Philopoemen: The Last Great General of Ancient Greece

Philopoemen was an innovative and successful soldier of the Achaean League, regarded as the last great general of ancient Greece by his contemporaries.

Mar 8, 2024By Alexander Gale, MA Applied Security & Strategy, BA History

philopoemen last general ancient greece


Philopoemen (253-183 BCE) was a strategos (general) of the Achaean League, a confederation of Greek city-states on the northern and central Peloponnese. His name has largely been forgotten, eclipsed by other ancient generals like Hannibal, Alexander the Great, and Caesar, but Philopoemen was regarded as one of the most astute military minds of his generation. He defeated Sparta, campaigned in Crete, and propelled the Achaeans to greater heights of power. As a general, he excelled at both conventional warfare and special operations and was an especially effective reformer.


Philopemen: Early Life

Ancient Megalopolis theatre. Source: Wikimedia Commons


Philopoemen was born in 253 BCE in Megalopolis, one of the largest cities in Arcadia, a region of the Peloponnese and a member state of the Achaean League. His father, Craugis, died when Philopoemen was a child, so his care was entrusted to Cleander, a friend of his father and an exile from Mantineia. The boy was educated by the Megalopolitan philosophers Ecdemus and Megalophanes. Both men were ardent democrats, having arranged for the assassination of Aristodemus, tyrant of Megalopolis, and the ousting of the tyrant Nicoles from the city of Sicyon. Thus, Philopoemen was tutored with a certain reverence for democratic values.


From a young age, Philopoemen displayed the virtues that would make him an excellent commander. Plutarch wrote that “the boy’s character took on from the very outset a noble and kingly mold and growth.” Moreover, “from his very boyhood he was fond of a soldier’s life, and readily learned the lessons which were useful for, such as those in heavy-armed fighting and horsemanship.”


Defense of Megalopolis 

Ruins of Megalopolis. Source: Wikimedia Commons


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Philopoemen first came to prominence at the age of thirty when his native Megalopolis was assaulted by King Cleomenes III of Sparta in 223 BCE.  The inhabitants of Megalopolis were caught off guard by the Spartans who came at night, and the enemy managed to breach the city and occupy the agora. According to Plutarch, Philopoemen “fought with vigor and daring,” but the defenders were too few in number to repel the Spartans. It was evident that the city would be lost so Philopoemen drew the enemy towards himself with an audacious attack. This enabled many of the Megalopolitans to escape from the city. Philopoemen later escaped himself despite being wounded and losing his horse.


The Balance of Power in Greece

Political map of ancient Greece, c. 200 BCE, Raymond Palmer. Source: Wikimedia Commons


The balance of power on the Greek peninsula remained fluid during Philopoemen’s lifetime.  Sparta had never regained the dominance it enjoyed prior to its defeat by Thebes at the Battle of Leuctra in 371 BCE, but as the capture of Megalopolis demonstrated, the Spartans were still a force to be reckoned with. This was  especially so under a capable commander and reformer like Cleomenes III, who, according to the historian William Smith, was “the last truly great man of Sparta, and, excepting perhaps Philopoemen, of all Greece.”


To the north, the Kingdom of Macedon ruled by Antigonus III Doson remained the dominant power in Greece, despite the breakup of Alexander the Great’ empire into the various successor states that had after his death.  The Achaeans distrusted the Macedonians and had previously secured financial backing from the Ptolemaic Kingdom (another successor state) to boot out tyrants installed in their cities by the Macedonian Antigonid dynasty. However, the Achaeans were too weak to face the Spartans alone which necessitated an alliance with Macedon.


The Battle of Sellasia, 222 BCE 

Macedonian phalanx, Johnny Shumate. Source: Livius


Philopoemen was present when an allied force of Macedonians, Achaeans, and other Greeks marched against Sparta at Sellasia in 222 BCE.  According to Polybius, the allied force led by Antigonus numbered 28,000 infantry and 12,000 cavalry. The Megalopolitan contingent led by Cercidas of Megalopolis was 1,000 strong and armed in the “Macedonian fashion.” Philopoemen was positioned with the Macedonian and Achaean cavalry on one of the army’s flanks. Next to him were Illyrian mercenaries who protected the vulnerable gap between the infantry and cavalry.


The Spartan force consisted of about 20,000 infantry and 650 cavalry. Cleomenes had correctly anticipated that Antigonus would march towards Sparta via the road through Sellasia and ordered his troops to take up positions in the pass that lay between the two hills of Evas and Olympus. He fortified his position on both hills and stationed cavalry and mercenaries on the level ground where the road traced the path of the river Oenus.


Philopoemen Distinguishes Himself at Sellasia 

Silver Tetradrachm of Cleomenes III of Sparta, c. 235-221 BCE. Source: Wikimedia Commons


Philopoemen was assigned to the contingent responsible for assaulting Evas. The Illyrians advanced first, but this created a gap between the light-armed mercenaries and the Achaean infantry that the Spartans were able to exploit. Seeing this danger, Philopoemen urged his superiors to react, but they dismissed him due to his lack of experience. According to Polybius, Philopoemen was not discouraged and “acted for himself, and cheering on the men of his own city, made a vigorous charge on the enemy.” This was sufficient to prevent the encirclement of the Achaean, Illyrian, and Macedonian troops.


Statue of Philopoemen at the Louvre, by Pierre-Jean David, 1556. Source: Wikimedia Commons


The accounts of Plutarch and Polybius differ on what happened next. Philopoemen fought in the subsequent cavalry engagement, but it is unclear whether he was forced to dismount due to rough terrain or that his horse was “killed under him”. However, the two ancient historians agree that he fought on with “conspicuous gallantry” despite receiving severe wounds in both thighs, possibly caused by a javelin. Plutarch further recounts how “he drew his sword and made his way through the front ranks against the enemy, thereby greatly animating the combatants and inspiring them with a desire to emulate his valor.”


The battle was decided by the clash of the Macedonian and Spartan phalanxes. Owing to Cleomenes’ reforms, both forces were equipped with the long Macedonian-style sarissa pikes. However, Antigonus had arranged his men in a double phalanx and the added weight and depth of their formation was enough to break the Spartan line and win the day.


Mercenary in Crete

Ancient Greek archer depicted on red-figure pottery, c. 510 BCE. Source: the Louvre


After the Battle of Sellasia, Philopoemen spent the next decade soldiering in Crete. Impressed with his performance in battle, Antigonus had offered him a position as an officer in the Macedonian army, but Philopoemen refused, preferring the work of a mercenary instead. It is possible that he grew irritated under the command of others, having been frustrated at Sellasia that his superiors did not allow him to intervene when the Illyrians were caught off guard. As a mercenary commander he would have more autonomy. Nevertheless, historian R. M. Errington has suggested that Philopoemen may have served Macedonian interests in Crete in his capacity as a soldier of fortune.


Little is known about Philopoemen’s time in Crete. However, warfare on the mountainous Greek island differed significantly to that on the mainland. Whereas there was ample level ground for conventional set-piece battles in mainland Greece, guerilla warfare was the mainstay in rocky Crete. The Cretans themselves were famed as talented archers and offered their services extensively as mercenaries across the ancient Mediterranean. Although Philopoemen’s activities on the island remain largely unknown, the Cretan way of war evidently influenced his continued evolution as a commander because he implemented new tactics upon his return to the mainland ten years later.


Cavalry Commander of the Achaean League

Silver coin minted in Megara (a member of the Achaean League), c. 280 BCE. Source: British Museum


Philopoemen returned to mainland Greece in 210 BCE and was given overall command of the Achaean cavalry. Philopoemen’s excellence as not just a commander but a reformer shone. According to Plutarch, he found the Achaean cavalry in a pitiful state, lacking both experience and courage. The cavalry was also thoroughly corrupt and some of the men paid others to take their place. To amend this, Philopoemen introduced several rewards and punishments to incentivize his men to strive for martial prowess. He had them perform drills and contests, often in front of spectators to improve their skills but also their esprit de corps.


Philopoemen was soon presented with an opportunity to test the resolve of his men. Within the broader context of the First Macedonian War between the Roman Republic and Macedon, the Achaean League found itself in a conflict with the Aetolian League and the city-state of Elis. The Achaeans faced an army of Aetolians and Eleans near the Larissa River on the border with Elis led by Damophantus. During the battle, the reformed Achaean cavalry fought well and Philopoemen marked himself out yet again with his bravery.


During the battle “Damophantus, general of the Elean horse, singled out Philopoemen, and rode with full speed at him. Philopoemen awaited his charge, and, before receiving the stroke, with a violent blow of his spear threw him dead to the ground: upon whose fall the enemy fled immediately,” wrote Plutarch.


Philopoemen Is Appointed Strategos

Ancient Greek armor, c. 510 BCE (left) and c. 350-300 BCE (right) . Source: British Museum


In 209 BCE, Philopoemen was appointed to the position of strategos (general). He used his newfound position to introduce sweeping reforms to the Achaean army. J. K. Anderson, writing in the 1960s, proposed that Philopoemen either reformed the Achaean infantry in the manner of the classical Greek hoplite phalanx or in the manner of the Macedonian-style phalanx, which was primarily differentiated by the use of the longer sarissa pikes. More recent scholarship by authors like Mary Frances Williams seems to conclude that Philopoemen introduced the Macedonian-style phalanx.


This is supported by the ancient writers. Plutarch wrote that the Achaeans adopted the “aspis and sarissa” – in other words, the equipment of the Macedonians. In any case, it is certainly true that Philopoemen equipped the infantry in heavier equipment and drilled them to fight in a steadfast manner, whereas before they were equipped with shorter spears and lighter Celtic-style thyreos shields which had become popular after the Celtic invasion of Greece in the 3rd century BCE. According to Pausanias, Philopoemen “persuaded them to put on breastplates and greaves, and in addition to use Argive shields (aspides) and long spears.”


Battle of Mantinea 

Ruins of Mantinea. Source: Wikimedia Commons


In 207 BCE, Philopoemen led the Achaean army against the Tyrant Machanidas of Sparta at the Battle of Mantinea. Both the Achaeans and the Spartans mustered a large number of their citizen soldiers as well as many mercenaries. The opening moves of the battle were not in Philopoemen’s favor. Machanidas led his cavalry against the skirmishers and mercenaries deployed ahead of the main Achaean line. They were far too lightly armed to repel mounted opponents and quickly routed.


Fortunately for the Achaeans, Machanidas was far too impetuous in his attack and pursued the fleeing skirmishers beyond the main battle line of the Achaeans. This gave Philopoemen the opportunity to advance against the Spartan infantry who were idling on a hill. The main Spartan force, who had witnessed their leader chase down the fleeing Achaeans were not expecting an attack, and were outflanked by the Achaeans who, according to Plutarch, killed about 4,000 of them. Machanidas, seeing that the day was lost, attempted to flee, but was personally pursued by Philopoemen who struck him with his spear after the Spartan tyrant attempted to cross a waterlogged ditch on his horse. The Achaeans marked their triumph with a statue of Philopoemen at Delphi. Later, when the general was in attendance at the Nemean Games, the audience greeted him with applause.


First Confrontation with Nabis of Sparta and Return to Crete

A scene of battle depicted on black-figure style ancient Greek pottery, c. 560-550 BCE. Source: Louvre


By 201 BCE, the Achaean League and Sparta were again at war. Nabis, the last independent king of Sparta was able to capture the Achaean city of Messene. By now, Philopoemen was no longer the Achaean strategos and overall command was held by Lysippus, a far more cautious general. Lysippus deemed any venture to save Messene too risky and refused to challenge the Spartans. However, Philopoemen was made strategos again that same year was able to repel Nabis from Messene who withdrew without engaging in battle. Nabis was then defeated at Tegea.


After driving out Nabis, Philopoemen returned to Crete in 199 BCE where he spent six years leading the armies of Gortyna as a mercenary general. During his absence, Nabis renewed his military campaign against the Achaeans. Megalopolis itself came under siege and the city’s starving inhabitants were forced to grow crops in any open spaces within the confines of the city walls to survive. Philopoemen remained in Crete and did not initially return to defend his homeland. Luckily for the Achaeans, a Roman force under Titus Quinctius Flaminius campaigned against the Spartans between 196 and 194 BCE and Nabis was forced to abandon many of his military gains.


Special Operations Against Sparta

Ancient Greek skirmishers, Johnny Shumate. Source: Warfare History Network


Philopoemen returned to mainland Greece in time for the next round of fighting between the Achaean League and Sparta but according to William Smith, “The Megalopolitans were so incensed against him on account of his leaving them at a time when his services were so much needed, that they nearly passed a decree depriving him of the citizenship.” However, they relented upon the advice of another Achaean general and made him strategos in c. 192 BCE.


Operations against the Spartans were initially disastrous, with the Achaeans losing a battle at sea, frustrating Philopoemen’s efforts to relieve the Laconian town of Gytheum from the Spartan besiegers. Nabis, now confident that he would not be attacked from the sea, retired one-third of his soldiers from Gytheum to make camp near Pleiae.


It was now that Philopoemen commenced what some historians consider the masterstroke of his military career. He sent a group of light-armed skirmishers — slingers, archers, and peltasts — in small boats to make an amphibious landing near the Spartan camp under the cover of darkness. From their landing point, they caught the Spartans completely unaware and set the camp alight by hurling firebrands at it. According to Livy, “Many were consumed by the flames before they knew of the enemy’s approach… With sword and fire everything was destroyed”. The attack was thoroughly unconventional but effective. Mary Frances Williams asserts that “Nothing in the history of Greek warfare compares with Philopoemen’s night raid by amphibious troops or his use of guerilla tactics including fire.”


Final Battles and Death

Les funérailles de Philopoemen, by Jean-Pierre de Saint-Ours,1786-1788. Source: Mutual Art


The war with Sparta ended with an Achaean victory. Nabis was murdered by a force of Aetolians meant to relieve him and Philopoemen promptly marched on Sparta and forced it to join the Achaean League. He marched on the city a second time in 188 BCE and ended the agoge, Sparta’s famous military education system.


At the age of 70, Philopoemen was made general once again. Exhausted after years of campaigning, he hoped to spend his final years in peace. However, a rebellion against the Achaean League prompted him to lead an army against the rebels at the village of Colonis, despite being ill with fever. During the battle, Philopoemen and his cavalry were caught off guard. He charged at the enemy several times to save his men, but he was unhorsed and captured. The veteran general was forced to drink poison and died in captivity.


The Achaeans were greatly distressed by Philopoemen’s death and erected statues across the cities of Achaea in his honor. Pausanias, the ancient Greek geographer, would later comment that after his demise, “Greece ceased to bear good men.” An anonymous Roman is similarly purported to have said that Philopoemen was “the last of the Greeks.”

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By Alexander GaleMA Applied Security & Strategy, BA HistoryAlexander is an analyst focusing on geopolitics and defense. He is especially interested in WWI and how contemporary strategic practitioners can learn from military and political history. Alexander earned a BA in History and International Relations and an MA in Applied Security and Strategy at the University of Exeter.