Just spent the day at Archea Pidna (Ancient Pydna), the site of the ancient city of Pydna, where the famed Battle of Pydna was fought in 168 B.C. I’m writing this from my balcony overlooking the Aegean Sea, where I’ve just had a swim in the perfect water. This is perfect resort town, with palm trees, great food and wine, sandy beaches, and none of the tourist traffic you’d expect from such a paradise. And because it lacks the fame and cachet of islands like Santorini, it’s unbelievably cheap! Even if you don’t plan on studying ancient battlefields, Archea Pidna is a great vacation spot.
But, of course, we’re not here to vacation. We’re here to walk the battlefield of Pydna, which ended the third of Rome’s four Macedonian Wars. The battle was fought between Rome and the Antigonids, the dynasty founded by Antigonus Monopthalmus (Antigonus the One-Eyed), one of Alexander the Great’s generals who carved out a piece of his empire when Alexander died in 323 B.C.
The significance of the Battle of Pydna is under-appreciated. The battle isn’t as well-known as more legendary ancient contests, such as Cannae or Gaugamela, but that isn’t because it doesn’t deserve it. The Antigonid defeat at Pydna saw the end of that dynasty as a real political power. Rome soon absorbed Macedon as a province, and the legacy forged by the famous states of Classical Greece, then raised to greatness of empire by Alexander the Great, was finally snuffed out, never again to arise. It was a sea-change in the military, political, and cultural history of the Mediterranean.
Scholarship on this battle hasn’t been significantly updated in English since 1984, when the British scholar N.G.L. Hammond published the definitive work on the subject in the Journal of Hellenic Studies. The piece goes into intense detail based on a walking tour of the presumed battlefield. He places the Antigonid line with its back to the Salt Pans that still exist today, with its right on what is now the harbor at Thermaikos Kolpos.
Hammond’s survey of the ground, and his rational and comprehensive reckoning of the sources is invaluable, and we have built upon that legacy in our exploration of the battlefield. That said, we disagree with Hammond about the relative positions of the opposing armies, and have interpreted the reconstruction of the battle, based on the field and the literary sources, very differently. We are not going to give away the whole farm here, as we hope to publish our findings shortly, but we can at least summarize the battle from what the sources say (see my last blog post if you’d like to read the sources for yourself) and share some of our pictures. Here’s what we know from our main literary sources: Plutarch, Livy, Appian, Polybius, Frontinus, and Zonaras (Cassius Dio).
The Treaty of Tempe, which ended the Second Macedonian War in 196 B.C., inflicted humiliating peace terms on Philip V, and that resentment curdled in the Antigonid court, sowing an atmosphere of distrust that eventually resulted in the execution of Philip V's son Demetrius, recently returned from Rome as a hostage. On Philip V's death in 179 B.C., his remaining son Perseus inherited the throne, his father's ambition to restore Macedon to her former glory, and his father's hatred of Rome. Perseus moved quickly to expand the Antigonid reach and to check adversaries. A few of these moves combined to convince Rome that the only recourse was yet another war against the Antigonids. These moves included the retaking of the gold mines at Pangeus from the king of the Sapaei Thracians, Abrupolis, eventually driving him out of his own lands. Abrupolis was a Roman ally, as was the Pergamene king Eumenes II, against whom Perseus made a failed assassination attempt.
The Roman commander at Pydna was Lucius Aemilius Paulus, whose children were taught by the historian Polybius, one of our main sources for the battle. Facing Paulus was Perseus, the possibly illegitimate son of Philip V, the commander at Cynoscephalae, a battle covered by LEGION VS. PHALANX that we’ll be researching on this trip. The sources, which are clearly pro-Roman, portray Paulus as officious, uncompromising, brave and self-confident, while Perseus comes across as cowardly, entitled and weak.
Like Cynoscephalae, Pydna was an accidental engagement, sparked by brawl over a runaway pack animal. Unlike Cynoscephalae, the two armies were on ground of their choosing (flat ground for the Antigonid phalanx, and foothills for the Roman legion), and engaged in a standoff while they sought an advantage over the other before committing to an engagement. As with Cynoscephalae, the battle swung back and forth between the two sides. Pydna is generally considered to be the ultimate legion versus phalanx battle, testing the two formations under conditions relatively ideal to both, and allowing them to illustrate their advantages and disadvantages to an observer.
Here’s a timeline for how the sources say the Battle of Pydna unfolded:
- Perseus originally formed a battle line along the Mavrolungo Elpeus River, checking the Romans with their back to the Thermaic Gulf.
- Paulus came up with a ruse: march his colonel Scipio Nasica south, making it seem as though he would take ship and land to the north of Perseus’ army, flanking him. Instead, Scipio actually marched around Mount Olympus, emerging to the north of Perseus’ army via the Petra pass.
- Perseus, frightened by this flanking maneuver, withdrew and formed a battle line outside the city of Pydna.
- The two armies held position. Paulus’ troops were up in the foothills of Mount Olocrus, broken ground that better suited the legion, and Perseus’ troops were on flat ground, which better suited the phalanx.
- The armies were camped within view of each other (more likely within view of each other’s campfire smoke, pickets, and outriders), neither one willing to make the first move.
- Finally, a Roman mule, part of a watering party, broke loose and ran to the river. When the Romans caught up with the animal, they found a number of Perseus’ Thracians had gotten ahold of the animal and were making off with it.
- A brawl ensued, with reinforcements being committed by both sides.
- Perseus, likely seeing this as an opportunity to bring the Romans onto the ground more favorable to him, marched his whole army out and provoked a general engagement.
- Paulus, faced with the choice between letting his troops involved in the brawl be slaughtered, or risking a general engagement, decides to risk the general engagement. He marches his troops out and forms them up to fight.
- The Romans get the worst of it, and are pushed slowly back.
- The Romans send their elephants and cavalry to charge the Antigonid left. This charge is successful, allowing these mounted troops to gain possession of the enemy flank.
- As the Romans fall back, the Anitigonid phalanx is drawn up into the foothills of Mt. Olocrus. The broken ground and the overextension of the Antigonid line results in gaps in their phalanx. A pike-armed phalanx is only effective if it maintains cohesion. As it breaks apart, the Roman centurions see the advantage, and lead their men into the gaps. Closing to sword range, the Roman legionary is much more effective with his 2-foot sword than an Antigonid phalangite armed with a 21-foot pike.
- At the same time, the Roman right over laps the Antigonid left, and flanks it.
Forced to fight the Romans as close-quarters, the Antigonid phalanx drops their pikes and draws their swords. To an Antigonid pikeman, the sword is a last-resort, backup weapon. To a Roman legionary, the sword is his bread and butter. The Antigonids don’t stand a chance.
- The elephants and cavalry, now in possession of the Antigonid backfield, turn into the army’s rear.
- The Antigonids break and run, with massive casualties. Some sources report as many as 20,000 Antigonid dead.
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