Episode 5 - Graecia capta est

Friday, 26 March 2021 14:43 Written by
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Rome was now a protagonist of world politics, the world as they knew it in those times in the West, of course, and it could not avoid being involved in the often tormented and confusing events of the East. Greece and the Hellenistic kingdoms opened up to the Roman presence; for many members of the Roman ruling classes, Greece was at the origin of every culture, every wealth, every luxury and refinement. A world that attracted the greed of business people and merchants, a world from which new fearsome opponents could arise.

In the wake of its merchant fleet and the swords of Philip, Alexander and their generals, Greek civilization had penetrated everywhere, from Epirus to Asia Minor, from Palestine to Persia, from Egypt to India. And everywhere, the ruling and intellectual classes were now Greek or inspired themselves to Greece. Its philosophy, culture, literature, and science, transplanted in the territories of the empire founded by Alexander the Great, had created a new culture in all those countries.

But, politically, Greece was dead. When Rome, after the victory over Carthage, turned to it, it saw only a Milky Way of small nations, constantly at war with each other. Polybius, the great Greek-Roman historian, was not surprised that it took so little time to conquer them. In fact, Rome could have taken much less.

It all began with Philip V, King of Macedonia. Macedonia was the shadow of what it used to be with Alexander. But it was still the most solid nation in Greece, here cities were divided into two leagues, the Achean league and the Aetolian League, which, though they were at war with each other, stood united against him. 

In 216, Philip, hearing that Hannibal had crushed the Romans at Cannae, signed an alliance with him and asked the Greeks to help him destroy Rome, which could become dangerous for all. A conference was held in Naupacto, the Aetolians' delegate, speaking on behalf of all the cities that attended, asked Philip to put himself at the head of all the Greeks in that crusade. But, soon after, rumours began to circulate in Athens and other cities that Hannibal had given Philip the go for moving against Greeks in exchange for the help he had received. All of a sudden, trust vanished. And the Aetolian League asked Rome for help against Macedonia. Philip, fearing a possible alliance between the Greek Leagues and Rome, put his agreement with Hannibal aside and also made a pact with Rome, thus ending the 1st Macedonian war before it had even begun. In the last years of the 2nd Punic War, Philip V had also allied with Antiochus III of Syria to take advantage of the young age of the King of Egypt and seize the Egyptian possessions in Asia Minor and Cyrenaica, present-day Turkey.

Romans were tired of conflicts, and although they were concerned about this secret pact, a real casus belli was still missing. And, indeed, the threat was just inexistent. Philip moved within his world; he had no intention of attacking Rome, nor did Antiochus. But, let’s put ourselves in the shoes of the Romans and, for this, I will resort to an analogy: there was a sort of “twin towers” syndrome, Rome was afraid it could be attacked in Italy. So, Philip’s movements at the limits of the Roman sphere of influence attracted Rome’s attention and ultimately turned it against the Macedonian.

After the defeat of the Carthaginians, it was Pergamus, Egypt and Rhodes who asked Rome for help against Philip, who was harassing them. They feared being crushed in the grip of the two allies, Philip and Antiochus, and urged the Romans to intervene. Rome had a long memory and remembered the behaviour of the Macedonian king at the time of Cannae, so after a short hesitation, it sent an army under the orders of the young Proconsul Titus Quinctius Flamininus. In 197, the Roman legions annihilated the Macedonian phalanxes at Cynocephales in Thessaly. The way to Greece was open.

But Flamininus was a strange guy. He came from a patrician family; he had studied in Taranto, had learned Greek there and was in love with Greek civilization. So, he did not kill Philip but instead put him back on the throne, despite protests from his Greek allies, who claimed that they had won at Cynocephales, not the Romans. Philip had to pay a war allowance, evacuate the territories conquered until then, limit his army, and above all, commit himself not to threaten in any way the independence of all the poleis, the cities, of Greece and Asia Minor.

Then, during the great Isthmic Games, when delegates from all over Greece gathered in Corinth, the barbarian Roman (and by the way, “barbarian” is a Greek word, meaning “stranger”, one who does not speak Greek, only ba ba ba, hence barbarian), Flamininus, an admirer of the glorious history of Greece, took the opportunity to present Rome as the protector and guarantor of the freedom of the Greeks: he proclaimed that all Greek peoples and cities were free, no longer subject to garrisons or tributes, and could govern themselves with their own laws.

The listeners, who expected the Macedonian yoke to be replaced by the Roman one, were stunned at such an unexpected promise of freedom. Sceptics in Athens and other cities did not have time to question Flamininus' honest intentions: unexpectedly, he withdrew his army from Greece right away.

Flamininus had made a grand, theatrical gesture, but this apparently liberal act had a subtler meaning: Romans were convinced they could control Greece from the outside.

The Greeks were a presumptuous, fickle and ungrateful people, always ready to change sides for their own convenience. The Greek world was cultured, remarkably civil, but with a tendency to forget great benefits in the name of even small wrongs. They were endemically scrappy, and if the Romans intervened heavily in their affairs as in other circumstances, imposing direct rule, they would find themselves embroiled in unending disputes, controversies, grievances and spites. To the Romans, the best solution was to look after them as babies: in political terms, control them remotely and leave them free to behave as they wanted, provided that they did not change the status quo.

But this state of calm did not last long. Right after the roar of applause that greeted Flamininus’ gesture faded, the first mutterings began to be heard. The numerous cities and populations, each complained about something, especially the Aetolians who had expected significant territorial compensation, being allies of Rome, and had been denied these compensations with a quibble by the Proconsul himself. Flamininus had also emancipated some cities of the Aetolian League and had carried away, to Rome, many works of art as a part of a conspicuous loot.

So, furious for what they considered an injustice, the Aetolians began to work against Rome. And they called Antiochus of Syria, the king of Babylon, to free them. Free them from what, we do not know, since Flamininus had left them freer than before, at least in theory.

Antiochus III, the Great, was the most powerful among the Hellenistic rulers. He was an energetic and skilled monarch; he ruled over an enormous territory, from Syria to India, and was preparing to re-establish his dominance in Asia Minor. Precisely for this reason, when the Romans defeated Philip, he did not come to his aid; he thought he could take advantage of the defeat of the Macedonian. And in 196, he began to threaten the Kingdom of Pergamus and the Greek cities occupied by Philip.

The following year, he welcomed Hannibal, who had fled Carthage so as not to end up in the hands of the Romans, who demanded his surrender. In Carthage, Hannibal had clashed with the aristocratic and merchant factions; he had fled the city at night to escape arrest and had sailed to Syria, to Antiochus's court. At that moment, Antiochus was hesitant between peace and war with Rome, and Hannibal had recommended him war and had become one of his military experts.

In 192, Antiochus landed in Thessaly, presenting himself as the defender of Greek independence: but he had only 10,000 men and six elephants, and the Achean League thought well to stay on the side of the strongest, that is, the Romans. Once again, the Romans skillfully exploited the divisions and jealousies among the Greeks: Hannibal had advised Antiochus to ally with Philip, to threaten Italy; instead, Antiochus’ move prompted Philip, who included Thessaly in his sphere of influence, to take sides against Antiochus.

In 191, the Romans landed in Greece, and Antiochus waited for them at the pass in front of which the march of Xerses and the Persians had been blocked by the Spartans 289 years before, the Thermopylae, the Hot Gates. But the Romans were more organized and tenacious than the Persians. They bypassed Antiochus’ fortifications and swooped behind Antiochus's army: of the 10,500 men, only about 500 managed to escape with the king and pass to Asia. The Romans had lost only 200 legionnaires.

In pursuit of Antiochus, the Romans landed in Asia. Antiochus gathered all the forces of his kingdom, from all over the East, for the decisive battle: there were Greek troops, the phalanx, Hellenic and Galatian mercenaries, the knights of Cappadocia sent by King Arate, the mounted archers from the Caspian regions, the Arabs on dromedaries, the armoured cavalry, the elephants and even a squad of mowing chariots, chariots with sickles leaning on the outside. All in all, about 70,000 men, against a Roman army about half that size, led by Lucius Cornelius Scipio, the African’s brother. Despite this, in 190, the Romans soundly defeated the Syrian army in Magnesia, close to nowadays Izmir, in Turkey, thanks to the tactical superiority of the legions over the Macedonian-derived phalanxes.

Antiochus had to abandon all his possessions in Asia Minor, pay compensation, give up much of the fleet and all his war elephants. The territories he evacuated were transferred, some to the kingdom of Pergamus and some to Rhodes. The Aetolians were not punished as severely as they expected: they were still helpful as an obstacle to the expansion of the kingdom of Macedonia.

This time the Romans, among other conditions, imposed the handover of Hannibal. Once again, he fled: first to Crete, then to Bithynia (Northern Turkey). The Romans gave him no respite, and a few years later, they asked the King of Bithynia to hand Hannibal over. The old general preferred death to capture; he poisoned himself. He was 67. A few months later, his winner and admirer Publius Cornelius Scipio, “the African”, would follow him to the grave. It was 183 BC.

Rome did not occupy any territory nor constitute any province: where political entities were developed, and their populations could not simply be absorbed, the Romans merely exploited them economically, controlling their foreign policy, to prevent them from taking dangerous initiatives. On the other side, the attitude towards less developed populations was different: in this case, Rome almost always annexed their lands and assigned them to its citizens as agricultural lots, as it happened in northern Italy, or exploited their mineral resources, for instance in Spain.

In Macedonia, first Philip V, then his son Perseus patiently started to rebuild the kingdom, increasing the exploitation of gold mines, also to recreate a strong army. But, any of these armies could not rival the Roman ones, for one simple reason: while the Romans could enlist legions after legions of citizen-soldiers, as was the case after each of the catastrophic defeats during the Punic wars, on the contrary, the armies of the Hellenistic kingdoms, including Macedonia, mainly relied on mercenaries, who were expensive and difficult to recruit, and also ready to sell themselves to the highest bidder.

Perseus was cautious to avoid any initiative that Rome could consider hostile. But in 172, the King of Pergamus Eumenes, who saw Perseus as a possible rival, appeared before the Senate in person, accusing Perseus of carrying out war preparations.

The Senate did not give Perseus' ambassadors the chance to justify their ruler; the poleis had finally realized that Rome did not want to free them, only wanted to exploit them, and senators feared that the anti-Roman sentiments that were growing throughout Greece could come together around Perseus. Thus, in 171 BC, Rome declared war, the Third Macedonian War, and at Pydna, in 168, a Roman army led by Aemilius Paulus, son of the fallen consul at Cannae, defeated the Macedonians. Perseus was translated to Rome in chains to adorn the winner's chariot.

The Macedonian kingdom was divided into four independent republics, each with its currency; the people of one republic could not even marry any citizen of the other republics or own lands outside their district: Macedonia was not annexed but was fragmented not only politically but also economically and socially. Never has there been a more explicit demonstration of the principle “divide et impera”, divide and rule.

A few years later, however, in 148, following a revolt, the Romans transformed Macedonia into a province. The policy of hegemony without direct occupation was over: from now on, Rome more and more annexed the territories instead of controlling them from the outside. By now, the Romans had overcome the inferiority complex towards Greece and were moving back to their traditional policy of occupation and romanization.

But not even this time, the turbulent Greeks learnt from the lessons they had received. A few years later, new nationalist classes came to power in the various cities. The Achean League was reconstituted and, when it learned that Rome was engaged in the 3rd war against Carthage in 149, it called all of Greece for liberation. But it was too late, now Rome could safely fight a war on two fronts.

While Scipio Aemilianus with an army embarked for Africa, the other consul Mummius fell on Corinth, one of the most hostile cities, besieged it, conquered it, killed all its men, enslaved all its women and, after embarking everything that could be transported to Rome, he set the city on fire. The destruction of Corinth aimed not only at crushing any rebellion from the other Greek cities but also at eliminating a competitor for Roman and Italian merchants, as Corinth was a flourishing commercial centre in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Greece and Macedonia were united into one province under a Roman governor, except Athens and Sparta, which were granted some autonomy. Greece had finally found its peace: unfortunately, it was the peace of the cemetery.

The victorious generals returned from the East with huge loots: slaves, metals and precious textiles, but also statues and paintings that they exhibited during the triumphs. These showed the Romans the peaks that Hellenistic art had reached. Rome was about to become a splendid Museum of Greek Art. Even the troops who had lived for years in the East brought back new objects, new luxury, far from the Roman tradition of sobriety and austerity.

Greek wise men also came to the Urbs, attracted by the job opportunities offered by the new rulers of the Mediterranean: doctors, masters of literature, philosophers. Many Roman aristocrats already knew the Greek language, and the ones who did not, learnt it; the generals sent to the East spoke fluently with kings and in front of city assemblies. The Roman ruling class was convinced of the superiority of the Greek culture over the Roman one and fully absorbed it without repudiating its political and military commitment. See, for example, Scipio Africanus, who was very sensitive to Greek culture, and Titus Quinctius Flamininus, who granted freedom to the Greek cities. Also, the cultural preparation required to govern the extensive territories that the Republic had conquered was increasingly complex.

However, within the Roman aristocracy, some looked with fear and hostility at the growing presence of Greeks and things from Greece in Roman society: this happened in particular when they seemed to menace the foundations and stability of the pre-existing social order that the Romans defined by the expression "mos maiorum", the behaviour of the ancestors.

On various occasions during the 2nd century, the contrast between the two tendencies was harsh, both in terms of political confrontation and cultural controversy. The ideal of the traditionalists was the Roman peasant, citizen and soldier at the same time. But that ideal was now gone, no possibility to retrieve it. As a result of the conquests and of the great influx of money, Rome was more and more active in the trade circuits of the East, and Roman and Italian merchants swarmed in the Mediterranean and conditioned even the foreign policy of the Republic. The very disappearance of the traditional figure of the soldier-farmer, an unexpected consequence of the victories of Rome, will provoke the final crisis of the Republic at the apogee of its power.


Read 1456 times Last modified on Monday, 17 May 2021 07:56
Marcello Cordovani

Marcello Cordovani is the founder and co-owner of VITORITALY. He is also the Tour Manager of the private tour of Italy

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