The Kingdom of Macedonia once boasted the most powerful empire in the world – when Alexander the Great conquered the Persian Achaemenid Empire and led his armies as far as India. Yet by 168 BC this Macedonian golden age had past and Rome was now cementing its authority in the central Mediterranean.
On 22 June 168 BC these two giants of the ancient world faced each other on the battlefield in one of the most defining legion vs phalanx clashes of antiquity.
The Macedonian resurgence
In 197 BC the Macedonians were decisively defeated by the Romans at the Battle of Cynoscephalae, ending the Second Macedonian War. The Romans allowed Philip V, the Macedonian king, to keep his throne but they took away his empire and made his kingdom a client state.
For many years Philip bowed to Roman will, especially in foreign affairs. Yet as his reign went on, the Romans began to treat Philip and the Macedonians more and more harshly. By 180 BC Philip was once again contemplating fighting Rome.
Yet in 179 BC Philip died and his son, Perseus, ascended the Macedonian throne. Equally distrustful of the Romans, Perseus continued what his father had started, becoming increasingly defiant towards the Romans and further building up Macedonia’s military.
It was not long before this hostility became untenable and in 171 BC the Third Macedonian War erupted.
The road to Pydna
After three years of indecisive action, the decisive clash was fought near Pydna, a coastal town in ancient Macedon on 22 June 168 BC. The Roman army was commanded by Lucius Aemillius Paullus, one of the Roman consuls (a chief magistrate) that year, and his army consisted of nearly 40,000 men. Most of these men were equipped with a short sword called a gladius and a large shield called a scutum.
The Roman legions – who fought in tactical units called maniples – had already proven themselves equal to the armies of some of Rome’s greatest foes including Hannibal, Pyrrhus and Antiochus III. Their method of warfare was tried and tested.
Perseus’ army, meanwhile, consisted largely of infantry trained in one of history’s most iconic fighting formations: the Macedonian phalanx – a large, densely packed formation of pikemen who would present an almost-impenetrable wall of spears to any enemy attacking from the front. It was this style of fighting that Alexander the Great’s infantrymen had been trained in over 100 years before.
Many of Perseus’ Macedonian pikemen were equipped with bronze shields, which according to Plutarch:
“filled the plain with the gleam of iron and the glitter of bronze.”
Alongside his Macedonian phalanx, Perseus also had some of the best cavalry in Europe, supported by ferocious light infantry from Thrace (a region now split between Greece, Bulgaria and Turkey). In total, his force numbered some 40, 000 men, similar in size to Paullus’.
The Battle of Pydna
The battle began somewhat unexpectedly. At about three o’clock in the afternoon, a mule escaped the Roman camp and attempted to cross the river – the other side of which 800 of Perseus’ Thracians were standing guard.
A small skirmish ensued in which one Thracian was killed. The Thracians retaliated and more and more men were dragged into the fight. The scuffle had soon escalated into a sizeable battle, when Perseus ordered his phalanx forward.
Initially the battle went well for Perseus and his Macedonians as the Roman legions struggled to reach the Macedonians holding their six-metre-long ‘sarissa’ pikes. However, the Macedonian battle line soon fragmented and several different engagements began to occur throughout the battlefield. This suited the more flexible Roman legions.
As the Macedonian battle line began to fragment, gaps started appearing in the phalanx which the Roman maniples exploited. Slipping through gaps in the phalanx, the Romans attacked the vulnerable flanks and rear of Perseus’ infantry, who found it difficult to wield round, drop their pike and take out their sword to face their foe in close combat.
As the phalanx became more and more disorganised and more gaps emerged, Romans piled through holes in the enemy line and the Macedonian line quickly disintegrated. By the end of the day Pydna had become witness to a Macedonian slaughter.
20,000 Macedonians perished that day with Livy, a Roman historian, later saying:
“Never had so many Macedonians been killed by the Romans in a single day.”
In contrast Livy claims only 100 Romans were killed at the battle, although this is likely much lower than the actual total.
Following the battle, Perseus was captured by the Romans and paraded through the streets of Rome in chains during Paullus’ triumph. The Romans then kept Perseus in custody at Alba Fucens in central Italy where he died two years later, never seeing his homeland again.
With Perseus’ exile, the Romans dissolved the Macedonian kingdom, turning it into a Roman province; one of antiquity’s greatest states was no more.
The Battle of Pydna was one of several decisive legion vs phalanx clashes in antiquity, all of which you can learn about in Myke Cole’s most recent book Legion versus Phalanx: The Epic Struggle for Infantry Supremacy in the Ancient World, published by Osprey Publishing.