Nipissing University

History 2055 -- Ancient Civilizations

The Roman Conquest of Greece

Steve Muhlberger
The Second Punic War, which ended by treaty in 201 B.C., transformed Rome from an Italian confederacy into a permanent, expansionary war machine.  In 200 B.C., this was not evident.  Indeed, many people were talking about the need for peace.  Yet war went on.  There were
campaigns in Cisalpine Gaul, what we think of as Lombardy or northern Italy, against the fierce tribesmen who had been Hannibal's most dangerous allies.  Perhaps this war was inevitable, given the long hostility between Romans and Gauls.  More remarkably, in that same year the consuls and the
leaders of the senate came before the Roman assembly and argued that war should be declared on Macedon.  The Roman people, as those assembled were considered to be, were very reluctant.  Why war with Macedon?  They finally agreed only that Roman ambassadors should be dispatched to Greece to straighten out some disagreements between the two powers.

Later that same year, however, the Roman found themselves voting for war anyway.  The
ambassadors had gone to Greece, shopped around for allies among the smaller states, and found one willing to provoke King Philip V of Macedon into attacking it.  Then Rome's honor was on the line; and war was declared.

These events of 200 B.C. are of special interest to us.  They mark the beginning of a deep Roman involvement in Greece and the eastern Hellenistic world.  Within 60 years, Greece would be conquered and Rome would hold much the same position in the eastern Mediterranean as it already held in the West.

The important question that the events raise now, though, is the same one that faced members of the assembly back in 200.  Why war with Macedonia?  Why was Rome not content with its already extensive sphere of which now included Spain?  Why was the task of rebuilding Italy after the
devastation of the war with Hannibal not enough for it?  Why new horizons?

Modern answers tend to go along one of two lines.

The first is that the Romans were acting in self-defense and in the defense of their friends.  This was always the official justification of all Roman wars of the era, and some scholars take it seriously now.  In the east were the Hellenistic
monarchies, Philip's Macedon and the even more dangerous kingdom of Antiochus, based in Syria but including Iran and much of Asia Minor as well.  Rome could not be indifferent to events in Greece because of the involvement there of these great powers.

A second modern theory is much more harsh on the Romans.  It says that by the end of the Second Punic War, conquest and the profits of conquest had become a habit with the Romans.  They had become a consciously imperialistic power, and took their opportunities where they found them.

The two theories tend to divide those who like the Romans from those who don't.

I tend not to be very sympathetic toward the Romans, but I think the broad outlines of explanation number 2 have to be filled in before it can be accepted.

After the defeat of Hannibal, Rome had become a great power, not just in fact, but in the way many members of the ruling class thought of it.  In the previous generation, they had become used to thinking in world terms.   Roman aristocrats were now quite capable of feeling threatened by quite remote events:  e.g.  Saguntum in 218.

Also, for those who thought big, the world was full of opportunities.  The men who had won victories against Carthage were the heroes and predominant political figures of the post-war period.  They
held out an example for others to follow.

Finally, many aristocrats had come to hold a self-righteous view of Rome's place in the
world.  They believed that they represented the cause of justice, order, and civilization, and had both the power and the moral standing to be political arbiters.

The state of mind of the more adventurous segment of the Roman aristocracy can be compared to that of many Americans after World War II or many Britons in the 19th century.

The combination of fear of foreigners and self-righteous self-confidence can be seen in American Cold War psychology -- which held simultaneously that there was a deadly communist threat to American interests and that the American way of life was superior to all others and guaranteed American victory.  American actions in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, parallel Roman actions after 200.  All the while Americans were talking about the communist threat and Russian expansionism
-- in most cases with great sincerity, and with some basis in fact -- the USA was expanding its military, political and economic influence into many areas that had hardly seen an American before the war:  Korea, Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand, Ethiopia, Angola, etc. etc.

The same with Britain earlier.  The British did not think of themselves as an imperial power
until quite late in the 19th century.  Earlier, there was constantly talk of getting rid of colonies as a burden on the taxpayer.  But year by year the empire grew, as Britain found new threats to British interests that were most easily solved by going to war and taking territory under British
protection or direct rule.

The war with Macedon between 200 and 196 B.C. is an excellent example of how mixed motives of this sort led Rome into an ever greater role in the Mediterranean world.  So let's have a look at it, following Arthur M. Eckstein's analysis in some important respects.

The initial request of the Senate for a declaration of war by the Roman assembly (which was the assembly's right) was not a capricious act. There were reasons, quite plausible ones.  Macedon was a near neighbor, controlling areas right across the straits from Roman Italy.  This proximity had led to war in the recent past.  Irritated by Roman moves against Illyrian pirate nests, Philip V of Macedon had allied himself with Carthage in the Second Punic War.  His participation made little difference
to the course of the war.  But from the Roman point of view, one could make a case for teaching Philip a lesson.

A second plausible reason for war was Philip's participation in an alliance that might endanger Rome in the future.  Philip and Antiochus, the ruler of Syria previously mentioned, were currently cooperating in an effort to gobble up various small Greek states in Greece and Anatolia.  It
could be argued that now was a time to take a stand against these powerful kings.  The Roman hatred of kings was as strong as American hatred of communists.

These two reasons might not mean much to the average Roman citizen, perhaps not even the average wealthy and influential Roman citizen.  In 200, hopes for peace were very widespread.  But to a small and crucial elite, these reasons loomed large.  And there was one further factor that
applied especially to that elite:  war gave them the possibility of glory and an increase in political influence that nothing else could.

We should stop here in our discussion of the Macedonian war to discuss what war meant to this small elite.  If we don't we can't understand the significance of this war or any of the rest.

Roman aristocrats, like the citizens of a Greek polis, lived for reputation, for the acknowledgment of their excellence by their peers. The most important way to acquire prestige was holding magisteral office. The magisteral offices were that of consul, praetor, aedile, questor, and perhaps censor.  Each had its own duties -- command of armies, judicial duties, care of public funds; and being a magistrate of any kind made one a permanent member of the senate.  Some of the offices had more glamor than others.  To be censor in the right year might make your name famous forever -- if you could convince the state to build a road, they would put your name on it.  We still know the Appian Way, built by Appius Claudius Caudex.

But best of all was to be one of the two consuls of the year.  The Romans did not number their years -- they named them after their consuls.  So 200 B.C. was, for a Roman, the year of Galba and Cotta.  This was something that these men and their descendants would remember forever.

Being consul was more than this, though.  The consuls were, from the beginning of the republic, the chief generals of the state.  War, whether in self-defense or aggression, was always the most important business of the Roman people. When there was war abroad, as there often was, consuls were assigned  provinciae, which in the early days were not so much provinces but theaters
of operation.  Both consuls might be off fighting, and leave more humdrum duties in Rome itself to one or more praetors.

If a war went really well, the consul would be honored when he returned to the city with a triumph, a
grand parade, paid for by the senate, in which the general -- wearing the otherwise forbidden royal purple -- and his army marched through the city to the temple of Capitoline Jupiter, where important prisoners of war were put to death and there was a great feast.

As the Roman state grew, and it got involved in long hard wars like the Punic War, the number of commands increased and there was a bit more opportunity for the upper crust to hold them.  Praetors were given commands, and consuls and praetors were given long term commands by making them proconsuls and propraetors.  But the holding of supreme command of an
army was a rare prize an any time.

Part of the special cachet of supreme command may not be obvious.  At home, a Roman noble, no matter how rich, how respected, how influential, was hemmed in by his peers.  The great fear of the original Republicans had been royal mastery, and the senators and aristocrats of later times watched
each other jealousy for overreaching ambition.  A very capable or lucky man would wear royal purple once in his life, at his triumph, but he was even on that day reviled by his troops -- to avert the evil eye, whether supernatural and political -- and accompanied by a man who constantly
reminded him that he was  not a god.

But, as the holder of a foreign command, he was as good as any king, and better than most.  Scipio
Africanus, when he led the Spanish armies during the Second Punic War, was treated as a king by some of his local allies and enemies.  Another modern comparison.  Had there been no Second World War, Douglas MacArthur would never have been more than an obscure American general, one who in fact had already retired in 1937.  Because of the war, he became overlord of the Pacific -- half the world -- and effectively ruled Japan from 1945 to 1951.  Doug MacArthur from Little Rock, Arkansas was greater than the emperor.

To return to 200 B.C.  In 200 B.C., Scipio Africanus was only 35 years old, and a man of vast prestige. To many he was an object of envy, a potential threat to the constitution. To others, he was an example to be emulated.  Indeed, in Rome, where public virtue and family honor were so important, and politics and war the proper sphere to acquire them, there were many ambitious men on the lookout for the right war, the right command.

The Macedonian War gave the opportunity of a lifetime to one of them, a man named Tiberius Quinctius Flaminius, who took over the campaign in 198.  What he did in Greece and Macedon is known in great detail.

At first glance his performance is puzzling.  At one point, he demanded that Philip withdraw from all parts of Greece, even though Flaminius himself was at a military disadvantage; later, when he was in better shape, he was quite willing to compromise with Philip, and helped draw up a treaty; later
still, he worked to sabotage that treaty in the Senate.  Sometimes Flaminius posed as the uncompromising champion of Roman friendship with the cities of Greece.  At other times he was quite willing to ignore the interests of the Greeks.

The puzzle of Flaminius' career is solved, however, once we realize his chief motivation.  It was to enhance his personal gloria, his reputation at home.  When war with Philip looked like the best way to get it, he did his best to provoke war.  When it looked like the war would drag on past his term as commander, and someone else would take over his army, he was for a quick peace that he could claim credit for.  Flaminius lucked out:  he kept the war going until he won a great victory and was able to impose a peace settlement on both Macedon and Greece.

This is not to say that Flaminius was completely consumed by personal ambition.  He did have other motives, including a sincere desire to promote the good of Greece as he understood it.  He was one of a large group of pro-Greek Romans who were attracted to Greek culture and liked to think of
themselves as its champions.  (Scipio Africanus was another of these men.) Thus Flaminius constantly spoke of himself as a promoter of Greek liberty from tyrants.  It was a personally flattering pose, and one that played well with influential senators at home.

The summit of Flaminius's career was his declaration at the Isthmian Games at Corinth in 196, after he had beaten Philip and militarily dominated Greece.  There, at a great sporting and religious occasion, before representatives of every Greek state, he announced that Greece was
free:  Rome would not garrison their cities, they would pay no tribute, and they would live under their own laws.  The crowd went wild.  But it makes more sense to see this as a personal gesture of an adroit and praise-loving politician than a thought-out policy of the Roman state.

Flaminius was as good as his word.  Roman troops were withdrawn from Greece.  But there remained the idea, both in Greece and especially in Rome that whatever happened in Greece was ultimately Roman business.  The Greeks were free -- but Rome set the limits of that freedom.  Rome decided which wars could be fought within Greece and which endangered Greek liberty.  And
Rome of course would be dead set against any other power intervening in Greece.  It was this attitude that helped drag Rome into a war, starting in 192 B.C., with a monarch much more distant than the now-humbled Philip of Macedon:  Antiochus III, king of Syria.

Antiochus was a direct descendent of one of Alexander's generals, one of the most successful, a man who had been named Seleucus.   As a man of Macedonian descent and as a self-appointed champion of the Greeks in the Alexandrine tradition, he had no intention of ignoring Greece.  When he was warned off by Rome, he could not but wonder where Rome got off.  He did not harass them in Italy -- why should they be concerned with his activities in Greece?

He made two moves that brought Rome down on him very quickly.

First, he intervened in Thrace, right next door to Macedon.

Second, he gave shelter to a man whose activity no Roman could ignore, Hannibal.  Hannibal
was still alive.  He had been taking a leading role in Carthaginian affairs in the years after the war.  Rome had found his influence worrisome, and plotted with Hannibal's enemies.  But the plot had backfired.  To save his life, Hannibal fled into exile, and was now with Antiochus as a trusted
advisor.  It was not hard to sell the Roman people on this war.

Rome, under the leadership of Scipio Africanus, quickly beat Antiochus.  Antiochus agreed to withdraw from Anatolia (now Turkey) to beyond the Taurus mountains and keep his nose out of the Aegean basin; Hannibal fled his court rather than be surrendered to Rome, and later committed suicide to avoid that fate.

Nevertheless Rome was now involved in Anatolia.  The campaign against Antiochus and the settlement imposed on the region by Rome reinforced the unavoidable perception that Rome was not just the arbiter of Greece, but also the arbiter of nearer Asia.  Rome's sphere of influence continued to grow.  A few years later (168), Rome stepped in to prevent Antiochus IV from invading Egypt from Syria.  When faced by a Roman ambassador demanding he desist, Antiochus asked for time to consider his answer.  The ambassador then drew a circle around Antiochus in the dirt and required an answer before he left the circle.  Antiochus, remembering the fate of so many of Rome's enemies, including his father, caved in at once.

The invasion was called off.  And another Roman magistrate had earned glory abroad.

As Rome became a greater and greater influence in the politics of the Hellenistic world, Greek influence on the culture of Rome was also expanding.  This was not entirely new:   Roman rule over Campania and Sicily had already acquainted many Romans with Greek theater, religion, and
other habits.  But now, Hellenism, or an affection for things Greek, was sinking deep into the life of the Roman upper classes.  Some of this resulted simply from more contact; including the contact resulting from the looting of Greek cities for art and for human beings.  Many literary men entered Roman aristocratic households as slaves or hostages for their city's good behavior.  And then of course there was the reverse traffic, of Romans who went to Greek lands, either as soldiers or as traders, and liked
what they saw.

Scipio Africanus, for instance, was a great fan of things Greek, dating from the time he had campaigned in Sicily towards the end of the Second Punic War.  Having fallen in love with Greek ways in Syracuse, he later visited Delphi and Delos, two major shrines of Apollo, whose devotee he became.  Scipio Africanus and his descendants became one major focus of Roman Hellenism, and patrons to a good number of writers, both Greek and Latin.

The Roman Hellenists had a vision of a new, more cultured, more cosmopolitan Rome.  Depending on your inclination, you can see them as far-sighted patrons of civilizing trends, or 2nd century yuppies, wanting to build a "world-class" empire.  There were other members of the ruling class, however, who feared these high-flying cosmopolitans and the foreign culture they were importing.   Distaste and fear for the new was as strong as a liking for it.

The rejection of Hellenism is symbolized, rather deceptively, by the figure of Marcus Porcius Cato, usually called Cato the Censor or Cato the Elder.  In the fast-moving modern world of the early 2nd century, Cato presented himself as a representative of ancient Italic virtue, puritanical, plain-living, and plain-spoken.  This was a pose:  Cato was a no country bumpkin, but a neo-conservative, who made a mint in agribusiness in a way that would not have been possible in earlier generations.  But he played the part well, and served as a rallying point for those who disliked the new grandees.

Much of his career was spent in attacking the Scipios and their influence, with some success.  In the 180s after a wave of Bacchanalian orgies and riots had swept through Italy, Cato got himself elected censor, and used his position to attack those he considered too addicted to luxury.

But despite all the noise he made, Cato was not really trying to roll back Greek influence.  He himself knew Greek, and knew it well.  As censor, he commissioned for the city of Rome its first basilica, a public hall in Greek style.  If his hatred of Greece was anything more than a political gimmick, or a position from which to attack a certain group or kind of rival aristocrat, it was a demand that Romans not forget their own identity -- and ruling position -- while they adopted the best of what the Greeks had.  It was already too late to reject Hellenism.

And it must be said that the Romans did adapt Hellenic culture to their own needs, or at least found others to do it for them.  Even before 200 B.C., a number of Italians of Greek, half-Greek or Greek-influenced culture were creating a Latin literary language of sophistication and scope
-- something that had never existed before.

 The closest thing to a real Roman writer we have from the period is -- that supposed enemy of high culture, Cato himself. He used his excellent Greek education to make himself the first Latin prose
writer, publishing 142 of his speeches, a history, and an important treatise on agriculture.  A final point that should be raised is the gradual remodeling of Roman religion into a close imitation of the Greek one.  The fact that most of us can't tell the difference between them is one more indication of the profound Greek impact on its overlords.

Rome's prolonged contact with Greece made it more refined, but did not make it more gentle or considerate, of the Greeks or anyone else.  Indeed, the longer the Romans acted as the protectors of the Greeks, the more impatient they became of their ingratitude for all the benefits Rome had
given them.  There was always someone stirring the country up against its benefactors.

In 167, Macedon's king was deposed for revolt, his country split into four parts, and many Greek communities punished for supporting him.  In 147, the revolt of a pretender in Macedon, again supported by other Greeks, called down Roman wrath.  Macedonia became a Roman province,
with a garrison.

And that garrison soon found reason to teach Greece a lesson.  In 146, Corinth defied Rome, and Corinth was destroyed.  One of the greatest cities in Greece was leveled and its population sold.  It was a terrifying event, and it had the desired effect.  Greece was cowed.
Democracy was suppressed where it existed, and no one doubted any longer that Rome was Greece's master.

The same year, 146, saw another turning point.  Carthage had continued to exist in its truncated form all this time, and had even been moderately prosperous.  Some did not like this.  Cato once showed the Senate a fresh African fig and said, "Three days ago this fig was in Carthage."  After a while he got into the habit of ending every speech or comment in the Senate with the phrase "Carthago delenda est" -- "I also think that Carthage must be destroyed."  It must have been very tiresome, but it had its effect, too.

In 149, a war party found an excuse to attack the African city.  It was a one-sided war, and in 146 Carthage asked for terms.  The Roman ambassadors required the Carthaginians to surrender all their weapons, then gave them the bad news:  Rome wanted them to leave their city, and resettle someplace -- anyplace, as long as it was 10 miles from the sea.  For many of the poorer citizens, this would mean death by starvation; for the rest financial ruin.  So they retreated behind their walls, made new weapons, and fought until it was absolutely hopeless.  Then all but 900 surrendered, and were marched off into slavery.  The last 900 fought to the death.  Then the city was burned and leveled.

Opinions varied in antiquity about the rightness of this action.  Some thought it was good riddance.  But others thought this, when put beside the sack of Corinth the same year, showed that Rome had lost what claim to justice and moderation it had once had.

A descendent of Scipio Africanus, Scipio Nasica, said that thanks to old Cato and his friends, there were no longer any nations that Rome need either fear or blush before.  In other words, there were no external checks on Rome to restrain its vices. Whether it retained any of its virtues now depended on Rome's internal politics alone.

Scipio Nasica exaggerated a little.  In 146 B.C. much of the Mediterranean basin remained free of Roman , not to mention countries farther east. But in essence he was right.  In Rome's natural arena, there was no serious opposition left.  Now Rome would have to come to terms with the problems of
imperial success.


Arthur M. Eckstein,  Senate and General:  Individual Decision-Making and Roman Foreign Relations, 264-194 B.C.

Original material copyright (C) 1998, Steven Muhlberger.