Ancient History & Civilisation



Lucius Aemilius Paullus (c. 228–c. 160 BC)

For my part, I shall do my duty as a general; I shall see to it that you are given the chance of a successful action. It is no duty of yours to ask what is going to happen; your duty is, when the signal is given, to play your full part as fighting men.1

ALTHOUGH SCIPIO ACHIEVED LITTLE AFTER 201 AND ENDED HIS LIFE IN BITTER retirement, the early second century BC was a time of great opportunity for most senators of his generation, who would come to dominate Roman public life for several decades. The heavy casualties amongst the Senate in the early disasters inflicted by Hannibal accelerated the rise to prominence of men who had reached adulthood during the war, and also severely reduced the number of distinguished elder statesmen whose auctoritas ensured them a significant role in debates. These men, whether descendants of established families, or equestrians whose gallantry had won them admission to senatorial rank, had spent many years on campaign. When in time they reached high magistracies and were themselves given command of the Republic’s armies, they led forces composed at all ranks of a very high proportion of Punic War veterans. The combination proved lethally effective and for a while the legions consistently displayed the same level of discipline and tactical skill which had won victories at Metaurus, Ilipa and Zama.

There was no shortage of opportunities for both commanders and armies to demonstrate their prowess. Warfare was almost constant in the Spanish provinces and Cisalpine Gaul. Such fighting required the overwhelming bulk of Rome’s military resources, but was overshadowed by the more dramatic, if less common, wars fought against the great Hellenistic powers of the eastern Mediterranean. Alexander the Great had died in 323 BC without a clear adult heir, and his vast empire had been swiftly torn apart as his commanders fought each other for power, shaping the Greek world into which Rome would intervene. Eventually three great dynasties had emerged, the Seleucids in Syria, the Ptolemies in Egypt and the Antigonids in Macedonia itself. Smaller kingdoms, such as Pergamum and Bithynia in Asia Minor, were able to exist in the disputed border zones between these powers. Greece itself still contained some important independent cities, notably Athens, but many others had been incorporated with varying degrees of enthusiasm into the Aetolian or Achaean Leagues. The communities of the Greek world, whilst sharing a common language and culture, at no period showed any great enthusiasm for political unification, and their fierce sense of independence was only usually overcome by force or the need for aid against a stronger enemy. During disputes between cities, and often enough between rival factions within the same city, it was common to seek diplomatic and military aid from stronger outside forces. Hellenistic kings made frequent use of such appeals to intervene in areas allied to their rivals, and their propaganda routinely declared that they were fighting for the freedom of the Greeks.

Rome had had some diplomatic contact with the Hellenistic world long before there was any direct military involvement, and in 273 BC formed a treaty of friendship with Ptolemy II. In 229 and 219 the Republic fought wars in Illyria on the Adriatic coast, campaigning against the piratical rulers of the region. The creation of what was effectively a Roman protectorate on the Illyrian coast was not welcomed by Philip V of Macedon, who viewed the area as within his own sphere of influence. Hannibal’s invasion of Italy and the string of devastating defeats he inflicted on the Romans offered the king an opportunity of expelling the intruders and in 215 he allied with Carthage against Rome. The result was the First Macedonian War, as the Romans somehow found sufficient troops and resources to open a new theatre of operations in Illyria and Greece. The conflict was not one of large, set-piece battles, but was instead characterized by raid, ambush, and attacks on strongholds and cities. Much of the actual fighting was done by the allies of the two sides and, when Rome’s important local ally, the Aetolian League, concluded a separate peace with Philip V in 206, the Romans lacked the strength to continue the struggle effectively. A year later, hostilities formally ended with the Peace of Phoinike, which preserved Rome’s allies in Illyria but also permitted the king to retain many of the cities which he had captured during the war.

Such a treaty, with concessions granted to both sides in proportion to their relative strength at the cessation of hostilities, was the normal way of ending a war in the Hellenistic world. The intervention of a neutral third party, in this case Epirus, to open negotiations with the combatants and promote the agreement of peace terms, was also common. Indeed, both Pyrrhus and Hannibal had evidently expected the Republic to concede defeat and seek just such a negotiated peace after they had smashed the legions in battle. Yet the Romans had not reacted as any other contemporary state would have done in the face of such catastrophes, for their whole understanding of warfare was different. A Roman war ended when the Republic dictated peace terms to an utterly defeated and subject people. The willingness to negotiate with Macedonia as with an equal reflected the Senate’s preoccupation with winning the struggle with Carthage. It did nothing to diminish the Romans’ bitterness at the king’s unprovoked attack at a time when Hannibal had driven them to the very brink of utter defeat.2

In 200, less than a year after the defeat of the Carthaginians, Rome responded to an appeal from Athens for aid against Philip V by declaring war. Victory in the Second Punic War had come at an enormous cost to Rome and her allies in Italy. The number of casualties had been immense, and much of the adult male population had been called upon to undergo exceptionally long periods of service. Paying, feeding and often equipping unprecedented numbers of legions had drained the Republic’s treasury. For nearly a decade the rival armies had campaigned across Southern Italy, consuming or destroying crops and herds, burning settlements and massacring or enslaving the population. In the worst affected regions it would be some considerable time before agriculture could begin to recover, but throughout all Italy there was a sense of exhaustion and the need for a period of peace and recovery. This spirit prompted the Comitia Centuriata to reject the consul Publius Suplicius Galba’s motion ‘that it is the Will and Command of the Roman people that war should be declared on Philip, King of Macedon, and on the Macedonians under his rule, because of wrongs inflicted on the allies of the Roman people, and the acts of war committed against them.’3 Such a reluctance to go to war was exceptionally rare at Rome. Before a second meeting, Galba addressed the citizens, explaining that Philip V was a proven enemy and emphasizing just how easy it would be for a Macedonian fleet to land an army on the shores of Italy. He raised the spectre of appeasement, claiming that, had the Romans stood up to Hannibal and his family in Spain, the invasion of Italy would never have occurred. His reasoning clearly struck a chord with his audience, for this time the vote was overwhelmingly in favour of war.

The Second Macedonian War (200–197 BC) at first followed a similar pattern to the First, with most of the fighting occurring on a very small scale. In both conflicts Philip V displayed a considerable talent for the leadership of small columns, frequently leading charges spear in hand in the best tradition of Alexander the Great. In 199 he fortified the valley where the River Aous ran between mountains, adding strongpoints mounting artillery to an already formidable position. The Roman commander camped within 5 miles, but did not attempt to force his way through the line. The following year one of the new consuls, Titus Quinctius Flamininus, succeeded to the Macedonian command. He was only 30 and had won election to such high office when well below the legal age largely through the reputation he had won fighting against Hannibal. After Flamininus had demonstrated against the line without result, a local ally sent a guide who led a Roman force to outflank the position. The Macedonians suffered some loss, but were able to draw off the bulk of their army unscathed. Little else was achieved by the end of the campaigning season. In the winter Flamininus opened negotiations with the king, and it seemed for a while as if once again war between Rome and Macedon would be concluded with another Hellenistic-style treaty like the Peace of Phoinike. The consul was nervous that one of the two consuls for 197 would be sent to replace him, and hoped to gain credit for ending the war even if it were through negotiation rather than victory. However, Flamininus soon received letters from friends in the Senate who informed him that due to a crisis in Cisalpine Gaul, both of the new consuls were to be sent to the area and his own command would be extended. He immediately broke off the talks, resuming operations at the beginning of spring, and it was as a proconsul that he met and defeated the main Macedonian army at Cynoscephalae.4

This time the treaty concluding the conflict was more typically Roman, for it made it clear that the defeated state was, and should always be, inferior to Rome. Philip V gave up all the cities subject or allied to him in Greece and Asia Minor, and was in future not to make war outside Macedonia without Rome’s express approval. The king was to pay Rome 1,000 talents of silver as reparations, and also to hand over all Roman prisoners, whilst paying to ransom his own men. The Macedonian fleet was reduced to a handful of warships, sufficient for little more than a ceremonial role. The treaty did not please the Aetolian League, which had once again fought as Rome’s ally. This dissatisfaction, coupled with a fear that Roman influence in Greece had now become too strong, led them in 193 to implore the Seleucid king Antiochus III to liberate the Greeks from foreign oppression. In the event, very few other cities chose to welcome the Seleucid expeditionary force and both the Achaean League and Philip V supported Rome. In 191 Antiochus’ army was dislodged from the Pass of Thermopylae, made famous by Leonidas and his Spartans in 480 BC. The Romans under Marcus Acilius Glabrio, just like Xerxes’ Persians centuries before, had found a path around the pass and were able to take the enemy from both sides. The war was then shifted to Asia Minor and culminated in the defeat of a huge Seleucid army at Magnesia by Lucius Scipio. Once again the treaty concluding the war severely restricted Antiochus’ war-making capacity, reducing his fleet to a token force and banning him from keeping war elephants. Again as with Philip V, the king was not allowed to make war or form an alliance with communities outside his realm.5

Scipio’s successor in the Asian command, Gnaeus Manlius Vulso, arrived to find the war already won and, after an unsuccessful attempt to provoke Antiochus into renewing hostilities, commenced a campaign against the Galatian tribes of Asia Minor. These were the descendants of Gauls who had migrated to the region in the early third century BC, and since then often extorted money from their neighbours under threat of violence. They were also frequently to be found serving as mercenaries or allies with the Seleucid kings, and on this basis Vulso justified his actions. In a swift campaign fought in the mountains the three tribes were defeated, but the consul faced strong opposition in the Senate on his return to Rome. Accused of starting an unauthorized war for his personal glory and profit, Vulso came close not only to losing the right to a triumph, but also to prosecution and the probable end of his political career. In the end his friends amongst the Senate, augmented by a good few senators bribed with the plunder from his campaign, prevented this from happening and his triumphal procession proved to be one of the most spectacular ever seen. Although the outcome was different, this political attack on a magistrate who had achieved spectacular success was similar in many ways to the assault on Africanus and his brother. Flamininus avoided such direct attacks himself, but suffered the humiliation of having his brother Quintus expelled from the Senate as unfit to be a member of this body. The latter had held a naval command during the Second Macedonian War and done his job competently enough, but had subsequently become involved in a scandal when it was alleged that he had ordered the execution of a prisoner during a banquet simply to indulge a male prostitute with whom he was in love. Each of the commanders who won a major campaign in the eastern Mediterranean gained massive wealth and prestige. None were able to use this to achieve a dominant position in political life back in Rome for any length of time.6


Philip V had aided the Romans in their wars against the Aetolians and the Seleucids, his enthusiasm doubtless increased by the knowledge that it was not in his interest to permit either of these to increase their power in Greece. The Romans had always expected allies, even recently defeated allies, to support their next round of war-making. The legions which won Cynoscephalae, Thermopylae and Magnesia were fed to a great extent with grain supplied by Carthage in its new capacity as a faithful ally of Rome. Yet over time, the Macedonian king began to resent the restrictions imposed upon him in 197 and gradually sought to rebuild his power, looking especially to the Thracian tribes on his northeastern border, since his activity in Greece was heavily restricted. When Philip V died in 179, he was succeeded by his son Perseus who continued his policies. Perseus was widely believed to have arranged the murder of Demetrius, his younger and more popular brother who had spent time as a hostage in Rome and was considered to be pro-Roman. The Senate’s suspicions of the new king seemed confirmed when he allied himself with an extremely warlike Germanic tribe, the Bastarnae, and showed a willingness to aid democratic factions in the cities of Greece. Macedonia was no longer behaving as a subordinate ally should and came to be seen as a threat, although whether this view was realistic is harder to say. Attacks on Roman allies provided the classic justification for the declaration of war against Perseus in 172 BC.7

The conflict was to prove almost the last gasp of the generation of Romans which had fought and defeated Hannibal. When the army destined to serve in Macedonia was enrolled the presiding consul sought out as many veteran officers and soldiers as possible. Livy tells us that a dispute arose when twenty-three former senior centurions were enrolled as ordinary centurions. The spokesman of the group, one Spurius Ligustinus, is said to have made a speech recounting his long and distinguished service and was eventually given the post of senior centurion of the triarii of Legio I. The others agreed to accept whatever rank was given to them, and it is notable that the Senate had decreed that no citizen below the age of 51 was to be granted an exemption from service should the consul and tribunes choose to conscript them. The army sent to Macedonia was experienced, if in some cases a little elderly, and may well have included a number of men who, like Ligustinus, had served in the area before. It was a standard two-legion consular army, as indeed were the forces which had defeated Philip V and Antiochus the Great. In this case, though, the legions were exceptionally large, with 6,000 infantry and 300 cavalry apiece. With the addition of allies it mustered 37,000 foot and 2,000 horse.8

To oppose them, Perseus is said to have fielded an army of 39,000 infantry and 4,000 cavalry at the start of the war. Like the armies of all the Hellenistic kingdoms, its organization, equipment and tactics were derived from the forces with which Philip II and Alexander had overrun first Greece and then the Persian Empire. Whilst some allied and mercenary contingents were employed, the bulk of the army consisted of full-time professional soldiers recruited from the citizen body. The regiments of the phalanx, which altogether made up just over half of the infantry of the army, were entirely recruited from citizens. In a pitched battle, though probably not in raids and sieges, these men fought in dense blocks as pikemen.

The pike itself, or sarissa, seems to have become a little longer than in Alexander’s day and measured some 21 feet in length. The butt consisted of a heavy bronze counterweight, which allowed the soldier to balance the weapon and still have two thirds of its length projecting ahead of him. Since both hands were needed to wield the sarissa, a circular shield was suspended on a strap from the shoulder. Additional protection was provided by a bronze helmet, a cuirass – usually of stiffened linen – and in some cases greaves. Each soldier normally carried a sword, but this was very much a secondary weapon and the strength of the phalanx relied on massed pikes. Each soldier occupied a frontage and depth of 3 feet in battle order. (There was an even tighter formation, known as ‘locked shields’ (synaspismos) where each man was allocated a frontage of only 18 inches, but this was purely defensive, since it was impossible for the phalanx to move when formed in this way.)

The great length of the sarissa meant that the spearheads of the first five ranks projected at intervals of some 3 feet or so in front of the formation. As long as the phalanx remained in good order, it was exceptionally difficult for any enemy attacking from the front to get past this hedge of spear points and wound the pikemen themselves. However, the sarissa was an unwieldy weapon and the restrictions of the formation meant that it was difficult for individual pikemen to aim strong thrusts at an opponent. In a frontal confrontation a well-ordered phalanx would win a combat more by its staying power than its capacity for killing the enemy and actively breaking up their formation.

The phalanx had become the dominant arm in the Successor armies. The other contingents of infantry, which usually included a good number of skirmishers and missile-armed troops, played a supporting role. So did the cavalry, and it was in this respect that the tactical doctrine of later Hellenistic armies differed radically from the days of Alexander the Great. In his major battles the phalanx acted as a pinning force, advancing to engage the enemy and applying steady pressure against his centre. Then, at the right moment and in the critical spot – usually where the enemy had been forced to overextend himself – the decisive charge was delivered by the close order Companion cavalry, led by the Royal Squadron which in turn was led by Alexander himself. This method had proved brutally effective at Issus and Gaugamela against Darius’ Persians. It was less easy for Successor generals to achieve the same result when fighting against other Macedonian-style armies with an identical tactical doctrine and more solid formations of troops. More importantly, the break-up of Alexander’s empire divided the manpower and resources of the old kingdom of Macedonia. Successor kings preferred whenever possible to recruit the bulk of their army from the descendants of ‘true’ Macedonians, drawing far too deeply on a resource depleted by war and colonization. One result of this was that it was difficult to recover in the short term from serious losses in battle, making these highly professional armies somewhat brittle. Limited resources of men, and even more limited supplies of suitable horses, made it difficult for any of the kingdoms to muster large numbers of cavalry. Alexander had about 7,000 cavalry and 40,000 infantry at Gaugamela, a ratio of roughly one to six. This was very high, even if it did not quite rival Hannibal’s one to four at Cannae. Successor armies rarely managed much more than a ratio of one to ten. Fewer in numbers, Hellenistic cavalry in the later third and second centuries BC were also generally inferior in manoeuvrability, discipline and sheer aggression when compared to Philip II and Alexander’s horsemen.

Many Successor generals experimented with a range of unusual or exotic weapons, such as elephants and scythed chariots, hoping to gain an advantage over other Hellenistic armies which were almost identical to their own. Occasionally these methods succeeded spectacularly, but few were reliable enough to provide a consistent advantage and they were anyway swiftly copied by opponents. Superficially, Hellenistic armies from this period contained a wide diversity of troop types, but in reality they were not as well balanced as their predecessors who had served under Alexander, resembling more the bludgeon than the rapier. Alexander had made little use of reserves, instead deploying his army to deliver a co-ordinated sequence of attacks which combined to shatter the enemy. His practice of personally leading the main cavalry charge ensured that he had no opportunity to issue orders summoning contingents in reserve to join the fighting. Most Successor commanders chose to lead their armies in a similar way, greatly restricting their capacity to issue orders or respond to a changing situation once the battle had begun. It continued to be very rare for any sizeable contingent of a Hellenistic army to begin the battle in reserve and not as part of the main fighting line.

Lacking sufficient high-quality cavalry, and unable to rely on exotic weapons, the phalanx assumed ever greater importance as the army’s main strength. To increase its chances of grinding down the enemy – especially when that enemy was another pike phalanx – there was a tendency to employ very deep formations. Most phalanxes were at least sixteen ranks deep, whilst the Seleucid pikemen at Magnesia formed in thirty-two ranks. Deeper formations had greater staying power in combat – simply because it was so difficult for the men in the front ranks to run away – and looked intimidating, even if their actual fighting power was no greater than a shallower formation of similar frontage. If by the time of the wars with Rome Hellenistic armies had become clumsy and bludgeon-like, they could still in the right circumstances deliver a very heavy attack on an enemy to their front. Yet the circumstances needed to be just right, for a phalanx required flat, open land if it were not to fall into disorder, and its flanks needed to be kept secure because the pikemen themselves could not easily respond to a threat from any direction apart from the front.9

Roman armies had first encountered a Hellenistic army and commander in 280 BC, when King Pyrrhus of Epirus had joined the city of Tarentum in its war with Rome. Pyrrhus was considered to be the ablest commander of his generation and led an army somewhat closer to the Alexandrian model. He defeated the legions at Heraclea in 280 and Asculum the following year, but was eventually beaten at Malventum in 275 BC. Each of these battles was extremely hard fought with heavy casualties on both sides, as the grinding power of the phalanx was faced by the native stubbornness and triplex acies system which allowed the Romans to feed fresh troops into their fighting line. Pyrrhus’ initial victories had been assisted by his small corps of war elephants, creatures which the Romans found unfamiliar and terrifying. Curiously enough, in the Third Macedonian War Perseus had no access to supplies of elephants, whereas the Roman force included a number of these beasts supplied by their Numidian allies. A more important difference between the war with Pyrrhus and the conflicts of the second century BC was the quality of the Roman armies. Many of the legions of this period, composed of and led by veterans of the war with Hannibal, were as well-drilled and confident as any professional soldiers. The Macedonian and Syrian wars were not fought by inexperienced militia on the one hand and hardened professionals on the other. Indeed, if anything, the Macedonian and Seleucid soldiers had less battle experience than most legionaries at this time.

At the beginning of the war this did not especially matter, for as in the earlier campaigns against Philip V, there were no pitched battles and instead the armies spent their time in raids, surprise attacks and sieges. Perseus lacked his father’s flair in this type of fighting, but still managed to win a cavalry skirmish near Larissa in 171 against the consul Publius Licinius Crassus. Neither Crassus nor his successor Aulus Hostilius Mancinus displayed much ability and the actions of the forces under their command were poorly co-ordinated and lacking in purpose. Perhaps some of the centurions and tribunes appointed to the legions were now too elderly for active service, or maybe the consuls, aware of the need to achieve fame in a single campaigning season before they were replaced, did not spend enough time training the army before beginning operations. Decades of military success may well have made the Romans overconfident. Both Crassus and Mancinus reached the consulship at the normal age, and were too young to remember the darkest days of the Hannibalic War. Crassus’ colleague, Caius Cassius Longinus, had hoped to receive the Macedonian command and had been bitterly disappointed when the lot gave him the province of Illyria instead. Once in his province he had mustered his army at the colony of Aquileia, gathered supplies sufficient for thirty days and begun to march overland to Macedonia, planning to win the victory himself. By chance the Senate heard of this unauthorized expedition and rapidly dispatched commissioners to recall their errant consul.10

In 169 Quintus Marcius Philippus was the consul sent to take charge of the army in Macedonia. Livy describes him as ‘more than 60 years old and grossly overweight’, but emphasizes that in spite of this he was as active as a Roman general should be in encouraging and controlling his soldiers.11 Philippus was older and more experienced than Crassus or Mancinus, although his first consulship in 186 had been marred by a defeat suffered at the hands of the Ligurians. He had also been one of the two senior envoys sent to Perseus before the declaration of war in 172. By falsely encouraging the king to believe that the Senate might be willing to come to terms, the ambassadors had delayed the start of hostilities and so given the Republic more time to prepare for war. Although most senators approved of this deception, several of the more senior members had claimed that it was out of keeping with the Romans’ traditionally open way of waging war, which relied more on courage than trickery.

By the time Philippus assumed command of the army in Thessaly, Perseus had gone over to the defensive, fortifying the passes and key positions on the borders of Macedonia itself. Within nine days of his arrival, the consul made a very bold attempt to break through this chain of fortifications. The army had to march through extremely difficult, mountainous terrain, where the war elephants became a positive hindrance. Fortunately for the Romans, a lethargic reaction by Perseus allowed them to reach the coastal plain. Dium, Heracleum and a number of other cities capitulated or were stormed, but the Roman army was exhausted by its difficult march and its supply lines were insecure. Philippus failed to force a decisive battle, and the campaigning season ended with the Roman and Macedonian armies camped a few miles apart on either side of the River Elpeüs, which flowed down from a valley on the side of Mount Olympus, the traditional home of the Greek gods. Philippus was heavily criticized by a senatorial commission and the state of the war became a subject for widespread and ardent debate both publicly and privately at Rome.


Dissatisfaction with events in Macedonia resulted in the consular provinces for 168 being allocated much earlier than usual, so that the new commander would have more time to prepare. The lot fell to Lucius Aemilius Paullus, a result which is supposed to have been greeted with great enthusiasm by the people. As praetor with proconsular authority he had governed Further Spain from 191 to 189 BC, campaigning against the Lusitanian tribes. Although he suffered an early defeat at a place called Lycho, Paullus later enjoyed considerable success and was awarded a formal thanksgiving or supplication at Rome, and may just possibly have celebrated a triumph. After several unsuccessful electoral campaigns he won his first consulship in 182 BC and was sent to Liguria. Once again the campaign began badly, and for a while he found himself besieged in his camp, but, after breaking out, he defeated the enemy and this time was definitely granted a triumph. Whatever his abilities as a commander, Paullus does not seem to have been especially popular with the electorate, and he was unable to fulfil his ambition of holding a second consulship until 168 BC, by which time he was about 60 years old. Probably the same desire for experienced magistrates which had permitted Philippus’ success in the previous year also worked in Paullus’ favour. The latter had especially strong connections with the Hannibalic War. His father was the consul killed at Cannae, whilst his sister had married Scipio Africanus. Paullus himself had four sons, and the two older boys were both adopted by other leading families who lacked male heirs. The eldest became Quintus Fabius Maximus Aemilianus, whilst the other was taken in by Africanus’ son to become Publius Cornelius Scipio Aemilianus. Both were in their late teens and would serve with their true father in Macedonia.12

Paullus was not given a new army to take to his province, but a supplementary levy of 7,000 Roman infantry and 200 cavalry and 7,000 Latin foot and 400 horse to bring the legions in Macedonia back up to full strength and to provide additional forces as garrison units. Other reinforcements were sent to the smaller armies operating in the Adriatic theatre. Care was also taken with his officers. A senatorial decree was passed by which only men who had held a magistracy were to be appointed as military tribunes. Paullus was then allowed to pick which of these men would fill the twelve posts in his legions. Before leaving Rome he made a speech in the Forum, which was aimed mainly at the banquet-table strategists who were so eager to dissect each rumour and report from the war. Paullus offered to pay the expenses of any of these worthies who wished to accompany him on campaign, and forcibly suggested that anyone who declined the opportunity should in future restrict his conversation to the business of the city itself. Such bluntness appears to have been characteristic of the man, and may explain why, in spite of the widespread respect in which he was held, the consul was never a popular man.13

Paullus arrived at the army’s camp outside Phila in early June. The camp was badly placed and the first problem to confront him was the poor supply of locally available water. Leading the army’s water-carriers (utrarii) on to the beach area – the camp was little more than a quarter of a mile from the sea – he set them to digging wells. Almost immediately an underground stream was discovered which was able to provide ample supplies of fresh water. Paullus’ next action was to take the tribunes and senior centurions to reconnoitre the enemy position on the line of the Elpeüs, seeking the easiest crossing points across the dried-up river bed and assessing the strength of the Macedonian defences. These were formidable, for Perseus had devoted considerable effort to fortifying the line between the slopes of Mount Olympus and the sea. To assist in the labour, civilians had been called out from the nearest towns, with even the women being ordered to carry food supplies to the camp. Artillery of various sizes was installed in the chain of forts. The reliance placed on fixed lines of defences by Philip V at Aous, Antiochus the Great at Thermopylae, and Perseus at the Elpeüs is strikingly at contrast to the campaigns of Alexander the Great. Then it was the Persians who depended on the advantage of defending a river line at Granicus and Issus, or who specially prepared the battlefield at Gaugamela. Alexander had interpreted this as a sign that the enemy lacked confidence and, just as he was later to do at the Hydaspes in India, successfully attacked each position. It was another sign of the poor quality of later Hellenistic armies, and the over-caution of their commanders, who tried to take as few chances as possible.

The arrival of a new commander – or indeed a new manager/leader in any environment – inevitably involves a period of difficult transition for the troops under his command. Many things, even down to minor aspects of daily routine, were and are often changed to suit the preferences of the new man, upsetting officers and men used to alternative practices. Paullus straight away issued a new set of standing orders, of which Livy highlights three main points. The commander emphasized tight discipline on the march. Instead of issuing an order by signal directly to a column which most probably stretched for many miles, the consul would first issue a warning order to a military tribune, who would quietly pass it on to the senior centurion of the legion, who would in turn brief his subordinates. Given clear forewarning of the commanders’ intention, the army could then respond smoothly to the order, avoiding the danger of misinterpretation and conflicting actions by different units. Secondly, sentries were forbidden to carry shields, for Paullus was aware of the old soldier’s trick of propping pilum against the long legionary scutum and dozing off whilst leaning on this support. Finally, the outposts which were always stationed in front of the army’s camp were now to be replaced twice, instead of once a day, so that the troops were less likely to grow weary in the heat and so become vulnerable to a sudden attack.

The consul also took the opportunity to address the troops, once again emphasizing discipline and obedience. It was not the job of soldiers or junior officers to discuss the campaign or question orders. They must rely on him to do his job as a commander and then fight bravely when the time came. As far as Paullus was concerned, a Roman soldier ‘should concern himself with the following: his body, to keep it as strong and as nimble as possible; the good condition of his weapons; and the readiness of his food-supply [made from rations issued uncooked] for unexpected orders.’14 Our sources claim that the consul’s style of command immediately invigorated recent recruit and veteran alike, the latter relieved when they recognized that things were now being done properly. However, Paullus seems to have spent little more than three or four days in training and preparation, so it is possible that they exaggerated the difference made by the general and that discipline and morale had already been improving under Philippus. Polybius, on whom all of our surviving sources relied heavily, was obviously especially well disposed to the father of his patron Scipio Aemilianus. Even so, it is more than possible that Paullus was able to inject a new sense of purpose into the army in this short time.15

After this brief period of preparation, the Roman army advanced a few miles from Phila to camp on the south bank of the Elpeüs. The land forces were supported by a naval squadron under the praetor Cnaeus Octavius. News of the defeat of one of Perseus’ most important allies in Illyria heartened the Romans and correspondingly discouraged the Macedonians, but did nothing to assist them with their own immediate problem of overcoming the enemy line of fortifications. Paullus responded to this in a thoroughly Roman way, by summoning his senior officers to a consilium. Livy tells us that some of the younger men favoured a direct assault, but that the consul judged that this would be costly and had no guarantee of success. Others suggested Octavius should be sent with the fleet to raid the coastline of Macedonia in the rear of the king, and hopefully draw off some or all of his army. Paullus made no public announcement of a decision at the consilium and, after he had dismissed his officers, summoned two local merchants familiar with the passes through the mountains. These informed him that the actual routes were not too difficult, but that Perseus had stationed detachments guarding them. The consul resolved to send a column through the mountains guided by the traders, hoping that a fast-moving force could make use of the cover of darkness to surprise the enemy. As a deception, he gave orders for Octavius to bring the fleet to Heracleum and gather sufficient supplies to feed 1,000 men for ten days. A force of soldiers commanded by the tribune Publius Cornelius Scipio Nasica and Paullus’ own son, Fabius Maximus, was also to march to Heracleum. Perseus was certain to become aware of this activity and so draw the conclusion that a raiding force was about to embark for an attack on the coast further north. The size of the detachment is uncertain. Livy says that it numbered 5,000 men, but according to Plutarch, who referred to a letter written by Scipio Nasica himself, there were 3,000 picked Italians – perhaps the extraordinarii – and the left ala numbering about 5,000, supported by 120 cavalry and 200 Cretan and Thracian infantry. Nasica was from a different branch of the Scipionic family to Africanus, but was married to the latter’s eldest daughter.

It was only after Nasica’s column had reached Heracleum and the men had eaten their evening meal that he revealed to his officers their true task. During the night they marched again, turning back inland towards the mountains. The guides were instructed to take them on a route which would bring them to the pass at Pythium on the third day of their journey. The next morning Paullus formed his army up in battle order and sent his velites forward to engage the Macedonian outposts. The skirmish continued without significant advantage being gained by either side until Paullus recalled his men at midday. On the following day he repeated the exercise and this time the Romans forced their way – or were lured – further forward and came within range of the Macedonian artillery, which inflicted a number of casualties. Paullus did not attack on the third day, but made a show of examining another section of the river, as if looking for an alternative crossing point.

In the meantime Nasica had reached Pythium and attacked just before dawn. His letter claimed that one of the Cretans had deserted and warned Perseus of his approach, leading the king to dispatch a strong force to garrison the pass. This seems unlikely, since Livy states that guards were already in place, but it may be that a reinforcement was sent. Whatever the details, the Romans achieved surprise and in a vicious skirmish killed or drove off the enemy. Nasica claimed that he was himself attacked by a Thracian mercenary fighting for the Macedonians and killed the man with a spear thrust to the chest. Having captured the position, the Roman column descended by the Petra Pass on to the plain near Dium. As soon as Perseus discovered this force to his rear, he withdrew from the line of the Elpeüs and retired towards Pydna. Paullus crossed the river unopposed, joined forces with Nasica and followed him.16

Perseus was in a difficult position. Now that the enemy had reached the heartland of his kingdom, his prestige would suffer severely if he did not meet them in battle. In a similar way Antiochus had been forced to choose between giving battle or enduring the humiliation of retreating without fighting in the face of an invader. Therefore, Perseus deployed his army outside Pydna on 21 June and offered battle to the approaching enemy in an open plain which suited his phalanx. The evident determination with which the Macedonians were waiting to be attacked surprised Paullus. His own men were tired from a long march along dusty roads under the hot sun, but much of the army, and especially some of the officers, were eager to fight immediately. Only Nasica put his feelings into words, urging the consul to attack immediately and so prevent Perseus from withdrawing. According to Livy, Paullus replied that ‘from the many vicissitudes of war I have learned when to fight and when to refuse battle. There is not time to instruct you while we are standing ready for battle as to the reasons why it is better to be inactive today. You shall ask for my reasoning at another time; now you will be satisfied to take the word of an experienced commander.’17

The consul ordered the marching columns to deploy into battle order, the tribunes supervising the process and urging the men to make haste. The general himself rode around encouraging the troops. Once the triplex acies were formed, however, he did not order an advance, but simply waited. Gradually, fatigue and thirst eroded the legionaries’ ardour for an immediate battle, and some of the tired soldiers could be seen doing what Paullus had forbidden his sentries to do and propping themselves up on their shields. Feeling that his men would now understand his reason for hesitating, the consul gave orders for the senior centurions to mark out the army’s camp. This was probably on the lower slopes of Mount Olympus to the west of the Macedonian position.18

Perseus’ army was relatively fresh and certainly fully prepared for battle. The Romans were tired and their formation hastily put together and doubtless more than a little ragged. The king had not seized the opportunity of attacking immediately, but was still close enough to take advantage of any disorder as the Romans withdrew to set up camp. Therefore Paullus took great care that his army withdrew carefully and in good order. Once the lines of the camp had been marked out and the baggage piled, the triarii were marched back to begin its construction. Later, the middle line formed by the principes moved to join them in their labour. Then the front line, the hastati, turned to the right and, led by the maniple which had formed the extreme right of the line, processed back to camp. The cavalry and velites continued to face the enemy, covering this withdrawal, and did not join the rest of the army until the ditch and rampart surrounding the camp was complete. An attack uphill against such a fortified position was unlikely to result in success, especially since it would draw the phalanx on to unsuitable ground. Perseus had probably missed an opportunity by not forcing a battle. He contented himself with the moral victory gained when the enemy withdrew to camp before he gave the order to his own men to do likewise. Hasdrubal had derived similar comfort from Scipio’s actions before Ilipa.19

At this period Rome’s official calendar was several months ahead of our calendar, making that day 4 September, whereas by our calendar it was only 21 June. That night there was a lunar eclipse, a powerful omen to both Romans and Macedonians. Livy tells us that the tribune Caius Sulpicius Gallus – who had already been praetor and would reach the consulship in 166 – had sufficient knowledge to predict and explain the phenomenon to the soldiers, so that there was less panic in the Roman camp than in that of the enemy. Even so, as the moon at last reappeared, Paullus acted in the proper fashion for a Roman magistrate and sacrificed eleven heifers. At dawn he ordered the sacrifice of oxen to Heracles. Twenty of the beasts were examined without producing favourable omens, before the twenty-first ox suggested that victory would be won by the side which remained on the defensive. These rituals took some time and it was not until the third hour of the day that the consul summoned his officers to a consilium.

Paullus explained in some detail his reasons for not fighting a battle on the previous day. Apart from the exhaustion of the soldiers after their long march and the raggedness of the Romans’ battle line in comparison with the enemy, he stressed the importance of constructing a defended camp. If they had fought a battle straight from the line of march, about a quarter of their entire strength, probably the triarii, would have had to be left to protect the army’s baggage train, further reducing their forces in the face of an enemy who anyway outnumbered them. It also seemed extremely unlikely that the Macedonians were planning to retreat in the night, escaping battle and forcing the Romans into a long-drawn-out and arduous campaign of manoeuvre. If Perseus did not intend to join battle, Paullus felt that he would not have waited outside Pydna or formed his army into battle order on the previous day.

The consul announced that he planned to fight a battle in this place, but that he would do so only when the moment was right. Not all of his officers were convinced, but the consul’s insistence that subordinates were there to obey orders without question ensured that none made any comment. Neither he nor Perseus planned to fight a battle on that day, anticipating the usual period of waiting as each sought to gain any slight advantage. The Romans sent out men to gather wood for the cooking fires and fodder for the horses. Both armies stationed outposts of formed troops in front of their respective camps, but the bulk of the troops remained in the tent lines.20

The Romans’ outposts consisted entirely of allied troops. Furthest forward, not far from the shallow stream separating the two camps, were two Italian cohorts, the Paeligni and Marrucini, and two turmae of Samnite cavalry, all under the command of Marcus Sergius Silus. Closer to the Roman camp was another force led by Caius Cluvius consisting of one Italian cohort of Vestini and two Latin cohorts, from the colonies of Firmum and Cremona respectively, supported again by two turmae, in this case Latins from Placentia and Aesernia. Livy says that both Silus and Cluvius were legati, senior subordinates of the consul who held delegated imperium. Presumably the troops were relieved at noon in accordance with Paullus’ standing orders, so these contingents may have been the second ones to perform the task on that day. Our sources do not describe the composition of the Macedonian outposts in comparable detail, but these seem to have included a band of 800 Thracians. There is no report of any bouts of skirmishing or occasional single combats between the two sets of outposts during the day, as so often seems to have occurred in similar circumstances. Men, mostly slaves, from both forces went forward to draw water from the stream.

Late in the day, Livy says at about the ninth hour, some Roman slaves lost control of a pack animal – probably a mule – which bolted across the stream. Three Italian soldiers gave chase through the knee-deep water and killed one of two Thracians who had grabbed hold of the beast. The surviving Thracian’s comrades soon came to his aid and the fighting escalated, sucking in first the troops stationed as outposts and then the main armies. Plutarch says that a band of Ligurian auxiliaries were amongst the first Roman troops to be committed – although he does not say whether they also had formed part of the outposts – and that Nasica rode forward to join the skirmish at an early stage. He also mentions a tradition which claimed that Paullus had deliberately ordered the release of a horse into the enemy camp in the hope of provoking a battle, but this seems extremely unlikely and the most plausible version is that the battle began accidentally. Paullus is said to have realized the inevitability of an action and gone around the camp encouraging the soldiers.21

Both sides deployed in considerably more haste than was usual, but the Macedonians appear to have responded more quickly and heavy fighting soon developed a mere quarter of a mile from the rampart of the Roman camp. In their haste to advance neither side at first appears to have formed a single, properly organized fighting line. Instead each unit marched out of camp, changed into battle formation and advanced. Plutarch, who provides the fullest account of the actual battle, says that the Macedonian mercenaries and light troops first reached the fighting, and were then joined on their right by the most élite division of the phalanx, the royal guards or agema. These were followed from the camp by the remainder of the phalanx, divided into the ‘Bronze Shields’ (Chalcaspides) on the left and ‘White Shields’ (Leucaspides) on the right. Thus the army was effectively deploying in reverse order from left to right, rather than the other way round, each unit going straight into the attack rather than waiting to move to its proper position. Last to leave the camp were more mercenaries, including probably both Gauls and Cretans. These were eventually to form the army’s right wing, but it seems likely that these never got into position. Certainly none of our sources mention any significant fighting on this side of the battle. For a while the Macedonians advanced in a loose echelon of units, a more coherent battle line only developing when they began to meet stiffer Roman resistance.22


In later years Paullus admitted that the sight of the Macedonian phalanx with its serried ranks of spear points bearing down on his men was the most terrifying thing he had ever seen in his life. A general who prized order and careful planning in all operations was inevitably unhappy when a battle began in such a confused way. Nevertheless he concealed both his fear and his frustration as he went around the army encouraging his soldiers. Plutarch notes that he was wearing neither body armour nor helmet, to show his disdain for the enemy. The consul personally led the First Legion into position in the right centre of the Roman line, roughly opposite the ‘Bronze Shields’. Lucius Postumius Albinus, who had been consul in 173 BC and was presumably serving as a legatus or perhaps a tribune, followed with the Second Legion and eventually took post to Paullus’ left and squared up against the ‘White Shields’. Other officers led one or both of the allied alae, along with the elephants, into place on the right of the legions.23

The first encounter between a body of formed troops and a part of the Macedonian phalanx occurred when the Paeligni, and probably with them the Marrucini, clashed with the agema. The Macedonians were in good order and the Italians found it difficult to dodge the rows of sarissa points and get close enough to attack the pikemen themselves. The agema consisted of some 3,000 men and was supported by mercenary units to its left, so that the Italians probably lacked the numbers to threaten the vulnerable flanks of the formation. In an effort to break the stalemate, Salvius, the cohort’s commander, grabbed the unit’s standard and hurled it into the enemy ranks. The Paeligni surged forward to recapture the precious standard and a short but brutal combat developed as they struggled to hack their way into the enemy formation. Some men tried to cut off the sarissa points or deflect them with their swords, others took the blows on their shields, whilst a few grabbed the enemy weapons and tried to shove them out of the way. Some Macedonians were killed, but the remainder kept their formation and the phalanx remained unbroken. As Italian casualties began to mount, the Paeligni drew back and withdrew up slope towards their camp. Plutarch says that according to a fiercely pro-Macedonian source written by Posidonius the Italians’ retreat caused the consul to tear his tunic in frustration.24

The same Posidonius also presented a far more flattering version of Perseus’ behaviour than that given by our other sources. Polybius stated that the king galloped back to the city of Pydna at the start of the battle, claiming that he needed to perform a sacrifice to Heracles, and hence took no part in the fighting. According to Posidonius, Perseus had been kicked the day before, presumably by a horse, and this injury at first forced him to keep out of the battle. However, in spite of his pain, Perseus is then supposed to have mounted himself on a pack animal and charged into the thick of the combat, and was struck by a javelin which tore his tunic without actually wounding him.25

The First Legion arrived first and seems to have brought the Macedonian attack to a standstill. As the Second Legion moved into position things began to turn the Romans’ way. On the right flank, the war elephants caused considerable disorder amongst the enemy. Earlier in the campaign Perseus had formed a special anti-elephant unit, but the novel weapons and spiked armour of these soldiers proved utterly ineffective. The king had also tried to train the army’s cavalry horses to become used to the strange appearance, noise and smell of the great beasts, but this too had failed. Already thrown into confusion by the elephants, most of the Macedonian left wing was swept away by the attacking allied ala. In the centre the phalanx had broken up into its constituent units. Even in Alexander’s day this had tended to happen whenever the phalanx advanced over any distance, for it was and is extremely difficult to march across even the flattest of plains in formation without deviating to one side or the other. The Roman system of maintaining wide intervals between maniples was in part intended to prevent such fluctuations from causing two units to merge. Macedonian doctrine required narrower gaps between units, but there was a natural tendency for sections of the line to bunch up and others to spread out during the advance. Broken or uneven ground exacerbated the problem and it is possible that at Pydna the slope leading up to the Roman camp contributed to the break-up of the phalanx. However, the main reason for the problem was the lack of time to deploy the army properly before the battle began. If the Macedonians could have kept the advance going, never reducing the pressure on the Romans, it is possible that they would have won in spite of this. Once both legions were in place and the phalanx became stalled, the essentially inflexible nature of this formation put it at a major disadvantage.26

On one side was a single line of individual blocks of pikemen, each at least sixteen ranks deep. Behind this line there were no reserves, and the blocks themselves had little capacity for manoeuvre. Facing them was a line of maniples, perhaps half that depth, intervals roughly equivalent to each unit’s frontage separating it from those on either side. Covering these gaps were the maniples of the principes, and behind them the triarii. The Macedonians could only fight effectively against an enemy to their front, and even this was dependent on their keeping together and presenting an unbroken wall of sarissa points to the enemy. Each maniple was led by a centurion – the commander of the right-hand century having seniority if both men were present – and the triplex aciesformation gave it the space to act as a single unit.

With the fighting lines stabilized, the centurions began to lead their men into the gaps in the enemy line to strike at the unprotected flanks and even rear of the pike blocks. Plutarch tells us that Paullus gave orders for this to occur, first speaking to the tribunes and senior subordinates who then passed the instructions on to the junior officers. This is probably true, for we must expect Paullus, like any other Roman commander, to have been willing to intervene in the small tactical decisions of a battle. However, altogether the legions will have occupied a frontage of a mile or so, and it would have taken too much time for each local attack to be ordered by the general. The Roman army had a significantly higher proportion of officers to men than the Macedonians. A legion had six tribunes and sixty centurions, twenty in each line, apart from any legati or other members of the general’s staff sent to that sector of the line. The initiative for many of the local attacks probably came from these men, and even perhaps on occasions from ordinary soldiers, for the Romans were always keen to encourage individual boldness.27

Gradually, small groups of Romans infiltrated the Macedonian line. A legionary was primarily a swordsman, who could if required fight effectively as an individual. A Macedonian equipped with a 21 foot sarissa could only fight as part of a group. Once the Romans began to attack each knot of pikemen from the flanks the battle became very one-sided. Some Macedonians dropped their cumbersome weapons and drew their side arms, but the men were poorly trained and badly equipped for this sort of work. The legionaries carried the ‘Spanish sword’ (gladius hispaniensis), a well balanced, cut and thrust weapon, with a tempered steel blade. A thrust from such a sword was often fatal, a cut horribly disfiguring. Livy describes how appalled Philip V’s soldiers had been in the First Macedonian War when they first saw the corpses of men killed with the Spanish sword. At Pydna, the Macedonian pikemen were slaughtered whilst inflicting little or no loss on the enemy. By the end of the day some 20,000 Macedonians had fallen and another 6,000 had been taken prisoner. The agema was virtually wiped out. As the phalanx collapsed into rout, the Macedonian cavalry rode away from the battlefield. Many of these troops had not actually fought and their units were still intact. Perseus fled with them to his capital Pella, but broke away from the horsemen when they were overtaken by an angry mob of fugitives from the rest of the army.

The battle lasted for no more than an hour, an unusually short time for a major engagement, and cost the Romans about 100 dead and a larger number of wounded. For a while Paullus feared that his son, Scipio Aemilianus, was amongst the fallen and was disconsolate until the boy returned, having become separated during the pursuit with a couple of companions. The son of Cato the Elder, who would subsequently marry Paullus’ daughter Aemilia and was then serving as a cavalryman, had also distinguished himself during the fighting. At one point he is said to have lost his sword. Wandering the battlefield he gathered a group of friends and together they attacked a group of the enemy, routed them, and finally discovered the weapon buried under a pile of corpses. Both Paullus and Cato’s own stern father praised him for an action in keeping with the behaviour of a true Roman.28

The Roman victory at Pydna owed much to the flexibility of the Roman tactical system. Its accidental start prevented either commander from employing any sophisticated tactics. At best they could inspire their men – although in Perseus’ case he may not even have attempted to do this – and help them to deploy into some sort of fighting line. In the confused situation which developed, the legions were better able to respond to each local problem. Similar factors had proved decisive at Cynoscephalae and Magnesia. At Cynoscephalae, the two armies had bumped unexpectedly into each other when they had approached the pass of that name from opposite directions. Each side followed the normal procedure of wheeling their march column to the right to form a battle line. In such a situation the right flanks of both the Roman and the Macedonian armies were at the head of the column and so moved into position and changed into battle order first. The right flank of each army then attacked and routed the enemy left, which was still unprepared for battle. The Romans were in their usual triplex acies, Philip V’s infantry in a single deep phalanx without reserve lines. An unnamed tribune took twenty maniples from the principes and triarii of the Roman right and led them round to attack the king’s victorious troops. The phalanx could not respond to this new threat and was routed.

At Magnesia the armies were properly deployed and expecting battle. Antiochus III led a cavalry charge in the best traditions of Alexander and punched a hole through the Roman line, taking his men on to attack the enemy camp. There were no reserves to exploit his success. The Romans did have reserves, and these, along with the men stationed to guard the camp, defeated the king’s cavalry. When the Romans broke through the Seleucids’ main line and infiltrated the immensely deep phalanx, the latter could do nothing to plug the gaps and were overwhelmed. In these battles, as at Pydna, the victory was achieved at a very low cost, even by the standards of the ancient world.

After Cynoscephalae, Magnesia and Pydna, Philip V, Antiochus the Great and Perseus respectively conceded defeat in the war and accepted the peace terms imposed on them by the Roman Republic. In 168 the Senate decided that the kingdom of Macedonia would cease to exist, and divided the land into four autonomous regions. Perseus was taken back to Rome to walk in Paullus’ triumphal procession and spent the rest of his life as a prisoner. However, for a while it seemed that the consul would be denied the honour of a triumph. Paullus was an efficient commander, but never seems to have had the knack of gaining the affection of his troops. Some sections of the army felt that they had not received sufficient reward for the campaign, in terms of both praise and, especially, plunder. This was in spite of a senatorially approved act of brigandage after Pydna, when Paullus had taken the troops to plunder the city of Epirus. Led by the tribune Servius Sulpicius Galba, many soldiers lobbied for the consul to be denied a triumph and it was only after a struggle that the majority of the Senate approved the granting of the honour. Many were persuaded in this by the ageing Punic War veteran and former consul Marcus Servilius Pulex Geminus, a man said to have killed twenty-three enemies in single combat.29

Ultimately Paullus was granted the right to a triumph and led an especially spectacular celebration spread over three days and watched all along the Sacred Way through the heart of Rome by crowds sitting on specially erected seating. On the first day 250 wagons carried statues and other art works looted during the war. On the second day the carts carried captured weapons, armour and other military equipment, emphasizing the different panoplies of the foreign allies and mercenaries serving with Perseus as well as the native Macedonian gear. Much of the equipment was arranged to look like the heaped debris of battle. In other wagons the ‘arms and armour were somewhat loosely arranged, so that as they were carried along they struck against one another and gave out a harsh and fearsome sound, and even though they had belonged to the losers in the war their appearance was not without its terrors’.30 Following after the carts were the silver coins and the treasure captured from the enemy, displayed in 750 boxes, each carried by a team of four men.

Finally, on the third day came the main procession, led by trumpeters playing the calls and fanfares sounded in battle. Behind the musicians were 120 sacrificial oxen, their horns gilded and their heads decorated, accompanied by youths carrying the necessary libations. Then once again the wealth of the defeated enemy was stressed, for seventy-seven containers each holding three talents of gold coins and a collection of Perseus’ most precious vessels were carried through the streets. The king’s chariot, empty save for his arms and armour and his royal diadem, was led behind his possessions. Then came his young children, two boys and a girl, with their nurses and many other domestic slaves. It was a pathetic sight and many of the watching Romans, who as a race were rarely inclined to conceal their emotions, were moved to tears. Perseus walked behind them with his own attendants and courtiers. His plea to be spared the humiliation of being paraded through the city had received a brusque response from Paullus, who implied that the king could always avoid this fate by committing suicide.

Then, after the symbols and spoils of his victory, came Paullus himself, mounted on a magnificently decorated chariot. He would have made a remarkable sight even without all these trappings of power; he wore a cloak dyed with purple and shot through with gold, and held in his right hand a spray of laurel. Every single soldier likewise carried laurel. The army marched behind their commander’s chariot in their units and divisions, with the men singing partly traditional songs with an element of humour in them, and partly hymns of victory and praise for Aemilius’ achievements. No one could keep their eyes off him; he was an object of universal admiration… 31

Plutarch’s description gives some sense of the splendour of a Roman triumph, but for Paullus there was little need for the slave to whisper in his ear reminders of his mortality. His 14-year-old son fell sick and died five days before the ceremonies began. Three days after the parade, the same fate befell the boy’s 12-year-old brother. Only the two eldest sons survived and both of these had been adopted into other families and taken their names.


Before he left Greece, Paullus had spent some time touring the country, sightseeing and doing his best to win over the hearts and minds of the population. At Amphipolis he staged a determinedly Hellenic festival of drama, poetry and sport, summoning performers, athletes and famous racehorses from throughout the Greek world. The influential guests were treated to lavish feasts. Some expressed surprise that this large-scale entertainment could have been so successfully staged at such short notice, to which Paullus dryly commented that a ‘man who knew how to conquer in war could also arrange a banquet and organize games’.32 During a visit to the famous oracle at Delphi, the consul saw a bare plinth which was to have mounted a statue to Perseus. Paullus commissioned a monument to his own victory instead, some of which has survived to the present day. He was not the first Roman magistrate to become involved in the cultural life of Greece. Flamininus had remained in Greece for several years after the Second Macedonian War, and from the beginning showed a deep love for all things Hellenic. At the Isthmian Games in 196 BC when he had proclaimed the ‘Freedom of the Greeks’, his speech – delivered in Greek – had been greeted with rapturous applause. The honours lavished by Hellenic communities on Roman generals, whether through fear or genuine respect, mirrored those conventionally granted to kings. This encouraged a belief that any Roman senator, and especially a prominent and successful general, was at the very least the equal of any foreign monarch. Flamininus and Paullus and the other men who triumphed in the eastern Mediterranean gained prestige far greater than the vast majority of senators. This prestige and their wealth could have unbalanced Roman political life, and it was in part to prevent this that other senators attacked them with such fervour on their return to Rome.

It is hard to gauge to what extent Roman aristocrats were aware of Greek culture in the third century BC. Rome had interacted with and eventually conquered the many Hellenic colonies in Italy and later Sicily. The spoils of war in particular yielded art works and slaves which were brought back to Rome. By the time of the Second Punic War there were Roman senators such as Fabius Pictor whose Greek and knowledge of literature were of a sufficiently high standard to permit them to write the first works of Roman prose history. Whilst preparing the invasion of Africa from his base in Sicily, Scipio Africanus and his youthful staff dressed in Greek fashion and took a delight in such characteristically Hellenic institutions as the gymnasium. This love affair with Greek language and culture would seize the Roman aristocracy and persist for centuries. In the early second century BC it offered yet another arena in which senators could compete to show their superiority, as each strove to demonstrate greater awareness of all things Greek.

By the middle of the century, the vast majority of educated Romans were bilingual, for Greek was the language of true civilization, just as French was spoken by virtually all the aristocracies of eighteenth-century Europe. Only a few voices publicly resisted this trend. The most famous of these was Marcus Porcius Cato, the man who had led one of the outflanking columns at Thermopylae and whose son distinguished himself at Pydna. When serving as an ambassador in Greece, Cato refused to address the locals in their own language, and insisted in delivering his speech in Latin. This was not through ignorance, for he clearly possessed an extensive knowledge of Hellenic literature – Polybius recalled an incident where Cato had made a joking allusion to Homer’s Odyssey. Throughout his career Cato derided the aristocrats who aped the noblemen of Greece, and instead stressed the superiority of Rome’s own simple, but virtuous traditions. As Scipio’s quaestor in 205 BC, he had publicly criticized the consul and his friends for their behaviour in Sicily. Later he would write the first history in the Latin language, one of a broad range of works he wrote or translated into Latin.

Unlike the senators who collected Greek art and copied Hellenic fashions of dress, decoration and dining, Cato portrayed himself as an old-fashioned Roman, living a frugal life of service to the Republic. He was a ‘new man’ who could not rely on the achievements of his ancestors or a well-established family reputation and so had to work hard to create a reputation. This meant that he missed no opportunity to display a clear set of views and characteristics, gradually building up a ‘public image’ – virtually a brand name – to match those of the established families. Thus, in a real sense, Cato used the spread of culture as a means of competing with other senators just as much as those men did who embraced the new ideas.

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