The conquest of the Mediterranean: the Macedonian Wars, 200–146 BC

A different kind of state from Rome might have sunk back exhausted after the exertion of the Second Punic War; in fact, military mobilization continued at a similar level, even reaching in 191–190 BC the same peak as in the gravest crisis of that struggle. It was not that any single enemy posed a comparable threat; indeed, none of the enemies engaged in this period posed any substantial threat. Rather, Rome chose to fight wars because it was profitable to do so, and, wielding greater power than any other state, was able to fight two or three wars simultaneously.

The interrupted conquest of Cisalpine Gaul was resumed in 203 BC, and by 191 BC the main resistance – that of the powerful Boii tribe – had been overcome. During the 180s BC, to control this territory, the Romans built a new road, the Via Aemilia, and founded several new colonies. Then, in a series of campaigns in the 170s, they pushed west from the Po plain into Liguria, and east to the Istrian peninsula.

Also, having driven the Carthaginians out in 206 BC, the Romans set about organizing and exploiting their new territories in Spain. They provoked a widespread revolt, however, one that began in the new Roman provinces in the south-east, but quickly drew in the unconquered tribes of the interior. The ‘Spanish ulcer’ was destined to suppurate for two centuries: the terrain was difficult, distances were huge, the tribes decentralized, and the Spanish first-rate guerrilla fighters. The Second Spanish War (taking the First as that of 217–206 BC against Carthage and her Celtiberian tribal allies) lasted from 197 to 179 BC, ending well short of total conquest. Victorious on the battlefield, Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus offered moderate terms to secure peace, leaving the Celtiberian tribes semi-independent though obliged to pay tribute to Rome. The Lusitanians of the far west, by contrast, who had also participated in the war, remained wholly unconquered.

The Gracchan settlement held for 25 years, until Roman oppression provoked a new generation to revolt. The Third Spanish War (154– 133 BC) was more bitter than the Second. The first phase, against the Celtiberians, was ended quickly by conciliation (153–151 BC), but acts of genocide in Lusitania (modern Portugal) detonated a grim guerrilla war in the mountains there. A full-scale invasion under Servius Sulpicius Galba persuaded the Lusitanians to sue for peace. He demanded wholesale transplantation of highland populations to lowland sites, but when the Lusitanians gathered on the appointed day at three separate assembly-points, they were disarmed, surrounded and massacred – men, women and children. The atrocity reignited the resistance. Among those who took up arms again was a shepherd called Viriathus, who proved to be a brilliant guerrilla fighter, and had by 147 BC become the leader of the Lusitanian struggle. Between 146 and 141 BC he won an almost unbroken series of victories over five successive Roman commanders. The example – of native forces beating the imperial power – inspired the Celtiberians of the interior to a renewed attempt to throw off foreign rule. The 130s BC began with demoralized Roman soldiers defeated by Lusitanian guerrillas in the south-west and by Celtiberian defenders of the fortress of Numantia in the north. The Spanish ulcer would soon infect the core of the Roman body-politic. Certainly, there was little glory or gold to be had in the peninsula’s interminable wars. Roman generals preferred the East.

The contrast between the barbarian cultures of the West and the ancient urban civilization of the East was extreme. The Hellenistic kingdoms built by Alexander’s Successors had existed for a century. Many of the Greek cities they encompassed were 500 years old. Some of the cities of Asia Minor, Syria, the Levant, Egypt and Mesopotamia now ruled by Greeks were thousands of years old. Rich irrigation agriculture; hundreds of cities; a wealth of exotic trade goods; great centres of learning, art and refined living: the East offered dazzling spoils to the conqueror. Nor was eastern wealth particularly well defended. A relatively stable system of Hellenistic states existed around 200 BC. The major kingdoms were Macedonia in the Balkans (ruled by the Antigonid dynasty), Pergamum in western Asia Minor (under the Attalids), Syria and Mesopotamia (the Seleucids), and Egypt (the Ptolemies). The minor states included Athens, Sparta, Rhodes, the Achaean League (in the northern Peloponnese), the Aetolian League (in north-west Greece), and Epirus-Illyria (in the far north-west). But even the greatest of these states was more pomp and glitter than substance. Their kings might control large and densely populated territories; they might draw huge tax revenues; but the social roots of Seleucid Syria and Ptolemaic Egypt were shallower than those of the Roman Republic. The Greeks were organized in small, privileged, urban enclaves. The mass of native people in the countryside felt little affinity with their Hellenistic monarchs. Greek armies comprised a professional military elite rather than a citizen-militia. Tactics had changed little since the time of Alexander. Moreover, though Macedonia was sociologically more cohesive than the other Hellenistic monarchies, it was a relatively small mountain kingdom – with none of Rome’s reserves of manpower and treasure.

The earliest Roman ventures across the Adriatic had occurred before the Second Punic War. The First and Second Illyrian Wars (229–228 and 221–219 BC) had been fought ostensibly to suppress piracy, but the interference with a minor state in Macedonia’s backyard had alarmed King Philip V sufficiently for him to form an alliance with Hannibal in 215 BC. The First Macedonian War (215–205 BC) proved a damp squib, however: Philip never sent support to Hannibal in Italy, and the Romans left their Aetolian allies to fight alone in Greece. But this reflected not pusillanimity on Philip’s part so much as his preoccupation with the Aegean – where his war with Pergamum and Rhodes provided a pretext for Roman intervention against him in 200 BC. The alliance with Hannibal, and his wars against fellow Greeks, including Roman allies, made it easy enough to portray Philip’s Macedonia as a dangerous ‘rogue state’.

In fact, Philip was no threat to Roman interests. The very fact that he did not send troops to Italy in the wake of Cannae is proof enough of that; Philip’s fighting front was to the south and the south-east, not towards the Adriatic. The Roman decision to back Pergamum and Rhodes and intervene in an eastern war was an act of aggression. Significantly, when the consul to whom responsibility for Macedonia had been given proposed a declaration of war, the Assembly of the Centuries turned it down. When he next summoned the assembly, he deployed a new concept: that of pre-emptive aggression against a would-be (and in fact imaginary) enemy. The decision was not ‘whether you will choose war or peace; for Philip will not leave the choice open to you, seeing that he is actively preparing for unlimited hostilities on land and sea. What you are asked to decide is whether you will transport legions to Macedonia or allow the enemy into Italy; and the difference this makes is a matter of your own experience in the recent Punic Wars … It took Hannibal four months to reach Italy from Saguntum; but Philip, if we let him, will arrive four days after he sets sail from Corinth.’(14) The Assembly now voted for war. A real hatred of the draft had been overcome by an invented fear of invasion. For invented it was, the speciousness of the consul’s argument apparent from the most superficial review of the events of the Second Macedonian War (200–196 BC). The largest Roman army sent to Greece was only 30,000 strong – a mere 2.5 per cent of Rome’s total military manpower, or 7 per cent of her maximum mobilized strength in the Second Punic War. Yet this small army was sufficient to bring Macedonia to defeat – a defeat Philip anticipated judging by his interim peace offers and initial avoidance of battle. Hannibal, by contrast, had destroyed a Roman army of 80,000 – and still lost the war. These simple calculations demonstrate how suicidal a Macedonian invasion of Italy would in reality have been: doubly so, since not only would the invaders have been crushed, but Philip’s kingdom would meantime have been overrun by his enemies in Greece.

The first two years of the war were inconclusive, but in the spring of 197 BC Titus Quinctius Flamininus invaded Thessaly, and Philip, finally resolved to risk battle rather than prolong a war of attrition he knew he could not win, marched towards him with 25,000 men. The ground was unsuitable for battle where the armies first met, and both withdrew along parallel routes separated by low hills, each soon unaware of the other’s progress. A messy encounter battle then developed unexpectedly at Cynoscephalae when Macedonian and Roman detachments clashed in the mist on the heights overlooking a pass between the main armies. As more units were drawn into the fight for the high ground, a general engagement began. The Macedonian right reached the top of the pass before the Romans. When Philip saw this, he ordered the right phalanx to close up into a deep formation, increasing its shock power, and then to charge. Flamininus, seeing the desperate struggle that had begun on the Roman left, ordered in turn an attack by his right, which struck the left phalanx before it was properly deployed and routed it. The battle divided into separate halves, with the Macedonian right pushing down one slope, the Roman right down the other, such that a wide gap opened. At this point, a Roman military tribune seized the initiative. Taking the 20 maniples of triarii forming the rear line of the legions on the right, he reformed them and charged into the rear of the phalanx attacking the Roman left. The effect was devastating. The right phalanx was also routed. The battle had been hard-fought but decisive. About 8,000 Macedonians had been killed and 5,000 captured for a loss of 700 Romans. Philip V’s only army had been destroyed and he was compelled to make peace.

Polybius was fascinated by the clash between phalanx and legion. The whole fate of the Hellenistic world – his world – had seemed to hinge on it. The outcome appeared paradoxical, for the compact formation and projecting pikes of the phalanx meant that in close-quarters combat each Roman legionary, fighting in a much more open formation, faced no less than ten spear-points. ‘What is the factor which enables the Romans to win the battle and causes those who use the phalanx to fail? The answer is that in war the times and places for action are unlimited, whereas the phalanx requires one time and one type of ground only in order to produce its peculiar effect.’ Broken ground disordered the phalanx, creating fatal gaps in the hedge of pikes. To be effective, it had to operate in a large block, making it slow, cumbersome and unresponsive to a changing battlefield situation. The Roman formation, by contrast, was flexible and mobile. While part could pin a phalanx frontally, other parts could manoeuvre to attack flank and rear. ‘Every Roman soldier, once he is armed and goes into action, can adapt himself equally well to any place or time and meet an attack from any quarter. He is likewise equally well-prepared and needs to make no change whether he has to fight with the main body or with a detachment, in maniples or singly.’(15) Cynoscephalae illustrated these dictums. It showed that the legions were coming of age, that a complex evolution of the Roman military tradition under Etruscan, Greek, Samnite, Gaulish, Punic and Spanish influence was now producing the finest fighting formations in the ancient world.

Philip was left in control of his kingdom, but he was required to disband his fleet, withdraw his garrisons from the Greek cities, and pay a large indemnity of 1,000 talents, half immediately, the rest over ten years. (The size of the indemnity – only a tenth of that imposed on Carthage eight years before – is further evidence of Macedonia’s relative weakness.) Then, at the Isthmian Games in 196 BC, the trumpeter having called for silence in the stadium, the herald came forward to issue a special proclamation before the huge crowd of Greeks assembled there: ‘The Senate of Rome and Titus Quinctius Flamininus the proconsul, having defeated King Philip and the Macedonians in battle, leave the following states and cities free, without garrisons, subject to no tribute and in full enjoyment of their ancestral laws: the peoples of Corinth, Phocis, Locri, Euboea, Phthiotic Achaea, Magnesia, Thessaly and Perrhaebia.’(16) Polybius reports such euphoria that Flamininus was almost killed by the pandemonium around him. Many scholars since have been equally starry-eyed, claiming the Isthmian proclamation of 196 BC as prime evidence for ‘defensive imperialism’. If Rome was the aggressor, why this extraordinary decision to withdraw her armies and leave both Macedonia and the Greek cities free?

But Philip, we have seen, was no real threat. So we are left with no explanation of the intervention in Greece lest it be that the Romans had selflessly cast themselves in the role of honest broker and impartial policeman. In truth, of course, no great power goes to war except in what its leaders perceive to be its own interest. The Romans attacked Macedonia not because it was a threat, but simply because in subjugating it they could expect a rich reward in military glory, hauls of booty and slaves, and, perhaps most importantly, indemnity payments. The text of the treaty between Rome and the Aetolian League in the First Macedonian War (a document dated 212–211 BC) has survived. It is a highly revealing document. Part of it reads: ‘If the Romans take by force any cities belonging to these people [enemies in war], the cities and their territories shall … belong to the Aetolian people; anything the Romans get hold of apart from the cities and their territories [i.e. portable valuables] shall belong to them. If the Romans and the Aetolians operating together take any of these cities, the cities and their territories shall … belong to the Aetolians; anything they get apart from the cities shall belong to them jointly.’(17) Booty, in short, was so important that the division of spoils had to be agreed between allies before hostilities began.

Then there were indemnities. These had become established as one of the principal mechanisms by which surplus was pumped out of defeated states. By imposing them, Rome was, in effect, diverting revenue from local rulers by interposing her own claim to a share of the tribute paid by the peasants of other states. Without any of the cost involved in direct rule, the mere threat of a renewal of war was enough to guarantee payment of a large proportion of the available surplus – with the additional benefit, of course, that defeated ruling classes were kept weak and compliant. The indemnities make nonsense of any claim that Rome was not motivated by gain.

Rome’s second major war in the East followed a similar pattern. Hegemony over Macedonia and Greece brought her into contact with the Seleucid kingdom. The Aetolian League, which had expected greater territorial gains in the Second Macedonian War, invited King Antiochus III to support them in challenging the Roman settlement of Greece. When Antiochus sent over a small army in 192 BC, the Romans counter-attacked, defeating Antiochus and the Aetolians at the Battle of Thermopylae the following year. The Romans then crossed into Asia, and in 191 BC fought and won a pitched battle at Magnesia against the main Seleucid army. Antiochus was stripped of his territories in Asia Minor, forced to surrender his fleet and his elephants, and required to pay a 15,000 talent indemnity, 500 immediately, 2,500 when the Roman government ratified the agreement, and thereafter 1,000 annually for 12 years. The Aetolian League also lost territory and faced an indemnity of 500 talents.

In 189 BC, as these terms were being settled, Gnaeus Manlius Vulso launched a savage attack on the native peoples of Asia Minor, especially the Galatians, descendants of Gauls who had settled in central Anatolia about a century before, contingents of whom had served in the Seleucid army at Magnesia. The aim was plunder and Manlius’ army ran a form of protection racket. Examples were made of communities that resisted, and payments were then extorted to secure Roman ‘friendship’ (immunity from attack). Fifty talents was usually enough to save a city. Places that resisted were taken by force, comprehensively plundered, and their people sold as slaves. The capture of the Gaulish stronghold at Mount Olympus, for example, yielded 40,000 captives. ‘On a reasonable view,’ comments William Harris, ‘plundering was the main purpose of the war.’(18) Indeed, such were the spoils of 189 BC that even the Roman Senate was moved to question Manlius’ probity, and he was to be credited by later writers with first introducing luxuria(extravagant, conspicuous and morally corrupting consumption) to Rome; nonetheless, he was granted his triumph.

Then, in 188 BC, just as they had done in 196 BC, the Romans withdrew, not only from Asia, where the territory confiscated from the Seleucids was divided between Pergamum and Rhodes, but even from Greece. Why should they stay? Huge annual revenues were now flowing into the Roman treasury. In just 14 years (202–188 BC) the Roman state had imposed indemnities worth at least 26,500 talents on defeated states (a figure which takes no account of small indemnities perhaps not recorded in the sources, and the countless hauls of booty, the distribution of which was tightly organized and included a fixed proportion for the state). There was personal enrichment, too. Manlius Vulso was not the only Roman politician who found empire-building profitable. Another was Scipio Africanus, victor of Zama. He had gone to Asia as military advisor to the Roman commander, his brother Lucius, and on his return to Rome a financial scandal broke around his head. After the Battle of Magnesia, it seems, Antiochus had been required to pay 18 million denarii for the upkeep of the Roman army as long as it remained in Asia: no adequate account of what happened to this money was ever forthcoming. So much eastern wealth was dropping into outstretched private hands, in fact, that Lucius Aemilius Paullus, the victor of the Third Macedonian War (171–168 BC), was considered poor among aristocrats in having a fortune of only 360,000 denarii at the time of his death.

Not that his campaigns had been unprofitable. The Romans found cause for a renewed assault on Macedonia when Philip’s son and successor, King Perseus, attempted to rebuild his kingdom’s power. Whereas his father’s imperialism had left him friendless and isolated 30 years before, Perseus won support in the Greek cities, where democrats in particular were now hostile to the Roman hegemony. It did him little good. Though he was able to put 40,000 men into the field, even slightly outnumbering the Romans, the phalanx was defeated again at the battle of Pydna in 168 BC, where it was once more the victim of its own cumbersomeness. The pikemen charged in a solid mass, 20,000 strong – the Roman commander afterwards declared it the most terrifying thing he had ever seen – and the impact thrust the Roman line backwards. But the legionaries withdrew and reformed on rising ground, while the phalanx, surging forwards in the excitement of success, began to lose cohesion and split apart. The legionaries counterattacked, maniple by maniple, driving wedges into the gaps, where the gladius made short work of the pikemen close up.

Perseus surrendered and his kingdom was dissolved. Its territory was divided into four separate republics, and to preclude attempts at reunification these were denied the right to enter into mutual diplomatic relations. The inhabitants were obliged to pay tribute to Rome. Pergamum and Rhodes lost territory: they had not participated in the war, but neither had they supported Rome, and their motives were suspect. There was a general purge of the Greek aristocracy. In particular, 1,000 leading citizens of the Achaean League were deported to Rome. (Among them was the former politician Polybius, who became, in detention, a close friend and advisor to Scipio Aemilianus; and thus had both the leisure and privileged access to source material – not to mention the motive – to write his famous history.)

The most terrible fate was reserved for Epirus (modern Albania). Though she had given no practical support, Epirus had supported Perseus in the Third Macedonian War. Paullus was therefore ordered by the Senate to liquidate the Epirote people. The Roman army went there in 167 BC, broke up into small detachments, and then fell simultaneously upon all the towns and villages. They made a haul of 150,000 men, women and children, all of whom were sold into slavery. Some may have been kept back for a victory parade in Rome, an important construction project, or simply for the enjoyment of soldiers. Most were probably sold immediately to the Roman army slave-dealers, who would have shipped them to a slave market, like that on the island of Delos in the Aegean. We have no reliable figures for the total numbers enslaved in the Roman Empire. One estimate is that by the late 1st century BC there were two or three million slaves in Italy and Sicily, and that 100,000 new slaves were required each year to keep the market supplied. Rome’s wars were in part giant slave-raids, in which entire populations were uprooted and dispersed across the Mediterranean to places where they were required to labour for the Roman ruling class. As for Epirus, where 25,000 peasant families had once lived, it was turned into sheep-pasture for the benefit of absentee landowners.

Macedonia and Greece were to fight one final time. An adventurer called Andriscus, claiming to be the son of Perseus, made a bid to reunite Macedonia and restore the monarchy. Quintus Caecilius Metellus crushed the revolt with two legions in 148 BC, and Macedonia was then converted into a Roman province. At the same time, in Greece itself, the conflict between pro-Roman oligarchs – who were taunted in the streets as ‘traitors’ even by children – and the democratic citizenry boiled over in major street clashes. A Roman attempt to break up the Achaean League then provoked an open revolt centred on Corinth and led by a revolutionary democrat called Critolaus. Metellus rushed south from Macedonia to crush the revolt, but resistance was such that only a reinforced army of four legions under his successor Lucius Mummius was sufficient to restore Roman authority. An example was now made of the Greek ‘commune’ at Corinth: Mummius was ordered to destroy the city by handing it over to the soldiers. All the inhabitants, presumably many thousands, were either massacred or sold as slaves. The town was thoroughly looted, its great works of art shipped to Rome or simply destroyed. ‘I was there,’ declared Polybius. ‘I saw paintings trampled underfoot, and soldiers sitting down on them to play dice.’ When it was empty, the city was put to the torch. If you visit today, you find nothing of Classical Corinth save the ancient Temple of Apollo, which even the Romans were moved to spare; otherwise the ruins are those of a new Roman city of imperial times. The Achaean League was dissolved, oligarchy restored, the Greek cities forced to pay indemnities, and the Roman governor of Macedonia was authorized to intervene whenever necessary to maintain order.

Corinth was not the only great city destroyed in 146 BC. Carthage had recovered somewhat from the disaster of the Second Punic War. The indemnity was paid off and the city’s trade prospered again. But hawkish politicians in the Roman Senate were bent on its destruction – Marcus Porcius Cato, known to us as Cato the Elder, became famous for ending every speech with the words delenda est Carthago (‘Carthage must be destroyed’). A pretext was found in Carthage’s half-hearted attempts to defend herself against the attacks of her neighbour, the pro-Roman King of Numidia, Masinissa. In 149 BC the Assembly of the Centuries voted for war. Carthage made a desperate appeal for peace, handing over hostages and all war matériel (including 2,000 catapults). But as each demand was fulfilled, the Romans added new conditions, until finally they required the Carthaginians to abandon their city on the coast and retire to an inland site: a sentence of extinction on a mercantile people. The Carthaginians then prepared for armed resistance, working feverishly to strengthen the fortifications, restock the arsenals, train for military service, and fill the warehouses. What the Romans had expected to be a one-summer campaign turned into a gruelling four-year siege (149–146 BC). Publius Cornelius Scipio Aemilianus eventually assumed command. Son by blood of Aemilius Paullus, the victor of Pydna, and grandson by adoption of Scipio Africanus, conqueror of Hannibal, he represented the union of two great aristocratic houses, Scipiones and Aemilii, who shared a similar vision of Rome’s imperial mission.

Aemilianus drove the siege hard against a garrison weakened by hunger, finally breaking through the outer wall, and then, in a week of the most savage street-fighting, battling his way to the capture of the citadel. Dying Carthage fought back to the very end. The ancient writers describe apocalyptic scenes: the Roman soldiers deluged with missiles from roofs and upper windows; buildings torched and levelled with people still inside to make an approach ramp for the Roman assault; the Carthaginian commander’s wife, dressed in her finery, standing at the last redoubt on the highest part of the town, hurling her children into the flames of destruction before following herself. Of the 700,000 people supposed to have crowded into the city at the start of the siege, only 50,000 were left for the slave-dealers. The booty, though, was as rich as could be had anywhere in the world, and for several days the soldiers were free to plunder, saving only the gold, silver and votive offerings in the temples. This was reserved for official distribution – some to the soldiers, more to the generals, most to the state. The remaining buildings were then demolished. The great city of Carthage and its people – like Corinth, like the Epirotes, like so many others – ceased to exist.

By the middle of the 2nd century BC, Roman military imperialism had reached peak intensity. Superior power enabled the Roman ruling class to plunder the peoples of the Mediterranean almost at will. But all was not well at home. Roman Italy was exporting soldiers and importing spoils of war – primarily bullion and slaves, but also base metals, rich cloth, fine tableware, works of art, perfumes, ointments, spices, and much, much else. The flood of wealth was destabilizing the old social order. Some became fantastically rich and flaunted luxuria. Many, having benefited to a degree, now chafed at traditional barriers to further advancement. Others did not do well at all. Military service and agricultural depression ruined many poorer citizens. Big landlords were buying up failed farms. Slave labour replaced free men on Italian farms. The dispossessed packed the slums of Rome. A great, prolonged, multi-faceted social crisis was brewing in the heart of the empire. The Roman Republic – whose violence and greed had conquered the Mediterranean – was about to be shaken to destruction by the forces it had unleashed.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!