The Battle of Cynoscephalae

by pallin

Cynoscephalae – Romans vs. Macedonians


The general on the Roman side was Titus Quinctius Flaminius. Born in 228 BC, he had been a military tribune in the Second Punic War. After that he slowly ascended the cursus honorum. Finally becoming consul in 198 BC, Flaminius was underage for the position. When he was elected, Flaminius replaced Publius Sulpicius Galba as the general during the Second Macedonian War. Thus, he led the Romans at Cynoscephalae.

The opposing Macedonian forces were led by Philip V, a member of the Antigonid dynasty. Born circa 239 BC to Demetrius II and Chyrseis, he was nine years old at the time of his father’s death. Until Philip was 18, a regent, Antigonus Doson, ruled Macedonia. Philip had already tangled with Rome in the First Macedonian War, ultimately leading to him being at Cynoscephalae.

Punic Wars and First Macedonian War

Why did the Romans wish to crush the Macedonians? The roots of their hatred lay in the Second Punic War. As a result of seeing the devastating impact inflicted by Hannibal at Cannae, Philip allied himself with Hannibal. This was a morale boost for Hannibal, considering that many Roman allies in Italy had not converted to his side.

To prepare for the upcoming war with the Romans, the Macedonians built a fleet of approximately 100 warships. The ship of Philip’s choice was the lembus, an Illyrian galley. One bank of oars existed, and the capacity was fifty men in addition to the rowers. The same ships were used by the pirates that Pompey defeated many decades later.

Immediately after they discovered the alliance, the Romans sent fifty warships to patrol Italy’s Adriatic Coast. That way, it would be difficult for Philip to make a land invasion into Italy. Philip attacked Roman states in Illyria for 10 years marking the beginning of the First Macedonian War, with negligible effects. For example, Philip besieged Apollonia in 214 BC. When the Roman propraetor, Marcus Valerius Laevinus, found out, he sent 2,000 men to Apollonia. Philip was caught by surprise in the middle of the night and forced to leave. However, he burned his fleet behind him, losing an extremely important source of transportation. After reaching the safety of Macedonia, Philip was a non-factor for the rest of the war for lack of adequate representation.

Still, the Romans wanted to make sure they had Greek allies to stifle any further Macedonian attempts to aid Carthage. Laevinus allied Rome with the Aetolian League in 211 BC, citing Rome’s recent success against Carthage. The alliance treaty stated that Rome would tend to naval operations, while the Aetolians would care for land battles. The First Macedonian War was finally concluded in 205 BC when the Peace of Phoenice was signed.

Beginnings of Second Macedonian War

The beginnings of the Second Macedonian War, in which Cynoscephalae was fought, started with Macedonian expansion. Macedonians encroached onto Greek city states, which then asked Rome for help. Issuing an ultimatum, Rome demanded that Philip accept Roman rule over Macedon. Philip refused, subsequently causing the Second Macedonian War.

Finally, the Battle!

At Cynoscephalae, the Romans faced the Macedonian phalanx. Cynoscephalae was fought in 197 BC at Thessaly. Flaminius, the Roman general had around 30,000 soldiers, consisting of many mercenaries and allied forces. Cretan archers and Numidian cavalry and elephants supported the Roman forces, along with some of the Aetolian League’s forces. Philip V had approximately 22,500 forces. There were 16,000 men lined up in the phalanx formation, light infantry from Crete, Thrace, and Illyria, cavalry, and peltasts.

The Macedonian phalanx had been developed by Philip II, Alexander the Great’s father. Men fighting in the phalanx were called phalangites, and carried eighteen-foot long pikes called sarissae. A porcupine-type formation, the phalanx was sure to frighten any cavalry charge. However, the phalanxes were prone to being flanked as shown in certain battles.

As the time of battle dawned, the opposing armies camped on either side of the hills. Waking up to a heavy fog, the weather conditions were not ideal. Philip immediately sent a group of soldiers to seize the top of the hill. If the Romans had taken the top, they would have rapidly annihilated the phalanxes marching up the hill. After a while, Flaminius sent up a few of his troops. Finding the Macedonian troops already present, skirmishing began. In a losing position, the Romans called for reinforcements. Then, the battle swung back towards the Macedonian side, as Philip reinforced his men.

Finally, the true battle began when the Macedonian center and right line marched up the hill and took the top. What proved to be crucial later in the battle was Philip’s immense miscue of leaving his left wing behind. Flaminius, noticing the absence of the left wing, kept his right-wing men in reserve.

The Macedonian phalanx showed its might, steadily pushing back the Roman forces. Intending to divert some of the troops in the main engagement, Flaminius attacked the Macedonians’ straggling left wing, which had finally reached the top of the hill in a disorganized fashion.

While the Romans pushed the Macedonian left wing away from the battle, one tribune took 20 maniples and attacked the phalanx from the back. Attacked from both sides, the phalanx crumbled.


Around 700 Roman men were lost, contrasting the 8,000 Macedonians killed and 5,000 taken captive. A decisive victory for the Romans, they had defeated the supposedly undefeatable phalanx. Although Philip escaped from the battle, the reparations were not light. Besides paying 1,000 talents, Philip had to disband much of his navy and army. The Second Macedonian War ended in 196 BC, when Flaminius declared at the Isthmian Games that Greece was free.

Changing of a King

Philip would later die in 179 BC, passing the throne to Perseus. Hoping to be friends with Rome, Perseus immediately renewed the peace treaty with Rome. However, many actions on his part contributed to Rome disliking his reign. Perseus increased the size of his army and allied himself with several Illyrian and Thracian tribes. Announcing reforms to restore Greek glory, Rome grew worried. On account of Perseus’s conduct, Rome declared the Third Macedonian War.

Perseus won the preliminary battles, at Larissa and in Illyria. Confident enough to offer a peace treaty to Rome, the proposal was declined. So, the war continued, with Rome hoping for a breakout victory that would swing the course of the war. That battle was fought by Lucius Aemilius Paullus Macedonicus at Pydna.

Pydna was another decisive battle that showed the weakness of the phalanx. As the Macedonian phalanxes led by Perseus were marching over the foothills, gaping holes were exposed. The Romans, taking advantage, sent their legions into the gaps. The gladius and scutum were much more effective than the dagger that the phalangites used a backup. Of course, the close quarters rendered the sarissae useless.


Perseus surrendered, and Rome celebrated triumphantly. Macedonia was separated into republics, which were entirely separate from each other. 150,000 Epirotes became slaves, and anyone who was a soldier under a Perseus was killed. From 150-148 BC, there would be a Fourth Macedonian War. However, this war was rather insignificant. Macedonia had already been broken, and was no longer a threat to Rome. In the space of a little more than a century, Rome had conquered Carthage and Macedonia. This would send a message to future enemies: beware.