In 168 B.C. Macedonians, representing the Greek culture, and Romans, forging a new world empire, clashed yet again. It wasn’t the first time these cultures and adversaries had met on a battlefield. However, the Battle of Pydna decisively determined which military, government, and culture would dominate the Mediterranean region in the coming years.
King Perseus and his Macedonian army, confident in their battle formation, met the Roman General Paullus with his republic army in the battle where flexible tactics and thinking would win the day. The effect of Pydna reached far across the timeline.
King Perseus & The Macedonians
Macedonia had actually conquered the weakened Greek city-states and under the reign of Alexander the Great (336-323 B.C.) conquered much of the eastern Mediterranean region and the Middle East. Shortly after Alexander’s death, four of his generals split his empire. The Macedonian army and empire ushered in the Hellenistic Period when classic Greek culture and ideas influenced many countries and people groups.
By 168 B.C., the Macedonians were fighting for their culture and their country. Rome had emerged as a western power and was in the slow process of conquering the Mediterranean region and European continent. Could Macedonia hold on to their original territory to the north of Greece?
They would try valiantly. The phalanx was one Alexander the Great’s classic military formations; soldiers with long pikes and shields formed an impenetrable spear wall and could sweep enemy forces from the battlefield. The phalanx was ideally based on a triangle and theoretically could move in any direction without breaking formation. King Perseus had professional soldiers in his army, trained to fight in the phalanx formation.
The Romans had established one of their local rulers in Macedonian territory after the Third Macedonian War. (Yes, the Romans and Macedonians had been enemies for a long while.) King Perseus led the army to counter the Roman troops sent to reassert authority and reclaim the territory.
Paullus & The Roman Army
At this point in ancient history, Rome was still in the Republic Era (no emperors and a republic form of government). Volunteer soldiers made the Roman armies during the Republic Era, but that didn’t mean the soldiers were untrained. Many were veterans from other campaigns and hard fought battles.
While the Macedonians liked to rely on close formation, the Romans stole a few of their ideas and added a lot of their own to make their battlefield maneuvers. “Classic” Roman infantry carried heavy shields, javelins, and short swords. Their idea of battlefield, army-to-army fighting included hurling those javelins at the enemy, then rushing forward (usually in a line formation) to begin hand-to-hand combat. They were often supported by auxiliary archers.
Elected to lead the army, Consul Paullus arrived in the rebellious territory with experienced, tough, older soldiers. He instituted a new form of communication for his army. Relying on tribunes and centurions, Paullus developed a method for getting his orders to the soldiers quickly by sending commands through a communication chain. This prevented the typical “lost” information because the soldiers didn’t hear the trumpets or shouts from the general.
Battle of Pydna
Prior to the battle, both sides maneuvered their infantry and cavalry, seeking their opponents vulnerability and good fighting ground. The Romans eventually took a long march and found a defensive position which Paullus liked. The Macedonians followed, and both armies stared at each other from opposite sides of a river, not far from the town of Pydna. The next morning some soldiers started squabbling while getting water at the river. Then one side lost a horse, and the other army wouldn’t return it. The tattle-tales ran to their commanders, and both sides prepared for battle.
Persues and his army crossed the river where one of his flanks was promptly crushed by Paullus’s division of war elephants. (That’s right! War elephants!) The Macedonians rallied and, relying on their tough phalanx formation, started to move forward. The Romans hurled their javelins and tried to rush forward. Problem. The phalanx pikes were much longer than the Roman arms and swords so they couldn’t start their usually strike and stab attack.
Paullus noticed his opponent’s phalanx faltering over the uneven battlefield and sent new orders to his soldiers. The Romans abandoned their usual shield to shield formation, crept close in and around the pikes to infiltrate the phalanx. The Macedonians drop their pikes to deal with the close enemy soldiers and other Romans rushed in. Hand-to-hand fighting continued for a few hours.
Perseus fled from the battlefield, but later surrendered, ending his dynasty’s control of Macedonia; he was paraded through Roman in humiliation. Paullus won the battle through his innovative thinking and chain of command and was honored by his army and country. Battlefield losses are difficult to estimate from ancient conflicts, but some researchers suggest the Macedonians lost 25,000 killed or prisoners while the Romans lost 100.
Paullus’s communication innovation, trust in his tribunes and centurions, and willingness to divert from “tradition” scored a Roman victory. Details about the battle and his success illustrate the important concept that new methods and creative thinking can win the day.
The Roman victory at Pydna over the Macedonians in 168 B.C. solidified Roman’s influence on the Mediterranean world. Hellenistic influence would continue – even under Roman rule – but Rome was on a path to conquer most of the know world with little interference from the powerhouse of the last great empire.
Rome would still have to fight itself (civil war) and transition to an empire before it reached it’s full influence, but the door securely opened at Pydna for future Mediterranean conquests.
P.S. Be sure to join us next Friday for the Battle of Actium and Rome’s transition from republic to empire!