Ars Bellica

Battle of Chaeronea

338 BC

Philip II defeated Athenians and Thebans, cementing the primacy of Macedonia over the Greek poleis thanks to the contribution of his son Alexander who immediately proves his value on the field.



Philip II of Macedon son of Amyntas III (382 BC-336 BC)

Filippo II di Macedonia

In the years of puberty was hostage in Thebes, where he was capable to know the beotics military tactics, the best of Greece in that era. In 359, the death of his brother Perdiccas III, Philip rid of other suitors and could be appointed as guardian of the underage nephew Amyntas, who held the throne until 353, when, he proclaimed himslef King. He wrestled against disruptive internal trends reducing to obedience the principalities of Elimiotide, Orestes and Lyncestis (358); at the same time ensured the borders of Macedonia with a great campaign against Illyrians, Thessalians, Thracians, Paeonians. However, he managed to obtain a "deep enmity" with Athens dealing, sometimes with fraud, sometimes with violence, Athenian maritime strongholds in Thracian sea (Amphipolis, Potidaea, Methone, Pydna). In 354 he intervened in the so-called third sacred war contributing decisively to combat the Phocians and taking part in the events of Central Greece: this intervention was viciously opposed by Athens and Sparta. In the following years, Philip made expeditions against the Illyrian King Cerseblepte, and destroyed the city of Olynthus (348), which had received a belated aid from Athens; he signed then (346) with Athens an advantageous peace treaty of Philocrates, which gave him a free hand against the last phocean, general Faleco, who was forced to surrender. Philip, who had been recognized by the Thessalians as perpetual Archon had got two votes in the Delphic amphictyonic League, so, was firmly camped in the heart of Greece. The Athenian resistance, by Demosthenes and his friends Democrats, stiffened; so two allied cities of Athens, Perinto and Byzantium, suffered a siege by the Macedonians (341-40) and Athens itself was attacked by Philip, which, at the moment of danger, had allied with Thebes. The Greeks allies were beaten at Chaeronea (338) and suffered severe conditions: as example, Athens had to forgo the Thracian Chersonese, while Thebes had to accommodate a Macedonian Presidium. Then Philip went into the Peloponnese, restores the Arcadian League and impose oligarchic Governments almost everywhere to him favour; in 336 finally summoned in Corinth the greek States delegates, for the Constitution of a Panhellenic Federation that, under his leadership, would have to fight the avitus enemy of the Greeks, the Persians. Almost 10,000 greeks men were passed in Asia when Philip was killed in Ege, victim of a Palace conspiracy, just at 46 years. He was the most talented, energetic and insightful King of Macedon, and perhaps better, in many regards, than his son Alexander the great; under him the Macedonia had evolved from modest power to an high power state, media-rich, with a renewed military organization, with a territorial extension larger than what any Greek State ever had. He even understand that, removing the freedom to the Greeks could be offset by large economic possibilities, that the conquest of Asia would have disclosed the Hellenic nation; but the love of freedom was so strong in the Greeks, who, while following him and Alexander, were always ready to take up arms to redeem their autonomy.

Cares of Athens-General (4th century BC)

During the social war he was in command, along with Timothy and Ifìcrate, of the fleet sent against the rebel cities of Byzantium, Chios, and Rhodes. He Suffered a severe defeat (356) and attributed the failure of the mission by the two colleagues, he was judged inept and afterwards processed. Shortly after the process, he had some success fighting alongside the rebel satrap Artabazus, against the King of Persia, which provoked harsh reactions from the East and for this reason, in 335 BC he was recalled by Eubulus.

He participated in the battle of Chaeronea (338) as the commander of his fellow citizens; in 335, destroyed Thebes, he retired in his possessions of the Sigeo, on the Hellespont. A few years later was in service under Alexander the great against Persia; surely died in 324.


The ascent of Philip

In Epirus, King of the molossians Alcetas and his son Neoptolemus were allies of Athens: Neoptolemus will rule with his younger brother Aribba, who will succeed him after his death. Aribba, around 340 BC, will be received with all the honors in Athens, as attested by an inscription that has come down to us. From what we read, Aribba deserve these honours «since citizenship and the consequent privileges that had been granted to his father and his grandfather were also extended to him». But the inscription ends with these words: «the generals in charge must ensure that Aribba and his sons will resume the reign of their ancestors». In fact the Kingdom of Macedonia, now controlled Molossians and all the other tribes of Epirus. The region had gained a dual nature, typical of Athenian influence; the Court, in fact, and its main cities were Greek and lead a high living standard, while the rest of the population, i.e. all that collection of tribes outside of major centres, remained foreign to any Hellenic influence. In 359 BC, Philip of Macedon, Regent as tutor of his nephew Amyntas IV whose reign was threatened by the Illyrians to the North, took power and organized his army.

Alexander and a young Theban man at the battle of Chaeronea, detail of Stela of Pancare.

Philip had 24 years. In 358 could count on an army of 10,000 soldiers and 600 Cavalry, well prepared and disciplined. We learn that in a bloody battle against Illyrian tribes Philip left almost 7000 men on the field. Taken control of Macedon, Philip moved eastward, toward Thrace, a region vital to the interests of Athens. He seized Amphipolis and its gold mines in 357 and built a fortress to defend its new acquisitions. He continues his conquests in the region, fact that caused new tensions and hostility, but at this point the situation was the following: the Paeonians had been reduced to vassals, the Illyrians were subjugated and Tracians, for money, had left the occupied territories; in 356 Philip assumed the title of King, and in the same year was born his son Alexander, from the marriage with Olympias, the daughter of Neoptolemus, King of Epirus.


Philip's intervention in Greece

In 355 a dispute between Phocis and the neighbouring city-States for the control of Delphi brings the war in Central Greece. The conflict, caused by Thebes, involved soon Sparta and Athens, its eternal rivals; then interested Thessaly and finally provoked the intervention of Philip of Macedon.
Such occasions were quite frequent in the Greek history, but this seemed sent from fate. Philip occupied Melon, last ally of Athens, and moved southwards. After a first defeat against the Phocians in Thessaly (Phocians that were defeated in 352), he was stopped at Thermopylae from Athenians and Spartans and stationed himself in Thrace: only his poor state of health saved thracian Chersonese and the Hellespont. The sense of fear and horror of the Athenian Oratory from this period is easily imaginable, but two things surprise historians, one positively and one negatively. The personal political revenges are anything but incredible in a period of crisis like this, however the clarity of their arguments is impressive. They attribute at the events the shape of inevitability, and their speeches appear as Athenian tragedy monologues. All the athenian speakers managed to express in the most dramatic way the surrending of all Greece in the hands of Philip. To condamn this behaviour, the greatest of them, Demosthenes, said: «if Philip would die you'll immediately arise another one!».

Leone di Cheronea
The lion of Chaeronea

But Philip did not die; in 349 invaded Halkidiki and in the following year he destroyed its main city, Olynthus. In 346, with a treaty concluded in Athens (peace of Philocrates), the Athenians gave up forever any pretense on Amphipolis, while retaining the control on the East, in the Chersonese. Meanwhile, Philip was engaged in Thrace, where he penetrated one after one a series of strongholds. Reestablished peace in the area and cut off the Phocis from its sources of supply, Philip marched south again. In the games that were held at Delphi in 346, he emerged as President; having taken control of Thessaly, he had the right to participate as a member of the Panhellenic Forum. He was now Governor of Thessaly. Cherso-blepte of Thrace was his vassal; Messenia, Argos and Megalopolis, Elis (i.e. those territories and those cities which, finding themselves in the Peloponnese, feared Sparta) were its allies too. Finally, in 342, he chased from Epirus Aribba King of the Molossians, just to impose his wife's brother, Alexander.

From Epirus, Philip could control the Gulf of Corinth and the western trading routes. Little by little, he extended his Kingdom to the South. Athens's reaction was too late. All of Thrace, Macedonia, Epirus and Thessaly were now part of the Empire of Philip. He had founded the city of Philippopolis (now Plovdiv) and held control of the western coast of Greece as far as the river Acheron. In 340 the Athenians, assisted by Byzantium and from nearby Perinto, managed to make it independent of Euboea, hunting the pro-macedonian oligarchy that exercised the power. Philip marched immediately on Perinto and on Byzantium, but without achieving immediate success. He spent the winter in northeastern Thrace, waging battles against the Scythians on the Danube estuary, and the following year he returned to Greece. Once again the opportunity for him was given by a dispute arosed within the delphic Council. In 338 Philip invaded Central Greece, occupied the Thermopylae, fortified a city in Phocis and seized Amfissa and Naupactus on the Corinthian Gulf. Thebes and Athens, with some less potent ally, opposed to Philip, and in August of that year, allied armies decided to tackle him at Chaeronea in Boeotia.


The Sarissa

The Sarissa (or sarisa) was the long Lance (3-7 ft) used by the Macedonian phalanx.
Really heavy spear, over 5 kg, had an iron leaf-shaped peak and a bronze "shoe" that allowed the sarissa to be anchored in the ground and also be very balanced during the combats. Its length was a huge asset against Hoplites and other soldiers, because they had to "pass" the Sarissa to unleash their full potential. However outside the tight formation of the Macedonian phalanx the Sarissa was almost useless as a weapon and it stood as an obstacle during the March.
To work around this issue the Sarissa was built in two sections, that were united with a metal "collar" before the battle. This allowed to subdivide the weapon in more manageable and easily transportable sections, so thus increase the mobility of the army.

In battle, the Macedonian formation created a "wall of Pikes", long enough to cover the entire front row with five sets of Sarisse; so that, even if the enemy passed the first row, there were still four more ready to stop him.
In addiction, the back rows bore their pikes angled upwards in readiness, which served the additional purpose of deflecting incoming arrows.
Thanks to the use of the Sarissa, the Macedonian phalanx was considered almost invulnerable from the front, if not against another equal phalanx; other ways in which was possible to overcome it were basically two: breaking its formation or by surrounding.

The introduction of the Sarissa is credited to Philip II of Macedon. Philip perfected the use of this weapon for its fighters who, until then, to use these formidable Pikes had to use two hands preventing them to bring any kind of shield. The new technical/tactical stunt (using sarissa with two hand and bringing an only a 24 inch shield, called pelta), was unstoppable, and by the end of the reign of Philip, Macedonia already controlled the whole of Greece, Epirus and Thrace.
The use of this weapon was prolonged: by Philip's son, Alexander the great, by the Diadochi's armies, almost always with winning results. But the victories produced by Macedonian phalanx armed with Sarissa had developed an evolution in Hellenistic armies that focusing almost exclusively on that sector, forgetting the existing weaknesses of this kind of phalanx. The defeat of Pydna, due to the circumvention of the Macedonian phalanx by the Roman legions, show how this formation can become crucial only if inserted into a particular tactical context, better if well balanced with all other components of the army.


The Philippic


The four political orations against Philip, attributed to Demosthenes (384-322 BC), were probably written and pronounced against the Macedonian monarch who in 357 with the conquest of the city of Amphipolis, began its methodical expansion and subjugation plan of Greece. The author of these orations appeals to Athenian citizenship in support of antimacedonian's Party, pointing from his first phrases the true origin of the evils afflicting the city: the inertia of his people, supported by the same speakers that have spoken several times without ever giving concrete advice on what to do. Is this the reason for weakness that allowed Philip to conquer all the Athenians strongholds of Pydna Potidaea and Melon. Everyone is indignant, but nobody thinks to respond seriously. Is corruption and greed that made Athens, as the whole Greece, weak and slave.


Opposing forces

The battle of Chaeronea is well descripted by authors like Diodorus, Polyaenus, Frontinus and Plutarch. Diodorus reports that the Macedonians whole raft at about 30,000 infantry and 2,000 Cavalry while the Greeks were surely outnumbered. It seems, therefore, that the Greeks after the destruction of 10,000 mercenaries camped at Amphissa had approximately 34-36,000 infantry and about 2,000 cavalry. This means that at the beginning of the campaign their forces would count on a number of almost 50,000 men. But if such was the force of Greeks, we can not understand why the greek deployment was so markedly defensive; considering that the thesis of contemporary (Ephorus at Diod. XII 82.3) becomes untenable. We can therefore assume that, once the mercenaries unit near Amphissa were destroyed by Philip, Confederate forces of the Greeks were less than those of the King.



The Athenian general Chares dispose his army along a plain covered with the left side covered by the Acropolis of Chaeronea and the right side standing in a marshland nearby the banks of a river. The arrangement made by Chares was intended to create a solid wall made by Hoplites's phalanx which purpouse was to avoid the eventual advantage of the the Macedonian cavalry. Theban allies were located on the right flank, while the Theban Sacred Battalion was anchored to the wing near the river. Athenian forces, Eubee and Corinthian kept the left side of the line but the Athenian Hoplites had not much experience. Megarians forces, mercenaries and the Hoplites of Lefkada and Corcyra were deployed at the Center. The Greek Alliance probably have also a large number of light troops.

Battle of Chaeronea - Deployment.

Philip enlisted a large infantry force for this battle. The Phalanx held the Center while Philip, with his guard, standed on the right side (the side of honor). The left flank was formed by Light Cavalry (probably Tessalians). Alexander, just turn 18 years old, commanded Cavalry units, which were positioned behind the line of battle as reserves.


The battle

The details of the battle are rather scarce, with Diodorus Siculus representing one of the most trusted sources.
The battle of Chaeronea says: «once it has started, the battle was bitterly fought for a long time with many fallen for each of the armies, so that the fight gave hope to both victory».
This brief introduction can be added to what is reported by Polyaenus, who picked up a lot of information about the war between Macedonians and Greeks, and this battle in particular, in his "Stratagems". Polyaenus, in fact, suggests that Philip "(IV.II. 2) Facing the Athenians at Chaeronea, simulated a retreat. When Stratocle, the Athenian Commander, ordered his men to push forward, shouting "we'll pursuit them right in the heart of Macedonia", Philip remarked quietly "the Athenians do not know how to win" and ordered his phalanx to remain tight and solid and retreat slowly, fleding with the shields from the enemy's attacks. When he, with this maneuver, had attracted enemies out of their advantageous terrain and gained a superiority, stopped and, encouraging his troops to a vigorous attack, shocked so much the enemy so to determine a brilliant victory in his favor.

Battle of Chaeronea - Pretended retreat of Philip.

In another stratagem, Polyaenus suggests that Philip has deliberately lengthened this phase of the battle, to take advantage of the animosity and the inexperience of the Athenian troops (knowing that his veterans were more accustomed to fatigue), delaying his main attack until the Athenians were exhausted. Polyaenus has led some modern historians to propose tentatively the following summary: at the beginning of the battle, the Athenians were perhaps catched by a false retreat "that led them to abandon the position, or, more likely, made a charge downhill to take advantage of the impetus, and were initially contained and then repulsed. The Hypaspists, who held the Macedonian right, from what we can read, were able to counteract the Athenians not with the pikes, of approximately 4.5 metres, but with shields. The Athenians, in fact, were probably equipped as ificratei's Hoplites, with lance longer than the classical Hoplite phalanx-over 3.5 metres-and with a lighter armor. To properly use the shield, however, it is unlikely that the Hypaspists had pikes, which must be used with both hands, and then prevent the use of the shield, or, if they had, were limited to use the pike with one hand, a condition that inhibit warrios to giving the right power to their attacks.

Battle of Chaeronea - Containment of Athenians.

At this point, continue Diodorus: «Alexander, decided to show to his father his own value and that was second to none in winning mentality; suddenly followed by his teammates (the hetairoi), was the first to break the solid front of the enemy line, slashing many enemies and penetrating deep into the troops in front of him. The same happened to his teammates, so were opening gates in the formation of the enemy".

Alexander, then, from the left wing position, strongly attacked: it's difficult to imagine that this action was agreed with his father, nor that he launched his unit right in front against an Hoplite phalanx. Possible, however, that the Athenian has advanced in a way that broke the compactness of the Allied phalanx. The Athenians began the fight, reached probably in an hesitant way from the forces of the poleis and watched at a distance by the Thebans that, if moved in the same direction, would find themselves with the right side unprotected, so they remained steady or can try to maintain cohesion with the center part of the army, using a rotation to the left. The stategic crisis of the allied army was in the center of the formation: probably is there that Alexander lead his attack decisive with his cavalry. The battle had saw, until this moment, only a clash on one wing, but the Macedonian cavalry's mobility allowed Alexander to move and take advantage of this opportunity.

Battle of Chaeronea - Alexander's attack.

However, the debate is on the nature of the formation that was led by Alexander it's wide open between the historians.
Many of them, including Hammond and Cawkwell, agee with the version that showed Alexander as commander of the Cavalry during the battle, perhaps because of the use, made by Diodorus, of the word "companions". However, there is no specific mention in any source of "cavalry" in this battle, nor it seems to have been enough space to move a battalion of horses against the flank of the Greek army.
Plutarch says (as Diodorus) that Alexander was "the first to break the ranks of the Theban Sacred Battalion", the elite of the infantry panboeotian Confederacy, who camped on the far right of the front. On the other hand, he also says that the Sacred Battalion had "met the lances of the Macedonian phalanx face to face". Considering this, together with the improbability of a cavalry charge against the Thebans armed with lance and (also because horses are generally timid against the barriers), brought Gaebel and others historians to suggest that Alexander must have been Commander of a Macedonian phalanx, instead of cavalry, at Chaeronea

Diodorus goes on: «the corpses are piled up until Alexander opened a way through the line and put his opponents on the run. Then the King himself advanced, at the forefront, without giving a single part of the glory for the victory even to his son Alexander. In a first time he let backwarded his troops in front of him and then, forcing them to flee, became the unique 'responsible' for the victory.
The thesis of Diodorus, then, is, in many ways, in agreement with the Polyaenus one: the action of the Macedonians was gradual but inexorable and after a period of initial stall-willed or not-overthrew the Athenians. According to Plutarch, Alexander was the first to throw himself against the Sacred Battalion, the members of which, according to Plutarch, after the battle lay dead, all hit on the chest by the pikes of Macedonians: it seems to be excluded, that the first attack of Alexander was directed against Sacred battalion; it is more logical to imagine that the theban battalion was surrounded, took between a frontal attack by Macedonians Pikemen and one behind, or more likely alongside,the hetairoi (cavalry).

battaglione sacro
Battle of Chaeronea - The fall of the Sacred Battalion.

Diodorus reports that more than 1,000 Athenians died in battle, with 2,000 other prisoners, and that the Thebans suffered the same losses. Plutarch also suggests that all 300 warriors of the Sacred battalion were killed in battle, significant factor because, until then, were seen as invincible throughout the Hellenistic world. During the Roman period it was built the 'lion of Chaeronea', an enigmatic monument on the site of the battle, which is believed to mark the resting place of the famous Sacred Battalion. Recent excavations have brought to light the remains of 254 soldiers under the monument, so, it was generally accepted that was the place were really rests the elite infantry of panboeotian Confederacy, since it seems rather unlikely that literally every Member of the battalion was killed in that clash.


The consequences

Starting from this time Philip was able to dictate its conditions to the Greeks. In 337 gathered all the Greek States in a League which he ruled. But his real aims were focused on Persia. In the same year, 337 BC, Philip repudiated Olympiad to marry a Macedonian noblewoman, Cleopatra, niece of General Attalus. To soothe the resentment of the molossians, Philip arranged a marriage between his daughter Cleopatra, sister of Alexander the great, and his uncle, brother of Olympias, the vassal King Alexander the Molossian.
On the morning of the wedding, as he entered in Pella, the Macedonian capital, Philip fell under the blows of a Celtic knife.