The legend has it that the dying Alexander was asked who was his heir, and answered, ‘The strongest’. The wars among his generals, later called the Successors (Diadochot), resulted in three powerful military states clustered around Greece and other fragments of the empire on and within the Mediterranean. None of these ‘Hellenistic’ states ever entirely shook off the ghost of the vanished empire; all, at times, sought by various means to put their monarchs at the head of that reunited empire. Looking back over the ruins of Greek history was the Roman soldier-scholar Polybius, who left the bulk of the following account.
As haunted as anyone by that ghost of empire, and more capable and vicious than most, was Philip V of Macedonia, no descendant of Alexander or Philip, but in possession of some of their holdings and desiring more. King being cause, Philip’s efforts as a commander would follow his own will and whim.
In the way stood the two other great Successor kingdoms, Antiochid Syria and Ptolemaic Egypt, and a collection of smaller states that looked to be easier prey than either of the two larger rival powers. Particularly troublesome was the island democracy of Rhodes, with the most superlative navy in the ancient world, and the fortress-city of Pergamon, whose rulers had no intention of yielding their sceptres to anyone else while their powerful walls held. Philip’s threat drove Rhodes and King Attalus of Pergamon into alliance, while in the years before 201 BC the king of Macedon built a strong navy, to which he added by seizing Egyptian war vessels before that degenerate power could react. Philip captured several islands among the Cyclades and moved his army and navy down the coast of Asia Minor, poised to menace and destroy separately both in turn.
The Rhodians and Attalus had not been idly trembling before Philip’s advance. Philip’s bete noire in the campaign and the nemesis of his long-laid designs against Rhodes would prove to be the Rhodian admiral Theophiliscus. This man’s ability and skill would face Philip’s craft and superior resources, for the Rhodian had correctly anticipated Philip’s plans and taken every possible step to undo them.
Philip sought to divide the forces of Rhodes and Pergamon with a siege of the island of Chios, from which he would be well situated to prevent Attalus and the Rhodians from aiding each other. Attalus had quite correctly realized that Philip intended an eventual stroke against him and was feverishly steeling his fortress-city for the onslaught. Theophiliscus, however, equally correctly understood that Pergamon could resist any attack Philip could mount. He convinced Attalus to abandon his preparations and join his fleet with Rhodes’ while he was still able to do so.
Philip had been digging away beneath the Chians’ walls when the news came of the allied fleet’s arrival. From the first moment, Theophiliscus had seized the initiative from the Macedonian king, who suddenly found himself trapped on an island with a hostile fleet across his supply lines. Polybius portrays Philip as indecisive at first, before deciding to abandon his siege and make for Samos, possibly with the intention of outfitting still more Egyptian warships.
The allies were not disposed to let him go. Macedonian resources, which by that time featured a strong naval tradition, included some of the heaviest and most dangerous vessels in the ancient world, 53 of the heaviest class, an unknown number of medium vessels, and 150 of the lightest vessels that could carry rams.
Philip deployed this imposing force slowly enough for most of the allies to convert their own picket formation into a line of battle and move to engage. The battle was fought in the strait between Chios and the Erythraean promontory of the Asian coast. Initially, Philip’s line was parallel to the coast of Chios, preparatory to swinging south. As the allies bore down rapidly from the north, Philip was forced to reverse his line, which he drew up in the middle of the strait, facing north-east with his right on the Asian side, arranged in front of the strait’s two small islands. The king being the supreme commander, there was no resistance among Philip’s officers to his commands.
Our source gives the allies’ complete strength as 65 heavy warships, 9 medium cruisers and 3 other medium craft. At first, Attalus showed more confidence in the strength of his navy than his Macedonian opponent, for he took his own lavishly appointed flagship directly into the line, while Philip preferred to wait in the van with his own squadron of lighter ships. A flagship (nauarchis) was as visible as any standard in telling crews and officers where a commander thought it necessary to be. Theophiliscus’ Rhodians seem to have been more deliberate than the Pergamene contingent in committing to the action. They crossed the strait at speed to prevent Philip’s escape around the northern end of Chios. Some ships were slow to launch from where they had been drying their waterlogged hulls on the Asian shore, while those on station waited for some time in front of Philip’s advancing left. Theophiliscus appears to have been on his guard lest Philip’s light vessels spill out into the Aegean while the larger ships engaged, but committed his own forces once it was clear that the smaller ships were remaining in the line.
Philip seems to have been chary of exposing the flanks of his larger warships, which he finally placed on the right of his line, protected by the shore and each other. For his own part, Attalus successfully frustrated any effort by these monsters to get away from him by closing with his own heavy vessels. From the casualty reports, his own vessels consisted mostly of ‘fours’ and ‘fives’ (the number of rowers per bank of oars), probably built on the proven models of his Roman allies. Such vessels would not have been as suitable for manoeuvre as, apparently, were those favoured by the Rhodians, but were large enough to carry marines and other weaponry to match Philip’s, and sufficiently massive to block his advance.
The worst came first for Philip when his flagship perished along with his admiral immediately after Attalus himself accounted for one of Philip’s ‘eights’. In the confusion of the opening prow-to-prow rush of the Pergamene and Macedonian squadrons, an Attalid cruiser had turned her broadside to the Macedonian flagship. What might be thought to have been the perfect ramming attack proved fatal to the Macedonian ship. The lighter vessel stood high enough out of the water to trap her destroyer’s bow under the overhang of her topmost oar benches. Philip’s flagship was literally trapped like a dog with a bone in its throat while two of Attalus’ vessels rammed and sank her in her turn with her admiral and complement.
Brother saved brother as the melee on Philip’s right intensified. The bow of another of Philip’s large ships, and consequently its ram, was riding high out of the water when Attalus’ admiral Deinocrates hit her bow on and wedged his own ship’s beak into the enemy’s bow timbers. The Macedonian ship’s death grip was shaken loose by a heavy Pergamene vessel commanded by Deinocrates’ brother, Dionysodorus. The Pergamene vessel rammed the monster apparently again in its bow timbers, for Deinocrates’ ship was shaken loose and the Macedonian ship herself stayed afloat while she was boarded and captured by Pergamene marines and towed behind the line, apparently abandoned by her oarsmen during the battle on deck. Family ties were as strong as any in the battles of the ancient world in compelling cooperation and assistance, in the absence of any central, directed command numbers of heavier ships into two groups, with the heaviest vessels facing Attalus on the right, that would place around 27 heavy warships opposite the Pergamene ruler, less than the fleet of 35 ships known from earlier accounts to be in the Pergamene fleet. That would explain our source’s statement that Attalus had the advantage in numbers of such vessels, and the relatively even nature of the battle, with Philip’s larger vessels balanced by the quantity of the enemy as Attalus slowly forced the Macedonians behind the islets where their king waited. The Rhodians waited with most of their ships close to shore until the ongoing struggle with Attalus began to draw Macedonian ships from the left side of the line facing them.
Theophiliscus immediately engaged. His faster ships had apparently stayed on the beach until the last possible moment, and the reason for the tactic became clear as the dryer hulls of the Rhodian vessels made their speed advantage decisive. As Philip’s ships tried to withdraw around the Oenussae islets, they lost their line abreast formation and were at their most vulnerable to Rhodian ships launching from the Erythraean promontory. Several of Philip’s heavier vessels were rammed in their unprotected sterns, while others had their oarbanks shattered by the beaks and well- trained crews of the Rhodian galleys. The speed of a decision is as important at times as the decision itself.
The Battle Continues
When Philip’s lead ships turned again to assist their own rear, Theophiliscus committed the balance of his fleet, including those vessels that had just been launched and his personal tactical command of three older, heavier vessels that the Rhodians had received some time previously from a friendly power. As the two squadrons clashed, the Rhodians found that Philip V had apparently read his history. Their favoured tactic was the old Athenian dash between the ships of an enemy’s line to their rear. Just as the Rhodians were used to employing their smaller, faster ships to penetrate an enemy’s formation in order to get at the vulnerable sterns and oars, Philip unleashed his numerous small craft with precisely the same intention against the Rhodians themselves. The smaller vessels protected the flanks of Philip’s larger ships, once formation had been reestablished, and were able to interfere with the Rhodians’ movements as the battle was joined in the 4.8-km (3-mile) passage between the northernmost of the Oenussae and the mainland. Attalus and the Macedonian left were already well within the strait.
Philip had succeeded in frustrating an easy Rhodian victory, but his success was markedly limited. Our source refers to a particular tactic that seems to be partially responsible for the very large numbers of light vessels listed among Philip’s casualties. If the Rhodians were forced to meet an enemy ship bows on, they would transfer their crews forward to drop the bows and the rams of their vessels beneath the water-line. The enemy’s ram accordingly struck timbers that would be raised once normal trim had been restored, while the Rhodians’ own ram could penetrate bow or ‘cheek’ timbers beneath the protection of the foe’s ram’s bronze casing and, incidentally, the water-line.
Philip’s greatest advantage lay in his Macedonian marines, who were undoubtedly equipped with some form of missile weapon as they did their best to keep the Rhodians from closing. They were successful, once the lemboi (ships) had been dispersed, to the extent of forcing the Rhodians back to their previous tactics of ramming in the stern, oars or flank as opportunity offered, avoiding close contact. Theophiliscus and his quinqueremes, however, closed and engaged with the main Macedonian battle line.
Nicostratus’ Rhodian galley had shown her age when she left her ram in the hull of an enemy vessel, which sank with all hands. The Rhodian ship herself was also filling with water, disabled and quickly surrounded by the enemy’s vessels. Failure to relieve a distressed subordinate weakens overall resolve and morale, as Pausanias had known at Plataea, and Alexander at Gaugamela. Autolycus, the navigation officer, whose fault the accident possibly was, redeemed himself by resisting with the last of the Rhodian marines. The deck soldiers were dead and Autolycus had drowned, wounded in his armour, by the time Theophilisclls’ squadron was able to punch its way through to the stricken warship, saving her escaping oarsmen and surviving officers even as they forced two rammed enemy vessels’ marines to take to the water. Light and heavier ships immediately surrounded the admiral’s galley, but Theophiliscus’ three wounds, received before Philostratus’ galley could break the flagship free, would eventually kill him.
With most of his own marines dead, Theophilisclls continued to press the Macedonian left.
The Macedonians left’s reverse to engage their Rhodian attackers had created a gap in Philip’s line of battle, which Attalus moved very quickly to exploit. He had apparently got through the initial position of the enemy line and was now far into the strait, chasing after the ships of Philip’s right, which were making for the Asian shore in accordance with Philip’s earlier orders.
Philip here enjoyed his greatest success of the battle. Attalus’ flagship and the two lighter vessels of his escort were racing to the rescue of another Pergamene vessel. As Attalus chased the faster enemy fleeing toward the Asian shore, he passed the islands where Philip and his personal flotilla were waiting. The Macedonian king took his own royal escort of four medium cruisers, three light cruisers, and the available small craft, and successfully intercepted Attalus before he could return to the rest of his fleet.
King being cause, Attalus was himself an objective, one for which Philip had tried before and would try again. Attalus, however, had the presence of mind to beach his ships on the shore near the town of Erythrai, to which he fled while Philip’s crews looted the royal galley. Philip was able to take Attalus’ flagship in tow but, aside from an undoubtedly bad fright, Attalus had made good his escape.
Philip was cheered enough to rally his scattered vessels and to promulgate with the towed flagship the idea that Attalus was dead. At the sight, Attalus’ admiral Dionysodorus maintained presence of mind enough to signal the Pergamene vessels to regroup and make for an agreed-upon harbour on the mainland. The Macedonian left was only too happy to disengage from the Rhodians, and ran back down the strait under the pretext of rushing to the other ships’ aid before it, too, made for the mainland, leaving the Rhodians free to salvage pragmatically those remaining Macedonian vessels fit for towing back to Chios while they sank the rest with their rams.
Philip managed one last tactical error after the actual day’s combat had ceased. Apparently, the final stage of the fighting on his right had taken place off the Argennan promontory on the Asian shore, in the lee of which he now anchored. The idea was to claim the victory – as he did – by continuing to occupy the area of combat, in addition to the indisputable fact that he had captured Attalus’ flagship. However, prevailing winds and currents carried the day’s grisly harvest down among his ships; the corpses and other detritus from the fighting brought the message home to the king, and his crews, that Chios had been his costliest battle. Philip had lost his own flagship, 5 other heavy vessels sunk or captured, along with 25 of his lighter ships and their crews, 10 other heavy vessels, and 3 of his own cruisers against Attalus. The Rhodians demonstrated their virtuosity by destroying 40 of Philip’s light ships and capturing 7 with their crews. They also sank 10 of Philip’s heavier vessels and chose to salvage 2 of Philip’s medium units. Attalus had lost the hapless cruiser, Dionysodorus’ and one other medium vessel sunk, and again, his flagship and the two escorts captured. In human terms, 3000 Macedonian marines and 6000 sailors died in the strait, while our source, Polybius, admits to 70 Pergamene and 60 Rhodian casualties. A total of 2000 Macedonians and 700 Egyptian conscripts survived to become the allies’ prisoners.
The dictates of military chivalry were all very well, and Philip had obeyed the old rules, even to the extent of recovering recognizably Macedonian bodies from among the drifting wreckage. The reality of his defeat Philip himself admitted on the next day when, by joint decision, the Rhodians and Pergamenes put off from Chios and again drew up in line of battle opposite. Philip refused the challenge and remained by the Asian shore while the allied fleets at least initially lay in front of him, preventing his retreat. The allies themselves each had their own reasons for not pressing the battle home. Attalus, besides his bad fright of the day before, now had Philip’s army on the Asian coast near his capital city, with nothing in between Philip and Pergamon but the city’s walls. Individual considerations began to assert themselves, and the Rhodians were in the process of losing their admiral, and with him, his strategic vision for Philip’s defeat.
After appointing his successor, and writing his report to his government, Theophiliscus died. His greatest monument was not as immediately enduring as those voted to him on Rhodes. He had convinced Attalus to join forces at the onset of Philip’s attack, but for a crucial period, Pergamene-Rhodian cooperation lay in the Rhodian admiral’s grave. Attalus correctly reasoned that Philip would continue his personal vendetta against him, and took his fleet and the soldiers on board back to his fortress-city, leaving the Rhodian fleet alone to mourn their dead and move in between Philip’s surviving navy and their home island. Eventually, the threat Philip continued to pose to them both prompted Attalus and the Rhodians to invite the Romans eastward, and in the years to come a different people would possess the whole of Alexander’s empire.