Saturday, August 02, 2008

Battle of Chaeronea 338 BC.

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.

If the chances of another issue to the battle of Chaeronea have been exaggerated, the significance of that event has been often misrepresented. The battle of Chaeronea belongs to the same historical series as the battles of Aegospotami (405 B.C.) and Leuctra (371 B.C.). As the hegemony or first place among Greek states had passed successively from Athens to Sparta, and to Thebes, so now it passed to Macedon. The statement that Greek liberty perished on the plain of Chaeronea is as true or as false as that it perished on the field of Leuctra or the strand of the Goat's River (Aegospotapi).

Whenever a Greek state became supreme, that supremacy entailed the depression of some states and the dependency or subjection of others. Athens was reduced to a secondary place by Macedon, and Thebes fared still worse; but we must not forget what Sparta, in the day of her triumph, did to Athens, or the more evil things which Thebes proposed. There were, however, in the case of Macedonia, special circumstances which seemed to give her victory a more fatal character than those previous victories which had initiated new supremacies.

John Bury said that Macedon was regarded in Hellas as an outsider. He also remarked that this was a feeling which the southern Greeks entertained even in regard to Thessaly when Jason threatened them with a Thessalian hegemony; and Macedonia, politically and historically as well as geographically, was some steps further away than Thessaly. If Thessaly was hardly inside the inner circle of Hellenic politics, Macedonia was distinctly outside it. To Athens and Sparta, to Corinth and Argos and Thebes, the old powers, who, as we might say, had known each other all their lives as foes or friends, and had a common international history, the supremacy of Macedonia seemed the intrusion of an upstart. And, in the second place, this supremacy was the triumph of an absolute monarchy over free commonwealths, so that the submission of the Greek states to Macedon's king might be rhetorically branded as an enslavement to a tyrant in a sense in which subjection to a sovereign Athens or a sovereign Sparta could not be so described. For these reasons the tidings of Chaeronea sent a new kind of thrill through Greece. And the impression that there was something unique in Philip's victory might be said to have been confirmed by subsequent history, which showed that the old Greek commonwealths had had their day and might never again rise to be first-rate powers.

Among the captives was an orator of consummate talent, named Demades, who belonged to the peace party and saw that the supremacy of Macedon was inevitable. An anecdote was noised abroad that Philip, who spent the night after the battle in wild revelry, came reeling drunk to the place where his prisoners were and jeered at their misfortune, making merry, too, over the flight of the great Demosthenes.
But Demades stood forth and ventured to rebuke him:
"O king, fortune has given you the role of Agamemnon, and you play the part of Thersites!"
The words stung and sobered the drunken victor; he flung away his garlands and all the gear of his revel, and set the bold speaker free. But whether this story be true or not, Demades was politically sympathetic with Philip and was sent by him to negotiate peace at Athens. Philip offered to restore all the prisoners without ransom and not to march into Attica. The Athenians on their side were to dissolve what remained of their confederacy, and join the new Hellenic union which Philip proposed to organize. In regard to territory, Oropus was to be given to Athens, but the Chersonesus was to be surrendered to Macedonia. On these terms peace was concluded, and the Athenian people thought that they had come off well. Philip sent his son and two of his chief officers to Athens, with the bodies of the Athenians who had been slain. They were received with great honor, and a statue of the Macedonian king was set up in the marketplace, a token of gratitude which was probably genuine. Demosthenes himself afterwards confessed with a snarl that Philip had been kind.

Ancient sources tell us that the two sides fought bitterly for a long time. It is suggested by ancient sources, that Philip deliberately withdrew his troops on the right wing, foreseeing that the untested enemy hoplites would follow him, thus breaking their line. Most sources agree in saying that Alexander was the first to break into the Theban lines, followed by a courageous band (presumably his kinsmen and friends); upon seeing this, Philip urged his forces to attack with great fury and the Athenians — ardent but untrained — were unable to resist his Macedonian veterans. With the rout of the Athenians, the Thebans were left to fight alone and surrounded by the victorious enemy, eventually they were crushed. Of the famed 300-strong Sacred Band of Thebes, 254 fell on the field of battle, while 46 were wounded and captured.

According to Diodorus Siculus, the battle was hotly contested for a long time, until finally Alexander forced his way through the enemy line and put his opponents to flight.More than a thousand Athenians fell in the battle and no less than two thousand were captured. Likewise, many of the Boeotians were killed and not a few taken prisoners.

A different account of the battle was advanced by the Alexander historian Nicholas G. L. Hammond which has established itself as the popular version in later years. He speculated that it was Alexander, in person, who at the head of the Companion cavalry rode into the gap caused by Philip's maneuver and outflanked the enemy lines; however none of the surviving sources (the main ones being Plutarch, Frontinus and Diodorus) mention such an incident. It should be noted that Hammond never pretended that this was anything more than speculation, but the story has subsequently been propagated in many history books and web sites as a historical fact.

Side A'
Macedonia, Thessaly, Epirus, Aetolia, Northern Phocis, Epicnemidian Locrians

Side B'
Athens, Beotian League (Thebes, etc), Euboean League, Achaean League, Corinth, Megara, Corcyra, Acarnania, Ambracia, Southern Phocis.Neutral sidesSparta, Argos, Arcadia, Messene.

The three last had alliances both with Athens and Philip but their pro-macedonian activity of 344/3 BC showed they were leaning towards Philip. However they didnt sent aid to Chaeronea in Philip's side because of the blocking in Isthmus by Corinth and Megara. Sparta had withdrawn almost entirely from Greek affairs in 344 BC. Elis had an alliance with Philip though they didnt take part in Chaeronea but showed their pro-macedonian feelings by joining their forces with Philip in the invasion of Laconia in the autumn of 338 BC.

  1. J. B. Bury- A History of Greece to the Death of Alexander the Great.
  3. Diodorus, Library, XVI 86

1 comment:

  1. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.