Achaian War: How the Romans Defeated the Last Free State in Greece

In 146 BCE the Achaian League — the last significant free state in Greece — fell before a swift and devastating Roman advance in a war that ended an era.

Dec 8, 2023By Neil Middleton, MA Ancient History, BA History & Archaeology
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The Last Day of Corinth, by Tony Robert-Fleury. Source: Musée d’Orsay


The Achaian War can be described as either a brave stand in defense of independence or the result of madness. When the Achaians went to war with the Romans in 146 BCE, the former was a disunited and poor federal state in fractious southern Greece. The latter was about to confirm its position as the first power to conquer the Mediterranean. Bravery or madness? Both interpretations have an element of truth as the Achaians were backed into a war they had to fight but could not win.


The Achaian League  & The Road to the Achaian War

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Achaian federal coin minted in Corinth, via British Museum


The expansion of Roman power east of the Adriatic Sea began in the late 3rd century BCE and expanded when the Macedonian king Philip V involved himself in Rome’s war with Carthage. The arrival of this new power forced decisions on the existing Greek states. This was the case for the Achaian League in the final years of the 3rd century BCE.


This federal state in the north of the Peloponnese peninsula had expanded in recent decades and, from the 220s, had been allied with the Macedonian monarchy. The presence of Roman armies and fleets sacking Greek cities and pushing back the Macedonians brought home Achaia’s sudden vulnerability. The subsequent debate among the Achaians was polarizing and almost split the league. However, in the middle of the 2nd Macedonian War (200-196 BCE), the Achaian League switched sides. For the next half century, the Achaians were among Rome’s principal Greek allies.


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The Triumph of Aemilius Paulus, Carle Vernet, 1789, via Metropolitan Museum New York


Though stable, the alliance of Achaians and Romans was by no means easy. For half a century, the relationship with Rome was polarizing. One faction within the Achaian League believed in almost complete obedience to the Romans. Their opponents never questioned the alliance but sought to exercise as much autonomy as possible. This difficult balancing act ultimately came crashing down over the question of the Spartans.

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With its unique history and traditions, Sparta had long tried to be the principal power in the Peloponnese. Between the 6th and 4th centuries BCE, they had achieved that goal. This ambition was never renounced over the following centuries bringing the Spartans into conflict with the rising Achaians. However, by the early 2nd century BCE, Sparta had been incorporated into the Achaian League. The Spartans were one of the few communities forced into the federal state and their time-honored institutions and traditions were altered to fit the Achaian mode. Naturally, membership in this union never sat easily with the Spartans.


For many Greek states, the Romans were a useful ally in their local struggles. The Achaians, Aitolians, Athenians, Rhodians, and Pergamonians had all sought Roman aid. There was an incentive for every state faced with a local dispute to seek Roman intervention. The result was a constant stream of embassies and commissions crossing back and forth between Greece and the Roman senate. For a community unhappy with its current situation but not strong enough to deal with matters on its own, the inevitable step was to call on the Romans. When the Spartans took their dispute with the Achaians to Rome, they began a countdown to war.


What Caused the War?

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The ruins of Sparta, author’s photo


Scholars have suggested that the war the Achaians launched was actually directed against the Spartans rather than the Romans.


During their decades as part of the Achaian federal state, the Spartans had seceded and been forced back. However, some Spartans had worked within the league. The Spartan Menalkides was even elected to the league’s highest position, the annually elected generalship (strategos), in 151 BCE. However, so weak were the ties between the two sides that within two years of heading the Achaian state, Menalkides was leading the Spartans in a round of armed conflict against the Achaians.


When the Spartans first appealed to Rome, the pretexts were often minor such as border disputes and legal jurisdiction, but they undermined the idea of the Achaian federal state. Each member of the league had considerable autonomy but they were meant to act in unison in foreign matters and certainly should not be sending their own embassies to a foreign power. Such actions eroded Achaia’s unity in the face of the outside world.


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Funerary marker said to show Polybius, 2nd century BCE, via Louvre


As tensions in the Peloponnese mounted, the Romans were initially distracted. The third and final war with Carthage was looming, while to the north Roman forces were caught off guard when a man claiming to be a lost descendant of the Macedonian monarchy ignited a major rebellion. Roman responses to embassies were ambiguous. The Achaians pressed their advantage and invaded Spartan territory. When the Romans did send a commission led by Lucius Aurelius Orestes in 147 BCE to arbitrate, the situation escalated again. Orestes announced that Rome not only wanted Sparta separated from the league but several other cities as well. This would amount to a dismemberment of the league.


When this decision was made public, Achaians in the city of Corinth reacted violently and targeted anyone in the city suspected of being Spartan. The following year the Romans sent further envoys, but the Achaian general Kritolaos prevented them from meeting the Achaian popular assembly. When the Achaians did meet, Kritolaos persuaded the assembly to renew the war with Sparta. Though still directed against the Spartans, the breakdown in relations with Rome and the defiance of Roman wishes meant the Achaians were now embarking on a much larger war.


The Anti-Roman Movement in Greece

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Early Hellenistic Greek soldier, at the National Archaeological Museum, Athens, author’s photo


Alone the Achaians stood little chance in this war. Their hope lay in inspiring a wider anti-Roman sentiment in Greece. Truly, there were signs that other communities might stand with the Achaians. As much as Greek communities had leaned on Roman support in their own rivalries, the half-century of Roman interventions in Greece provided plenty of fuel for animosity. The Romans had sacked cities, sold populations into slavery, and broken up long-lasting states. Even as the war broke out in 146 BCE, the Roman general Quintus Caecilius Metellus was still finishing off a rebellion in Macedonia.


Our main ancient source for the Achaian War, Polybius of Megalopolis, stresses the influence of lower-class citizens in the build-up to war, which may indicate that the war was popular among the wider public. For Polybius, this was a sign of the madness of the times as ordinary people were wiped up by irresponsible and corrupt politicians creating a disastrous confrontation. Polybius’ account likely contains exaggerations and anti-democratic stereotypes but may also reflect reality. In the build-up to the war, Kritolaos took a number of popular measures. Debts and loan repayments were frozen (Polybius 38.9). Later war contributions would be gathered from the rich and slaves were freed and called up. Scholars point out that in the context of a war for survival, these were prudent measures, not a radical program. Debt relief had, however, long been a popular rallying cry in Greece and one the Achaian elite had long resisted.


Destruction at Thermopylae

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Roman Republican solider, 2nd century BCE, via Louvre


The Achaians were not without allies. The Boiotians offered support, and Achaian troops were also stationed in neighboring Phokis. The first action of the war was outside the city of Herakleia in Trachis. Though some distance from the Peloponnese, Herakleia had been a member of the Achaian League and was one of the communities the Romans ordered to be freed. Sitting next to the famous mountain pass at Thermopylae the city held significant strategic value.


Any thoughts of replaying the celebrated defense of Thermopylae by the Spartans in 480 BCE were dashed by the swiftness of the Roman reaction. Metellus, motivated, so our sources say, by fear that his replacement, Lucius Mummius, would soon arrive and steal the glory, pushed south and caught  the Achaians before they were ready. There was no defense of Thermopylae. Instead, the Achaian army was defeated to the south at Scarpheia, and Kritolaos died in or soon after the battle. A smaller Achaian contingent from the cities of Arkadia was soon after caught and beaten in Boiotia.


In one shift campaign, Metellus had ended the Achaians’ best hope. There would be no defense of central Greece and a building of alliances. Instead, the way was now open for the Roman advance on the Peloponnese.


The Battle of Corinth

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Ancient Corinth and its mountain fortress, Author’s photo


Before Metellus could lead the assault on the Peloponnese, his replacement Mummius arrived to take command. With Kritolaos dead, the Achaians turned to the previous year’s general, Diaeus. The new general pulled together what forces were available, including freed slaves, to gather just under 15,000 men, according to Pausanias (7.15.7). Mummius, on the other hand, had over 26,000 ready to march (7.16.1).


The Peloponnese is connected to the rest of Greece by the narrow Isthmus of Corinth which is protected by the city of Corinth itself. This commercial hub was one of the strongest positions in Greece, dominated by the Acrocorinthos, a mountain stronghold that towers above the city. Capturing Corinth from the Macedonians in the 3rd century transformed the Achaians from a provincial community into a Peloponnesian power. Holding it was the last opportunity to keep the Romans out of the Peloponnese.


The odds, always against the Achaians, were lengthening, but this decisive campaign started with a boost. The Achaians managed to win a skirmish against a Roman auxiliary force of Italians. Soon though the main armies of heavy infantry clashed. Despite being outnumbered, the Achaians are said to have put up a spirited resistance (7.16.3) and fought on for some time. Only once a small Roman force got around their flank was Achaian resistance ended. With the defense of Corinth breaking, Diaeus is said to have fled all the way back to Megalopolis in the interior of the Peloponnese. There along with his family, he committed suicide.


Some survivors of the battle did reach Corinth, but with their general having fled and the victorious Romans outside the gates, they slipped out of the city during the night. Corinth was left defenseless.


The Sack of Corinth

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The Last Days of Corinth, Tony Robert Flery, b. 1870, at the Musée d’Orsay, author’s photo


Though the city was now open, Mummius hesitated, fearing a trap. On the third day, however, the Romans moved in. The attack on the open city was brutal. Any remaining inhabitants were killed, and the woman and children were sold into slavery. The freed slaves who had fought with the Achaians were simply executed. The richly adorned city was plundered of its wealth, and artworks were shipped back to Rome and other allied cities. Corinth would remain uninhabited for almost a century until Julius Caesar re-founded the city as a Roman colony.


As Corinth was being destroyed, the city’s fate was shared by Carthage across the Mediterranean. The end of the 3rd Punic War (149-146 BCE) saw the city’s final destruction in a manner even more brutal than that of Corinth. The simultaneous destruction of two of the Mediterranean’s principal cities in 146 BCE marked the beginning of the era of Roman domination.


The Achaian War: The End of Greece

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The ruins of Roman Corinth, author’s photo


With its armies defeated, its generals dead, and a leading city destroyed, the war was clearly over for the Achaians. The Romans dismantled any remaining defenses and dissolved the Achaian League and perhaps other federal states. The leagues would return but only as local units within the Roman Empire. Soon there would be no free Greek states remaining.


In hindsight, it is easy to see why Polybius and other historians viewed the war as madness. The swift and total nature of the defeat underlined the hopelessness of the Achaian position. Achaia’s generals and citizens had failed to see that their community was being integrated into a new larger power whether they liked it or not. So, their resistance was labeled delusional and the result of selfish manipulation by populist leaders.


Hopeless as their cause was, the Achaians had good reason to fight. They were faced with the dismemberment of the community they had built up for more than a century. Whether they fought or surrendered, their state was going to be incorporated into the Roman world growing around it. Their decision to fight was the last opportunity to exercise what freedom remained.

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By Neil MiddletonMA Ancient History, BA History & ArchaeologyNeil Middleton has studied ancient history and archaeology up to Masters level (MA in Ancient History from the University of Wales Trinity Saint David) with a focus on ancient Greece. His particular areas of interest are the politics of the Greek world in the Classical and Hellenistic era. After his studies he has spent time living in Greece and France.