The second figure I want to shine a light upon in the series on notable figures of the Hellenistic Period: Philopoemen of Megalopolis. Together with Aratus of Sikyon, he has to be seen as one of the most famous statesmen of the Achaian League.
Ῥωμαίων δέ τις ἐπαινῶν ἔσχατον αὐτὸν Ἑλλήνων προσεῖπεν, ὡς οὐδένα μέγαν μετὰ τοῦτον ἔτι τῆς Ἑλλάδος ἄνδρα γειναμένης οὐδὲ αὑτῆς ἄξιον.
And a certain Roman, in praising him, called him the last of the Greeks, implying that Greece produced no great man after him, nor one worthy of her.
Philopoemen was born in 253 B.C. in Megalopolis. His father Creugas, who was originally from Mantinea but was banished, died when Philopoemen was rather young. As a result, he was taken in by Cleander, a prominent Megalopolitan. His education was entrusted to two local philosophers, Ecdemus and Demophanes. Both men had been involved in overthrowing the former tyrant of Megalopolis and instilled in Philopoemen a life-long passion and desire for democracy and patriotism.
Philopoemen first came to prominence in 223 B.C. when he organised a mass evacuation of the Megalopolitans during a Spartan siege of the city by king Kleomenes III. Under this king’s rule, Sparta had known an increase in power and prominence which was unprecedented during the Hellenistic period. Consequently, Kleomenes wanted to conquer those areas close to Sparta which were members of the Achaian Koinon. After the king had occupied the Megalopolitan Agora, Philopoemen convinced his fellow citizens – now finding refuge in neighbouring Messene – not to accept the truce offered as it was sure to be a trick.
Together with the other members of the Achaian Koinon and the Macedonian king Antigonos III Doson, Megalopolis fought a war against Kleomenes III (229-222 B.C.). Philopoemen stands out again in the historical records as Plutarch tells us that he deliberately ignored orders by leading a cavalry attack when he saw his allies were in danger. But he did not stop there, he continued to fight on foot, even after a spear pierced both of his thighs (Plut. Phil. 6. 3.) This episode formed the starting point of Philopoemen’s exceptional career and reputation, which was characterized by a vehement opposition to Sparta and desire for Achaian independence and patriotism.
Leader of the Achaian Koinon
After a few years spent as a general in Crete, Philopoemen returned to the Peloponnese in 210 B.C. to find the Achaian Koinon at war with Rome and the Aetolian Koinon, a former ally, on account of their alliance with Philip V of Macedon (First Macedonian War 217-205 B.C.). Philopoemen won a few more military successes, but the Achaian army was in an abysmal state and needed an urgent reform. Particularly because there was another tyrant in power, Machanides, who wanted to continue Kleomenes’ plan to conquer the areas around Sparta. In 207 B.C., both parties met at Mantinea and Philopoemen succeeded in killing the Spartan.
Over the next few years, Philopoemen’s reputation grew and he was elected strategos of the Koinon multiple times. Apparently, his fame was so great that Philip V had attempted to assasinate him after the League had chosen the switch sides and become a Roman ally during the Second Macedonian War (200-196 B.C.) (Plut. Phil. 12. 3.). While the Rome become more active in the Greek East, Sparta continued to trouble Megalopolis and the Koinon as well, this time under a new ruler, Nabis. Even though Philopoemen had defeated him in 199 B.C., the Spartan ruler could regroup and start another war in 194 B.C. He was once again defeated by Philopoemen but he managed to save his skin through an alliance with Rome in the war against Antiochus III (192-188 B.C.). He betrayed this alliance in 192 B.C. by going to Aetolians for help, he was murdered however and Philopoemen finally managed to use the confusion – the ongoing war with Antiochus III and the murder of Nabis led to an Aetolian occupation of Sparta – to join the polis with the Achaean Koinon once and for all. In 188 B.C., he tore down the Spartan city walls and used the funds to create the Philippeion in Megalopolis.
During next few years, the Achaian relationship with Rome started to deteriorate as Rome became more and more involved in local politics. Especially the koinon’s relationship with Sparta and the way this was handled by Philopoemen was a straining point. Whenever Spartan envoys were sent to Rome, Philopoemen would defend his actions and make it clear that the Romans had nothing to say about the internal Achaean affairs. However, Sparta was not the only member of the polis that rebelled against the League. In 183 B.C., Messene revolted and Philopoemen, who was already old and sick, decided to go to battle again. He was thrown of his horse and captured, after which he was beaten and thrown into the thesaurus where he was forced to drink poison. The Megalopolitans and Achaeans were devastated and defeated the city, after which it became an Achaian member once more and Philopoemen’s body was transported back to Megalopolis and buried there. After Rome’s conquest of Greece in 146 B.C., Philopoemen’s grave would have been destroyed if Polybius had not prevented it (Pol. Hist. 39. 14.).
Anderson, J.K (1967), “Philopoemen’s Reform of the Achaean Army”, Classical Philology 62(2), 104-106.
Eckstein, A. M. (2010), ‘Rome and Macedonia 221-146 B.C.’, in J. Roisman and I. Worthington (eds), A Companion to Ancient Macedonia, Oxford, 225-250.
Errington, R. M. (1969), Philopoemen, Oxford.
Swain, S. (1988), ‘Plutarch’s Philopoemen and Flamininus’, Illinois Classical Studies 13, 335-347.
Walbank, F. W. (1967b), Philip V of Macedon, London.