Cynoscephalae was the first battle in the campaign of Roman imperialism against Macedonia and the eastern Mediterranean. It was also the first clash of two rival military systems: the Greek spear phalanx and the Roman sword legion. For 300 years cavalry used in concert with the spear phalanx had dominated Western battlefields. The Roman victory at Cynoscephalae marked the resurgence of disciplined infantry.
In the spring of 197 BC, a Greek army under Philip V of Macedon and a Roman army commanded by Titus Quinctius Flamininus closed on one another in Greece. For three days the armies probed opposite sides of a ridge called Cynoscephalae (Dogs’ Heads), each unaware of the other’s presence. Dawn of the third day broke with heavy rain followed by a thick fog that shrouded the hills. Livy recounts the fog was so dense that standard bearers couldn’t see the road before them and soldiers marching in column became disoriented and drifted off the packed trail.
Fearing ambush, each commander sent out cavalry patrols in force to locate the enemy. Climbing opposite sides of the ridge, these advance units stumbled across one another and sent riders to inform their respective commanders. Reports from each side greatly exaggerated the number of enemy forces. Reinforcements soon bolstered the reconnaissance units, which were heavily engaged along the ridge. One of the Greek unit commanders chased the Roman cavalry from the ridge and reported to Philip that the whole Roman army was in retreat. Believing he had engaged the Roman main force, Philip decided to seize the ridge. He immediately led his own troops into action, ordering his other commander, Nicanor, to follow with his men as soon as possible.
As Philip crested the ridge, he encountered the Roman main force, already formed for battle. Flamininus had assembled his army in the valley and raced uphill to beat the Greeks to the crest. Philip ordered his phalanx to press the attack, hoping its momentum would shatter the Roman formations.
The Greek charge struck the Roman left head-on, but the legions simply broke into small groups and sidestepped the charge, absorbing its force. As the phalanx tried to push through, Roman swordsmen fell on its flanks and slashed it to pieces. When Nicanor’s troops crested the ridge, they ran directly into Flamininus’ right wing, which quickly overwhelmed the Greek reinforcements, killing everyone within reach. Nicanor’s phalanx broke, and his troops fled, leaving Philip exposed on the Roman left.
A tribune on the right grasped the peril in which Philip had placed himself. On his own initiative, he ordered 20 maniples of infantry to stop pursing the fleeing Greeks and pivot to the left rear. The maniples now faced downhill at an oblique angle to the rear of Philip’s engaged phalanx. A slaughter ensued.
When it was over, more than half of Philip’s 25,000-strong army had been killed. Roman losses numbered only a few hundred. For the next 600 years Rome would dictate the military history of the West.
- Don’t fight the prior war. Greek tactical doctrines at the time were drawn from past military experience with little concern for whether they could apply to new circumstances.
- Scout thine enemy. Greece fell at the hands of Rome because it failed to anticipate the Romans’ new kind of formation: the sword legion.
- Expect the worst. When securing an advantageous position, anticipate stiff enemy opposition.
- Remember the “fog of war” and question initial field reports. They are often inaccurate, exaggerating both the scope and intensity of the battle. Flamininus and Philip each forgot this and tossed aside their battle plans.
- Never commit your forces piecemeal, as Philip did, absent a clear picture of the overall tactical situation.
- Act decisively. Once contact has been made, escalate the tempo of violence rapidly, as the Roman right did in bringing its full force to bear against Nicanor’s reinforcements.
- Take the initiative. The Roman tribune who pivoted his maniples and ordered the attack on the rear of Philip’s phalanx crushed the enemy in a single blow. Be aware, however, of potential career risks if things don’t work out.
Originally published in the April 2008 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.