How and when did Rome conquer Greece?

Rome's conquest of Greece

History of Rome’s conquest of Greece

Ancient Rome’s conquest of Greece did not happen overnight; rather, it was one that occurred over a period of several years, beginning around the early 3rd century BC and culminating in the late 2nd century BC. It must also be noted that Rome’s conquest of the various Greek city-states did not only take military approach but it involved a lot of political maneuvering and diplomacy.

The conquest of civilizations and regions is a ubiquitous phenomenon in world history. So the question that begs to be answered is: What made the conquest of Greece by the Roman Republic such a decisive occurrence in human history? And how did Rome’s conquest of Greece shape culture and arts in the region and beyond?

In the article below, World History Edu explores the history, causes and consequences of the Roman Republic’s conquest of the various Greek city-states.

Greek warrior king Pyrrhus of Epirus’s campaign against a rising Roman Republic

The Pyrrhic War was a series of battles fought between Rome and the Greek city-state of Epirus, led by King Pyrrhus, in the late 3rd century BC. The war lasted from 280 to 275 BC and was named after King Pyrrhus of Epirus (c. 319-272 BC), who was famous for his victories but also for the heavy losses he suffered in achieving them.

Pyrrhus was invited by the Greek city-state of Tarentum (present day Taranto), in southern Italy, to intervene in their conflict with Rome.

The warrior king of Epirus, who was a skilled military leader and had already defeated the Romans in a previous battle, saw an opportunity to expand his influence in Italy and accepted the invitation.

Pyrrhus – A marble bust of Pyrrhus from the Villa of the Papyri at the Roman site of Herculaneum, now in the National Archaeological Museum of Naples, Italy

The war consisted of several battles, in which Pyrrhus won some impressive victories over the Romans, but at a very high cost. His troops suffered heavy losses, and he found it increasingly difficult to replace them, while the Romans were able to replenish their forces with relative ease.

Despite Pyrrhus’ victories in a number of battles, including at Heraclea in 280 BC and Ausculum in 279 BC, the war was ultimately won by Rome, who outlasted the Epirot army and forced Pyrrhus to withdraw from Italy.

Pyrrhus of Epirus

Pyrrhus of Epirus fought against not just the Romans, but he also locked horns with the North Africa’s Carthage in Sicily, the Spartans, and the Macedonians. The king of Epirus had the ability to crawl victory even though the odds were stacked against him.

The Greek king then went on to fight other battles and wars in places like Sicily and mainland Greece, but the Pyrrhic victories he achieved in Italy would become famous for the high price he paid for them.

The Pyrrhic War is significant in history because it marked Rome’s emergence as a dominant power in the Mediterranean, and it demonstrated the limits of Pyrrhus’ military strategy, which relied on winning battles at any cost, rather than on achieving strategic objectives.

Ultimately, Tarentum would fall into the hands of the Romans in 272 BC, marking the start of Rome’s hegemony over southern Italy (formerly known as Magna Graecia). This would in turn serve as spring board for Rome to move into Greek territories, either through diplomacy or military conquests.

Greek warrior king Pyrrhus and his elephants. War elephants were the ancient world equivalent of battle tanks.

Did you know?

The Pyrrhic War (280-275 BC) was the first-known time the Romans came against war elephants. In the ancient times, war elephants were the equivalent of modern day tanks as their unpredictability often left the opponent forces confused.

The Pyrrhic War was also the first time Rome faced off against a well-oiled professional mercenary from the Hellenistic world.

Following Rome’s ultimate victory in the Pyrrhic War, Ptolemy II, ruler of Egypt, entered into a diplomatic relationship with Rome. This further demonstrated Rome’s rising power in the Mediterranean.

Born in either 319 or 318 in the Greek city-state of Epirus, King Pyrrhus of Epirus is considered by many as one of the greatest generals to emerge after the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC. Known for his military prowess and charisma, he managed to expand his territories to Epidamnus (in modern-day Albania) to Ambracia (in modern-day Greece). the The phrase “Pyrrhic victory”, which means a success that comes at a very high price, was derived from his name.

The Illyro-Roman Wars set the stage for a fierce conflict between Rome and Greece

Map of the Mediterranean in 218 BC

How the Mediterranean was in 218 BC

The Mediterranean world in the 3rd century BC was a hotbed for bloody conflicts and political upheavals. At the time the two blocks of power were Rome in the west and the various Hellenistic kingdom in the east.

Rome had announced itself with not just a victory in the Pyrrhic Wars but also a victory in the First Punic War (264-241 BC). The latter saw Rome announce its naval dominance in the Mediterranean by defeating its North African rival the Carthaginians and claiming the island of Sicily and its surrounding waters.

To the east, three great Hellenistic kingdoms – Macedon, Ptolemaic Egypt and the Seleucid Empire – continuously fought among one another for dominance in their region.

In between those two blocks were places like Pergamon, the Greek city-states and later the Illyrian Kingdom. It was only a matter of time before Rome would try and bring those smaller states into its orbit of influence.

The Second Illyrian War

The First Illyrian War was a conflict between the Roman Republic and the Illyrian Kingdom, which took place from 229 BC to 228 BC. The Illyrians were a group of tribes that inhabited the western Balkans, in what is now modern-day Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Montenegro, and Serbia.

The war was fought over Roman concerns about piracy and Illyrian raids on Roman ships and coastal towns. Rome sent a fleet to the Adriatic Sea, which was commanded by the consul Lucius Postumius Albinus. The Romans quickly achieved naval supremacy and were able to blockade the Illyrian ports, forcing the Illyrians to negotiate a peace treaty.

However, the peace was short-lived, and the Illyrians resumed their attacks on Roman shipping. In response, Rome launched a second campaign against the Illyrians in 220 BC. This marked the beginning of the Second Illyrian War (220-219 BC).

READ MORE: Answers to Popular Questions about the Punic Wars

Roman general Lucius Aemilius Paullus Macedonicus (c. 229-160 BC)

Roman general Lucius Aemilius Paullus Macedonicus (c. 229-160 BC) conquered Macedon in the Third Macedonian War

The Illyrians, led by Demetrius of Pharos, had been raiding Roman ships and coastal cities, which prompted Rome to declare war. The Roman commander in charge of the campaign was consul Lucius Aemilius Paullus, who led a large army and navy to confront the Illyrian forces.

The war consisted of several battles, in which the Romans were initially successful, but they soon faced a serious setback when their fleet was destroyed in a surprise attack by the Illyrians. The Romans, however, were able to regroup and launch a counter-attack, which resulted in the capture of the Illyrian capital and the defeat of their army.

Illyro-Roman Wars

Demetrius of Pharos becomes an advisor in the court of Macedonian king

Following his defeat at the hands of the Romans, Demetrius of Pharos fled to the South and arrived at the Adriatic port town of Actium, where he was welcomed by Philip V of Macedon. The former ruler of Illyria became a key advisor to Philip.

And when news broke out of Hannibal of Carthage’s victory over the Romans in the Battle of Lake Trasimene (217 BC) during the Second Punic War (218-201 BC), the two men decided to capitalize on Rome’s preoccupation with the North Africans. Demetrius also saw a conflict with Rome as a chance for him to recover his lost Illyrian kingdom.

As part of his preparations for war against the Romans, Philip V of Macedon, following the advice of Demetrius, made peace with the Aetolians. The Aetolian League had challenged Macedonian hegemony during the Social War of 220-217 BC.

In the winter of 217, the Macedonian king then set about bolstering his naval capabilities by building more than 100 small fast Illyrian warships (i.e. lembi) that could accommodate about 45 soldiers and rowers each.

Philip also began moving towards Rome-conquered Illyrian territories and its environs. He hoped to capture the Illyrian coasts and use it as a launching pad to attack the Romans, who were busy fighting the Carthaginians. In the summer of 216, Philip attempted to capture Illyrian coastal region, only for him to retreat when he heard that the Romans had dispatched a mighty Roman fleet.

In the initial stages of the Second Punic War (218-201 BC), the Roman Republic suffered a series of defeats at the hands of Hannibal of Carthage. The North African general even crossed the Alps to invade Italy. Hannibal and his Carthaginian army became a thorn in the flesh of the Romans.

History and Major Facts about the Battle of Allia

The Punic-Macedonian Treaty

Philip was pleased when the news of Rome’s loss at the hands of Hannibal at Cannae in 216 BC. Immediately, he sent envoys to Hannibal asking for a formal alliance.

Struck in 215 BC, the Punic-Macedonian treaty was basically a defense pact agreement, with both sides pledging to support each other against the Romans. In the treaty, they agreed that in the event of Rome’s capitulation, all the Illyrian territories would be restored to Demetrius of Pharos.

Hannibal Barca

Hannibal – the famed Carthaginian general who almost brought Rome to its knee.

Unfortunately for Philip, Rome intercepted the emissaries that were carrying the Punic-Macedonian treaty. Rome fully discovered all of Philip and Hannibal’s intentions. As a result, Rome bolstered its defense of the Italian Adriatic coast by sending additional warships there.

The Roman commander of the warships, Publius Valerius Flaccus, was tasked to monitor the situation and do everything within his power to halt the Macedonians from advancing into the Adriatic coast.

Philip V of Macedon attacks on coastal Illyria results in the break out of the First Macedonian War

Emboldened by the fact that Carthaginians were keeping Rome very busy, Philip V of Macedon headed for Illyria coastal region and attacked Corcyra in 215 BC. The attacks marked the beginning of the First Macedonian War.

In 214, Philip continued to intensify his attacks on Illyria, sending about 120 galleys up the Straits of Otranto. He went on to capture Oricum and later laid siege to Apollonia. The two cities called for help from Rome, who ordered Roman commander Marcus Valerius Laevinus to lead an Adriatic fleet to lift the siege of Apollonia and force Philip’s forces out of Oricum.

Philip V of Macedon (reign – 221-179 BC)

Defeated, Philip and his remaining forces went over the mountains and headed back to Macedon. Between 213 and 212 BC, Philip could only make his military advances against Illyria by land. He knew not to venture to the coast as the Roman fleet was alert to any naval movements by the Macedonians. Regardless, Philip was able to capture inland areas such as Parthini, Dassretis, and Atintani.

As the Romans were busy with the Second Punic War, they lacked the manpower to neutralize Philip V of Macedon and his renewed attacks in the Adriatic Sea in the later part of 212. The Macedonian king would go on to capture the coastal fortress of Lissus, hoping to use there as staging point to aid the Carthaginians in their fight against Rome.

Rome came to the stark realization that Philip V posed a huge threat. Additionally, Rome’s forces were also spread thin. Therefore, rather than use military approach, the Romans resorted to diplomacy. They were able to secure an alliance with other Greek city-states to fight against Philip V’s Macedonian forces. A treaty was struck between the Romans and the anti-Macedonian Aetolian League in 211 BC. The Aetolian League, who were very war weary, agreed to resume their hostilities against the Macedonians. In return for their support, the Aetolians would receive any territory acquired from Philip.

For example, Roman commander Laevinus captured the main town of Zacynthus in the Ionian Sea, the island of Nasos, and Phocian Anticyra. He handed over those territories to the Aetolians.

Philip V of Macedon and the Aetolians

It must be noted that the likes of Elis, Messenia, Sparta, and Pergamon all joined the anti-Macedonia Aetolian League to fight against Philip.

In 201 BC, Philip successfully defeated the Aetolian alliance to take Echinus. In the months that followed, he captured Phalara (located in modern day Stylida in Greece). The Aetolians, on the other hand, took Aegina.

In 209 BC, after receiving calls for help from the Achaean League, Philip headed to the Peloponnesus, where he fought against Spartan and Aetolian forces. He would go on to win a couple of battles at Lamia.

Roman conquest of Greece

The Romans and the Aetolian League agreed that the latter would get any captured town or city of the Macedonians; however, the treasures would go to Romans unless the town was jointly taken. Other Aetolian allies joined alliances, including Sparta, Pergamum, Messenia, and the Illyrians. Image: Map depicting Macedon in orange, and the Aetolian League in grey. The Achaean League is in red.

After a failed attempt at brokering peace by Egypt, Athens and Rhodes, Philip and the Aetolians continued to fight each other well into 205 BC. With the war going almost perfectly the way of Philip, the Aetolians sued for peace on the conditions imposed by the Macedonians.

As the Romans could not convince the Aetolians to break their peace with Philip, they too decided to make peace with the Macedonians. The First Macedonian War therefore ended in 205 BC with the Peace of Phoenice. The Romans were pleased that they successfully prevented the Macedonians from helping Hannibal in the Second Punic War.

Achaean League

Achaean coin probably depicting a symbol of the league.

In the few years that followed after the Peace of Phoenice, Philip V of Macedon began making even more belligerent actions in the Mediterranean. His goal was to upset the balance of power in the Hellenistic world.

It was also around this time that Ptolemaic Egypt began to decline as a result of internal conflicts. Philip Decided to take advantage of Egypt’s vulnerable situation. Both Philip V and the Seleucid Empire decided to attack Egypt.

The Second Macedonian War

Fearing the worse, Rhodes and Pergamum requested help from Rome, stating that Philip V and Antiochus the Great (i.e. Antiochus III the Great) of the Seleucid Empire posed a huge threat in the Hellenistic world. And so began the Second Macedonian War (200-196 BC).

In November 200 BC, about 20,000 Roman troops arrived at Apollonia under Publius Sulpicius Galba. The Romans had about 50 warships make shore at the island of Corcyra.

Ultimately, the Romans and their Greek city-states allies defeated Philip’s Macedonian forces at the final battle at Cynoscephalae in 197. The Romans then imposed a humiliating peace terms (per the Peace of Flamininus) on Philip at the Vale of Tempe in northern Greece.

Titus Quinctius Flamininus (c. 228 – 174 BC)

Titus Quinctius Flamininus (c. 228 – 174 BC) was a Roman politician and general who played a vital role in the Roman conquest of Greece

Philip V of Macedon was required to give up all territories outside of Macedonia, including those in Asia Minor and Thrace. He was stripped off his navy except for his flagship. The Macedonians were also asked to pay a large war indemnity (around 1,000 talents) to Rome. Philip’s son was also sent to Rome as a hostage.

Basically, Rome indirectly made Macedon a protectorate. It forbade the Macedonian army from exceeding 5,000. Furthermore, Macedon had to seek Rome’s permission for a military campaign outside its borders.

Did you know?

In 188 BC, Philip’s ally Antiochus III the Great had to sign a peace treaty – the Treaty of Apamea – with the Romans and their Greek allies. Antiochus’s Seleucid Empire had locked horns with the Romans in the four-year Seleucid War (192-188 BC). Per the treaty, the Seleucid Empire had to relinquish Asia Minor to Rome’s allies. The defeat of the Seleucid Empire in 188 BC further strengthened Rome’s hegemony over the Greek city-states.

The Third Macedonian War (171-168 BC)

Roman conquest of Greece

Coin of Perseus of Macedon (reigned: 179-168 BC)

In 179 BC, King Philip V of Macedon passed away, leaving the throne to his son Perseus, a very ambitious prince who loathed Rome for the humiliating peace terms it imposed on Macedon.

In his first few years as king, Perseus (reigned: 179–168 BC) began to form alliances with various Greek city-states. This was seen by the Romans as a complete violation of the peace terms struck after the end of the Second Macedonian War. Therefore, Rome proceeded to declare war, and so began the Third Macedonian War (171–168).

Fighting mainly took place in Macedon and some parts of Thessaly. Ultimately, Rome, under the leadership of military commanders like Publius Licinius Crassus and Lucius Aemilius Paullus, defeated Perseus’ Macedonian forces at the Battle of Pydna in 168 BC. Perseus was captured by the Romans and sent as a prisoner to Rome.

Perseus of Macedon

In the aftermath of the Third Macedonian War in 168 BC, the Antigonid kingdom of Macedon was dissolved into four client republics. Those republics were subjected to Roman laws.

To make sure that Macedon does not take up arms against Rome again, the Kingdom of Macedon was broken up into four formally independent republics. Those client republics were in turn slapped with an annual tribute, which drastically weakened their economy. Additionally, the Romans sold about 150,000 Epirotes into slavery. The harsh treatment of the defeated Macedonians made a significant population of them loath the Romans.

For his victory over the Macedonians, Roman commander Aemilius was given the title “Macedonicus” by the Roman Senate. He was also honored with a Roman triumph, with the treasures from the war following behind him during the ceremony. Defeated Macedonian king Perseus followed the procession in chains.

Roman conquest of Greece

At the Battle of Pydna in 168 BC, more than 20,000 Perseus’ troops lost their lives. Rome captured about 10,500 Macedonian soldiers, including Perseus himself. Image: Perseus surrenders to Paullus. Painting by French painter Jean-François Pierre Peyron from 1802. Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest.

The Fourth Macedonian War (150-148 BC) – the final nail in the coffin of Macedon

Even after the splitting up of Macedon by Rome in 168, the Romans still did not formally annex the Hellenistic republics. That only came in 148 BC, after the end of the Fourth Macedonian War (150-148 BC).

Almost two decades after Perseus, the last king of the Antigonid dynasty, was dethroned by the Romans, a pretender by the name of Andriscus claimed to be the son of Perseus of Macedon. Andriscus managed to rise up and re-establish the Macedonian Kingdom.

Born in Adramyttium in Aeolis (in modern day Turkey), Andriscus used his uncanny resemblance to King Perseus of Macedon as a basis to back up his claim that he was Perseus’ son. With support from Thracian troops, Andriscus managed to rebel against Rome in order to re-establish the Antigonid dynasty. The pretender could not get enough support from the nobles in Macedon. After defeating the pro-Roman nobles, he crowned himself king of Macedon, much to jubilation of much of the anti-Roman Macedonian populace.

Andriscus (Philip V) - the ruler of Macedon from 149 to 148 BC

After being betrayed by one of his generals during the Second Battle of Pydna in 148, Andriscus’ Macedonian army was defeated by the Romans led by Quintus Caecilius Metellus. The pretender king was taken in chains to Rome and later executed. Image: Drachm of Andriscus (Philip VI) – ruler of Macedon from 149 to 148 BC

With support of troops from Thrace, Andriscus chalked a number of victories against the Romans; however, his forces were ultimately crushed by Roman praetor Quintus Caecilius Metellus. The final confrontation happened at the Second Battle of Pydna in 148 BC. Andriscus was driven out of Macedon. He was later captured by the Romans and then paraded in a Roman triumph in honor of Metellus in 146 BC. Shortly after, he was executed.

After crushing all rebellions in Macedon, Rome proceeded to take a hands-on approach with the governance of Macedon. The once powerful Hellenistic Greek kingdom was made a Roman province. Metellus became the governor of the province, which included Macedon, the Ionian islands, Epirus, and Southern Illyria.

Roman general Quintus Caecilius Metellus

Roman general Quintus Caecilius Metellus is best known for his victory in the Fourth Macedonian War

The Achaean War – Rome’s final conquest of mainland Greece

In 146 BC, war broke out between the Greek Achaean League and Rome. The Achaean League, which was an alliance of Greek city-states on the northern and central Peloponnese, was an ally of Rome, helping the Romans gain a foothold in Greece, beginning in the Second Macedonian War.

The root of the Achaean War can be traced to 148 BC when Achaea conquered Sparta and brought them into their sphere of control. Rome began to grow very uneasy of such Achaean conquests. The Romans, using diplomacy, tried to convince the Achaeans to halt their expansionist drive.

The Sack of Corinth by the Romans in 146 BC

The Sack of Corinth, by English painter Thomas Allom

Diplomacy broke down in 146, and a war ensued between the Achaeans and the Romans. In the end, Rome defeated the Achaeans, taking and brutally sacking their capital Corinth in south-central Greece.

Similar to Macedon, the city of Corinth was slapped with very steep war indemnities and tributes. The political institutions of the Achaean League and Corinth was dismantled and Rome installed its own governance system in the region.

For the assault on Corinth during the Achaean War in 146 BC, Roman forces, led by Lucius Mummius, amounted to more than 26,000, including 23,000 infantry. On the other hand, the Achaean League, under the leadership of strategos Diaeus of Megalopolis, commanded about 14,000 soldiers.

For his victory over the Achaean League in the Achaean War, Roman general Lucius Mummius Achaicus received a Roman triumph. He was given the title “Achaicus”.

About 100 years later, during the reign of Rome’s first emperor, Augustus, Achaea became a separate Roman province.

Did you know?

  • The year 146 BC saw Rome completely destroy two very important cities in the Mediterranean: Achaeans’ Corinth and the city of Carthage in North Africa. In both those two cities, Rome massacred a significant portion of the population, with the few remaining survivors sold into slavery.
  • Following the sack of Corinth, Roman troops transported many Greek works of art to Rome. This would go on to have tremendous influence on Roman art and culture. This ushered in Greco-Roman arts and culture.

Following Rome’s victory in the Achaean War in 146 BC, the Achaean League, the Aetolian League and other political and military institutions of the Greeks were disbanded. Image: Map of the Achaean League in 150 BC

Questions and Answers about Rome’s conquest of Greece

Roman conquest of Greece

The Roman Republic at the end of the 2nd century BC, after the Achaean War, the Lusitanian and Numantine Wars and the accession of Pergamon to Rome in 133 BC

When did Rome gain full control of all of the classical Greek world?

Greek political independence completely died in the aftermath of the Achaean War in 146 BC. The last remaining Greek power after the Achaean War was Pergamon. However, that Greek city in Mysia, which was by the way pro-Rome, reverted into Rome’s hand in 133 BC when its last ruler Attalus III Philometor Euergetes died. The Pergamon king willed his city to the Romans.

With all of the classical Greek world in Rome’s control, Rome became real force to be reckoned with in the Mediterranean.

How long did it take Rome to conquer Greece?

What the above means is that it took the Roman Republic about a century to conquer Greece, i.e. from the 230s BC to 133 BC. Rome’s conquest of Greece epitomized the Divide et Impera principle, which means “divide and conquer”.

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