Philip Matyszak, Greece Against Rome (Pen & Sword, 2020)
We are used to the story of Rome’s expansion, the piece by piece accumulation of land and power until an Empire was formed. The empire that Alexander the Great left behind, the Hellenistic world, also fell victim to Rome’s advance. That is a story usually told from Rome looking out, but Philip Matyszak tells the story from the Greek perspective; of how mighty kingdoms fell to an insignificant city state from the west that became an unstoppable juggernaut.
Matyszak begins with the death of Alexander and the three states that emerged from the collapse of his empire: the Seleucids, Macedonians, and Ptolemaic Egypt. They remained culturally part of the Greek world of Alexander, but war between them proved irresistible. Matyszak surveys this world in 250 BC with Rome rising and Carthage falling in the west, neither of which was of much concern to the powerful Hellenistic kingdoms. They were too busy fighting each other and creating the rich Hellenistic culture that forms a background for much of what Matyszak narrates. As late as 220 BC, the Hellenistic kings seemingly had no idea what was coming.
Rome’s rise is well documented, but Matyszak brings that story into line with the Hellenistic kingdoms. Rome’s incredible victory over Carthage in the Second Punic War might have had little effect on the Hellenistic world if it hadn’t been for the intervention of Philip V of Macedon on the losing side. The lesson he learned was not to make an enemy of the Romans because they seldom extended forgiveness. They turned him into a puppet king and moved on to deal with Antiochus III of the Seleucids who had designs on Greece that did not please Rome. They crushed him at Thermopylae in 191 BC. Antiochus expected an end to the conflict as he fled east, but he was wrong, and the war continued on land and sea. The critical battle came at Magnesia in 190 BC; the Romans won, and Antiochus had to sue for peace.
We move into the period 185 to 175 BC when new kings emerged in the Hellenistic world to play new power games. But this time, the Romans were major players. Matyszak takes us on another tour before settling in Greece, where the Romans were about to assume control after Pydna in 167 BC, and Coele-Syria where the Egyptians fought the Seleucids. Antiochus IV then got caught up in a civil war in Judea and became squeezed between Rome and the rising power of Parthia in the east. The result was the rapid decline of the Seleucid kingdom. The Romans then completed their conquest of Greece in 148 BC and were bequeathed Pergamom in 133 BC. From then on, notes Matyszak, the Hellenistic world fell apart, beginning with the Seleucids being reduced to bit part players, then Egypt rapidly descended into a shambles of its own making. Meanwhile, Rome had its own internal struggles to deal with, which the Hellenistic leaders could not take advantage of because of their squabbles. When the Romans again paid attention in the east, it was to end the last surviving Hellenistic kingdom through the defeat and subsequent suicide of Cleopatra.
The Hellenistic period was one of the more complex eras in ancient history and more than one historian has failed to tell its story with any clarity. In addition, those kingdoms are often seen in relation to the rise of Rome, as peripheral entities somewhere in the east. Matyszak competently tackles both issues. He has written an engaging text that reads like a sweeping novel at times, and he puts Rome on the outside of the Hellenistic world, so that its insidious intrusion becomes more creeping and menacing, if that’s possible. Thus, Greece Against Rome is a refreshing and readable take on a fascinating story.