Battle of Chaeronea: Philip of Macedon Defeats Greek Coalition

 
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Battle of Chaeronea: Philip of Macedon Defeats Greek Coalition

Alexander leads Companions cavalry against Thebans, Battle of Chaeronea, August 2, 338 BC
Artist unknown, Image courtesy of http://all-that-is-interesting.com
(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are courtesy of Wikipedia)

Today in Military History: August 2, 338 BC

[Today's post is an update to one originally published in 2015]

This battle from the fourth century before Christ saw most of Greece fall under the yoke of the Macedonian kingdom. It was a foreshadowing of the campaign of conquest against the Persian Empire undertaken by Philip's son Alexander.

Background

Bust of Philip II of Macedon, sculptor unknown; On display at the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek [art museum], Copenhagen, Denmark


Bust of Philip II of Macedon, sculptor unknown
On display at the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek [art museum],
Copenhagen, Denmark

When Philip became ruler of Macedon in 359 BC, he began to expand Macedonian territory by marriage, conquest, and alliances. He also began a reform of the Macedonian military, replacing the hoplite infantry with the phalanx. The phalangists were armed with the 18-20 foot long sarissa or pike, cavalry became an important part of the battle plan, and the army was transformed from an all-citizen militia into a force of hardened professionals.

Philip also became more involved in the wars and politics of Greece. [The city-states of central and southern Greece regarded the Macedonians as little better than barbarians who happened to speak a barely-recognizable version of Greek.] King Philip led his newly-trained forces against his neighbors: the Thracians, Illyrians, Thessalians, and various other city-states that drew his wrath, including Athens. By 346, Macedon had forced a strained peace on Athens and most of the Greek city-states of northern and central Greece – with the major exception of Sparta.

[According to one historian, King Philip sent the Spartans a message: "If I win this war, you will be slaves forever." In another version, he warned: "You are advised to submit without further delay, for if I bring my army into your land, I will destroy your farms, slay your people, and raze your city." According to both accounts, the Spartans' laconic reply was one word: "If." Philip, and later Alexander, both chose to leave Sparta in peace.]

In most cases, Philip was generally lenient towards the defeated Greek cities. Most were made allies, while some were treated more as conquered subjects. Philip was probably making his plans for his campaign against the Persians, and he needed a united Greece behind him. A treaty signed between Macedon and Athens received only lukewarm support in Athens. One of the chief architects of the peace treaty, the statesman and orator Demosthenes, almost immediately began a campaign to have the treaty abrogated. For a number of years, the orator gave a series of 3 or 4 speeches condemning the treaty and warning Athenians of the looming Macedonian threat. These speeches devoted to Philip II of Macedon were called the "Philippics." [The word "philippic" has entered the English language as a fiery, damning speech, or tirade, delivered to condemn a particular political actor.]

Prelude to the Battle

Philip's campaign in central Greece, 339-338 BC; Map by MinisterFor BadTimes (and Wikipedia)
Philip's campaign in central Greece, 339-338 BC
Map by MinisterFor BadTimes (and Wikipedia)

Finally, in 339 the situation had deteriorated badly. A religious conflict gave Philip the pretext he needed to launch a military campaign into central Greece. The normal invasion route would take an army through the "hot gates" of Thermopylae, following a well-used road that followed the Straits of Euboea, before turning south into Boeotia and Attica. However, that route was blocked by local troops. The Macedonians learned of a second, little-used route over a shoulder of Mount Callidromos. Either the Athenians forgot about this road's existence, or they figured that Philip would not take it; they were wrong in both cases. Philip's army took this secondary route and entered central Greece unhindered in November of 339, taking the town of Elatea and using it as his base of operations for the next several months.

Philip's activities over the next nine months are a bit baffling. He and his army could have marched three days and been at the gates of Athens. Instead, the Macedonians besieged two nearby Greek cities – the ports of Perinthos and Byzantion (later Constantinople, today Istanbul) – but neither city was taken. This gave a morale boost to Athens; Demosthenes then urged the Athenian assembly to seek allies against Philip. The statesman suggested first the city-state of Thebes – a traditional enemy – then urged that diplomats be sent to the Persian Empire seeking help. The Persians brusquely rebuffed the Athenian request, but the Thebans decided to join Athens in opposing the real monster that threatened all of Greece – Philip and his Macedonians. Demosthenes personally led the diplomatic mission which concluded an alliance with Thebes. A few days later, Athenian troops marched through Boeotia and joined Theban troops forming to oppose Philip.

[Perhaps to keep his army sharp, Philip led a winter campaign in late 339 against the Scythians living south of the Danube, near the river's mouth. During one battle, he was severely wounded in the leg by a spear which travelled through his leg and killed the horse he was riding. Perhaps the time it took him to recover was the reason for the long delay before the battle of Chaeronea.]

The details of the campaign leading up to the decisive battle of Chaeronea are almost completely unknown. 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 early August of 338, Philip's army marched straight down the main road from Phocis to Boeotia, to assault the allied Greek army defending the road at Chaeronea.

Macedonian Army

The Macedonian army that fought at Chaeronea had a few differences from the fighting force that Alexander would lead into Asia to battle the Persian Empire a few year later. If the two major historical sources which chronicle this fight can be believed, screening the extreme right flank of the Macedonian army were 1000 or so light infantry – javelinmen, peltasts, and archers [A]. King Philip commanded a "picked force" of infantry, probably including a block of pikemen and the Hypaspists. [B] These men were trained to serve as the linchpin of the center and right wing. They were armed similarly to the traditional Greek hoplites. They did not carry the Macedonian sarissa, but actually were armed with the 6-foot dory, the typical armament of the traditional Greek hoplite. However, the Hypaspists wore no armor, other than a shield, greaves, and helmet.

Enemies-eye view of an advancing Macedonian phalanx; artist unknown; Image courtesy of https://scottthong.wordpress.com
Enemies-eye view of an advancing Macedonian phalanx; artist unknown
Image courtesy of https://scottthong.wordpress.com

The centerpiece of the Macedonian force was the main phalanx. [C] Wielding 18-foot pikes, these men lined up in deep ranks (at least 15-20), and maneuvered their pikes to present a seemingly impenetrable wall to an advancing enemy. This huge block of pikemen probably numbered 15-20,000 men.

The left wing consisted of another block of pikemen [D], about 1700 Thessalian light cavalry [E], and perhaps 300-500 heavy Macedonian cavalry [F]. A number of light troops – Thracian peltasts and Cretan archers – perhaps totaling 1000 men, covered the army's extreme left flank [G]. Prince Alexander, age 17 but already an experienced battlefield commander, was in command of the Macedonian left and rode with the elite Macedonian "Companions." [It seems the Companions were initially screened by the Thessalian cavalrymen, on the extreme left of the phalanx.] The entire Macedonian force totaled about 30,000 infantry and 2000 horsemen.

Battle of Chaeronea, August 2, 338 BC; initial deployments; [Image is author's work, based on maps from Great Battles of the Hellenistic World; By Joseph Pietrykowski (2012, Pen & Sword Books Ltd.)]
Battle of Chaeronea, August 2, 338 BC; initial deployments
[Image is author's work, based on maps from Great Battles of the Hellenistic World
By Joseph Pietrykowski (2012, Pen & Sword Books Ltd.)]

Greek Coalition Army

The size of the Greek army opposing the Macedonians is another playground for historians. One of the sources for this battle says the Greeks outnumbered the Macedonians by a large margin, while the other source says the two armies were about equal. A modern estimate for the defending Greeks has been set at about 35,000. Most of the soldiers of the various cities were equipped as hoplites, with the heavy body armor, large shield, helmet, and the 4-6 foot long dory spear. [One source states that the Greeks had some cavalry at the battle, but these horsemen apparently played no significant part in the battle.] The entire Greek coalition battle line – anchored in the west on the steep slopes of Mount Petrachos, topped by the acropolis of the town of Chaeronea, to the marshy banks of the Kephissos River on the left – was about a mile in length.

Typical Greek hoplites in formation, wielding the dory (spear) and carrying the aspis (heavy wood-and- bronze shield)
Typical Greek hoplites in formation, wielding the dory (spear)
and carrying the aspis (heavy wood-and- bronze shield)

The left wing consisted of the Athenian troops [H]. Unlike the Macedonians, most of the Athenians were new recruits, inexperienced and fragile, or militia. For many Athenian hoplites, this fight would be their first. No numbers exist for the various component of the Greek army, but it can probably be hypothesized that the Athenians comprised at least a third of the army (between 10-12,000 men). [Among the militia on this day was the Athenian statesman and orator Demosthenes; how appropriate...] One of the few generals mentioned in the sources is Chares, an Athenian commander, who was apparently not well thought of.

The center of the Greek army consisted of a number of contingents of hoplites from northern Greek cities who were allies of either Athens or Thebes. They included troops from Achaea, Chalcis, Corinth, Epidaurus, Megara, and Troezen, and probably a few other smaller Greek towns. [I]. It is also likely that the center contained some mercenaries, paid for by the Athenians, to bolster the fighting prowess of the minor Greek troops. There is no enumeration of these troops, so another good guess would possibly be no more than about fifteen to twenty percent of the army (perhaps 7-8000 men).

The largest portion of the Greek coalition army was the right wing, composed entirely of hoplites from nearby Thebes, perhaps numbering 15-18,000 [J]. The Thebans had a military history of several centuries (they were mentioned in The Iliad by Homer) and were one of the few city-states of Greece who could stand toe-to-toe with the Spartans. The Thebans kept their army well-drilled, wartime or not, and they were regarded throughout Greece as first-class soldiers. Anchoring the far right flank of the Greek coalition forces was the Theban "Sacred Band" [K]. They were thought to have originally been temple guards, thus the "sacred" portion of their unit's designation. It was composed of 150 pairs of lovers, and some historians think they were so fierce in battle because they were trying to protect and/or impress their partners.

As an added tactical twist, the Thebans positioned their troops slightly behind the rest of the coalition forces (in classical warfare, this is called "refusing the flank"), thus presenting a slightly slanted-looking battle line. [By using this stratagem, the Thebans inadvertently placed more pressure on the mixed bag of Greek ally troops and mercenaries in the center. These soldiers were required to keep the coalition battle line connected.]

Battle of Chaeronea, First Phase

Battle of Chaeronea, August 2, 338 BC; First Phase; [Image is author's work, based on maps from Great Battles of the Hellenistic World; By Joseph Pietrykowski (2012, Pen & Sword Books Ltd.)]
Battle of Chaeronea, August 2, 338 BC; First Phase
[Image is author's work, based on maps from Great Battles of the Hellenistic World
By Joseph Pietrykowski (2012, Pen & Sword Books Ltd.)]

At dawn both armies began deploying their soldiers. After seeing the dispositions of the Greek coalition army, King Philip made some refinements in his own battle line. Matching the positioning of the Theban right flank, Philip ordered his own left flank (commanded by his son Alexander) to pull back slightly and await the moment when the decisive attack of the battle would take place. [The king felt Alexander could wisely judge when the crisis would occur on the battlefield, and act accordingly.]

Sometime in the midmorning, King Philip gave the orders to his "picked men," Hypaspists, phalangists, and light troops of his right wing to advance toward the Athenians on the coalition army's left flank. As Philip's men approached the Athenian front, his light missile troops – the archers, javelinmen, and peltasts – advanced and began peppering the enemy with missiles, seeking to disrupt the Athenian formation, and goading them into attacking. Despite the daunting sight of the line of pikes, a smaller formation of Hypaspists, and the Macedonian light troops advancing at a deliberate pace, the Athenian line held firm. [Consider the fact that the Athenian troops were positioned astride the main road from Beoetia to Athens, guarding their line of retreat…]

Battle of Chaeronea, August 2, 338 BC; Second Phase; [Image is author's work, based on maps from Great Battles of the Hellenistic World; By Joseph Pietrykowski (2012, Pen & Sword Books Ltd.)]
Battle of Chaeronea, August 2, 338 BC; Second Phase
[Image is author's work, based on maps from Great Battles of the Hellenistic World
By Joseph Pietrykowski (2012, Pen & Sword Books Ltd.)]

Second Phase

Finally, when the Macedonian soldiers were within a few hundred yards of their enemies, King Philip ordered his men to charge the Athenian front. According to the historical sources, the Athenians and Philip's force fought a long, desperate battle in which, surprisingly, the Athenians held their ground and made the ghosts of their ancestors who fought at Marathon (490 BC) very proud.

Up until this point, the rest of the Macedonian army remained in place. As the fight on the Macedonian right continued, Alexander ordered the center and left wing of the army to advance slowly. This maneuver was to keep pressure on the Greek coalition army, including the Thebans, thus keeping them in place and denying any support for the hard-pressed Athenians on the Greek left. In the meantime, Prince Alexander continued to closely watch the continuing fight going on a mile away across the plain, waiting for the propitious moment to launch his attack. [No doubt the unengaged Macedonians were straining at the bit to "wash their spears" in the blood of the Greek coalition troops…]

Third Phase

For some time (the chronicles do not say how long), the Athenians and Philip's elite footmen stood toe-to-toe and slugged it out under the hot, summer sun of Boeotia, with the fate of Greece hanging in the balance. Finally, seeing that his foemen were growing tired and thirsty, Philip gave an unbelievable order: Retreat!

With all the strength (and acting ability) they could muster, the Macedonian right began a slow, orderly withdrawal. Perhaps a bit surprised and elated, the Athenians began an equally disorderly pursuit. [One Athenian general encouraged his men by saying, "We must not stop pressing them until we shut the enemy in Macedonia!"] The ecstatic Athenians rushed forward, but were initially repelled by the back-pedaling Macedonian soldiers, keeping their formations with some difficulty. The Macedonian center also began to fall back, keeping in contact with the "retreating" right wing. The Macedonian left wing stood, unmoving.

Battle of Chaeronea, August 2, 338 BC; Third Phase; [Image is author's work, based on maps from Great Battles of the Hellenistic World; By Joseph Pietrykowski (2012, Pen & Sword Books Ltd.)]
Battle of Chaeronea, August 2, 338 BC; Third Phase
[Image is author's work, based on maps from Great Battles of the Hellenistic World
By Joseph Pietrykowski (2012, Pen & Sword Books Ltd.)]

This was the crisis of the battle; with the Athenians pursuing the retreating enemy right, the allied formations in the center were presented with a dilemma. They had been instructed to keep in formation with the Athenian units to their left, or with the Theban phalanx to their right. Some of the Greek allies began shifting their line to the left, to remain in contact with the advancing Athenians These allied units, seeing the Athenian advance against the retiring Macedonians, followed their Greek fellows in a mad rush to contact the Macedonian center.

The remaining ally contingents struggled to remain in contact with the Thebans. [During this episode, one historian records one group of Greek allies fled the battlefield in fear and confusion.] The Thebans made some minor adjustments to their own line, but continued to "refuse their flank" to the rest of the Macedonians as yet uncommitted.

Shortly after this, King Philip made the move he was anticipating for several hours, which would trigger the final phases of the battle on the plain before Chaeronea.

Fourth Phase

Battle of Chaeronea, August 2, 338 BC; Fourth Phase; [Image is author's work, based on maps from Great Battles of the Hellenistic World; By Joseph Pietrykowski (2012, Pen & Sword Books Ltd.)]
Battle of Chaeronea, August 2, 338 BC; Fourth Phase
[Image is author's work, based on maps from Great Battles of the Hellenistic World
By Joseph Pietrykowski (2012, Pen & Sword Books Ltd.)]

After seeing that the Athenians were hot on his tail, King Philip gave the order for which his men had been anticipating; as the Macedonians reached a ridge several hundred yards north of their previous position, the Macedonian monarch ordered his "picked men" to halt, execute an about-face, and prepare to receive the charge of the Athenians. At the same moment, the Macedonian center, which had been falling back at the "onslaught" of the Greek allies, also reversed themselves and lined up beside their right wing. More shield-to-shield fighting ensured, except the Greek ally center ran into the bristling pikes of the Macedonian central phalanx, who were essentially fresh. Very quickly, the Greek coalition forces began to lose heart, and the Macedonians began to grind away at the enemy. At that moment, the sound of thundering hooves attracted the attention of both armies.

Alexander and his Companion heavy cavalry, accompanied by the Thessalian cavalry, charged from their position on the left flank, and cut across the front of the left wing phalangists. They galloped toward the weak spot where about half of the Greek allies were still clinging to the left flank of the Theban hoplite phalanx. The Thessalians swept around and struck the Greek allies from the rear, while Alexander and the Macedonian heavy Companions struck the far left flank of the hodgepodge group of the allies.

After a short, sharp fight, the Macedonian horsemen completely destroyed the cohesion of the coalition ally hoplites, sending them fleeing southward. At this point, the remaining phalangists and light infantry of the Macedonian left began to advance on the Theban line, now thoroughly isolated from the rest of the army.

Final Phases

Alexander and his Companions and the Thessalian horsemen then began to pressure the extreme left of the Theban phalanx, shattering its cohesion as further hammerblows were applied by the phalangists of the Macedonian left wing. Soon, small groups of Theban hoplites were streaming to the rear hoping to escape the carnage of the battlefield.

Battle of Chaeronea, August 2, 338 BC; Fifth Phase; [Image is author's work, based on maps from Great Battles of the Hellenistic World; By Joseph Pietrykowski (2012, Pen & Sword Books Ltd.)]
Battle of Chaeronea, August 2, 338 BC; Fifth Phase
[Image is author's work, based on maps from Great Battles of the Hellenistic World
By Joseph Pietrykowski (2012, Pen & Sword Books Ltd.)]

There was one exception to the general panic of the Theban troops; the Sacred Band, probably realizing the battle was lost and they had nothing to lose, advanced toward the Macedonian phalanx, under intense missile fire from the Macedonian light troops. At about the same time, Alexander and his Companions scattered the remaining Theban hoplites, and attacked the Sacred Band. [The chronicles are contradictory on which Macedonian units finished off the Sacred Band, either the phalangists or the Companion heavy cavalry. I lean toward the horsemen.] Before long, after heavy fighting, the Sacred Band was wiped out, nearly all its 300 men lying on the ground.

Battle of Chaeronea, August 2, 338 BC; Final Phase; [Image is author's work, based on maps from Great Battles of the Hellenistic World; By Joseph Pietrykowski (2012, Pen & Sword Books Ltd.)]
Battle of Chaeronea, August 2, 338 BC; Final Phase
[Image is author's work, based on maps from Great Battles of the Hellenistic World
By Joseph Pietrykowski (2012, Pen & Sword Books Ltd.)]

Aftermath

Despite the heavy, nearly all-day fighting, casualties were surprising light. The Greek coalition suffered about 2000 dead, with an additional 4000 captured. Macedonian losses were not enumerated, but would probably be termed "light". Philip was harsh to the Thebans, forcing them to pay to ransom their prisoners. Athens, on the other hand, did not have to pay a ransom for their prisoners. [Philip may have hoped to curry favor with the Athenians, for he badly needed that city-state's superlative navy to support his attack on Persia.]

Footnote #1: With his victory on the plain before Chaeronea, Philip of Macedon was now the leading political figure on the Greek peninsula. Rather than besieging either Athens or Thebes, he was surprisingly lenient with the two cities, and the rest of Greece. He needed allies for his forthcoming campaign against Persia. To that end, in 337 he founded the League of Corinth, with Macedon the "first among equals." This coalition was the basis for the Macedonian invasion of Asia in 334. Philip was elected hegemon (leader) of the army of invasion that began assembling.

Footnote #2: Unfortunately, Philip never lived to see his dream of imperial conquest come to fruition. In October of 336, Philip was assassinated by a member of his own bodyguard. His motives are still not fully understood by modern historians, though ancient chroniclers have advanced several theories, including one in which Alexander and his mother Olympias were implicated.

Footnote #3: In the Roman period, the 'Lion of Chaeronea', an enigmatic monument on the site of the battle, was believed to mark the resting place of the Sacred Band. Modern excavations found the remains of 254 soldiers underneath the monument; it is therefore generally accepted that this was indeed the grave of the Sacred Band, since it is unlikely that every member was killed.

Lion of Chaeronea
Lion of Chaeronea

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