Achaea and Rome: 192 B.C. – 146 B.C.

Achaean League triobol, 175-168 BC, McClean 6431-6432. Obverse depicts the god of the League Zeus Homarius, Reverse depicts AX monogram, meaning of the Achaeans.

“Rome was simply too powerful. Yet Achaia could not accept the discrepancy in power without abandoning all pretence of independence.”[1]

This post is based on part of my undergraduate dissertation. It deals with the relationship between the Achaean League and Rome, and how due to the changing nature of Roman foreign policy and the increasingly stagnant nature of the Achaean League’s the two came to blows, leading to the Sack of Corinth in 146 B.C.

Collective identity had been established, but in the period covered by the next chapter it is difficult to examine the changes that the Achaean collective identity underwent, since the period is dominated by histories that focus on the political and military events. However, this allows us to examine what benefits and detriments the creation of a collective identity may have when dealing with political, military, social and economic events. Another thing I want to do in this chapter is to examine the ideology of the Achaean League, and whether this can be a part of a people’s identity. This will be done by examining the texts and finding out common themes amongst their policy and what they reveal about the world the Achaean League inhabited. This chapter covers the period from 192 – 146 BC, which saw the destruction of the Achaean League, which offers the chance to examine how a people react to foreign intervention in an extremely volatile period, which also saw them at the height of their power as a state. The Achaean League’s relationship with Rome will also be a topic covered in this chapter, since it was undoubtedly one of the factors of their success for the first 25 years of the second century BC, and the relationship and the controversy it caused both in Rome and amongst the Achaeans themselves provides a lot of material both on the strengths and weaknesses of the Achaean federal experiment. Exploring this forty-six-year period allows to examine in detail the practicalities of the established collective identity; how the loose nature of Achaean Identity allowed a varied political landscape that was one of the reasons for the volatility period and why the relationship with Rome soured, and why the experiment was put to a violent end.

The Achaean League’s ambition to unify the Peloponnese was well known,[2] and is one of the more important parts of their ideology since it dominates the field of wars and their policy towards any other states within the Peloponnese. Greek freedom was the cornerstone of Roman policy in this period, and the terms of the treaty that ended the Second Macedonian War (200-197 BC), included a clause “That all the Greek Cities, in Europe and in Asia, should have their freedom and own laws.”[3] Very soon after these negotiations, it became clear to the Greeks that it very unlikely that the Romans would stop interfering in Greece’s affairs.[4] This raises the question of how the League would be able to carry out its objective of unification, and it used its relationship with Rome to sort out its own problems.[5] When the Aetolians assassinated Nabis of Sparta in 192, Philopoeman was able to annex Sparta and the communities within Laconia, since Rome was busy dealing with the beginnings of the conflict against Antiochus III. This allowed The Achaean league to subjugate the city, and although Sparta appealed to the senate asking for its independence from the League, the ambiguous and apathetic reply[6] led to Achaea dominating Sparta and enforcing their form of government upon her. The fact that Sparta becomes a recurring issue in this period, shows how important hegemony of the Peloponnese had become to the political identity of the Achaeans, since they would do anything to defend their right to rule. But why would this be so important to the Achaeans, especially compared to another part of their ideology, independence (see below), and how recklessly and continuously engaging in wars effected their relationship with their main ally Rome. Cartledge suggests that we view these conflicts as an internal issue.[7] In that, the Achaean League had already conquered Sparta and their attempts at leaving had to be dealt with as a local issue, rather than one between two states. The collective identity of the league has a part to play in the hostility of between Sparta and the League, due to the magistracies being dominated by men from Megalopolis, which clouded the direction of policy.[8] The way the identity of the League had formed, by allowing autonomy of the states which meant they could retain their individual characters, should have appealed to Sparta, but Megalopolis’ prejudice against Sparta, for it was formed as a block against Spartan power and had clashed many times before, meant that policy towards Sparta was aggressive.

Just as the campaigns against Sparta symbolize how the League’s commitment to hegemony of the Peloponnese was linked to how the collective identity of the league was formed, the wars against Messenia can help us understand Achaean attitudes towards independence and how they help to integrate a territory they just conquered. The war against Messenia was originally conducted without the permission of Rome, and it was a point of contention that the League was “unwilling to refer any matters whatever to the Senate, but were haughtily and desirous of managing all their affairs themselves.”[9] At this point Rome didn’t have a coherent policy regarding its allies in the east, but the relationship from the Roman point of view was one of patron and client, master and servant, ensuring the freedom of the states.[10] However, the Achaean League, at least before 167 (and the defeat of Perseus), saw Rome as just another Hellenistic power,[11] and wanted a permanent alliance after the First Macedonian War, but it was refused due to the counter claims of other Greek states.[12] Before this, the Achaean League had always had a powerful state backing it, a survival mechanism that gave it both strength to act, and also financial backing if needed. Being rebuffed in this way reinforced the need to become Hegemon of the Peloponnese and acting independently meant both an increase its own power and prestige when completing with other powers that it viewed as its equal. Of course, there was a vast difference in power between the Roman Republic and the Achaean League,[13] but it was how this power was used and how these states acted that dictated the relationship, Rome’s hesitant attitude towards the Greek states was the Achaean League’s gain.

To return to the conquest of Messenia, the League invaded the country without the permission of the senate and after the death of Philopoeman, the subsequent general Lycortas crushed the Messenians in 182 BC.[14] Rome, rather than reacting negatively to the conquest, changed their attitude and insisted they assisted in the conquest by blockading Messenian harbours,[15] this change showed the weakness in Roman policy in this period[16] and helped to foster in the Achaean imagination that Rome could be dealt with like any other Hellenistic state. Even though the Achaean League had defied Rome, it was still a useful ally to Rome and served the needs as a counter to Macedon,[17] antagonising the league would send it into the arms of Macedon, unbalancing the delicate situation in Balkans. Although the League did go against what Rome wanted this was normal for the diplomacy of the time, and the alliance they had was of equals,[18] and the League did not see itself as subservient to Rome,[19] and just as the League was a counter to Rome’s enemies, Rome was a counter to Achaea’s, this meant they were comfortable to expand. The Achaean League did so as an independent state which was part of a network of allies that allowed it to expand naturally without overstretching itself, however, the focus on local issues building upon the internal organisation of league led to problems.

To Achaea, local issues remained central to policy,[20] and this is reflected in how Messenia was integrated into the League. After the League defeated Messenia, there wasn’t an aggressive policy of integration, but a series of tax cuts that meant the league was helping to rebuild the Messenian territory and economy.[21] The autonomy of the newly conquered territory seemed to take precedence over the economic benefits of conquering the territory, the federal principle of the Achaeans meant that all states were equal in joining, it was just when they left when it caused problems. And although the Achaean Identity preached the individuality of the cities of the league, inscriptional evidence from Epidaurus shows that there was common sense of Achaean citizenship/identity.[22] It is a casualty list from the Battle of the Isthmus (146 BC) which records 156 people: 50 Epidaurians and 103 Achaeans and other residents.[23] This shows that the identity of the league was such, that civil rights were consistent across the state, meaning it was easy for members to travel and live within other cities of the League.

I have previously mentioned Rome’s attitude towards the Achaeans and how the relationship was based upon mutual need. Two turning points stand out when examining the relations between the two states: Callicrates’ speech to the Senate in 180 BC and the Achaeans lack of assistance in the third Macedonian war. Both these events didn’t have much effect in the short-term, but the long-term implications of a shift in the dynamic of the alliance would lead to the events of 146 and the destruction of the League. Callicrates was an Achaean League statesmen, who was part of the faction that opposed Lycortas and Polybius,[24] when he was sent to home to propose that Rome should support members of his faction since they were more likely to comply with Roman demands.[25] What was this meant to do to Achaea? Perhaps Callicrates saw the Rome as too powerful and action had to be taken then to ensure the survival of the League, even if it meant a loss of some autonomy. The fact that Callicrates was elected as Strategos the following year, suggests that political manoeuvring was an important factor in what he said. The issue is that our primary source for this period is Polybius, one of the 1000 Achaeans exiled after the Third Macedonian War, on the orders of Callicrates. However, what becomes clear in this is the conflict between two key parts of the ideology of the Achaean League: independence and survival. His choice to the Senate was the only one that allowed long term co-operation with Rome,[26] but that meant a loss of autonomy that the League would not want in the long term. This is why, for the Achaeans at least, although described as traitorous, was seen as little more than a ploy to gain more popularity for his faction, with little long-term effects.[27] However, in Rome it triggered a seed a doubt about whether the League was as valuable an ally as first believed. Polybius says that Achaea had always “elected to maintain the Roman cause”[28] but once doubt had been sowed it was only a matter of time until Rome dealt with “Greek intransigence”.[29]

That time came when Rome was at war with Macedon for the third time. Achaea was attempting to avoid sending men, Polybius says:

“Lycortas stood firm in his original views: which was that they should send no help to either Perseus or Rome in any way, nor, on the other hand take part against either. For he held, that co-operation with either would be disadvantageous to the Greeks at large, because he foresaw the overwhelming power which the successful nation would possess.”[30]

This section is extremely significant, since it outlines the ideology of the League. Of course, hindsight is an important factor in Polybius’ writings and of course he knew that Rome would be the one with “overwhelming power”. However, it reveals a lot about the League’s attitude towards foreign policy, since they knew it would disadvantage the Greeks, but rather than present a united front against Roman aggression, they wanted to do nothing. The lack of Greek unity in this period is commented upon by Gruen[31] and although the Achaean League did unify the Peloponnese, that was the extent of their power and their ambition; the Greeks continued to be obsessed with local issues and protecting what was theirs.[32] So, where neutrality seemed like a good way to avoid any change to their situation, to Rome, it was filled with suspicion,[33] and was grounds for removing those who disagreed with Rome’s sentiments. Furthermore, without a common enemy, the independent actions of the Achaeans constituted a threat to Rome.

Rome and Achaea are two very different states, and in this chapter, I have been showing how they worked (or didn’t) together. By 146 BC Achaea hadn’t really changed: divided into two factions, vying for more autonomy and seeing itself as able to compete with the larger states due to the strength of the collective identity of its people. Rome had changed and changed into a state that didn’t allow any deviation from what it wanted, and the relationship between it and its allies was now one of patron and client, but Achaea’s actions went against this tradition, Roman dignatas would not stand for that, leading to war.[34] Sparta once again wanted independence, but the League’s actions led Rome to issue an ultimatum: break up the League or war.[35] The strength of Achaean Identity meant that war was the only option, since it became a war against the Achaean people[36] and everything that it had built up to become it. The casualty list from the Battle of Epidaurus helps to reinforce this point, since it emphasises that the Achaeans were one people. Survival, one of the key pillars of the Achaean identity had lost all meaning, since the proposed destruction of the League would render it all for nothing. Which was why the divisive assembly unanimously voted for war, even though it meant the destruction of the league.

The objective of this chapter was to show how Achaean Identity worked in practice, since the 46-year period covered a vast array of issues, both local and between other states. I have shown how the Achaean collective identity fostered a sense of unity between the various poleis of the Peloponnese, and how it helped in dealing with other states. The issues arose to the contrasts between Rome and the Greek states it had contact with, and how autonomy and expectation became an issue that led to conflict. Achaean identity was originally established as a way for a people, an ethnos, to survive and thrive in a world that was fast becoming dominating by poleis. It served a similar purpose in this period, creating a unified people to create a greater bargaining power against the larger states, it simply underestimated the power of Rome until it was too late.

For a full bibliography for my Achaean League Dissertation, click here.


[1] Grainger (2013) 102.

[2] Ibid. 102.

[3] Livy, The History of Rome, 33.30.2.

[4] Ibid. 33.32.3.

[5] Grainger (2013) 46.

[6] Livy, 38.32.9. “it was decreed that no change should be made in the status of the Lacedaemonians. The reply, however, was so ambiguous that both the Achaeans accepted it as a concession of freedom of action regarding Lacedaemon and the Lacedaemonians interpreted it as not granting the Achaeans full authority.”

[7] Cartledge and Spawforth (1989) 81.

[8] Larsen (1967) 237.

[9] Polybius, The Histories, 23.9.

[10] Badian (1952) 72.

[11] Gruen (1984) 438.

[12] Polybius, 18.43.6-7.

[13] Grainger (2013) 102.

[14] Polybius, 23.16.

[15] Ibid. 23.17.

[16] O’Neal (1994) 35.

[17] Derow (1989 2nd ed.) 301.

[18] Badian (1952)

[19] Gruen (1984) 463.

[20] Ibid. 474.

[21] Polybius, 24.2.

[22] Larsen (1967) 239.

[23] SEG 47 344; Larsen (1967) 239.

[24] Some would say that he was in the ‘Pro-Roman faction’, but at this point all Achaean League statesman supported Rome, he used Rome to remove opponents and gain support from abroad.

[25] Polybius, 24.12.

[26] Cartledge and Spawforth (1989) 84.

[27] Walbank (1979) 262; Gruen (1984) 500.

[28] Polybius, 24.12.

[29] Gruen (1984) 497.

[30] Polybius, 28.6.

[31] Gruen (1984) 437.

[32] Ibid. 437.

[33] Grainger (2013) 100.

[34] Badian (1952) 80; Gruen (1984) 522.

[35] Pausanias, Guide to Greece, 7.14.1; Derow (1989 2nd ed.) 322.

[36] Fuks (1970) 86.


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