Battle of Chaeronea, August 338 BC

The battle of Chaeronea (August 338 BC) was the final major battle in the career of Philip II of Macedon, and saw him defeat a Greek alliance led by Thebes and Athens, in the process establishing his dominance over the states of central and southern Greece.

Philip was officially present in central Greece in response to a call from the Delphic Amphictyony, for his help against Amphissa (Fourth Sacred War, 339-338 BC), but his main object always appears to have been to settle the affairs of central Greece and in particular to defeat Athens, which had been at war with him since the previous year.

Philip's first moves were entirely in keeping with his official duty. Instead of trying to force his way through the pass at Thermopylae, he led his men over the mountains to Cytinium in Doris, on the northern side of Mount Parnassus. This put him on the road to Amphissa, but in early September he moved east to Elatea in Phocis. The sudden appearance of the Macedonian army of over 30,000 men only a few days march from Athens caused a panic within the city.  

This was Demosthenes's great moment. He had long believed that the only way to defeat Philip was to form an alliance with Thebes, but the two cities were traditional enemies. The sudden threat of attack convinced the Athenian assembly to support his suggestion that envoys should sent to Thebes to try and win them over. Demosthenes was appointed head of this embassy. At the same time Chares and Lysciles were appointed as generals, and given the task of taking the Athenian citizen army towards the Boeotian frontier.

At this point Philip still hoped to have Thebes on his side. Both sides sent envoys to Thebes - when Demosthenes arrived he found Philip's ambassadors already present. Philip's envoys spoke first. They asked Thebes to either grant them free passage across Boeotia or to actually support the invasion of Attica. In his speech 'On the Crown' Demosthenes brushes over the offer he used to gain Theban support, perhaps knowing that it would have been unpopular in post-war Athens. He offered to accept Thebes's dominance of the Boeotian League, abandoning Athens's long standing allies in the area. Athens would pay for two thirds of the land war and all of the naval war, but Thebes would command on land. The military headquarters for the war would be based in Thebes. This was too good an offer for the Thebans to resist, and they abandoned their alliance with Philip and chose to side with Athens,

After this dramatic start to the campaign, there was now a prolonged standoff. The Allies occupied key passes blocking Philip's routes into Boeotia or to Amphissa, and over the winter there was little movement. Demosthenes reported a 'winter battle' and the 'battle by the river', probably minor skirmishes.

Philip's next move probably came in the spring of 338 BC. He is said to have sent a letter to his general Antipater, informing him that a revolt had broken out in Thrace, and Philip would have to move north to deal with it. The defenders of the pass heading to Amphissa relaxed their guard, and Philip was able to advance over the pass and take Amphissa. The Greek defensive line was thus broken, and they were forced to retreat to Chaeronea. Another standoff followed, before in the summer of 338 BC Philip advanced towards the new Greek position, triggering the inevitable battle.

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.

Aftermath

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'.

How to cite this article: Rickard, J (15 February 2017), Battle of Chaeronea, August 338 BC , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_chaeronea_338.html

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