Book Review: Taken At the Flood; The Roman Conquest of Greece, by Robin Waterfield


In my research about the third Punic war, the one in which Rome destroyed Carthage, I ran across an intriguing quote by the Greek historian Polybius.
“The ruin of Carthage is indeed considered to have been the greatest of calamities, but when we come to think of it the fate of Greece was no less terrible and in some ways even more so. For the Carthaginians at least left to posterity some ground, however slight, for defending their cause, but the Greeks gave no plausible pretext to anyone who wished to support them and acquit them of error. And again the Carthaginians, having been utterly exterminated by the calamity which overtook them, were for the future insensible of their sufferings, but the Greeks, continuing to witness their calamities, handed on from father to son the memory of their misfortune. So that inasmuch as we consider that those who remain alive and suffer punishment are more to be pitied than those who perished in the actual struggle, we should consider the calamities that then befell Greece more worthy of pity than the fate of Carthage, unless in pronouncing on the matter we discard all notion of what is decorous and noble, and keep our eyes only on material advantage. Everyone will acknowledge the truth of what I say if he recalls what are thought to have been the greatest misfortunes that had befallen Greece and compares them with my present narrative.”
The very year that Carthage was destroyed, the Romans also destroyed the magnificent Greek city of Corinth and killed or enslaved the entire population. They took all that was valuable to Rome and the Consul Lucius Mummius Achaeaicus presented a vast amount of Corinthian booty to the Roman populace when he marched through the streets of Rome in his triumph.
In Taken at the Flood: The Roman Conquest of Greece, Robin Waterfield goes into detail about the long but inexorable process of Rome’s ever increasing domination of its Eastern neighbor. Rome first became involved in Greece in 229 B.C. in the First Illyrian War. The Queen of Illyria, Tueta, was allegedly encouraging pirate activities along the Adriatic coast, and when Roman envoys went to discuss the matter with her, she had them killed. Rome’s military intervention was limited to Illyria at the time.
During the Second Punic war King Phillip V made a treaty with Hannibal offering mutual assistance and co-operation. This led to wars between Rome and Macedon in 214 B.C. and again in 200 B.C. The Romans defeated Phillip decisively at the battle Cynocephalae in 197 B.C.
In 196 B.C. the Roman Proconsul Titus Quinctius Flamininus proclaimed at the Isthmian Games that Rome was withdrawing its military forces from Greece and that it was the policy of Rome that the Greek city states would be free. The slogan was “Freedom for the Greeks.” Waterfield makes it clear that, even at that time, “freedom” was conditional-states friendly to the interests of Rome would fare much better than states whose rulers opposed Rome. Rome would control Greek polity by remote control, relying on oligarchs friendly to Rome. It wasn’t long before the velvet glove was replaced by the iron fist.
Over the next decades it became more and more clear that Rome was pulling the strings. In 168 B.C. Rome, under Counsel Lucius Aemilius Paullus, destroyed the Kingdom of Macedonia after defeating King Persius at the battle of Pydna. Macedonia was divided into four sections and eventually became a Roman Province. At that time, the Romans also took the liberty of devastating the region of Epirus and selling 150,000 Epirotes into slavery. In the aftermath of the war Rome arranged that all of the Greek polities had pro Roman leadership, and had many Greeks suspected of being anti-Roman taken as hostages and interned in Italy. One of these was the historian Polybius. Polybius had the good fortune of friendship with the Roman Consul Lucius Aemilius Paullus and his sons and was able to make the best of a bad situation.
Polybius evidently had the notion that the Greeks brought much of their misery upon themselves through their resistance to Roman rule. After the disastrous Achaean revolt of 146 B.C. and the total destruction of Corinth, Polybius attempted to mediate between the Romans and the Greeks and get the Greeks to see that resistance was futile.
By any measure, Roman dominance of Greece was disastrous for the Greeks. Many regions of Greece were depopulated and their inhabitants reduced to poverty. The conquest of Greece brought vast amounts of wealth to the Roman treasury as various victorious Consuls looted Greek temples and public monuments of their treasures to display in their triumphs. Many of the Greek polities were also compelled to pay tribute to Rome.
Waterfield points out that the Greeks and the Romans had a complex relationship. Much of the art, architecture, theater and literature that we’ve come to associate with Rome had its roots in Greek culture. Many upper class Romans were bilingual in Greek and admired Greek culture. On the other hand, there was contempt for contemporary Greeks as being effete and obsequious and not up to Roman standards of virtue. Some influential Romans, notably Cato the Elder, warned against the insidious influence of the Greeks. In the long run Rome incorporated much of Greek culture, leading the Roman Poet Horace to write: “Graecia capta ferum victorem cepit.” Captive Greece took her captor captive. Greece may have captivated Rome, but if the above quote by Polybius is any indication, Greece did not benefit from the transaction.

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