The Shadow of Rome

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King Philip V, and Amyntas, Son of Alexandros, 197 BC

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Battle of Cynoscephalae

When the Greek world had first become aware of Rome over a century before, it had been with the awareness of a predator seeing a large and tempting quarry wander into view. At that time Rome had just gained the upper hand in a long drawn–out series of wars with the mountain peoples of south central Italy. Not that the hillmen had yet admitted defeat – their stubborn refusal to submit to Rome would still provide a welcome distraction for Rome’s armies in Mithridates’ day. However, by 290 BC the Romans had at least temporarily beaten their foes into sullen submission, leaving Rome the dominant state in Italy.

It might occur to a general with an ambitiously expansionist viewpoint that an army which defeated Rome could easily mop up the rest of Italy, use Italy’s massive reserves of manpower to absorb Sicily, and from there sweep east once more and conquer the rest of the world. That, roughly, was the master plan of Pyrrhus of Epirus, another of the successors of Alexander the Great, and generally agreed to be the best general of his day. Claiming that he was supporting the Greek cities of southern Italy against Roman aggression, Pyrrhus and his army of 25,000 men invaded the peninsula during the 280s BC and tried repeatedly to master Rome.

It was the first clash of the Greek and Roman worlds, and from the Roman perspective this passage of arms ended as a winning draw. Pyrrhus was unable to wear down the stubborn resistance of Rome, despite repeatedly beating its citizens in the series of bloody battles which have given the modern world the expression ‘a pyrrhic victory’, meaning a win which costs more than it is worth. The battles left both armies exhausted, but the Romans, fighting on their native soil, had greater stamina in terms of money and manpower. Belatedly, Pyrrhus concluded that he had bitten off more than he could chew. He withdrew, possibly to marshal his forces for a further attempt. However, Pyrrhus died before he could resume his assault, and his failure handed the Romans hegemony of the Italian peninsula.

Graeco–Roman relations remained in a state of armed non–aggression for the remainder of the third century BC. This is not to say that the world was at peace – far from it. The empire of Alexander the Great had fractured into the kingdoms of Macedonia, which also dominated Greece, the Seleucids, with their rambling, semi–shambolic empire that stretched from the Mediterranean coast almost to the Himalayas, and the Ptolemies who dominated Egypt. These states, each large enough to be considered empires in their own right, engaged in continual and largely–pointless warfare which produced little change apart from mercenaries becoming wealthy and border peasants perpetually confused as to which empire they were currently part of.

Rome too had been engaged in non–stop warfare. However, by the time Rome had finished, a large number of North Africans, Gauls and Spaniards, Corsicans and Sicilians were left in no doubt at all as to which empire was in charge. Many of Rome’s new possessions were acquired at the cost of Carthage, Rome’s great rival in the west. By 202 BC Carthage had been reduced to a shadow of its former glory, and Hannibal, the general who had almost brought Rome to its knees with his epic invasion across the Alps, had fled to the Hellenic kingdoms of Asia.

Roman eyes followed Hannibal east. It would be wrong to claim that Pyrrhus’ master plan was dusted down and rewritten for Roman protagonists, but it is also certain that the Roman senate considered that it had unfinished business with the heirs of Alexander.

Rome itself was changing. By and large the Greeks had heretofore regarded the Romans as uncivilized, simply because the Romans had no art of their own, no literature, and indeed, barely any pretension to literacy. That the greatest Roman historians were currently alive was only because they were the first ones that Rome had ever had. However, Rome was beginning to acquire culture admittedly this culture had been looted wholesale from other cities, but it was culture nevertheless. Matters such as the theatre were beginning to stir interest, and once Rome got over its bemusement at the first Greek philosophers to arrive in the city, intellectual inquiry became socially acceptable among the warrior elite that ruled Rome under the name of ‘the Senate’. Over the next two generations Greek culture was to make the same sort of headway in Rome as Roman legions were making in Greece –’Conquering her rough conqueror’ as one poet put it. By the 140s BC even Cato the Elder, a misanthropic anti–Hellenic reactionary, saw nothing incongruous in erecting Rome’s first basilica – a Greek–style building for use in public affairs. Even Roman religion began to merge with the Greek version, until only the names of the gods and goddesses differed. But sharing much of the same culture did not make the Romans more Greek – they called contemporary Greeks ‘ Graeculi ‘ (‘Greeklings’ or ‘little Greeks’) – diminished descendants of their great forebears. And as for the peoples who shared Asia Minor with the Greeks, well, they were Asiatics – decadent, cowardly, servile, and generally beneath contempt. It never seemed to occur to the Romans, in all the decades that followed, that their contempt and lack of understanding were just as heartily reciprocated by the peoples of Asia Minor.

Philip V of Macedon, the Hellenistic ruler nearest to Rome, had long been uncomfortable with Roman interference on the western shores of the Greek peninsula. Consequently, although Greek and Carthaginian usually got along like cat and dog, Philip had allied himself with Hannibal in the war against Rome. True, Philip’s actual contribution to the war effort had been negligible, but Rome had reasons for being unforgiving. After sixteen desperate years of warfare against Hannibal, Rome needed slaves to work her depopulated fields, money for her depleted treasury, and money also to pay for the increasingly luxurious tastes of her upper classes. Like any shrewd business concern, Rome chose to leverage her prime asset to clear her liabilities. And Rome’s prime asset was a very, very good army, honed to perfection by a decade and a half of fighting Hannibal, the greatest tactician until Napoleon.

Furthermore, Philip was then allied with the Seleucid king Antiochus III, and the pair were picking off those small Greek city states which attempted to maintain a degree of independence. For the imperial power which Rome now rightly considered herself to be, these small states were potential stepping stones into mainland Greece, so the senate was none too pleased to see the Hellenic empires consolidating the region under their control. Rome hastened to ally herself with such of these small states as remained. Sooner or later, the senate reasoned (sooner, as it happened), Philip’s territorial ambitions in Greece would bring him into collision with their new allies, and thus Philip would provoke war with Rome itself.

Philip did not go down without a fight – he fought with skill and tenacity, but still was driven out of Greece. In 197 BC his phalanx and his determination to resist were broken in the Battle of Cynoscephalae. Philip paid over a thousand talents of bullion, and sullenly yielded hegemony of Greece. The Romans, conscious of Macedon’s value as a bulwark against the wild tribes further north, let his kingdom of Macedonia be – for the present.

The Greek cities had largely supported the Romans against Philip in return for their ‘freedom’. They remained passive, leaving the Romans with secure lines of communication as they went on to challenge the greatest of the Hellenistic realms – the Seleucids. Antiochus III had been warned by the Romans that he should confine his activities to the east of the Aegean Sea, a warning which the Seleucid king blithely ignored. Taking advantage of Philip’s discomfiture at the hands of the Roman legions, Antiochus blatantly interfered in the affairs of Thrace, right next door to Macedon on the coast of the Black Sea.

Rome may have defeated Macedon close to home, but Antiochus appears to have been convinced that the upstart power would receive a brutal reality check if it was foolish enough to challenge the Seleucids on their own ground. This conviction was soon put to the test as Rome was not slow to pick up the gauntlet. An army arrived, led by Lucius Scipio, who in turn was accompanied by his brother, the famous Scipio Africanus, the conqueror of Hannibal. The decisive confrontation between two sides occurred in 190 BC at the Battle of Magnesia. Partly through the help of the army of Pergamum, Roman allies in Asia Minor, the Romans were victorious. This was a decisive moment in the history of the eastern Mediterranean, for though the Romans had no intention of occupying Seleucid territory (though gold and slaves would still do nicely, both as tribute and booty), Seleucid power was irrevocably weakened by defeat. Antiochus was forced to restrict his sphere of influence again, this time to the Syrian side of the Taurus Mountains, leaving Rome the dominant power in Asia Minor.

The Seleucid empire, always a somewhat ramshackle affair, now began the generations–long process of slowly falling apart at the seams. When Antiochus IV attempted to restore his dynasty’s fortunes in 168 BC with an invasion of Egypt, he and his army were stopped by a single Roman envoy. The envoy bluntly ordered the king and his army to turn back. When Antiochus asked for time to consider his options, the Roman used his stick of office to draw a line in the sand around the king. He informed Antiochus that he was not to step over that line until he had decided on his course of action. That course of action, when Antiochus eventually got over his indignation, turned out to be the cancellation of the invasion, and a retreat back to Asia with whatever shreds of dignity could be retrieved from the situation. It was a chilling demonstration, both of the power of the Romans and of their arrogant ignorance of how to behave in civilized society.

If the Seleucids were content to allow their empire to moulder slowly away, the Macedonians chose to go out with a bang. Their agents were constantly fomenting problems for the Romans in Greece, whilst in any case, the Romans found themselves driven to distraction by the petty feuds and small wars with which the Greek cities celebrated their new freedom. In 167 BC the Romans deposed the Macedonian king, and when even that proved insufficient to control his irrepressible nation, they finally occupied Macedon and made it a province in 147 BC.

At the same time the Romans bluntly informed the Greeks of the limits of their freedom by making an example of the city of Corinth. For taking Macedon’s part in the recent troubles, the Romans attacked the city, sacked it, enslaved every man, woman and child in the place, and burned its buildings to the ground so comprehensively that this great Greek city was deserted for over a century. The civilized world was appalled. Whilst it was accepted that the Romans had an unhealthily zealous approach to warfare, and the diplomatic finesse of country bumpkins, the utter destruction of one of the pearls of Greek culture (and over a minor military disagreement!) was an act of horrifying barbarity. The destruction of Corinth, the humiliation of Antiochus and the subjugation of Macedonia signalled clearly that the age of the Hellenic empires was nearing its end.

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  1. Pingback: The Shadow of Rome – Glyn Hnutu-healh: History, Alchemy, and Me

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