2007 Society of Ancients Battle Day: Cynoscephalae, 197 BC

Saturday 17 May 2007

Sycamore Hall, Drayton Road, Bletchley, Milton Keynes, MK2 3RR

The Battle Pack

Richard Lockwood and John Hills


This year I am delighted to be joined by John Hills as co-organiser of the Battle Day, with the previous incumbent now busy editing this august journal! John deserves great credit for the excellent maps he has produced, both the one published in this article and the colour version available on the website.


The choice of battle has caused a degree of controversy, since a number of refights were covered in Slingshot a few years ago. My thinking in selecting Cynoschephalae was as follows:

  • I wanted to do a pike versus legion battle.
  • The account by Polybius is fairly clear on the “grand tactical” aspects of the battle, if not the actual detailed fighting, allowing us to set up the battle and compare our results with the real thing with a degree of confidence not always possible.
  • Work by Hammond in identifying the battlefield seemed to me very convincing, and I am a big fan of Hammond’s work generally.
  • The terrain and command aspects attracted me in preference to the “set up and get stuck in” straight forward aspect of Magnesia.


The information in this battle pack is based on Polybius, from which quotes are taken, and also by an article on the battle by N G L Hammond: “The Campaign and the Battle of Cynoscephalae in 197 BC”, The Journal of Hellenic Studies, Vol.108. (1988), pp 60-82


So in the rest of the pack John and I discuss points arising from the description of the battle by Polybius and some of Hammond’s interpretations, and how we would expect Game Organisers to approach the refight.



Prelude to the Battle


The Roman army, under Flamininus, and the Macedonoian army, under Phillip V, were looking to have the decisive showdown.  After initial skirmishing near the coast, the 2 armies set off inland on parallel courses but separated by a range of hills.


Following a night of rain, the morning of the 3rdday of the march started with a thick fog.  In spite of this, Phillip started his march early, but soon re-camped, sending forward an unknown number of light troops (which Polybius calls “the Macedonian reserve”) and also sending out others to forage.  Meanwhile, Flamininus, a short distance away on the other side of the hills, remained in his camp but also sent out scouts in the form of 10 troops of cavalry and 1000 light infantry.


As these men were approaching the ridge of the hills they came upon the Macedonian reserve without expecting it, owing to the dimness of the light. After a short interval of mutual alarm, both sides began irregular attacks on each other, and both despatched messengers to their respective chiefs to give information of what had occurred; and when the Roman began to get the worst of it in the encounter, and to suffer heavily at the hands of the Macedonian reserve, they sent to their camp begging for supports.


·         This would suggest that the Macedonian reserve was quite large – possibly being the 2000 Illyrians?


Flamininus accordingly despatched the Aetolians under Archedamus and Eupolemus, as well as two of his own tribunes, with a force altogether of five hundred cavalry and two thousand infantry, after properly exhorting them to do their duty.


·         Given they way that some of these light troops later formed up with the heavy infantry, I would suggest that either the original scouting force or this force included the Velites of what became the two left flank Legions.


On their arrival to the support of the skirmishing party already engaged, the aspect of affairs was promptly changed. For the Romans, inspired by the hope which this reinforcement gave, renewed the contest with redoubled spirit; while the Macedonians, though offering a gallant defence, were now in their turn hard pressed, and being forced to make a general retreat, retired to the highest points in the hills, and despatched messengers to the king for help.


But Philip, who had not expected, for reasons indicated above, that a general engagement would take place on that day, happened to have sent a considerable part of his troops out of camp foraging. But when informed of what was taking place by these messengers, the mist at the same time beginning to lift, he despatched, with due exhortation, Heracleides of Gyrton, the commander of his Thessalian cavalry; Leon, the general of his Macedonian horse; and Athenagoras, with all the mercenaries except those from Thrace. The reserve being joined by these troops, and the Macedonian force having thus become a formidable one, they advanced against the enemy, and in their turn drove the Romans back from the heights. But what prevented them, more than anything else, from entirely routing the enemy was the gallantry of the Aetolian cavalry, which fought with desperate fury and reckless valour.


For the Aetolians are as superior to the rest of the Greeks in cavalry for fighting in skirmishing order, troop to troop, or man to man, as they are inferior to them both in the arms and tactics of their infantry for the purpose of a general engagement. The enemy being held in check therefore by these troops, the Roman were not forced back again quite on to the level ground, but, after retiring to a short distance, faced round and halted.


  • Perhaps the Aetolian cavalry should be upgraded in some way to reflect their performance?
  • Perhaps Aetolian infantry should be downgraded in some way to reflect this opinion.  However, it seems possible that this is just an indication that they were all light infantry with no troops able to stand in the battle line. 
  • The Macedonians have now committed all of their cavalry, the Illyrians and the mercenary infantry.
  • The Romans have now committed probably half of the Roman and Italian cavalry and 3000 light infantry, including some Aetolians and possibly 1000 Velites.



The Battle


But when Flamininus saw that not only had the cavalry and light infantry retired, but that, owing to them, his whole force was rendered uneasy, he drew out his entire army and got them into order of battle close to the hills. Meanwhile one man after another of the Macedonian reserve ran towards Philip shouting out, "King, the enemy are flying: do not let slip the opportunity. The barbarians cannot stand before us: now is the day for you to strike: now is your opportunity!" The result was that he was induced to fight in spite of his dissatisfaction with the ground. For these hills, which are called Cynoscephalae, are rough, precipitous, and of considerable height; and it was because he foresaw the disadvantages of such a ground, that he was originally disinclined to accept battle there; but, being excited now by the extravagantly sanguine reports of these messengers, he gave the order for his army to be drawn out of camp.


·         This is probably the best time to start the games, although it would be interesting to play out the skirmishing…


Having got his main body into order, Flamininus gave his attention at the same time to relieving his advanced guard, and to going along the ranks to encourage his men.


…he ordered his right wing to remain where they were, and the elephants in front of them; while with his left, supported by the light infantry, he advanced in gallant style to attack the enemy.


·         I would suggest that this attack was made by two Legions plus the remaining light infantry, leaving two Legions with the elephants on the right.


And the Roman troops already on the field, finding themselves thus reinforced by the Legions on their rear, once more faced round and charged their opponents.


Meanwhile, when he had seen the main part of his army in position outside the camp, Philip himself advanced with his peltasts and the right wing of his phalanx, commencing the ascent of the hills with great rapidity, and having left instructions with Nicanor, surnamed the Elephant, to see that the rest of the army followed at once.


·         Nicanor seems to have taken these orders literally, sending the troops forward but remaining in or near the camp himself.  The result, as will be seen, is that the troops of the left flank who got into position were leaderless and unable to deploy properly.

·         It is not known how many men were in the right wing of the phalanx.  8000 seems logical but Hammond suggests 5000.


As soon as his first files reached the summit, he deployed his men into line by the left, and occupied the range of high ground: for the Macedonians who had been sent in advance had forced the Romans a considerable distance down the other side of the hills, and therefore he found the ridges unoccupied by the enemy. But while he was still engaged in getting the right wing of his army into line, his mercenaries came on the ground, having been decisively repulsed by the enemy. For when the Roman light infantry found themselves supported by the heavy, as I said just now, with their assistance, which they regarded as turning the scale in their favour, they made a furious charge on the enemy, and killed a large number of them.


When the king first came on the ground, and saw that the fighting between the light armed was going on near the enemy's camp, he was delighted: but when, on the other hand, he saw his own men giving ground and requiring support, he was compelled to give it, and allow the necessities of the moment to decide the fortunes of the whole day, in spite of the fact that the greater part of his phalanx was still on the march and engaged in mounting the hills. Receiving therefore the men who had been already engaged, he massed them all upon his right wing, both infantry and cavalry; while he ordered the peltasts and heavy armed to double their depth and close up to the right.


·         There is debate about whether “normal depth” was 8 or 16 men.  Hammond favours 16, making “double depth” 32 men.


By the time this was effected the enemy were close at hand; and, accordingly, the word was given to the phalanx to lower spears and charge; to the light infantry to cover their flank. At the same time Flamininus also, having received his advanced party into the intervals between his maniples, charged the enemy.


·         Presumably, here we see the Velites rejoining their Legions?


The charge was made with great violence and loud shouting on both sides: for both advancing parties raised their war cry, while those who were not actually engaged shouted encouragement to those that were; and the result was a scene of the wildest excitement, terrible in the last degree.

Philip's right wing came off brilliantly in the encounter, for they were charging down hill and were superior in weight, and their arms were far more suited for the actual conditions of the struggle: …


·         Elsewhere, Polybius states that a formed phalanx is impossible to defeat from the front.


…but as for the rest of the army, that part of it which was in the rear of the actual fighters did not get into contact with the enemy; while the left wing, which had but just made the ascent, was only beginning to show on the ridge.


Seeing that his men were unable to stand the charge of the phalanx, and that his left wing was losing ground, some having already fallen and the rest slowly retiring,


·         This seems to suggest a general advance by not only the phalanx but also by the cavalry and light infantry on its right.


but that hopes of saving himself still remained on the right, Flamininus hastily transferred himself to the latter wing; and when he perceived that the enemy's force was not well together--part being in contact with the actual fighters, part just in the act of mounting the ridge, and part halting on it and not yet beginning to descend, keeping the elephants in front he led the maniples of his right against the enemy. The Macedonians having no one to give them orders, and unable to form a proper phalanx, owing to the inequalities of the ground and to the fact that, being engaged in trying to come up with the actual combatants, they were still in column of march, did not even wait for the Romans to come to close quarters: but, thrown into confusion by the mere charge of the elephants, their ranks were disordered and they broke into flight.


·         Although we do not know how many elephants the Romans had, we need to ensure that there are enough for them to have a chance of smashing through without help from the Legions.  (What a bunch of girls, running from the elephants and not waiting for the two Legions coming up behind!)


The main body of the Roman right followed and slaughtered the flying Macedonians.  But one of the tribunes, with about twenty maniples, having made up his mind on his own account what ought to be done next, contributed by his action very greatly to the general victory.


·         Presumably he took the Princeps and Triarii of the Legion he was with, leaving the Hastati to slaughter fleeing Macedonians.


He saw that the division which was personally commanded by Philip was much farther forward than the rest of the enemy, and was pressing hard upon the Roman left by its superior weight; he therefore left the right, which was by this time clearly victorious, and directing his march towards the part of the field where a struggle was still going on, he managed to get behind the Macedonians and charge them on the rear. The nature of the phalanx is such that the men cannot face round singly and defend themselves: this tribune, therefore, charged them and killed all he could get at; until, being unable to defend themselves, they were forced to throw down their shields and fly; whereupon the Romans in their front, who had begun to yield, faced round again and charged them too.


·         Scenario rules might be needed to make it hard for the phalanx to merely face in two directions and fight off the attack?


At first, as I have said, Philip, judging from the success of his own division, felt certain of a complete victory; but when he saw his Macedonians all on a sudden throwing away their shields, and the enemy close upon their rear, he withdrew with a small body of foot and horse a short distance from the field and took a general survey of the whole battle: and when he observed that the Romans in their pursuit of his left wing were already approaching the tops of the hills, he rallied as many Thracians and Macedonians as he could at the moment, and fled.


The Result


Here the battle effectively ended, with some surrendering Macedonians being slaughtered by the Roman light troops, and the Aetolians looting the Macedonian camp while the Romans were off in pursuit. 


Total losses were put at 700 Romans and 8000 Macedonians killed and 5000 taken prisoner.



The Armies (based on Hammond)




16,000 Phalangites

Hammond states that Philip had called up “boys under age and veterans over age” for this campaign.  Perhaps part of the phalanx should be downgraded to represent this?  If so, I would suggest downgrading the left, assuming Philip would place his best troops on the right and lead them into action first.  Also remember that the phalanx was incapable of responding to the attack on its flank and rear.  If your rules do not reflect this, consider a scenario rule to limit facing changes.

2,000 Peltasts

These are elite guardsmen. Despite their name, most experts believe them to have been armed with sarissa and have been part of the phalanx. The fact that they also formed double-depth in this battle suggests a phalanx formation.

2,000 Thracians

These were on the left wing, so were probably standard Thracian peltasts.

2,000 Illyrians (Tralles)

Light infantry to judge by their role in the battle.

1,500 mercenaries of varied nationalities

Light infantry to judge by their role in the battle.

2,000 cavalry

Good quality Macedonian and Thessalian heavy cavalry.






4 Legions

This involves a bit of conjecture.  Hammond starts by saying that the 2 armies were roughly the same size, and then says there were 2 Legions totalling 22,000 men!  My solution is that there were 2 Roman Legions, paired with 2 Latin Legions, giving a total of 12,000 men (assuming that each Legion had 500 Velites, 1000 Hastati, 1000 Princeps and 500 Triarii.).

2,000 cavalry

Roman and Italian heavy cavalry

6,000 Aetolian infantry

Probably all light infantry, but presumably some could have been Thureophori.  Possibly low quality – see discussion above.

400 Aetolian cavalry

Light cavalry who fought very well in the opening stages of the battle so there might be a good case for upgrading them – or just put it down to “good dice” on the day?  J

1,200 Athemanian infantry

Probably all light infantry, but presumably some could have been Thureophori.

800 Cretan archers

Good quality light infantry.


An unknown number of elephants. You will need enough to cover the front of 2 Legions and have a reasonable chance of breaking through the Macedonians under your chosen rules.



Command and Control

The account of the battle suggests that representing this accurately is as crucial as getting the terrain right. We see that each side is essentially commanded by only one general. For the Romans, their right flank is ordered to do nothing until Flamininus personally moves there from the left flank in order to attack and try to snatch victory from what looks like being a defeat. For the Macedonians, we are explicitly told that the lack of orders for its left flank phalanx arriving on the top of the ridge was one of the reasons for the defeat – Philip is busy directing the victorious attack his right. Therefore it is important that the personal proximity of the generals is a factor in allowing initiation of advancing into combat of the various divisions of the armies. It is also important that we allow for the opportunity of the Romans to show personal initiative like that of the unknown Roman tribune after he sees victory on the right is certain. Note that the Macedonian cavalry and light troops were very active on the right before Philip arrived, so should not be penalised for his lack of proximity.



Start point of the Battle


We favour our refights starting at the point of no return for each commander, when they are committed to battle. We take this to be when Philip has deployed his phalanx on the right flank and positioned the cavalry and mercenary light troops to support them, and Flamininus is ready to advance his legions and light troops on this flank against them. However, there may be some Game Organisers who want to play out the game from the start, when the skirmishing troops first meet, and gradually feed in the arriving reinforcements – our only caution here is to watch the balance between the relative movement speeds of wargames units versus the speed of combat results.



Terrain and the Battlefield


The terrain is a major feature of this battle and every attempt should be made to represent this in the games.  It is suggested that the highest 2 contours count as rough terrain to impede the formation of the left phalanx, but bear in mind that this does not seem to have impeded the elephants or Legions to a great extent.


Some slopes could be classed as Steep (especially given the wet conditions).  Consider classing any area where the contours are less than 100m apart as rough going, especially on the western side of the central ridge.


We would suggest that sections of the springs were in fairly narrow, but deep, steep-sided gullies that, following a night of heavy rain, would have created a very formidable obstacle to heavy infantry.  Even the Legions do not seem to have been able to attack the flanks of the phalanx that was on the central ridge but had to advance to higher ground and then swing around behind them.


The size of the battlefield is also a major concern.  The width of the downward-sloping ridge where the main Macedonian right-wing phalanx attack took place is key.  Hammond says that if the 2,000 peltasts and 8,000 (ie half) phalanx are assumed to be with Philip on the right, then at double-depth they are 300m wide. However, he prefers the estimate of only 5,000 phalanx, giving a double-depth frontage of peltasts and phalanx of just 220m. It is fair to assume that this would be the effective width of this downward sloping ridge on which a phalanx could operate. See John’s rather excellent scale map, based on Hammond’s extensive and detailed survey of the battlefield.


Viewed from the Roman side, the battlefield divides into three sections.  On the left are slopes that are cut by springs.  This area was probably the scene of much skirmishing between the light infantry and cavalry of both sides for much of the engagement.  In the centre, directly in front of the left legions, is a long, flat topped, ridge.  This is easily accessible from the Roman end, but seems to have been impossible to mount from either side, where the combination of steep wet slopes and stream gullies seems to have formed a formidable barrier.  This ridge would appear to be just wide enough for 2 Legions, if each line formed up 8 deep.  On the right is another, less formidable ridge, up which the elephants and right hand legions attacked. Again, this ridge seems to have been wide enough for 2 Legions if each line formed up 8 deep.


Standing on the crest of the hill, the Macedonians would similarly have seen the slope divided into three sections.  In the centre was the main ridge, fairly flat, good for the phalanx and leading directly to the Roman camp.  Just wide enough to take the Peltasts and right Phalanx if they formed in double depth formation, this was the obvious route for an attack.  On the right another ridge sloped down to the valley floor, and this is where most of the Macedonian light infantry and cavalry ended up, fighting their Roman counterparts.  On the left was a third, smaller ridge.  This is where the Macedonian left was attempting to get to when the Romans attacked them.  This side of the field was very unsuitable for a pike phalanx, with uneven ground on the ridge (highest contours on the maps) and the springs cutting through the slopes.  Note, however, that this does not seem to have hampered the Romans and their elephants that much!


Getting the relationship between armies and terrain right will take a fair bit of work.  We would suggest that you experiment with your armies before building any new terrain features.




Download the Battle Pack as a Word Document