First Macedonian War 215-205 BC

Phase One: Rome vs Philip
Phase Two: Rome and Aetolia vs Philip
Phase Three: Aetolia vs Philip


The First Macedonian War (215-205 BC) was caused by the decision of Philip V of Macedonia to form an alliance with Hannibal in the aftermath of his series of great victories against Rome in Italy. It was the first war in which Roman troops fought on the mainland of Greece, although neither Rome nor Carthage put any great effort into the war. Most of the fighting was between Philip V of Macedon and the Aetolian League and their respective allies.

Philip V had ascended to the throne of Macedonia in 221, and had soon become involved in the Social War, between the Hellenic (or Greek) League and the Aetolian League, but even at this early stage in his reign Philip was clearly worried by the rising power of Rome. Macedonia and Rome were not direct neighbours, but they were coming into more regular contact on the eastern shores of the Adriatic. The two main powers in this area – Epirus and the Illyrians – were normally friendly to Macedonia, while the Romans were increasingly involved in the area. In 230-228 they had intervened to prevent the Illyrians from gaining too much power on the coast (First Illyrian War), and in 219 had returned (Second Illyrian War), this time to prevent their former ally Demetrius of Pharos from upsetting the balance of power. In the aftermath of his defeat Demetrius had fled to Philip’s court, where he soon became one of his chief advisors.

Soon after this Hannibal launched his famous invasion of Italy, starting the Second Punic War. A series of victories followed, culminating in 217 was the battle of Lake Trasimene. The moment the news reached Philip, he began negotiations to end the Social War. In September 217 the peace of Naupactus ended that war, leaving Philip free to attempt to take advantage of the Roman weakness. At this time Rome had no actual possessions east of the Adriatic, but did have a series of friends and allies along the coast, and these would be Philip’s first target.

In 216 Philip made an attempt to capture Apollonia, on the Illyrian coast, by surprise. Constructing a fleet of 100 light lembi, he sailed around the southern tip of Greece and up the Adriatic, eventually reaching the bay of Aulon, only 14 miles from his target. His biggest fear was that the Romans might despatch their fleet from Sicily to stop him, for their heavy quinqueremes would have easily overpowered his lembi. The Romans soon learnt what Philip was doing from their ally Scerdilaidas, and dispatched a force of ten quinqueremes to the Adriatic. Learning of their approach, Philip panicked, perhaps unaware of the small size of the Roman fleet, and ordered his fleet back to Macedonian waters.

At this point Philip was still acting independently of the Carthaginians, who under Hannibal had achieved a series of stunning victories over the Romans during the previous year (217). While Philip was failing in the Adriatic, Hannibal was winning his great victory at Cannae. Over the winter of 216-215 it must have looked as if Philip had missed his chance to benefit from the apparent defeat of Rome, for Hannibal did not look like he needed any allies, but by the spring of 215 it was clear that the Romans were going to continue the fight.

Phase One: Rome vs Philip

In the summer of 215 BC an embassy from Philip, lead by the Athenian Xenophanes, reached Hannibal’s camp to negotiate a treaty. The terms that were agreed were surprisingly vague, perhaps reflecting Hannibal’s continued confidence in a quick victory. Philip and Hannibal were to act as allies against Rome, although neither was required to send any direct help to the other. Once the Romans had been defeated, a defensive alliance would exist between Carthage and Macedonia. The only really concrete part of the alliance covered the potential peace treaty between Rome and Hannibal. The Romans were to agree never to attack Philip, to abandon all of their “possessions” on the Illyrian mainland (at this stage this referred to their official friends and allies), and were to return the households of Demetrius of Pharos, captured by the Romans during the Second Illyrian War.

The Romans very quickly discovered the terms of this treaty. The ship carrying Xenophanes and a Carthaginian delegation back to Macedonia was captured off the coast of Calabria, and a draft copy of the treaty was found. The muted Roman response is often seen as a sign of how little they were worried by the alliance, but in the aftermath of the disaster at Cannae may have been all the Republic could manage. The twenty five warships already in Apulia were reinforced with another thirty, all under the command of the praetor M. Valerius Laevinus. He had orders to investigate Philip’s intentions. If the treaty proved to be genuine, then he was to cross to Macedonia and make sure Philip wasn’t free to leave.  

Philip had included his allies in the Achaean League in the treaty with Hannibal, but when he arrived in the Peloponnese he found Aratus, the leader of the league, hostile to any involvement in the west. The situation was made worse by the affair of Messene. Like many Greek city states, Messene (in the south west of the Peloponnese) suffered from conflict between the populace on one side and the magistrates and the optimates on the other. Philip was invited in as an arbitrator, and seems to have incited the populace to take over. A massacre followed, in which 200 of the optimates were killed. The new rules of the city then offered Philip the fortress of Ithome, but Aratus protested against Philip holding both Ithome and Acrocorinth, at the other corner of the Peloponnese. Philip was forced to abandon Ithome, but he would make a second attempt to occupy the area in the next year.

214 BC

In the spring of 214 BC Philip made a second attempt to capture Apollonia from the sea. Once again his fleet was made up of the light lembi, this time 120 of them, and once again this fleet reached the bay of Aulon, capturing the port of Oricum. Philip then began a siege of Apollonia, but as in 216 the Romans were quick to respond. Laevinus quickly recaptured Oricum, and then threw reinforcements into Apollonia. The Romans and Apollonians then launched a successful attack on Philip’s camp. Philip was forced to burn his boats and retreat across the Pindus Mountains into Macedonia.

In the autumn of 214 Philip sent Demetrius of Pharos to attack Messene. The attack failed, and Demetrius was probably killed. In revenge Philip ravaged the territory of Messene. The factions within the city were united against Philip, left the Greek League, and moved closer to the Aetolians. The Achaean League was further weakened in the following year by the death of Aratus.

213 BC

In 213 Philip made an overland attack on Illyria. This was far more successful than either of his naval expeditions had been. Although Apollonia and Dyrrhachium were too strongly garrisoned for him to attack, he was able to subdue the Atintanes and Parthini tribes and capture Dimallum and the fortress of Lissus, driving a wedge between the Romans at Oricum and their ally Scerdilaidas. He also gained a foothold on the Adriatic coast, but the Carthaginians would never take advantage of this.

Phase Two: Rome and Aetolia vs Philip


By 212 BC the situation on the Illyrian coast was so serious that the Romans finally began to look for a Greek ally. Hannibal had captured Tarentum, while a large Carthaginian fleet was engaged in an attempt to break the siege of Syracuse. Part of this fleet could easily have been sent around the Italian coast to Philip’s new coastal possessions, renewing the danger that Philip might bring the Macedonia army to Italy.

The only useful ally available to the Romans was the Aetolian League (based on the northern side of the Corinthian Gulf). By 212 the leading figures in the league were Dorimachus and Scopas of Trichonium, and they were both hostile to Philip. The time seemed right to renew the war. Achaea was weak and leaderless, while Philips’ intervention in Messene had turned the rest of the Peloponnese against him. Further east Attalus of Pergamum, a long standing friend of the Aetolian League, had been tied down in Asia Minor by Achaeus’ revolt, but that had now been put down, freeing him to agree to come to the aid of the League.

Either late in 212 or during 211 Laevinus visited Aetolia with his fleet, the first time that a Roman war fleet had visited Greek harbours. He met with the federal assembly of Aetolia, and agreed a treaty of alliance. The terms of this treaty show that the Romans were still not interested in expanding east of the Adriatic. Any cities south of Corcyra (Corfu) captured by either the Romans alone or the Romans and Aetolians acting together would be granted to the League. The movable goods (including the population) would be taken by the Romans if they acted alone, or split between the allies if they had cooperated. The Romans agreed to provide 25 quinqueremes, while the Aetolians provided the majority of the soldiers. Elis, Messene, Sparta, Attalus, Pleuratus and Scerdilaidas were all free to join the alliance if they so wished. The two parties also agreed not to make a separate peace.

The first target of the new allies was Acarnania, an ally of Philips located on the coast west of the Aetolian heartland. In the autumn of 212 Philip was campaigning on the northern borders of Macedonia, where he took Sintia from the Dardanians, and Iamphorynna from the Tracian Maedi. Encouraged by his absence the Aetolians invaded Acarnania. The Acarnanians swore an oath to conquer or die, sent their women and children to safety in Epirus, and held off the Aetolians until Philip was able to return from the north.

The Romans were more successful. Laevinus used his fleet to capture Oeniadae and Nasus from the Acarnanians and all of Zacynthus apart from the acropolis from Philip. All three cities were then handed to the Aetolians.


The main event of 211 was the capture of Anticyra by Laevinus and the Aetolian general Scopas. In accord with their alliance the Romans enslaved the population, while the town was handed over the Aetolians, who soon lost it to Philip. Late in the summer of 211 Laevinus was replaced by the proconsul P. Sulpicius Galba, who would command the Roman fleet for most of the rest of the war.


The campaign of 210 saw Philip take the initiative, attempting to expel the Aetolians from Phthiotic Achaea (Thessaly), to give him access to central Greece. The main event was the siege of the coastal city of Echinus. The Aetolian general Dorimachus and Sulpicius with the Roman fleet attempted to raise the siege, without success, and the city fell to Philip. The only Roman success of this first expedition into the Aegean was the capture of the island of Aegina. The island was then handed over the Aetolians, but they had no fleet, and so sold the island to Attalus of Pergamum for 30 talents. This finally brought Attalus’ fleet into the war. In response Philip made an alliance with Prusias of Bithynia, who promised to bring his own fleet into the Aegean. 210 also saw Sparta join the war, this time on the side of Rome and the Aetolians. At this time Sparta was ruled by Machanidas, as guardian of Pelops, the son of Lycurgus. The entry of Sparta into the war greatly complicated Philip’s tasks, for his allies in Achaea were now under attack from three sides. In 209 and 208 Philip would be forced to come to their aid.


In 209 the Achaeans were under pressure from Sparta and from an Aetolian army attacking from the north. Philip responded by with a successful campaign in the Peloponnese, inflict two defeats on an Aetolian army that was operating with the support of Roman and Pergamene auxiliaries. These defeats came at about the same time as a group of peace envoys from Rhodes, Chios and Egypt arrived in Greece, in the first attempt to end the war (alongside the Athenians). Their defeats at least temporarily convinced the Aetolians to seek peace. An armistice was agreed, and peace negotiations began, but they broke down when both Sulpicius and Attalus arrived with reinforcements. Philip resumed his campaign in Achaea, inflicting a defeat on the Romans at Sicyon. An attempt to capture Elis failed, and then Philip was forced to return to Macedonia to deal with a Dardanian invasion.


At the start of the campaign of 208 BC Philip seemed to be in trouble. Sulpicius, Attalus and their fleets were operating the Aegean, the Aetolians had fortified Thermopylae in an attempt to keep Philip in the north, and it was rumoured that the Illyrians and Maedi were planning to invade Macedonia. In fact the events of the year demonstrated the limits of Roman power in Greece at this time. They were reliant on the Aetolians in any campaign on land, and lacked the troops to take advantage of their command of the sea. The combined fleet made unsuccessful attacks on Lemnos, Peparethus and Chalcis. On land Philip was able to force his way through the pass of Thermopylae, and came very close to capturing Attalus at Opus in Locris. This marked the end of Attalus’ involvement in the war in Greece, for Prusias of Bithynia finally entered the war on Philip’s side, invading Pergamum. Attalus was forced to return home to defend his kingdom.

With Attalus out of the war, Sulpicius retired to Aegina with the Roman fleet, leaving Philip free to campaign in Locris, where he captued Thronium, and in Phocis, where he captured and Tithronium and Drymaea. He was then forced back into the Peloponnese, to repel a Spartan attack on the Achaeans.

Phase Three: Philip vs Aetolia


The final stage of the war saw the Romans withdraw from the Aegean. Sulpicius may have sacked Dyme, the most westerly of the Achaean cities, but after that the Roman concentrated on patrolling the Illyrian coast. From their point of the view the war had achieved its aim, keeping Philip away from the Illyrian coast while the danger from Hannibal was at its most extreme. In addition 208-207 saw Hasdrubal’s invasion of Italy, and it is possible that Sulpicius’s legion was withdrawn to help deal with this threat. It was also clear after ten years that Carthage was not going help Philip.

This left the Aetolians in a vulnerable position, made worse by an unexpected revival of Achaean strength. This was triggered by the appointment of Philopoemen son of Craugis of Megalopolis as commander of the Achaean cavalry in 210-09. He was an experienced mercenary captain, who returned to Achaea after spending ten years on Crete. After the cavalry he reformed the infantry in 208-7, and then during 207 inflicted a heavy defeat on the Spartans. This came at one of many battles of Mantinea. Having captured Tegea, the Spartan Machanidas approached Mantinaea. In the battle that followed Philopoemen defeated the Spartan phalanx. Machanidas was killed in the battle, possibly by Philopoemen.

With no distraction in the south Philip was able to concentrate on defeating the Aetolians. He was able to drive them from Thessaley and recapture Zacynthos (Ionian Islands). He then invaded Aetolia from the north, sacking the Aetolian federal sanctuary at Thermum.


The defeats of 207 and the lack of Roman support convinced the Aetolians that it was time to make peace. In the autumn of 206, and in violation of their alliance with Rome, the Aetolian League made peace with Philip. Most of the areas lost to Philip during the fighting remained lost, including most of Phocia. The Aetolians also earned the hostility of Rome.


The Romans made one more attempt to renew the war, sending the proconsul P. Sempronius Tuditanus to Illyria at the head of a force of 10,000 infantry and 1,000 cavalry. This army was too small to face Philip alone, and was clearly meant to encourage the Aetolians to resume the war, but without success.

Both sides now had little reason to continue the war. It was becoming clear to Philip that Carthage was going to lose its war with Rome – in 205 Scipio Africanus was preparing for his invasion of Africa of the following year. If Philip was willing to make peace on good terms, then Rome had no need to continue to fighting. When the magistrates of the Epirote confederacy offered to organise peace negotiations, the Romans agreed.

The negotiations took place at Phoenice. The resulting Peace of Phoenice, agreed in the autumn of 205, generally favoured Philip, allowing him to keep control of the Atintanes, one of Rome’s allies conquered earlier in the war. The peace was ratified by the Roman Senate and People at the end of 205, while Sempronius was elected consul.

Rome and Philip both had reason to be satisfied with the outcome of the war. Philip had expanded his influence in inland Illyria and in mainland Greece, while the Romans had prevented him from threatening the Illyrian coast or even Italy. The peace would be shortlived, and the Second Macedonian War would break out only five years later.

How to cite this article: Rickard, J (5 November 2008), First Macedonian War 215-205 BC ,

Help - F.A.Q. - Contact Us - Search - Recent - About Us - Privacy