The Third Macedonian War: The Year 171 BCE

(PHGCOM/British Museum)


  • Rome declares war on Macedonia; start of the Third Macedonian War;
  • A conflict regarding the recruitment of centurions is resolved through an intervention by the veteran Spurius Ligustinus;
  • The Boeotian League is dissolved, but some former members decide to support King Perseus;
  • Quintus Marcius Philippus is criticised by senior senators for deceiving Perseus, but a large majority sees no problems with his actions;
  • A Macedonian diplomatic delegation is heard by the Senate, but then sent away and ordered to leave Rome and Italy;
  • Perseus defeats the consul Publius Licinius Crassus in a large skirmish at the Kallinikos;
  • Perseus offers the Romans generous peace terms, but these respond by demanding an unconditional surrender (deditio);
  • The praetor Gaius Lucretius Gallus sacks Haliartos;
  • The consul Crassus wins a minor victory over Perseus at Phalanna in Perrhaebia;
  • The other consul, Gaius Cassius Longinus, tries to join the war against Perseus by marching his troops from Gallia Cisalpina through Illyria to Macedonia; he has no mandate to do so and is recalled by an angry Senate;
  • Several former governors of the Spanish provinces are put on trial for extortion;
  • The first Latin colony in Spain is founded at Carteia.

The new consuls, Publius Licinius Crassus and Gaius Cassius Longinus, were charged by the Senate to bring the matter of a new war with Macedonia before the comitia centuriata. The casus belli was the fact – or rather: the accusation – that King Perseus had attacked Roman allies and that Rome therefore needed to respond. The centuries subsequently voted in favour of war. The province of Macedonia was allotted to Crassus, while his colleague Longinus was to stay in Italy (or rather: Gallia Cisalpina).

The Romans took the new war very seriously: the legions levied to be transported to Macedonia were exceptionally large, numbering 6.000 men each. The corresponding allied alae were also enlarged for this occasion, numbering perhaps 8.000 soldiers. As a special measure, Crassus was allowed to recruit centurions and ordinary soldiers up to the age of 50; under normal circumstances, the maximum age for military service was 46. Another special measure was the fact that the consuls were given permission by the popular assembly to select their own military tribunes (tribuni militum). Normally, the 24 tribunes of the first four legions were elected by the comitia tributa, but in this case the people delegated their prerogative to the consuls.

Preparations for war

Helmet of a centurion.

Wars against the rich Hellenistic powers in the East were generally very popular, and Crassus had no problem whatsoever recruiting plenty of volunteers. There was, however, a conflict regarding the recruitment of centurions. Twenty-three former centurions who had already served as primi pili – the most senior centurions of the legions – felt bypassed when they were given positions as more junior centurions. The centurions appealed to the people’s tribunes and their case was at first argued by Marcus Popilius Laenas, the consul of 173 BCE. However, the most important spokesman of the centurions turned out to be one of their own, a man named Spurius Ligustinus, who was over 50 years old. Ligustinus was what one could call a career soldier and officer. He had been in the army since 200 BCE and had been promoted to centurion three years later. Ligustinus had served his country for 22 years, much longer than the 16 years required by Roman law. During these 22 years of service, he had been given promotions on numerous occasions and had won six coronae civicae for saving the lives of fellow soldiers. Even though he must have been away from home for years in succession, Ligustinus had succeeded in fathering six sons and two daughters.

Although Ligustinus’ distinguished career is sometimes quoted as evidence of a process of early professionalization in the Roman conscript army, it is probably better to see his case as exceptional even by the standards of his own time (which is exactly why it was recorded). But Ligustinus’ speech certainly did not fail to make an impression on the consul and his staff. The tribunes gave him the position of primus pilus of the first legion. The other centurions now dropped their complaints and stated that they were ready to accept whatever rank was offered to them. It is clear that Crassus and the Senate were eager to recruit as many veterans as possible for the upcoming campaign against Perseus. As a consequence, the army sent to Macedonia was not only experienced, but also a little elderly. Some of the soldiers and officers may have already served during the Second Macedonian War (200-196 BCE), and some may even have fought during the finals years of the Second Punic War. Nevertheless, in spite of this abundance of experience, the Roman army was to perform poorly during the first years of the conflict with King Perseus.

Diplomatic activities

Corinthian Greek helmet (Allard Pierson Museum, Amsterdam).

While preparing their army for war, the Romans also continued their diplomatic activities in Greece, with the aim of strengthening the existing alliances and keeping the Greeks cities and confederations far away from Perseus. Quintus Marcius Philippus had now arrived in Chalkis on Euboea. The previous year he had deceitfully convinced King Perseus to send one final diplomatic delegation to Rome to try and avert a war. His action had been most dishonest and against the Roman value of bona fides, but it had bought the Romans some valuable extra time to bring their forces up to strength. Philippus now set his sights on Boeotia. The Boeotian cities were important because of their strategic location, but their economies were in tatters and they were furthermore divided by quarrels between pro-Roman and pro-Macedonian factions. The Boeotian aristocracy generally supported the Romans, while the ordinary people usually felt more sympathetic towards Perseus, hoping that he would bring about social reform. Philippus succeeded in breaking up the Boeotian League, making sure that the cities would not choose for the Macedonians en bloc. Some Boeotian cities were still openly pro-Macedonian however, among them Koroneia, Thisbai and Haliartos. These cities would pay dearly for their support for Perseus.

Philippus subsequently travelled to Argos with the former praetor Aulus Atilius Serranus and asked the strategos of the Achaean League for troops to keep Chalkis occupied until the Roman army had crossed over from Italy to Greece. Another Roman delegation had visited allied cities in Asia Minor and especially Rhodos, another important Roman ally in the region. Although they had been courted by Perseus, for the moment the Rhodians decided to stay loyal to Rome.

By now Philippus and Atilius Serranus had returned to Rome and reported to the Senate about their activities. Philippus was rather proud of having deceived King Perseus and boasted that this had prevented the king from having occupied strategic positions in Greece before the Romans had transported their army to the region. Most senators applauded Philippus’ actions, although some of the elder and more senior senators felt that this was not the way Roman envoys were supposed to behave. Their criticism of Philippus’ actions was quickly silenced. It was by now probably March, and the Macedonian delegation sent to Rome had arrived by this time. The Macedonians were not allowed to enter the pomerium, and were instead led into the Temple of Bellona just outside the sacred boundary of the city. The envoys were allowed to speak, but were then ignored and told to leave Rome immediately and Italy within thirty days. The Third Macedonian War was on.

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

Opening stages of the Third Macedonian War

The consul Publius Licinius Crassus took his vows on the Capitoline, donned his paludamentum (military cloak) and left for the army in Brundisium. From there, he crossed the Adriatic Sea and landed at Apollonia. Two former consuls, Gaius Claudius Pulcher (consul in 177 BCE) and Quintus Mucius Scaevola (consul in 174 BCE), served as tribunes on his staff. Livius claims the consul had an army of some 37.000 infantry and 2.000 horsemen at his disposal, including troops provided by King Eumenes of Pergamum and King Masinissa of Numidia.[1] It is likely that the Roman army included a few African elephants as well.[2] The Romans were up against a Macedonian army of about the same size. According to Livius, Perseus commanded 39.000 foot soldiers and 4.000 cavalrymen.[3] However, the Romans also sent the praetor Gaius Lucretius Gallus to Greece as the commander of a sizeable fleet and several thousand marines. We can therefore safely state that the Roman forces in the region outnumbered those of the Macedonians.

Equipment of a Republican military tribune.

While Perseus marched south from Macedonia and into Thessaly, capturing cities on the way, the Romans under Crassus marched through Epirus and the mountainous terrain of Athamania. By the time they had reached Gomphi, the Romans were exhausted. Crassus allowed the men some time to recover, before continuing his march towards Larisa[4] and making camp near the river Pineios. Here the auxiliaries provided by King Eumenes and the Greek allies joined him. Not far from Larisa, at a hill called the Kallinikos (Callinicus in Latin), the Roman and Macedonian armies clashed. The ensuing battle is often called a ‘cavalry skirmish’[5] or ‘cavalry battle’[6], but it is clear that some of the infantry – at least the light infantry – was engaged as well. The battle ended in a resounding victory for Perseus. His fierce Thracian cavalry hacked its way into the Italian horsemen and velites on the Roman right flank. Using their huge blades (called rhomphaias), they caused confusion among the Italians and put them to flight. Perseus himself then routed the Greek horsemen in the Roman centre. Only the elite Thessalian cavalry serving in the Roman army prevented a complete Roman defeat.

Even though the Roman defeat had not been total, it was still quite humiliating. Roman casualties were many times greater than those of the Macedonians, who according to Livius lost only a handful of men. By contrast, the Romans had lost 200 horsemen and 2.000 infantrymen (or 2.500 Roman dead according to Plutarchus), indicating that the velites and other light infantry had suffered heavy losses. 600 Romans and Roman allies had been captured, and the victorious Thracians had returned to the Macedonian camp with the heads of their enemies on their rhomphaias. Fear of a new Macedonian attack caused the consul Crassus to move the Roman camp to the other side of the river. In the middle of the night, the consul had his men cross the Pineios and make a new camp on the other bank. The Romans’ aura of invincibility had been shattered and their reputation in Greece had been dented. The fact that they were later joined by the Numidian commander Misagenes with 1.000 fresh horsemen and 22 elephants was a small comfort indeed.

After his victory, Perseus convened the synedrion, the royal council. It was decided to offer the Romans very generous and favourable peace terms, basically involving a restoration of the status quo ante bellum. To the Macedonians’ utter astonishment, the Romans not only rejected the peace terms, they even demanded an unconditional surrender or deditio from their victorious opponents. Obviously these demands were not acceptable for Perseus. The Third Macedonian War would continue.

The war continues

Roman ship on a tomb from Classe, near Ravenna (Archaeological Museum of Ravenna).

The praetor Gaius Lucretius Gallus had anchored his fleet off the island of Kephallenia. He had sent a letter to the Rhodians to ask for extra ships. Even though the Rhodians were still formally on the Romans’ side, their response to the praetor’s request can only be considered half-hearted. Some Rhodians were probably inclined to support Perseus, but a much larger problem was the fact that relations between Rhodos and Pergamum, one of Rome’s most important allies in the region, had seriously deteriorated. Several years ago (181179 BCE), King Eumenes of Pergamum had blocked the Hellespont during the war with King Pharnakes of Pontos, hampering Rhodian trade ships. More recently, King Eumenes had attacked fortresses in Lycia, a region in Asia Minor that was claimed by Rhodos. The Rhodians were loath to send ships to the Romans if they might need them in an armed conflict with the Pergamenians. In the end, they decided to send just six quadriremes to Gallus, a fraction of their war fleet. In a rather strange action, the praetor for his part sent the ships back, claiming he had no need for assistance for the moment. Perhaps he was disappointed or angry because of the small number of ships.

In any case, Gallus now sailed to Boeotia and began attacking Haliartos, which had sided with Perseus (see above). The citizens of Haliartos received some reinforcements from Koroneia, but in the end they did not stand a chance against the Roman onslaught. When the Romans broke into the city, old men and children were massacred. Armed men managed to flee to the citadel, but surrendered the next day. Some 2.500 of them were sold as slaves, the city was stripped of its statues and paintings and completely razed to the ground. The praetor then proceeded to Thisbai, another pro-Macedonian city, which he captured without a fight. A pro-Roman government was subsequently set up. Another praetor, perhaps Gaius Claudius Pulcher, had in the meantime been operating Illyria, capturing two cities there.

Cretan archer (source: Europa Barbarorum).

Meanwhile, Perseus was continuously looking for opportunities to inflict damage on the army of the consul, who seems to have operated rather lethargically. The king tried to set fire to the Roman camp, fought small skirmishes with the Roman cavalry and light troops, but failed to provoke the Romans into a larger cavalry battle near Krannon, south of Larisa. Perseus then retreated, and the consul swung north again, reaching the territory of Phalanna in Perrhaebia. Here the king managed to ambush a large Roman foraging party with his cavalry and Thracian and Cretan light infantry. Livius claims that 1.000 carts full of supplies and 600 men were captured by the Macedonians. Perseus was elated by this success and now rode to a Roman outpost that was defended by a tribune and some 800 Roman soldiers. The tribune quickly fled to a hill and formed up his men in ring formation, protecting themselves with their shields against the Macedonian missiles. The Macedonian light troops used a new kind of missile weapon called the kestros, basically a large dart launched with a sling (see the image here). Many Romans were injured and things were beginning to look very bleak for them. And yet they refused to surrender.

Veles (source: Europa Barbarorum)

Fortunately for the Romans, some foragers had managed to escape and had alerted the consul. Crassus immediately force-marched his cavalry and light troops to the hill, with the legions following close behind. The consul arrived just in time. After a brief fight, the Macedonian cavalry and the light infantry were put to flight. It was just a minor success, but at least the consul had managed to avert a disaster. Perseus now retired to his winter quarters. The consul for his part marched further north to Gonnoi. The city occupied a strategic position, being a gateway to the Vale of Tempe and the Macedonian heartland behind it. But Gonnoi was much too well defended to assault. The consul contented himself with sacking cities like Malloia, before returning to and capturing Larisa. The campaigning season was now over. Eumenes and his brother Attalos had already been sent home, and the consul decided to withdraw to Boeotia to make his winter quarters there.

The first year in Greece had hardly been a raging success. To make matters worse, the Senate had learned that the other consul, Gaius Cassius Longinus, had basically gone rogue. Longinus had left his province of Gallia Cisalpina and was trying to take his army through Illyria to Macedonia to join the fight against Perseus. It was a crazy plan, as most of the land route was not even under Roman control. Envoys from Aquileia had reported the consul’s actions to the Senate, and the senators had responded furiously. Three envoys were immediately sent after the consul to recall him, and to order him not to make war on anyone without the consent of the Senate.

Complaints from Spain

Map of Spain (source: Ancient World Mapping Center. “À-la-carte”, CC BY 4.0)

A most interesting development from a constitutional point of view was the trial of several former governors of the Spanish provinces this year. Envoys from a number of allied tribes from both Hispania Citerior and Hispania Ulterior had complained to the Senate about the way they had been treated and governed by Roman magistrates. These had been avaricious and arrogant, at least according to the tribes. The Senate seemed to take these complaints seriously. The praetor Lucius Canuleius was ordered to set up special ad hoc courts of five judges (recuperatores) each. These were to be recruited from the senatorial order. Some twenty years later, in 149 BCE, the Romans would set up a permanent court to judge cases of extortion by provincial governors, the so-called quaestio de repetundis or extortion court. But for now they made do with temporary courts that were presided over by the praetor. The envoys were not Roman citizens, so they lacked the power to prosecute the former governors themselves. Instead, the Senate granted them the right to select patroni to represent them. Among these patroni were many influential Romans, such as Marcus Porcius Cato, the consul of 195 BCE and censor of 184 BCE.

The first to be put on trial was Marcus Titinius. He had governed Hispania Citerior and had been awarded a triumph for his victories (see 174 BCE). His trial was the first known case against a Roman governor, and it ended in deception for the tribes when Titinius was acquitted. There were also trials against Publius Furius Philus and Marcus Matienus, who had served as governors of Nearer and Further Spain respectively. Apparently both men expected to be declared guilty, because they went into voluntary exile in Praeneste and Tibur. Rumours now began to circulate that the patroni felt that making an example of these two men was enough to satisfy their clients. The praetor Canuleius even departed for his province head over heels, so no more trials against former governors were held. The Senate did prohibit future governors from fixing the price of grain provided by the Spanish allies, which they usually set either too high or too low.

Another important development this year was the founding of the first Latin colony in Spain, at Carteia in the south of the peninsula. Some 4.000 children of Roman soldiers and Spanish women were settled here. Since illegitimate children took the nationality of the mother, these children did not possess Roman citizenship.


Primary sources

Secondary sources

  • Adrian Goldsworthy, In the Name of Rome, p. 84-89.


[1] Livius 42.52.

[2] Cf. Livius 42.35.

[3] Livius 42.51.

[4] Also spelled ‘Larissa’; the name means ‘citadel’.

[5] See Adrian Goldsworthy, In the Name of Rome, p. 89.

[6] See Polybius 27.9; Plutarchus, The Life of Aemilius 9.2.


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