The battle of Cynoscephalea of 197 B.C. was the decisive battle of the First Macedonian War, and was the first of a series of victories won by Roman legions over the Greek phalanx that ended three centuries of Greek dominance on the battlefield.
The war had been triggered by Philip V of Macedonia’s attempts to extend his kingdom into Asia Minor and the Aegean. This had led to war with Attalus of Pergamum and Rhodes, and those powers had then appealed to Rome. The Romans entered the war in 200 B.C., fighting a minor campaign in 199, invading Thessaly in 198, and creating a strong coalition against Philip. By the start of 197 Philip had lost most of his earlier conquests, and was pinned back into Macedonia and part of Thessaly.
For the campaign of 197 Philip managed to raise an army 25,500 strong, with 18,000 Macedonians and 2,000 cavalry. Although he had suffered a series of disasters in the previous year’s campaign, he had not yet fought a major battle, and so much of his army was still intact. The Macedonian phalanx had been the dominant force on the battlefields of Greece even before Alexander the Great had taken them into Asia, and although the late Macedonian phalanx was not as effective as it had then been, it was still a very dangerous weapon.
The Roman commander, Titus Quinctius Flaminius, had 26,000 men, based around his two legions, supported by 6,000 infantry and 400 cavalry from the Aetolian League and 1,200 men under Amynander of Athamania.
At the start of the campaign Philip was camped at Larisa, while Flamininus was advancing towards Pherae from the south. The two advanced guards met at Pherae. On the following day both commanders sent out a scouting force, and a sharp fight followed.
On the day after this fight Philip broke camp, and moved west towards Scotussa, hoping to find both supplies and a suitable battlefield – Polybius describes the area around Pherae as “under cultivation and covered with walls and small gardens”. Flamininus discovered Philip’s movements, and also began to move west, hoping to beat Philip to Scotusssa. Between the two armies was a range of high hills known as the Dog’s Head, or Cynoscephalae.
The two armies marched in parallel for two days, apparently unaware of each others exact location. The morning of the third day was very foggy. Philip made a brief attempt to continue his march, but soon abandoned it and entrenched his main army, while his covering forces were sent south to occupy the summits of the hills between the two armies.
Flamininus also began the day by sending out his light forces, in this case ten squadrons of cavalry and 1,000 light infanty. This force ran into the Macedonian advance guard close to the top of a pass across the hills, and the fighting began.
At first the Macedonians had the best of this early encounter, but Flamininus sent 500 cavalry and 2,000 infantry to reinforce his advance guard, and the Macedonians were forced to abandon the hill and return to their camp. Philip responded by sending his cavalry and his mercenary infantry to reinforce the covering force, and this time it was the Romans who were forced down their side of the hill, although a determined stand by the Aetolian cavalry prevented them from being pushed all the way off the hill.
It was probably this success that convinced Philip to risk a major battle on such unsuitable ground for his phalanx. He led the right wing of his phalanx up to the top of the hills in person, leaving his general Nicanor to bring up the left wing.
Flamininus also responded to the defeat of his light troops, and formed his entire army into its line of battle. He then led his left, complete with one of his legions, in an attack on the hitherto victorious Macedonian light troops. The Romans now had the advantage, and forced Philip’s covering troops back up the hill.
Philip responded by ordering the right wing of his phalanx to charge the Romans. This first clash between the phalanx and the legions went well for Philip. The dense phalanx charged downhill into the Roman forces, and began to push them back.
Flamininus rescued the situation by moving from his embattled left to his so-far unengaged right. They were facing Philip’s left wing, which had not yet got into position on the hills. Flamininus ordered his left wing, led by his elephants, to attack the Macedonians. According to Polybius the Macedonian left broke before the Romans reached even reached them. Given that the strength of the phalanx relied entirely on the integrity of the formation, this is perhaps not surprising – the individual members of the phalanx were only armed with the long Macedonian pike and a short dagger, so would have been virtually defenceless in an open melee.
Most of the Roman right wing was drawn into a pursuit of the broken Macedonian left, but one tribune took twenty maniples of legionnaires, and plunged into the exposed back of the until-then victorious Macedonian right. The Macedonians were effectively helpless against this attack, and their formation quickly broke. Seeing this Philip himself realised that the battle was lost, and managed to escape.
The Macedonians had already suffered heavy losses on their right, but more would follow. Many of the survivors attempted to surrender, signalling this by holding their spears upright. According to Polybius Flamininus recognised this symbol, and was prepared to accept their surrender, but some of the troops who had been involved in the successful attack on the Roman right then attacked the surrendering Macedonians from behind, slaughtering them.
Polybius gives the Roman casualties as 700, and the Macedonian as 8,000 dead and 5,000 captured. The battle effectively ended the war, for Philip now realised that he had no chance of victory and sued for peace, agreeing to everything that the Romans demanded.
The battle of Cynoscephalae marked a major change in the balance of power in the eastern Mediterranean. The Greek and then Macedonian phalanx had been the most powerful force on the battlefield for three centuries, ever since the Persian Wars. Alexander the Great had used it to conquer the Persian Empire, and his successors had built their ever-more elaborate armies around it. Cynoscephalae was no fluke. The legions would return to smash the Macedonian phalanx again at Pydna in 168 BC, while in 191-190 B.C. they also inflicted a disastrous defeat on the Seleucid emperor Antiochus III.