Philomelus (d.354)

Philomelus (d.354) was the leader of the Phocians at the start of the Third Sacred War. After a series of early victories he committed suicide to avoid capture after suffering a heavy defeat at the battle of Neon (354 BC). Philomelus was the son of Theotimus, and was a high ranked citizen of the city of Ledon in Phocis. 

In around 356 the Thebans, then the dominant power in Greece, used the Amphictyonic Council to accuse the Phocians of sacrilege for having cultivated the sacred plain of Crisa, lands that had been dedicated to the sanctuary at Delphi. The Council found the Phocians guilty, and issued them with a heavy fine. Philomelus led a faction that argued against paying the fine, and he was able to convince the Phocians to give him command of the army. His main arguments were that the fine was too large to be just, as the area under cultivation was very small, and that Phocis had a good claim to be the sole guardian of Delphi, a role she had held in the past.

Having been given the command, Philomelus went to Sparta, where he met with King Archidamus III. Sparta was no longer a Greek superpower, having lost much of her land in the Peloponnese after the defeat at Leuctra (Theban-Spartan War (379-371) and a series of Theban invasions (War of the Theban Hegemony, 371-362 BC), but her support was still worthwhile. Archidamus agreed to support the Phocians, but for the moment limited his active support to providing fifteen talents. Philomelus matched this, and used the money to hire a force of mercenaries. He used this force, combined with 1,000 Phocians, to seize the sanctuary at Delphi.

This caused outrage across parts of Greece. The Locrians, long term opponents of the Phocians, were the first to react, although sadly this part of Diodorus's narrative appears to repeat itself, so the exact order of events is unclear.

Diodorus records the defeat of a Locrian army near Delphi, after which Philomelus hacked the Council's judgement against Phocis from the stone tablets on which they were recorded.  He then sent out messages explaining his case and promising not to plunder the oracle. He then hired more mercenaries, offering higher pay than normal, giving him 5,000 men, and built a wall around the shrine. The Boeotians voted to go to war. Philomelus reacted by invaded Locria. He besieged an unnamed stronghold, but had to abandon the attack. He then lost 20 men in a battle with the Locrians, who refused to allow him to retrieve the bodies, on the grounds that temple robbers shouldn't be buried. This triggered a second Phocian attack, in which the bodies were retrieved. He then returned to Delphi to consult with the oracle.

Regions of Ancient Greece
Regions of
Ancient Greece

After a digression on the history of the tripod used by the oracle, Diodorus appears to repeat himself. Philomelus sends ambassadors to Athens, Sparta, Thebes and other cities, explaining his case and promising not to interfere in the sacred properties of the oracle. Athens, Sparta and others agreed to support the Phocians, while Thebes, the Locrians and others decided to prosecute the war. Philomelus hires mercenaries and recruits the best Phocians and defeats a Locrian attack near the Phaedriades cliffs. The Locrians respond to their defeat by asked for help from Thebes.

These two sections probably describe the same series of events - the seizure of Delphi, dispatching of ambassadors, defeat of a Locrian invasion at Phaedriades, and the declaration of war by the Council, all probably in 355 BC.

In 354 the Phocians faced several enemies, while their allies were yet to provide any military support. In order to expand his army Philomelus probably now decided to use some of the treasure dedicated to the Oracle at Delphi, and he soon had at least 10,000 men at his disposal.

Philomelus led his new army into Locris. He defeated a joint Locrian and Boeotian army in a cavalry battle at an unnamed location. The Thessalians were next to arrive, but they only had 6,000 men, and were defeated in battle near an otherwise unknown hill called Argolas (354 BC).

Philomelus's run of success finally came to an end later in the same year. The Boeotians raised a more sizable army (given as 13,000 strong), supported by 1,500 men from Achaea on the northern coast of the Peloponnese. For some time the two armies camped close together, and the mood between the two camps became rather dark. The Boeotians captured a number of Philomelus's mercenaries, announced that they would be executed as temple robbers, and killed them. Philomelus's mercenaries responded by demanding that they should do the same. A number of Boeotians were captured and executed, and as a result both sides abandoned this practise.

The two armies then moved into the area north of Phocis. As they were advancing through a heavily wooded area their two vanguards clashed in an encounter battle. Both sides clearly fed in more of their troops, but the outnumbered Phocians were soon defeated. The battle took place in broken difficult country near the village of Neon (354 BC), and many of the Phocians and their mercenaries were killed in the retreat. Philomelus was wounded in the battle, and was eventually trapped. In order to avoid capture and probable torture he threw himself off a cliff.

Command of the army passed to his brother Onomarchus, who was also suffer a fairly gruesome fate after some early successes.

How to cite this article: Rickard, J (10 October 2016), Philomelus (d.354) , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/people_philomelus.html

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