Battle of Magnesia

The battle of Magnesia was a battle of the 2nd Century BC. Fought between the Seleucid Empire and the Roman Republic this battle demonstrated that the age of phalanx warfare was over.

The battle was long in coming. By the dawn of the 2nd Century the power of the Roman Republic, which had since defeatedCarthage and stalemated Makedon, could no longer be denied. In the Second Macedonian War the Romans decisively defeatedMakedon, shocking the Hellenic world. With the entry of this previously belittled power (the defeat of Pyrrhos notwithstanding) intoHellas proper it was clear that times had changed. However even though the Macedonian king, Philippos V, was defeated, there were still others among the Successors to challenge Roman supremacy. The greatest of these was Antiochos III of the Seleucid Empire, also called Antiochos the Great for his military triumphs. The threat of Antiochos was readily apparent to the Roman forces in Hellas, who were constantly on their guard.

In 195 the issue of Nabis of Sparta would bring all of this to a head. In that year Nabis conquered the city of Argos, which alarmed the two greatest alliances in Hellas: the Achaean and Aitolian Leagues. While the Achaeans wanted to ask Rome to take care of Spartathe Aitolians wanted to deal with Sparta on their own. Ultimately the Romans opted to just put down Nabis and solve the problem their way. This only aggravated the situation however, and the Aitolians broke from their alliance with Rome (which they had made to oppose Makedon). Several years passed before they attempted a military coup of Sparta in 192. While they succeeded in killing Nabisthe Spartans threw the Aitolian forces out. Frustrated by this lack of success the Aitolians turned east to AntiochosAntiochos III was already quite upset with Rome’s presence in what he considered his sphere of influence. He was also upset with the general actions ofRoman ‘watchdog’ ambassadors, who had interfered in Seleucid affairs several times. The Aitolians told Antiochos that public opinion had turned against Rome and with their military leaving Hellas the time was right for ‘liberation’. Antiochos was ecstatic and prepared an expeditionary force and crossed the Hellespont to begin his conquests.

But before long Antiochos found that the Aitolians had greatly exaggerated the situation. Whatever feeling they may have had aboutRome the appearance of the Seleucid king overrode them all. The Achaean League quickly sent word to Rome. Worse still Philippos V,Antiochos’ old ally, joined with the Achaeans against him. By 191 Seleucid gains in Thrace and Thessaly had been lost and Romanmilitary forces under Consul Manius Acilius Glabrio had landed. Antiochos attempted to stop the allied advance by blockingThermopylae. But the allies defeated him there and Antiochos III, abandoning the Aitolians, left Hellas for Asia Minor.

With the Roman victory in Hellas the war took a course different then was expected. As Antiochos withdrew to Asia Minor the Romansdid not follow. Despite the concern regarding him in the Senate the Romans considered it more important to bolster the Achaean League. The Aitolians were strangely left alone and not conquered; it was later revealed that Glabrio spared them to provide theRomans with a northern buffer against Makedon. One year later Lucius Cornelius Scipio as one of the year’s Consuls was given commission to defeat Antiochos III. His younger brother, the famous Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus, demanded to be allowed to go along as a Legate. The Senate agreed and the Scipio brothers went east. Meanwhile Antiochos had been busy, gathering a massive army from all corners of the Seleucid Empire and from his allies as well. In order to bide himself the time to gather this forceAntiochos depended on his naval arm, which was in excellent condition. But the Romans had become adept sailors and with the aid ofRhodes, the premier maritime power of the region, they were able to quash the Seleucid navy.

But it did buy Antiochos the time he needed and before long he had moved on PergamonRome’s greatest Asiatic ally. With the seas secure the Roman army crossed the straights and into Asia Minor. But Scipio Africanus fell ill not long after the crossing and was forced stay behind at the coast, but he appointed Cnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus to replace him at his brother’s side. By now Antiochoswas aware of the Roman crossing and made camp at Thyatira to await them. Deciding to try to negotiate Antiochos sent Africanus’ son Publius, whom had been captured in the naval campaign, to start talks. While many words were exchanged the talks came to nothing and Publius remained with his father. Africanus was stalling for time, as he wished to take part in the battle personally and exploit Antiochos‘ weakness in patience (he had none). Antiochos moved off from Thyatira and set camp further off, near the town ofMagnesia and Mt. Sipylos. There he built a wall, which in conjunction with the nearby Phrygius River would allow him to choose the timing of the battle. But Antiochos underestimated the drive of Roman ambition.

Neither the elder Scipio nor Ahenobarbus was willing to wait for Africanus to get well. Together the two men set the advance towards the Seleucid lines, crossing the Phrygius (thus turning the river to their advantage). For four days the Roman army inched closer toAntiochos’ camp, and for four days he sat put. On the fifth day after this began Ahenobarbus sent an envoy out and announced that the following day he would attack, Antiochos willing or not. The Seleucid king was now tired of waiting and decided that with his superior numbers he had no reason to fear Rome. So just before daylight on the sixth day the Seleucid host decamped and marched out to the meet the Romans, who had already arrayed their line. The battle of Magnesia had begun.

The Romans had not come alone to this battle. The Roman formation was drawn up in regular array with the left wing anchored on the river Phrygius. On the center of the Roman line was two legio of Roman citizens, commanded by Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus. Behind the legio were the Consul and his command staff. Behind them were the 54 African forest elephants of King Eumenes of Pergamon. On both right and left of Gracchus’ line was an additional legio of Italic soldiers. On the Roman right behind the legio was the infantry of Eumenes and 3,000 skirmishers on loan from the Achaean league. In support of these were 800 Pergamene cavalry and 2,200 Roman and Italic cavalry. On the left wing were 4 squadrons of Roman citizen cavalry commanded by Ahenobarbus and a squadron of Trallian and Cretan cavalry each numbering 500 men. In the rear at camp were 2,000 volunteers from Thrace andMakedon under Marcus Aemilius.

Antiochos commanded a truly formidable force. The Seleucid formation was drawn up in simple line. In the center of the line was thePezhetairoi, the famed Macedonian infantry. The Pezhetairoi were divided into ten battalions of 1,600 men each. Between the spaces of the formation were placed the Seleucid trump card, the Indian elephants. These elephants numbered 22 in all. The center was placed under the command of Antiochos’ Master of ElephantsPhilippos. Separating the center from the left and right wings were scythed chariots. On the right wing of the Seleucid line was about half of the Galatian infantry, half of the Kataphractoi, and half of theHetairoi (Companions). 16 Indian elephants stood behind them in support. Furthering the line was the elite infantry of theArgyraspidai, the ‘Silver Shields’. Supporting the Argyraspidai was Dahae horse archers, Cretan and Trallian light infantry, Mysianarchers, and finally the Cyrtian slingers and Elymaen archers. Antiochos took command of the right wing personally, but delegated command of the light troops to Mendes. On the left wing was the other half of the Galatian infantry, a number of Kappadokians, and assorted mercenaries. The other half of the Kataphractoi followed them in line with the other half of the Hetairoi. Stationed in front of the cavalry was a force of Arabian camel archers. Following the cavalry was a contingent armed in the manner of the Tarentines, theGalatian cavalry, the Cretan archers, and the Karian, Cilician, and Trallian archers. Following them was a mass of skirmishers and light infantry from across Asia Minor. Finishing out the line was more Cyrtian slingers and Elymaen archers and finally a further 16Indian elephants. Antiochos’ son and heir Seleukos as well as his nephew Antipatros commanded the left wing, but delegated control of the light troops to Zeuxis.

The day of battle was dark and gloomy, which equalized the two sides. As day dawned it was shown to be one of general murk and the air was misty and heavy. King Eumenes of Pergamon, who had been given command of the Roman-Allied right wing, realized that under such circumstances the Seleucid superiority in archers would be nullified by the air itself. Upon conferring with Ahenobarbusand Scipio he concluded that the Seleucid scythed chariots would be the only real element to fear. Eumenes concluded that Antiochoswould probably try to use them first. This was proven correct when the Seleucid king suddenly sent the scythed chariots forward, aiming towards the Roman right with the hope of disrupting the legio, which he perceived to be the strength of the Roman line.Eumenes reacted by sending out his contingent of Cretan archers, skirmishers, and slingers out in front of the formation in loose order, after being told to aim for the horses pulling the chariots, not the crews. This tactic worked brilliantly as the frightened and wounded animals turned around, plowing into their own lines and effectively throwing the entire Seleucid left wing into disarray, and the Arabs actually broke and fled the field.

Scipio then sounded a general advance from the center, with Eumenes given the honor of leading the attack. Cheering and exhorting his troops on Eumenes led his cavalry and light infantry head on into the Seleucid left. Still in disarray from the rout of the chariots and lacking the protection afforded them by the smell of the Arab camels the Seleucid left was ill prepared to receive the Roman-Alliedcharge. The charge met greater success then the Romans’ anticipated as the entire Seleucid left wing crumbled and began to flee the field. A particular interesting incident during these events occurred when the Romans encountered the Kataphractoi and captured the majority of them, their armor hindering their ability to maneuver.

As the Seleucid left disintegrated Ahenobarbus charged forward with his light cavalry, aiming to break the now exposed Seleucidcenter through hit-and-run tactics. But in a testament to Hellenic discipline the Pezhetairoi held formation and did not break under the hail of arrows and javelins from the Cretan and Trallian cavalry. Using their long sarissas the Seleucid infantry kept the cavalry andEumenes’ (who had joined in by now) troops at a distance and at Philippos’ order began an orderly withdrawal. However they had forgotten about the elephants. The Romans had gained plenty of experience fighting the beasts in the Second Punic War. Although theIndian elephants were a great deal larger then any elephant the Romans had ever seen the tactics they had perfected againstHannibal’s elephants would work just as well. As the Pezhetairoi began to fall back the elephants, succumbing to the javelin and arrow fire, panicked and began to rampage in the midst of their own troops. Not even the iron discipline of the Pezhetairoi could hold out against rampaging elephants and the phalanx finally broke and the soldiers fled the field.

While all of this happened Antiochos and Mendes had swung down the Seleucid right and smashed the Roman left and nearly broke the center. Antiochos however did not attempt to outflank the center, but instead chased the fleeing Romans straight to their camp. The commander of the camp, Marcus Aemilius, marched out with his volunteers and held off the Seleucid cavalry long enough for theRoman army to wheel about and hit Antiochos from behind. Even though the Seleucid cavalry cut through the Roman cavalry, including the Pergamene squadron commanded by Eumenes’ brother Attalos, when he saw that the rest of his army had been destroyed he fled the field towards Sardis. With their king having abandoned them the remaining Seleucid troops broke and the Roman-Allied army slaughtered them in great numbers till night fall. So ended the Battle of Magnesia and the era of Hellenic surperiority.

In conclusion Magnesia was truly a major battle. In the aftermath of the fighting Antiochos III was forced to agree to a humiliating peace treaty by Rome, being forced to pay a massive war indemnity, forced to abandon Asia Minor west of the Taurus Mountains, and give up all of his elephants. Shortly thereafter the Seleucid Empire began to fracture again as Antiochos’ vassals rebelled against his authority, undoing his previous success. For the Romans Lucius Scipio would be bestowed the title Asiaticus (Victor in Asia), gaining the fame he craved. The battle also cofirmed the Romans‘ faith in their imperial destiny. On a wider scale Magnesia reinforced whatCynoscephalae had first proved: the age of Hellas and Makedon was over, the age of Rome had begun.