Remembering the Battle of Chaeronea, 2nd August 338BCE


The trees mark the tumulus over the Macedonian polyancdrion at Chaeronea 

On this day in 338, the 7th of the Attic month of Metageitnion, the Battle of Chaeronea took place. The Macedonian army, under Philip II faced a coalition of Greek states led by Chares and Lysicles of Athens and Theagenes of Thebes. Citizen soldiers from Athens, Thebes, Corinth, Megara, Achaea, Chalcis, Epidavros and Troezen faced the well-trained forces of Philip, with the young Alexander in his first major battle.

Although the battle is recorded in several ancient sources, they give differing accounts and details of the battle, giving rise to more than one interpretation, but it is still possible, using a combination of the written sources, archaeology and topography, to reconstruct the likely course of the battle.

Philip came down from Phocis to Boeotia with a force of 30,000 infantry and 2,000 cavalry. The main army of the allied southern Greek city states, around 35,000, were defending the road to Chaeronea. The allies’ front line stretched out about 2.5 miles from the foothills of Mount Thurion to the banks of the river Kephisos, ensuring a good defensive position as both flanks were secure. Some scholars suggest that they had slanted their line north-east so that Philip couldn’t concentrate his forces against the right wing, as the allied left wing (slanted forward) would threaten his right, and he could not concentrate his forces against the left, as that would be against high ground. If the Greeks held, they could prevent his advance.

Map_Macedonia_336_BC CC BY-SA 3.0
The sources differ in the account of the battle. Polyaenus says that Philip, confident in his well-trained veterans, used the stratagem of engaging the allied left, but then withdrawing. The Athenians followed the retreating Macedonians, with the result that the allied line was stretched and the centre had to move left to preserve line. Alexander, was able to punch through the allied line and take the Thebans from behind their line. Meanwhile Philip’s infantry turned and pressed the Athenians, eventually routing them. Polyaenus also suggests that Philip, having feigned the retreat and reached the higher ground, delayed his attack on the Athenians, aware that his veterans could hold out much longer than the Athenians.

Alexander’s role in the battle has traditionally seen him at the head of the Companion cavalry, forcing his way through the stretched allied line and annihilating the famed Theban Sacred Band from the rear. However, there are no explicit mentions of cavalry in the ancient sources – though Diodorus says ‘Companions’.  Plutarch tells us that Alexander was the ‘first to break the ranks of the Sacred Band’ but he also says that the Sacred Band ‘met the spears of the phalanx face to face’. We know from Alexander’s later battles that he was at the head of the cavalry, and the consensus of scholars is that this is also true for Chaeronea. 

Diodorus’ account is that of a traditional phalanx battle. He says that it was by virtue of the Macedonian sarissa, the long pikes (4-6.5m) introduced by Philip, that the Macedonians were victorious, since these were roughly twice length of the pikes used by the allied Greeks.

The Lion of Chaeronea, marking the polyandrion of the Theban Sacred Band 

All sources agree, that the famed Theban Sacred Band was wiped out, previously thought of as invincible. This unit of the Theban army was made up of 150 couples, and they were the elite troops of Thebes.  They were buried together in a polyandrion now marked by the Lion of Chaeronea. A tumulus on the other side of the battlefield was raised over a polyandrion containing cremated remains, presumably of the Macedonian troops. We have no figures for the Macedonian casualties, but Diodorus says that between one and two thousand allied Greeks lost their lives, and four thousand taken prisoner.

The battle marked the end of the southern city states’ resistance to Philip. Philip imposed a settlement and formed the League of Corinth of which he was Hegemon.

Further Reading

Cawkwell, G., Philip II of Macedon, London, Faber & Faber (1978)
Hammond, N. G. L., Studies in Greek History, Oxford, Oxford University Press (1973), (546)
Sears, M. & Willekes, C., Alexander's Cavalry Charge at Chaeronea, 338 BCE, Journal of Military History 80 (2016) 1017-1035