Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle-upon-Tyne/Bridgeman Images

‘Marcus Curtius’; after John Martin, circa 1827. According to the historian Livy, when a chasm opened up in the Forum in 362 BC and an oracle declared that Rome could endure only by casting its greatest strength into it, the soldier Marcus Curtius said that its greatest strength was arms and valor and rode his horse into the chasm, saving the city.

“Is there any human being so indifferent or idle,” wrote Polybius in the introduction to his Histories, “as not to want to know how, and through what kind of regime, almost the entire society of the inhabited world, in less than fifty-three years, came under the sole rule of the Romans—an event to which the past offers no parallel?” Probably not; but Polybius himself (circa 200–117 BC), a Greek statesman from Arcadia, in the central Peloponnese, and a member of the Achaean League (a confederacy of Peloponnesian city-states), had good reason to ask this question. After the crushing victory over King Perseus of Macedonia, won at Pydna in 168 by the Roman general Aemilius Paullus—a battle that finally and fully established Roman hegemony in Greece—a thousand Achaean citizens suspected of anti-Roman tendencies were deported to Italy. Among them was Polybius.

It would be hard not to suspect a historian in his position of harboring private, if discreetly concealed, resentment at the turn that events had taken in his own career. Yet his prejudices are not so cut-and-dried as might at first sight appear. Polybius’s public record makes it clear that he was always in favor of dealing with the Romans—even if, unrealistically, on terms of equality—rather than resisting them head-on, which he saw from the start was a suicidal policy. Further, he had a privileged position in Rome, and was, uniquely as an Achaean deportee, allowed to remain there rather than being dispatched to some distant Etruscan town.

Accepted as an intimate at a high level of Roman society—he was a good friend, and mentor, to Aemilius Paullus’s son Scipio Aemilianus, the future consul who destroyed Carthage, in 146—Polybius was thus in an excellent position to gain firsthand information about Rome’s system of government and dealings with foreign powers. Whatever private reservations he might have about the Roman imperium, he condemned the Achaean League’s futile fight for independence from Roman rule in 146, and supported the conservative constitution that was imposed on his home state as a result, since this gave control to the established upper-class families to which he himself belonged and the social order that they represented. This was very like that of the well-connected optimates who looked after him in Rome. The Roman imperium that he served, and its excesses that he subtly criticized, were indeed something unique. Virgil could, without any sense of exaggeration, have Jupiter tell Venus in the Aeneid that he has bestowed on the Romans imperium sine fine, “limitless empire.” To begin to understand the growth of that rule, and its impact on the Greek-speaking world of the eastern Mediterranean, we need to look at two centuries of that world before its defeat at Pydna, from both the Roman and the Greco-Macedonian viewpoint.

For the Greeks, this story begins with the astonishing rise of Macedonia after the accession of Philip II in 359 BC, and continues with the brief, brilliant, and disruptive career of his son Alexander. This is the phase dealt with, very successfully, by Ian Worthington in By the Spear: it is ground he has covered before, but never so surely and clearly, with tempered and perceptive judgments on both Philip (whose creative political acumen gets well-deserved credit) and Alexander (whose military brilliance and romantic panache, while properly acknowledged, don’t blind Worthington to his megalomania and egocentric indifference to institutional stability). Well written and deeply researched, this book both sums up current scholarship and offers a fascinating narrative, by turns inspiring and horrific, to the general reader.

By a mixture of shrewd diplomacy and, better, the creation of a trained, professional, permanent army, Philip transformed his backward, primitive country into the strongest power in the Balkans. His victory in 338 at Chaeronea in central Greece over a combined Greek force led by Athens and Thebes dealt a deathblow to the political dominance in mainland Greece of city-state democracy and, as Worthington says, “brought about the end of Greek autonomia [independence] and eleutheria [freedom].” Not only did Philip’s professional soldiers beat amateurs; his royal autocracy was swift, efficient, and skilled at exploiting the internal squabbling generated by city-state politics. In addition, Macedonia enforced an unprecedented period of peace on the eternally quarrelsome and xenophobic Greek city-states, whose democratic regimes could now hope for no power beyond their own local limits. With peace came prosperity, but also a new consciousness in cities like Athens of “their absolute impotence in political and military affairs.” This drove the Greeks to rebel, against impossible odds, again and again throughout the Hellenistic age. Achaea’s desperate venture in 146 came at the tail end of that unhappy tradition.


As Worthington and Edward M. Anson in Alexander’s Heirs both make very clear (though the idea is not as new as they suggest), Philip’s son Alexander owed an enormous amount to his father’s achievements, not least in the superb military machine that was bequeathed to him. Moreover, those ancient writers, like Diodorus or Justin, who, while conceding Alexander’s genius as a general, saw Philip as a greater king, arguably had a point. As Arrian and Plutarch well knew, what drove Alexander was the pure appetite for conquest: administration failed to interest him. Thus, however much his activities might have permanently disrupted the oikouménê, the known inhabited world, his so-called empire was curiously transient; and since what he held depended entirely on military victories, the various inhabitants of that world were always ready to revolt. Most damagingly, his failure to support and prepare a strong dynastic successor meant that on his death the veteran commanders who had served him would begin a winner-take-all struggle, which took two generations to settle, for his enormous spoils of victory.

This period of internecine and virtually nonstop warfare (roughly, 323–281 BC), known to historians as the Age of the Diadochoi (Successors), forms the subject of both Anson’s Alexander’s Heirs and of the scholarly articles in The Age of the Successors and the Creation of the Hellenistic Kingdoms (323–276 B.C.). As the latter’s editors, Hans Hauben and Alexander Meeus, rightly claim in their introduction, “the fifty years following the death of Alexander the Great constitute a crucial stage in world history with the development of a balance of power that would determine the history of the eastern Mediterranean for centuries to come.”

As Anson writes, in a book that manages throughout to combine high scholarship with compulsive readability, “personal monarchy and warfare remained the staples of the new age.” Nationalism, like the city-state, was of less importance. Autocracy was the clear recipe for survival: the story that the dying Alexander, asked to whom he bequeathed his legacy of conquest, replied “To the strongest” may be a fiction, but is very much to the point. His own fatally weak heirs were all murdered, ending the royal Macedonian dynasty of the Argeads. Polyglot and largely mercenary armies now owed allegiance to the competing warlords who could win the most battles and were reliable paymasters (mostly funded by the vast reserves of gold and silver, much of it in coins, taken over wholesale from the Persians). Further, as Anson reminds us, for the conquered peoples of Egypt and Asia the index of stability was a settled royal dynasty. No surprise, then, that the victorious successors of Alexander—Antigonus in Asia Minor, Ptolemy in Egypt, Seleucus I in ancient Syria, and the Eastern satrapies that stretched from modern Turkey to Afghanistan—very soon reinvented themselves as conquest-sanctioned (and highly competitive) kings, starting their own dynasties from scratch. This was not, to put it mildly, the best all-around recipe for peaceful continuity.

Thus the Greek world that the Romans found when they first began to look eastward in the final decades of the third century BC bore little resemblance to that portrayed by Herodotus and Thucydides. The city-state still survived, but no longer, even in Athens or Sparta, as an instrument of political power. Greek mainland leagues, like those of Aetolia, Achaea, or Boeotia, maintained no more than a precarious independence, always at risk from the changing leaders of the Macedonian power game. The long struggle of these successors had bred a tradition of ever-changing alliances and cutthroat morality, in which murder and marriage ranked about equal as political weapons. By the 220s the situation had more or less stabilized in an uneasy balance of power, but it left a dangerously unprincipled legacy behind.

The fatal inability of the Greeks to unite in sustained common action was notorious, and the Romans—in this like Alexander’s father Philip—showed great skill at exploiting their self-centered quarrelsomeness. As its leaders proved again and again, Rome, despite serious internal flaws, was strong and united in a way the Hellenistic Greeks could never match. Even the ambition and greed of the great senatorial families, confronted with the vast wealth of Greek Asia Minor, remained firmly attached to Rome as a central governmental concept until very late in the final years of the Republic, whereas for the Greeks conflict, competition, and shifting loyalties had been endemic ever since Alexander’s death.

Further, in the years before their Eastern démarche began the Romans’ unity had been sorely yet triumphantly tested, during the Carthaginian invasion by Hannibal. At the beginning of the Second Punic War in 218, Hannibal crossed the Alps and won a series of quick and crushing victories as he advanced southward. However, the remarkable superiority of the Romans’ well-practiced military machine; the almost more remarkable loyalty of their Latin and Italian allies, which provided a vast supply of citizen and allied recruits (as opposed to the ever-increasing Greek use of mercenaries); the huge psychological resilience that enabled them to survive disasters like the defeats at Lake Trasimene (217) and Cannae (216) and still, ultimately, beat Hannibal and, later, burn Carthage—these were qualities that became evident again and again during the half-century of the Roman march to conquest described by Polybius. They were continually underestimated by the rulers, Macedonians in particular, who chose to try to defeat these new “barbarians from the West.” This is the period described by Robin Waterfield in Taken at the Flood, where a brisk, but at times confusing, narrative of, mostly, military action is interspersed by useful discussions of such matters as culture and identity, the nature of Roman triumphs, and, inevitably, the relative merits of Macedonian phalanx and Roman legion.


From the Roman point of view, the Greco-Macedonian world presented a reassuring contrast to events in Spain and Italy, where they had had to face near defeat from Hannibal. Their initially casual incursions into the Hellenic world were not regarded as aggressive. In fact, the Hellenistic rulers seem to have known little about the Romans, and not to have perceived them in any way as a threat. One rare, and remarkable, exception to this indifference is recorded by Polybius. In the year of Rome’s defeat at Lake Trasimene, near present-day Perugia, peace negotiations were in progress at Naupactus on the Gulf of Corinth. Local fighting between the Aetolians, the Spartans, the Messenians, and the Achaean League, dragging on since 221, had been settled by the intervention of the new, vigorous young king of Macedonia, Philip V. During the talks, Agelaus, a spokesman from Aetolia, in west-central Greece, is reported as having said:


Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples/Art Resource

A Roman bust of the Carthaginian general Hannibal

If it’s action you want, then look to the west, pay heed to the war in Italy…. For if you wait until these clouds, now gathering in the west, come to rest in Greece, I am mortally concerned lest we may, every one of us, find these truces and wars, and all such childish games that we now play against each other, so abruptly cut short that we shall find ourselves praying the gods to leave us at least this power—to fight and make peace with each other when we please, in short to have control over our own disputes.

Scholars have long argued over whether this all-too-prescient speech actually took place or was a fiction of Polybius. Like many, I find the image of the “cloud in the west” something that might well have stuck in public memory; and in fact Naupactus was, astonishingly, the last Greek settlement ever to be made without Rome’s dominant participation.

The speed of this transformation inevitably raises a much-debated question: What was Rome’s initial objective in Greece? Was it, despite Roman assurances, based on aggression from the start? Some scholars have so argued. Yet the Roman policy of limited interference, without permanent occupation or garrisons, continued for at least thirty years—between 196 and 166 BC, roughly—at which point, as Waterfield says, “the Romans moved from benign, if cynical, benevolence to virtual ethnic cleansing, and from indirect interference to the imposition of regime changes in Greece, Macedon, and Illyris.” What Waterfield sees here is an evolving imperialist venture so successful as to convince the Romans that Jupiter had indeed granted them endless empire: that they were literally unstoppable.

There may be something in this; but what I have always also sensed in those early years is a fundamental mutual misapprehension of character. The Greeks regarded the Romans as barbarians, and therefore also as essentially stupid; the Romans, on the other hand, saw the Greeks as clever but ill-disciplined children, and themselves as the grown-ups whose business was to keep them in order. This order did not permit the Greeks to engage in independent activities (such as military force) in the pursuit of freedom, an aspiration only acceptable from loyal clients of Rome, and not always even from them.

When Roman legates and envoys first began serious investigation of the Hellenistic Greek world in the late third century BC, there was not, on the face of it, much to worry about. The young new Seleucid king, Antiochus III, was busy reestablishing the ancestral glory of the dubiously conquered eastern provinces inherited by his great-great-grandfather Seleucus I from Alexander. In Egypt, Ptolemy IV, if not the stereotypically self-indulgent nabob sketched by Polybius, had to deal with an acute shortage of silver, which in turn led to a debased currency, the recruitment of native troops rather than mercenaries, and an unlooked-for nationalist upsurge among the latter: between 205 and 186 BC, Upper Egypt achieved independence under native pharaohs.

The case of Macedonia was slightly different. Here again was a young new king, Philip V, very dashing and militaristic, very popular with the Greeks. But in his pursuit of gaining a port on the Adriatic he had interfered with the Romans’ arrangements there after their suppression of pirates in Illyria, on the western coast of the Balkan peninsula, including parts of present-day Albania and Dalmatia. Worse, in 215 he made the huge mistake of signing an agreement with Hannibal, something that brought him very little but an inevitable, and understandable, suspicious reaction from Rome. Though it seems clear that Philip in fact looked no further west than the Adriatic, the Romans could never quite abandon the conviction that, like Pyrrhus half a century earlier, he was planning military activity in Italy. His agreement with Hannibal did nothing to lessen that belief.

When the Romans, after their great victory in Italy over the Carthaginians on the Metaurus River in 207, decided to put Greek action on hold and concentrate on defeating Hannibal and putting an end to the Second Punic War, Philip grew more aggressive, and set about building a strong fleet, funded by piracy and shakedown blackmail in the Aegean. He ravaged Pergamon and raided Attica. Patriotic Panhellenism grew, but so did opposition to Philip, whose atrocities were becoming notorious. The Romans, shrewd propagandists, now presented themselves as anti-Macedonian protectors of the Greeks, a move that attracted supporters. After their final victory over Carthage at Zama in 202, they turned their attention, seriously, to dealing with Philip.

Rome’s confident assumption of superior, almost colonial, authority in relations with the Greek world becomes most clearly apparent from this point on. It had its useful side, in that Rome soon became a kind of unofficial appellate court: it was the first choice when any Hellenistic state sought an arbitrator. But it was the same confidence that led to the kind of de haut en bas ultimatums: first to Philip in 197, then to Antiochus III in 189, and finally, and most disastrously, to Philip’s son Perseus, the last of the Antigonid dynasty, in 168. These ultimatums may have been standard for Romans, but in demanding complete subservience, they left each one of these monarchs no option, if he was to retain any self-respect, but to pit himself against the formidable might of the legions.

In the case of Philip, Rome was offering general support to the Greeks against Macedonia, demanding Philip’s complete evacuation of Greece, the “freeing” of all Greek states that had ever come under his control, and payment for his damage to Pergamon. As Waterfield says, had Philip accepted these demands, “he would be acknowledging the right of the Romans to dictate the future of Greece.” He chose to fight and—despite a successful phalanx charge—was defeated by the Roman legions at Cynoscephalae in Thessaly in 197.

The Roman consul T. Quinctius Flamininus had, among other things, one highly practical objective in forcing a battle. As Waterfield reminds us, generals in the field were expected to contribute part of their spoils to the exchequer at home. The lengthy war against Hannibal had left the Roman treasury dangerously depleted. Thus, Rome’s first demand upon Philip after his defeat was for the payment of a thousand-talent war indemnity, while Flamininus’s triumphal display in 194 included, among other treasures, 3,714 pounds of gold ingots. Reparations were to be augmented still further by systematic looting.

Less than a decade later, the Seleucid king Antiochus III, back from a successful campaign to restore his empire’s lost territories in Asia Minor and Afghanistan, India, and the Persian Gulf, ignored Roman warnings about staying out of Europe. He was then crushingly defeated at Magnesia, near modern Izmir in Turkey. By that time, Roman officialdom had a far more realistic idea of what it could hold out for. Antiochus’ war indemnity was set at 15,000 talents: 500 payable on the spot, 2,500 on the signing of the peace treaty (which lost him his holdings in Thrace and Asia Minor), and the remainder in twelve annual payments. Such an influx of capital not only let the Roman Republic repay its loans, but literally revolutionized Rome’s economy. In 187 Antiochus was killed while raiding a temple for cash, part of a desperate effort to meet these punitive obligations.

Twenty years later, Philip V’s son and successor Perseus was likewise, as we have seen, brought to battle by Rome, amid a farrago of far-fetched charges (which included alleged plans to poison the Roman Senate). In reality, he was attacked for little more than being, in effect, too popular with the Greeks, too independent, too indifferent to Rome’s instructions. Once again, Rome’s ultimatum was of the sort that left him no choice but to fight. His defeat at Pydna in 168 by Aemilius Paullus was a bloodbath. Though Paullus himself, a seasoned commander, afterward admitted that he had never seen a more terrifying spectacle than the steady advance of the Macedonian phalanx, nevertheless Roman troops successfully infiltrated its flanks on rough terrain, and 20,000 Macedonians were killed. This time the victors remembered the advice they had received years earlier from the Aetolians: they abolished the Macedonian monarchy, and broke up the country into four powerless republican cantons. They also systematically looted Macedonia of its reserves and treasures: the haul was so enormous that for a century Rome needed to impose no new ad hoc taxes.

As a demonstration of sheer unanswerable power, Pydna had a considerable ripple effect. That same year, the young Seleucid king Antiochus IV gave signs of planning, by either conquest or treaty, to move in on the weak regime in Ptolemaic Egypt. This offended Rome’s notions of the proper Hellenistic balance of power. Rome’s legate, Popilius Laenas, met Antiochus in Eleusis, a suburb of Alexandria, with a peremptory request that he should evacuate his troops from Egypt—and from Cyprus—or face war. Antiochus asked for time to decide. Laenas drew a circle round him in the sand with his swagger stick, and told Antiochus to give an answer before he stepped out of it. He did. Peace with Rome, he said, outclassed anything he might gain in Egypt. So much, now, for royal Seleucid dignity.

Anchises, Aeneas’s father, in the Aeneid’s great prophetic scene, announces that Rome’s mission will be parcere subiectis et debellare superbos, “to spare the conquered and subdue the arrogant.” Those who read the works under review in chronological sequence will end with a very clear idea of how this state of affairs came about. The story they tell—like Thucydides’ Melian Dialogue—is a lesson in the arrogant self-confidence engendered by a progressive imperial power feeding on inherent divisiveness among possible opponents and the vision of limitless wealth as well as empire. Nothing, we reflect, could be less realistic than the Achaean League’s dream of dealing with Rome on equal terms; nothing more futile than the Achaean League’s suicidal uprising against Roman dominance in 146. Yet there are times, despite Polybius’s hedging, when—if the concept of freedom, Greek eleutheria, is not to be abandoned as meaningless—such a sacrificial stand against insuperable odds may, despite all reason, be chosen as the only acceptable answer to force majeure. It is this awareness—which Waterfield nicely conveys—that gives Polybius’s account of Rome’s half-century of Greek conquest the melancholy, ambivalent, unstated theme that so often lights up his unimaginative prose.