The Annalist: The Year 200 BCE

(photo: PHGCOM/British Museum).

The casus belli of the Second Macedonian War (200-196 BCE) would be the Macedonian attack on Athenian territory. Athens in the late third century BCE was but a shadow of its former glory. The city’s position vis-à-vis the Romans is not entirely clear. The Athenians were probably not formal Roman allies, but if Livius’ account is to be trusted, they were included as parties in the Peace of Phoinike of 205 BCE.[1] Athens had got herself into trouble when two young men from the region of Akarnania (west of Aetolia) were executed for sacrilege. During the Eleusinian Mysteries, they had inadvertently walked into the temple of Demeter. Since they were not initiates, their action was considered sacrilegious, even though it was an honest mistake. After the execution, the enraged Akarnanians sent envoys to King Philippos (image on the right), who gave them permission to raid Athenian territory. This they did enthusiastically.

The Athenians first received aid from King Attalos of Pergamum and the Rhodians. Both came to Piraeus to renew their alliance and to return some Athenian ships that had been captured by the Macedonians earlier that year. Citizens of Athens were traditionally divided into 10 phylai, which comprised a total of 100 demoi. These administrative districts can be compared to the Roman tribus. The Athenians honoured Attalos by naming one of the phylai after him and one of the demoi after his wife Apollonis. Phylai named after two Macedonian kings would later be abolished in retaliation for Philippos’ actions. Rhodians living in Athens were also rewarded: they were granted full Athenian citizenship, a rare gift in the Greek world, which was far from inclusive with regard to granting citizenship to foreigners. Athens, Pergamum and Rhodos would join forces to fight the Macedonians and their allies. But what they really needed was a Roman intervention.

Rome decides to intervene

View of the Forum Romanum.

Although the precise chronology of events is hard to reconstruct, it is clear that Pergamum and the Rhodians had already sent envoys to Rome to report to the Senate about Philippos’ actions of the previous years. After the Akarnanian raids, the Athenians sent envoys to Rome as well. A Roman diplomatic delegation was already operating in Greece and happened to be in Athens when King Attalos and the Rhodians were welcomed and honoured there by the citizens. This was probably the delegation sent to King Ptolemaios V Epiphanes of Egypt the previous year. But a formal decision to declare war on King Philippos had yet to be taken. When one of the new consuls of this year, Publius Sulpicius Galba, put the question of declaring war before the people this year, the centuries at first overwhelmingly voted against it. The Roman people, even those from the higher property classes that dominated the comitia centuriata, were clearly tired of war and still recovering from seventeen years of fighting against Carthage.

Galba had already been allotted Macedonia as his province and he was not the man to give up easily. He was furthermore quite experienced, having commanded the Roman naval forces during the First Macedonian War. The consul held a rousing speech, claiming that if the Romans did not strike now, Philippos would soon be crossing the Adriatic with his fleet for an invasion of Italy. The speech caused the people to change their minds. The centuries now voted in favour of war and the consul was allowed to recruit volunteers from among the veterans that had served with Scipio Africanus during his African campaign. A closer look at the Roman army of this year demonstrates how much the situation in Italy had returned to normalcy: there were just six Roman legions in the field this year.

Domestic troubles

The Senate House – Curia – on the Forum Romanum (note: not the Curia extant in 200 BCE).

Galba doubtlessly would have left for his province immediately, had not certain domestic problems kept him and his colleague in Rome for several more months. The most pressing matter was the issue of loans from the Second Punic War. In 210 BCE, many Romans had lent gold, silver and minted copper to the State to support the war effort. The State had started paying back the money in 204 BCE and it had then been agreed that the citizens would receive what was owed to them in three instalments. The third instalment was to be paid this year, but the funds in the treasury were needed for the war with Philippos. When the citizens demanded their money back, the consuls had to turn them down. This naturally led to angry reactions from the creditors, who appealed to the Senate. In the end, the Senate found a satisfactory compromise. The creditors were allowed to lease public land (ager publicus) within fifty miles of Rome for which they would pay just one bronze as per iugerum.[2] If the State was again able to pay the third instalment of the loan[3], the citizens could either keep the land or accept their money and return the land to the Roman people.

It was already August or September when Galba finally left for Brundisium, from where he set sail to Epirus. He was probably no longer in Rome when another domestic issue had to be discussed in the Senate. Lucius Cornelius Lentulus had returned to Rome after serving in Spain for five years. He had taken over command of the Spanish territories after Scipio had left. Together with his colleague Lucius Manlius Acidinus, he had defeated the Spanish troublemaker Indibilis in 205 BCE. Both had been given the rank of proconsul, but in spite of this, they were just private citizens who had not held any of the higher magistracies.[4] Upon returning home, Lentulus asked for a triumph and his achievements were certainly large enough to warrant one. But since he had not been praetor or consul, the Senate only granted him the lesser honour of an ovatio. And even this was initially vetoed by one of the people’s tribunes, who felt that the Senate was breaking with precedent. The matter may have caused the Romans to focus their attention on the status of their Spanish territories. Three years later, these would be turned into formal provinces, governed by a praetor.[5]

Mosaic of gladiators in combat.

This year also saw the death of Marcus Valerius Laevinus, one of the heroes of the Second Punic War and the consul of 210 BCE. He had distinguished himself in the first war against Macedonia, but was probably already dead by the time of the opening stages of the Second Macedonian War. His sons made sure he was given a grand funeral. 25 pairs of gladiators fought at the customary funerary games.

The Celtic hordes

The Latin colonies of Placentia and Cremona were deep inside hostile territory. This year, an army of some 40.000 Celts and Ligurians sacked Placentia and then laid siege to Cremona. Boii, Insubres and Cenomani (the latter former allies of the Romans) had united under the leadership of one Hamilcar. The name Hamilcar is of course not Celtic, but Punic. Hamilcar was a Carthaginian officer who had served in either Hasdrubal’s or Mago’s army and who had stayed behind in Cisalpine Gaul after these armies had been defeated by the Romans in 207 BCE and 203 BCE respectively. Cremona had managed to close its gates just in time and could for the moment rely on the troops stationed on the walls. But it still desperately needed aid and the nearest Roman army was over 200 kilometres away at Ariminum. The praetor Lucius Furius Purpureo, who held command there, furthermore only had an army composed of 5.000 Latins and allies (socii) at his disposal. Attacking the Celtic host with this small force would be tantamount to suicide.

Fortunately there was a solution. The consul Gaius Aurelius Cotta had an army of some 20.000 men in Arretium. This army was sent to the praetor, who in return sent his 5.000 men to Etruria. It seems likely that Cotta expected the praetor to wait for his arrival, but the praetor decided to march towards Cremona immediately. From a military perspective, this decision made perfect sense. The Celts were eager to accept battle, and this was a decision they soon regretted. The praetor’s army was at first hard-pressed and his right ala of allies almost overwhelmed, but the men kept their ground and ultimately broke through the Celtic lines. The enemy was then quickly routed. Livius claims that 35.000 Celts were killed or captured. Much loot was taken and some 2.000 prisoners from Placentia were released and sent back to repopulate the smoking ruins of their colony. The fate of Hamilcar is not clear. Livius first claims that he was killed in the fighting[6], but later asserts that he was captured after another battle three years later and paraded in a triumph.[7] Although the Battle of Cremona was a decisive Roman victory, the Romans themselves lost 2.000 men, so their own losses were by no means light.

Remains of the temple of Bellona.

Lucius Furius Purpureo returned to Rome after his victory and met with the Senate in the Temple of Bellona. There, he asked for a triumph. Some of the more senior senators were in favour of declining his request, as they felt he should have waited for the consul Cotta. But the majority of senators lauded the praetor for his quick and decisive actions that had saved Cremona from destruction. In the end, he was allowed to celebrate a triumph. It must, however, have been one of the strangest triumphs in Roman history. Furius rode alone in his chariot and was not preceded by any prisoners and loot, nor followed by any victorious soldiers. The victory may have been his, but the soldiers’ were the consul’s.


When news of the Celtic attacks on Placentia and Cremona had reached Rome, the Senate had sent envoys to Africa to protest Hamilcar’s involvement in the affair. The Carthaginian authorities responded that there was not much that they could do, other than formally exiling the officer and confiscating whatever possessions he still had in Carthage. The envoys then travelled to the powerful Roman ally Masinissa, King of the Numidians. Masinissa owed his throne to Rome, and the grateful king provided the Romans with 1.000 horsemen and a few war elephants for the war with Macedonia. Large quantities of wheat and barley were also sent from both the Numidians and the Carthaginians to Rome and Greece.

Baal Hammon, one of the chief deities in Carthage (Bardo Museum).

The Roman delegation lastly visited another Numidian king named Vermina. Vermina was a bit of a non-entity. He was the son of Syphax, the former king of the Masaesyli who had been defeated and captured by the Romans in 203 BCE, and had possibly been paraded in Scipio Africanus’ triumph in 201 BCE. Vermina himself had foolishly attacked the Romans after their victory over Hannibal at Zama (or Naraggara) and had been utterly defeated. Apparently he had managed to cling on to small parts of his father’s kingdom, and earlier this year he had sent envoys to the Senate in Rome with a request to be recognised as king, ally and friend of the Roman people (rex sociusque et amicus). The Senate had turned down this request, since the young man had not rendered Rome any services. When the Roman envoys showed up at the border of his tiny kingdom later that year, they could easily dictate peace terms to Vermina, who was ready to accept whatever they had to offer. The Romans were now clearly in a position to impose their will on other, weaker peoples.

Macedonia and Greece

Since the consul Galba had arrived in Epirus in autumn, it was too late in the war season for him to start a land offensive against King Philippos.[8] The consul decided to winter in the vicinity of Apollonia. The king, on the other hand, had certainly not sat still. His general Nikanor pillaged the territories of the Athenians right up to the Academy, which had been founded by Plato himself and was located about a mile outside the city walls. The Roman diplomatic delegation in Athens (see above) had met with the general and had warned him – and through him King Philippos – to leave the Greek cities alone. The delegation then left Athens to travel to the courts of Antiochos and Ptolemaios. Their mission was probably to mediate in the Fifth Syrian War that had broken out between the Seleucid Empire and Ptolemaic Egypt two years previously. Ptolemaic Egypt, a friend of the Romans, had suffered setbacks in Koile Syria in this war and the Roman envoys may have wanted to prevent a Seleucid invasion of Egypt itself. The envoys must have had a second objective as well: keeping Antiochos, an ally of Philippos, out of the Second Macedonian War.

Map of Greece and Asia Minor; theatre of the wars between Rome, Macedonia and the Seleucid Empire (copyright: see bottom right corner).

Philippos himself had continued his campaigns in the Aegean with an attack on Abydos. The city was located on the Hellespont (now the Dardanelles) and the king’s attack was obviously part of his plan to gain control of the naval route to the Black Sea. The citizens of Abydos defended their city heroically, but they soon realised they were no match for the king’s army. Part of the population chose to commit suicide rather than to surrender. When the Roman delegation that was on its way to Antiochos and Ptolemaios heard of the siege of Abydos, one of the envoys was quickly sent to King Philippos. This Marcus Aemilius severely harangued the king for his actions against Pergamum and Rhodos and presented him with an ultimatum: leave the Greek cities in peace, do not attack possessions of the Ptolemies and pay an indemnity to Pergamum and Rhodes.

King Attalos I of Pergamum (photo: Nicolás Pérez, CC BY-SA 3.0 license).

When the king objected and argued that King Attalos and the Rhodians had themselves been the aggressors, the young Roman interrupted him and asked whether the king considered the people of Athens, Kios and Abydos to be aggressors as well. The king was taken by surprise by this insolence, but chose to pardon Aemilius because of the fact that he was still young, exceptionally handsome and – perhaps most importantly – a Roman. The king also told Aemilius that the Romans should respect the Peace of Phoinike and warned them not to make war upon him. If they decided to fight, the king would be ready for them.

The consul Galba did manage to strike one blow this year. He had sent one of his officers, a man named Gaius Claudius Cento, from Kerkyra (Corfu) to Athens with twenty ships and 1.000 men. It was just a small fleet, but it certainly raised the morale of the Athenians. Cento had originally planned to just defend Athens and the surrounding countryside, but then a splendid opportunity for glory presented itself. Anti-Macedonian exiles from Chalkis on Euboea reported that the city was only lightly defended and could easily be taken. Chalkis was one of the three ‘fetters of Greece’, together with the Corinthian citadel and Demetrias. Macedonian kings that controlled these three strategically important locations could control all of Greece. Cento decided to risk a surprise attack. With a few extra ships from Rhodos and Attika, he sailed to Euboea and disembarked his troops when it was dark. The Romans climbed over the city walls, killed some of the guards and then opened the gates to let in the rest of the soldiers.

Chalkis was quickly sacked and put to the torch. The Romans set the buildings surrounding the forum ablaze and also burned down the king’s granaries and the royal arsenal. The garrison did not offer any resistance and most of the young men of military age were killed, as was the garrison commander. Cento’s force was much too small to permanently occupy Chalkis, so after gathering all the loot, the Roman commander sailed back to Piraeus, the port of Athens.


Primary sources

Secondary sources

  • Adrian Goldsworthy, The Fall of Carthage, p. 316-318;
  • Adrian Goldsworthy, In the Name of Rome, p. 81-82.


[1] Livius 29.12.

[2] A iugerum is about a quarter of a hectare.

[3] This would be the case in 196 BCE.

[4] Livius mentions a praetor named Lucius Cornelius who governed Sardinia in 211 BCE (Livius 26.1). Since he also specifically claims that Lucius Cornelius Lentulus had not been praetor (Livius 31.20), this must have been a different Lucius Cornelius.

[5] Lentulus’ successor was another proconsul, Gaius Cornelius Cethegus. He was credited with having defeated the Sedetani and having killed 15.000 enemies, a number no doubt inflated. See Livius 31.49. Cethegus’ successors were also proconsuls.

[6] Livius 31.21.

[7] Livius 32.30 and 33.23.

[8] Zonaras claims the consul was ill as well.


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