War between Rome and Antiochus III, 192-188 B.C.

The Build-up to War
The War in Greece
The War in Asia Minor
The Peace

The war between Rome and Antiochus III (192-188 B.C.) was the second of two wars that saw the Roman Republic, in a period of less than a decade, defeat the two most powerful of the successor states to the empire of Alexander the Great – Macedonia and the Seleucid Empire.

This war is also known as the Roman-Syrian War, or the war between Rome and Seleucid Syria, although at this period neither title is entirely accurate – the Seleucid Empire at this stage was not yet restricted to Syria, and stretched much further to the east.

The Romans had traditionally been wary of any involvement in the confused and often warlike politics of Greece, aware than any involvement had the potential to become an open ended drain on their resources. This changed in the aftermath of the battle of Cannae. Philip V of Macedonia had declared war on Rome (First Macedonian War), and in 212 B.C. the Romans arranged an alliance with the Aetolian League. That year also saw a Roman fleet enter Greek waters for the first time. Just as the Romans had feared, one war inevitably led to another. Fifteen years after that first alliance a Roman and Aetolian army crushed the power of Macedonia at Cynoscephalae, and only seven more years would pass before their victory over the Seleucid Empire at Magnesia.


The war between Rome and Antiochus III was perhaps an inevitable result of the increasing Roman involvement in Greek affairs that had begun during the First Macedonian War (215-205 B.C.). During this period Antiochus was absent in the east, attempting to restore the eastern part of his empire. In the years immediately after the Peace of Phoenice, he returned to the western part of his empire, and successfully campaigned in Asia Minor, before being called away to his border with Egypt.

He returned for a second time in 197, and successfully established himself as a power on the coast of Asia Minor, before early in 196 crossing the Hellespont to campaign in Thrace, on the borders of Europe. Before crossing he besieged the cities of Smyrna and Lampsacus, both of which appealed to Rome for help, while in Europe he re-founded the city of Lysimacheia, recently destroyed by the Thracians. The Romans had a delegation of ten legati in the Aegean, organising the peace terms agreed with Philip, and four of them eventually met Antiochus at Lysimacheia. They demanded that he leave Europe, and agree not to attack free Greek cities in Asia Minor. Antiochus made it clear that he did not believe the Romans had any right to intervene in Asia Minor, just as he had no rights in Italy, and that as Thrace had been held by his ancestors he had every right to campaign there. The meeting ended when a false rumour of the death of the current Ptolemy reached Lysimacheia.

The Romans, having only just defeated Macedonia, were not about to let another major power replace them as a threat. Before the war they saw Greece as firmly within their sphere of influence, with Asia Minor as the buffer zone between the two powers. Ironically Antiochus’s own publicity raised Roman suspicions. His campaign in the east had only been moderately successful, but he had portrayed it as a great success, and declared himself to be the “Great King”. He further raised Roman suspicions by allowing the great Punic general Hannibal to take refuge at his court after being expelled from Carthage.

In contrast Antiochus saw Asia Minor as an integral part of his empire, although most of the area had only briefly been held by his ancestors. The same was true of Thrace, on the western side of the Hellespont, which had also once been part of the Seleucid Empire. To him Greece was the buffer zone, and its cities and leagues were free to look for friends wherever they wanted.

The war also involved a number of the minor powers of Greece and Asia Minor. In Greece the Aetolian League had been an ally of Rome during the First and Second Macedonian Wars, but had not been happy with the peace settlement after the second war, and was now increasingly hostile to Rome. This was one of the factors that made Philip V of Macedonia, the defeated enemy of the Second Macedonian War, a useful Roman ally against Antiochus. He was also irritated by Antiochus’ attempt to present himself as the protector of Greece. The compact state of Pergamum was a long standing ally of Rome, and was now directly threatened by Antiochus, whose territories now surrounded the kingdom. Eumenes II of Pergamum would play a major role in the fighting. Finally, the Romans were helped by the maritime power of Rhodes, who simply wanted peace and stability for their trading ships.

The Build-up to War

In the summer of 194 B.C. the last Roman troops left Greece. The Romans hoped that their settlement of Greek affairs would bring an end to the epidemic of wars which had been the main feature of recent Greek history. The war against Nabis of Sparta was to have been the last.

Seleucid armies had campaigned in Thrace in 195 and 194 with some success, but in Asia Minor both Lampsacus and Smyrna still held out. An attempt to arrange an alliance with Rome had failed in 195, so in the winter of 194-3 Antiochus decided to send envoys to Rome. They arrived at the same time as a large number of delegates from the Greek states, in Rome because the Senate was about to work through the details of the peace settlement. This time the Romans simply insisted that he withdraw from Europe. The freedoms of the Greek cities of Asia Minor must also be respected, but the area would be part of the Seleucid sphere of influence. Antiochus’s envoys had no authority to negotiation away his European territories, and so the mission ended in failure. Later in 193 the Romans sent three legati to Asia Minor, but these protracted negotiations also ended in failure. Despite this, on their return to Rome the legati reported that they saw no reason for war.

What was clear was that if Antiochus intervened anywhere in Greece, then war with Rome would inevitably follow. This may have encouraged the Aetolian League, which was now determined to expand its influence, ignoring the terms of the peace settlement. In the late summer of 193 the Aetolians sent envoys to Nabis of Sparta, Philip V of Macedonia and Antiochus, hoping to create an anti-Roman coalition. Antiochus was not yet ready to move, Philip could hardly be expected to work alongside his long term enemies, but Nabis was eager to overthrow the Roman peace, which had stripped Sparta of her coastal towns.

The result was a short war in the spring of 192 between Sparta on one side, Rome, Pergamum and the Achaean League on the other. At the end of this conflict the Romans restored the status quo, once again disappointed one of their allies – this time the Achaeans, who had hoped to gain from the defeat of Nabis.

The War in Greece

Only after this second defeat of Nabis did the Aetolians make their move. In the spring of 192 Antiochus agreed to support them if war was forced on them by the Romans. Taking this as a promise of immediate aid, the Aetolians decided to capture the fortresses of Demetrias and Chalcis, and the city of Sparta. The attack on Sparta was briefly successful – Nabis was killed and the Aetolians took control of the city – but they were soon expelled, and the Achaean League finally got its way and annexed Sparta.

The attack on Chalcis was a total failure. Having recently gained its independence with Roman help, the magistrates of the city put up a stout resistance and repelled the Aetolians. Only the attack on Demetrias succeeded.

This Aetolian aggression made a Roman return to Greece inevitable, but because the Romans had not triggered the war, Antiochus did not have to intervene. He had a number of other campaigns under way, and did not have a large army available to take to Greece, but despite this he decided to cross the Aegean. In the autumn of 192, at the head of a force of 10,000 infantry, 500 cavalry and six elephants he landed at Demetrias.

If war with Rome was to come, it was to Antiochus’s advantage to make sure it took place in Greece, where his own power would not be at stake. He probably also expected a more enthusiastic response from the Greeks, but even the Aetolians would disappoint him. In the event the Achaean League responded by declaring war on Antiochus, while Philip V of Macedonia offered his assistance to the Romans. If Philip couldn’t be the greatest power in Greece, then neither could his main rival in the Hellenic world.

Antiochus would be thrown out of Greece after only six months. The Romans were much better prepared for war, and when news reached them that Antiochus had landed in Greece they were immediately able to send two legions across the Adriatic to Epirus, while one of the consuls for 192 began to raise the troops for the next year’s campaign.

The campaign of 191 was short and decisive. Philip quickly overran Antiochus’s few conquests in Thessaly, while the Roman presence on the west coast prevented the Aetolians from sending him any real help. The Romans then bypassed Aetolia, and marched into Thessaly. Antiochus decided to defend the pass of Thermopylae, but in April 191 he was defeated in almost exactly the same way as the Spartans had been when the Romans passed 2,000 troops through the mountain passes. In the aftermath of this defeat, Antiochus was forced to retreat back to Asia Minor. Aetolian resistance lasted for longer, but they were eventually forced to seek terms.

The War in Asia Minor

The main theatre of war now shifted to Asia Minor. Antiochus had a powerful fleet in those waters, commanded by Polyxenidas, but the Romans were also preparing to send a large fleet to the Aegean. There they would cooperate with Eumenes II of Pergamum, and with the Rhodians, both powers with significant fleets.

The first clash came at Corycus in 191 B.C. Despite having failed to prevent Eumenes and the Romans from combining their fleets, Polyxenidas decided to attack. The resulting battle ended in a clear allied victory, while Polyxenidas lost 23 of his ships. For the moment the Romans and their allies had command of the seas around Asia Minor.  

Antiochus responded to this by ordering Polyxenidas to build up his fleet as much as possible, while at the same time Hannibal was sent to Phoenicia with orders to raise a second fleet. When the Romans discovered this they ordered more ships to the Aegean.

The consul of 190 with responsibility for Greece was Lucius Scipio, the brother of Scipo Africanus, the hero of the Second Punic War. Africanus himself was bared from serving as consul so soon after his last term of office in 194, but it was very clear that he held the overall command of the expedition to Asia Minor. Taking advantage of Philip’s aid, the Scipios decided to take the land route into Asia, through Macedonian and Thrace.

By 190 B.C. the allies had three fleets active off the coast of Asia Minor – those of Rhodes, Pergamum and Rome, while Antiochus had rebuilt Polyxenidas’s fleet at Ephesus, and had sent Hannibal to construct a new fleet in Phoenicia. His best chance of a victory in the war was to divide the allied fleets, defeat them individually, and then stop the Roman army from crossing from Europe into Asia.

The Romans and their allies had an unsuccessful start to the year at sea, losing a large part of the Rhodian fleet in an ambush at Panormus. Just as Antiochus had hoped, the allies were forced to split their fleet. Eumenes of Pergamum was sent into the northern Aegean to support the army, while the Roman and Rhodian fleets remained at Samos, watching Polyxenidas in Ephesus. 

Antiochus’s plan began to go wrong when Hannibal’s fleet made its move. Hannibal was intercepted by the Rhodian fleet, and defeated at Eurymedon. This only left the main fleet at Ephesus. In the early autumn this fleet actually outnumbered the Roman fleet watching it (about a third of the fleet was on detached duty). Antiochus decided to risk one more naval battle. He launched an attack on Notium, a Roman ally along the coast from Ephesus. The Romans responded exactly as Antiochus had hoped, leaving Samos to go to their ally’s aid.

The resulting battle did not go as Antiochus had hoped. Polyxenidas just failed to trap the Roman fleet in port at Teos, and in the battle of Myonnesus was unable to take advantage of his greater numbers. The lighter ships from Rhodes prevented him from outflanking the Roman line, allowing the superior Roman infantry to win a series of boarding actions in the centre of the line. Once the Syrian line was broken, the two isolated wings were unable to stand. Despite being able to take advantage of a favourable wind to escape back to Ephesus, the Syrians lost 42 ships (13 sunk and 29 captured), nearly half of their fleet. 

The stage was now set for the final battle of the war. The Romans were able to cross the Hellespont without facing any opposition, either on sea or land. Although he had now gathered together a very large army, Antiochus was now prepared to accept the earlier Roman demands, and withdraw from Europe, but it was too late for that. The Romans now demanded that he withdrawn from all of Asia Minor west and north of the Taurus Mountains.

Antiochus broke off the negotiations, and moved east in order to find a suitable battlefield. The final battle came at Magnesia, probably in December 190 B.C. While Antiochus led a successful cavalry attack on his right flank, the Romans and their allies crushed his left and then turned on the isolated Syrian phalanx in the centre of the line. Antiochus’s army was destroyed – he may have lost over half of his original force – and he decided to sue for peace. 

The Peace

The final peace treaty was not formally agreed until 188 B.C. (Peace of Apamea), but the terms were set out early in 189, soon after the battle of Magnesia. Antiochus agreed to the Roman demand to evacuate Asia Minor – most of the cities in his possession in the area came over the Romans in the aftermath of the battle anyway. He was also to pay a war indemnity of 15,000 Euboeic talents, 500 on the spot, 2,500 once the Senate had agreed to the peace terms and the rest in twelve annual instalments. Another 400 talents were to be paid to Eumenes of Pergamum. The exact details of the new settlement in Asia Minor were decided by the Romans over the next year, with both Rhodes and Pergamum being rewarded for their support, although not quite to the extent they had originally hoped. Just as at the end of the Second Macedonian War, the Romans had no intention of leaving a garrison in Asia Minor – all they wanted was a buffer zone to their east, which now stretched from the eastern shores of the Adriatic to the Taurus Mountains.

Antiochus remained a powerful figure. His empire stretched from the Taurus Mountains into eastern Iran, and south towards the border of Egypt. Roman hopes of a peaceful buffer zone in Greece would soon be frustrated. A third Macedonian War would follow after Philip V was succeeded by his son Perseus, quickly followed by a war with the Achaean League, and the establishment of a permanent Roman presence in Greece.

The Seleukid Empire of Antiochus III 223-187 BC, John D. Grainger. Looks at the life and achievements of Antiochus III, one of the most successful of the Seleukid Emperors, but now best remembered for his defeats at the hands of the Romans. During a long reign he regained control of most areas that had been claimed by his predecessors, defeated the Ptolomies, secured most of Asia Minor, but overstretched himself with an invasion of Thrace and his activities in mainland Greece, which helped trigger the clash with Rome. [read full review]
cover cover cover
How to cite this article: Rickard, J (9 November 2008), War between Rome and Antiochus III, 192-188 B.C. , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/wars_rome_antiochusIII.html

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