The Third Macedonian War: The Year 169 BCE

(PHGCOM/British Museum)


  • The Illyrian king Genthios is prepared to defect to Perseus in return for a large sum of gold;
  • The Romans make no headway at all in Illyria and Epirus, and Perseus fails to take Stratos;
  • The consul Quintus Marcius Philippus arrives in Thessaly and takes control of the army;
  • The consul manages to cross the Olympus range and break into Macedonia;
  • The Romans capture several cities in Macedonia, but their supply lines are a serious problem;
  • The praetor Gaius Marcius Figulus raids the coast of Macedonia and the Chalkidike peninsula, but is mostly unsuccessful;
  • The Romans have doubts about the loyalty of their allies King Eumenes of Pergamum and the Rhodians;
  • The Achaean League mobilises its army and sends it to the consul, but is told that the Romans have no need for the extra troops;
  • The censors Gaius Claudius Pulcher and Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus clash with some of the equites over the letting of contracts;
  • The people’s tribune Publius Rutilius tries to get the censors convicted by the comitia centuriata, but is unsuccessful; the censors then take revenge on the tribune after his term of office has expired;
  • The Basilica Sempronia is built on the Forum Romanum;
  • Adoption of the Lex Voconia by the popular assembly;
  • King Antiochos IV conquers most of Egypt before making a deal with King Ptolemaios VI Philometor; Antiochos is forced to give up the siege of Alexandria, where Ptolemaios VIII Physcon has set up a rival government.

The Third Macedonian War was now going into its third year and the Romans realised that they needed to step up their efforts. Since the army in Macedonia was seriously under strength, the new consuls Quintus Marcius Philippus and Gnaeus Servilius Caepio immediately set about recruiting new soldiers. The Romans took matters quite seriously. Veterans who were too old for service were given their discharge, and the consuls were even ordered to levy four extra legions, to be used wherever circumstances demanded their presence. Discharging older soldiers was easy, but recruiting some of the younger men turned out to be more difficult. Fortunately the consuls received aid from the censors (see below), who issued an edict that made plenty of younger men join (or rejoin, if they had been granted leave previously) the legions. The levy was now completed in a mere eleven days.

Third Macedonian War

Map of Epirus and Illyria (source: Ancient World Mapping Center. “À-la-carte”; CC BY 4.0)

The consuls drew lots for the provinces and Macedonia fell to Philippus, while Caepio would stay behind in Italy. Immediately after the Latin Games, Philippus left for Greece to take charge of the war against King Perseus. Perseus, in the meantime, had not sat still. After taking Uscana and capturing several of its Roman defenders the previous year (or perhaps early this year, in any case during the winter), the king advanced on other settlements, reduced them and took several more Roman soldiers prisoner. He also managed to storm and capture the strongly defended city of Oaeneum (now Tetovo in the Republic of North Macedonia) before returning to Stuberra, the staging point for his invasion of Illyria. The king then sent envoys to King Genthios, one of the most powerful Illyrian leaders. The envoys first travelled to Skodra (now Shkodër in Albania), only to learn that Genthios was actually in Lissos (modern Lezhë). When they arrived there, the king told them that he was certainly prepared to side with Perseus against the Romans, but that he was desperately short of money. The message was clear: Genthios had a price and would defect at the right amount of gold.

Meanwhile, the Romans had made some half-hearted attempts to win back the terrain that they had lost in Illyria. A legate named Lucius Coelius had set out from Lychnidos (modern Ohrid) with an army mostly composed of allied troops. Discipline seems to have been poor, and the attempt to retake Uscana failed miserably when Coelius’ troops were surprised by the Macedonian garrison. The only comfort for the Senate back home was the fact that few Italians died in the clash: most of the casualties were Illyrians. Further south, things were not going much better. Another legate named Appius Claudius Centho had tried to capture the city of Phanoteia in Epirus. This was a city held by Epirotes who had defected to Perseus the previous year, most likely Molossians. Claudius had recruited troops among the Chaonians and Thesprotians, Epirote tribes that had remained loyal to Rome. The legate’s attempt to take Phanoteia failed, as the city was too well defended by one of Perseus’ commanders, a certain Kleuas. Claudius was forced to give up the siege when he learned that Perseus himself was threatening Stratos much further to the south. Fortunately for the Romans, they had managed to sneak some 1.000 reinforcements from Ambrakia into the city, forcing Perseus to withdraw.

Theatre of the Third Macedonian War (source: Ancient World Mapping Center. “À-la-carte”; CC BY 4.0)

In spring, the consul Philippus arrived in Thessaly and took over command of the army from his predecessor Aulus Hostilius Mancinus, who now joined the consul’s staff as a legate. This may have been a reward for Mancinus’ good services, as the former consul had made sure that order and discipline within the army had been restored. Just nine days after taking charge of the army, Philippus – over sixty years old and extremely corpulent – broke camp and marched north towards the border with Macedonia. Breaking into Macedonia had already proved difficult for Mancinus the previous year: the Olympus range dividing Macedonia from Thessaly was a formidable obstacle. Perseus had ordered his subordinate commanders to block all the passes and had in this way set up an almost impenetrable ring of defences.

Coin with the head of the hero Perseus (source: Classical Numismatic Group, Inc.).

And yet the consul managed to find a way through. His soldiers fought skirmishes with troops commanded by Hippias on a mountain ridge, and when he could not break through here, he took a different route where even basic roads were absent. Although Livius makes Philippus’ journey sound like Hannibal crossing the Alps, the consul’s crossing of the mountain range must indeed have been difficult. One should keep in mind that Philippus had a handful of elephants in his army, animals that were prone to panic and that now proved to be a genuine liability. And yet on the fourth day the consul’s men had reached low country again. The Romans were now finally in Macedonia. They must have been exhausted after their difficult march, and could probably have been thoroughly defeated if King Perseus had responded energetically. Instead, the king seems to have been genuinely surprised. Even if we dismiss as anti-Macedonian propaganda the stories told by Livius about how the king cried that all was lost now, Perseus’ reaction can only described as lethargic.

Statue of Zeus (Allard Pierson Museum, Amsterdam).

Perseus withdrew north to Pydna, leaving the city of Dion undefended. Dion was the site of a famous sanctuary of Zeus and of unparalleled religious importance to the Macedonia. It was now easily captured by Philippus, who probably could not believe his own luck. Still, the situation was far from ideal for the Romans. They were in desperate need of supplies. The consul then met with the commander of the fleet, the praetor Gaius Marcius Figulus, perhaps a distant relative. He learned that the transport ships had stayed in Magnesia, so it was necessary to establish a supply line over land. This had fortunately been made possible by the efforts of Spurius Lucretius (a praetor in 172 BCE), who had captured all of the passes further to the south. The consul now decided to move his army to Phila (see the map above), a decision for which he would be severely criticised. Some accused him of cowardice, but given the Roman supply situation it was probably the right thing to do. Perseus had by now come to his senses. He discovered that the Romans had left Dion, so he marched south and took the city back. The king then made his camp five miles south of the city, on the river Elpeios, which he used as a natural fortification.

There was more success for the Romans when the former consul Marcus Popilius Laenas (see 173 BCE), now serving as a tribune, captured Herakleion north of Phila. His men used a spectacular tactic based on the testudo formation and the games at the Circus Maximus to take the walls of the city.[1] The consul then made his winter camp in the vicinity of Herakleion and fully devoted himself to improving his supply situation. The Romans now had a firm foothold in Macedonia.

Fleet actions and allied loyalty

Gaius Marcius Figulus now took his fleet north towards the coast of Macedonia and the Chalkidike peninsula. The praetor landed troops near Thessalonike, and subsequently sailed to Aineia, Antigoneia and Kassandreia. Although his troops caused widespread destruction wherever they could, the fleet actions could not be considered entirely successful. The Romans were frequently repulsed and suffered serious casualties at Kassandreia, which was vigorously defended by Agrianians and Illyrian Penestae fighting for Perseus. The final target of the naval campaign was Torone, but the Romans quickly realised that it was too well fortified to attack. The fleet now returned to Demetrias, only to discover to their astonishment that it had been strengthened by one of Perseus’ commanders and was now basically impregnable.

King Eumenes II of Pergamum (photo: Sailko; CC BY 3.0 license).

King Prusias of Bithynia and King Eumenes of Pergamum had supported the Romans with ships during the naval campaign, but now a rumour began to circulate that one of Eumenes’ friends had discussed terms of friendship between Eumenes and Perseus with one of the latter’s generals, who commanded the garrison of Demetrias. The Romans now began to doubt the loyalty of their long-time ally, and would over time begin to prefer the services of his brother Attalos. They were not too sure about the loyalty of their Rhodian allies either, given the presence of a growing anti-Roman faction on the island.

The Achaean League was in any case still unwavering in its loyalty towards the Romans, at least according to Polybius, who was of course not an impartial observer. During a League meeting in March, it had already been decided to mobilise the army of the League and send it to the Romans in Thessaly. It seems unlikely that the Achaeans really mobilised their entire force, and when the army had finally been put in the field, the Romans had already managed to penetrate into Macedonia itself. Polybius, still serving as hipparchon, was sent to the consul as a representative of the League. Reading between the lines, we may conclude that the consul believed that the Achaean efforts had been a case of “too little, too late”. He let the Achaeans know that their services were no longer needed, and yet when his colleague Appius Claudius Centho (see above) requested 5.000 Achaean soldiers for operations in Epirus, the consul flatly refused to send the men. This may be interpreted as a sign of the fierce competiveness between Roman commanders.

Domestic affairs

This year, there were once again elections for the censors. Those elected were Gaius Claudius Pulcher and Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus. The two men had jointly served as consuls in 177 BCE, and Gracchus’ popularity was immense. He had won fame and a triumph with his successful campaigns in Spain (see 179 BCE) and had been awarded a second triumph for his victories on Sardinia (see 176-175 BCE). Gracchus was easily one of the most influential politicians of the moment. The two censors once again nominated Marcus Aemilius Lepidus as the princeps senatus. Seven senators were struck from the roll, but this led to little protest. The censors, however, managed to antagonise many within the ordo equester, the order of the knights or equites. Many of the equites were stripped of their public horse (equus publicus), but a measure that was resented much more was the edict about the letting of contracts for public works and the levying of taxes that Pulcher and Gracchus promulgated. Those equites who had been awarded contracts during the previous censorship (in 174 BCE) were now barred from participating in the auctioning of the new contracts. The edict was probably intended to encourage competition and to prevent monopolies of groups of publicani.

The Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus on the Capitoline Hill (Capitoline Museums, Rome).

The publicani that now missed out on new contracts first appealed to the Senate, but the senators refused to take action against the censors, perhaps an indication that Pulcher and Gracchus had the support of the Roman political elite. The equites now turned to a people’s tribune named Publius Rutilius, who held a private grudge against the censors because of the way they had treated a client of his. The tribune tabled a bill that stipulated that all the contracts let by the current censors were invalid. They had to be auctioned again and every Roman citizen would be allowed to participate in the process. When the bill was discussed in the popular assembly, things quickly got out of hand. The people listened to Gracchus in silence, but Pulcher, who was much less popular, was shouted down. Pulcher then asked the herald to give him the floor, which Rutilius interpreted as an attempt to take the presidency of the assembly away from him. He angrily left the Capitoline, where the people had assembled.

The next day, things really escalated. Rutilius charged both censors with treason[2] and dragged them before the comitia centuriata, the assembly of the centuries that had elected them in the first place. Pulcher would certainly have been condemned had not Gracchus used his own immense popularity to intervene on his behalf. He took a solemn pledge that if the people were to condemn his colleague, he would go into voluntary exile with him. This made an impact on the remaining centuries, and even though in the end 89 of the 193 centuriae declared Pulcher guilty (just eight short of a majority), the censor was ultimately acquitted. Rutilius now decided to drop his case against Gracchus, realising that it would be impossible to secure a conviction.

Remains of the Basilica Julia.

The censors later had their revenge on the tribune. When his term of office had expired (on 10 December of the Roman calendar) and his sacrosanctity had lapsed, they took away his public horse and relegated him to the obscure class of the aerarii. Gracchus then had the Basilica Sempronia built on the Forum Romanum, a basilica that would later be replaced by Caesar with the more famous Basilica Julia. It was located between the Temple of Saturnus and the Temple of Castor and Pollux. In order to build it, Gracchus had purchased several buildings, for instance the house of his deceased father-in-law Scipio Africanus behind the so-called Tabernae Veteres or ‘old shops’.

Another important event this year was the adoption of the Lex Voconia by the popular assembly. It had been proposed by the tribune Quintus Voconius Saxa and prohibited Roman citizens of the highest property class from making women their heirs. Legacies were still permitted, but these could not be larger than the inheritance of the ordinary heirs. The rationale of the law is not entirely clear, but it seems to have been a sumptuary law, aimed at preventing too much wealth and extravagance among women. Cato the Elder spoke in favour of the law, so it was certainly motivated by social conservatism. Another set of sumptuary laws was proposed by the censor Pulcher: his Leges Claudianae in cenis prohibited serving delicacies such as dormice (glires) at banquets.[3]

The Sixth Syrian War

Antiochos IV Epiphanes (source: Classical Numismatic Group, Inc.).

The previous year, King Ptolemaios VI Philometor had foolishly attacked his neighbour, the Seleucid Empire ruled by King Antiochos IV. Once again the region known as Koile Syria had been the bone of contention. Ptolemaios surely must have quickly regretted his decision to go to war, as his army was soundly defeated by that of the Seleucids. Antiochos now captured the strategically important city of Pelousion, before swinging south and occupying Memphis. By this time Ptolemaios was no longer the only king of Egypt, as his younger brother Ptolemaios VIII[4] had been appointed co-ruler. His official epithet was apparently Euergetes (‘benefactor’), but he became known to posterity as Physcon (‘fatty’).

After his defeat, Ptolemaios VI first attempted to flee to Samothrake, but when Antiochos advanced on Alexandria, the two kings made a deal, probably in April. Ptolemaios was allowed to remain on the throne of Egypt, but he effectively became a puppet ruler for Antiochos, with his seat of government at Memphis. The deal was, however, rejected by the Alexandrians, who set up their own government led by the king’s brother, the aforementioned Physcon, and their sister Cleopatra II. Antiochos now attacked Alexandria, but gave up the siege in the autumn. His motives for doing so are not entirely clear. Perhaps he was simply unprepared for a long siege, but he may also have feared a Roman intervention. In any case, he certainly missed out on a chance to destroy what was left of the Ptolemaic Empire.


Primary sources

Secondary sources

  • Adrian Goldsworthy, In the Name of Rome, p. 89-90.


[1] See Livius 44.9: “After going through various evolutions, they formed a solid square with their shields held over their heads, touching one another; those in the front rank standing erect; those in the second slightly stooping; those in the third and fourth bending lower and lower; whilst those in the rear rank rested on their knees. In this way they formed a testudo, which sloped like the roof of a house. From a distance of fifty feet two fully armed men ran forward and, pretending to threaten one another, went from the lowest to the highest part of the testudo over the closely locked shields; at one moment assuming an attitude of defiance on the very edge, and then rushing at one another in the middle of it just as though they were jumping about on solid ground. A testudo formed in this way was brought up against the lowest part of the wall. When the soldiers who were mounted on it came close up to the wall they were at the same height as the defenders, and when these were driven off, the soldiers of two companies climbed over into the city. The only difference was that the front rank and the files did not raise their shields above their heads for fear of exposing themselves; they held them in front as in battle. Thus they were not hit by the missiles from the walls, and those which were hurled on the testudo rolled off harmlessly to the ground like a shower of rain from the roof of a house.”

[2] Perduellio in Livius 43.16, but it seems unlikely that this was a classic case of perduellio. See this post.

[3] Only mentioned in Plinius, Natural History 36.4.

[4] There may have been a Ptolemaios VII, a son of Ptolemaios VI. In any case, the numbering of Egyptian kings is a modern convention.


  1. Pingback:The Annalist: The Years 159-154 BCE – – Corvinus –

  2. Pingback:The Annalist: The Year 167 BCE – – Corvinus –

  3. Pingback:The Annalist: The Years 138-136 BCE – – Corvinus –

  4. Pingback:The Annalist: The Year 133 BCE – – Corvinus –

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.