Battle of Pydna: Romans Defeat Macedonians, Legion Triumphs over Phalanx

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Battle of Pydna: Romans Defeat Macedonians, Legion Triumphs over Phalanx

"Battle of Pydna, 168 BC" artist unknown; image courtesy of
(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are courtesy of Wikipedia)

Today in Military History: June 22, 168 BC

It has been a while – last September to be precise – since I presented a battle from ancient history. Therefore, today I will rectify that oversight, presenting a battle between the growing Roman Republic and the kingdom of Macedonia, much reduced from its glory days as the center of Alexander the Great's empire.


On his deathbed in June of 323 BC, the story goes that one of Alexander's generals asked him who should be the successor to his huge Eurasian empire. The 33-year old conqueror purportedly mumbled, "To the strongest." For the next 150+ years, his generals and their descendants fought each other to secure the largest portion of his former empire. These conflicts were known as the "Wars of the Diadochi" (Successors).

As the original core of Alexander's empire, Macedon retained its influence over most of mainland Greece. In 214 Macedonia declared an alliance with Carthage, who was fighting its second major war with the Roman Republic. This action brought Rome's unwanted attention to Macedonia. Over the next 40-odd years, Rome fought three wars with the Macedonian kingdom. After the second conflict, Macedonia was forced to abandon all its possessions in southern Greece. Although the Romans declared the "freedom of the Greeks," the war marked a significant stage in increasing Roman intervention in the affairs of the eastern Mediterranean.

In 192, Rome fought a war with the Seleucid Empire – another fragment of Alexander's empire – achieving a decisive victory in 188 and stripping the Seleucids of large amounts of territory. During that war King Philip V of Macedonia cooperated with Roman forces moving through his kingdom to Asia. However, after the war Philip began exerting his influence throughout Greece, raising Roman suspicions. When Philip died in 179, his oldest son Perseus succeeded to the throne. Perseus married the daughter of Seleucid monarch and increased the size of his army. He also made alliances with Epirus and several tribes of Illyria and Thrace, as well as enemies of Thracian tribes allied to Rome. Perseus renewed former connections with some southern Greek city-states, many who were not friendly to Rome. The king announced that he could carry out reforms in Greece and restore its previous strength and prosperity.

Greece in ca. 200 BC; Macedonian kingdom in orange (These boundaries were in place prior to the Syrian and 2nd Macedonian Wars) [Sorry for the non-English labeling; hope you read French]
Greece in ca. 200 BC; Macedonian kingdom in orange
(These boundaries were in place prior to the Syrian and 2nd Macedonian Wars)
[Sorry for the non-English labeling; hope you read French]

Because of his new intrigues, Perseus again drew the attention of Rome as he clearly demonstrated that many of his new allies were not friends of either Rome or its allies. In the spring of 171, the Roman Senate officially declared war on Macedonia, starting the Third Macedonian War.

Prelude to the Battle

A Roman army sailed across the Adriatic, intent on laying low their former ally. However, for the first three years of the conflict, Roman commanders changed as each year new consuls were elected and each one lacked a desire or conviction to force the Macedonians into a decisive battle. This lack of consistent leadership allowed Perseus and his troops to temporarily hold the upper hand, as they won the initial battle of the war at Callicinus. Shortly afterwards, the Macedonian ruler offered the Romans a peace treaty, which was refused.

Early in 168, a new commander for Rome's army arrived in the person of consul Lucius Aemilius Paullus. A veteran of combat in Hispania (Spain), Paullus had been given the directive of the Senate to bring the conflict with the Macedonians to a satisfactory conclusion. Early in his consulship, he formed a commission to determine just what troops and supplies were needed to subdue Macedon. [One source says that before he left for the Balkans, Paullus spoke to the Roman public. He stated that everyone seemed to have an opinion of how to beat the enemy. Paullus challenged them to come with him and fight the Macedonians, or to shut up and let him do his job.] Upon arrival in Greece, he found the army in a very poor state of training and preparation. He spent several weeks drilling his army to his standards. At the same time, Paullus received some needed reinforcements, including newly-raised Italian ally legions, Numidian light cavalry and javelinmen, and skirmishers from the allied kingdom of Pergamum.

Beginning in early June, Paullus attempted to outflank Perseus's army, seeking to lure the Macedonian army into a fight on Roman terms. Perseus and his men built their camp in southern Macedon, just south of Mount Olocros near the town of Pydna and waited for the Romans to appear. The Romans managed to sweep around the Macedonian army, and raised their own fortified camp on a plateau below Mount Olocros. The two armies faced each other for part of the day, but neither side had the stomach for an immediate clash (especially the Romans, who were apparently short of water). [The two camps were less than a half mile from each other.] That night, a lunar eclipse spooked the superstitious Macedonians, but the Romans were assured by an officer who predicted its occurrence and its progress.

Roman Army

[NOTE: The various sources for this battle are rather fragmentary, so exact figures and compositions of the two armies are a bit speculative.]

The Roman force opposing King Perseus was a mixed force of heavy infantry, light infantry, peltasts, and cavalry. The core of this army was the two Roman and two Italian ally legions, both slightly over-strength (about 5000 men each). Each legion was divided into three lines of units called maniples, which usually consisted of 120 men (or 160 if the legion was double-sized). Each line of a legion consisted of 10 maniples. Each maniple consisted of a separate troop type: the hastati (young recruits up to age 25), the principes (more experienced soldiers between 26-35), and triarii (the most veteran soldiers over 35). The hastati were thrown into the fight first; if they needed to be replaced, the second line of principes was then sent forward, which allowed the hastati to fall back and regroup. If a battle was truly hard, the last line of the triarii was sent forward. In addition, each legion had 1000-1200 velites, the poorest recruits who functioned as unarmored skirmishers who used javelins to disrupt enemy formations.

Missile troops accounted for another 12,000 soldiers, including Greek and Numidian light javelinmen, Mysian peltasts, Achaian archers, Cyrti slingers, and Greek and Pergamene thureophoroi. These last troops were likely mercenaries, men who could function as javelinmen but, because they wore more armor and carried larger shields than regular skirmishers, could also form deep blocks and support the regular Roman units.

Greek 'thureophoroi' (heavy skirmishers), c. 200 BC [Image courtesy of]
Greek thureophoroi (heavy skirmishers), c. 200 BC
[Image courtesy of]

In addition, the Roman cavalry contingent – about 4000 men altogether – was comprised of Roman and Italian heavy cavalry, Numidian light cavalry, and somewhere between 22 and 34 elephants (the sources disagree). Since the end of the Second Punic War, the Roman army was experimenting with the use of these fearsome pachyderms in its armies.

Macedonian Army

The army of King Perseus was built around the Macedonian phalanx, a solid block of soldiers armed with the 18 foot-long sarissa (pike). When properly trained and led, the pike phalanx could conquer nearly any enemy it faced. Its main weakness was its lack of maneuverability, finding it difficult to face threats to its flanks or rear. This necessitated the use of cavalry or other infantry – including bowmen or skirmishers – to protect the phalanx. The formation was most effective when used on flat, level ground.

A block of Macedonian pikemen, ca. 200 BC [Image courtesy of]
A block of Macedonian pikemen, ca. 200 BC
[Image courtesy of]

The Macedonian army had a total of 22,000 phalangist (pikemen) organized in five large blocks. One of these units was an elite unit that was responsible for guarding one of the flanks of the pike larger pike block, known as the "Bronze Shields." There were 14,000 other infantry, missile units comprising Thracian mercenary peltasts, Greek javelinmen, Cretan archers, and mercenary thureophoroi. Perseus's cavalry – about 4000 horsemen – consisted of heavy Macedonian cavalry under his personal command, Greek light cavalry, and elite Thracian heavy cavalry accompanied by Thracian javelinmen interspersed among the cavalry units.

Battle of Pydna

It was a hot June day, and both armies were expecting to fight. A small river bisected the plain between the two camps. Contingent of water carriers were filling water jugs for their comrades, guarded by some of their comrades. At one point, a Roman mule bolted into the stream. Some of the Macedonians tried to steal the animal, and the Romans fought back. Soon light infantry and skirmishers from both sides began to slowly escalate the conflict. Both army commanders had been waiting for a spark to start the battle, and Perseus acted first

The Macedonian king ordered his entire army to deploy for battle. He hoped that the activity would draw the Romans out of their fortified camp. Seeing the activity downhill from his camp, consul Paullus gave his own orders to his eager men. He ordered his two Roman legions and one of his Italian ally legions to begin deploying for a confrontation. If the sources are to be believed, it took the Romans much longer to ready themselves for battle than it did the Macedonians.

Battle of Pydna, June 22, 168 BC, first phase [Image is author's work, based on maps from
Battle of Pydna, June 22, 168 BC, first phase
[Image is author's work, based on maps from "Great Battles of the Hellenistic World" by Joseph Pietrykowski]

By mid- to late morning the Macedonian army was lined up and ready for action, while the Romans were still sorting themselves out. To goad the Romans into further action, Perseus sent one of pike units to drive off the Roman light infantry and skirmishers (probably the Greek, Numidian, and Pergamene soldiers). This first Macedonian gambit succeeded, as the Roman light infantry fled across the stream, with the opposing light infantry in pursuit. In the meantime, one of the last units to exit the Macedonian camp was the Macedonian "Companion" heavy cavalry – personally commanded by King Perseus – accompanied by other heavy horse which deployed to the far right of the Macedonian line.

One of the sources states that Roman general Paullus waited until late in the day so that the sun was not in his soldiers's eyes. If that is so, it would appear that it took quite some time before the rest of his army was ready. At about 3:00 pm, losing patience with the slow Roman positioning, Perseus ordered his army to advance toward the still-mobilizing Roman force. Paullus's right wing – which consisted of his other Italian ally legion, the Roman and Italian heavy cavalry, and the elephants – was just getting themselves ordered. To give them more time, Paullus ordered his center and left wing to advance down the slope to the plain, where the Macedonian phalanx awaited him and his army.

Battle of Pydna, June 22, 168 BC, second phase [Image is author's work, based on maps from
Battle of Pydna, June 22, 168 BC, second phase
[Image is author's work, based on maps from "Great Battles of the Hellenistic World" by Joseph Pietrykowski]

Years later, Paullus wrote about the fear and trepidation he personally felt when confronted by the sight of 20,000 or more naked Macedonian pikes marching toward his forces. To rally his men – and to show disdain for the enemy – the consul rode along his frontline without a helmet or breastplate. The Roman force advanced at a walk down the slope, keeping their lines fairly well-ordered. Approaching the bottom of the hill, Paullus was shocked as he saw the Roman skirmishers and light troops who had started the fight that morning suddenly break ranks and stream to the rear. One source says that the consul ripped his tunic in frustration. Shortly afterwards, the Macedonian phalanx came forward, and the two lines crashed together.

Battle of Pydna, June 22, 168 BC, third phase [Image is author's work, based on maps from
Battle of Pydna, June 22, 168 BC, third phase
[Image is author's work, based on maps from "Great Battles of the Hellenistic World" by Joseph Pietrykowski]

Many of Paullus's men were veteran soldiers, but seldom had any of them seen anything as terrifying and awe-inspiring as the mile-long hedge of spears approaching their line in steady lockstep. The discipline of the Macedonian pikemen was incredible, as their long pikes kept the Romans at a distance. Trying to penetrate the pike block was a Roman nightmare. Many of the legionaries tried to use their shortswords to either chop off the the pike heads or to knock them aside. Neither action was successful, as the slowly advancing enemy pikes pierced Roman shields, armor, and helmets. General Paullus realized if his center and left stood in place, they would likely be wiped out. Therefore, he ordered his badly blooded men to withdraw back up the broken slope back toward the camp. At the same time, the consul sent a messenger to alert his now-formed right wing to advance downhill and engage the Macedonian left, which was still disordered after chasing off the Roman skirmishers and light troops fleeing the field.

As the Romans fell back in good order, a loud cheer and the trumpeting of the elephants signalled the advance of the Roman right wing. Their charge down the hillside took the disordered Macedonian left by surprise, and within minutes they were falling back in a chaotic mass. Thracian cavalry attempting to manuever into place on the end of the Macedonian left was disrupted by the rout of the skirmishers and light troops, and promptly joined the retreat, never having delivered a single blow in the battle.

Battle of Pydna; Macedonian phalangists push Roman legions back; artist unknown; Note Roman elephants in background beginning the attack on enemy left [Image courtesy of]
Battle of Pydna; Macedonian phalangists push Roman legions back; artist unknown
Note Roman elephants in background beginning the attack on enemy left
[Image courtesy of]

Following up their initial success against the Romans, the Macedonian army began to advance after their withdrawing enemy. It soon became clear, however, that consul Paullus had chosen his ground well. As they trudged up the broken slope, some of the pike units lost their cohesion, and the single pike block began to show gaps in its formation. Observing these gaps, Paullus orders his withdrawing men to about face. He then gave orders for his legionaries to launch attacks on those widening gaps in the enemy line. Individual maniples charged these gaps, and began to enjoy increasing success. Roman training in small-unit tactics began to make a difference, as the Macedonian pike units wore linen armor or often no armor at all. The pike was not a good weapon for close-in fighting, and soon the Macedonian phalangists were suffering a great number of casualties.

At this point in the battle, as the Romans were turning the tide of battle, the Macedonian Companion heavy cavalry on the right – which had not struck a single blow all afternoon – suddenly decided they were leavying the battlefield. [There is one school of thought that the noble members of the Companions were opposed to some of Perseus's policies, especially that most of the phalangists in his army were from the lower classes and unworthy of their support.] At about the same time, on the Roman right flank, the Italian ally legion had executed a 90-degree turn and attacked the exposed left flank of the Macedonian phalanx. The Macedonian army began to break up and men began streaming in small groups down the hill toward their camp, anticipating the inevitable pursuit in the aftermath of the battle. Shortly thereafter, the Roman elephants turned from their pursuit of the enemy left wing and charged into the rear of the Macedonian phalangists.

Battle of Pydna, June 22, 168 BC, final phase [Image is author's work, based on maps from
Battle of Pydna, June 22, 168 BC, final phase
[Image is author's work, based on maps from "Great Battles of the Hellenistic World" by Joseph Pietrykowski]

With the attacks of the ally legionaries and the elephants, the Macedonian phalanx was essentially surrounded and all cohesion was lost. As more phalangists fell to Roman swords, the Macedonians panicked and the rout was on. The sole exception was on the Macedonian left, where the "Bronze Shields" were surrounded. These men fought to the last, slaughtered by Roman swords or trampled by rampaging elephants. After fighting that lasted just about an hour, the battle of Pydna ended.


The Roman pursuit of the routing Macedonians lasted until nightfall. As a result, a very large percentage of the Macedonian army were counted as casualties. Somewhere between 25,000 and 30,000 Macedonians and their allies were killed, wounded, or captured.

Roman casualties, despite the bloody nature of the fight, were somewhat less, with a total of 1000 men killed or wounded. [I would tend to say that figure is a bit low.]

Footnote #1: Seeing the inevitability of Rome's eventual victory in the war, Perseus surrendered to Lucius Aemilius Paullus shortly after the battle. Returning to Rome, Paullus was granted a triumph by the Senate. The parade featured the deposed Macedonian monarch and his childred in chains. The Senate further honored him by bestowing upon him the cognom of Macedonicus.

Footnote #2: After the battle, to set an example, Paullus ordered the killing of 500 prominent Macedonians known for their opposition to Rome. He also exiled many more to Italy and confiscated their belongings in the name of Rome. However, according to one historical source, the consul kept too much loot for himself. On setting out on the return to Rome in 167 BC, his legionaries were displeased with their share of the plunder. To keep them happy, Paullus decided on a stop in nearby Epirus, a kingdom suspected of sympathizing with the Macedonian cause. The region had already been pacified, but Paullus ordered the sacking of seventy of its towns. thousands of its people were enslaved and the region was left bankrupt.

Footnote #3: In addition to King Perseus and his family, the Romans took back to their capital many members of the Macedonian court and other prisoners from the leading families of the country, including the historian Polybius. In addition, around 300,000 Macedonian citizens were enslaved. A number of Macedonian cities and villages were destroyed and their land distributed to Roman veterans and their Thracian allies. Macedonia itself was divided into four Roman client republics. Economic and political contacts between the four republics were restricted. This effectively ended the Macedonian kingdom.

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