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 island. 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.
Rob S. Rice