BMCR 2015.02.42

Taken at the Flood: The Roman Conquest of Greece. Ancient Warfare and Civilization

, Taken at the Flood: The Roman Conquest of Greece. Ancient Warfare and Civilization. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. xix, 287. ISBN 9780199916894. $27.95.


The book under review, part of OUP’s popularizing Ancient Warfare and Civilization series, aims to provide a straightforward “narrative … with commentary” of the expansion of Roman power in the East between 229 and 146,1 uncluttered by engagement “in any depth [with] the controversies that abound,” and instead substituting “‘asides’ on social and cultural matters, that illuminate and add depth to our understanding of the period” (x). In terms of the latter, Waterfield’s book is an unqualified success, providing the novice to Roman Republican history with crucial—and fascinating—discussions of ancillary matters. Less successful, however, is Waterfield’s claim to steer clear of controversy. His “commentary,” as we will see, is driven by a powerful interpretative agenda which several scholars of Roman imperialism will find highly controversial—and deeply problematic.

After a brief “Prelude,” the narrative proper begins with an account of the failed diplomacy of 230 that preceded the outbreak of the First Illyrian War, Rome’s first military deployment to the East. This chapter also contains digressions on Roman imperial expansion down to this point and the nature of the Roman ruling aristocracy. Chapter Two narrates the Illyrian Wars of 229 and 219 and events in between, such as the Social War of 220-217, which pitted the Aetolian League and their allies against the Hellenic League under the leadership of Philip V of Macedon.

Chapter Three focuses on Philip V’s entry into the Second Punic War via his treaty with Hannibal in 215, Rome’s alliance with the Aetolian League, and the First Macedonian War between Rome (and its proxies) and Macedon. The chapter ends with a digression on Greek knowledge of and attitudes toward Rome down to this period. Chapters Four and Five provide an account of the Second Macedonian War (200-196) and the Roman declaration of Greek freedom. Chapters Six and Seven narrate Rome’s wars with the Aetolian League (192-189) and Antiochus III of Syria (192-188), and contain digressions on Ennius and early Latin literature, and a comparison of the Macedonian phalanx with the Roman legion.

Chapter Eight describes how Rome tried to exercise hegemonic control of Greece and Asia Minor after 188 without annexing territory or garrisoning strategic points. It includes a useful account of international amicitia, “friendship,” which was how the Romans chose to manage their influence in the East, rather than setting up colonial apparatus and garrisoning cities. The chapter also documents the renewed tensions between Rome and Macedon in the 180s, as well as civil strife in central and southern Greece, much of which revolved around the appropriate policy stance to adopt toward Rome.

Chapter Nine narrates the reign of Philip V’s son, Perseus, and the run-up to the Third Macedonian War, and includes accounts of Rhodian and Pergamene power after 188. Chapter Ten is an account of the Third Macedonian War (171- 168), the post-war settlement, and the consequences for Rome’s allies. Chapter Eleven opens with an account of the short, concurrent war with Genthius, king of the Illyrian Ardiaei, and his defeat by the Romans. The chapter also describes the Roman plunder and enslavement of Epirote Molossis in 167, the Roman triumphs over Macedon and Illyria, and contains a digression on the crisis in Roman self-identity caused by Hellenization. The final chapter surveys Roman involvement in the East after Pydna, including the war against the Macedonian pretender Andriscus (150-148), and the war with the Achaean League (148-146). The chapter also includes a brief, impressionistic account of the history of Greece under Rome after 146 down to the creation of the province of Achaea in 27. Waterfield paints a grim picture of decline and exploitation of the Greeks under Roman rule—the proverbial desert that Rome called peace (Tac. Agr. 30).

Overall, an epic tale, engagingly told in clear, eloquent prose. OUP is to be commended for commissioning a book on such a world-changing series of events which, despite the importance Polybius attributed to it in antiquity, is mostly ignored outside academic circles today. As foreshadowed earlier, however, Waterfield’s stance on Roman imperialism has great potential to mislead the unwary, non-expert audience that is, ultimately, OUP’s target. Waterfield’s views are essentially those adumbrated by William Harris thirty-five years ago,2 and although Waterfield makes token gestures toward Harris’ critics (Erich Gruen, Arthur Eckstein, and others), he ignores the serious damage these have done to the Harris thesis. Harris argued, with force and conviction (but also with too little attention to and misreading of the evidence), that the Romans were exceptionally warlike and brutal compared to their peer-competitors in the Mediterranean state system. So too, Waterfield: “belligerence and arrogance: the Romans were natural imperialists” (20); “Rome was a militarized and warmongering society, and the Senate led the way” (18); the Romans “were more consistently brutal than their opponents” (58); Roman “savagery” in battle starkly contrasted with the “battlefield etiquette” among the Greeks, which made “battlefield massacres … rare” (133); “the Romans fought brutal wars, with no compromises given or expected” (134). In sum, Waterfield says (x-xi):

I believe that the Romans were more aggressive imperialists in this period than used to be commonly held before the first edition of Harris’s War and Imperialism in Republican Rome in 1979—that they did not go to war only when they were truly threatened (though they might pretend they were), nor were they dragged into entanglement with the east by accident or a series of accidents (Gruen, simplified), nor were their eastern wars purely the result of factors systemic to the Mediterranean world of the time (Eckstein, simplified).

To be clear: the Romans did, sometimes, visit acts of great savagery on their military opponents, and those unfortunate civilians caught in the middle; the Romans did, on occasion, indulge in diplomatic sharp practice and manipulate their opponents into positions where they had to resist or else suffer complete destruction; and the Romans did, as a matter of course, make war on their neighbors every year, almost without exception. But Waterfield, who knows better (his previous book, Dividing the Spoils 3 is on the forty-year war of Alexander the Great’s successors), fails to acknowledge that this was the world the Romans inhabited, and in order to survive it, they had to compete at the same level. Waterfield occasionally lets this fact slip out. Thus, at one point, he acknowledges that “Rome was not the only militant community in the Mediterranean,” and accurately describes both the voracious war machines that were the Hellenistic kingdoms and the belligerent poleis of Greece and Asia Minor. But he concludes from this that “it was only a matter of degree” that separated Rome’s greater belligerence from the others’ (20). Philip V, who was at war almost continuously over his forty-one-year reign, would have been surprised by this statement—and disappointed that he had lost the title of “most belligerent” to Rome.

Waterfield also accuses the Romans of being exceptionally deceitful in its diplomatic practices. So, for example, he takes deep umbrage at the language of a Roman inscription of 193 ( RDGE 34) confirming the inviolability of the city of Teos in Asia Minor, arguing that the condition placed on Tean privileges (“as long as in the future you maintain your goodwill toward us”) hints at a new dispensation: “The Greeks were to be free provided that they did not forget who their benefactors were and behaved appropriately” (146)—i.e., sycophantically. The Roman grant of freedom was “a cynical maneuver,” “hypocrisy,” and a “sham,” “daily trampled on” by the Romans (100-101). But how much of a change was this from the attitudes of those other great liberators of the Greeks, the Hellenistic kings? Not much at all, it turns out. Numerous Hellenistic inscriptions contain precisely similar conditions to that imposed on the Teans in 193. To take but one example, sometime after 188, Eumenes II granted freedom to Tyriaion, closing his letter to them as follows: “know that if you preserve your goodwill towards us, you will receive many times more privileges” ( ISE 196). Going back even further, Ptolemy II wrote to the Milesians ca. 262, confirming their freedom and friendship, “we call upon you for the future to maintain the same policy towards us so that, this being the case, we may exercise even more care for your city” ( RC 14). Numerous other examples could be cited. As Gruen so brilliantly demonstrated thirty years ago, the formulaic language the Romans used in their eastern decrees (especially as concerned Greek freedom and friendship) came straight from the chancelleries of the Hellenistic kingdoms.4 But the casual reader would never know this from Waterfield’s text—and might even develop the erroneous impression that Roman hegemony degraded the material condition and legal status of the Greeks from an earlier, purportedly benevolent Hellenistic dispensation. If difference there was between the Roman and Hellenistic versions of Greek freedom, it was this: the Romans habitually left behind no garrisons in Greece after major wars.

As for Rome’s exceptional savagery, brutality, and militarism, late in the book Waterfield writes: “No atrocity [the sack of Corinth] on this scale had been seen in Greece for almost two hundred years, since Alexander the Great had razed Thebes” (224). The Romans, it turns out, behaved no more atrociously than Alexander had. Elsewhere, Waterfield writes that the siege of Abydus by Philip V in 201 came “to a horrendous end, with the mass suicide of those inhabitants who could not face the prospect of Macedonian rule” (73). How terrible would life have been under Philip? This was the same man who plundered his own Thessalian subjects during the Second Macedonian War (Livy 32.13.5-9), and enslaved en masse the inhabitants of Thasos, even though they enjoyed friendship with Macedon (Polyb. 15.24.1).

What about the Romans’ ignorance of Greek “battlefield etiquette,” mentioned earlier? Were they exceptionally carried away by a mania for plunder and slaughter? Certainly, on occasion, but it was the Macedonians, not the Romans, who delighted in war as if it were a banquet, according to Polybius (5.2.6). Alexander the Great’s men slaughtered at least 71,000 at Issus (Just. 11.9.10) and 40,000 at Gaugamela (Curt. 4.16.26). Some 10,300 Seleucid troops were killed by Ptolemaic forces at Raphia in 217 (Polyb. 5.86.5). Casualty figures for inter- polis wars may seem low by comparison, but this is due to the small scale of the average Greek polis rather than a gentlemanly Greek aversion toward killing and plundering. Chalking up kills and collecting huge spoils was the surest path to glory and everlasting fame for a Greek man. The armies of Macedon and the Achaean League slaughtered 5,800 Spartiates at Sellasia in 222 (Plut. Cleom. 28.8) because they could. It was a blow from which Sparta, hardly an average city, never recovered—and that was Philip and the Achaeans’ goal. As for sacking and destroying cities, and killing and enslaving entire populations, the Romans were in good company. Alexander’s destruction of Thebes has already been mentioned. When Cleomenes sacked and destroyed Megalopolis in 223, he did the job so thoroughly and cruelly that, in Polybius’ view (2.55.7), nobody thought it could ever be re-inhabited. At least forty Greek cities were wiped off the map in polis -on- polis violence during the Classical period.5

As long as readers are aware of and can correct for Waterfield’s overt interpretative biases, the book is a valuable contribution to the study of the formative years of Roman involvement in the East. One hopes it will spark interest in the subject beyond academic circles.


1. All dates BC.

2. War and Imperialism in Republican Rome, 327-70 BC (Oxford, 1979).

3. Oxford, 2011.

4. The Hellenistic World and the Coming of Rome (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1984).

5. See the list in A.M. Eckstein, Mediterranean Anarchy, Interstate War, and the Rise of Rome (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 2006), 53 n. 72.