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In 168 bc Roman legionaries and Macedonian phalangites fought to decide once and for all who would rule the ancient Mediterranean

Lucius Aemilius Paullus, a member of two of Rome’s greatest families and commander of the Roman expeditionary force in Greece, was not normally given to fear on the battlefield. But on this day in the summer of 168 bc the consul had never beheld anything so alarming and terrible. Over the heads of his own troops he could see the oncoming phalanxes of King Perseus of Macedon, their masses of upraised spears resembling a forest, impenetrable and unstoppable.

It was a fearsome and intimidating display with a reputation that preceded it. The phalanx had dominated warfare in the Hellenistic world for two centuries, and Paullus feared the lethal formation might roll over his army as it had so many others.

But the battle about to be waged on a plain near the village of Pydna, on the northwestern Aegean coast, would go much differently than Paullus feared. Indeed, it would resolve a conflict that had started almost a half-century earlier, confirm the superiority of one military formation over the other and mark the death
of one empire and birth of another.

Rome’s 201 bc victory over Carthage in the Second Punic War had left it master of the western and central Mediterranean, in turn drawing Roman forces to intervene increasingly in disputes in the eastern Mediterranean. In the first decade of the second century bc the legions marched into Greece and Asia Minor to protect allies, and subsequent victories left Rome the acknowledged leader of the entire Mediterranean, which it imperiously dubbed Mare Nostrum (“Our Sea”)

Among Rome’s vanquished foes was Philip V of Macedon, who had sought to return his kingdom to the prominence it had enjoyed under Philip II and his son Alexander the Great. His ambition brought Philip V into conflict with Roman-allied Greek city-states. In 197 bc Roman legions destroyed the Macedonian army at the Battle of Cynoscephalae, a chaotic affair fought on the side of a ridge in the fog. Its defeat forced Macedon to surrender its claim on all Greek holdings outside of the Macedonian homeland, disband its fleet and pay a large war indemnity.

When Philip V died in 179 bc, son Perseus ascended to the throne with a shared vision of ending Roman domination and returning Macedon to glory. Not wanting to repeat the mistakes of his father, however, Perseus resolved not to confront the Romans until he was ready. He first sought to strengthen the Macedonian army and his diplomatic ties in Greece. But his enthusiastic rebuilding of the military and overt attempts to court Greek allies drew nervous attention from Rome. Thus when a dispute developed in 172 bc between Macedon and Roman-allied Pergamum in coastal Asia Minor (present-day western Turkey), the Romans decided it was time to deal with Perseus.

Unfortunately for Rome, the green troops it initially dispatched to Greece behaved more like a drunken mob than an army. After an early setback against the Macedonians, they spent much of their time pillaging the lands of Rome’s Greek allies. Compounding the demoralization of the Roman forces was the fact their commanders regarded the campaign as little more than an opportunity to amass wealth.

Only Perseus’ own military incompetence saved the Romans from disaster. The Macedonian commander failed to follow up his successes in 171 and 170 bc, and a 169 bc Roman advance into Macedon panicked Perseus into a hasty, humiliating retreat. When the Romans were forced to withdraw due to supply difficulties, Perseus regained enough composure to occupy a strong position south of the fortified city of Dium. His quick thinking barred a follow-up Roman advance into Macedon, leaving the war to settle into a stalemate.

Resembling a bristling hedgehog, a properly formed and employed phalanx was among the ancient world’s most potent weapon systems. (Peter Connolly/AKG-Images)

In 168 bc the Roman Senate, fishing about for an experienced soldier to lead the war against Macedon, settled on 60-year-old Paullus, son of the consul slain in combat against Hannibal at Cannae in 216 bc and brother-in-law of Scipio Africanus, arguably Rome’s greatest military commander to that time. But it wasn’t his family ties or political connections that secured Paullus the consulship—the Senate chose him for the exceptional warfighting ability he had exhibited in Spain and southern France.

Paullus arrived in Greece in the spring of 168 bc and immediately set about establishing the discipline Roman forces lacked. Among other measures, he ensured his soldiers were never idle—if the legionaries weren’t training or standing guard duty, they were expected to polish their armor and sharpen their weapons. Within a few months Paullus was convinced the troops were ready to fight, if for no other reason than simply to escape the tedium of camp life.

The Roman commander first sought to flank the Macedonians, moving his forces around the enemy’s right by way of little-used mountain passes. Detecting his opponent’s flanking movement, Perseus withdrew south of Pydna to a level plain well suited to the phalanx. The Romans followed and set up camp on broken ground near the foot of a coastal mountain, while the Macedonians deployed on the opposite bank of a stream that ran between the two camps.

Paullus personally commanded his two legions and various allied troops. Supporting the estimated 20,000 infantry and 3,000 cavalry fielded by Rome and its Italian allies were troops from two key foreign allies: King Masinissa of Numidia had supplied 5,000 infantry, 300 light cavalry and some two-dozen war elephants, while Pergamum, whose dispute with Perseus had pushed Rome toward war, had brought 8,000 infantry and 500 heavy cavalry. The combined force comprised roughly 33,000 infantry and 3,800 cavalry. Numbers aside, victory in the coming battle would hinge on the fighting skill of the 7,600 heavy infantrymen in each Roman legion, each of whom relied primarily on a short stabbing sword called the gladius.

For his part, Perseus fielded the largest military force led by a Macedonian king since the days of Alexander the Great—39,000 infantry and 4,000 cavalry. At the heart of his army were 21,000 phalangites, each armed with the 18- to 21-foot spear known as a sarissa, its length and heft requiring the use of both hands. The first five ranks thrust their spears forward at hip level, while succeeding ranks held them upward at the ready. Given the length of the sarissa, the spear points of all five lead ranks extended out in the front of the formation like a bristling hedgehog. In combat the phalanx would advance and simply try to drive the enemy from the battlefield. When faced with this moving fortress of spears, only the most courageous and disciplined troops would stand and fight.

The opposing armies, each representing wholly different military and political systems, faced one another across the small stream for two days, each waiting for omens from their respective gods. A lunar eclipse on the eve of battle served the purpose. Then, as so often happens in war, a chance encounter served as the catalyst for decisive action.

On the afternoon of June 22 a Roman horse slipped its bridle and galloped toward the Macedonian lines. Three Romans went to retrieve the animal as two Macedonians ran forward to capture it. The parties met in the middle of the stream, a clash of arms ensued, and one of the Macedonians was killed. His death brought 700 of his comrades storming across the stream seeking revenge, only to be met by 1,000 Romans. The encounter quickly escalated into a pitched battle, and Perseus led the bulk of his army across the stream in formation. When Paullus received word of the Macedonian advance, he sent out his light infantry and cavalry to delay the enemy while he mobilized his heavy infantry. On riding out of camp, he was awestruck at first sight of the Macedonian ranks. Drawn up 16 men deep and 1,310 men across, their sarissa points and armor glittering in the sun, the phalanx appeared an impregnable fortress in motion.

The Macedonians had advanced swiftly and met the Romans only 250 yards from the latter’s camp. Given the density of the Macedonian phalanx and length of the sarissas, each legionary faced a cluster of spear points. Some of the Romans tried hacking off the spear points, others attempted to wrest the sarissas from the phalangites, and still others sought to force the sarissa points into the ground. All efforts proved futile as the phalanx inexorably pushed back the Romans.

Hoping to inspire his men, a commander on the Roman left threw his cohort’s standard into the midst of the phalangites opposing his legionaries. While his gesture inspired frenzied efforts to retrieve the banner, his men remained unable to penetrate the Greek ranks. Worst yet, the action had disordered that part of the Roman line, and panicked legionaries scattered in disarray. Their retreat in turn caused the entire Roman line facing the phalanx to give ground. The phalangites pressed forward, perhaps hoping to butcher the Romans before they could regain camp. In fact, in their haste the Greeks had sown the seeds of their own destruction.

As the phalanx rushed over the rocky, uneven ground, gaps opened in the formation. Seeing an opportunity to save his army, Paullus sent word to subordinate commanders to have their legionaries break ranks and exploit the gaps. As fleet-footed Romans infiltrated the Greek lines, phalangites in the interior ranks suddenly found themselves facing sword-wielding legionaries. They had but one choice: to drop their now tactically useless sarissas and engage in sword fights with soldiers for whom the gladius was an extension of their arms. Either way, the phalanx was almost certainly doomed. As increasing numbers of phalangites were slain or dropped their weapons, fewer spear points faced forward, enabling ever more Romans to breach the Greek lines.

Meanwhile, Paullus exploited another, equally fatal flaw in Perseus’ line of battle. Even as the phalanx surged forward in the center, the assorted Greek spearmen, light infantrymen and swordsmen on the Macedonian left faced a determined charge from Rome’s Italian allies and the Numidian war elephants that soon drove them back. That in turn opened a yawning gap between the Macedonian center and left, leaving the phalanx susceptible to a flanking attack. Paullus saw it. Taking personal command of the second and third lines of a legion yet to be engaged in the fight, he led them into attack on the flanks and rear of the Macedonian host. Beset from all directions, internally and externally, Perseus’ phalanx shattered. With the destruction of the cornerstone of his army, the battle turned into a rout. Only an elite 3,000-man Macedonian guard unit remained unbowed in the face of the Roman assault—and it fought to the last man.

By the time the fighting was over, some 20,000 Macedonians lay dead and 11,000 had been captured. The battle that ended 170 years of Macedonian prominence in the ancient world had taken less than an hour.

Early in the fight as the tide turned against his phalanx, Perseus had fled with most of his cavalry. A more fitting symbol of the sea change to Macedon’s military fortunes could not be found than that of the heavy cavalry, the arm of decision in Alexander’s army, fleeing the field at Pydna at the moment of decision.

Perseus’ flight was pointless, for though he survived the battle, all of Macedon lay at the mercy of Paullus and the Roman army. To emphasize the new reality that Perseus represented Macedon’s last king, the Roman Senate ordered the defeated monarch brought to Rome for humiliating display during Paullus’ triumphal procession into the city.

Perseus’ dreams of glory died at Pydna. Captured in the wake of the battle, he was the prized trophy of Paullus’ triumphal return to Rome. Draped in a faded burgundy cloak, the Macedonian king trails Paullus’ chariot at far right. (De Agostini Picture Library/AKG-Images)

In the aftermath of the war Rome partitioned Macedon into four independent republics and forbade trade and intermarriage between the citizens of each. Most citizens were disarmed, except along the northern borders, which faced an ongoing threat from barbarian invasion. Rome also claimed in tribute half of the taxes that used to go to the king.

Otherwise seeking a status-quo relationship with its defeated foe, Rome did not send occupation troops into Macedon. Such a relationship proved impossible, however, for the balance of power had forever changed. Rome had shown itself willing go to war to protect its interests in the Mediterranean. Indeed, some 20 years later Roman troops returned to Greece when the Macedonian republics erupted in unrest, stirred up by a firebrand claiming to be Perseus’ son. This time the legions stayed.

In 146 bc Rome formally annexed Macedon, declaring it the province of Macedonia and handing its governor supervisory authority over the rest of Greece. That same year Scipio Aemilianus, Roman consul and second son of Lucius Aemilius Paullus, completed the conquest of longtime archenemy Carthage, leading to creation of the province of Africa.

Rome was well on the road to empire. 

New Jersey-based attorney Brian M. English is a longtime student of ancient and medieval warfare. For further reading he recommends A Military History of the Western World, by J.F.C. Fuller; In the Name of Rome, by Adrian Goldsworthy; and Greece and Rome at War, by Peter Connolly.