Ancient History & Civilisation

The First Macedonian War 215-205 BC

The war in Greece grew directly from the main conflict between Rome and Carthage, but differed from every other theatre of operations in several important respects. It was overwhelmingly a struggle of Greek against Greek. The Romans committed fewer troops to the area than any of the other main theatres, rarely sending more than a single legion supported by naval squadrons, whilst the only direct Carthaginian involvement consisted of a late and largely ineffectual appearance by a Punic fleet. The Romans were never Macedonia's sole or even main opponent, but simply another participant in the ongoing struggle for control of Greece. In the only pitched battle of this extended conflict, at Mantineia in 207, not a single Carthaginian or Roman soldier was present. Most of the fighting consisted of raids and sieges, with armies rarely mustering more than 4,000-5,000 men.

In the late third century Macedonia was not much larger than it had been before the conquests of Philip II and Alexander. Its influence and control over neighbouring Thrace, Illyria and Greece varied according to the strength of each Macedonian king and the current level of unity of the communities in that region. The instability of the Thracian and Illyrian tribes made it difficult to establish lasting control over, or even peace with, these peoples. In Greece, two powerful Leagues had developed, out-stripping the power of the surviving independent city states, such as Sparta and Athens, and the lesser regional leagues. Much of the Peloponnese was dominated by the Achaean League, whilst the Aetolian League occupied central Greece. The Leagues, city states and Macedonia itself competed for domination, allying with each other to oppose mutual enemies. Each state understandably pursued its own interests, so that such alliances often proved unstable. The Achaean League had more to fear from their neighbours the Aetolians than from the Macedonians, so were natural allies of the latter. Lacking the strength to overrun Greece by force, the Macedonians based their control of the area on a network of alliances. Warfare was common between the main players and their allies, but no side ever gained enough of an advantage to destroy its rivals. New territory and cities were acquired through military action, but the conflicts were invariably ended by treaties, which usually provided no more than a period of rest before a renewal of the conflict along the same, or similar, lines as alliances altered.

In 217 Philip V, the 21-year-old King of Macedonia, achieved an acceptable peace settlement in his long struggle with the Aetolian League. The Macedonians had long been nervous about the growth of Roman influence on their western border along the Illyrian coast. Following their successful operations against the pirates of the region in 229 and 219, the Romans had taken into their alliance and under their protection a number of cities in the area, including Apollonia and Lissus in the area of modern Albania, although these had not been formed into a province or provided with a permanent garrison. Hearing of Rome's difficulties in Italy, and the disaster at Trasimene in particular, Philip is said to have decided on a direct attack to overrun Rome's Illyrian allies, encouraged by Demetrius of Pharos, one of the Romans' chief opponents who had fled to the royal court. Employing local shipwrights, 100 biremes of the type used by the Illyrian pirates and known as lemboi were constructed. In the summer of 216, the new fleet put to sea and spent some time in training, before Philip sailed with them to the islands of Cephalania and Leucas. There he awaited information of the location of the Roman fleet and, learning that this was concentrated around Sicily, began to move up the western coast of Greece. Off Apollonia, a fresh report of approaching Roman warships caused panic and led Philip to decide on the immediate abandonment of the project. In fact, it was later discovered that only ten Roman ships were en route to support their Illyrian allies. These operations once again highlight the problems of gathering strategic intelligence in this period, a factor overlooked far too often by many modern commentators.10

Hannibal's continued successes in Italy, culminating in his massive victory at Cannae, encouraged Philip in his belief of Rome's current vulnerability. In 215 a delegation headed by an orator, Xenophanes of Athens, was sent to negotiate an alliance with Hannibal. The envoys seem to have had considerable difficulties in reaching their destination, and on the return trip were captured along with several Carthaginian officers by a Roman squadron. Xenophanes attempted to bluff his way out of the encounter, claiming that they were in fact a delegation sent by Philip to Rome, but the accents and dress of the Punic officers gave the game away. The group were arrested and a copy of the treaty as well as a letter from Hannibal to the king discovered. Later another embassy went from Macedonia to Hannibal in Italy, confirmed the alliance and returned safely. The treaty pledged mutual protection between Philip V, Macedonia and its allies in Greece and Hannibal, Carthage and its current and future allies in Italy, Gaul, Liguria, and North Africa. Each was to deal fairly and honestly with the other and be the enemy of the other's enemies. In particular, they were to be allies in the war with Rome until victory was achieved, and Hannibal should not make peace with Rome without ensuring that the Romans would not continue fighting Philip and would leave the king in possession of certain named cities along the Illyrian coast and restore territory to Demetrius of Pharos. If in future Rome made war on either Macedonia or Carthage, the other should come to its aid.11

The treaty is somewhat vague over precisely what sort of co-operation was envisaged between Hannibal and Philip during the war and, since nothing came of this, our sources' beliefs remain conjectural. Philip's main preoccupation was clearly with driving the Romans from Illyria. The treaty anticipated Rome emerging from the war with sufficient strength to attack either of the allies at some uncertain date in the future, a point we have already discussed in the context of Hannibal's war aims. The alliance with Philip and the assurance that he would attack Roman interests on yet another front offered a means of putting still more pressure on the embattled Roman Republic. What is clear is that Philip V saw this as a limited war to gain specific objectives. It was not to be a war to the death with Rome, ended only by the utter defeat of one or the other side. Cynically, the king took advantage of Rome's apparent vulnerability to further his own local ambitions.

Livy certainly believed that the Romans feared raiding or a direct Macedonian invasion of Italy. In the autumn of 215 a praetor, Marcus Valerius Laevinus, was sent to Brundisium to protect the coast, his province including the war with Macedon. Rome's Illyrian allies lay almost directly opposite Brundisium, separated by the narrowest part of the Adriatic. Laevinus had under his command two legions recently withdrawn from Sicily. By the next year, this was reduced to a single legion, but this was supported by the sizeable fleet which had been mustered, and Laevinus remained in command as a propraetor. He received reports sent by the city of Oricum that a Macedonian fleet consisting of 120 lemboi had launched a surprise attack on Apollonia and, having been checked there, had moved against Oricum and stormed it in a night assault. Laevinus embarked the majority of his legion and sailed to relieve the city, the small Macedonian garrison being rapidly defeated, and sent a detachment to the relief of Apollonia. These troops entered the allied city at night and then proceeded to sally out and surprise the poorly guarded camp of the Macedonian besiegers. Even if Livy's account may exaggerate the scale of the Roman success, Philip's offensive against the allied communities had been repulsed.12

Laevinus remained with his forces at Oricum for the next year, his command again being extended by the Senate. Philip V made no more aggressive moves against the Roman enclave and Laevinus' posture was entirely defensive so that no serious fighting occurred. In 211 the Romans concluded a treaty with the Macedonians' recent enemy, the Aetolian League, the terms of which are partially preserved on an inscription from Acarnania. The Aetolians agreed to begin operations against Philip V which were to be supported at sea by a fleet of at least twenty-five Roman quinqueremes. Detailed provision was made for the division of the spoils of success. All territory, cities and fortifications captured by the allies as far north as Cocyra, and in particular the region of Acarnania on the west coast, were to belong to the League. However, from these, the Romans were allowed to take movable booty. Both sides pledged not to conclude an independent treaty with Philip which would leave him free to attack the other. Provision was also made for other communities and leaders hostile to Philip and friendly to the Aetolians to join the alliance with Rome under precisely the same terms, and specific mention was made of Sparta, Elis, the kingdom of Pergamum, and certain Illyrian chieftains.13

The terms of the treaty were far more characteristically Greek than Roman and reveal far less determined objectives than was usual in Roman war-making. Clearly, in the same way that the alliance between Hannibal and Philip V had not envisaged the destruction of Rome, it was expected that Macedonia would survive the war with enough strength to represent a potential threat to either the Romans or the Aetolians on their own. The primary aim of the Aetolians was to extend their territory, adding other communities to the League. They were very much the dominant partner in the alliance, who would provide the bulk of the troops. The expectation that other powers in Greece and Asia Minor might wish to join the struggle against Philip V emphasized how much the Aetolians viewed this as the continuation of earlier conflicts. The clauses dealing with the distribution of plunder reflect its traditional importance in Roman campaigns. The prospect of loot seems to have been an important additional incentive for Roman legionaries, in addition to their fierce patriotism. The Senate also expected the defeated enemy to provide at least some of the funds to pay for the cost of the campaign waged against them, so that capitulating states were frequently obliged to supply considerable stocks of food, clothing or material for the Roman army. The need to fund his operations may have been a particular concern for Laevinus, who must have realized that his province was not the Senate's highest priority when it came to the allocation of resources.14

It had taken several years from the opening of hostilities between Rome and Macedon before the Aetolians were willing to ally with Rome, and it was not actually till 209 that the treaty was formally ratified by Rome, although co-operation between Laevinus and the League began immediately. Macedonia was its natural enemy, but the League had needed to be convinced of the value to them of an alliance with Rome. Similarly it was only after the Romans and Aetolians had won some victories that other likely opponents of Philip V and his allies felt that this was an opportune moment to enter the war. Elis joined the alliance in 210, Sparta soon afterwards, and King Attalus of Pergamum at the end of the same year. The Achaean League, threatened by both Sparta and the Aetolians, rallied to Philip's cause.15

The Aetolian and Roman campaign began with a series of raids against Philip and his allies, the Roman squadron making sudden descents on coastal communities. An early attack on Acarnania failed. Most of the successes, especially the capture of cities, were due to the speed and surprise of an attack, or as elsewhere the result of treachery by some of the defenders. Philip V was faced by many threats simultaneously, as chieftains in Illyria raided his lands and the Aetolians, Romans, and their growing number of allies attacked his adherents in Greece. The young king responded with tremendous energy, rapidly marching his soldiers to face one threat after another. Like the other Hellenistic kingdoms, Macedonia possessed a relatively large army of professional soldiers. Early in the second century, Philip was able to field a force of over 20,000 of these, its core being the well-trained infantry of the pike phalanx. We have far less detail about the army during this period, but it is highly unlikely that so many men were ever concentrated in one place. Cavalry, a far lower proportion of the total force than they had been under Alexander the Great, figure prominently in the brief accounts of these campaigns. On at least some occasions Philip V commanded in the same manner as his illustrious predecessor, charging spear in hand at the head of his cavalry, narrowly escaping death or capture on several occasions. The professionalism of the Macedonian army was reflected in a greater effectiveness in siegecraft, shown for instance in the capture of Echinous in 210.16

Philip V displayed great skill in these campaigns, winning a number of large skirmishes, but he could not be everywhere at once and the Aetolians and Romans continued to enjoy some limited successes. When Laevinus returned to Rome to hold the consulship in 210 he even recommended the demobilization of the legion he had left in Greece, and the Roman military presence in the area was certainly reduced under his successor, Publius Sulpicius Galba. In spite of this confidence, the balance of power steadily shifted in favour of Philip V. Livy claims that ambassadors from several powers including Ptolemaic Egypt, Athens and the wealthy island of Rhodes came to the king in 209 and attempted to persuade him to negotiate a peace with the Aetolians. They were concerned that he might soon achieve a complete military victory that would give him an overwhelmingly powerful position in Greece for the foreseeable future. A thirty-day truce, another common feature of wars between Greek states, was agreed, but no permanent setdement concluded and the war recommenced at the end of this period. Philip V continued to make every effort to protect his allies, either in person or by sending detachments of soldiers to their aid. In 207 Philip led a large and determined raid into the territory of the Aetolian League. In the Peloponnese, the newly trained and reorganized army of the Achaean League under the leadership of the gifted soldier and politician Philopoemen shattered the Spartan army at Mantineia, a battleground which had already witnessed several of the largest battles in Greek military history. These twin blows sapped the will of the Aetolian League to continue the struggle. Like any other Hellenistic state, they expected wars to be concluded by a negotiated settlement and in 206 the Aetolians agreed on peace terms with Philip.17

The capitulation and withdrawal from the war of Rome's main ally did not mean the end of the fighting. Roman forces in the area were increased, the command given to a proconsul rather than a propraetor. This man, Publius Sempronius Tuditanus, brought 11,000 soldiers and thirty-five quinqueremes with him in 205. Some aggressive moves were made by both sides, Philip repeating his earlier attack against Apollonia, but the Romans refused the king's challenge to fight a pitched battle. The operations at this stage were confined to the western coastal area of modern Albania where the conflict had first originated, since without major allies in Greece it was impractical for the Romans to operate there. Ambassadors from Epirus approached both sides and successfully negotiated a peace treaty, the Peace of Phoinike. Under the terms of this Philip V gave up some of the towns he had captured, notably those allied to Rome, but retained many of his other conquests. Unlike other Roman treaties to end a conflict this was negotiated between equals. Macedonia was recognized as a fully independent power, in no way absorbed into Rome's dominion of subordinate allies."

The outcome of the First Macedonian War was unlike that of any other conflict fought by the Romans in the third century BC. Dissatisfaction with the failure to defeat Philip V, combined with the strong legacy of hatred and mistrust resulting from his unprovoked attack on Rome during its worst crisis, ensured that a new war with Macedonia followed almost immediately after the eventual defeat of Carthage. In the context of the Second Punic War, the fighting with Macedonia had allowed the Romans at minimal cost to prevent Hannibal from gaining any tangible benefit from his alliance with Philip. It had essentially been a Greek conflict, fought mostly by the Hellenistic states according to their own military conventions and concluded in the normal manner of Hellenistic warfare.

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