The 3rd Macedonian war and the fall of Aiginion (168 BC)
For those who do not know Aiginion was the name of Kalambaka town during the ancient period. The town of Kalambaka being thousands of years old had its own fair share in the long history of Greece. In the following article, we will try to tell the story behind the sacking of Aiginion by the Roman legions of Aemilius Paullus in the 2nd century BC.
The general situation of Greece in that period
The year is 168 BC. The Third Macedonian War is raging for the past 3 years between Rome and Macedonia. Their armies after attempted a series of failed outflanking maneuvers they’ve finally met on the fields of Pydna to fight the most decisive battle of that war, the outcome of which would decide the fate of Greece for the coming centuries.
The last King of the Macedonian Antigonid dynasty Perseus of Macedon, he’s leading his 44,000 men to meet the invading Roman expeditionary force consisted of 2 legions, a cavalry force including 22 elephants and mercenaries. Perseus throws his last cards in a desperate attempt to contain Rome’s expansion in the East and to restore Macedonia’s hegemony in the area. The Romans had 29,000 men led by the experienced general Lucius Aemilius Paullus, a veteran of the Hispanic campaigns. The fierce engagement took place on the foothills of Mount Olympus near the ancient town of Pydna. Perseus was able despite some initial setbacks to successfully engage and defeat the Romans in the battle of Callicinus in 171 BC. Now on the plains of Pydna, the legendary Macedonian Phalanx had to confront one more time the mighty Roman legions.
The battle of Pydna
The battle began late in the afternoon of June 22nd with the usual skirmishes between the light infantry of both sides. Soon the heavy hoplites of the Macedonian phalanx followed and marched forward engaging the legionnaires with their long spears known as Sarissas. The Romans attempted to meet head-on with the Macedonian heavy infantry soon to be proved an almost disastrous decision for them. It was next to impossible for any army of that period to penetrate with a frontal attack the forward lines of the Macedonian phalanx. (1)
The immense pressure exercised on the attacking legions by the Macedonian “wall of spears” and the pilling Roman losses forced them after a while to trade ground. Aemilius, upon realizing that his center was crumbling readily to collapse he ordered his agile troops to begin executing a series of maneuvers in an attempt to draw the phalanx on the rough grounds of the nearby hills to break its cohesion in order to open gaps and expose the weak flanks of the phalanx. The Romans were able to maneuver in an orderly manner despite their heavy looses and the coming evening found the Macedonians utterly defeated. From the original 44,000 Macedonians, 25,000 men were killed, wounded or captured by the Romans.
The aftermath of the battle
The course of the battle raises many questions, one of the most critical concerning the half-hearted efforts of the better Macedonian cavalry, which allowed the opposition to scatter the phalanx without apparent difficulty. Later, at a crucial moment, when the battle was going badly, the Macedonian cavalry comprised of 4,000 men failed to intervene to protect the exposed flanks of the phalanx. Such intervention at this point would even have justified its sacrifice.
Perseas has been held responsible for this mistake by some sources, who present him as being defeated before the battle had begun and suggested that there were many occasions during its course when he could have won. It is possible that the catastrophic negligence of the Macedonian cavalry lay in political motives. The cavalrymen were the sons of the Macedonian aristocratic families, who had become displeased with Perseas because of his political approach favoring the masses. The concentration of so many infantry forces, made up of the ordinary people, gives some clue to Perseas’ feelings towards the masses. This might have been the correct military tactic to fight the Romans, but it brought the King into conflict with those of his own class. Perseas was an ill-tempered person, and this in all probability led to a conspiracy, which revealed itself during the most critical phase of the dramatic conflict.
The war with the Romans had taken on an intensely political dimension as well as an ethnic nature. The Oligarchs of the Greek states, as well as the Macedonian Aristocrats, sided with the Romans in order to save their fortunes and their privileges. In so doing, they aimed to preserve their benefits. On the other hand, the masses of poor people stood and fought to the end, which is the reason behind the huge number of dead Macedonians in the fields of Pydna. This point of view is reinforced by the fact that the cavalrymen abandoned their King, in order to reorganize the remaining forces and find new ones, probably mercenaries. Perseas was betrayed by the ruling class of his country and was left to be defeated, with disastrous consequences for his country, if not for the entire nation. (1)
The battle of Pydna marked the final destruction of Alexander’s empire and introduced Roman authority over the Near East. (2) On setting out on the return to Rome in 167 BC, the men of Lucius Aemilius Paullus were very displeased with their share of the plunder they took from the heartland of Macedonia. To keep them happy, Paullus was instructed by the Roman Senate to attack and plunder Epirus, despite the fact that Epirus had not aided Perseus in any way during the war. The region of Epirus had been already pacified, but Paullus ordered the sacking of seventy of its towns, probably with the intention in his mind to set an example for the rest of Greeks who wished to directly confront the Roman power.
The siege of Aiginion
The Roman general following Senate’s orders he marched from the heartland of Macedonia to invade and plunder Epirus. One of the very first towns standing in his way was the ancient town of Aiginion, the present-day town of Kalambaka. The town was strategically placed near all the main access routes to Epirus. From the saved accounts written by the Roman historian Titus Livius we know that Aiginion was referenced as a town possessing formidable defenses. So formidable they were during that period that in the previous Macedonian War of 197 BC, the Roman general Titus Quinctius Flamininus marched against the small town but upon seeing the town’s strong defensive positions he chose to bypass it having that opportunity. (3)
The town’s ancient defenses, as seen in the picture below, made extensive use of Meteora rocks to strengthen its position. The town of Aiginion was situated mostly beneath the huge rock complex of Aghia and Alsos rocks on the north and north-east side of where the Byzantine church of Virgin Mary lays today. The outer walls of the town were passing few dozen meters south of the byzantine church forming the first outer defensive perimeter. In total, the town had three defensive lines consisted (a) by the outer wall, (b) the small fortress of Kastraki under the great obelisk-like rock of Adrachti in between the rocks of Aghia and Alsos, having as their last line of defense some prepared positions placed 300 meters up on the massive rock of Aghia (c).
The citizens of Aiginion upon hearing the news that the victorious Roman army is marching down from Macedonia to Epirus burning and looting towns on their way and feeling reasonably confident for the strength of their defenses, they decided that their best option they had was to show their determination to resist, hoping that the Roman general would bypass the town like Flamininus did a few decades ago. We can assume with great certainty that a fierce debate took place among the citizens of Aiginion. The pro-Roman Aristocracy probably wanted to negotiate surrender while the common people inclined towards taking their chances of fighting. The decision to resist was based mostly on their past experience of the previous war and proved to be a dire miscalculation from their side of the true Roman intentions to set an example to all those who wished to oppose the Roman power in the coming years. Aemilius knew very well that if he was to bypass Aiginion other settlements and towns would soon follow their example and that would cost him time and men.
Relative few things are known of the actual siege that took place under the rocks of Meteora. From what is known Aemilius arrived on the outskirts of the town from the north on his way to Epirus and approached the town from the south. The Roman legions, immediately and without hesitation they attacked with massive force, storming the outer walls of the town and catching the defenders by surprise with their audacity and quick actions. The relatively small contingency force of the town tasked to defend it, around 1,000 men, it meant that little could be done to contain the attacking Roman forces on the town’s outer perimeter if they did chose to attack. As the Romans climbed the outer walls and one by one took hold of the outer wall’s strongholds, the civilian population and the defenders started to fall back taking refuge in the safety of the small fortress that constituted their main stronghold. Because the main passage to the fortress from the south side of the town was very narrow and steep passing in between the rocks of Aghia and Alsos, Romans concentrated their main effort on attacking the small fortress from the north side, where today Kastraki village is.
The defenders had made an effort to strengthen that side by constructing a deep trench in front of the wall. The Romans crossed it quickly despite the dense volleys of arrows and stones thrown at them and began with ladders to climb the walls of the fortress. In the fierce hand to hand battle that followed, the experienced and well-equipped legionnaires they were no match for the ill-equipped garrison of the town comprised mostly by peasants. Panic spread as the Romans butchered anyone who stood on their way. Those few still standing gathered all together on the east side of Aghia’s rock forming a thin line of shields to make their last stance under the steep slopes of the rock’s base. Behind them and few dozen meters further up old men, women and children were desperately attempting to climb the steep and narrow path leading them to the safety of their last defensive positions upon the rock. In their panic and rush, people were pushed and thrown down from the rock, while the last fighters below tried to buy them valuable time.
The survivors able to reach the safety of Aghia’s rock sealed the small iron gate that they had placed right on the edge of the rock at the end of the path, completely blocking the access to the Romans. Those positions 300 meters up on the rock of Aghia were impregnable to any army, but could also work in the other way around as an inescapable trap for them. From up there, they witnessed the Roman troops burning and looting their homes below. Those who never made it up on the rock in time, they were either killed or taken as slaves by the Roman forces. Aemilius placed a force to lay siege on those who took refuge on the stronghold of the rock and then he proceeded to Epirus. Plutarch describes that when Aemilius and his troops finished the plunder of Epirus more than 150.000 people were taken as slaves and the amount of gold he brought back to Rome was so great, that for many years to come the citizens of Rome they didn’t have to pay any taxes. (4)
The story of what happened next to the survivors of Aeginion who remained trapped and under siege high up on the rock, somehow it was preserved in the collective memory of the local people. Almost 20 centuries later Leon Heuzey, a French archeologist who visited the town of Kalambaka in 1858 to survey the ruins of the ancient town recall’s a story he was told by one of the shepherds after they climbed together the rock of Aghia.
“One of my guides told me in his own manner the story of this castle. It’s the legend of the long siege and the eventual famine that spread among the defenders. The provisions had finished and the trapped people became very desperate. In their last attempt to fool and discourage the enemy they took their last remaining goat and they fed it with whatever they could find in order to make it look well fed and fat. Then, they throw that goat down from the cliffs in an effort to display that the provisions they had were endless. But as always is the case a traitor existed among them. He sent down an arrow with a message informing the enemy of their true dire situation.” (6)
In the coming years after the siege, the few survivors were able to rebuild their hometown. Aiginion during the following Roman period flourished but throughout its long history, it never became a town of significant size. It always remained a relatively small settlement, clustered underneath the monumental rocks of Meteora. Those rock giants that stand above the town like sleepless guardians for the past 30 centuries now, offered numerous times their protection and security to the locals. The rocks of Meteora always ensured that few would survive the perilous times to rebuild their homes and shrines to carry on the legends and stories, from generation to generation all the way down to modern times.
- John Foss 2001, THE THIRD MACEDONIAN WAR and THE BATTLE OF PYDNA (168 BC)
- Paul K. Davis, 100 Decisive Battles from Ancient Times to the Present: The World’s Major Battles and How They Shaped History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 51.
- Livy’s History of Rome (32,15,4)
- Plutarch, Aemilius Paullus
- Monuments of our town: From the ancient Aiginion and the Byzantine Stagoi to our modern town (Kalambaka 2002), 21