The Magazine

Promises to Keep

How the Romans (successfully) supplanted the Greeks

Aug 4, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 44 • By J.E. LENDON
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A mighty republic, having fought a considerable war to a victorious end, vindicated its plighted word by removing its arms from the realm where so many of its young men had fallen for the liberty of strangers. But then, compelled to regard fresh wars arising in that place—infestations of new enemies, friends trimming, and former allies turned repellent in its eyes—that power is seized by a weary disgust. Despite its preponderant strength, the great nation is unable to settle upon any policy of peace or war likely to put back into the slit belly of the country it had conquered and spared the serpentine slime of its unleashed entrails.

'King Perseus before Aemilius Paullus' by Jean-Francois-Pierre Peyron (1802)

'King Perseus before Aemilius Paullus' by Jean-Francois-Pierre Peyron (1802)

Such was the puzzlement, in 192 b.c., of the Republic of Rome. In 197 b.c., the Romans had bloodily freed southern Greece from the domination of the Macedonian dynast Philip V and tried to fashion a balance of power to keep the peace among the Greek states. And in 194 b.c., Rome had pulled all its soldiers back across the Adriatic to Italy, just as the Romans said they would when they announced that they were coming to Greece to free the Greeks from Philip. But Greek freedom devolved quickly into bedlam, and another powerful Greek-speaker, King Antiochus the Great of the Seleucid Empire (governed from what is now Syria), allied himself with one of Rome’s former allies in Greece and marched in.  

Now in confused frustration at the ingratitude of the Greeks, Rome settled upon war and invaded Greece again (192-188 b.c.), and then a third time, with more clarity of purpose, when Philip V’s son Perseus began to gather what was, at least in Roman eyes, a new and dangerous potency in Macedon (171-168 b.c.). After his defeat, Rome put an end to the Macedonian monarchy, but a usurper arose in the vacuum, and the thwarted Romans had to invade Macedonia yet again (150-148 b.c.) before fighting one last time, with a kind of rueful brutality, to subdue southern Greece (146 b.c.). They sacked the ancient and beautiful city of Corinth, an act of vandalism similar to torching, at the same moment, the British Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. But until 146 b.c., the Romans kept no permanent garrison in Greece, and even the troops then permanently settled in Macedonia looked primarily to the north to protect the Greeks and Macedonians from the fierce, crude peoples who swarmed in the Balkans. Rome did not make a territorial province out of southern Greece—with a Roman governor present every year to judge causes and collect taxes—until 27 b.c. 

This tale of conquest, and disenchanted reconquest, is the story Robin Waterfield tells here. Waterfield has made himself into a living international treasure by his lean and lucid accounts of some of the most involved periods of ancient history (here, Rome’s wars in Greece and Macedonia; in Dividing the Spoils, the wars of Alexander the Great’s successors). The current story Waterfield tells clearly and enjoyably, with a deft selection of detail and not without anecdote: The reader meets characters such as the jolly pirate chieftain Dicaearchus, who would erect upon the beach of the land he had chosen to pillage lofty altars to his private gods, Impiety and Lawlessness. 

But Waterfield has no less difficulty than a century of predecessors in explaining the crashing wave-and-retreat pattern of Roman involvement in the Greek peninsula. Why—and this has been one of the Great Questions of Roman history since the late 19th century—did the Romans who invaded Greece and Macedonia keep winning and then going home? The Romans were not, in their nature, a peaceable people; they fought a war, or a number of wars, almost every year, and they expected to do so. Nor had the Romans any absolute objection to seizing other men’s territory and administering it themselves: As early as 241 b.c., they had made Sicily into their first province.  

Even if cultural differences (e.g., the Roman expectation that freeing the Greeks would place them under so great a moral obligation that they would obey the Romans) explain the disappointment of Roman hopes for long-term peace after they liberated Greece from Philip V, the Romans were not so simple a folk as to blunder into that same cultural misunderstanding on several more occasions. If the Greeks were intended to remember the cruel might of the Romans and to obey out of fear (as Waterfield argues) —well, that worked no better. Such was Greek pride that they were willing to fight the Romans even when, as in the Achaean war of 146 b.c., they knew that there could be no possibility of victory.