Policeman of the Mediterranean: The Years 159-154 BCE


  • The consul Marcus Fulvius Nobilior defeats the Ligurian Eleates and is awarded a triumph (159 BCE);
  • Publius Cornelius Scipio Nasica and Marcus Popilius Laenas are elected censors (159 BCE);
  • The Senate twice refuses to release the 1.000 Achaean hostages (159 and 155 BCE);
  • The Romans for the moment decide to offer the new Seleucid ruler Demetrios I Soter their friendship (159 BCE);
  • King Ariarathes V of Cappadocia is expelled from his kingdom by his brother Orophernes, but restored by the Senate; the two brothers are told to share the throne (158-157 BCE);
  • The consul Gaius Marcius Figulus campaigns against the Illyrian Delmatae and besieges their stronghold of Delminium (156 BCE);
  • King Attalos II of Pergamum appeals to Rome for help against King Prusias II of Bithynia and the Galatians; the Roman response is initially lukewarm (156 BCE);
  • The consul Marcus Claudius Marcellus defeats the Ligurian Apuani and is awarded a triumph (155 BCE);
  • The consul Publius Cornelius Scipio Nasica captures Delminium and is awarded a triumph (155 BCE);
  • Representatives from three great philosophical schools in Athens visit the Senate to get a fine of 500 talents reduced (155 BCE);
  • A Lusitanian chieftain named Punicus defeats the praetor Manius Manilius; start of the Lusitanian War (155 BCE);
  • The consul Lucius Postumius Albinus dies amid rumours of poisoning by his wife Publilia (154 BCE);
  • The consul Quintus Opimius comes to the aid of Massilia and defeats the Ligurian Oxybii and Deciates (154 BCE);
  • Marcus Valerius Messalla and Gaius Cassius Longinus are elected censors (154 BCE);
  • A Roman committee of five tries to set up Ptolemaios VIII Physcon as the new ruler of Cyprus, but fails. Physcon invades the island, but is captured by his brother, Ptolemaios VI (154 BCE);
  • Roman diplomats manage to finally end the war between Pergamum and Bithynia (154 BCE);
  • Punicus defeats the praetor Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus, but is later killed in action and succeeded by Caesarus (154 BCE);
  • The Senate orders the Belli to tear down the walls of Segeda, which they refuse; start of the Second Celtiberian War (154 BCE).

In the years discussed here, the Romans did not fight any major foreign wars. That does not mean that these years were entirely peaceful. One of the consuls of 159 BCE, Marcus Fulvius Nobilior, campaigned against the Ligurian Eleates. The campaign must have been a success, as the consul was allowed to celebrate a triumph the next year. The various Ligurian tribes continued to be a nuisance to the Romans, and the consul of 155 BCE Marcus Claudius Marcellus – consul for the second time – fought a campaign against the tribe of the Apuani, for which he was also awarded a triumph.

Across the Alps

Picture of the Mont Blanc in the Alps (photo: 4000er).

There were more campaigns against Ligurian tribes in 154 BCE. The city of Massilia, a long-time Roman ally in Southern Gaul, appealed for help when it found itself under attack from two Ligurian tribes, the Oxybii and the Deciates. The tribes not only threatened Massilia itself, but were also besieging two of its colonies in the region, the cities of Nikaia (modern Nice) and Antipolis (modern Antibes). The Romans responded by sending a diplomatic delegation to the region. The Ligurians, however, were not in the diplomatic mood and tried to prevent the Romans from leaving their ships. Only the envoy Gaius Flaminius – possibly the son of the consul of 187 BCE – managed to reach the shore, only to discover that the tribes were trying to pillage his baggage. When his slaves and freedmen tried to prevent this, they were attacked and Flaminius himself was wounded.

The Senate was furious because of this attack on an inviolable diplomat and responded by sending the consul Quintus Opimius to the region to strike back at the tribes. This may actually have been the first Roman campaign against the Ligurians living on the other side of the Alps, in what is now the Provence region of France. Opimius was a ‘new man’ and eager to prove himself. He first marched on Aigitna, the town where the incident with the Roman diplomats had occurred. The town was stormed and its inhabitants sold as slaves. The consul then swiftly defeated both the Oxybii and the Deciates in two pitched battles. The tribes surrendered, and Massilia was allowed to annex much of their land. Even though the campaign was a complete Roman success, there is no record of the consul being awarded a triumph.

A Dalmatian campaign

Cybele and Attys (Museo Archeologico, Venice).

In 157 BCE, an Illyrian tribe known as the Delmatae or Dalmatae had begun attacking tribes allied to Rome. Envoys from the island of Issa (now Vis, Croatia) and from the tribe of the Daorsi complained to the Senate in Rome, which sent Gaius Fannius Strabo – the consul of 161 BCE – to Illyria to investigate. The Delmatae refused to speak with him, so the next year the Senate sent the consul Gaius Marcius Figulus to the region with an army. Figulus – the name means ‘potter’ – was an experienced commander. In 169 BCE, at the height of the Third Macedonian War, he had commanded the Roman fleet. He had been consul before in 162 BCE, but the election had been declared invalid and both he and his fellow consul Publius Cornelius Scipio Nasica had been forced to step down.[1] Figulus must therefore have been eager to prove himself. However, his campaign got off to a bad start when the Delmatae surprised his army while it was laying out its camp. The Romans were unprepared and were quickly defeated, but the defeat turned out to be more humiliating than serious. The consul rallied his forces and continued his campaign.

After taking several smaller town, the Roman army marched on the most important city in the region, which was called Delminium or Dalminion (in modern Bosnia). Delminium was a formidable obstacle. It was well defended and a siege would take many months. Appianus claims that Figulus managed to burn down much of Delminium by shooting burning sticks of wood into the city with his catapults, but the consul did not succeed in taking the stronghold before his term of office was over. Figulus was now succeeded by Publius Cornelius Scipio Nasica, the same Scipio Nasica who had held the consulship with Figulus in 162 BCE. Nasica was from an illustrious family. His father had received the sacred stone representing Cybele or the Magna Mater in 204 BCE and had subsequently held the consulship in 191 BCE. Nasica himself had earned his spurs during the Third Macedonian War (see 168 BCE) and had served as censor in 159-158 BCE (see below). He too must have been eager for glory after his botched-up consulship seven years previously. Although no details of his campaign have survived, it was Nasica who ultimately managed to capture Delminium and subjugate the Delmatae. According to the Fasti, he was awarded a triumph for his victories.

The Forum Romanum today.

Domestic affairs

These were fairly quiet years on the domestic front. Censors were elected in 159 BCE and 154 BCE respectively. Publius Cornelius Scipio Nasica and Marcus Popilius Laenas (the troublesome consul of 173 BCE) registered 328.316 citizens. The pontifex maximus Marcus Aemilius Lepidus was again nominated princeps senatus, a position he had held since 179 BCE. The censor Nasica was credited with setting up the first water clock or clepsydra in Rome.

The next pair of censors were Marcus Valerius Messalla and Gaius Cassius Longinus. They had been consul in 161 BCE and 171 BCE respectively. 324.000 citizens were registered in the census. For the sixth and final time, Marcus Aemilius Lepidus was nominated princeps senatus. He would die in 152 BCE and the position of pontifex maximus would be vacant for two years. Lepidus was afterwards succeeded by the aforementioned Scipio Nasica, who would also become the new princeps senatus in about 147 BCE.

Envoys from the Achaean League twice tried to secure the release of the 1.000 Achaean hostages that were still held in towns in Etruria. In 159 BCE, the Senate had rejected the request, but in 155 BCE, it was inclined to support a proposal to give the Achaeans freedom of movement, but at the same time keep them in Italy a little longer. This was basically a compromise between releasing them altogether and keeping them in custody. However, the presiding praetor Aulus Postumius (who would become consul in 151 BCE) refused to put the compromise to the vote. The result was that the hostages were not released.

The Senate House – Curia – on the Forum Romanum.

Also in 155 BCE, a memorable event took place in Rome. Representatives from three great philosophical school in Athens visited the Senate. Athens had attacked the city of Oropos, for which it had been punished severely. The Romans had appointed Sikyon, a member of the Achaean League, to judge the matter and Sikyon had imposed a fine of 500 talents on the Athenians. Three great Greek philosophers now tried to convince the Senate to reduce the fine. Karneades represented the Academy, Diogenes the Stoa and Kritolaos the Peripatetic school. No representatives from the pleasure-loving Epicurean school travelled to Rome; this philosophy was mistrusted in Italy at the time. It is not inconceivable that many Epicureans were among the philosophers and rhetoricians that had been expelled from Rome in 161 BCE.[2] The three representatives that did appear in the Senate made a great impression. With a senator named Gaius Acilius acting as an interpreter for those senators who did not speak Greek well enough, they managed to get the fine lowered to 100 talents.

In 154 BCE, the death of the acting consul Lucius Postumius Albinus sent a shock through the city of Rome. Soon rumours of poisoning began to circulate. His widow Publilia was ultimately charged with murder, turned over to her family and executed. No motive for the murder has ever been established and poor Publilia may very well have been innocent.

Diplomatic activities

The “Holy Maccabean Martyrs”, the teacher Eleazar and the woman Solomonia and her seven sons. On the right Saint Barbara. Fresco from the Santa Maria Antiqua, Rome.

Seleucid Empire
The new Seleucid king Demetrios I Soter had tried to win favour with the Romans by sending the man who had murdered the Roman envoy Gnaeus Octavius to Rome in chains (see 166-160 BCE). A diplomatic delegation sent from Syria arrived in Rome in early 159 BCE. The Seleucid envoys were given a lukewarm reception by the Senate. The senators accepted an expensive crown worth 10.000 staters, but refused the prisoners presented to them, the murderer Leptines and one of his supporters. In this way, the murder of Octavius would not be avenged and the slate not wiped clean, indicating that the Romans could continue to hold Demetrios accountable for this crime and use it against him if they saw fit. For now, Demetrios was given Roman friendship, but the Senate would later support his rival, one Alexander Balas, who claimed to be a son of the late Antiochos IV (he may have indeed been a bastard son).

In the Seleucid Empire itself, things were now fairly quiet. In Judea, the High Priest Alkimos had died in 159 BCE. He had been a supporter of Demetrios and his general Bacchides, and a fervent opponent of the orthodox Maccabees. According to 1 Maccabees, Alkimos had ordered to tear down the walls of the inner court of the Temple of Jerusalem and had subsequently suffered a stroke, from which he died. The author of 1 Maccabees obviously saw the High Priest’s fate as a punishment from God. Whether or not the story of his horrible death is true does not matter much. Alkimos was dead and Bacchides retreated from Judea. Two years later, in 157 BCE, after another failed Seleucid invasion, Bacchides and the Jewish leader Jonatan Apphus – brother of Judas Maccabeus – came to terms. Peace was signed, Bacchides returned to Syria and Jonatan happily continued his campaign of religious cleansing, terrorising more liberal Jews into living according to the Torah.

Tombs of the Kings, Paphos, Cyprus.

Ptolemaic Egypt
Although the Romans had awarded Cyprus to Ptolemaios VIII as early as 162 BCE, the island continued to be ruled by his older brother Ptolemaios VI. In the summer of 154 BCE, the younger Ptolemaios – nicknamed Physcon (‘Fatty’) – travelled to Rome to complain to the Senate. Physcon accused his brother of an assassination attempt and even showed his scars as proof. The Senate, which was clearly on the younger brother’s side, refused to even listen to envoys sent by the older brother. Fed up with Ptolemaios VI, the Romans set up a committee of five men to escort Physcon to Cyprus and transfer the island to him. When the committee’s mission failed, an infuriated Physcon tried to capture Cyprus by force. He was, however, defeated by forces loyal to his brother and subsequently captured. The older Ptolemaios could have executed his troublesome brother, but instead pardoned him, sent him back to Kyrene and allowed him to marry his daughter Cleopatra Thea (the wedding presumably never took place; Physcon later married his sister Cleopatra II and her daughter Cleopatra III – the name Cleopatra was fairly common).

In 158 BCE, King Ariarathes V of Cappadocia was expelled from his kingdom by his brother Orophernes, who had received support from the Seleucid king Demetrios I. Demetrios was reportedly angry at Ariarathes because of the latter’s refusal to marry his sister Laodike, the widow of King Perseus of Macedonia (see 178 BCE). Ariarathes had turned down the offer because he did not want to offend the Romans, and Demetrios had responded by aiding his brother against him. During the consulship of Sextus Julius Caesar[3] and Lucius Aurelius Orestes, which was in 157 BCE, the ousted king pleaded his case in Rome. The Senate decided to support Ariarathes against his brother and ordered that the king be reinstated. It also decided that the two brothers should rule together. No army was sent to Cappadocia, but Ariarathes received help from Pergamum and ultimately won back his crown, although he had to share it with a man he by now probably hated.

Statue of Cleopatra II or III (Rijkmuseum van Oudheden, Leiden).

King Eumenes II Soter of Pergamum died in late 159 BCE or early 158 BCE. Although the king had a young son of about 11 – the future Attalos III -, he was succeeded by his younger brother Attalos II Philadelphos (‘brother-lover’). In 156 BCE, Attalos found himself embroiled in a war against Pergamum’s traditional enemy Bithynia, led by its king, Prusias II. The Bithynians were supported by the Galatian tribes living in the region. They defeated the Pergamenians on the battlefield, forcing Attalos to appeal to Rome for help. The king sent his brother Athenaios to the Senate, which decided to send a small delegation to Asia Minor to investigate the situation. When they had learned what was going on between the kings of Pergamum and Bithynia, a second delegation was sent to the East to stop the war. Meanwhile, in 155 BCE, the Bithynians had reached the walls of Pergamum itself. An attack on the port of Elaia failed, but Prusias had his men ravage the countryside. Even temples were pillaged before the king decided to withdraw to Bithynia. On the way back, his army suffered from hunger and dysentery and the king also lost much of his fleet in a storm.

By this time the envoys from the second Roman delegation must have reached Bithynia. In spite of his setbacks, King Prusias treated the envoys with contempt. The Senate was furious when it heard about the way the diplomats had been treated and took the unusual step of sending a committee of ten men – decemviri – to Asia Minor. The committee was to force Prusias to end the war immediately and pay an indemnity to Attalos. In early 154 BCE, King Attalos began to fight back. He had assembled a large army himself and had also received reinforcements from King Ariarathes of Cappadocia and from King Mithridates IV of Pontos. Even in the face of all this opposition, Prusias again treated the Roman delegation arrogantly and refused to obey the decemviri. The Romans now had enough: they cancelled the treaty between Rome and Bithynia and left the king to rot. Attalos’ brother Athenaios began raiding the territories loyal to Prusias, and a few months later a fourth (!) Roman delegation landed in Asia Minor and managed to bring the war between the two regional powers to a close.

A new war in Spain

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

In Hispania Ulterior, a Lusitanian chieftain named Punicus had led raids by his people against tribes loyal to the Romans. The Lusitanians were not a unified nation, but rather a loosely associated collection of tribes in the southwest of the Iberian peninsula. Punicus’ name suggest that he may have been of Carthaginian descent. In 155 BCE, Punicus’ forces defeated those of the praetor Manius Manilius and a year later those of his successor, Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus. The Lusitanians made an alliance with the Vettones and raided deep into the territories of the descendants of Carthaginian settlers who were allied to Rome.[4] When Punicus was killed in battle, he was succeeded by Caesarus. The conflict he started became known as the Lusitanian War.

The province of Hispania Citerior had been relatively quiet ever since Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus had put things in order there in 179 BCE. But in 154 BCE, twenty-five years later, the Celtiberians were up in arms again. The reason for the conflict was simple: Roman arrogance and untrustworthiness. Like the Lusitanians, the Celtiberians were not a nation, but a collection of independent tribes that shared a common language and culture. One tribe, the Belli, had been growing more powerful over the years. The Belli had their capital at Segeda, between modern Belmonte de Gracián and Mara in the Zaragoza province. They had forced smaller and less powerful tribes such as the Titti to resettle within their own territories and had then surrounded Segeda with a circuit wall that was seven kilometres long. Building a wall had not been prohibited by the treaties signed with Gracchus, but the Senate nevertheless ordered the Belli to tear it down. It then ordered them to provide auxiliary troops for the Roman army. The Belli refused, as they had previously been exempted from this obligation, but the arrogant Senate replied that it was free to give and take away privileges as it pleased. This was the proverbial spark in the powder keg. The Belli rebelled and the Second Celtiberian War was on.


Primary sources


[1] The incident is mentioned by Plutarchus, Life of Marcellus 5.1-3. The consul who had presided over the election was Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus. He had made an error while taking the auspices.

[2] See Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights 15.11.

[3] The first of the Julii Caesares to hold the consulship.

[4] Appianus uses the term Βλαστοφοίνικας to describe these people (The Spanish Wars 56). It seems to mean something along the lines of ‘descended from Phoenicians’.


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