The heavy infantry contest which we understand best is the asymmetric duel between legion and phalanx, because here the battle accounts are supplemented by Polybius’ detailed tactical analysis (18.28–32). The first stage was for the leading pikes to thud into the foremost Roman shields, and for the Greeks to use their superior depth to start shoving the legions back. Romans who tried to hack their way through the intact pike hedge, as at Asculum, often came to grief from the mass of blades (Plut. Pyrrh. 21). A defensive phalanx with secure flanks could hold out almost indefinitely (as at Atrax and Thermopylae), whereas an attacking phalanx would gradually push the Romans back (as at Cynoscephalae and Pydna). However, the combination of Roman determination and the flexibility of the manipular system meant that it was almost impossible for the phalanx alone to put the enemy to flight. This being the case, it was often only a matter of time before some combination of Roman javelin fire, the disruptive impact of rough terrain or an attack in flank or rear broke up the pike hedge and allowed the legionaries to begin a one-sided slaughter of the hapless phalangites.


An unusual general like Scipio Africanus could regularly prevail in this conflict over how wars and battles should be fought. His personal heroism at the battle of Ticinus, where he was said to have saved his father’s life, and in the wake of Cannae, where he rallied a party of survivors when they threatened to surrender or flee from Italy, gave him at least partial protection against charges of personal cowardice. But even Scipio was severely criticized at Rome for lack of aggression, for moving too slowly, and for spoiling his soldiers. And he was sometimes obliged to trick his troops into obeying him by pretending that his plans were suggested to him by the gods. A less charismatic figure like Fabius Maximus, by contrast, could exert only an intermittent sway over his army in the face of the Romans’ aggressive culture, despite the supreme constitutional power the awe-evoking office of dictator supposedly conferred.

Many Roman generals shared the common Roman distaste for strategy and tactics; others were impatient of slow strategy but not of tactics which did not delay the battle: the aggressive Varro deepened the Roman manipular array at Cannae. Still others, politicians in a city where politics and reputation were so wound up with war, will have been unwilling or unable to resist the impatient expectations of their soldiers and officers, whatever their private views: as long as the general and the soldier both followed the banner of virtus, the conflict between virtus and disciplina, for the most part, slept. But to make sophisticated plans—to fight like a Greek—might require that disciplina be set against virtus, and so produce the baying of angry voters, that sound so dreaded by the politically ambitious. Frequently, therefore, in the Roman army, as Livy had Paullus complain, “the soldiers do the thinking, and the commander is led around by the gossip of the rankers.” Roman command gyrated between tactical ingenuity and tactical simplicity.

It is the conflict between the ancestral Roman value of virtus—and the impatient aggressiveness which grew from it—and the opposed tradition of cerebral generalship, which disciplina made possible, which explains the Romans’ facing the Macedonian phalanx head-on upon the plain of Pydna. On the day before the battle, Paullus had had to trick his own soldiers to prevent an engagement: a bald order to go into camp would not, it appears, have been obeyed. And soldiers’ entering battle against the orders of a commander was hardly uncommon in the Roman army. On the day of the battle both Paullus’s long sacrifices and his council of war were denounced as yet more delay. As long as possible Paullus lingered upon the rough ground: perhaps Perseus would advance and fight where the Romans had an advantage. But finally Paullus’s power to restrain his soldiers was at an end, and the Romans fought on ground of Perseus’s choosing. Ferociously denounced by both his officers and men, Paullus finally could resist no longer the virtus of his army. Before the Macedonians and Romans fought at Pydna the Roman ethics of virtus and disciplina fought their own battle, and in that battle virtus won.


Having finally got the battle they yearned for, the young aristocrats of Paullus’s army took to the contest with a will. Having lost his sword in the fighting and so fearing disgrace, the son of Cato the Elder (who was also Aemilius’s son-in-law) ran along the ranks summoning his friends to help him recover it. This mob of noble youths attacked on their own the section of the Macedonian phalanx where the sword had been lost, pushed it back, and recovered the lost weapon amidst the carnage; then they attacked the Macedonians again, singing in their triumph.

Despite Roman bravery, ground and equipment favored the Macedonians, and they steadily pushed the Romans back. Finally the Macedonians’ very success was their undoing. Their advance met more or less resistance at different points, and so some parts of the phalanx pressed forward and some held back. Their progress also took them onto higher and less regular ground which interrupted the exact dressing of their ranks. Aemilius was able to rally enough troops to attack vulnerable points in the phalanx as it lost its order. Once the flanks of individual members of the phalanx were exposed, they were vulnerable to Roman swords. The elephants in the Roman service helped to disrupt the Macedonian left, and it was there that the rout began. And so, barely, desperately, the Romans began to win the battle. As the phalanx came apart the Roman advantage turned into a slaughter. More than twenty thousand Macedonians were slain and only a handful of Romans. When the next day the Romans crossed over the river Leucus, its waters were still tinged with blood. Some Macedonians fled all the way to the sea and waded in, hoping to surrender to the Roman fleet that was standing by. But the Romans sent boats to kill them in the water. They fled back to land only to be trampled in the shallows by the Roman elephants.

After the battle one of Aemilius Paullus’s sons, a teenager, was found missing and searched for; hours later he returned safe with a few comrades, drenched in blood, having slain many when carried away in the killing joy of the pursuit. This young man was Scipio Aemilianus, later the destroyer of Carthage and Numantia, and almost twenty years later a singlecombat victor in early middle age. Scipio Nasica’s killing of the Thracian, Cato’s son and his friends’ recovering his sword, and Paullus’s son’s bloodmad pursuit of the enemy are tokens of how strong the heroic, competitive culture of Roman virtus still was among young Roman aristocrats in 168 bc.

King Perseus fled the stricken field. Within two days nearly all of Macedonia surrendered to the Romans, who were to divide it into four feeble republics to ensure it would never make trouble again. Perseus abandoned his kingdom to seek asylum on the sacred isle of Samothrace, his only escort his Cretan mercenaries. Abandoned finally by all, the king surrendered himself to the Romans. Brought before the consul’s council, the king was peppered with questions by Paullus, but he stood in silence and wept and then flung himself upon the ground as a suppliant for his life. Paullus lost his Roman temper. Didn’t Perseus understand that by cringing in public he was detracting from the reputation of his conqueror? But then he remembered his Greek culture and lectured his young officers in Latin on the mutability of fate, offering Perseus as an object lesson— a very Greek moment, despite the language. Such was the end of the kingdom that had bred Alexander the Great.

Before Paullus could lead his victorious army back to Rome, his soldiers’ greed had to be satisfied. The cities of Epirus that had defected to Perseus were granted by the Senate to the army to plunder. But how to sack them without having to besiege each one? One last time Paullus’s guile was called upon. He told the men of Epirus that they would have to pay a fine, but in exchange they would have their freedom. Ten men from each city were summoned and told to collect all the gold and silver in each town. Then Roman units were sent out at different times so that they would arrive at cities near and far on the same day. At dawn of the day appointed the Romans received in each town all the treasure that had been collected; then, at the fourth hour, the troops were unleashed to sack. One hundred and fifty thousand were taken as slaves and seventy cities were destroyed. It was a suitably horrible end to a singularly cynical Roman war.

Still, the soldiers were unhappy at the sums they received: the gold of Macedon was headed for the public treasury; they were permitted merely to squeeze the stone of Epirus. And so when an enemy of Paullus, one of his own handpicked military tribunes, tried to defeat the proposal granting Paullus a triumph, the soldiers paid him eager heed. Besides, they had resented the strictness of his discipline; it was time to teach commanders a lesson. In the end Aemilius Paullus got his triumph—the voting was suspended and the great Marcus Servilius, victor in twenty-three single combats, harangued the crowd, and finally the triumph was voted. But it is satisfying that the Pydna campaign should have ended as it was carried on—in angry conflict between the general and his army.

Roman warfare of the mid-Republic was a product of fierce division over how war should be fought. The vision of generalship that Aemilius Paullus embodied, that is, the Hellenistic conception of the general as the master of trickery, tactics, flanking maneuvers, and applied scientific knowledge, was conceived as illegitimate on its face by a large proportion of his army and his officers, at least if it delayed their getting to grips with the enemy. To them the duty of the general was to lead his army straight at the foe and to fight as soon as possible. The willful virtus of the soldiers and officers pounded like a siege ram against disciplina, the ethic the general relied upon to command the obedience of his soldiers and to put his plans into action. Yet this very conflict underlies the success of the army of the middle Republic, for despite the disasters it sometimes produced, the result of the conflict was a balance between qualities essential to Roman victory: on the one hand, the bravery and aggressiveness of Roman soldiers of all ranks, and on the other the ability of commanders to use that bravery and aggressiveness. The Roman army was disobedient because it was brave: a less brave army might have been more obedient but would have won fewer wars, while an army whose bravery broke entirely through the bonds of disciplina would have been uncontrollable and so would have won fewer wars as well. In a world where their enemies often represented extremes—brave but ungovernable Gauls, drilled but sometimes timid Greeks—the secret of Roman superiority was that the Roman army, although often inferior in respects in which their enemies excelled, was adequate in respects in which their enemies were not.

Tactical generalship was old at Rome, and native, but Roman generals’ eagerness to maneuver and trick was multiplied by Roman contact with Greek habits of command, just one aspect of the far greater transformation of Roman society that world power and Roman plundering of the world’s treasures brought in its train. Greek generalship was new and foreign, but the conflict it exacerbated was old and Roman: the conflict between virtus and disciplina that the Romans explored in their stories about their early heroic duelists, the conflict that had created the manipular legion.

Roman success in war would eventually destroy the constitutional Republic that created and nourished that success. A state that could manage wars so well could not in the end manage either the wealth and pride of conquest or the discontent and misery. Rule by Senate and people gave way to rule by solitary emperors. What effect did the whirlwind of change that we call the Late Republic have on the odd, delicate, fertile balance between discipline and bravery, and between soldier and general, the singular moral alloy that had allowed the Romans to conquer their world?

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