oday, we ventured south and west into the ridges and hills surrounding the Karadag range in Thessaly where the famous Battle of Cynoscephalae was fought in 197 B.C. I’m writing this from the balcony of the Hotel Titagion in the mountains of Agrafa. We’re overlooking Lake Plasitras, which is like something out of a fantasy novel, right down to the sheer-faced mountains rising straight from the shore and the butter-colored sun seeming to sink below the surface of the water.
We got to spend the day seeing the ancient city of Dion, where Alexander the Great sacrificed before launching on his expedition into Asia, and we also toured the battlefield of Cynoscephalae, which is one of the battles covered in Legion vs. Phalanx. We confirmed a lot of our suppositions about the battle, and I feel even more confident about the positions I take in the book, and I am hoping to raise new questions in the book that haven’t been addressed before.
We received a warm welcome from the Mayor of Fasala, the closest city to the battlefield. Vasso Noula, the Special Archaeological Consultant to the Mayor, joined us for our battlefield walk and provided us with both local knowledge and expert consultation.
Folks, the bottom line is that Greece is magic, and anyone who tells you that researching ancient warfare is lame is out of their mind. We’re not here on vacation. We’re working our tails off, and this is still one of the most incredible trips of our lives.
But enough waxing eloquent on Greece. Let me bring you up to speed on the Battle of Cynoscephalae.
The Battle of Cynoscephalae, fought in 197 B.C., ended the second of Rome’s four Macedonian Wars, securing a place in history for the Roman consul Titus Quinctius Flamininus, checking the power of the Antigonid King Philip V, and imposing a brutal peace that laid the groundwork for the Third Macedonian War against Philip’s son Perseus. The Antigonids were one of the great “Successor” (diadochi) dynasties descended from Alexander the Great’s generals, who squabbled over his empire after his death in 323 B.C. Philip V was the Great-Great-Great-Grandson of Alexander’s famous general Antigonus I Monopthalmus (Antigonus the One-Eyed), the founder of the Antigonid dynasty. The Antigonids are frequently referred to as “Macedonians” and sometimes just as “Greeks.” Those descriptors are accurate.
The Battle of Cynoscephalae was an accidental engagement, with neither general ready for, nor desiring a pitched battle, fought over terrain that suited neither side. It was a close-run, see-sawing fight, a study in the kind of chaos that truly tests the ingenuity of individual commanders and soldiers. It was also a contest primarily between two iconic, culturally-representative and distinct formations: the Antigonid phalanx with their twenty-one foot pikes (sarissa), and the Roman legion with their short swords (gladius hispaniensis) and javelins (pilum).
Our literary sources for Cynoscephalae are comparatively good when you consider the general state of ancient material. This is, sadly, not saying much. We have Plutarch’s Life of Flamininus in his Parallel Lives, which gives a moralistic retelling from Rome’s point-of-view, 3 chapters from Livy, with all the attendant concerns about his mistranslations and prioritization of drama over accuracy, and 9 chapters from Polybius, who was a client of the powerful Aemili family, and thus positively disposed toward Rome. Many historians ignore the writings of the 12th C. Byzantine writer Joannes Zonaras, arguing that he writes too far from the event to be considered a primary source. But he must be considered, as it is likely he is filling in gaps left by lacunae in Cassius Dio’s Roman History. The battle is mentioned in Quintus Ennius' Annales. Pausanias' Description of Greece discusses the war at length and the battle more briefly. Justinus discusses the battle in his Epitome of the Philippic Histories, and mention is also made in the Chronicle of Eusebius and in Orosius' History Against the Pagans.
A lot of good scholarship on Cynoscephalae has been published, perhaps the most famous being a series of pieces by J. Kromayer in 1907, W.K. Pritchett in 1969, and N.G.L. Hammond in 1988. These articles provide a great foundation from which to reckon what we already know about the battle, and to use as a jumping off point for a re-examination.
THE SECOND MACEDONIAN WAR
Rome's First Macedonian War, also fought against Philip V, broke out largely due to Philip’s mistaken belief that the Carthaginian general Hannibal Barca, having just crushed the Romans at Cannae in 216 B.C., would win the Second Punic War. Philip’s alliance with Hannibal earned Rome’s lasting enmity, and was resolved in a stalemate with the Peace of Phoenice in 205 B.C. A year after the Peace of Phoenice, the Successor King Ptolemy IV Philopator (father-loving) died, leaving his six year old son Ptolemy V to succeed him. Philip seized the opportunity to strike a secret pact with the Seleucid (another Successor dynasty) King Antiochus III to seize the territory of the child King Ptolemy. The next few years were one of constant tension between the Antigonids and Rome, as Philip continued to try to expand his reach in Greece and Asia Minor, bringing him into running conflicts with the powerful states of Pergamum and Rhodes. Philip also pursued a war with Athens—at that point a Roman ally. Rome finally demanded that Philip cease his attempts to annex the holdings of Ptolemy, leave Athens alone, and settle things with Pergamum and Rhodes. Philip pled his case to Rome, passionately asserting that his actions were not in violation of the Peace of Phoenice, but the arguments fell on deaf ears, and Rome soon had armies on the move in Illyria to protect their allies and bring Philip to heel.
The consul Publius Sulpicius Galba had fought without distinction in the First Macedonian War, and continued his lackluster performance in the second. In 198 B.C. Galba was replaced by Publius Villius Tappulus, who managed to do even worse, with 2,000 veterans of the Second Punic War under his command mutinying. Rome's crisis of command had the Second Macedonian War off to a bad start, and there was every indicator that it would mimic the First in an end not particularly favorable to Rome. But in 198 B.C. command was taken up by Titus Quinctius Flamininus, a commander of real energy, if not genius, who drastically altered the course of events.
Flamininus immediately set out for Epirus, taking 3,000 veterans from the Second Punic War, and ignoring the administrative and ceremonial duties of a Roman consul. Consuls served for a year, and it's likely that Flamininus was aware of this ticking clock and acting to prosecute the war before it ran out. Flamininus quickly defeated Philip at the Aous River Gorge, by means of a flanking maneuver. In addition to a moral victory for Rome, Flamininus killed 2,000 Antigonid troops and captured Philip's baggage. More importantly, Flamininus announced that his mission was no longer just to check Philip, but proclaimed the "Freedom of the Greeks," an effort to liberate all of Greece from foreign occupation (a promise that rang hollow when Rome occupied Greece following Cynoscephalae). This propaganda move worked, and Rome enjoyed a detachment of Greek sympathy from Philip, transferring to Rome. The countryside shifted gradually, more hostile to the Antigonids, more friendly to Rome.
The two armies skirmished and maneuvered in Thessaly, with Philip finally marching west in the direction of Scotussa, a fertile region, where Philip hoped to supply his army. Even better, Scotussa was near the road to Palaepharsalus, which meant Philip's army could be in contact with his line of supply to the north, and also perhaps to troops he had garrisoned to the south in Pharsalus. Flamininus shadowed the Antigonid king, hoping to force a decisive battle when the ground was suitable.
But the ground was not suitable.
As the two armies forged west of Scotussa, they found themselves in a series of broken ridges that blocked line-of-sight, made for a tough march, and perhaps most importantly, were the exact wrong ground to deploy the Antigonid pike-armed phalanx, which required as flat and unbroken ground as possible. With the Karadag range between them, the two armies marched on only generally aware of the other's position, utterly ignorant of the fact that they were just 12KM apart.
Between them lay a ridge of low hills named "Dog-Heads," in Greek—Cynoscephalae.
That night, a soaking rain fell, resulting in a thick mist the following morning. Marching blind, Philip sent light troops out to reconnoiter from high ground, at precisely the same time Flamininus sent out "ten squadrons of horse and about a thousand light-armed infantry" (Polybius) with the same purpose. The two covering forces bumped into one another, and a skirmish erupted.
Neither side expected a general engagement, much less one that would end the Second Macedonian War, but we don't always get what we expect.
ORDER OF BATTLE (OOB)
The sources are very clear and almost entirely in lockstep on the composition of the Antigonid army. Philip had 16,000 phalangites—heavy infantry in full panoply, armed with the long pike, 2,000 "peltasts" (an elite corps of probably phalangites, named for the pelte shield they carried), 2,000 Thracians (armed either skirmishers or light "shock" close-combat troops), 2,000 Tralles (Illyrians, most likely armed as skirmishers), 1,500 mercenaries of various nationalities and 2,000 cavalry, for a total strength of 25,500 men.
We are on less firm ground for Flamininus, but we do know that the Roman consular army of this period usually consisted of 2 legions, with an equal number of socii (Italian allied troops, usually armed and organized along legionary lines). At full strength, Flamininus' legions numbered approximately 5,000 men. We're guided by Polybius' original account of a legion around 4,200 infantry, but also by Livy's account of 2,000 hastati (the front line shock troops of the Roman legion) with Flamininus at Thebes, indicating a larger (possibly by 40%) legion, as Polybius' description has 1,200 hastati. We also know that Rome's Aetolian Greek allies sent them 400 cavalry and 6,000 infantry, while the Athamanian Greeks sent 1,200 infantry. An additional 800 infantry joined the Romans from Crete. The Greek allied infantry may have been armed as thureophoroi (light, missile-capable, shock-troops equipped with the thureos shield) or as skirmishers. The Cretan troops were almost certainly archers. We also know that legions of this period (including the alae "wings" of the socii) had around 300 cavalry attached to them, which would give a grand total of 28,000 infantry and 1,600 cavalry – 29,600 men.
These numbers match Livy's statement that the armies were about equal, but conflicts with his statement that the Romans were stronger in cavalry. It matches Plutarch's assessment that Flamininus had over 26,000 soldiers, and that the opposing forces were roughly the same size. The Romans also fielded twenty war elephants, with their attendant crews.
We know little of how the OOB played out on the ground, but can extrapolate from general knowledge of Roman and Antigonid deployments from this period. The Antigonids would ideally deploy their phalanx in four strategia (brigades) in a line, with the most veteran units to the right (likely the peltasts). Phalangites would deploy sixteen men deep. The cavalry would be deployed on the flanks and the skirmishers out front in a screen. The Romans would have deployed their troops in a triplex acies of three lines—the hastati (green/young men), the principes (more veteran troops), and finally the triarii (hardened veterans). The first two lines would have been armed with 2 javelins each and the short sword. The last line would be armed with a thrusting spear. The three lines would be deployed in ten staggered maniples (handfuls), with a maniple-wide gap between each one. The three lines would deploy in a checkboard (quincunx) pattern, with the each line covering the intervals of the line in front. The Roman skirmishers (velites) would have deployed in a screen out front, and the cavalry on the flanks.
Command and Control (C2) would have been largely centralized in the monarchical Antigonid phalanx, resulting in a rigid force designed to deploy once and hold position thereafter. Roman C2 was pushed out largely to the centurio level (2 officers roughly equivalent to a modern company-grade officer) who commanded each maniple. This allowed greater tactical flexibility to the Romans.
The Antigonid phalangites likely wore a complete panoply of approximately forty pounds, including bronze helmet and greaves and a linothorax (linen cuirass) and bore the pelte, a shield approximately two feet in diameter and slightly concave, without an offset rim. The pelte was slung on the arm using a loop called the porpax, and may have included an antilabe, a handle that could be used to grip with the hand to maneuver the shield if the phalangite transitioned to their sword (a backup weapon). Normally, the left hand projected past the shield rim, allowing the phalangite to wield the pike with both hands. A strap around the shoulders, the ochane, helped support the shield's weight. Officers or wealthier soldiers may have worn a bronze muscle-cuirass in place of the linothorax.
The Roman legionaries also wore a complete panoply. For the hastati and principes, most likely a bronze pectoral that covered the heart. Some may have worn the lorica hamata, a mail cuirass, heavier and more expensive. The Triarii may have all worn mail. All three classes of troops would have worn helmets and at least one greave on the leading leg, though it's possible they may have worn two. All legionaries would have carried the scutum, an oval shield with a central boss that protected the hand while it gripped a single handle, which also doubled in allowing the shield to be used as a punching weapon. The shield was heavy, around twenty pounds, and roughly two and a half feet wide by four feet long.
POSITION AND BATTLEFIELD EVOLUTION
The sources are vague on exact deployment, and we're reliant mostly on modern scholarship to make sense of where the armies deployed and where the battle took place. We know that the Roman camp was located down a slope from the Antigonid position, and the general impression (probably incorrectly) given by the sources is that the Cynoscephalae ridge ran in a single, unbroken line east-west between the two armies. The initial meeting of the covering forces supposedly took place on top of this ridge, with both forces sending panicked messengers back to their commanders pleading for aid. The sources give the following evolution of the battle, in this order:
1.) Flamininus responds to his covering force's plea for reinforcements, sending 500 cavalry and 2,000 infantry to assist. The exact composition of this force isn't clear, but Polybius indicates that at least some of the troops were Aetolian.
2.) Reinforced, the Romans drive the Antigonids up the hill, until they're forced to the crest.
3.) Philip responded by dispatching his Thessalian and Macedonian cavalry, as well as all his mercenaries (except the Thracians) to reinforce his own troops. This extra help turned the tide and forced the Romans back down the hill, nearly to their camp. The situation finally stabilized due to the efforts of the Aetolian cavalry, with the Romans pressed, but holding.
4.) Flamininus, seeing that the forcing back of his force was adversely impacting the morale of his entire force, sounded the general engagement. He stationed the right of his army behind the war elephants and held them in position, and sent the left half of his army to the aid of his beleaguered covering force.
4.) Philip, encouraged by reports that the Romans were on the run, committed what he had of his phalanx—approximately 50% or 8,000 phalangites (including the peltasts)—as the other half under his officer Nicanor were out foraging. Before advancing, he left orders for Nicanor to join him as soon as possible. This done, Philip marched half his army over the ridge to deliver what he believed to be a finishing blow. NOTE: As Polybius tells us that Nicanor had the greater part of the force, it is possible that Philip's right was less than 8,000 men/50% of the phalanx. It may have been a single brigade of approximately 4,096 men, or some other partial unit.
5.) As Philip arrived on the ridge summit, he saw his covering force, driven to retreat by the Roman covering force, now reinforced by the main Roman left. At this point, Philip realized he had no choice. Like it or not, he was committed to a general engagement.
6.) Philip received his retreating force, and integrated them on the right of his newly arrived troops, and deployed them double-depth (32 ranks deep). He then ordered his force to lower their pikes and charge. NOTE: Livy says they dropped their pikes and charged with swords, and is widely believed to have mistranslated Polybius.
7.) The superior impact/solidity of the double-depth phalanx, and momentum imparted by the downhill charge gave Philip the advantage, and he drove the Romans back down the ridge toward their camp.
8.) At this point Nicanor, hurrying with the rest of the phalanx, crested the ridge and saw what was happening and hurried to help. His phalanx was not deployed in line, and were in a column to march, likely for speed of movement.
9.) Flamininus, judging that his left wasn't going to be able to win the battle, transfers himself to his right. Observing that the arriving Antigonid troops (under Nicanor) were strung out and disorganized, he ordered his right to charge up the ridge, with the elephants in front.
10.) The Antigonid left, not properly formed up, or deployed into phalanx didn't even bother to try to fight. They fled at first contact with the elephants.
11.) The Roman right pursued the fleeing Antigonid left. One unnamed tribune (A Roman rank approximating a modern field-grade officer) wheeled off less than twenty maniples (Polybius) and attacked the Antigonid right in the rear. It is possible that the twenty maniples Polybius is referring to here are those of the Triarii from the legion and its associated ala, as these would amount to twenty maniples, would be the in the rear of the Roman right, and would be the most veteran and disciplined troops—more likely to break off a pursuit to get back in the fight.
12.) Attacked from both front and rear, the Antigonid right broke, and a general rout ensued.
13.) Philip retreated to a safe distance to observe the rout. Once he was sure the battle was lost, he escaped.
Livy and Polybius agree that 8,000 Antigonids were killed and 5,000 captured. Livy definitively states the number of captives at 5,000, while Polybius says it was not less than 5,000. Livy and Polybius also agree that the Romans took about 700 casualties, almost certainly entirely on the Roman left, from the Roman covering force and the main body that reinforced them. Livy goes on to debunk the claims of the Roman annalist Valerius Antias, who he says grossly exaggerates the casualties (Livy doesn't tell us if Antias is writing of the Antigonid casualties, Roman casualties, or both) as 40,000 dead and 5,700 taken prisoner. We can agree with Livy's assessment that Antias exaggerates, as, even if those were combined casualties, it would mean the utter annihilation of both armies. Livy goes on to criticize the Roman annalist Quintus Claudius Quadrigarius, who also exaggerates the casualties at 32,000 killed and 4,300 captured. Unfortunately, Neither Antias nor Claudius' original annals survive in anything or than fragmentary-referential form.
Philip fled to Tempe, where he recovered as many survivors as he could. The Romans went on to loot the Antigonid camp, only to find that the Aetolians had beat them to it, in a possible foreshadowing of hostilities to come between Rome and the Aetolian league. Initially, over the objections of the Aetolians, who wanted harsher terms, Philip surrendered his younger son Demetrius as a hostage, along with other friends, and paid an indemnity of two hundred talents. This bought him four months during which the rest of the treaty was negotiated. The Aetolians were waved off, and Philip was required to relinquish his conquests in the Balkans, Greece and Asia Minor. He also had to scuttle his navy. In 196 B.C., Flamininus proclaimed the "freedom of the Greeks" at the Isthmian Games, an event that brought a great deal of positive press for Rome. Attitudes quickly soured, however, when Rome occupied "the Fetters of Greece," three pivotal fortresses at Corinth, Chalcis and Demetrias. Philip's chastisement and Aetolian resentment laid the groundwork for the Roman-Seleucid War of 192 B.C., the Aetolian War of 191 B.C. and the Third Macedonian War of 171 B.C.
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Entry #1: Meet Author Myke Cole as He Blogs His Trip to Greece to Research "Legion vs. Phalanx"
Entry #2: Myke Cole's Reading List: The Battles of Cynoscephalae, Thermopylae, and Pydna
Entry #3: A Day in Pydna with Myke Cole