"The Last of the Greeks"

(252 - 182 B.C.)


by Plutarch

Philopoemen led the last remnants of resistance to the creeping domination of Rome in Greece. In this austere general, we see an indomitable character, superior to his circumstances.

Cleander was a man of high birth and great power in the city of Mantinea. He happened to be driven away to exile in the city of Megalopolis, where he found a friend in Craugis. When Craugis died, Cleander repaid his friend's kindness by taking care of and educating Craugis' young son, Philopoemen.

Once Philopoemen left the years of childhood, his teachers were Ecdemus and Demophanes. These two men were scholars of the Academy, 1 and they had put their philosophical principles into practice by ending the tyranny of Aristodemus in the city of Megalopolis. They had also helped Aratus to expel the tyrant Nicocles from Sicyon. Of all their glorious achievements, Ecdemus and Demophanes considered that the education of Philopoemen was among the best.

All of Greece loved Philopoemen, as a child of her decrepit age. "The Last of the Greeks," is what one Roman called Philopoemen, implying that after him, Greece produced no man who deserved to be classed with the heroes of earlier times.

Philopoemen picked Epaminondas 2 as his model, and Philopoemon came close to Epaminondas in energy, wisdom, and incorruptible integrity. But his fiery and stubborn disposition was very much unlike Epaminondas, who was gentle, calm, and kind. Philopoemen, therefore, was regarded as a model of military, rather than civilian, virtue.

Philopoemen was a tireless student of weapons and horses because he wanted to be a soldier even when he was still a child. He showed such aptitude as a wrestler that many people urged him to spend more time perfecting that skill, but Philopoemen found that the life of the athlete and the life of a soldier are completely different. The athlete eats much, sleeps long, and trains regularly, whereas the soldier must endure lack of food and sleep and must exert himself irregularly. Once he found out these differences, Philopoemen despised athletics. When he came to be a general, he used to say that men who were otherwise fit for war became, through athletics, too delicate for battle.

Philopoemen wore humble clothes and behaved like a plain man. Once, after he had become general of the Achaeans, a hostess at Megara received word that Philopoemen would be coming to dinner, and she began preparing a suitably grand reception. While the household was in an uproar with these preparations, Philopoemen arrived early. He was dressed in his usual humble clothes, so the hostess thought he was a servant sent ahead by her husband, and she ordered him to chop wood. Without a word, Philopoemen obeyed. The host arrived, and was surprised to find the guest of honor hard at work. "I am paying the penalty for my ugly looks," said Philopoemen.

When there was no important business, Philopoemen hardened his body by hunting or by laboring on his farm. Whatever he won by war, he spent on military things, such as weapons, horses, and the ransom of captives. Money for other expenses came from his farm. He increased his private property honestly, by the labor of his hands, because he considered it his duty to put himself beyond the temptation of wronging others for money.

The study of speaking and philosophy took up much of his time. Philopoemen only spent time on books that might help him increase in virtue. Homer's epics 3 and the histories of Alexander the Great were his favorites. As he traveled, he was always on the lookout for military problems that might be presented by the ground he was on, and he would discuss them with his companions.

In short, Philopoemen studied hard to become a general. In his opinion, war was the school of all kinds of virtue, and anyone who was not living the life of a soldier was no better than a drone. 4

* * *

Philopoemen's home town was Megalopolis, the largest city in Arcadia. When he was thirty, the Spartans attacked the city one night by surprise, and they managed to get in and occupy the marketplace. Philopoemen came out when the alarm sounded, and his personal valor held off the Spartans long enough to allow the Megalopolitans to get away. Fighting in the rear guard, Philopoemen lost his horse and took several wounds, but he was the last man in the retreat.

The Spartans invited the people to come back and enjoy their property. Many were glad to hear this, and wanted to return immediately. Philopoemen, however, advised them to wait. "Before long," he said, "the Spartans will have to move on rather than stay there guarding empty houses. This offer to give back the city is only a trap to take its people as well, and use these captives as custodians." The Megalopolitans decided to follow Philopoemen's advice, and before long the Spartans left, as he had predicted, although first they looted and destroyed much of the city.

King Antigonus of Macedonia came to help the Megalopolitans and the Achaeans against the Spartans. Philopoemen and his citizens were placed next to the Illyrians in the left wing when the two armies met at Sellasia. Their orders were to stay put until they saw a red flag from the other wing, but the Illyrians disobeyed and charged before the signal. Seeing the resulting gap in the line, the Spartans sent a force of lightly-armed men around behind the Illyrians.

Philopoemen rode to the headquarters and requested permission to change his position to meet the threat, but the officers there would not listen to Philopoemen because he had no military reputation yet. So even without orders he went back and led his men in a cavalry charge that broke up and then pushed back the enemy. To encourage the Macedonians to strike while the enemy was retreating in confusion, Philopoemen dismounted and pursued the Spartans on foot through the rough and rocky country. A thonged javelin, 5 thrown with tremendous force, pierced through both of his legs. Philopoemen could not pull the javelin through because of the thong fastening, so he struggled and strained so violently that he broke the javelin in two. Then he ran through the front ranks, inflaming his men with a desire to match his courage with their own.

After the victory, Antigonus asked the Macedonians why they had charged before the signal, and they said that they had been forced into it by a young man of Megalopolis, who had attacked before it was time. "This young man," said Antigonus, smiling, "did like an experienced commander." Naturally, this raised Philopoemen's reputation enormously. Antigonus wanted very much to have him in his service, and he offered Philopoemen high commands and good pay. But Philopoemen did not relish the prospect of being his subordinate, so he declined.

The Achaeans gave Philopoemen the command of their cavalry, and he accepted the challenge. At that time, the Achaean cavalry was weak. To the Achaeans, it was a great honor to be a horseman, and the cavalry was drawn from the wealthiest families. But they had neither experience nor bravery because it was customary to send the cheapest horses to war, and most of the Achaeans hired other men to take their places while they stayed at home. Their former commanders had been either bribed or intimidated to go along with the corruption.

Philopoemen went from town to town and personally met with the young men, stimulating a spirit of ambition and love of honor. Where punishment was necessary, he used it. By parades and military exhibitions before large audiences, Philopoemen motivated the young horsemen to train hard. Before long, they were strong and quick, and large formations of riders maneuvered in perfect unison, as if one mind moved them all.

In the great battle that they fought with the Aetolians and Eleans at the Larissus River, Philopoemen offered an example of his own valor. The commander of the Elean cavalry charged him in single combat, and Philopoemen calmly waited until his furious adversary was nearly on him, then speared him with a single violent thrust and threw him dead to the ground. When they saw this, the Elean army crumbled.

Now Philopoemen became famous all over Greece as a man who in actual fighting was as good as the youngest, and in judgment as good as the oldest, so that there came onto the field of battle no better soldier or commander.

Philopoemen took command of the whole Achaean army. Before, the Achaeans had used javelins and little shields. They were mobile, but weak in close combat. Philopoemen persuaded the Achaeans to change to large shields and long spears, and to wear a full suit of heavy armor. Then he taught them to mass together and move in a phalanx.

Before, they had competed with each other in clothes, houses, and feminine adornment. Philopoemen turned this competition to more useful things, so that the Achaeans tried to outdo each other in war-gear for their sons. Beautiful armor became the new field for envy and ostentation. The soldiers were proud to show off their new helmets, breastplates, and leg armor, and by wearing this heavy armor they developed the strength to move easily in it. They became eager to train, and they especially liked fighting in a phalanx, which was so tightly cemented together that it seemed as if no enemy could withstand their onslaught.

Other kinds of sumptuosity give us pleasure but make us effeminate, as the tickling of our senses slackens the vigor of the mind. But magnificence of this kind strengthens courage, and thus we find the heroes in Homer exulting over their beautiful armor.

The Achaean boys got a chance to prove themselves against Machanidas, who was the tyrant of Sparta. 6 Machanidas had a strong army of mercenaries, and he planned to make slaves of the rest of the people in the Peloponnesus. Near Mantinea, the Achaeans stood for battle. Philopoemen had placed some hired soldiers in front of his phalanx, and these mercenaries ran when Machanidas attacked. Instead of turning to fight the rest of the Achaean army, Machanidas led the pursuit of these beaten men, thinking he had already won the victory.

Once a big enough distance had been opened between the pursuers and the rest of Machanidas' force, Philopoemen and the Achaean phalanx charged. Philopoemen's charge caught the Spartans out of position and unprepared, with their flanks exposed by the cavalry pursuit. Over four thousand of them were killed, and the rest ran as fast as their legs could carry them. Philopoemen then turned his men around and got ready for Machanidas, who was returning with his cavalry from the chase. Philopoemen killed Machanidas in single combat, winning glory for himself and a resounding victory for the Achaeans.

* * *

While the rest of Greece submitted to Macedonian hegemony, Aratus 7 had collected a few cities into the Achaean confederation by his skillful diplomacy. As in a stream of water, when a few particles stick together against the flow, and others join them until something firm arises, so the Achaean confederacy liberated neighboring cities from their tyrants. But it was not until Philopoemen joined the confederacy that they managed to come out from under Macedonian rule.

Like young horses, which go quietly with their usual riders but are difficult for strangers to handle, the Achaeans were unhappy whenever Philopoemen was not leading them. They knew that he was the only one of their commanders that was feared by their enemies.

Several times, in fact, his name had been enough to decide a battle. When the Boeotians were besieging Megara, and were just about to storm the town, a rumor came to them that Philopoemen had arrived. This rumor was totally groundless, but the Boeotians immediately ran away, leaving their ladders on the walls. Another time, Nabis [who was tyrant of Sparta after Machanidas] launched a surprise attack on the Messenians at a time when Philopoemen was not the general of the Achaeans. Although Philopoemen could not persuade the current general to go to help the Messenians, he went there himself as a private citizen. Nabis left the place as fast as he could as soon as he heard Philopoemen was coming, and he was glad to escape with his life.

But when Megalopolis was being attacked by Nabis, Philopoemen left to fight in Crete because his fellow citizens had given the command to other generals, leaving him nothing to do, even though Nabis was at their gates. Philopoemen could not endure inaction, and perhaps he was angry at this slight, but his enemies in Megalopolis accused him of cowardice and betrayal. When he returned from Crete, Philopoemen found that the Macedonians had been beaten by the Romans, and the Achaeans had allied themselves with the Romans to fight the Spartans, who were still under the tyranny of Nabis.

The Achaeans chose Philopoemen as their general. Although he had no experience in naval warfare, Philopoemen tried a sea fight and was defeated. But he surprised the enemy soldiers as they were celebrating their victory and burned their camp, killing many of them.

A few days afterwards, as Philopoemen was marching through some rugged country, Nabis ambushed him. At first, the Achaeans were confused and dismayed, and they looked for any way that might lead to safety. Philopoemen called a halt, looked at the terrain, then showed them why the one important thing in war is skill in arranging an army. By moving them only a few paces, he put them into a defensible position and took them out of immediate danger. Then they charged and routed the ambushers.

Philopoemen noticed that the enemy soldiers did not run to the city that was nearby, but instead went into the forest, where horses could not chase them down. He called off the pursuit and ordered his men to make camp in daylight. But that night he posted strong groups in the creek beds and by the sloping ground where the enemy soldiers would try to sneak into the town when darkness came. They came in singly or in small groups, as they had been scattered by the rout, so they were easily captured.

* * *

Titus Flamininus, 8 a consul of Rome and the commander of the Roman forces in Greece, was a man who was naturally eager for glory. Although he and Philopoemen were allies, there was some jealousy because Titus thought that any glory that might be won by Philopoemen would diminish his own.

Titus made peace with Nabis. But when Nabis was killed by the Aetolians, and Sparta was in confusion, Philopoemen marched on Sparta and by threats and persuasions managed to get Sparta to join the Achaean confederacy. For bringing such a power into the confederacy, Philopoemen was praised by the Achaeans. The Spartans were glad, too, because it seemed that finally they would be able to assure their freedom. To show their gratitude, the Spartans decided to give Philopoemen a present of 120 talents. Here, the honesty of Philopoemen showed itself to be no counterfeit virtue. He listened to their presentation, then he went in person to Sparta and told them not to bribe good men and friends. Instead, he said, use the money to silence the politicians who use public trouble as a source of private profit.

Some time later, when Diophanes was general of the Achaeans, Sparta seceded from the confederacy. Diophanes decided to take an army there and bring them back into the confederacy by force. Philopoemen tried to talk him out of it, saying that such an invasion would only give the Romans an excuse to join in and take over. A better policy, he said, would be to wait until the Romans armies leave before taking action. But Diophanes rejected this advice and marched to Sparta, accompanied, as Philopoemen had feared, by Titus. Philopoemen, indignant, went to Sparta himself as a private citizen and there commanded that neither the consul of Rome nor the general of the Achaeans be permitted to enter the town. By his personal diplomacy, Philopoemen quieted the rebellion and restored relations between Sparta and the confederacy.

However, when Philopoemen became general himself, and the Spartans again were making trouble, he put eighty of them to death and tore down the walls they had built. He also took away citizenship from the slaves that had been enfranchised by the tyrants, making them slaves again. Then he took away a large portion of Spartan territory and gave it to the Megalopolitans. Philopoemen abolished what was left of the laws of Lycurgus. Shortly afterwards, the Romans came to help the Spartans against the Achaeans. Sparta again seceded from the confederacy and tried to restore its customs and laws.

* * *

The power of Rome now pushed against what remained of the Achaean confederacy. There was no other opposition left to Roman hegemony in Greece. Philopoemen, at this time, was like a good sailor in a high sea -- always steering steady through the tacks of difficult policy. He did whatever he could to keep together all of those whose wealth or eloquence might contribute to the defense of Greek liberty.

However, there was an opposing faction, who urged that the Romans should not be opposed or displeased in any way. After listening to one of these men speak one day, Philopoemen angrily interrupted: "Why are you in such a hurry, miserable man, to behold the end of Greece?"

Dinocrates, who was a wicked man and had always been an enemy to Philopoemen, persuaded the Messenians to secede from the Achaean confederacy. Dinocrates went out to expand his domain by capturing a little place called Colonis. Although he was sick in bed with a fever, the day he heard the news, Philopoemen got up and rode to Megalopolis, covering a distance of fifty miles in one day. From there, he immediately led the cavalry out to stop Dinocrates.

Philopoemen was seventy years old, and he had been chosen general for the eighth time. He had been hoping to spend the year of his generalship and the remainder of his life in peace, but bad luck or some divine justice threw him down at the end of his life, like a runner who stumbles at the finish line. Ironically, Philopoemen had recently objected when a certain man had been praised for his skill as a general, saying that a man who allows himself to be taken alive by the enemy deserves no fame at all. That was soon to be his own fate.

Philopoemen's cavalry met Dinocrates' force and routed them, but the enemy rallied around some fresh men that Dinocrates had left behind in reserve. Philopoemen was afraid that his scattered troops might be cut off, so he terminated the pursuit and ordered a retreat, bringing up the rear himself. In trying to save every last man, Philopoemen left the main body and put himself into danger, until finally he found himself alone among enemies. No one dared to come within range of his spear, but they pelted him with rocks from a distance. Philopoemen was still a strong man even at his age, but his long ride and his illness had weakened him. His horse slipped as he tried to ride up some steep rocks, and in the fall Philopoemen suffered a concussion. The enemy soldiers tied Philopoemen's hands behind his back and carried him to Dinocrates, with every kind of insult and indignity.

The Messenians were happy to hear that Philopoemen had been captured, but most of them had no malice toward him because they remembered how he had saved them from Nabis. When they saw the sad spectacle of this distinguished old gentleman, most of them cursed the deceitful vanity of human fortune, and some even wept. But a few toadies tried to curry favor with Dinocrates by calling for Philopoemen to be not only killed, but tortured first. Those who sympathized with Philopoemen were afraid to say anything. Dinocrates put Philopoemen in a dungeon underground, with no light or air, and sealed the entrance with a large rock.

By that time, the Achaeans had found out what had happened to their general. They were ashamed to have let Philopoemen be captured as he was trying to save them from their own disorganized retreat. And so, with great strength and determination, the whole Achaean army assembled and marched to Messene to get him back.

Dinocrates did not dare to allow Philopoemen to be released, and he was afraid that his people might just do that if the Achaeans applied enough pressure. So that night he sent a man with a cup of poison to the dungeon.

The news of Philopoemen's death angered the Achaeans so greatly that they took revenge with fire and sword until the Messenians surrendered. Dinocrates committed suicide, and so did many others. The Achaeans cremated Philopoemen's body and put the ashes into an urn, which they carried back to Megalopolis. It was an unusual procession: half funeral, half triumph. The Achaeans had victory garlands on their heads, and tears in their eyes. The captured enemy soldiers trudged along in chains beside them. Along the way, people came out to pay their respects and join in.

At Megalopolis, the whole city turned out for the funeral. Philopoemen's ashes were honorably buried, and the prisoners were stoned to death at his tomb.

Throughout Greece, many statues and other memorials were set up to honor Philopoemen. One of the Romans proposed that these should all be removed because Philopoemen had been an enemy of Rome. There was a long discussion, with speeches pro and con. In the end, the Roman commander said no, even though Philopoemen had often opposed both Titus and his successor. As an honest man, this Roman rightly distinguished between usefulness and virtue -- between what is good in itself and what is of benefit to particular parties. Honor is never to be denied by good men to each other.


1. The Academy in Athens, founded by Plato in 385 B.C., was the first college in the western world. Plutarch knew it well, having been a student there himself.

2. Plutarch's life of Epaminondas has been lost, most regrettably. Fragments of his memory survive in Plutarch's lives of Pelopidas and Agesilaus.

3. Homer's known epics are the Iliad and the Odyssey. Some scholars claim that Homer did not exist and that these epics are mere collections of folk tales. Read Homer and ponder the merits and motivations of such assertions.

4. William James, in his classic exploration of the psychology of religion entitled The Varieties of Religious Experience, concurs in the view that war is the great school of all kinds of virtues. James advocated what he called "the moral equivalent of war." The moral equivalent was "the strenuous life" of struggle and sacrifice on behalf of one's own principles. In other words: war without the horror and hate, and without being a slave to somebody else's program.

5. A thonged javelin had a leather strap attached to the end, which was wrapped around the shaft. The end of the strap was held in the throwing hand. The strap served as a sling for additional leverage and it also imparted a rotation to the javelin to keep it straight in flight.

6. By this time, the last king of Sparta was dead, and the city was ruled by gangs of mercenaries.

7. Plutarch's life of Aratus has not been included in this collection.

8. Plutarch's life of Titus Flamininus is the Roman life with which Philopoemen was compared. It was Plutarch's plan to compare each Roman with a Greek having a similar character, and he also included a comparison after most pairs of lives. Some, like Caesar and Alexander, were too big to compare. Each pair and the comparison essay (some say that the comparisons are apocryphal) form a unit, which Plutarch sent in handwritten rolls of parchment to Sosius Senecio, a powerful Roman who made sure that Plutarch's latest creation had an audience that included emperors. The title given to the collection of Plutarch's biographical works that has survived the Dark Ages is Parallel Lives.

You Might Also Like:

World History related image
Read More

World History

Welcome to our World History section, a vast treasure trove of historical knowledge that takes you on a captivating journey through the annals of human civilization. Our collection spans a wide spectrum of topics, providing an exhaustive resource for history enthusiasts, students, and curious minds ...
Read More

The Greek Genius

The Greeks were the first to formulate many of the Western world's fundamental concepts in politics, philosophy, science, and art. How was itthat a relative handful of people could bequeath such a legacy tocivilization? The definitive answer may always elude the historian, but a goodpart of the expl...
Read More


A Vital Legacy The final complexity in dealing with classical Greece (and then Rome)involves its relationship to us - to contemporary residents of North America.For most Americans, Greece constitutes the first phase of "our own" classicalpast. The framers of the Constitution of the United States wer...
Read More

Ancient Greece related image
Read More

Ancient Greece

From Plutarch's Lives, still inspirational after 19 centuries: 15 Ancient Greek Heroes from Plutarch's Lives Ploutarcou A modern English edition, abridged and annotated by Wilmot H. McCutchen Preface It's brief, so start here, then read these biographies in chronological order: Theseus The Athenian...
Read More

Ancient Catapults

Surviving Greek and Roman texts reveal the remarkable level of mathematical and engineering skill that went into the development of these early ballistic-missile launchers by Werner Soedel and Vernard Foley Scientific American, March 1979, pp. 150 - 160 Web version made available with additional dia...
Read More

Greek and Roman Gods and Goddesses

Romans borrowed their gods and goddesses from the Greeks and gave them new names. Below is a chart of the Greek and Roman names of the God or Goddess and a description of what they were believed to control. Greek NameRoman NameResponsibilitiesAphroditeVenusgoddess of beauty and loveAresMarsgod of wa...
Read More

Alexander "The Great"

Alexander"The Great"(356 -323 B.C.) In an amazing eleven-year journey of conquest, young Alexander of Macedonia conquered all the way from Egypt to India. Behind him came Greek institutions and the Greek language, which became the standard of the ancient world. The intoxication of power caused Alex ...
Read More

Maps of Greece

Attica - SaronicCentral GreeceCreteCycladesDodecaneseEpirusIonianMacedoniaThessalyN E AegeanPeloponneseThraceCentral Greece Crete Cyclades DodecanesePeloponnese...
Read More


abate (a bate')Make less; die down. Example: The city passed a law to abate the noise coming from factories. abductedKidnapped; carried away a person by force. abet (a bet')Assist; help out, especially in doing something bad. Example: Nixon had a staff to abet his crimes. abide (a byd')Tolerate; sta Studying the words in context, and examining the brief definitions and examples provided in this list, will add significantly to the student's real understanding of proper usage....
Read More


If we explore the literature of Heroism, we shall quickly come to Plutarch, who is its Doctor and historian. ... I must think we are more deeply indebted to him than to all the ancient writers. Each of his "Lives" is a refutation to the despondency and cowardice of our religious and political theori...
Read More


The Athenian Adventurer (circa 1300 B.C.) QHSEUS by Plutarch Theseus suppressed crime and brought the natives of Attica together into the first democracy. He saved the Athenian children from the Minotaur, but his kidnap of the queen of the Amazons brought trouble, and he ended his days in disgrace. ...
Read More


The Lawmaker of Athens (died 559 B.C.) SOLWN by Plutarch Athens, unlike Sparta, was a money-mad commercial city. The constitution written by Solon mitigated the class struggle between rich and poor, and allowed for the growth of democratic institutions. Solon was born into a well-to-do family of Ath...
Read More


"The Just" (530 - 468 B.C.) ARISTEIDHS by Plutarch Aristides was so respected throughout Greece for his fairness that Athens assumed the leadership of the alliance against the Persian invaders. His character is a model for all ages. Aristides was a close friend of Cleisthenes, the man who had stampe...
Read More


"The Olympian" (495 - 429 B.C.) PERIKLHS by Plutarch By the power of his eloquence, and the money embezzled from Athens' unwilling allies, Pericles built Athens into a beautiful city and a powerful empire. Athenian imperialism, however, soon led to war with Sparta. Augustus Caesar observed some fore...
Read More