Episode 70 – The Battles of Cynoscephalae versus Gettysburg 

Today, we head on over to the Battles bracket where we pit an ancient clash between the emerging Roman army against the old man on the block, the Greeks. Their opponent is the turning point contest of the American Civil War, Gettysburg.

 My primary sources for the two confrontations include Battles that Changed History: The Battles that Decided the Fate of Nations by Dougherty and others, 100 Decisive Battles: From Ancient Times to the Present by Paul K. Davis and The Greatest Battles in History by Jack Watkins.

Macedonia and the Aegean World
Macedonia and the Aegean World – 200 BCE

The Battle of Cynoscephalae was fought in 197 BCE between two powers of the Mediterranean but, more importantly, between two different types of military formations, the Greek phalanx versus the Roman maniple.

The Battle of Cynoscephalae was part of the Second Macedonian War, which began in 200 BCE. Philip V of Macedon was threatening a number of other Greek cities as well as Thrace and parts of Asia Minor. The First Macedonian War was fought between Macedon and Rome concurrently with the Second Punic War between Carthage and Rome. That was ended in a stalemate. Philip believes that he could expand his empire at the expense of Rome because of the enormous losses they suffered from fighting Hannibal.

Cities like Athens, Pergamon, and the island of Rhodes were being threatened by Philip, who wanted to become the next Alexander the Great. Rome, on the other hand, was in its next phase of expansion, having rid themselves for the time being of their most significant threat in Carthage. One of the consuls of Rome in 197 BCE was Titus Quinctius Flaminius, who had grand ambitions of his own.

Rome was understandably war-weary but knew that it could not stand still. At the same time, Philip and the Macedonians expanded into a territory they believed to be theirs. Still, Flaminius was having a hard time convincing the Senate to approve a massing of troops. It took two votes before they grudgingly agreed to the war effort.

The Roman army of around 26,000 men made its way to the port city of Brundisium, now known as Brindisi, in the southeastern part of Italy. They took off in their ships from there and landed on the Greek coast in 197 BCE, looking to take on the Macedonians and Philip. We do not know the exact day or even month that the battle would take place, but we do know what happened during the clash. The Roman army consisted of 16,000 legionary infantry, 8,400 light infantry, 1,800 cavalry, and 20 war elephants. 

The Greeks were evenly matched men wise with the Romans. They had 16,000 phalangites, 2,000 light infantry, along with 5,500 mercenaries. Their first problem was the weather. The march towards Cynoscephalae was met with heavy rain followed by a dense fog the morning of the fight. This meant that neither side really knew where the other army was. Flaminius decided to send out cavalry and infantry scouts to probe the fog for the enemy. 

The two-sides came upon each other with the Greeks holding the high ground. Fierce fighting ensued with the Macedonian’s gaining the upper hand. Flaminius decided to begin to retreat slowly into the rough, uneven terrain that was far more advantageous to his men than the mighty phalanx.

Before we go on, let me explain each of the two fighting forces a bit more in detail. The phalanx “was a rectangular mass military formation, usually composed entirely of heavy infantry armed with spears, pikes, sarissas, or similar pole weapons.” Some of the spears could be between 7 to 9 feet or around 2.5 meters long. Some of the sarissas could be as long as 14 feet or five meters long. There were usually about 8 men deep but could as deep as 32. 

The phalanx and the hoplites who fought within them were considered the tank formations of the day. Powerful and effective, they were the weapon that Alexander the Great used to conquer the Persian Empire and beyond.

The Romans fought within legions, but within the legion were the maniples. The maniple typically consisted of 120 soldiers arrayed in three ranks of forty men when engaged in battle. During the age of the Roman Republic, a legion was divided into three lines of ten maniples. This would be changed during the Marian Reforms of 107 BCE, but that is a story for another time.

The phalanx would basically push into their opposition with their spears and sarissas until they broke, only then utilizing their swords. The maniples would primarily use their swords. There was one significant advantage that Flaminius and his officers would use in the Battle of Cynoscephalae that would carry the day, and that was the flexibility.

At first, the Macedonians pressed downhill against the Romans until they began to hit the rough ground that Flaminius had put the majority of his men on. This caused the phalanxes of Philip’s army to start to break their cohesive patterns. The Roman left was beginning to falter, though, and the outcome of the Battle of Cynoscephalae was still in doubt.

What happened next is one of those moments where one individual changed the course of history. One of the Roman tribunes decided, on his own, to lead his men to the left and back to attack the Macedonian center and left-wing. Who this man was, has been lost to history. What he did, which was an advantage the Romans had, well-trained and independently flexible tribunes, turned the tide and began what would be a total and complete rout of the Greeks. 

Unable to adjust the phalanxes to fight off attacks from the side and rear simultaneously, the Macedonian army began to disintegrate. As they put it in the book, The Greatest Battles in History, “The collapse of the Macedonian army at Cynoscephalae effectively marked the end of the Second Macedonian War. The day of the phalanx was over, and the legion was in the ascendant.”

In 168 BCE, the Macedonians would try once again to defeat a Roman army at the Battle of Pydna. This clash, some believe, was as crucial as Cynoscephalae. There, the Greeks were crushed, and Macedon would never be an independent region again, becoming a Roman province.

Now is the time to head on over to the next fight, the Battle of Gettysburg.

Battle of Gettysburg
Battle of Gettysburg

Within Battle Ground History, almost all of the clashes were ones where one side won either decisively or at least garnered a win for their side. This is not the case with Gettysburg. Militarily, most historians consider it a draw, or at the most, a small win for the Union. It was, however, a major political and strategic victory for the North, one that would eventually lead to the collapse of the Confederate States.

By mid-1863, while the Confederate army kept winning battle after battle, they were, economically and supply wise, in deep trouble. The agricultural production of the South was below the needs, not only of their army but of their citizens. Operation Anaconda, a plan that President Abraham Lincoln had devised with his staff, was choking off supplies from European countries into the South.

Diplomatically, the Confederate government was trying its best to get these same foreign states, like Great Britain and France, to recognize it and help in their war effort. The problem was, they needed to prove that they could win the war and stand on their own. According to the author of the book 100 Decisive Battles, Paul K. Davis, “Diplomats in European countries had intimated that a Confederate victory in the North would prove the viability of their military, a necessary condition of European recognition. After Antietam, that viability seemed doubtful, but Lee certainly hoped that a major success in the summer of 1863 could yet bring foreign recognition and military aid.”

Lincoln, for his part, was in dire straights politically as the numerous losses in the eastern operations were causing a peace movement to grow in strength. If Confederate General Robert E. Lee, someone we met in episode 45, could pull off a victory in Northern territory, there was a chance to win the war.

In the Western territories, the US Army had effectively shut down the South’s access to the Mississippi River, making things even more desperate. The Confederates needed a win, a big win, and Lee decided to head into Pennsylvania, the heart of the North, and almost as importantly, it was near the capital of Washington DC.

After Lee and his Army of North Virginia defeated a much larger Army of the Potomac headed by General Joseph Hooker at the Battle of Chancellorsville in May 1863. This victory is considered the apex of Confederate power and success. Still, it came with a high price, the death of popular, and brilliant Lt. General Stonewall Jackson, someone who Lee would sorely miss at Gettysburg.

In late June of 1863, General Lee decided to head to a railway junction near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, that was a vital supply artery for the Union army. Marching first through Maryland then into southern Pennsylvania, the Army of Northern Virginia was split up to help if forage for food and supplies.

Upon hearing of an approaching Union army, Lee picked the town of Gettysburg as his focus as it had a shoe factory located there along with other vital supplies. The Union army was headed by yet another General, this time Major General George Meade. He replaced General Hooker on June 28th, just three days before the beginning of the Battle of Gettysburg.

Probing forces were being sent out by both sides to find out where the enemy was. The first skirmish began on the morning of July 1st between the Union forces of Major General John Buford and Confederate forces led by Lt. General A.P. Hill. After about two hours of fighting, the Union forces retreated through the city of Gettysburg after the arrival of Southern reinforcements led by Lt. General Richard Ewell. It was Ewell who replaced Stonewall Jackson, and it would cost the Confederates.

While retreating, the Union forces passed by Cemetery Ridge, a high point that General Lee knew his army needed to take. He had given orders to Ewell to take the ridge “if practicable.” Jackson likely would have taken the ridge right then and there which would, according to many military experts, have ended the Battle of Gettysburg right then and there. Ewell instead hesitated, and this hesitation allowed Meade to reinforce Cemetery Ridge by nightfall.

General Lee had positioned his main army on the parallel high spot, Seminary Ridge, about a mile from the Union position. Looking out, Lee decided that he would attack the Union left at a place called Little Round Top. The charge would be led by one of General Lee’s most trusted men, Major General James Longstreet. Longstreet, for his part, urged Lee to take the entire Army of Northern Virginia south towards Washington DC, believing that Meade would be forced to abandon his formidable high ground defensive position to protect the capital. Lee disagreed.

Whether it was feeling angered by Lee’s rejection of his point of view, Longstreet decided that he would follow his commander’s orders to the tee, which was to engage the Union position at Cemetery Ridge and then capturing Little Round Top. By delaying his advance, Little Round Top was totally unmanned at; first, Longstreet lost the advantage on the morning of July 2nd as Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, a Union officer led his 20th Maine Infantry Regiment to Little Round Top and defended the position through fierce fighting. Another golden opportunity to gain a significant advantage was lost to the South. 

It is after this that the unthinkable occurred, Lee would make a decision that would turn the tide of the war and would gradually cause the Confederate Army to weaken and eventually cause its surrender. On the evening of July 2nd, Lee, despite the strong protestations of Longstreet, decided to attack the center of the Union line on the top of Cemetery Ridge. As Paul K. Davis rightly points out, “… the defense owned the advantage in the American Civil War.” This attack would be known forever as Pickett’s Charge. 

Here is what Longstreet claims he said to Lee before the attack, “General Lee, there never was a body of fifteen thousand men who could make that attack successfully.” According to Paul K. Davis, “Some modern historians argue that Lee was suffering from heart problems and possibly had a mild heart attack within the previous few days, so he was not thinking as clearly as he might have. Perhaps it was a simple case of overconfidence.”

Whatever the reason General Lee ordered Pickett’s Charge, it was an unmitigated disaster. Around 7,500 men either died, were captured or wounded. The Battle of Gettysburg was over, although neither side could claim victory.

Pickett's Charge
Pickett’s Charge

It has been said that Lee’s troops were in such bad shape that had General Meade decided to attack the Army of Northern Virginia; it would have been the end of the Civil War itself as they were in terrible shape. The theory of why Meade did not continue to pursue Lee is that his men were also in need of a break and were in pretty rough shape themselves. The Civil War would continue for another 22 months until May 9th, 1865.

Now is the time to head on over to the scorer’s table.

First, we have fifteen points for the number of people involved in the battle. At Cynoscephalae, we have about 52,000 troops, evenly divided on each side. With Gettysburg, there were 105,000 on the Union side and about 75,000 with the Confederates for a total of 180,000. Since we have to make a bit of an adjustment for the smaller population during the Greco-Roman conflict, I will give the Civil War battle 15 points and the ancient clash, 12.

 Next up is the twenty points on how the battle affected the rest of the world at the time. With Cynoscephalae, the Roman victory emboldened the to continue on with their expansion into the lands surrounding the Mediterranean Sea. The Macedonians lost their power over the other Greek states, especially after their next disaster at the Battle of Pydna. As for Gettysburg, the effect on the rest of the world was pretty minimal. While a victory might have given the Confederate’s some foreign assistance, and Lincoln might have lost the upcoming election, they did not succeed. For these reasons, I’ve given the Roman victory 20 points and Civil War clash, 10.

Now is the time to give away the twenty-five points for how the battles affected world history. Cynoscephalae was another victory for the Romans, after the Second Punic War. It showed the world that Rome was a force to be reckoned with, and it would allow first the Republic and then the Empire to grow and prosper until the fall of Constantinople some 1600 years later. As for Gettysburg, the narrow victory of the Union forces would begin the decline of the fortunes of the Confederates, who, until that time, thought that they had a shot at making the North sue for peace and to cleave off from the USA. For these reasons, I’m giving an ever so slight edge to Gettysburg, 25 to 23. 

The forty points for how the battle affected their country for the better is now up for grabs. Cynoscephalae certainly aided the Roman Republic to believe in its destiny to rule over the Western world for centuries to come. Gettysburg is a mixed bag. While it halted the momentum of the South in the American Civil War, it also fell short of being a resounding victory for the North, one that could have ended the war right then and there, saving an estimated 150,000 lives. For these reasons, I’m giving the Battle of Cynoscephalae 40 points and the Battle of Gettysburg 35.

The final total, in what I have to admit is an upset, in my opinion, Cynoscephalae receives 95 while Gettysburg gets 85. Cynoscephalae moves on to the second round, where it will face off against, another clash from ancient times, this one a win for the Greeks, Salamis. 

Well, I hope you enjoyed today’s podcast, join me next time when we head on over to the Historical Events bracket where the contestants will present the widest gap in years between each of them, the Invention of the Internet versus the Civilization of Sumer.

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Mark Schauss has been podcasting for over 8 years. His Russian Rulers History was a top history podcast for 7 1/2 years. Discover his new entry into the podcast world.



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