|The Third Macedonian War and the
Battle of Pydna (168 BC)
The great conflict which determined the fate of ancient Greece
by John Foss
Visitors to Greece may be aware of the history of Athens and the "Golden Era"
of Pericles. It was here that European civilisation can be said to have been
born. Here was the cradle of democracy. Here thrived the architects,
philosophers, lawmakers and artists of the first great city of the West. Though
these visitors may acknowledge the myths of the Gods of Olympus, not many of
them give a thought to the history of Pieria. Yet one of the more decisive
battles in Greek history, the battle of Pydna (168 BC) took place on and around
the fields of modern day Katerini. This was the battle that ended Macedonian
control of Greece, allowing the Balkans to become part of the Roman Empire.
From the end of the second Macedonian War (196 BC) onwards the Romans took an
active part in Greek political disputes. Even though the Greeks were divided
into many states, they realized the danger that this presented, and so the
majority of them were in favour of the war, which then took on an intensely
The government was principally oligarchic, and many of the Macedonian ruling
families favoured the Romans, thinking that they would keep their privileges,
land and influence if the Romans were to come to power. However, somewhat
surprisingly, the popular masses put their fighting spirit behind Perseas, the
new King of Macedonia. This may have been because he appealed directly to them,
and they felt that their lot would be better under his rule. They were probably
The Romans under the command of Aimilios Pavlos had been steadily advancing
Northwards from Athens, and were now in control of the country as far as
Larissa, a town 80 kms. to the South of Katerini. Between Larissa and Katerini
lies the valley of Tempe. The army succeeded in passing through this natural
obstacle without difficulty, however when they reached the Enipeas river, which
flows from Litochoro to the sea, they were confronted by Perseas' army, and
retreated. There are shades of the battle of Thermopylae here, for a traitor is
believed to have "sold the pass", and shown Emilios Pavlos the way round the
back of Olympus, along its Western slopes. The Roman army was a substantial
one, numbering some 40,000, well-trained and well-prepared for battle. They had
elephants, the tanks of their day, and they moved through modern day
Kokkinopilo and down the mountainside to Petra. The topography has changed
somewhat over the past two thousand years. The rivers followed a different
course, further to the south, and the sea came much further inland than today.
Moving the Elephants through the mountains and down the steep pass to Petra was
a massive task. This was achieved by means of wooden platforms which were slid
down the mountain tracks. When the army reached the plains below they moved
along the ridge of hills which today joins Kondiarotissa and Nea Efessus.
There is some argument over the site of the battle itself, two or three
alternatives being suggested. Pydna is a seaside village, which must have been
the main harbour for the region 2000 years ago. St. Paul is reported to have
sailed from there after his visit to the area, when the Romans were pursuing
him. This visit led to his "letter to the Thessalonians". One putative site is
in the area of the village of "Nea Efessus", on the outskirts of Katerini. It
is situated at the end of a line of hills dividing the plain into two segments,
with Katerini to the North, and Larissa and the valley of Tempe to the South.
If you visit the site and climb the hill to the church and beyond, you have a
fine view to both North and South. Try and conjure up in your imagination the
scene of 2,200 years ago – the soldiers expectant before the battle, the horses
affected by their excitement, and the massive elephants lined up ready for
combat. They were in fact to prove one of the decisive factors in the battle.
On June 22nd the two opponents arrayed themselves in battle order on either
side of the River Lefkos. The Romans had made sacrifices to their Gods before
the battle, and in the first instance these had suggested a discouraging
outcome, however Aimilios Pavlos instructed his priests to try again. On the
second attempt they received more encouraging signs, so he said that although
they might find the fighting heavy going at the outset, he was confident they
would win in the end.
The battle began when a stray horse wandered into the river and both sides
tried to capture it. Fighting broke out, and the order to charge was given at
noon, when 800 Thracians under the command of Alexander clashed with 3,000
Roman infantry and 120 of their cavalry. The two opponents immediately received
reinforcements. When Perseas saw that the Greeks were in fine form because the
battle was going well for them, he ordered a general attack.
His forces were arrayed as follows: the cavalry were to the right, beside them
were the allied light infantry troops and a 3,000-man officer corps. In the
center was the phalanx with two flanks: the right flank had soldiers carrying
silver shields, and the left copper shields. To the left of the phalanx was
another officer corps of cavalry, a 3,000 detachment supported by groups of
Thracians and Paiones. The troops armed with the "Sarisa" – the 6 to 7 meter
long wooden pikes – were deployed in the centre, the first four rows holding their pikes
in a horizontal position, those behind at an angle.
The Roman troops on the other side of the Lefkos River had their cavalry on the
left with allied troops alongside them. The javelin throwers were centrally
placed at the front of the troops, while behind them were three rows of
Legionnaires. The allied Roman forces were placed on their right. Just beyond
that point were 120 horsemen, 22 elephants and the corps of the other allied
forces. The Romans were armed with swords, which were obviously much shorter
than the Sarisa, and shields, however this was to prove to their advantage in
the end. Aimilios Pavlos, who had been situated on a hill above the
battleground, noticed that the Macedonian troops had trouble manipulating the
Sarisa over undulating ground and he successfully manouvered his opponents into
attacking uphill, where they were at a disadvantage. In all, between 41,000 and
42,000 Greeks were mobilized against slightly more than 42,000 Romans.
As the first Greek legions began crossing the river, the General commanding the
Roman forces, Aimilios Pavlos, ordered the attack. He inspired his troops by
circulating among them without helmet or breastplate. The first Greek forces to
emerge from the river attacked the first Roman units. These consisted mainly of
Italian allies. They battled bravely, sacrificing many of their men, however
they failed to stop the invincible Macedonian Phalanx. In order to counteract
the pressure of the Greek left flank, Aimilios Pavlos sent 22 elephants under
his command into battle, with the greater portion of his allied cavalry. The
forces, especially the elephants, played a defining part in stopping the Greek
advance, as Perseas' specially trained men couldn't complete their mission.
After that, Aimilios turned to face the phalanx. His attempt failed because the
long Macedonian javelins hit the Roman soldiers directly in the face.
However, it seems that Perseas and his generals were not following the progress
of the battle very closely. Perseas was apparently wounded, though not
seriously, and left the scene of the battle, returning to Pydna, which was
where the army was based. The Macedonian cavalry on the left flank followed,
but the Roman navy, which was lying along the shore, killed many of them. On
the other hand, Aimilios was fully in command, and he ordered his legions to
proceed towards the rough terrain of the mountain, and in so doing, drew the
Macedonian phalanx in that direction.
The Greek phalanx, moving upwards, attacked the roman force. The Romans were
retreating, while continually replacing and changing their 3 rows. Because of
the roughness of the soil and the length of the front, the phalanx was forced
to divide and so, finally, some gaps appeared among the ranks. These divisions
destroyed their cohesion and therefore their strength. Aimilios Pavlos,
realising this, ordered his forces to penetrate the gaps of the phalanx,
fighting at close quarters with the Macedonians where his troops, with their
shorter and more mobile swords, would be at an advantage. Perseas had failed to
see this danger, which would prove his downfall.
In spite of the vagueness of the differing sources, it seems that the Roman
general used a cavalry of 4,080 horsemen on his left flank to break through the
Greek phalanx. This vigorous attack was launched against the Macedonian
phalanx, which was now well scattered, and the reorganized legions attacked the
Macedonian central point. At this point in the battle Lefkios Postumios
Alvinos, the officer in charge of the second legion, attacked the right
phalanx, while the General himself, as head of the first legion, attacked the
center. Here he brought his elephants into play. With this charge the Romans
easily broke through the Greek lines, owing to the elevation of the ground, the
lack of coordination of the Greeks, the heavier weaponry of the Romans and also
the fact that they were better trained.
By these means, the Macedonians were defeated, though they fought bravely till
the end. The only Macedonian forces left intact were those on the Greek right
flank, some 12,000 – 13,000 in all, who had not taken part in the battle. The
Greek forces suffered heavy losses. There were more than 20,000 dead, while a
further 11,000 were taken captive. The Roman forces lost fewer men, though many
more than the Romans themselves had reported. (Nasikas 80 or Poseidonios 100)
It is of interest to examine some aspects of the battle in greater detail.
Firstly, for the Romans to be forced to retreat after the first attack can only
have meant that they had many dead soldiers. The phalanx soldiers struck at the
face of the enemy, therefore there was no room for mere wounds. In a similar
battle at Kinos Kefales when the battle tactics of the Macedonian phalanx was
of much the same nature, the Romans were left with 700 dead. Logically
speaking, one may conclude that in this much more aggressive attack, and with
the substantially larger forces involved at Pydna, the corresponding number of
Romans killed must have been much greater. Quite apart from anything else, they
had been forced to retreat. If there were 700 dead at Kinos Kefales, with the
number of fighting men more than double at Pydna, there must have been at least
1,400 – 1,500 dead in this battle. Everything points to there having been huge
Roman losses. The battle however, was not just the initial skirmishes. There
were other furious clashes when the Macedonian phalanx was broken through. The
battle-wise Macedonians, of course, did not just "sit on their hands" but
The course of the battle raises many questions, one of the most critical
concerning the half hearted efforts of the better Macedonian cavalry, which
allowed the opposition to scatter the phalanx without apparent difficulty.
Later, at a crucial moment, when the battle was going badly, the cavalry failed
to intervene to restore the balance. Such intervention at this point might have been costly, but would even
have justified its sacrifice.
Perseas has been held responsible for this mistake by some historians, who present
him as being defeated before the battle had begun, (see above) and suggest that
there were many occasions during its course when he could have won. It is
possible that the catastrophic negligence of the Macedonian cavalry lay in
political motives. The cavalrymen were the sons of Macedonian aristocratic
families, who had become displeased with Perseas because of his political
approach favouring the masses. The concentration of so many infantry forces,
made up of the ordinary people, gives some clue to Perseas' feelings towards
the masses. This concentration might have been the correct military tactic to fight the
Romans, but it brought the King into conflict with those of his own class.
Perseas was an ill-tempered person, and in all probability this led to a
conspiracy, which revealed itself during the critical phase of the dramatic
conflict. The war with the Romans had taken on an intensely political dimension
as well as an ethnic nature. The Oligarchs of the Greek states, as well as the
Macedonian Aristocrats, sided with the Romans in order to save their fortunes
and their privileges. In so doing, they aimed to preserve their benefits as a
nation. On the other hand, the masses of poor people stood and fought to the
end, which is the reason for the huge number of dead. This point of view is
reinforced by the fact that the cavalrymen abandoned their King, in order to
reorganise the remaining forces and find new ones, probably mercenaries.
Perseas was betrayed by the ruling class of his country, and was left to be
defeated, with disastrous consequences for his country, if not for the entire
nation. A short while later he was betrayed again, and taken captive by the
victor Aimilio Pavlo.
The battle of Pydna was highly significant because it meant the defeat of
Macedonia, the most important Greek State left unconquered by Rome. This left
the way open for the total subjection of Greece to Rome, then considered the
undisputed "ruler of the world".
The third Macedonian War was the decisive conflict between the Greeks and the
Romans. When the Greeks realised the tragic road they had been following, they
joined in the fight with a common purpose, a fight that had taken on a clearly
nationalistic character. However, they failed. They could not succeed in
uniting the broad confederation of forces (Greeks, Hellenic, and even
barbarian) that would be needed to compete with the enormous might of the Roman
A History of the Greek World : A H Scullard
A History of Macedonia : Alekos Angelides
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Copyright © 2006 John Foss.
Written by John Foss. If you have questions or comments on this
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Published online: 01/08/2006.