Sack of Corinth Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The sack of Corinth marked the end of Greek political autonomy and displayed the harsh tactics of mature Roman imperialism.

Summary of Event

Corinth’s fall in the summer of 146 b.c.e. came as the final event of what the Romans called the bellum Achaicum, or Achaean War, the fifth Roman military intervention into the eastern Mediterranean region since 200 b.c.e. Unlike earlier invasions, which had targeted the powerful kings of Macedonia and Syria, this conflict was a war against a Greek state: the Achaean League, one of several confederacies of city-states that had come to prominence during the late classical and Hellenistic periods. Since joining the league in 243 b.c.e., Corinth had emerged as an influential member and frequently served as a site for Achaean League congresses and meetings with foreign ambassadors. As a result, Corinth was a logical target for punitive action following the Roman victory over the league. The fame of its wealth and artistic treasures made it an even more appealing victim, and its international prominence as overseer of the Panhellenic Isthmian Games heightened the lesson of its destruction. Flamininus, Titus Quinctius Philopoemen Callicrates (d. 149 b.c.e.) Diaeus Caecilius Metellus, Quintus Aurelius Orestes, Lucius Critolaus Mummius, Lucius

The motives behind Rome’s halting assertion of control over Greece are extremely complex, but two things must be understood: The Romans did not set out to conquer Greece, and initially the Greeks did not find the Roman presence unwelcome. For example, the Romans undertook the Second Macedonian War (200-196 b.c.e.) against Philip V (238-179 b.c.e.) at the behest of several Greek states that had suffered Philip’s depredations, and they fought the war with the support of most Greek states, including the Achaean League. Following Philip’s defeat, the victorious commander Titus Quinctius Flamininus held a grand Panhellenic ceremony at Corinth at which he declared the Greek states to be free and then evacuated all Roman forces from the region. The Achaeans also supported Rome in its war against Seleucid king Antiochus the Great (r. 223-187 b.c.e.), but friction soon arose as the aggressively independent Achaean general Philopoemen ignored Roman appeals for restraint and forcibly incorporated the city-state of Sparta into the league. His death in 182 b.c.e. allowed a pro-Roman Achaean leader Callicrates to adopt a more cooperative relationship with Rome, but this stance invited charges of collaboration. Stung by these attacks, Callicrates urged the Roman senate to support their Greek friends and show displeasure with their enemies—something the Romans would do with a vengeance during their next military intervention.

The Third Macedonian War (171-167 b.c.e.) revealed a hardening of Roman attitudes, not only toward defeated opponents but also toward Greek states that had displayed lukewarm support for the Roman war effort. Thus, Illyrians and Macedonians saw their monarchies abolished and their countries divided. In Epirus, the Romans sacked seventy Greek towns that had sided with Macedonia and enslaved 150,000 people. In Boeotia, the fate of Haliartos exactly presaged the doom that would later befall Corinth: slaughter, enslavement, and destruction. With the aid of a Roman garrison, the pro-Roman faction of the Aetolian League executed 550 citizens suspected of antipathy to Rome. Some one thousand leading Achaean citizens named by Callicrates were deported to Italy, where they remained for seventeen years. The absence of these opposition leaders at first strengthened the hand of the pro-Roman faction in Achaea, but the continued holding of the hostages engendered growing resentment.

The release of the surviving Achaean captives in 150 b.c.e., along with the death of Callicrates in the following year, stiffened the Achaean League’s sense of independence at a crucial time, for Sparta had chosen this moment to reassert its autonomy and appealed to Rome. Diaeus, a rival of Callicrates, defended the Achaean position before the Roman senate, which promised to send a ten-man commission to settle the dispute. Perhaps because of the senate’s preoccupation with Rome’s Third Punic War (149-146 b.c.e.) against Carthage, the commission was not sent for more than a year, during which the dispute intensified. At this moment, the appearance of a pretender to the Macedonian throne brought forth the army that would soon threaten Achaea. In 148 b.c.e., Quintus Caecilius Metellus defeated the pretender and stayed on with his army to complete the pacification of Macedonia. Again the Achaeans had supported the Roman campaign, but they did not respond positively to Metellus’s initial request that they show restraint in their conflict with Sparta. A second embassy from Metellus finally convinced the league to call a truce and await the promised Roman commission.

Headed by Lucius Aurelius Orestes, the commission arrived at Corinth in the summer of 147 b.c.e. and delivered a stunning decision: It not only endorsed Sparta’s secession from the league but also decreed that Corinth, Argos, Heracleia, and Orchomenos were to be detached as well. News of this ultimatum provoked a furious response throughout the city. The Roman commissioners tried in vain to save Spartans who had taken refuge with them and at one point were themselves pelted with filth. An outraged Orestes returned to Rome, where he claimed that the lives of the Roman commissioners had been in danger and demanded retaliation. Another Roman embassy accomplished little, and formal contacts between the league and the senate ceased at this point. The Achaean general Critolaus spent the winter of 147-146 b.c.e. preparing for war, and the senate authorized Lucius Mummius to raise an army and proceed against Achaea.

When Critolaus led the Achaean League army north in 146 to lay siege to the rebellious town of Heracleia, he was probably unaware of Mummius’s preparations. On the one hand, perhaps recalling Philopoemen’s successful acts of defiance, he may not have expected the Romans to back up their threats with force. Alternatively, he may have anticipated an eventual attack by Metellus but thought he had time to take up a position at Thermopylae, where he might reasonably attempt to confront Roman forces coming down from Macedonia. In any case, he was unprepared for Metellus’s ferocious onslaught, which routed the Achaean army. Critolaus himself disappeared in the confusion, a victim of the battle or a suicide. Metellus then took control of the Isthmus of Corinth and tried to upstage Mummius by offering a negotiated settlement, but the Achaean leadership refused and resolved to resist with a hastily assembled force made up primarily of freed slaves. At this juncture Mummius arrived, dismissed Metellus back to Macedonia, and with a fresh army overcame Diaeus and the Achaeans in battle at the Isthmus. Diaeus fled to his home city of Megalopolis, where he killed his wife and himself to avoid capture.

The destruction of Corinth followed shortly in two phases. Two days after the battle at the Isthmus, Mummius subjected the city to a brutal sack. Most of the men were killed, the women and children enslaved, and the city systematically looted. Scores of artistic treasures were shipped back to Italy, where they adorned temples and public buildings. Some weeks after this initial sack, a ten-man commission arrived from Rome to impose a final settlement. The commissioners dismembered the Achaean League and placed Greece under the oversight of the military governor in Macedonia, which was now organized as a Roman province. As for Corinth, part of its territory was declared Roman public land and reserved for exploitation by Romans; the rest was ceded to the neighboring city-state of Sicyon, which also received control of the Isthmian Games. Finally, citing as justification the insolent treatment of Orestes’ commission, the commissioners ordered that the city be razed and burned.


For a century, the site remained a wasteland inhabited by a few squatters and tomb robbers, who raided the cemeteries for valuables. Thus, Corinth ceased to exist, until Julius Caesar refounded the city in 44 b.c.e. as a colony for his veterans and others. Ironically, in this reincarnation, the city would later flourish as the capital of the entire Greek region, now called the Roman province of Achaea.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Derow, P. S. “Rome, the Fall of Macedon, and the Sack of Corinth.” In Rome and the Mediterranean to 133 b.c. Vol. 8 in The Cambridge Ancient History, edited by A. E. Asitn, F. W. Walbank, M. W. Frederiksen, and R. M. Ogilvie. 2d ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990. This chapter provides an excellent study of the background to the sack.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gruen, Eric S. The Hellenistic World and the Coming of Rome. 2 vols. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984. A comprehensive study of Rome’s entry into the east that stresses Rome’s lack of design.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Harris, William V. War and Imperialism in Republican Rome 327-70 b.c. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985. Harris provides a realistic look at Roman imperialism that attributes Roman expansion to a habit of war and a keen sense of war’s economic rewards.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kallet-Marx, Robert Morstein. Hegemony to Empire: The Development of the Roman Imperium in the East from 148-62 b.c. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995. Exposes the complexity of the relationship between Greek culture and Roman imperialism in the late Republic.

Categories: History