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The Battle of Cynoscephalae: The Roman Conquest of Greece

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The author is a student of ancient and modern European history.

Philip V of Macedon

Philip V of Macedon

Roman Intervention in Greece

Roman and Greek cultures are often considered to be two sides of a coin. Roman interest in the Greek mainland began long before Rome was building an official empire. The Romans had contact with the Greeks due to Greek colonies in southern Italy and Sicily, but up until the Second Macedonian War, they showed no interest in going to the Greek mainland.

Roman interests changed as a result of the Punic Wars. Rome conquered Carthage and became master of the western Mediterranean. Meanwhile, the Macedonians had supported the Carthaginian war effort by providing Hannibal with a regiment of volunteers, who were in fact elite Macedonian phalanxes.

After the First Macedonian War, which was really a sideshow to the Punic Wars as there were no real battles between the Macedonians and Romans, Macedon began to expand its power at the expense of Rome's allies. When the Roman client states called for Roman aid the Roman Senate led a war effort against Macedon, and this established the precedent for Roman invasion and a foothold for the Roman conquest of Greece.

Coin of Titus Quinctius Flamininus

Coin of Titus Quinctius Flamininus

The Second Macedonian War

Rome invaded Macedon initially to force Macedon to force peace in Greece, but eventually settled on a policy of removing Macedon from Greece altogether. The Roman army engaged in a lackluster campaign at first. The consuls in charge of the war effort were inefficient and not motivated to move against Philip.

The entire campaign changed when Titus Quinctius Flamininus took command of the Roman army. Flamininus is credited with changing the Roman policy from peace in Greece to removing Macedon. He moved aggressively against Philip and forced the two armies to come to combat.

The Roman Army

When Rome invaded Macedon it had approximately 25,000 troops. Most of the soldiers would have been Roman legionnaires, but they also had some light troops from allies. The Numidians supplied some cavalry since they were a client state and ally of Rome since the Punic Wars. The Aetolian League, which was an alliance of the Greek city-states, also provided some allied troops.

The Roman legionnaires are now considered the most feared warriors of the ancient world, but in Roman times they were still overcoming the classical Greek method of fighting. Roman legions deployed in maniples, which are essentially squares of troops. Maniple formation allowed the Roman army to change formation or facing much easier than their Macedonian opponents.

The Macedonian Army

Philip V brought about 25,000 troops to the battle as well. About 16,000 of his troops were Macedonian phalanxes, while the rest were made up of light auxiliaries and cavalry from allied city-states in Greece, Thrace, and Illyria.

The phalanx was the steamroller of the ancient world. A Macedonian phalangite was a professional soldier, and one of the most heavily armored in the world. A Macedonian phalanx was much deeper than a Greek hoplite formation, and could bring almost five pikes to bear on a target at once. Some of the phalangites would hold their pikes at angles to disrupt missiles thrown or launched at them.

The greatest danger for a phalanx was an enemy getting past their pikes. A phalangite carried no other weapons, and his pike was useless once the enemy got past it. Phalanxes were also very terrain specific. They need flat, open ground to advance without breaking formation.

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Battle of Cynoscephalae

Battle of Cynoscephalae

Battle of Cynoscephalae

The two armies met at Cynoscephalae, a series of hills in northern Greece. When morning came on the day of the battle there was a heavy fog, and neither army knew where the other army was. Philip's army was marching along the top of the hills when his scouts engaged the Roman skirmishers by accident.

Both generals sent their skirmishers into battle, and began massing reinforcements. There was still fog and neither general knew quite what was occurring, but both sides' skirmishers thought they were winning. The Macedonians got the upper hand and drove the Romans from the hilltop, but Philip needed more time to reorganize his phalanxes from marching order for combat.

Philip decided against waiting for his entire army to form up, and he pushed against the Romans with half his phalanxes, about 8,000 men. Philip's right wing was now pushing the Roman legions back, but his left was still disorganized and unprepared. The Roman legions were able to break into Philip's ranks on his left flank.

When the Roman right hit Philip's left they unleashed their secret weapon. Twenty elephants from North Africa were used to break the Macedonian phalanxes. The phalanxes had never gotten into proper position and the elephants were too much for them. Once they broke, part of the Roman force gave pursuit, while a small segment of troops was led in an assault on the Macedonian right wing which was still advancing.

The result of the Roman counter-attack was devastating. Phalangites wore heavy helmets and were entirely focused on pushing forward, and they would have had no warning of being attacked from behind. Over 5,000 Macedonians fell on the field, while another thousand were captured. The Romans lost about 2,000 men.

The Significance of the Battle

The Roman victory at Cynoscephalae forced Philip to accept peace on the Romans' terms. Roman troops did not stay in Greece at the end of the war, but their allies were given territory from Macedon's holdings. Rome would intervene again through two more wars with Macedon before finally turning it into a province.

The Macedonians never really recovered from their losses at Cynoscephalae. Philip's successors had some small successes, but were ultimately destroyed by overwhelming Roman force. The Greek cities remained independent until Rome conquered them at the end of the 4th Macedonian War. Rome dominated Greece from the end of the Second Macedonian War in 197 BC until the Crusades in the 12th and 13th century, with only a few interruptions.

Further Reading

  • Armstrong, J. (2016). Early Roman warfare: From the regal period to the First Punic War. Barnsley, South Yorkshire: Pen & Sword Military.
  • DeVries, Kelly. Battles That Changed Warfare, 1457 B.C - 1991 A.D.: from Chariot Warfare to Stealth Bombers. New York: Metro Books, 2011.
  • Lendon, J. E. Soldiers & Ghosts: a History of Battle in Classical Antiquity. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008.
  • Livy, Books XXXI–XXXIII.
  • Mackay, Christopher S. Ancient Rome: a Military and Political History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
  • Penrose, Jane. Rome and Her Enemies: an Empire Created and Destroyed by War. Oxford: Osprey, 2005.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2012 A Anders


bubble fish on April 21, 2014:

thank you this was helpful for my assignment

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