finally won supreme power in Rome at the
Battle of Pharsalus, not far from where Philip V was defeated at Cynoscephalae.

However, this victory did not settle matters, as Caesar’s
death once again brought Roman civil war to Greece, with a further bloody
battle at Philippi in 42 BC which saw off Brutus and Cassius, the assassins of
Caesar. The victors of that battle, Octavian and Mark Antony, returned to
Greece a decade later for a final showdown at Actium, where Octavian, later
Augustus, finally became emperor and master of the Roman world. Between
senatorial depredations and the effects of armies marching and countermarching
across its territory for the best part of 150 years, much of Greece was
economically devastated.

Most Greeks of any ambition or talent took advantage of the
many opportunities offered by Rome’s cosmopolitan empire, and took themselves
either to Rome (where later poets such as Juvenal complained bitterly of their
presence) or to the large and prosperous cities that flourished in Asia Minor
under the pax Romana. A previous generation which had arrived in Rome as slaves
had already helped to accelerate the fusion of Greek and Roman culture to the
point where the poet Horace could remark that Greece had ‘conquered her rough

Augustus finally made Achaea a province in 27 BC, and
included in its bounds most of south and central Greece. However, by then
Greece was already a backwater in geopolitical terms.

Illyria and Dalmatia

Ironically, the last part of the peninsula to fall under
Roman control, was where it all had begun: in the Balkans. Since the capture of
Genthius, the fortunes of the northern and southern Illyrians had varied. The
Romans had divided Illyria into four regions, rather as they had attempted with
Macedonia, and with about the same degree of success. By and large, the
southern areas abutting the long-established Roman protectorate were readily
absorbed and partially Romanized, but the northern areas were more strongly
influenced by the Dalmatians, and any control exercised by Rome tended to be
transitory and limited to the ground that Rome’s soldiers stood on at any given
time. Caesar was assigned Illyria as a province at the start of the 50s, but
the word ‘province’ was used here in the old sense of ‘area of military
operations’, rather than that of ‘administrative region’.

This was clearly demonstrated by the northern Illyrians and
Dalmatians who took an opportunistic role in the civil wars. A Roman army under
Julius Caesar’s henchman, Gabinius, was passing through Dalmatian territory
when the Dalmatians trapped the soldiers in a narrow gorge and gave it a severe
mauling which resulted in the near-total loss of the army and its standards.
Caesar, preoccupied with his intentions to invade Parthia, was not prepared to
undertake an Illyrian war of revenge. Therefore, he accepted Illyrian
submission once he had gained power, and sent a small force of legionaries
across the Adriatic to enforce that submission. However, when news of Caesar’s
assassination reached the north, the locals rose up in arms once more and
destroyed most of Caesar’s cohorts, with only a small force reaching safety in
the south under the command of Vatinus, a general who was later to campaign
successfully in Syria. This provoked a Roman response, but this was diluted by
the contingencies of the civil wars raging at the time, and the weakened army
which was finally dispatched was wiped out in Pannonia.

Thereafter, the Romans decided to leave this recalcitrant
part of the peninsula alone until they had time to deal with it properly. Once
he was emperor, Augustus started the project by an attack on the Segestani, a
people in the far north of Greece. Having established a bridgehead there, he
pushed southward against the Dalmatians and Illyrians. He soon found that whilst
conquests were hard to come by (the terrain was both wooded and mountainous)
the fractious and rebellious peoples of the area ensured that any gains were
very easily lost.

Campaigning in the 30s saw several minor sieges and battles,
resulting, eventually, in the return by the Dalmatians of the standards that
had been captured from Gabinius. The area was still not subdued, and rose again
in a major revolt a generation later. It was in this region also that Augustus’
successor, Tiberius, learned his military skills. It was not until AD 9 that
the northeast was finally settled (though the difficulties of campaigning there
inspired a mutiny in AD 14).

However, expansion from Rome’s bases at Dyrrhachium and
Salona steadily pacified the wilder parts of Illyria, especially the obdurate
Taulanti tribe of the central interior. By 27 BC, at the same time as Achaea
was made a Roman province, the northwest was divided into the provinces of
Illyricum and Dalmatia.

The long military tradition of the Balkans meant that when
its peoples finally became reconciled to rule by Rome, they took
enthusiastically to service in the legions. As Rome grew ever more
cosmopolitan, Dalmatians and Illyrians were found at ever-higher ranks of the
army. In the third century AD these men came into their own. Rome was beset by
a series of barbarian invasions and found salvation under the guidance of a
series of ‘Illyrian’ generals and emperors such as Aurelian, Diocletian, and
the family of Constantine the Great. It was Constantine who founded the Roman
Empire’s second capital, Constantinople, on the Bosporus, a capital which stood
firm even when the western empire was overwhelmed.

Consequently Greece and Macedon remained part of the empire
for hundreds of years after the fall of Rome. While barbarian cowherds grazed
their flocks in the shadow of the Senate house, the Greeks and Macedonians
still considered themselves Romans. One wonders what the ghosts of Queen Teuta
and King Philip would have made of that.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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