The colossal battles fought between the rising power of Rome and the Hellenistic heirs of Alexander the Great are some of the most remarkable in history. From the plains of southern Italy to the banks of the Nile river, the two cultures clashed in a series of battles that shaped the future of the eastern Mediterranean.
Here are 5 key battles that paved the way for Rome’s rise to become the hegemonic power of the eastern Mediterranean.
1. The Battle of Beneventum (275 BC)
The Battle of Beneventum proved to be the final battle of the Pyrrhic War, fought between King Pyrrhus and the Roman Republic.
Having returned to Italy’s shores in 276 BC after an opportunistic and disastrous Sicilian campaign, Pyrrhus aimed to curb Rome’s recent resurgence into Lucania and Samnium.
The two forces met near the town of Malventum (later Beneventum). Hoping to surprise his foe, Pyrrhus decided to send a portion of his army along mountain trails to circumnavigate the Roman force. But the Epirote soldiers soon lost their way – their guides and lights proving inadequate.
Unable to deploy the attack in time the Romans reacted to the new threat at dawn the next day, drawing their men up for the following clash. The Romans won the day. Though not a decisive defeat for Pyrrhus numbers-wise, its result decided the rest of his venture.
Rather than continue fighting Pyrrhus returned to Tarentum and sailed home to Epirus. Within 3 years of his departure, Tarentum had fallen and Rome was now the dominant power in southern Italy, paving its way for future incursions to the east.
2. The Battle of Cynoscephalae (197 BC)
Following the defeat of Hannibal and Rome’s victory in the Second Punic War, the new dominant power in the Western Mediterranean had turned their gaze eastward, to mainland Greece and the Hellenistic kingdom of Macedon.
By 200 BC the Romans and the Macedonians had already come to blows in the First Macedonian War, after Philip V of Macedon had contemplated an alliance with Hannibal against Rome.
That year war broke out again between the two powers, after Rome accepted a plea from the Rhodians and the Hellenistic Attalid kingdom (situated in western Anatolia) for aid against Philip and his imperial ambitions.
The decisive battle was fought among the Cynoscephalae (meaning dog’s head) hills in ancient Thessaly in 197 BC. Philip V’s Macedonian phalanx opposed by the Roman Polybian legion.
Despite having the hill advantage and initial success pushing back the Roman legions, Philip’s left flank was caught out of position. Titus Flamininus, the Roman commander, took full advantage. The Romans engaged the flank and routed the force.
One tribune then peeled off a contingent of soldiers to charge down the hill and attack the engaged Macedonian phalanx from behind.
Philip watched on as his phalanx shattered under this two-pronged assault.
The battle resulted in the end of Philip V’s imperial ambitions – the subsequent peace treaty reducing his territory to within the borders of ancient Macedonia. Rome was the new dominant force in Greece.
3. The Battle of Magnesia (190 BC)
Cynoscephalae marked the end of the Second Macedonian War, but within 7 years Rome found itself fighting the other great Hellenistic warlord that dominated the eastern Mediterranean.
This was King Antiochus III, ruler of the rejuvenated Seleucid Empire that spanned from the borders of India to Thrace in Europe.
After a failed invasion of Greece, Antiochus was forced to retreat to Asia Minor. The Romans went in pursuit, sending an army across the Hellespont into Asia for the first time in their history.
Following a brief period of manoeuvring, counter-manoeuvring and failed negotiations, the two sides made camp near the town of Magnesia in Lydia.
At the battle that ensued the Romans were victorious. This was thanks largely to the initiative of King Eumenes II, the allied Attalid king of Pergamum.
Spotting confusion amid Antiochus’ right wing after successfully repelling a chariot attack, Eumenes had charged his cavalry into the disorganised flank and triggered a mass rout.
Antiochus, himself caught up in the thrill of a cavalry chase, returned to the battlefield to see his army routed.
Following the victory, Rome forced Antiochus to give up all his possessions west of the Taurus Mountains, placing it in the hands of loyal Roman allies.
4. The Battle of Pydna (168 BC)
Following his defeat at Cynoscephalae, Philip V and the Kingdom of Macedonia remained nominally subservient to the Roman Republic until the end of Philip’s reign.
Yet during his final years, Philip’s relations with Rome had soured. The king had expanded Macedon’s influence beyond the borders of his homeland into the north and was once again contemplating fighting Rome.
It was only during the reign of Perseus, Philip’s son and successor, that tensions reached a climax. Perseus and his revived military soon found themselves at war with the legions of Rome, culminating in the decisive showdown at Pydna on 22 June 168 BC.
Sparked by a small skirmish between auxiliary forces, the battle was one that highlighted a great weakness of the Macedonian phalanx. Poor on rough terrain, the heavy footmen’s formation began to fragment, exploited by the more flexible Roman maniples.
Perseus’ army was routed. The king surrendered and was placed in exile at Alba Fucens. The Macedonian kingdom was dissolved and turned into a Roman province, ending one of antiquity’s most remarkable kingdoms.
5. The Battle of Chaeronea (86 BC)
King Mithridates VI of Pontus was the last great Hellenistic opponent of Rome in the east. In response to a Roman-backed invasion of Pontus by the neighbouring king of Bithynia, Mithridates had invaded the Roman province of Asia in 88 BC.
By 87 BC, the Pontic king had forced the Romans out of Asia in one devastating campaign. In its midst, Mithridates had initiated the Asian Vespers – the order for the massacre of all Roman and Italian citizens in Asia Minor.
He subsequently launched an expedition to Greece at Athens’ request, declaring that he would liberate the Greek cities from the Roman yolk.
But he soon suffered setbacks. The Romans dispatched 5 legions, under the command of Lucius Cornelius Sulla, to contest the Pontic presence in mainland Greece.
Following a brutal (and successful) siege of Athens, Sulla’s army faced down the Pontic army of Archelaus (Mithridates’ chief subordinate) at Chaeronea.
Sulla won a crushing victory, successfully-countering all the manoeuvres Archaelaus attempted to throw at him during the battle with his combined army of phalangites, chariots and mercenaries.
Only 10,000 Pontic troops escaped the battlefield – Roman sources claim (disputably) 110,000 soldiers were killed, Sulla’s army losing only 12 men…
Twinned with Sulla’s subsequent, second victory over Archaelaus at Orchomenos a year later, Chaeronea marked a key turning point in the Mithridatic Wars.