Sparing a Hornets Nest:

Rome's Treatment of Rhodes in 168

     By the end of the 3rd Macedonian War in 168, it was clear that the
Roman wolf was enjoying the taste of the Hellenistic kingdoms it
devoured.  In a struggle marked by a brutality growing in direct
proportion to its military incompetence and alienation of its allies,
the Roman Republic swept aside the last obstacle to its appetizing
prospects for military, political, and commercial domination of the
Eastern Mediterranean.  Egypt had come cringing to Rome for protection
from Antiochus, who had retreated, humiliated, from Popillus's circle
in the Alexandrian sand.  Loyal, but wealthy Pergamon soon found its
rulers humiliated, weakened, and brought to heel.  And then there was
the wealthy island of Rhodes, caught in its very ignorance of Pydna
attempting to mediate between King Perseus and Rome.  Such temerity was
as unforgivable as Rhodes' wealth, and the praetor peregrinus of 168,
M'. Juventius Thalna, strode confidently to the Rostra to demand a
declaration of war and a fleet command to chastise the insolent

     It is my task to explain exactly why what happened next occurred. 
As  he made his appeal to the people, Thalna was dragged from the
podium by a pair of vetoing tribunes.  When the very extreme plebeian
leadership that had so pressed the destruction of Macedonia clamored
for Rhodes' punishment in the Senate (Livy 45.25.1-2), M. Porcius Cato,
legendary in his loathing of all things Greek, stood up and championed
the Rhodians' cause.  Despite oratory that Polybius compared to that of
a thief under prosecution (Polyb. 30.4.6-17), desperate Rhodian envoys
were able to forestall that declaration of war, and Rome's vengeance
had to find other channels.  Why?

     Rome's decision to avoid a war with Rhodes directly after the 3rd
Macedonian War is by no means inexplicable.  Taken as a whole, the
Roman military had not distinguished itself in the fighting either at
land or sea.   It was, in fact, entering that long period of
incompetent leadership and functional decline that would culminate in
the disaster at Arausio and the reforms and rise of Marius.  The Senate
had had to recall and reprimand both her supreme land and sea
commanders in 171 due to their inability to accomplish anything besides
brutalizing Rome's vital Greek allies (Polyb. 28.3.3, 16.2, Livy
43.4.11-13).  The twice-repressed Illyrians had combined with a handful
of Macedonian galleys to deny the Adriatic and Ionian seas to Roman
troop and supply convoys--while the fuming Rhodians looked on (Polyb.
27.7.14-15, 28.17.11-14, Livy 44.29.3-4).  Even an Aemilius Paullus had
found himself quailing as Perseus's badly-commanded phalanx tore
through his legions on the Romans' own choice of ground at Pydna
(Polyb. 29.15-17).

     It was this military leadership--humiliated, swept from the seas
to the extent that a land campaign had been needed to subdue the
Illyrians (Livy 47.19-20), that proposed to attack an island state with
a navy legendary for its ability to neutralize attackers.  The Rhodian
fleet was small, its traditional role the simple destruction of the
pirates that so infested the Eastern mediterranean in its absence
(Richard M. Berthold, Rhodes in the Hellenistic Age, Cornell UP, 1984,
42-44).  In a pitched battle, Rome could easily destroy it--but the
Rhodian navy had never engaged Demetrius's fleet  in his failure of
305.  Instead, pirate-hunters turning pirates, the Rhodian navy had
ravaged the Besieger's supply vessels, with considerable success
(Diod. 20.93.1-6).  The Lex Claudia of 212 reveals Rome's burgeoning
merchant fleet.  Could wealthy interests eyeing the fruits of dominance
have feared for its destruction?

     Cato, the grim old soldier, aware as he had to have been of Rome's
own military decline, must have also shared with his fellow Senators
his understanding of Rome's potential difficulty in destroying a fleet
of Rhodian raiders--given Popillus's decision to enrage Antiochus,
given traditional Rhodian-Egyptian friendship, and every maltreated
Greek state and every Rhodian merchant ship offering yet another
opportunity for Rhodian sailors to resupply and refresh themselves as
they harried Italian commerce from the seas.  Rome's only viable option
would have been a direct assault upon the hornets' nest itself--but the
Besieger himself had failed against those walls, and if Rome wished to
starve out the largest grain market in between Alexandria and the Black
Sea, the prospects were no more promising than they had been at
Syracuse, or would be for three years against the de-militarized
Carthage Cato actually did destroy.

     Rome would weaken Rhodes with Delos, while the Rhodians themselves
preferred the sacrifice of their pride to the risk of national
martyrdom.  There can be no real confusion, however, as to why Rome
chose to spare a hornets' nest.

Text of the 1992 APA Abstract

Rob S. Rice