Battle of Chaeronea
This land battle, fought between the forces of King Philip II of Macedon and those of Athens, Thebes, and other allied Greeks and mercenaries, occurred in Boeotia in central Greece. Philip had hoped to campaign against Persia at the head of an army that would include an allied Greek force, but the leading Greek city-states stole a march on him and concluded an alliance with King Artaxerxes of Persia. Philip thus found that he had to move quickly against the Greeks before he could invade Persia.
Athens’s strength remained its powerful navy of some 300 triremes. Sending the fleet north into the Thermaic Gulf would have forced Philip to withdraw from central Greece. Athenian leader Demosthenes, however, was caught up in the myth of the Greek hoplite and chose to meet Philip on land, playing to the Macedonian’s strength.
Philip advanced faster than the Greeks anticipated. He first fell on and destroyed a force of some 10,000 Greek mercenaries at Amphissa, turning the flank of the remaining Greek forces holding the passes of northwestern Boeotia in central Greece. This forced Greek troops there to abandon the passes and withdraw south. Philip commanded perhaps 30,000 infantry and 2,000 cavalry. The Greek force now opposing him, commanded by Chares, was probably marginally larger: about 35,000 infantry and 2,000 cavalry.
The Greeks took up a strong position near Chaeronea in Boeotia. To the east, west, and south they were protected by mountains. In order to triumph, Philip would have to attack them head-on. Philip was an experienced military commander who faced in Chares a mediocre general at best. However, Philip was sufficiently impressed with the strength of the Greek position to make a last effort at a peace settlement with Athens and Thebes. Although the Delphic Oracle issued gloomy predictions for the allied side, Demosthenes overruled those who favored accepting the king’s offer, forcing Philip to attack.
The battle took place probably on August 4 in 338 BCE on a front extending over about two miles. Some 12,000 Boeotians occupied the allied right, anchored by the Theban Sacred Band, the army’s elite unit comprised of 150 pairs of male lovers who had shattered the hitherto invincible Spartan Army at Leuctra in371. Perhaps 10,000 Athenian hoplites held the Greek left wing, while on the extreme left some lightly armed Greek troops stretched east to the Chaeronea citadel. Remaining Greek contingents, stiffened by some 5,000 mercenaries, occupied the Greek center.
Philip knew that the Theban forces posed the major allied threat. Thebes had broken an alliance with Macedon to side with Athens and had the most to fear from a Macedonian victory. The Theban men were exceptionally well trained; indeed, Theban forces had been the model for Philip’s military reforms after he had taken the throne of Macedon. Athenian forces, on the other hand, were not well trained. Athens had not fought a major land battle for 20 years, and its men were basically citizen volunteers. Philip held to one cardinal principle in battle: the quickest and most economical way to win a victory is to attack and defeat not the weakest but the strongest portion of an enemy force. Crushing the Theban Sacred Band would be the key to a Macedonian victory.
Philip took up position on the Macedonian right, commanding the Guards Brigade (the Hypaspists), with a strong but lightly armed force protecting his flank. In the center he placed the regiments of the Macedonian phalanx. On the Macedonian left opposite the Theban Sacred Band, the position of greatest responsibility, Philip placed his son Alexander (later Alexander III, also known as Alexander the Great) in command of the Macedonian cavalry, an awesome responsibility for an 18-year-old and a measure of the confidence that Philip had in his son’s military ability.
The Macedonians then began their advance. When the two armies came together, Philip’s right wing slightly outflanked the allied left. His Guards Brigade engaged the Athenians first, Philip’s center and left being refused (i.e., slightly echeloned back from the Greek center and right). As the Guards Brigade and Athenians came together, the Athenians, followed by the Greek center, drifted slightly to the left.
The Athenian commander on the left, Stratocles, ordered his men to charge
the Macedonians. Although the Athenians drove the Macedonians back, the Guards Brigade’s withdrawal was a planned move, not a rout. Still facing their enemy, they moved back step by step up a slight incline, keeping the advancing Greeks at bay.
At this point a gap developed between the Greek center and the Theban forces to the right. The superior discipline of the Thebans, who had held their position while the force to their left had not, would bring their doom. Into the gap Alexander led one division of Macedonian cavalry, while another got in around the Thebans on the other side. The 300-man Sacred Band was completely surrounded.
Philip, probably not wishing to concede the victory to his son, now ordered the Guards Division to charge. It swiftly reversed direction downhill, and the Athenian line, disorganized because of its own charge, swiftly broke. The Macedonians killed some 1,000 Athenians and took double that number prisoner. The remainder, including Demosthenes, who was present on the field that day, escaped.
The Macedonian phalanx meanwhile engaged the Greek center; it too broke and fled. Only the Sacred Band held. As with Leonidas’s Spartans at Thermopylae, the Sacred Bank stood firm in perfect formation and was wiped out on the spot. Only 46 of its number were taken alive; the remaining 254 were subsequently buried on the spot in a common grave where they remain today, marked by the Lion of Chaeronea. Reportedly Philip subsequently ridiculed the performance of the Athenians but wept for the Sacred Band.
The Battle of Chaeronea demonstrated the superiority of the Macedonian 13foot pike over the 6-foot Greek spear. One of the most decisive battles in Greek history, it extinguished the independence of the city-states and made Philip master of all Greece. He went on to establish a federal system that united the many citystates and ended the struggles that had distracted them for so long.
Ashley, James R. Macedonian Empire: The Era of Warfare under Philip II and Alexander the Great, 359–323 B.C. Jefferson City, NC: McFarland, 1998.
Bradford, Alfred S., ed. Philip II of Macedon. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1992.
Green, Peter. Alexander of Macedon, 336–323 B.C.: A Historical Biography. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991.
Hammond, Nicholas G. L. Philip of Macedon. London: Duckworth, 1994.