Battle of Chaeronea (338 BC)

The Lion of Chaeronea, probably erected by the Thebans in memory of their dead

Battle of Chaeronea, (August 338 BC), battle in Boeotia, central Greece, in which Philip II of Macedonia defeated a coalition of Greek city-states led by Thebes and Athens. The victory, partly credited to Philip’s 18-year-old son Alexander the Great, cemented the Macedonian hegemony in Greece and ended effective military resistance to Philip in the region.

Short briefing
By 338 bce Philip was well into the second decade of his methodical conquest of Greece. The Athenian orator Demosthenes had perceived the threat posed by Macedonian ambitions at a relatively early date, but Philip used diplomacy and the threat of force to isolate Athens and play rival Greek city-states against each other. Thebes, previously a supporter of Philip, was won to the Athenian cause and dispatched troops to supplement the Athenian army and its allies in their efforts to check the Macedonian advance. The Greeks had placed a blocking force at the pass at Thermopylae, so Philip maneuvered his army south toward Boeotia, north of Thebes.
Bust of Philip II of Macedon

Philip led a force of about 30,000 infantry and 2,000 cavalry. The combined Greek host numbered about 35,000 men. Philip placed Alexander, on the left, opposite the Thebans and their elite Sacred Band. The Macedonian phalanx occupied the centre, facing the allied Greek infantry. Philip took positions on the right, across from the Athenians.
Bust of the Athenian politician Demosthenes

There are two dominating interpretations of the events at Chaeronea. The first, firmly established by historian Nicholas G. Hammond in the 1930s and supported by Ian Worthington in the early 21st century, relies on combining the various fragments of ancient texts to provide a complex set of maneuvers used by Philip to secure victory. In that account, Philip drew the inexperienced Athenian militia out of position with a feigned retreat. As the Athenians sought to exploit their perceived advantage, the troops at the Greek centre moved left in an attempt to preserve the line. That opened a gap between the Greek centre and the Thebans, and Alexander, at the head of Philip’s hetairoi (“companion”) cavalry, charged through. The Thebans and allied Greeks were taken from the rear, while the Macedonians routed the Athenians. The second interpretation dismisses many of the later, often anecdotal, ancient texts and instead focuses on the account of Diodorus, which presents a traditional phalanx-on-phalanx battle. In that description, the veteran Macedonians simply overpowered the Greeks, in part because of the Macedonians’ use of the sarissa, a 13- to 21-foot (4- to 6.5-metre) spear that was roughly twice the length of the pikes used by the Greeks.

In both accounts of the battle, the superior discipline of the Sacred Band resulted in its annihilation. Surrounded and unwilling to surrender, the Sacred Band fought nobly, but they were cut down by the Macedonians. Archaeological excavations near the city of Chaeronea (now Khairónia) have uncovered a mound containing the ashes of Macedonian troops, clearly built as a monument to Philip’s victory. In addition, 254 skeletons found buried beneath a funerary marker are believed to be the remains of the Sacred Band, buried in pairs. The battle marked the end of effective military opposition to Philip in Greece and heralded the beginning of Macedonian domination in the region.


In 338 B.C. the liberty of the old Greek city-states was blasted at Chaeronea in Boeotia by the victory of Philip of Macedon. This battle implied the passing of the Greek system of city-states and the substitution of large military monarchies.

In the year Charondas was first archon in Athens, Philip, King of Macedon, being already in alliance with many of the Greeks, made it his chief business to subdue the Athenians, and thereby with more ease control all Hellas. To this end he presently seized Elateia [a Phocian town commanding the mountain passes southward], in order to fall on the Athenians, imagining to overcome them with ease; since he conceived they were not at all ready for war, having so lately made peace with him. Upon the taking of Elateia, messengers hastened by night to Athens, informing the Athenians that the place was taken, and Philip was leading on his men in full force to invade Attica.

The Athenian magistrates in alarm had the trumpeters sound their warning all night, and the rumor spread with terrifying effect all through the city. At daybreak the people without waiting the usual call of the magistrate rushed to the assembly place. Thither came the officials with the messenger; and when they had announced their business, fear and silence filled the place, and none of the customary speakers had heart to say a word. Although the herald called on everybody "to declare their minds"—as to what was to be done, yet none appeared; the people, therefore, in great terror cast their eyes on Demosthenes, who now arose, and bade them to be courageous, and forthwith to send envoys to Thebes to treat with the Boeotians to join in the defense of the common liberty; for there was no time (he said) to send an embassy for aid elsewhere, since Philip would probably invade Attica within two days, and seeing he must march through Boeotia, the only aid was to be looked for there.

The people approved of his advice, and a decree was voted that such an embassy should be sent. As the most eloquent man for the task, Demosthenes was pitched upon, and forthwith he hastened away [to Thebes. —Despite past hostilities between Athens and Thebes, and the counter-arguments of Philip's envoys, Demosthenes persuaded Thebes and her Boeotian cities that their liberty as well as that of Athens was really at stake, and to join arms with the Athenians.] . . .When Philip could not prevail on the Boeotians to join him, he resolved to fight them both. To this end, after waiting for reinforcements, he invaded Boeotia with about thirty thousand foot and two thousand horse. . . .

Both armies were now ready to engage; they were equal indeed in courage and personal valor, but in numbers and military experience a great advantage lay with the king. For he had fought many battles, gained most of them, and so learned much about war, but the best Athenian generals were now dead, and Chares—the chief of them still remaining—differed but little from a common hoplite in all that pertained to true generalship. About sunrise [at Chaeronea in Boeotia] the two armies arrayed themselves for battle. The king ordered his son Alexander, who had just become of age, yet already was giving clear signs of his martial spirit, to lead one wing, though joined to him were some of the best of his generals. Philip himself, with a picked corps, led the other wing, and arranged the various brigades at such posts as the occasion demanded. The Athenians drew up their army, leaving one part to the Boeotians, and leading the rest themselves.

At length the hosts engaged, and the battle was fierce and bloody. It continued long with fearful slaughter, but victory was uncertain, until Alexander, anxious to give his father proof of his valor—and followed by a courageous band—was the first to break through the main body of the enemy, directly opposing him, slaying many; and bore down all before him—and his men, pressing on closely, cut to pieces the lines of the enemy; and after the ground had been piled with the dead, put the wing resisting him in flight. The king, too, at the head of his corps, fought with no less boldness and fury, that the glory of victory might not be attributed to his son. He forced the enemy resisting him also to give ground, and at length completely routed them, and so was the chief instrument of the victory.

Over one thousand Athenians fell, and two thousand were made prisoners. A great number of Boeotians, too, perished, and many more were captured by the enemy. . .

[After some boastful conduct by the king, thanks to the influence of Demades, an Athenian orator who had been captured], Philip sent ambassadors to Athens and renewed the peace with her [on very tolerable terms, leaving her most of her local liberties]. He also made peace with the Boeotians, but placed a garrison in Thebes. Having thus struck terror into the leading Greek states, he made it his chief effort to be chosen generalissimo of Greece. It being noised abroad that he would make war upon the Persians, on behalf of the Greeks, in order to avenge the impieties committed by them against the Greek gods, he presently won public favor over to his side throughout Greece. He was very liberal and courteous, also, to both private citizens and communities, and proclaimed to the cities that he wished to consult with them as to the common good.' Whereupon a general council [of the Greek cities] was convened at Corinth, where he declared his design of making war on the Persians, and the reasons he hoped for success; and therefore desired the Council to join him as allies in the war. At length he was created general of all Greece, with absolute power, and having made mighty preparations and assigned the contingents to be sent by each city, he returned to Macedonia [where, soon after, he was murdered by Pausanius, a private enemy].

(Diodorus Siculus Libery of History, 26.14)

The Battle of Chaeronea was fought in 338 BC, near the city of Chaeronea in Boeotia, between the Macedonians led by Philip II of Macedon and an alliance of some of the Greek city-states including Athens and Thebes. The battle was the culmination of Philip's campaign in Greece (339–338 BC) and resulted in a decisive victory for the Macedonians.
Spearheadsfrom Theban tomb,Chaeronea

Philip had brought peace to a war-torn Greece in 346 BC, by ending the Third Sacred War, and concluding his ten-year conflict with Athens for supremacy in the north Aegean, by making a separate peace. Philip's much expanded kingdom, powerful army and plentiful resources now made him the de facto leader of Greece. To many of the fiercely independent Greek city-states, Philip's power after 346 BC was perceived as a threat to their liberty, especially in Athens, where the politician Demosthenes led efforts to break away from Philip's influence. In 340 BC Demosthenes convinced the Athenian assembly to sanction action against Philip's territories and to ally with Byzantium, which Philip was besieging. These actions were against the terms of their treaty oaths and amounted to a declaration of war. In summer 339 BC, Philip therefore led his army towards South Greece, prompting the formation of an alliance of a few southern Greek states opposed to him, led by Athens and Thebes.

After several months of stalemate, Philip finally advanced into Boeotia in an attempt to march on Thebes and Athens. Opposing him, and blocking the road near Chaeronea, was the allied Greek army, similar in size and occupying a strong position. Details of the ensuing battle are scarce, but after a long fight the Macedonians crushed both flanks of the allied line, which then dissolved into a rout.
Terracotta flowers from the Macedonian tomb,Chaeronea

The battle has been described as one of the most decisive of the ancient world. The forces of Athens and Thebes were destroyed, and continued resistance was impossible; the war therefore came to an abrupt end. Philip was able to impose a settlement upon Greece, which all states accepted, with the exception of Sparta. The League of Corinth, formed as a result, made all participants allies of Macedon and each other, with Philip as the guarantor of the peace. In turn, Philip was voted as strategos (general) for a pan-Hellenic war against the Persian Empire, which he had long planned. However, before he was able to take charge of the campaign, Philip was assassinated, and the kingdom of Macedon and responsibility for the war with Persia passed instead to his son Alexander.

In the decade following his accession in 359 BC, the Macedonian king, Philip II, had rapidly strengthened and expanded his kingdom into Thrace and Chalkidiki on the northern coast of the Aegean Sea. He was aided in this process by the distraction of Athens and Thebes, the two most powerful city-states in Greece at that point, by events elsewhere. In particular, these events included the Social War between Athens and her erstwhile allies (357–355 BC), and the Third Sacred War which erupted in central Greece in 356 BC between the Phocians and the other members of the Delphic Amphictyonic League. Much of Philip's expansion during this period was at the nominal expense of the Athenians, who considered the north Aegean coast as their sphere of influence, and Philip was at war with Athens from 356–346 BC.

Philip was not originally a belligerent in the Sacred War, but became involved at the request of the Thessalians. Seeing an opportunity to expand his influence into Greece proper, Philip obliged, and in 353 or 352 BC won a decisive victory over the Phocians at the Battle of Crocus Field in Thessaly. In the aftermath, Philip was made archon of Thessaly, which gave him control of the levies and revenues of the Thessalian Confederation, thereby greatly increasing his power. However, Philip did not intervene further in the Sacred War until 346 BC. Early in that year, the Thebans, who had borne the brunt of the Sacred War, together with the Thessalians, asked Philip to assume the "leadership of Greece" and join them in fighting the Phocians. Philip's power was by now so great that ultimately the Phocians did not even attempt to resist, and instead surrendered to him; Philip was thus able to end a particularly bloody war without any further fighting. Philip allowed the Amphictyonic council the formal responsibility of punishing the Phocians, but ensured that the terms were not overly harsh; nevertheless, the Phocians were expelled from the Amphictyonic League, all their cities were destroyed, and they were resettled in villages of no more than fifty houses.
Strygils from Theban tomb,Chaeronea

By 346 BC, the Athenians were war-weary, unable to match Philip's strength, and had begun to contemplate the necessity of making peace. Nevertheless, when it became apparent that Philip would march south that year, the Athenians originally planned to help the Phocians (whom they were allied to) keep Philip out of central Greece, by occupying the pass of Thermopylae, where Philip's superior numbers would be of little benefit. The Athenians had successfully used this tactic to prevent Philip attacking Phocis itself after his victory at Crocus Field. The occupation of Thermopylae was not only for the benefit of Phocis; excluding Philip from central Greece also prevented him from marching on Athens itself. However, by the end of February, the general Phalaikos was restored to power in Phocis, and he refused to allow the Athenians access to Thermopylae. Suddenly unable to guarantee their own security, the Athenians were forced instead into making peace with Philip. Their peace treaty, known as the Peace of Philocrates, made Athens a reluctant ally of Macedon.

For the Athenians, the treaty had been expedient, but it was never popular. Philip's actions in 346 BC had expanded his influence over all Greece, and although he had brought peace, he had come to be seen as the enemy of the traditional liberty of the city-states. The orator and politician Demosthenes had been a principal architect of the Peace of Philocrates, but almost as soon as it was agreed, he wished to be rid of it. Over the next few years, Demosthenes became leader of the "war-party" in Athens, and at every opportunity he sought to undermine the peace. From 343 BC onwards, in order to try to disrupt the peace, Demosthenes and his followers used every expedition and action of Philip to argue that he was breaking the peace. Conversely, there was at first a substantial body of feeling in Athens, led by Aeschines, that the peace, unpopular though it was, should be maintained and developed. Towards the end of the decade however, the "war party" gained the ascendancy, and began to openly goad Philip; in 341 BC for instance, the Athenian general Diopeithes ravaged the territory of Philip's ally Cardia, even though Philip demanded that they desist. Philip's patience finally ran out when the Athenians formed an alliance with Byzantium, which Philip was at that time besieging, and he wrote the Athenians declaring war. Shortly afterward Philip broke off the siege of Byzantium; Cawkwell suggests that Philip had decided to deal with Athens once and for all. Philip went on campaign against the Scythians, and then began to prepare for war in Greece.
Spearheads from the Macedonian tomb,Chaeronea

Philip's forthcoming campaign in Greece became linked with a new, fourth, Sacred War. The citizens of Amphissa in Ozolian Locris had begun cultivating land sacred to Apollo on the Crisaean Plain south of Delphi; after some internal bickering the Amphictyonic council decided to declare a sacred war against Amphissa. A Thessalian delegate proposed that Philip should be made leader of the Amphictyonic effort, which therefore gave Philip a pretext to campaign in Greece; it is, however, probable that Philip would have gone ahead with his campaign anyway.
Map showing Philip's movements during 339–338 BC.

At the start of 339 BC, the Thebans had seized the town of Nicaea near Thermopylae, which Philip had garrisoned in 346 BC. Philip does not appear to have treated this as a declaration of war, but it nevertheless presented him with a significant problem, blocking the main route into Greece. However, a second route into central Greece was available, leading over the shoulder of Mount Callidromos and descending into Phocis. However, the Athenians and Thebans had either forgotten the existence of this road, or believed that Philip would not use it; the subsequent failure to guard this road allowed Philip to slip into central Greece unhindered. Philip's relatively lenient treatment of the Phocians at the end of the Third Sacred War in 346 BC now bore fruit. Reaching Elatea, he ordered the city to be re-populated, and during the next few months the whole Phocian Confederation was restored to its former state.This provided Philip with a base in Greece, and new, grateful allies in the Phocians. Philip probably arrived in Phocis in November 339 BC, but the Battle of Chaeronea did not occur until August 338 BC. During this period Philip discharged his responsibility to the Amphicytonic council by settling the situation in Amphissa. He tricked a force of 10,000 mercenaries who were guarding the road from Phocis to Amphissa into abandoning their posts, then took Amphissa and expelled its citizens, turning it over to Delphi. He probably also engaged in diplomatic attempts to avoid further conflict in Greece, although if so, he was unsuccessful.

When news first arrived that Philip was in Elatea, just three days march away, there was panic in Athens. In what Cawkwell describes as his proudest moment, Demosthenes alone counseled against despair, and proposed that the Athenians should seek an alliance with the Thebans; his decree was passed, and he was sent as ambassador. Philip had also sent an embassy to Thebes, requesting that the Thebans join him, or at least allow him to pass through Boeotia unhindered.Since the Thebans were still not formally at war with Philip, they could have avoided the conflict altogether. However, in spite of Philip's proximity, and their traditional enmity with Athens, they chose to ally with the Athenians, in the cause of liberty for Greece. The Athenian army had already pre-emptively been sent in the direction of Boeotia, and was therefore able to join the Thebans within days of the alliance being agreed.

The details of the campaign leading up to Chaeronea are almost completely unknown.Philip was presumably prevented from entering Boeotia by way of Mount Helicon, as the Spartans had done in the run-up to the Battle of Leuctra; or by any of the other mountain passes that led into Boeotia from Phocis. There were certainly some preliminary skirmishes; Demosthenes alludes to a "winter battle" and "battle on the river" in his speeches, but no other details are preserved. Finally, in August 338 BC, Philip's army marched straight down the main road from Phocis to Boeotia, to assault the main allied army defending the road at Chaeronea.
Funerary relief for Athenian footsoldier Pancahres, who probably fell at the battle of Chaeronea.

Opposing forces
According to Diodorus, the Macedonian army numbered roughly 30,000 infantry and 2,000 cavalry, a figure generally accepted by modern historians. Philip took command of the right wing of the Macedonian army and placed his 18-year-old son Alexander (the future conqueror of the Persian Empire) in command of the left wing, accompanied by a group of Philip's experienced generals.

The allied Greek army included contingents from Achaea, Corinth, Chalcis, Epidaurus, Megara and Troezen, with the majority of troops being supplied by Athens and Thebes. The Athenian contingent was led by the generals Chares and Lysicles, and the Thebans by Theagenes. No source provides exact numbers for the Greek army, although Justin suggests that the Greeks were "far superior in number of soldiers"; the modern view is that the numbers of the city states that fought were approximately equal to those of the Macedonians. The Athenians took up positions on the left wing, the Thebans on the right, and the other allies in the centre.

Strategic and tactical considerations
The Greek army had taken up a position near Chaeronea, astride the main road. On the left flank, the Greek line lay across the foothills of Mount Thurion, blocking the side-road that led to Lebedea, while on the right, the line rested against the Kephisos River, near a projecting spur of Mount Aktion.The Greek line, which was about 2.5 miles in length, was thus secure on both flanks. Moreover, the Greek line seems to have slanted north-eastwards across the plain in between, so that it did not face the direction of Macedonian advance full-square. 
Battle-plan of Chaeronea

This prevented Philip from attempting to concentrate his force on the Greek right wing, since the advanced position of the Greek left wing would then threaten Philip's right. Although Philip could attempt to concentrate his force against the Greek left, the troops there occupied high ground, and any attack would be difficult. Since the Greeks could remain on the defensive, having only to prevent Philip's advance, their position was therefore strategically and tactically very strong.

The Battle
According to Plutarch the battle took place on the 7th day of the month of Metageitnion, probably placing it on 2 August or 1 September 338 BC. Philip had over 30,000 men in his army, a big increase on the 10,000 men he could raise early in his reign. The Greeks managed to get close to 30,000 men themselves, but they were made up of a large number of different contingents, not used to fighting together.

The battle was probably fought close to the River Cephisus, on a line running from close to the Macedonian burial mound, south-west to an opening in the hill of Thurium, caused by a stream called Molos. The Macedonians would have had their left flank near the river and been facing east, the Allies their right flank near the river.

Diodorus gives us a very short account of the battle. Philip's son Alexander was given command on one wing, despite his young age (with Philip's most experienced generals for support). Philip was on the other wing at the head of 'picked me' (other sources tell us that Alexander was on the left and Philip on the right). On the allied side the Athenians were on one wing, the Boeotians on the other (again other sources place the Athenians on the Allied left, facing Philip, and the Thebans on the allied right, facing Alexander). The battle itself is described as 'hotly contested for a long time and many fell on both sides, so that for a while the struggle permitted hopes of victory to both'. The key breakthrough came on the Macedonian left, where Alexander, determined to impress his father, broke the solid Theban line. Gaps opened up in the Theban force, and eventually it was put to flight. On the other flank Philip then attacked with his own men, and forced the Athenians to retreat. More than 1,000 Athenians were killed and another 2,000 captured in the battle. Diodorus is much vaguer about the Theban losses, with 'many' killed and 'not a few' captured.

Other sources provide some more details. The Thebans were commanded by Theagenes, the Athenians by Stratocles, Lysicles and Chares. Demosthenes listed Euboea, Achaea, Corinth, Thebes, Megara, Leucadia and Corcyra as Athens's allies. Aeschines added Acarnania to the list.

The battle probably began with a fierce struggle on Alexander's flank, before he was eventually able to force a breakthrough. Philip carried out a feigned retreat on the other flank (see below), before counterattacking at the right moment. The Macedonians then turned on the isolated Greek centre. The Achaean contingent suffered very heavily in this fighting,.

According to Diodorus after the battle Lysicles was tried and condemned to death. Demosthenes was present at the battle, but escaped. Stratocles may have been killed in the battle. Chares doesn't get mentioned in the ancient sources. 

The Theban Sacred Band was wiped out in the battle, and was buried under a stone lion that still survives next to the modern road across the battlefield.

Polyaenus gives two details from the battle, both relating to Philip's flank. The first was that he carried out a shame retreat. The Athenian general Stratocles ordered an attack, shouting 'we will pursue them to the heart of Macedonia'. The retreating Macedonians kept their formation, until the Athenians had come down from their advantageous position. Once the Macedonians had reached higher ground he ordered the retreat to stop, and ordered a counterattack, which the Athenians were unable to resist. The second is that he knew the Athenians were less experienced than his men, and would probably have less stamina, and so deliberately left his main attack until the enemy were tired out. 

The victory was probably due to a combination of Philip's superior leadership, his more modern and more experienced army, and the divided Allied command. One of the best of the Athenian generals, Phocion, was away with the fleet.

In the aftermath of the battle Athens prepared for a siege, but Philip wasn't interested in destroying the city. Instead he wanted to have its support for his planned invasion of Persia, and so he offered generous terms.

According to Diodorus on the evening after the battle he got drunk, and gloated at his captives, until the captured orator Demades shamed him into behaving better. Once Philip settled down, he was able to use Demades to begin peace negotiations with Athens. He then sent Alexander with the Athenian dead, and an offer to return the prisoners for no ransom. This encouraged the Athenians to enter into peace negotiations, which resulted in the Peace of Demades. Athens was left free and independent, with no Macedonian garrison. She was allowed to keep the key islands of Lemnos, Imbros, Delos, Scyros and Samos, and gained Oropus on the Boeotian border. She had to surrender the Chersonese and dissolve what was left of the Athenian league, and agree to become a friend and ally of Macedon. Despite this leniency Demosthenes was still able to lead an anti-Macedonian faction in Athens.

Thebes suffered more harshly. The leaders involved in the decision to change sides were executed or exiled. A new oligarchy of 300 trusted men was placed in charge. She lost all power of the Boeotian league. The Theban prisoners were sold as slaves, and she struggled to get permission to bury her dead. Finally a Macedonian garrison was left in the citadel.

Philip went on to form the League of Corinth, one of the more successful attempts to produce a lasting peace settlement in Greece. His main aim was to use this league to aid his upcoming invasion of Persia, but before he could carry that out he was murdered (336 BC). In the aftermath of his death the settlement of Greece looked to be unravelling, but the young Alexander the Great turned out to be more than capable of restoring the situation. He also proved to be rather less lenient than his father, and in 335 BC, after a failed revolt, he destroyed the city of Thebes. Although the battle of Chaeronea is often said to have marked the end of the liberty of the Greek city states, that is probably better dated to the reign of Alexander the Great, and in particular the reigns of his successors, the 'Diadochi'.


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