Battle of Chaeronea

In 338 BCE, on an early August morning, the Battle of Chaeronea took place outside the city of Chaeronea. Although, for centuries, the towns of Athens and Sparta dominated Greece politically, militarily, and economically. The Battle of Chaeronea, one of the most famous of all Greek battles, only involved one of these cities: Athens joined forces with Thebes to confront the rising power of Macedon in a war that altered the course of history.

Since Homer’s day, the notion of arĂȘte and its focus on power and daring have represented the Greeks in combat. In the 4th century BCE, however, a new danger emerged to threaten the supremacy of the southern city-states when Macedon, traditionally considered a land of barbarians, fell under the astute leadership of Philip II, a man who would restructure the Macedonian army.

He would demonstrate this new military might in the Battle of Chaeronea; the Macedonian triumph at Chaeronea would send Greece into what historian G. Maclean Rogers calls a “deep slumber,” politically and militarily. It would never again reclaim its Mediterranean dominance.

Philip II reconstructs the Macedonian military.

Philip inherited a kingdom with a weak military. Recognizing this flaw, he rebuilt the feeble army into a formidable combat force. This new army was modeled after the renowned Sacred Band of Thebes (the elite fighting unit of the Theban army) and their equally effective wedge, a strategy that Philip had learned as a hostage in Thebes in 367 BCE. Philip II’s new army consisted of professionals rather than citizen soldiers.

He reformed the old, conventional phalanx, replacing the ancient hoplite spear with the sarissa, an 18- to 20-foot pike, and adding a more miniature double-edged sword, or xiphos. He then redesigned the obsolete shield and helmet. It did not take him long to demonstrate to the rest of Greece the might of the Macedonian army by conquering and defeating the Thracians in the north, so convincing the citizens of Athens that Philip posed a real danger.

Athens and Thebes Unite

From 352 until 338 BCE, Athens and Philip would remain in conflict. Despite an uneasy peace with Macedon – a truce struck after the Social Wars that was uneasy because Philip offered Athens his assistance, then gained possession of cities he desired for himself after providing them to Athens – Athens could only sit in silence stay wary of the barbarians to the north.

The Athenians were hesitant to attack them alone due to their inability to form coalitions and lack of financial resources. In addition, Philip’s military achievements earned him a place on the Amphicroyonic Council, an organization of Greek city-states, which was an insult to the Athenians.

Although Athens considered Philip as a threat, others saw him as someone who could unify the entirety of Greece. Meanwhile, Philip strengthened his grip on Greece by seizing and renaming the cities of Crenides in 356 BCE, Methone in 354 BCE, and Olynthus on the Chalcidice peninsula in 348 BCE.

When he seized grain supplies destined for the city, these terrible actions impacted Athens. As a result of these attacks on their food supply, Athens sought an ally and finally turned to their northern neighbor, Thebes. Long considered adversaries, the two cities suddenly shared a single adversary: Philip.

Athens cautioned Thebes that, because of its position, Thebes would fall before Athens. On the other hand, Thebes was aware of Philip’s risks and looked not to Athens. Still, the Persians, whose hatred for the Macedonian monarch arose from his position near the Persian-controlled northwest coast of Anatolia.

By 339 BCE, it was evident that a decisive last fight with Philip could not be averted. Demosthenes was one enraged Athenian who grasped this threat to Athens and the rest of Greece. The talented orator addressed this danger in a series of heated speeches called the “Philippics.” He was the one who grasped the need to obtain Thebes as an ally.

Demosthenes argued that the young cities should set aside their differences and unite against the barbarians of Macedonia. Since many inside the Athenian government opposed going to war with Philip, Demosthenes deftly appeased them by recalling their triumph at the Battle of Marathon. He declared they could easily vanquish this northern savage. The Athenians reluctantly granted Demosthenes’ request.

Preparation for the Battle of Chaeronea

The Athenian army marched to Boeotia, where they stationed soldiers at crucial mountain routes (particularly the Gravia Pass north of Amphissa and Parapotamii on the way to Thebes) in an attempt to obstruct Macedonian access to the Gulf of Corinth, a source of much-needed supplies; Philip was forced to retreat due to a lack of supplies.

These mountain routes were secured throughout 339 and 338 BCE, and Athens and Thebes felt secure. However, by 338 BCE, many of those protecting the crossings were restless, and natural enmity was causing severe issues.

In addition to this difference, Philip created a notion that the Macedonians were preparing to retreat. When Philip retreated from Cytinium, the Greek warriors at Amphissa relaxed their vigilance. Philip swiftly grasped the chance and launched a nighttime assault, defeating the pass’s defenders and seizing the city.

Afterward, he marched further west and conquered the city of Naupaetus. Demosthenes courageously encouraged Athens and Thebes to decline Philip’s offer of peace. Now, war was inevitable. The way to Athens and Thebes was open after the king and his infant son Alexander captured the Boeotian border city of Aleteia. Philip led his forces south to engage the enemy on a little plain west of Chaeronea.

The Combat Begins

The Athenians, Thebans, and a few allies positioned themselves with the Athenians (10,000 infantry and 600 cavalries) on the left, the partners in the middle, and the Thebans (800 cavalry, 12,000 infantry, and 300 members of the Sacred Band) on the far right. Across from the Athenians were the Macedonians, led by Philip and consisting of 30,000 infantry and 3,000 cavalries.

 Alexander, at 18, led the Companion Cavalry in combat against the Thebans. In Alexander’s Life, Plutarch would write of the youthful commander’s valor, “… he is claimed to have been the first man to attack the Theban holy band… This gallantry made Philip so fond of him that nothing made him happier than hearing his followers refer to him as their general and Alexander as their king.” Unknown is whether Philip genuinely felt this way or whether Plutarch’s impression or judgment is to blame.

Even though they were not professional troops like their Macedonian counterparts, the Athenians struck first. Philip drew the Athenians in a questionable ploy by pulling his soldiers behind. Philip swiftly stormed into the Athenian center, swerved to the left, and broke through the opposing line. As impending loss loomed, the allies retreated.

On the Macedonian left, Alexander moved into the void created by the retreating Athenians. He was able to eradicate the Sacred Band by surrounding them thoroughly. The surviving Athenians, including Demosthenes, fled in fear. When one thousand Athenians were slaughtered, Philip arranged for their burial and sold the remaining captive soldiers into slavery.

The Aftereffects

After the fight, Athens was compelled to ally, while Thebes was deprived of valuable agricultural grounds in Boeotia. Many see the Battle of Chaeronea as a turning point in history, after which the Greeks were no longer a military or political danger.

The Athenians may have fought heroically, but the Greeks were no longer a military or political threat after the Battle of Chaeronea. Philip now shifted his military aspirations from Greece to Persia in the east. Unfortunately, his premature death would leave this accomplishment to his son, Alexander, who would later be renowned as Alexander the Great.

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