Hardly had peace been signed with Carthage when the Roman people was asked by the Senate to declare war against Philip, King of Macedon. Doubtless the ordinary Roman citizen was somewhat surprised and wondered what Greek politics had to do with Rome, but he was soon to learn that Rome’s interests and obligations were no longer confined to Italy. The struggle with Carthage had broken down barriers which could not be raised up again, and Rome had become a world power. She had crushed one great power and must now align herself with the monarchies of the east. For the Greek world consisted of three great kingdoms, the remains of Alexander’s empire, together with a number of Greek leagues and states more or less free. Throughout there reigned a balance of powers whose equilibrium could easily be upset. It only needed a spark to set the whole Hellenistic world ablaze. But before seeing how this conflagration was started we must glance round the eastern Mediterranean.
In Greece, since the days when the city-state flourished, many communities who wished to preserve their independence but were too weak to do this alone had combined into federations or leagues. The two chief of these were the Aetolian League in the north and the Achaean in the south. The former was loose and flexible in form and somewhat primitive in outlook; its unity derived largely from common interests in war. The plundering raiders from Aetolia had been severely checked for crossing Philip’s path in 217. Smarting under this treatment they readily welcomed Roman intervention and fought with Rome against Macedon, only to be deserted by their ally and forced to patch up a peace with Philip (206). The Romans on their part also felt deserted by the Aetolians and so feelings had become very embittered. The Achaean League under the leadership of Aratus had become the predominant power in the Peloponnese, but had succeeded in defeating Sparta under Cleomenes only at the price of enlisting the help of Philip’s predecessor, Antigonus Doson of Macedon (222), to whom the League surrendered its control of Corinth. But though Macedon guided their foreign policy the Achaeans still retained more of the old Greek outlook than did the Aetolians; and turning a deaf ear to Philip’s call they maintained a policy of neutrality during the First Macedonian War.
In addition to these leagues, one of the old Greek city-states had shaken off the yoke of Macedon and regained its independence in 229: Athens. Though a shadow of her former self and little more than a university town with small military power, Athens still retained some influence, based partly on her glorious past; in politics she maintained a selfish neutrality. Of the other surviving Republics the most important was Rhodes, the Venice of the ancient world. This flourishing maritime state, whose control extended to the mainland of Asia Minor, had built up a prosperous trade. Her name was raised high among the nations by the good faith of her citizens and by her suppression of piracy; she consistently aimed at remaining on good terms with all men.
Of the three great powers which balanced their weight precariously against each other, Macedon had retained fitfully throughout the third century its old European dependencies and its control over the cities of Greece. On the accession of Philip V to the throne in 221 she held the three fortresses known as the ‘Fetters of Greece’, Demetrias, Chalcis and Corinth, and thus controlled Greek destinies without direct rule. As successor to the leadership of Antigonus Doson’s Hellenic Federation Philip had by 217 reduced the Aetolians, who were the chief disturbers of the peace in Greece. The pirate chief Demetrius, angered at Rome’s police raids in the Adriatic, had then involved Philip in a ten years’ war with Rome. But his ambition for empire did not lead to a happy conclusion.
The second great monarchy, Syria, was at this time ruled by Antiochus III, surnamed the Great (223–187). His predecessors, the Seleucid kings, had failed to retain a large part of the eastern conquests of Alexander and had been constantly fighting with Egypt for the possession of southern Syria; Antiochus himself was defeated in a similar attempt at Raphia in 217. He aimed at reconstituting the old Seleucid empire and undertook an Anabasis in the Far East (212–205). The report of this adventurous expedition filled the Greek world with admiration, and Antiochus appeared as a second Alexander. His thoughts then turned again to Egypt, and he hoped to reverse the result of Raphia, but so far Rome was beyond his horizon.
Egypt, the third great monarchy, with its enormous resources and wealth had flourished materially under the Ptolemies, while Alexandria led the Greek world in learning, art and commerce. Abroad Egypt had gained wide control in Asia Minor and the Aegean; she had made her influence felt in Greece and, alone of the Hellenistic states, had entered into friendly relations with Rome, as early as 273, with a view to extending her commerce. Her success at Raphia in the fourth of the series of wars against Syria was followed by a period of degeneration. Internal dissension was reflected abroad and several of Ptolemy’s foreign possessions slipped from his sluggish grasp.
Beside the three great monarchies there were other kingdoms. Bithynia, Pontus and Cappadocia paid only a nominal allegiance to Syria. Celtic tribes had set up the independent state of Galatia in the heart of Asia Minor. But the chief of these smaller kingdoms was Pergamum, where since 241 there had reigned a despot and merchant prince named Attalus, who differed much from the other rulers of the east. His sympathies with Greek culture and with the political aims of Athens and Rhodes drew him into the Greek world away from the great monarchs, who looked with jealous eye on the growing wealth and prosperity of the Pergamene kingdom.1
We must next trace how and why Rome was drawn into the vortex of eastern affairs and soon emerged riding the storm. Our sources record the facts clearly, but the motives of Roman policy are not so definitely stated. Hence it will be well to follow in some detail the incidents which led up to the war, because only so can we hope to lay bare Rome’s policy and compare the varying constructions placed upon it by modern historians. First, then, the events, and secondly the policy that dictated them.