Ancient History & Civilisation

The Rise of Two Empires

Chapter 1

A New World Order: The Roman Conquest of the East

In order to fully analyse the nature of the clash that took place at Carrhae in 53 BC, we must understand the seemingly inexorable spread of the Roman Republic from Italy across the whole of the eastern Mediterranean. Although the Roman Republic eventually conquered Spain, Gaul, Eastern Europe, and North Africa, it is the conquest of the eastern civilisations of Greece, Asia Minor and the Middle East that are the most important, as they represented the most advanced of the ancient civilisations. Prior to the rise of Rome, ancient civilisations developed in the east, spreading from Mesopotamia and Egypt, and included such societies as the Egyptians, Babylonians, Assyrians, Hittites, Persians and Greeks. The history of the ancient world prior to Rome had been made by these great peoples. Massive advances made in the fields of politics, warfare, culture, trade, medicine, architecture and exploration had led to the development of societies with a level of sophistication that was comparable to the most recent centuries of the modern world.

This process reached a peak with the campaigns of Alexander the Great, when virtually all the races of the eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East were united in a single kingdom that stretched from Greece to India. Throughout the rise of the civilised east, the western Mediterranean was composed of barbarian tribes, interspersed with Greek colonies on the coastlines. Italy stood at the intersection of these two differing worlds of the barbarous west and the civilised east, which was reflected in its ethnic composition. There were numerous indigenous tribes, most notably the Latin and Samnite races dwelling in the middle of Italy. Northern Italy was occupied first by Etruscan invaders and later by Gaulish ones, whilst the south was composed of Greek city-states, founded by settlers from mainland Greece. Thus Italy and the races within occupied the periphery of the ancient world.

When looking at the history of Rome, this fact must always been borne in mind. The hub of events and civilisation was Greece and the Near East, with events in Italy of little note. However, whilst the world’s attention was focussed on the exploits of Alexander, events were taking place in Italy that were to have serious implications for the rest of the ancient world. For the first few centuries of its existence, Rome was an unremarkable city. Founded in the mid-eighth century (753 BC according to tradition1) as a monarchy, Rome spent the first four centuries of her existence engaging in what were the typical activities of an ancient city-state, namely internal squabbles over the system of government and warring with their near neighbours for control of the local lands. Roman conquests from the eighth to the fourth centuries BC had been unremarkable and by the mid-fourth century, Rome was merely the dominant state in the Latin area of Italy; so far an unremarkable fate for an unremarkable city. Yet behind this mediocrity lay a foundation for greatness.

Sources for Roman History

There are numerous surviving sources which detail the history of the period sketched out below. For the early Roman period, we have the histories of Livy2 and Dionysius of Halicarnassus, though both were written in the late first century BC / first century AD and so are open to question over their accuracy3. For the period of eastern expansion we have the histories of Livy4 and Polybius (who was a Greek fighting against Rome in the second century BC5). Plutarch, a first century AD Graeco-Roman writer, has a number of biographies of Roman generals from the period in question.6 Appian, another Graeco-Roman writer, from the second century AD wrote a number of histories of the Roman wars; in particular, the Syrian wars, the Mithridatic wars and the civil wars. These are our principal histories for this chapter, though there are a number of lesser ones, which will be encountered as we progress. For more detail on these writers and their works, see appendices two and three.

The Roman System of Government and the Military

The city of Rome was ruled by an aristocracy, who in c. 508 BC had overthrown their king and established what is now called a republic.7 Though that word comes from the Latin res publica – the public concern or good – the Romans always referred to their system of government as ‘the Senate and People of Rome’, or SPQR for short. In theory the two central planks of this system were the aristocracy, whose views were expressed through the Senate, and the people, who were collected together in electoral assemblies. Under the Republic’s unwritten constitution, the Senate was merely an advisory council, with all laws being voted into existence by the people’s assemblies. In reality the Senate controlled all proposals that were put before the people, who only had limited rights of proposing legislation. The senior magistrates of Rome and the de-facto heads of state were the consuls; two men elected by the people (from the aristocracy) for a period of one year only, who controlled both military and civilian matters (generals and prime ministers rolled into one).

In terms of military organisation this system had both benefits and faults. The major benefit was that it gave Rome a number of military commanders to operate under and this encouraged warfare and the gaining of glory, which were central tenets of the Roman aristocratic ethos. This allowed Rome to field a number of different armies at once. For a time (444–367 BC) the system of having two consuls a year was alternated with a special office known as the military tribunate with consular power, of which there could be as many as six a year. Thus one year might have two consuls, whilst the next could have six consular tribunes, dependant upon Rome’s military needs. The major fault of this system was that having multiple commanders sometimes resulted in disagreement and division and the change of commanders every year led to a lack of consistency (though as time wore on commanders were allowed to remain in the field until the campaign had been concluded).

One key point needs to be made about the nature of the Roman army throughout the majority of this period, namely that it was a citizen militia, raised from the Roman citizens of Italy and their Italian allies. Each army was raised on a needs-only basis, campaigned for a season (spring and summer) and were demobilised for the autumn. As Rome’s military commitments increased then so did the length of service, but the legionaries were still dismissed when the campaign was over. In other words, Rome had no standing army or professional body of soldiers, but given Rome’s near-constant warfare throughout its early existence, this did lead to the creation of an aggressive and experienced citizen body of men.

The Foundations of Rome’s Greatness

In the fourth century BC, two major aspects of the Roman system changed, one internal and one external. As with all city-states in the ancient world, there were internal political divisions over access to power. Although the citizenry could vote for proposed laws in the various assemblies8, this process was controlled by the elite group of the aristocratic families known as the patricians, whose claim to power was based on ancestral descent from the original founding families from the time of the kings. Since the patrician families seized control of the Roman state in c.508 BC, they had been under pressure from those citizens who had been excluded from political power. These men formed a group known as the plebeians, though eventually this term came to be used for everyone who wasn’t a patrician. The year 367 BC saw this struggle between the two groups (known as the ‘struggle of the orders’) achieve a breakthrough, with plebeians being admitted to the consulship, which became the sole chief political and military magistracy, with the consular tribunate being abolished. Thus the Roman command structure of two consuls became permanent and Rome had a far greater pool of talent from which to draw the best generals.

In 338 BC, Rome achieved such an unassailable dominance amongst the Latin city-states of central Italy that she was able to abolish the Latin League (the confederacy of Latin city-states of which Rome was the head), and replace it with a system of alliances that tied each of the city-states directly to Rome herself. It was this decision more than any other that laid the foundation for Rome’s subsequent military success. The basis of each of these alliances between Rome and the other cities was that they would supply Rome with soldiers when called upon to fight for her. This essentially gave Rome an unlimited supply of military manpower and far more soldiers than a small city-state could supply from within her own citizenry. Rome’s population in this period was upward of 250,000 citizens, of whom only a percentage would be of the right age and sex for military service. The additional allied manpower meant that Rome could regularly field armies of 40,000 plus and in emergences upward of 90,000 men.9

This new military manpower translated itself into a series of wars of conquest within Italy, most notably between the 330s and 290s BC when Rome fought a series of three wars against the other major Italian power, the Samnites. These ended in Roman victory and Samnite subjugation, followed by alliance to Rome. Thus, by the 290s BC Rome controlled the central Italian states. The next obvious targets for their attentions were the Greek city-states of southern Italy.

Given the massive disparity in military strength between Rome and these states, the Greek cities could not have hoped to stop Roman aggression. However, these city-states had long adopted a policy of seeking help from mainland Greece. During this period, Greece had seen the dream of a united ‘world’ civilisation under Alexander the Great end with his death in 323 BC. This was followed by the bloody break-up of his empire as his generals fought a protracted series of wars that saw the vast territories of the ancient world carved up between three major superpowers, along with a number of lesser powers.

One of these lesser kingdoms was that of Epirus (modern Albania) which was ruled by a young adventurous monarch, King Pyrrhus. It was to him that the Greek city-states of southern Italy turned when they needed assistance in fighting off Rome, and it was Pyrrhus who was the first enemy from the more advanced states of the eastern Mediterranean that the Romans faced. In many ways this first contact between the two civilisations set the tone for the future conflicts between them.

First Contact – The Pyrrhic Wars (280–275 BC)

The conflict between the Roman Republic and Pyrrhus was the first major interaction between the Greek civilisations of the east and the Roman one of the west, and its conclusion saw the Greek awareness of Rome reach a new height. It was also this invasion from the east that helped to set the tone for the next two hundred years of Roman foreign policy.10

The various Greek city-states of southern Italy were a loose collection of independent states which ranged from minor settlements to great cities. Of these, perhaps the most powerful was the city of Tarentum, which was the centre of the Italian woollen and ceramic trade and possessed a large army (for a city-state) of 15,000, along with a strong navy. Throughout the period of Roman expansion, Tarentum had enjoyed cordial relations with Rome, but in the 330s BC began a policy of inviting Greek kings over from the mainland to fight on behalf of the loose confederation of southern Italian Greek city-states. In 334 BC, King Alexander of Epirus, a brother in law of Alexander the Great himself, arrived in Italy in a campaign to protect these cities from the raids of their neighbouring Italian states. In this period, these enemies did not include Rome and the two parties concluded a non-aggression pact, which included a Roman naval exclusion from the Gulf of Otranto.

King Alexander’s campaign, though initially successful, ended with his betrayal and death. He was followed in 303 BC by Cleonymus of Sparta and in 298 by Agathocles of Syracuse. Thus Tarentum had long established a pattern of inviting mainland Greek assistance whenever their borders were threatened, and Italy proved to be an exotic diversion for many a Greek king who was tiring of the wars and politics of the mainland.

The recent wars against the Samnites had brought Rome to the borders of the Greek cities and in 282 BC the Romans intervened in southern Italy to assist the Greek city of Thurii from raiders. This assistance took the form of a small land force and a small naval detachment that entered the Gulf of Otranto. It is doubtful that the Romans even remembered their earlier pact with Alexander of Epirus on this point, but the Tarentines interpreted it, quite understandably, as a blatant act of Roman aggression and retaliated swiftly, attacking and driving off both the land and naval force.

At the time the Romans had several other campaigns in other parts of Italy and merely responded by sending an embassy to Tarentum to seek reparation. This was soundly rebuffed and Tarentum once again turned to their usual policy and sought military assistance from the mainland. Once again they turned to the kingdom of Epirus and its current king, Pyrrhus. At this time Pyrrhus had the reputation of being one of the great generals of his day, who had been engaged in the wars that still raged in the Greek world following the death of Alexander.11 Weary of the fighting in Greece he eagerly sought a fresh challenge and arrived with 25,000 battle-hardened Greek veterans.

Thus the Romans found themselves at war with a general from the Greek world for the first time. This conflict was to be an instructive one all round. In 280 BC the Romans and the Greeks met in battle at Heraclea, where a force of 20,000 Romans was soundly defeated by Pyrrhus. Although the Roman legionaries held their own against Pyrrhus’ pikemen, the Roman cavalry proved to be no match for his elephants. This victory saw the other Greek cities of southern Italy join his cause, along with the Lucanians and the Samnites.

The resultant push into central Italy, however, soon revealed the strength of the Roman alliance system, as Rome’s older Latin allies remained loyal and soon provided Rome with fresh armies, forcing Pyrrhus to retreat back into southern Italy. These were the keys lessons that Hannibal learnt later in the century, but ones that he could not overcome. In 279 BC the Romans were sufficiently strong to give battle once again, this time at Asculum. Both sides numbered 40,000–50,000 and again Pyrrhus emerged victorious, though with heavy casualties.

Pyrrhus then attempted to negotiate with the Roman Senate to secure the freedom and security of the Greek city-states of south Italy, but his overtures were vehemently rejected. Instead Rome reached a new agreement with the North African power of Carthage, which was steadily advancing her empire through Sicily. In response, Pyrrhus moved his campaigning to Sicily to fight the Carthaginians in 278 BC. His absence saw the Roman armies advance into southern Italy and defeat many of his allies, forcing him to return to mainland Italy in 276 BC. Upon his return he again gave battle at Maleventum, but was defeated by two consular armies. This proved to be the end of the war for Pyrrhus as he returned to Epirus and left a garrison at Tarentum. By 272 BC he had tired of his Italian excursion and recalled the garrison leaving the city to the Romans. By the end of that year the Romans had overrun Tarentum and re-conquered the Samnites to become masters of the Italian peninsula.

This war was an important milestone for the Romans in particular, and the Mediterranean world at large, for a number of reasons. Rome had defeated a Greek incursion by one of the best commanders of the day and subjugated the Greek city-states of southern Italy. In doing so Rome had gained the attention of the other Mediterranean powers. The treaty with Carthage in 278 BC was followed by the establishment of diplomatic relations with the kingdom of Egypt in 273 BC, one of the ‘big three’ of the Mediterranean superpowers (the other two being Macedon and the Seleucid empire).

In addition, the Romans had adapted to Greek battle tactics, having met elephants in battle for the first time, and had eventually gained a victory over Pyrrhus. It was Pyrrhus himself who noted that the superiority of the Romans was not necessarily their ability to win victories, but their amazing ability to recover from losses in terms of manpower. In the ancient world, few states could recover from losing an army of 20,000 men in less than a generation. The Romans, thanks to their unique system of alliances (which placed an obligation on their allies to provide Rome with troops), could recover from these losses and actually outmatch their enemies. As Pyrrhus discovered after his first two battles, although he had emerged victorious and had inflicted more casualties upon the Romans, he could not sustain his own losses, as he could not replace his men as quickly as the Romans could. This led to his famous statement that he is alleged to have made, which provided the modern world with the concept of a Pyrrhic victory: ‘If we are victorious in one more battle with the Romans, we shall be utterly ruined’.12

The Quiet Wars (275–200 BC)

First & Second Illyrian Wars (229–228, 219 BC)

First Macedonian War (216–205 BC)

Although you might have expected this initial conflict between Rome and the eastern powers to have been followed by a greater Roman involvement in the Greek world, this did not take place until later in the third century BC and then only on a limited scale. The key reasons for this were the two monumental wars Rome fought with Carthage: the Punic Wars (264–241 & 218–201 BC), fought for control of Sicily, Spain and ultimately the whole of the western Mediterranean. Although these wars lie outside of the scope of this work, they contained within them increasing interaction between the affairs of Rome and those of the Greek world, which can best be labelled as representing a ‘quiet war’.

The aftermath of the First Punic War between Rome and Carthage had seen Rome gain control of the islands of Sardinia and Corsica, which were reorganised into Rome’s first overseas provinces, as well as a dominant role in Sicily. This, and the previous dismantling of the Tarentine fleet, led Rome to consider her territorial waters for the first time, a task made all the easier by the construction of a permanent Roman fleet (another legacy of the First Punic War). With her western and southern coastal waters secure, Rome’s attention turned to the Adriatic, where the cities and towns of the Illyrian coast (modern Croatia) had united under one ruler, Queen Teuta, and had taken up piracy as a major occupation.

Rome’s initial response was to send an embassy (in 230 BC) to demand a halt to the piracy. When one of the envoys was murdered, however, Rome responded by sending both consuls to the Adriatic with a well-equipped army and a fleet. The Illyrian pirates were soon swept aside and Rome established a protectorate over the towns of the Illyrian coast. This protectorate was not direct rule, nor was a formal treaty of alliance established, but for the first time towns on the Greek side of the Adriatic came under the influence of the Roman Republic. As part of a diplomatic offensive, the Romans sent embassies to the cities of Athens and Corinth and the Achaean and Aetolian federations (the two main alliances of mainland Greek city-states) to assure them of Rome’s good intentions. Aside from formal courtesies, Rome was admitted into the Isthmian Games, a formal recognition of Rome’s entry into the ‘civilised’ Greek world.

In 219 BC this protectorate over the Illyrian towns was challenged by an adventurer named Demetrius of Pharos, who had been an ally of Rome in the First Illyrian War. The resulting war was little more than a policing action, but it had one important consequence, as the soon-defeated Demetrius fled to Philip V of Macedon, the nearest of the big three superpowers.

On coming to the throne of Macedon in 221 BC, Philip V inherited a strong position. Macedon not only comprised the actual territory of the Kingdom of Macedon itself (see map 1), but operated a protectorate over mainland Greece as head of the Hellenic Confederacy, a position backed by the largest army in the Greek mainland. With Greece under his control and deadlock in the political and military situation in Asia Minor and the Aegean, Philip could afford to turn his attention to the emerging power of Rome. In 218 BC, not only did Demetrius of Pharos flee to his court and attract his ear, but Rome began the Second Punic War with Carthage, a war noted for the invasion of Italy in 218 by the famous Carthaginian general Hannibal. By 216 BC Hannibal had inflicted four defeats on Rome, including the devastating ambush at Lake Trasimene and the catastrophic defeat at Cannae, where the Romans lost upward of 50,000 men.13

Seeing Rome’s plight, Philip took a decision that would ultimately turn out to have a disastrous effect on the Greek world and Macedon in particular, namely to set himself against Rome. Initially he started out on a small scale, with a planto restore Demetrius to his Illyrian base and thus acquire a naval presence in the Adriatic for Macedon. When the Romans learned of this plan, however, they sent a fleet into the Adriatic (despite the situation in Italy) and forced Philip to abandon the scheme.

His next plan took on a greater boldness when he conducted an alliance between Macedon and Hannibal. Hannibal must have hoped that this would open up a second front against Rome and provide him with much-needed reinforcements. Philip’s motives are less clear; certainly he wanted the expulsion of the Romans from Illyria (to be replaced by Macedonian influence no doubt), but whether he wanted to expand Macedonian influence over the Greek cities of southern Italy is not clear.

Philip’s intervention sparked off what is now known as the First Macedonian War between Rome and Philip V, which was little more than a phoney war in military terms, but would have long-lasting political implications. The Romans were too occupied with fighting the Carthaginians to give the matter their full attention and, aside from deploying a force in Illyria, relied upon acting through other agents. They embarked upon a series of alliances with states that were enemies of Macedon, including the Aetolian League in Greece and the kingdom of Pergamum in Asia Minor, which led to fighting in Greece between Philip and the Aetolians. By 206 BC the Aetolians had come to terms with Philip and Rome also concluded a formal treaty with him in 205 BC, by which time the Carthaginians were on the back-foot and this so-called war was a distraction. Under the treaty Philip did acquire an outlet on the Adriatic coast, but at the cost of enduring Roman enmity and disunity amongst the mainland Greeks. For the Romans, although they had neither lost nor acquired territory (they still had their protectorate over Illyria), they had defended their presence in mainland Greece and had been drawn into the world of Hellenistic power politics, finding allies in both Greece and Asia Minor.

This short period of phoney war had seen little in the way of serious military action, but it had drawn Rome from the periphery of the Hellenistic world into a war with one of the big three and into military and political alliances with other Hellenistic states. This First Macedonian War may have been a non-event which ended in a stalemate, but Rome had been completely victorious in the western Mediterranean, with Carthage reduced to a minor city-state. This left Rome unchallenged in the west and with a new enemy in the east. Thus the foundation had been laid for the overthrow of the Hellenistic status quo and the establishment of a new world order.

The Liberation of Greece (200–188 BC)

Second Macedonian War (200–196 BC)

Spartan War (195–194 BC)

First Seleucid War (192–188 BC)

For the Romans the Second Punic War had been a life or death struggle, with Hannibal roaming Italy for sixteen years, inflicting heavy defeats upon them. This was accompanied by the ever-present threat of an attack on the city of Rome itself (which was a potent image in the Roman psyche, after a Gallic invasion had attacked and sacked Rome in 390 BC14). Yet despite these constant years of struggle, instead of enjoying their victory, the Romans embarked upon a further decade of warfare.

It is this decade that is perhaps the most momentous in Roman imperial history as it saw the Romans defeat two of the ‘big three’ Hellenistic superpowers, Macedon and the Seleucid empire (the two biggest at the time, in military terms). In just over a decade, the Romans went from being on the periphery of the Hellenistic world to being its most dominant power.

The cause of this rapid rise to dominance had its origins in Greece and the actions of Philip V of Macedon. With a stalemate against Rome in the First Macedonian War and his ally Hannibal defeated, Philip turned his attentions back to the Aegean. He formed an alliance with the Seleucid king, Antiochus III (the Great), for a joint attack on the empire of the third leading Hellenistic power, Egypt. Such an alliance alarmed the states who were opposed to Macedonian dominance, namely the Aetolian League of Greek city-states as well as Pergamum and the island state of Rhodes. The Aetolian League made the first move by sending an embassy to Rome in 202 BC to ask for assistance. Naturally enough, the Senate refused the request as they were still embroiled in a war against Carthage and were in the process of invading North Africa.

The following year Rhodes and Pergamum sent a joint embassy to Rome with the same request. In a surprising and momentous decision, the Senate agreed to their request to intervene militarily against Philip V. Why did they agree to this request when they had refused the one a year earlier? There are a number of possible reasons. Certainly this delegation, comprising perhaps the two strongest ‘middle order’ states of the Hellenistic world, carried more weight and offered the prospect of stronger allies than the weak Aetolian League. Furthermore, the war against Carthage had been successfully brought to a conclusion with Scipio Africanus’ victory over Hannibal at the Battle of Zama. Rome now possessed more battle-hardened legionaries than at any time previously. Therefore, as well as having the opportunity, they now had the resources to fight a fresh war. An alliance between Philip and Antiochus, both considered to be the greatest military rulers of their day, presented a formidable opposition that could one day be turned against Rome, at least in the minds of the Senate.15

It is this last point that is perhaps the most important one, as the decision to go to war against Philip had no obvious physical cause; Philip was campaigning in the Aegean and was not threatening Roman territory or even their Illyrian protectorate and it was likely that he would be engaged there for a number of years to come. Yet to the Senate this seemed the perfect time, for three key reasons. Firstly, there was the euphoria of victory caused by the military triumph over Carthage, Rome’s most dangerous enemy for the last sixty-plus years. This victory would have produced a sense of arrogance and invincibility in the minds of the Roman leaders. Secondly, the Roman state had been at war for eighteen years and now had a whole state geared for warfare, along with a huge number of seasoned troops and a new wave of victorious generals (with Scipio Africanus being the most famous). If they demobilised now then they might never assemble such military might again, especially if you consider the lack of a standing Roman army. Associated with this is the paradoxical sense of insecurity that the war had produced. Hannibal’s invasion, shocking victories and sixteen-year rampage through Italy had deeply affected the Roman psyche, and on many occasions the spectre of a ‘new Hannibal’ was a powerful political image.

Many have argued that the Romans developed a concept of ‘defensive imperialism’, whereby a powerful state develops a policy of pre-emptive strikes against potential foes that they believe will one day, inevitably, attack them on their home soil.16This policy is usually prompted by a political or military shock. In Rome’s case this shock was the Hannibalic invasion and the disastrous Battle of Cannae. Whilst there is little practical case for Philip representing an immediate threat to Rome, wars are generally started in politicians’ minds first, and the Roman senators were no different to the politicians of today.

Added to this dangerous mix of arrogance and paranoia, backed up by a large military system, was a conscious desire to extend Roman pre-eminence from the western Mediterranean to the Greek mainland itself. This is not the same as a thirst for empire, as the Romans in this era had little desire for physical empire and the practicalities of imperial governance. The Romans had a clear concept of auctoritas, which best translates from the Latin as prestige. Individual Romans sought it through military and political careers and the Senate sought it for the state by defeating the other leading powers of the Mediterranean and establishing her influence over lesser states. The chance of extending Rome’s benevolent (in her view) protection over the mainland Greek city-states, rather than just the Illyrian towns, could have been just too strong a temptation to resist. This would have been aided by the sense of cultural inferiority that the Roman elite felt towards the Greek mainland, though whether this was based on the Greece of the past, or the one that faced them, is hard to determine.

Thus the Senate voted for war with Philip, but then faced an immediate and unusual challenge to their decision. Under the Republic’s unwritten constitution based on a tradition of ‘custom and practice’, matters of foreign policy were for the consuls and the Senate to decide, with the people seen as nothing more than a rubber stamp for their decisions. However, when the consul Sulpicius, who had been voted command of the war with Macedon by the Senate, put this decision before the assemblies for ratification (as was necessary under the Roman system), the people, weary after eighteen years of warfare and its consequences, and fearful of its continuation, voted decisively against the war. This rejection was an unusual occurrence and shows the depth of war-weariness that the people of Rome must have felt. Not to be deterred though, the consul Sulpicius went again to the people and put the question once more. This time, the people relented and reluctantly agreed to the war.

The Second Macedonian War saw Roman legions operating on the Greek mainland and the Roman fleet operating in the Aegean, for the first time. The rest of the Hellenistic states expected a long drawn-out affair, on a par with Rome’s Punic Wars (twenty-three and eighteen years respectively). At first this war seemed to bear out their thoughts as the years 199–197 BC saw indecisive campaigning throughout the Macedonian region. Philip, lacking the resources for a protracted war, determined to bring the Romans, led by the consul Titus Quinctius Flamininus, to battle. The Battle of Cynoscephalae in 197 BC was the first battle between the Macedonians (the leading Greek army since the 350s BC) and the Romans (the new upstart power in the Mediterranean). After a long drawn out day of fighting the manoeuvrability of the Roman legionary, as opposed to the pikemen of the Macedonian phalanx, proved to be the decisive factor and saw the Macedonians defeated in a land battle for the first time in centuries. Macedon lay humiliated and Greece lay open to Rome.

What happened next summed up Rome’s whole imperial attitude and surprised many of the Greeks. Arriving at the Isthmian Games of 196 BC, Flamininus proclaimed that, thanks to Rome, Greece had been liberated and that this freedom would be guaranteed in the future by Rome.17Macedonian garrisons were evacuated and their control over the Greek mainland was ended. Further military action ensued when the tyrant of Sparta, Nabis, attempted to use this situation to expand Spartan power. Sparta in these years was little more than a minor city-state and their swift defeat seemed to sum up the changing of the old order, with both Macedon and Sparta being humbled by Roman armies. By the end of this war, Flamininus remained true to his word: Rome took no territory and by 194 BC had evacuated her armies from mainland Greece.18

This evacuation illustrates an important point about Roman attitudes in this era. Roman policy can best be summed up by a desire for hegemony, rather than empire; that is to say the desire for pre-eminence amongst the states of the Hellenistic world (to be first amongst equals) rather than the annexation of territory, which the Romans would have considered to be both time consuming and cumbersome. Roman overseas territory at this stage was restricted to the islands of Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica, with the only substantial mainland territory being the south and east of Spain, which they took over from the Carthaginians and continued to hold merely to deny them a powerbase.

Rome’s wish for a free Greek mainland was almost immediately put to the test, as the fall of Macedon presented a major opportunity to the other key figure of the Hellenistic world at that time. Antiochus III ruled the Seleucid empire which stretched from the Mediterranean to the Caspian Sea (see map 1). Not only was he considered the pre-eminent general of his age and the Seleucid empire the obvious remaining rival to Rome’s new position in Greece, but in 195 BC Hannibal, Rome’s implacable Carthaginian enemy, had fled from his home city to the court of Antiochus. To say that this move alarmed Rome would have been an understatement.

Rome’s initial response was a cautious one. Asia Minor and the Middle East were far outside of Rome’s experience and sphere of knowledge, and so diplomatic talks were entered into to sort out the issues between Rome and Antiochus. Talks between the two parties started at Rome and continued at Ephesus, but soon stalled. At this time in the Greek mainland, the Aetolian League, who had been Rome’s ally against Macedon but considered that they had been poorly rewarded for their services, invited Antiochus to free Greece from Roman domination (as they saw it). Unable to resist the challenge, Antiochus accepted the offer and in 192 BC invaded the Greek mainland. Faced with a clear challenge of this sort and with the spectre of Hannibal once again threatening them, Rome quickly declared war. Thus, within the same decade as the Romans had fought Macedon, they found themselves at war with the Seleucid empire.

The First Seleucid War had two clear phases. The initial phase saw Roman armies, led by Marcus Acilius Glabrio defeat the Seleucid forces in Greece. This was accomplished at the Battle of Thermopylae, scene of the heroic Spartan last stand in the Persian Wars in 480 BC. Once again the defenders (Antiochus) attempted to hold the pass from the Roman forces and once again the invaders choose to go round the back of the pass and surround the defenders. Defeat at Thermopylae cost Antiochus his army and forced him to retreat back across the Aegean to Asia Minor. This left the Aetolian League alone to face Rome’s wrath for their act of treachery. Attempts to negotiate were met with demands for an unconditional surrender. By 189 BC the Aetolians finally came to terms with Rome, with the league being reduced to impotence and being restricted solely to the Aetolian region and bound by treaty to Rome, thus ending their existence as an independent force. This incident perhaps shows how quickly the Roman dream of an independent Greece, living under the benevolent protection of Rome, had turned sour and foundered upon the deeply-engrained disunity and power struggles amongst the Greek cities.

With Greece safely back under Rome’s wing, the issue of Antiochus came to the fore. Any invasion of Asia Minor required control of the seas and the fleet of Antiochus was faced by the combined fleets of Rome, Pergamum and Rhodes. The naval war raged over the years 191 and 190 BC and saw a Roman victory at Cape Corycus, the destruction of a Rhodian fleet at Samos and finally a decisive Roman/Pergamene victory at Myonnesus in 190 BC, which was the last decisive naval battle fought by Rome for over a century.

Having secured control of the Aegean, a Roman army led by the consul of 190 BC, Lucius Cornelius Scipio (brother of Scipio Africanus), crossed into Asia Minor, an act that would have been inconceivable to a Roman commander just ten years earlier. Despite the Roman force only being 30,000 strong, Antiochus attempted to negotiate, but Lucius deliberately set unacceptable terms. With no other option available, Antiochus gave battle in 190 BC at Magnesia.

Ranged against the Roman force was an army of roughly 72,000 men, backed up by elephants and heavy cavalry. However, the battle saw the Roman legionaries defeat the Greek phalanx once again. Antiochus’ cavalry was routed by the Pergamene allied cavalry and his elephants were stampeded by Roman javelins (the Romans having learnt the tactic from fighting Pyrrhus and the Carthaginians). The result was the destruction of the Seleucid army and total defeat for Antiochus. The resulting peace settlement (the Treaty of Apamea, 188 BC) dismembered the powerbase of Antiochus, with a massive war indemnity, the loss of his fleet (bar ten ships), all of his elephants and the evacuation of all territories he held west of the Taurus Mountains. These lands were divided between Rome’s two principle allies in the region: Pergamum and Rhodes. Antiochus was not allowed to attack any state on the European mainland or in the Aegean and any future alliances he made had to be approved by Rome. In short the Romans went far further than they had against Macedon and emasculated the Seleucid empire, setting it on a downward spiral that would eventually lead to its collapse and, inadvertently, to the rise of the Parthian empire (see next chapter).

Within just a decade the Romans had decisively defeated the strongest two of the three major powers in the ancient world and established themselves as the Mediterranean’s leading power. Although they took no territory; the entire Greek mainland came under Roman influence and the Romans were now the guardians or ‘policemen’ of the Hellenistic world.

We have to ask ourselves how an outside power like Rome came to such prominence in such a short time. These wars came on the back of Hannibal’s invasion of Italy and the near defeat of Rome in the Second Punic War. By 200 BC the Roman state had been at war for a generation, with a battle-hardened army and generation of able commanders, backed up by a near-endless supply of manpower and a uniquely flexible system of multiple commands, which allowed them to operate in a number of campaigns at once. Behind all this lay the Roman aristocracy and their twin motivations: the fear of ‘another Hannibal’ and the lust for military success (which would in turn lead to economic and political power). For Rome as a whole, there was the need to ensure that the security of Italy did not start at her own shores. Potential enemies were to be neutralised early, and the lands surrounding Italy were to be under her ‘benevolent’ protection. They had little desire for empire, merely seeking acknowledged dominance, and if that brought riches and power then so much the better.

After defeating Antiochus, Roman troops once again returned home and were demobilised. Yet this Roman world view had a number of flaws. Macedon was humiliated but not broken; the Seleucid empire had been emasculated without thought given as to what would happen if it collapsed; and the mainland Greeks had already shown their unwillingness to live at peace in a Roman-enforced freedom. Dealing with the consequences of this period would keep Rome occu-pied for the next century, in a process that would inexorably lead them to the plains of Carrhae in the summer of 53 BC.

From Liberation to Conquest (188 –96 BC)

Third Macedonian War (172–167 BC)

Fourth Macedonian War (149–146 BC)

Achaean War (146 BC)

The years that followed Rome’s stunning successes provide an abject lesson in the dangers of a state attempting to police the world in the name of internal security and bringing ‘liberation’ to other peoples. Within fifty years of Flamininus’ declaration of ‘freedom for the Greeks’, Greece and Macedon had been annexed to form the core states of the Roman Republic’s eastern empire. This transition set the Roman state on a policy of conquest that changed the shape of the ancient world forever.

The immediate period following these wars saw the Romans using their newly-established influence to act as intermediary in the various conflicts that sprung up between the various states of the Hellenistic World, but through the use of diplomacy rather than warfare. A war between Pergamum and one of their neighbours, Bithynia, was settled with the assistance of Flamininus, who had been sent as a senatorial emissary. Perhaps the most famous of all of the senatorial emissaries was Gaius Popillius Laenas, who was sent as an intermediary when war broke out between Egypt and Antiochus IV of Seleucia, in 168 BC. Arriving in Egypt to find Antiochus besieging the Egyptian city of Alexandria, he ordered Antiochus to stand down and evacuate his army from Egypt, though he (Laenas) was only there with a small retinue of men. To make the point he drew a circle around the king in the dirt with his stick and ordered him to make his decision before he stepped out of the ring. Thus the might of Rome and its role as arbiter of Mediterranean affairs was made clear.

However, this policy of non-military intervention came to an end when Perseus came to the throne of Macedon in 179 BC. Perseus’ accession followed the death of his father, Philip V, and the earlier execution of his more popular younger brother. Whilst maintaining the treaty relationship with Rome, he embarked upon a policy of rebuilding Macedon’s pre-eminence amongst the mainland Greek states through alliances, backed up by an increase in Macedon’s military capabilities. Again the Roman Senate sent emissaries to look into Perseus’ activities, but by 172 BC, once more encouraged by Pergamum, the Senate saw that the best policy was another pre-emptive war with Macedon, to ensure it remained in an inferior position.

Perseus called for the Greek city-states to assist him, but only received help from Epirus and one Illyrian chieftain. The rest of Greece had learnt from the example Rome had made of the Aetolian League. Nevertheless, Macedon still fielded an army of 40,000 men. The war started off well for Perseus, who defeated an advance force of the Roman army in Thessaly in 171 BC and another in Illyria the following year. He was aided by the Romans fielding a series of consuls with little military experience or drive. In 168 BC this all changed with the arrival of Lucius Aemilius Paulus, a veteran campaigner. He led his army into Macedon and forced a set piece battle at Pydna. Once again the manoeuvrability of the Roman legions proved to be superior to that of the Macedonian phalanx and the Macedonian army was comprehensively beaten. Perseus fled and the Macedonian cities surrendered.

The end of the war saw a number of disturbing new Roman traits, starting with the settlement of Macedon. Determined to end the threat of Macedon once and forever, the monarchy was abolished, the king interned, and all royal officials were deported. Having had its governing class removed, Macedon itself was split up into four independent regions, and each was given a republican government based on the Roman model. This exporting of a political system was repeated in the Illyrian kingdom that had allied itself to Macedon. This marked a change in the Roman attitude, with them no longer willing to let defeated enemies be, and began a process of changing the nature of the existing governments of long-established states. The kingdom of Macedon, with its long and illustrious history (home of Alexander the Great), was ended by Roman decree.

This new system was accompanied by a brutal crackdown on those perceived as being anti-Roman. Epirus, which had allied with Perseus and had been the home of Pyrrhus, was invaded and treated to a brutal repression, with upwards of 150,000 people seized and sold off into slavery. Rome’s allies fared little better. Mainland Greece saw a purge of anyone suspected of harbouring anti-Roman sentiments. One thousand men were handed over as hostages to Rome by their allies in the Achaean League, including the future ‘Roman’ historian, Polybius. Rhodes, which had made an ill-judged attempt at mediation between Rome and Perseus, saw a motion being presented in the Senate for a declaration of war on them, as punishment for their perceived arrogance. In the end the Senate settled for stripping Rhodes of the territories that they had been given after the defeat of Antiochus III, an act which ultimately impoverished Rhodes and destroyed her status as a power in the Mediterranean. The king of Pergamum himself came under suspicion of collusion with Perseus, which is surprising, given his role in encouraging the war. For the next thirty years Pergamum was treated with suspicion by Rome.

The years that followed this crackdown were accompanied by an increasing Roman tendency to meddle in the internal running of the leading states of the Hellenistic world. Upon the death of Antiochus IV of Seleucia, the Senate sent a three-man commission into the empire to administer it until his son reached the age of majority. These commissioners took it upon themselves to enforce the treaty of 188 BC and finish the destruction of both the Seleucid fleet and their force of elephants, which sparked off a riot during which the chief commissioner, Gnaeus Octavius, was murdered. Things went from bad to worse when a rival claimant to the throne, Demetrius, ‘escaped’ from Roman custody, usurped the throne and was promptly recognised by Rome. A decade later, having angered Rome, he too was usurped by another pretender, who had also been encouraged and then recognised by Rome. This in turn sparked off a catastrophic civil war which saw the kingdom of Judea gain its independence, and the Parthians overrun Mesopotamia; both of which developments came back to haunt the Romans in the next century.

Egypt too suffered from internal chaos which was exploited by Rome. A civil war had broken out between rival claimants to the throne: Ptolemy VI and Ptolemy VII. Rome ruled in favour of Ptolemy VI after he visited Rome personally, again showing Rome’s unquestioned status. A renewed conflict in the 140s BC led to the Roman general Scipio Aemilianus being sent to investigate. Thus the middle of the second century BC saw Rome dismantle the kingdom of Macedon, interfere and ferment civil war within the Seleucid empire, and determine who could rule Egypt. Allies and enemies were treated with the same disdain, yet Rome still showed little appetite for direct rule.

This situation changed in the 140s BC when Rome not only destroyed the city of Carthage (in what is referred to as the Third Punic War, but which was in fact nothing more than a three year siege of the city), but also went once more to war with Macedon, for the fourth and final time. The new constitutional settlement Rome had burdened Macedon with soon proved to be weak and incapable of maintaining order within the territories. A pretender to the Macedonian throne arose, who claimed to be a son of Perseus. He soon overthrew the weak Macedonian republics and once more united the kingdom, overrunning neighbouring Thessaly in the process and defeating a small Roman force which had been sent to deal with him. Therefore, in 148 BC, the Senate declared a Fourth Macedonian War, invaded Macedonia in force and easily removed the pretender. Once again the Romans found themselves in charge of Macedonia and were faced with a dilemma. Binding the Macedonian king by treaty had failed, deposing the monarchy and instituting an experiment in republican government had failed, so what alternatives were left?

In truth, in the eyes of the Senate and the Roman aristocracy, there was only one alternative, and so they took a momentous, and what they saw as inevitable, decision. The only method of securing Macedon and ensuring no further unwanted wars was outright annexation. Thus Rome gained her first imperial province in the east. To secure the province, Rome also annexed the neighbouring regions of Thessaly and Epirus, which could do nothing against the might of Rome. Almost as an aside, Epirus, the homeland of Rome’s first eastern enemy, Pyrrhus, fell without a fight. After fifty years of resisting the notion of territorial empire, Rome had finally broken the last barrier. Once the floodgates were open they could not be closed. Not only was North Africa annexed, upon the destruction of the city of Carthage in 146 BC, but soon the rest of mainland Greece fell to Rome as well.

In 146 the tyrant of Corinth, Critolaus, alarmed by the Roman annexations in northern Greece, led the Achaean League (which for over fifty years had been a staunch ally of Rome) into overrunning central Greece. Such an overt challenge to the authority of Rome led to the Achaean War. With legions already in Macedonia, the conflict proved to be a short one and the invading Achaean forces were easily defeated. The Romans, led by Lucius Mummius, then invaded the Peloponnese and, after brushing aside the remaining Achaean forces, destroyed the city of Corinth, razing it to the ground and selling the survivors into slavery in one of the greatest acts of savagery the Greek world had ever seen. The Achaean League was dissolved and Greece was placed under the jurisdiction of the governor of Macedon, effectively annexing it. At a stroke the mainland Greek civilisations lost their independence, which they were not to regain until AD 1832.

In the decade that followed, this trend continued, as Illyria and Dalmatia were annexed to the province of Macedon in 129 BC. In 133 BC this process widened when the kingdom of Pergamum, which occupied the whole Asia Minor coastline, was gifted to Rome by the will of its last king Attalus III and by 129 BC became the Roman province of Asia. Thus, Rome had become the unquestioned master of the Mediterranean and the Hellenistic period was fast becoming the Roman period. Macedon, Athens, Sparta and Pergamum had all fallen under Roman rule. The remaining states of the east would have had a good idea what their future held; it was a case of ‘when’, rather than ‘if’.

So, we can see that the period from the 160s to the 140s BC saw a hardening of the Roman world view, with liberation replaced by annexation and respect replaced by destruction. In many ways it represents a maturing of the Roman view of the Hellenistic world, with naivety turning sour and being replaced by cynicism. The sudden rise to power of the Republic and its shock overthrowing of the old order could never be reconciled with a policy of homeland security through intervention. The system of interplay between the states of the Hellenistic world, with the big three of Macedon, Egypt and the Seleucid empire and the lesser states of Rhodes, Pergamum, Achaea and Aetolia, was replaced with Rome as the dominant state and unquestioned arbiter of ancient world events.

This policy was bound to create resentment and opposition. When Rome’s enlightened interventions became corrupted by the arrogance that accompanied their dominance, the path to annexation and empire was set. Interventions became more frequent, with a total of four wars with Macedon and three with Carthage. In Roman eyes, defeated enemies kept coming back and former allies kept turning on them (at least in the Senate’s mind). When the policy of withdrawal failed, Rome turned to changing the local political systems and when that failed all that was left was either perpetual intervention and the accompanying feeling of perpetual insecurity, or annexation and direct rule, which provided Rome with the sense of security that she appears to have craved. Given the Roman mindset, the course they took seems inevitable, with the benefit of hindsight.

Despite the absence of outright warfare in the decades that followed these annexations, Rome still managed to acquire two new embryonic territories in the east. By 102 BC the eastern Mediterranean was suffering from a serious piracy problem, which indirectly was Rome’s own fault. With the humbling of both the Seleucid empire and Rhodes, the two major fleets that patrolled the area, and which had kept piracy in check, had been removed, allowing the pirate fleets to flourish. The devastation which they inflicted on the trade of the remaining independent states of Asia Minor and the Middle East led to a number of Rome’s allies demanding that Rome take action. Therefore, in 102 BC, with a diminution of Rome’s other military commitments, particularly in North Africa, the Senate authorised a campaign against the pirates operating in the eastern Mediterranean. These operations were led by Marcus Antonius (grandfather of the more famous Mark Antony) and resulted in the annexation of the coastline of Asia Minor, which was then turned into the embryonic province of Cilicia (what is now southern Turkey). Nevertheless, the campaign achieved little more than a temporary reduction in the piracy in the region and the issue still remained. Secondly, in 96 BC the Egyptian king bequeathed the African coastal territory of Cyrene (modern Libya), west of Egypt, to Rome. Aside from formally acknowledging possession and arranging revenue collection, the Senate left the province to govern itself for the next thirty years.

Although the period of 129–96 BC saw Rome gain two further stretches of the Mediterranean coastline, Rome’s focus was not on affairs of the east. This is understandable given the situation amongst the old powers of the Hellenistic world and the problems within Rome itself. In the east, with Macedon, Greece and Pergamum having been annexed, and with Egypt and the Seleucid kingdom having collapsed into civil wars, Rome’s strategic position looked secure. Furthermore Rome had problems nearer to home, both militarily and politically. A war broke out in North Africa between Rome and her former ally, Numidia19 and two barbarian tribes (the Cimbrii and Teutones) invaded Italy.20 Domestically, populist politicians were stirring up Rome’s poor, resulting in political murders and open insurrection in the streets.21

It was during this period however, that Rome undertook a major reform of her military system. Faced with reversals in both Spain and North Africa, the populist figure Gaius Marius was elected consul and undertook a revision of the Roman military and its recruitment base. Rome’s citizen army was replaced by a professional body of career soldiers, who no longer had to be demobilised to harvest the Italian farmlands. Further reforms of equipment, formations and tactics laid the foundations for the classical form of the Roman army, with legionary standards and unified equipment.22

Although Rome’s neglect of her eastern policy is understandable, a number of threats arose in the east which were to have major consequences for Rome in the first century BC. As detailed above, one of these was a growing problem of piracy, a major issue given that Rome’s food and trade were based on shipping. The other threats came from the collapse of the Seleucid empire, which resulted in the rise of new powerful states, the dangers of which the Romans were slow to see. In short, Rome seemed content with replacing the old order of Hellenistic states, but slow to realise that others would benefit from this collapse. Into this vacuum in the east came the Parthians (as will be detailed in the next chapter), the Armenians, and the rise of Mithridates VI of Pontus.

The Rise of the New Powers (96–63 BC)

First, Second and Third Mithridatic Wars (88–85, 83–82, 74–63 BC).

Armenian War (69–66 BC)

Pontus occupied the coastline and the interior of Asia Minor (see map 1) and was one of a handful of states to emerge from the fragmentation of the Seleucid empire in Asia Minor, the others being Pergamum, Bithynia and Cappadocia. The history of Pontus prior to the accession of Mithridates VI in 120 BC is difficult to chart, given the lack of surviving evidence, but the rise of the dynasty is generally dated to the period of 302–294 BC. Throughout the second century BC Pontus, along with the other kingdoms of Asia Minor, benefited from the diminution of the Seleucid empire at the hands of Rome. However, they always remained in the shadow of Pergamum, which was, by far and away, the leading power in the region. Pergamum’s natural extinction and bequest to Rome removed yet another major barrier to the remaining kingdoms. In history, timing is crucial, and into this vacuum in Asia Minor entered the young King Mithridates VI. Every inch the Hellenistic monarch, he was young, charismatic and an astute politician and general.23

Relations between Rome and Pontus had undergone a strain in the 120s BC. When organising Pergamum into the Roman province of Asia, the Roman commissioners were only interested in the western fertile plains, not the mountainous territories of the east, which would have been burdensome to rule. Therefore, Rome divided these lands up and granted them to the kingdoms of Pontus and Cappadocia, allies of Rome, with Pontus gaining the territory of Phrygia. However, this grant fell foul of Roman domestic politics and was soon revoked. The death of Mithridates V in 120 BC gave the Senate the excuse they were looking for to deny Pontus the promised territory.

Mithridates VI nevertheless ignored this slight and concentrated upon an expansion of Pontus through expeditions in the Black Sea region, bringing the Crimean region and the Black Sea trade routes under his control, which massively increased his powerbase. In 104 BC he made the first of his bold moves, taking advantage of Rome’s inattention with regard to the area. Allied to his neighbour, Nicomedes of Bithynia, he annexed the kingdom of Cappadocia, vastly increasing his territory and his potential threat to Rome. At first Rome did nothing, though the populist general Gaius Marius (see above) did attempt to provoke a war with Mithridates in both 103 BC (by having Mithridates’ envoys to Rome abused) and 98 BC (during a private meeting between the two). Marius was at political odds with the Senate in this period, so these attempts came to nothing.

In 96 BC, however, Mithridates fell out with his ally Nicomedes and the latter appealed to Rome. With its internal and external problems temporarily put to one side, Rome suddenly appeared to take notice of this new danger and sent Lucius Cornelius Sulla (who later became dictator of Rome in the 80s BC) to restore Cappadocia to independence. Realising his inferior military position vis-à-vis Rome, Mithridates acquiesced in this and the whole process was concluded without conflict. Mithridates soon made up for this setback through an alliance with the kingdom of Armenia, forged by marrying his daughter off to its king. It was during this period that Sulla met an ambassador from the Parthian empire, the other rising power of the region, for the first time (see chapter two).

This game of cat and mouse with Rome continued in the years 91–90 BC when, with Rome embroiled in a civil war with her Italian allies, Mithridates once again annexed the kingdom of Cappadocia along with Bithynia also. Despite the war at home, the Senate recognised the threat, especially to its vital province of Asia which was a vast source of wealth to Rome, especially vital at a time when its control over Italy was tenuous. They sent Marcus Aquilius to restore these kingdoms, commanding the Roman forces in Asia. At first Mithridates again pulled out of these territories, but Aquilius went too far and encouraged Bithynia to retaliate against Pontus with Roman backing, contemplating an attack on Pontus itself. Mithridates realised the inevitable and judged that it was now or never, especially given the situation in Italy and how few Roman forces were in Asia at the time. In 88 BC he launched a full scale onslaught, invading and conquering not only Bithynia, but also the Roman province of Asia. His army was larger and more experienced than the meagre Roman forces in the province and virtually all the native cities came over to his side on the back of a desire to end Roman taxation. This conquest was crowned by the massacre of all the Roman and Italian residents in Asia, happily enacted by the native populations, resulting in a total death toll of 80,000 or more.

This invasion and massacre sparked off the First Mithridatic War, which was by far the greatest challenge to Rome’s dominance in the east in a hundred years and which led to a further twenty-five years of warfare between Mithridates and Rome, making him Rome’s most durable opponent.

By 88 BC the civil war between Rome and her Italian allies was drawing to a conclusion, with Rome emerging as the victors. Three leading generals emerged from this conflict, each eager to take up the challenge of fighting Mithridates. Under normal circumstances, Mithridates’ timing of his invasion would been judged to be too late, as Rome was emerging victorious from a war, with a large number of soldiers mobilised and being commanded by experienced and talented generals. Luck was on his side, however, as the three commanders, Gaius Marius, Lucius Cornelius Sulla (both of whom were known to him) and Gnaeus Pompeius Strabo, vied for this lucrative command (which was widely judged to be the greatest opportunity for a generation).

This contest appeared to have been settled when Sulla was elected consul and assigned the command by the Senate. Marius, near the end of his career and mindful of his earlier attempts to command a Mithridatic War, refused to accept this decision and had the the command awarded to him by vote of the assembly of the people (which, strictly speaking, was where the constitutional power lay). Sulla refused to be humiliated in this manner and actually led his own army in an attack on Rome itself, seizing power. Thus in Mithridates’ view, the only Roman response to his invasion of Asia was the opening of another round of civil wars and total paralysis.

Again he used Rome’s weaknesses to good effect and invaded the Greek mainland, which by then was dangerously undermanned. Not only did he have military superiority, but he again portrayed himself as a liberator from Roman misrule and championed the cause of Greek ‘liberty’. We should not under-appreciate the irony of this, as a century earlier Rome had invaded from the west, espousing the same cause of Greek liberation; now the reverse had happened. The most notable success of this policy was the defection of Athens, where a pro-Mithridatic populist overthrew the ruling elite, which provided Mithridates with the Piraeus as a naval base from which to operate. Despite (or perhaps because of) sixty years of Roman rule, central and southern Greece quickly fell to Mithridates, setting Roman imperial policy back a century. Macedonia was next to fall, again with too few Roman troops for its defence. The beginning of 87 BC saw a new power rise in the eastern Mediterranean with Mithridates holding Greece, Asia Minor and the Black Sea. After one hundred years of warfare, the Romans were faced with what they had always feared: an enemy on its eastern shore.

By 87 BC, however, Sulla had finally restored some stability to Rome and embarked upon his delayed counter-invasion of Greece. Once there he immediately embarked upon a destructive siege of Athens. In the meantime, Mithridates’ main force was in the process of completing the conquest of Thrace and Macedon, whilst a smaller force led by the Pontic general Archelaus engaged Sulla. By 86 BC, Sulla had retaken Athens after a protracted and brutal siege, and both armies advanced toward each other, meeting at Chaeroneia. In a long drawn-out battle, Sulla again showed the greater manoeuvrability of the Roman legions over Hellenistic forces (despite their use of Scythe chariots), and defeated the Mithridatic and Athenian forces. Mithridates was forced to retreat back into Asia, followed slowly by Sulla, who retook Macedon en route.

However, matters took a turn for the worse for Sulla when a counter-coup in Rome took place in 87 BC and the pro-Sullan government was replaced by a hostile one. Sulla was declared an enemy of Rome, thus equal to Mithridates, and a second army was dispatched under Lucius Valerius Flaccus to deal with both Mithridates and Sulla, invading Asia directly in 85 BC. But, whilst in Bithynia, Flaccus was murdered by his deputy Gaius Flavius Fimbria, who then invaded the province of Asia and defeated Mithridates’ forces at Rhyndacus. Sandwiched between the two Roman armies (of Sulla to the west and Fimbria to the east), the situation looked grim for Mithridates until the Roman disunity came to his rescue. Firstly, Fimbria caught up with Mithridates at the city of Pergamum and would have captured him, but for the refusal of a Roman naval force under Sulla’s lieutenant, Lucullus, to co-operate, which allowed him to escape.

Utilising this disunity, Mithridates conducted peace negations directly with Sulla (himself still a declared enemy of Rome). With neither side in a strong position, Mithridates managed to negotiate an extraordinary treaty with Sulla (the Treaty of Dardanus) in which he agreed to evacuate the conquered provinces of Greece and Asia, dismantle his Aegean fleet and pay a war indemnity. In return he was recognised as king of Pontus and an ally of Rome. Considering that he had invaded and conquered Rome’s eastern empire (accompanied by massive bloodshed) and was facing two separate Roman armies, it was a diplomatic coup. Furthermore, the second Roman army would be dealt with by Sulla, which it promptly was when he persuaded Fimbria’s army to mutiny and murder their commander. Sulla then departed to invade Italy in a renewal of Rome’s First Civil War.

Thus ended the momentous events of the First Mithridatic War. A postscript to this conflict came in 83 BC when Sulla’s governor in Asia, Lucius Licinius Murena, invaded Cappadocia and Bithynia (which were still under Mithridates’ control) in an unauthorised incursion. This Second Mithridatic War soon ended when Mithridates defeated Murena in 82 BC and appealed to Sulla. Having just seized control of Rome for a second time, Sulla was in a weak position and wisely ended the matter there. Thus the second war was a minor affair.

If we look back at the first war, we can see that it saw a complete reversal of Rome’s gains of the last century and turned the process detailed above on its head. It was not merely the case of a talented Hellenistic monarch exploiting Roman divisions. The interesting factor is the ease with which Asia and the Greek mainland defected to Mithridates. Both areas had been allied to Rome since the start of the second century and had been Roman territory for over fifty years. Yet the harshness of Roman rule and the resentment of being part of the Roman empire all seemed to have shown how superficial Rome’s control of the east was. Both as a result of the fighting and its treachery during the war, mainland Greece suffered heavily.

It was obvious that the status quo between Mithridates and Rome would not last, especially given the retirement and death of Sulla (in 79 and 78 BC respectively) and the rise of a new generation of Roman generals eager for glory. However, in the short term, Roman policy in the east had a more pressing problem.

Once again the issue of the eastern pirate fleets came to the fore. Having recovered after the campaigns of 102–101 BC, the pirate fleets of the east flourished amid the chaos of the 80s BC. Again they caused major disruption to Rome’s food supply and even subjected Italy itself to slaving raids, with a young Julius Caesar being their most notable captive. In 78 BC, the Senate commissioned Publius Servilius to tackle the problem. He campaigned until 74 BC but, apart from expanding the coastal province of Cilicia, he achieved little success. In 74 BC, another Marcus Antonius (son of the commander in 102–101, and father of the famous Mark Antony) took charge, possessing a far greater remit. The problem was so serious that he was given extraordinary powers throughout the whole Mediterranean. Despite success in the western Mediterranean he was defeated by a pirate fleet off Crete and died soon afterwards. As part of his campaign the area of Cyrene, technically Roman since 96 BC, was formally organised into a province.

By 69 BC, pirate fleets had sacked Delos and were starving Rome by attacking Rome’s grain supplies from Egypt and the Black Sea. The Senate’s response was a limited one, undertaking the conquest of Crete in 68–67 BC. The assembly of the people however, took decisive action and appointed Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (Pompey the Great as he is more commonly known) to an extraordinary command of the Mediterranean, with total control of its resources (military and civilian). Using these massive resources (upward of 270 ships and 100,000 men) he swept the Mediterranean of all pirate fleets in a methodical process: defeating them at sea and then driving them inland into the hands of his infantry. Within three months the problem that had plagued the Mediterranean for a century had been cured.

Whilst this had been going on, tensions between Rome and Mithridates had been inevitably rising. In 76 BC, he agreed an informal alliance with the Roman general Sertorius, who was in control of Spain and fighting the pro-Sullan Roman government. He even had two Roman nobles, who were opposed to the pro-Sullan regime, with him in Pontus, training his forces.24 In 74 BC, matters came to a head when the puppet king of Bithynia died without an heir and bequeathed his kingdom to Rome, which Rome promptly accepted. Faced with Roman control of the Bosporus, the entrance to the Black Sea, Mithridates returned to his original plan and once again invaded Roman Asia, thus starting the Third Mithridatic War.

Once again he acted faster than the Romans and had overrun Bithynia before they had a chance to react. By an ironic twist, the Roman governor of Asia and Cilicia was Lucius Licinius Lucullus, the man who had let Mithridates escape in 85 BC. Again utilising a two-pronged attack, Mithridates invaded Asia by land whilst sending a fleet into the Aegean to stir up the Greek states. The war in Asia soon ground down to a series of sieges and by 73 BC Mithridates had been pushed back to Pontus, which Lucullus then invaded. In 72 BC, Lucullus cornered Mithridates at Cabira and destroyed his army. This defeat was made worse by the defection to the Roman side of his son, Machares, who had been running Mithridates’ Black Sea territories, thus denying him a vital powerbase. The years 71 BC and 70 BC saw Lucullus’ forces slowly conquer the fortified towns of Pontus. With no other option, Mithridates sought sanctuary with his son-in-law, Tigranes, the king of Armenia.

Armenia represented a fresh challenge and one which highlighted the problems Rome faced with the consequences of its own earlier policies. Reducing the power of the Seleucid empire had led not only to the rise of Mithridates, but also the rise of Tigranes, who had annexed Cappadocia, Syria and non-Roman Cilicia, as well as part of Mesopotamia, which had been part of the Parthian empire (see map 2). When faced with Lucullus’ demand to hand over Mithridates, Tigranes refused. In 69 BC, Lucullus crossed the Euphrates, another first for a Roman general, and invaded Armenia. However, this whole campaign was undertaken without senatorial consent and with a limited force of only 16,000 troops.

Without the forces or the backing for a concerted campaign, Lucullus brought Tigranes to battle at Tigranocerta and, despite having being greatly outnumbered, defeated his army (again utilising the greater flexibility of his troops’ movement). This forced Tigranes into retreat and by 68 BC Lucullus was deep in Armenia pursuing the two kings when disaster struck. This took the form of a mutiny by his legions, who felt they were too far from Roman territory. Forced into a retreat, this ended Lucullus’ pursuit of Mithridates and allowed him to return to Pontus and start a guerrilla war against Rome. This culminated in a further victory against one of Lucullus’ lieutenants at Zela, in 67 BC. Given this loss and the preceding mutiny, the evasion of Mithridates and the illegal nature of his invasion of Armenia, Lucullus position was by now in danger. By 66 BC the situation presented Pompey with all the opportunities he needed, especially given his wintering in Cilicia after the successful end to the pirate campaign. Once again he made use of the assembly of the people and was awarded the coveted Mithridatic command.

The fortunes of Rome and Parthia again intersected when Tigranes was drawn into a war against Parthia, thus leaving Mithridates on his own to face a fresh Roman army of 50,000 men under Pompey. Mithridates found himself trapped and gave battle at Nicopolis, where his army was once again destroyed. Again, Mithridates gave the Romans the slip and managed to get to his Crimean kingdom, which he had managed to regain from his son. Still unwilling to give up the fight, he once again raised a fresh army and rumours soon spread that he was planning an invasion of Italy from the Balkans.25 However, this outlandish plan was cut short by a rebellion which ended with another of his sons (Pharnaces) staging a coup and imprisoning Mithridates, who, faced with being handed over to the Romans, took his own life.

This ended the period of the Mithridatic Wars, which saw the opening of a new phase of Rome’s relations with the east. Having defeated, annexed or humbled the established Hellenistic powers, Rome’s attention wandered, distracted by domestic issues and other threats. This allowed the rise of new powers who had also taken advantage of Rome’s humbling of the old order. The rise of Mithridates effectively mirrored the rise of Rome, a century earlier, from the rapid territorial expansion, to the invasion of Greece espousing the cause of liberation. The key difference being that he did not have the resources to compete with Rome. The Mithridatic Wars shook the Roman Empire in the east to its core, but Rome’s recovery not only alerted Rome to the new dangers arising in the east, but acted as the spur to take Roman armies further than ever before. Even Mithridates’ death was not enough to satisfy Pompey.

The Roman Settlement of the East (66–62 BC)

With Mithridates out of the way, the immediate threat to Rome had passed, but it was obvious to all at Rome that their previous settlement of the east was in serious need of re-assessment. Pompey, quite naturally, considered himself to be the man who could bring this security to Rome. Like Lucullus, the campaigns he undertook had not been authorised by the Senate, but, unlike Lucullus, he had a massive army and had the backing of the popular assembly of Rome and was therefore not overly concerned about what the Senate thought.

The emerging new powers of the east, Armenia and Parthia, who had just finished warring against each other, both conducted treaties of alliance with Rome (in the person of Pompey). During 66–65 BC, he undertook sporadic campaigns against the Albanian and Iberian peoples of the Caucasus region (modern Georgia) and made an abortive attempt to reach the Caspian Sea.

In 64 BC his attention turned towards the remnants of the Seleucid empire, which had been reduced to the province of Syria and was still undergoing internal strife. In addition, the kingdom of Judea was also undergoing a civil war in which he intervened. As a consequence, in 63 BC Roman forces captured Jerusalem after a three month siege. As a result of his several interventions, he created the new Roman province of Syria, which included the remnants of the Seleucid empire, whose existence was now terminated, and a chunk of Judean territory. The kingdom of Pontus was split into two, with the western half being annexed to the new Roman province of Bithynia. The eastern half was given to the new kingdom of Galatia, whose allegiance was to Rome. Pompey also extended the province of Cilicia to include the whole of the Mediterranean coastline to join up with Syria (this process will be examined in greater detail in chapter four).

Thus, Pompey created a series of Roman provinces that guarded the Mediterranean coastline, protected by a series of client kingdoms in Asia Minor and Judea, supported by alliances with Armenia and Parthia (see map 3). This new eastern settlement protected Rome’s interests in the Mediterranean and extended Roman influence further to the east than it had ever been before. It ensured that the Mediterranean would be centred on the Roman culture. The only significant free Mediterranean state of any note was Egypt, which was still crippled by internal strife and whose freedom from Rome remained tenuous. Only one power remained in the east whom Rome had not humbled into submission; the Parthian Empire, whose rise in the east had mirrored Rome’s in the west.


In the period from 200 to 63 BC the Roman Republic had overrun virtually the whole of the Mediterranean, overturning the Hellenistic world order and establishing Rome as the dominant power in the western world. For millennia, scholars have been examining the reasons for Rome’s sudden rise to superpower status, and we do not have the space to re-open the debates properly here. What we have seen is that the Republic possessed both unique military institutions underpinned by a social and political order formed around an oligarchic aristocratic elite.

In terms of the military institutions, we can see that the system of alliances in Italy supplied the Roman armies with a near-endless supply of manpower, enabling Rome to deal with defeats which would have crippled any other ancient state. As early as the 270s BC, the Greek general Pyrrhus had identified this as being the crucial factor for Rome’s military success. The organisation and structure of the legions and the legionaries themselves proved to be superior to their Greek counterparts. These two factors gave Rome military superiority in battle and an ability to recover from defeats if they encountered a general of superior ability, namely Pyrrhus or Hannibal.

On the social and political side, the consulships and the patrician-plebeian aristocracy gave Rome a pool of talented generals from which to draw. Underpinning this were the desires of the Roman aristocracy for military glory and economic benefit, all of which translated itself into political power within Rome. The Republic created the perfect circumstances for expansive warfare, with a competing aristocratic elite and a social order based on a mixture of personal and family success and the glory of the res publica. It was only when this balance between personal success and the good of the state was altered that the cracks started showing within the Republican system. What this analysis has only briefly touched on are Rome’s internal problems, which led to the unique situation of an ever-expanding empire at the same time as increasing internal breakdown. As demonstrated during Rome’s First Civil War, whilst this could hamper Rome in the short term, such as during Mithridates’ invasion of Greece, ultimately the generals who had caused so much of this internal chaos could neutralise its effects on the empire, for now at least.

If we must touch on the debate between modern theories of ‘defensive imperialism’ and social and economic motivations, then we can see that it is neither one thing nor the other, but a mix of both. The Hannibalic invasion and near Roman destruction during the Second Punic War did clearly scar the Roman collective psyche for generations. To a great degree it was the underlying cause for the drive to military involvement in the east. However, as in all cases, the process soon took on a life of its own and became self-perpetuating. The question of when does one intervention to preserve your security become your primary foreign policy goal is one that all states have to face. In Rome’s case, this policy of intervention, or ‘defensive imperialism’ if you will, struck a chord and interacted with the whole fabric of the Roman social order, which transformed occasional intervention into full-blown imperialism. The military, political, and economic benefits of overseas war were so attractive that it became a way of life. For centuries the Roman elites had waged war on their immediate neighbours. In the second and first centuries BC they found that they could continue this ancient practice, but on a far grander scale than their ancestors could ever have imagined. In the end, a legitimate desire for security became an imperialism that transformed the Mediterranean world, but ultimately consumed the Republic itself.

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