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Respect before the power of Rome

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Picture showing Popilius drawing a circle around Antiochus IV. Image: Louis-Jean-François Lagrenée.
Picture showing Popilius drawing a circle around Antiochus IV. Image: Louis-Jean-François Lagrenée.

Ancient Romans were famous for their extremely criminal and legionary Roman legionaries. On the battlefields they were confirming their strength and discipline. However, apart from strength, the Romans had one more argument – they were able to impose their will.

Polybius, a Greek historian, full of admiration for Rome, mentions that the Romans within just 53 years, until 168 BCE conquered almost all known world. They owed this to the combat value of the army, as well as the ability to influence the enemy in accordance with their own purpose. This is evidenced by the king of Syria Antiochus IV Epiphanes – son of Antiochus III the Great. After his father’s defeat at Magnesia (190 BCE), he was given over to the Romans as a hostage. In captivity he got to know the Romans and how the empire worked, which meant that in the future he avoided being irritated with “the sons of the she-wolf”.

When he took independent rule in Syria, Antiochus sought to strengthen his country at the expense of weak Egypt. Seeing that Rome is involved in the war with Perseus, he decided to declare war on his neighbor, starting the so-called Sixth Syrian war in 171 BCE. Antiochus’ successes encouraged him three years later to re-invade Egypt. The Syrians began the siege of Alexandria when, in middle of July, Roman emissary Gaius Popilius Laenas visited Antiochus and handed him an order from the Senate to leave Egypt.

This is how Polybius describes this situation in his “Histories”:

At the time when Antiochus approached Ptolemy and meant to occupy Pelusium, Caius Popilius Laenas, the Roman commander, on Antiochus greeting him from a distance and then holding out his hand, handed to the king, as he had it by him, the copy of the senatus-consultum, and told him to read it first, not thinking it proper, as it seems to me, to make the conventional sign of friendship before he knew if the intentions of him who was greeting him were friendly or hostile. But when the king, after reading it, said he would like to communicate with his friends about this intelligence, Popilius acted in a manner which was thought to be offensive and exceedingly arrogant. He was carrying a stick cut from a vine, and with this he drew a circle round Antiochus and told him he must remain inside this circle until he gave his decision about the contents of the letter. The king was astonished at this authoritative proceeding, but, after a few moments’ hesitation, said he would do all that the Romans demanded.

Polybius, Histories, XXIX, 27

Intimidation and confidence from a Roman emissary worked and Antiochus immediately left Egypt by sea. Interestingly, Antiochus returned to the country and organized a feast, which confirmed that despite everything the Egyptian campaign was considered a success.

  • Beard Mary, SPQR. Historia starożytnego Rzymu, Poznań 2016
  • Polybius, Histories

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