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Perseus: The Last Greek King of Ancient Greece

The Last Ancient Greek King, Perseus
Tetradrachm coin minted during the reign of Perseus of Macedon (179-168 BC), the last ancient Greek king prior to the Roman conquest. PHGCOM / Wikipedia. Public Domain

Perseus of Macedon was the last Greek king of ancient Greece before it came under Roman rule following defeat in the Battle of Pydna in June of 168 BC.

The last king of Macedon, who ruled from 179 to 168 BC, was also the last of the Antigonid line of kings, a dynasty tracing back to Alexander the Great. Perseus had resisted the Romans who had already dominated vast parts of Greece.

Perseus’ gallant effort brought him against the Roman army at Pydna. The Romans won the battle and annexed Macedon, the only remaining region of the Hellenistic World. The defeat marked the final destruction of Alexander’s empire and introduced Roman authority over Greece and the Near East.

The Greek King Born in Rome

Perseus was born around 213 to 212 BC near Rome. He was the elder son of King Philip V. Philip’s other son, Demetrius, who was ambassador to Rome and pro-Roman. Perseus was jealous of his brother and convinced Philip that Demetrius was conspiring to usurp his throne. Philip had Demetrius executed, and, when he died a year later, Perseus ascended to the throne.

The Romans, however, knew that Perseus was not pro-Roman like his brother and viewed him with suspicion. The new king was aware of that, and one of his first acts was to renew Macedon’s treaty with Rome.

Ancient Pydna, Greece
Ruins of ancient Pydna, Greece. Credit: wikimedia commons / Juergen-Olymp CC BY 4.0

Another diplomatic move Perseus made was to marry Laodice, the daughter of Seleucus IV, the king of the Seleucid Empire, in order to have an ally. In a further pursuit of alliances, Perseus had his daughter marry Prusias II of Bithynia, who was an enemy of Eumenes II of Pergamon, an ally of Rome.

However, at the same time, Abrupolis, the king of the Thracian tribe of the Sapaei and an ally of the Romans, attacked Macedon and advanced as far as Amphipolis. He overran the gold mines of Mount Pangaeus. Perseus and his army managed to drive out the Sapaei. This conflict created tensions with the Romans because their ally was ousted.

Perseus enlarged his army by creating a new alliance with Cotys IV, the king of the Odrysian kingdom, the largest state in Thrace. Moreover, he ambitiously announced he could carry out reforms in Greece and restore its previous glory. For this purpose, he sent agents to the Greek city-states seeking support.

Perseus gained the support of Greeks who did not want to be subjected to Roman rules. He resumed control of the Delphic Amphictyony, established excellent relations with Rhodes, and encouraged the Aetolians and Thessalians to revolt against Rome. His political maneuvers generated bitter disputes between pro-Roman and pro-Perseus factions.

Perseus caused widespread alarm in Greece when he visited Delphi with his army. In 172, Eumenes II of Pergamon incited Rome against Perseus’ aggressive plans, thus precipitating the Third Macedonian War (171–168 BC).

The Battle of Pydna

The alliances Perseus made, his show of strength, and his visit to Delphi with his army alarmed the Romans. At the same time, pro-Roman Greek oligarchs and aristocrats who did not want to lose their privileges sided with Rome against the Macedon king. This is how the war started culminating at Pydna.

On June 22, 168 BC, the heavy hoplites of the Macedonian phalanx attacked the  legionnaires with their long sarissa. The Romans, under general Lucius Aemilius Paullus, attempted to meet head-on with the Macedonian heavy infantry and suffered great losses, being forced to start backing down.

Pydna, Greece
Pydna, Greece. Credit: wikimedia commons / Lemur12 CC BY 4.0

The Roman commander, upon realizing that his center was about to collapse, ordered his agile troops to maneuver and draw the phalanx to the rough terrain of nearby hills in order to break its cohesion and open gaps in the Macedonian formation.

Despite their heavy losses, the Romans were able to maneuver in an orderly manner and break the phalanx. The four thousand cavalry men of the Macedonian army failed to support the flanks as the phalanx broke, and, by evening, Perseus’ army was utterly defeated. From the original forty-four thousand Macedonians soldiers, twenty-five thousand men were killed, wounded, or captured by the Romans.

Some historians have criticized the half-hearted intervention of the famous Macedonian cavalry, attributing it to political motives. The cavalrymen were the sons of Macedonian aristocratic families which had become displeased with Perseus’ favoring the masses over the elite.

The Battle of Pydna marked the end of Alexander’s empire and the Hellenistic era. Following his victory, Aemilius Paullus ordered the sacking of seventy Epirus towns even though they were not involved with Perseus at all. He did so to set an example for the rest of Greeks who wished to directly confront the Roman power.

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