In 339 Philip marched of the Amphictyonic forces in yet another sacred war (the fourth), into Greece, not as invader but as commander which had been declared the previous year against the people of Amphissa, a city of west Locris. His command gave him the means to lead an army legitimately into Greece. Once there he intended to end his war with Athens and bring Greece firmly under Macedonian control once and for all. The time for diplomacy was well past.

At the spring meeting of the Amphictyonic Council in 340 the Amphissans had charged the Athenians with impiety for rededicating in the newly built temple to Apollo at Delphi some Persian and Theban shields seized after the Battle of Plataea in 479. The temple had not yet been reconsecrated, so the Athenians were technically guilty of sacrilege. The Amphissans urged the council to fine them 50 talents and deny them access to the Oracle. Politics rather than impiety was again at the heart of the charge: the Amphissans as allies of the Thebans were reacting to the inscription that the Athenians had added to these shields-“The Athenians from the Medes and the Thebans, when they fought on the opposite side to the Greeks.” Anyone viewing this dedication would be reminded that during the Persian Wars the Thebans had contemptibly joined ranks with the Persians and fought with them against Greek troops at Plataea, the final battle on the mainland in the wars.

The members of the Athenian delegation to the council made excuses not to address the Amphissan accusation-except for Aeschines. Rather than trying to explain the Athenians’ action, which clearly embarrassed the Thebans, he turned the tables on the Amphissans, boldly censuring them for sacrilegiously cultivating part of the sacred Plain of Cirrha below Delphi and constructing buildings on it. The council sent a contingent of troops to investigate Aeschines’s allegations; finding them credible, they were in the process of destroying the buildings when Amphissan troops attacked and beat them back. After diplomatic demands on the part of the council were rebuffed, a sacred war was declared against Amphissa later in 339, and at the behest of its Thessalian members Philip was appointed commander of its army. This Fourth Sacred War was a lackluster affair that ended the following year.

The Amphissan charge of sacrilege against Athens never again materialized. Demosthenes later claimed that Aeschines had worked in tandem with Philip to provoke this sacred war so that the king could march back into Greece. That cannot be true, because Philip was far away fighting the Scythians when the council met and-like the Athenians-had no idea what the Amphissans planned to do, so he was not part of a conspiracy with them. The opportunity to command Amphictyonic troops was a welcome one for the king, but he did not immediately march into Greece, because of the onset of winter and because he was still recuperating from the wound he had suffered in the clash with the Triballi. In the following spring he had recovered enough to lead his troops southward and established a camp at Cytinium, six miles north of the Gravia Pass, through which lay Amphissa.

Then, as often in his reign, Philip defied expectations to achieve his personal goals. In this case, he left Cytinium but bypassed Amphissa and turned southeast, down the Cephissus Valley, through Phocis, to the Boeotian border, and there captured the town of Elatea, only two to three days’ march from Athens. He had clearly decided to leave Amphissa be for the moment while he dealt with the Athenians as well as the Thebans, who in the same year had expelled the garrison he had installed in 346 in Nicaea, which controlled access to Thermopylae. He sent an embassy to the Thebans demanding that they return Nicaea to him and either join him in attacking Athens, keeping whatever Athenian spoils they seized when the city fell, or allow his army passage through Boeotia to Attica.

With the renowned Macedonian army encamped on the Boeotian border the Thebans’ mood must have been grim indeed. Philip had treated them leniently in 346, but they had no reason to assume continued benevolence on his part now. The Athenians likewise feared the worst. An emergency Assembly was summoned, at which Demosthenes urged the people to put aside their enmity for the Thebans and join with them in a last-ditch effort to save themselves and Greece from Philip. Demosthenes had been working to this end since 346, when he realized that only an effective union of Athens and Thebes had the chance to stop Philip. His planning now paid off: the people accepted his arguments and sent him at the head of an embassy to petition the Thebans for alliance. He left with a contingent of troops, which held fast at Eleusis while the Thebans debated the issue.

The Theban Assembly was packed. The Macedonians spoke first and bluntly pointed out that if the Thebans refused Philip’s demand, his men would plunder Boeotia mercilessly. Demosthenes then gave his speech. After it the Thebans voted-in favor of allying with Athens and so going to war with Macedonia. What Demosthenes said is unknown-Plutarch claimed that his oratory “stirred [the Thebans’] courage, kindled their desire to win glory and threw every other consideration into the shades. As if transported by his words, they cast off all fear, self-interest or thought of obligation towards Macedonia and chose the path of honor.” The Thebans’ decision was certainly courageous, but they are unlikely to have been swayed for these reasons, not least because they exacted significant concessions from Demosthenes: the Athenians were to recognize Thebes’s hegemony of the Boeotian League, pay for one-third of the costs of land operations and the entire bill for naval engagements, and agree to the Thebans being in sole command of the army and sharing in the command of the combined fleet. Still, on the motion of his cousin Demomeles and the orator Hyperides, a jubilant Demosthenes was rewarded on his return to Athens with a gold crown (his second) at the Dionysia festival in March.

To prevent Philip from marching into Boeotia and Attica the Thebans developed a two-stage defensive position. A force of their infantry and 10,000 Athenian-hired mercenaries commanded by the Athenian Chares and the Theban Proxenus was deployed to the Gravia Pass, while another joint force was posted 20 miles away at Parapotamii, on the Boeotian border, close to Phocis. These positions were good, defensive ones, and the Thebans deserve praise for their strategy. When Philip learned that all the passes from Mount Parnassus to Lake Copais were under Athenian- Theban control he knew that he had only two choices: either force his way through or-with winter fast approaching-return home (as the Thebans were banking on him to do). At this point both sides dispatched embassies to the other Greeks for support. Few responded-only Megara, Corinth, Achaea, Euboea, Acarnania, and some islands supported the Greek cause, and just the Thessalians, Phocians, and Achaeans (in the Peloponnese) marched to join Philip. The reason for this lackluster response was probably the same as for the lack of enthusiasm for the Fourth Sacred War: the Greeks were tired of fighting and expected Philip to settle matters anyway.

Later in the same year, 338, Philip and the Greeks clashed in some minor skirmishes in and around the Cephissus Valley before he decided that it was time to act more aggressively. He targeted the enemy troops at the Gravia Pass since he could not use his cavalry in the narrower pass at Parapotamii. Resorting to his tried and tested trick of a Thracian revolt, Philip arranged for a letter to his generals to be intercepted by Chares and Proxenus with his plans to leave for Thrace immediately. As “proof ” he directed some of his men at Cytinium to break camp. Chares was just as gullible as he had been at Byzantium in 340 and believed the letter’s content. He allowed his guards to relax their vigil, and Philip struck fast and decisively. He ordered his general Parmenion to attack Chares and his men, who were caught unprepared. Parmenion’s troops massacred many of the mercenaries and seized the pass; three hours later Parmenion reached Amphissa, which promptly surrendered to him, thereby ending the Fourth Sacred War.

In the meantime, Philip bore down on the other Greek allies at Parapotamii, who could not hold him back and fled to the plain of Chaeronea (not far from Thebes). The Thebans had deliberately chosen this plain as a fallback position because it was merely two miles wide and had hills on its northern and southern sides and several rivers dissecting it, hence Philip would find it difficult to deploy his cavalry effectively. There the Greeks prepared to make their last-ditch stand against the invader.

Map showing Philip’s movements during 339–338 BC


The Greek coalition troops numbered 30,000 infantry and 3,800 cavalry and were commanded by the Athenian generals Chares, Lysicles, and Stratocles and the Theban general Theagenes. Boeotia provided 12,000 hoplites, including the elite Sacred Band, and the Athenians, 6,000 citizen soldiers (to age 50) and 2,000 mercenaries. Demosthenes, who had the phrase “good luck” emblazoned in gold letters on his shield, was one of the infantrymen in the Athenian contingent. Philip commanded 30,000 infantry and 2,000 cavalry, composed of 24,000 Macedonians and the rest from Thessaly and Phocis. The Greeks set up camp on the western side of the plain of Chaeronea, and the Macedonians, on its eastern-in his biography of Alexander Plutarch states that Alexander pitched his tent next to an oak tree by the Cephissus River, “which was known as Alexander’s oak” even in the biographer’s lifetime. The Cephissus flowed from the northwest to the southeast, forming the plain’s eastern border, so Plutarch’s anecdote helps to fix Alexander’s location in the Macedonian battle line.

Philip was in no rush to fight and waited for the Greek forces to assemble their battle line before he drew up his own. The Greek right flank was stationed by the Cephissus River and had the Boeotians with the Sacred Band on the far right. The Athenians and 5,000 light-armed infantry under Stratocles were stationed on the left flank by the Haemon (Lykuressi) stream. The other Greek allies were in the center of that line. On the enemy front, Philip put himself on his right flank, along with his hypaspists, facing the Athenians. On his left flank, facing the Boeotians, were the Companion Cavalry.

Although it was under Alexander’s command, he was most likely supported by Parmenion and Antipater because Diodorus stated that he was stationed next to Philip’s “most seasoned generals.” The various battalions that made up the Macedonian phalanx were in the center. The Greeks had deliberately strung out their line to cover almost the entire two miles of the plain’s width, forcing Philip to match it rather than risk being outflanked. That meant that he had to decrease the depth of his phalanx, thereby reducing its mass and the force of its charge. Further, the narrowness of the plain and its marshy areas impeded his usual cavalry attack. The Greeks were risking everything on a frontal charge with their right flank, which would then pivot to push the Macedonian left onto the boggy ground, even into the Cephissus. Philip therefore had to break up the opposing line and have his infantry carry the day. To this end, his strategy was to open gaps in the enemy line through which his men would pour while neutralizing the threat posed by the fearsome Sacred Band as quickly as possible. Although the troop numbers of both sides were roughly the same, and the Greek strategy was by no means flawed, there was a considerable difference in battle experience between the two sides. The Macedonian army had fought virtually every year since 358 against a variety of foes, from Greeks to Thracians to Scythians. Apart from reversals against Onomarchus of Phocis in 353 and the Triballi in 339, it had never been beaten-in fact, Philip may well have overcome the Triballi had he not been unexpectedly and severely wounded. By contrast, the Greeks had fought rarely in the previous two decades and had never faced the massed Macedonian army. The Boeotians had seen the most action, but only from their involvement in the Third Sacred War, and the Athenians’ hardest battles had been relatively minor ones on Euboea.

The Battle of Chaeronea took place in early August (either the seventh or ninth of Metageitnion). Philip planned a three-phase operation to upset the allied strategy. For the first phase he directed his entire line to march toward the Greeks at an acute angle, not face on, with his right flank closer to the Greek line than the left. When the Macedonian right under Philip came into contact with the Athenians on the Greek left, he put the second phase of his strategy into operation. Rather than engaging the Athenians in hand-to-hand fighting as they expected, he began to lead his wing sideways to the right, and the rest of his line followed suit. The Athenian left moved to stay with him, but as it did so it opened a gap toward the Greek center. The troops posted there and up to the right flank scrambled to plug it, while the Sacred Band on the extreme right followed orders and stood fast. Thinking that Philip was actually retreating, Stratocles allegedly exhorted his men to attack and shut him up in Macedonia. His impetuosity proved fatal.

Philip’s retreat was a feigned one. He continued for about 100 feet and then stopped by the Haemon to bring his third phase into play. Alexander and the cavalry on the Macedonian left now rushed to the gap that still remained open between the immobile Sacred Band and the rest of the Greek line. Once through it, they wheeled round at speed to encircle the band, cutting it down to the last man, and then quickly re-formed to assault the other Boeotian soldiers. In the meantime, Philip’s men turned back and charged the startled Athenians, forcing them into the river valley. The king had deliberately taken up a position opposite the inexperienced Athenians, anticipating that they would quickly buckle. He was right. The Athenians stood no chance as the Macedonians mowed them down and then broke the allied center apart. The fighting turned into a massacre as 1,000 Athenians were slain and 2,000 were taken prisoner. The other allies also lost substantial numbers, and the Haemon was said to have run red with blood. Perhaps as much as half of the Greek army was killed or captured. In complete shock and disarray the survivors (including Demosthenes) managed to struggle over the Kerata Pass to Lebadea (Levadhia) in Boeotia and thence to their homes.

Philip ordered the bodies of his men to be cremated as was the custom with those killed in battle. Then he buried their ashes under a large burial mound (polyandreion), 23 feet high, and honored them with a procession and sacrifice. The mound on the plain today, in which archaeologists discovered bones, teeth, and long spearheads from sarissas, is probably this mass grave. Two contradictory ancient accounts detail Philip’s actions following these solemn arrangements. The first is that while walking the battlefield he stumbled across the corpses of the 300 members of the Sacred Band, who had fought to the last man, and burst into tears. His reaction must have stemmed from his memory of watching the band train while he was hostage in Thebes and his admiration of their courage. To memorialize their bravery he ordered a statue of a lion to be set up on the spot.

The second account is that he got so drunk after his victory that he began to mock the prisoners and Demosthenes, sneeringly chanting the opening words of the latter’s decrees before the Assembly: “Demosthenes, son of Demosthenes, of Paeania moved this.” One of the Athenian captives, an orator named Demades, grew so incensed at his conduct that he contemptuously asked him, “O King, when Fortune has cast you in the role of Agamemnon, are you not ashamed to act the part of Thersites?” Philip was said to have sobered up instantly at the reference to Agamemnon, the leader of the Greeks in the Trojan War, and Thersites, who was slapped down for not knowing his place. Whether either story is true is not known, although the restored monument of the lion that stands at Chaeronea today (the original was broken in the Greek War of Independence) lends credence to the first one; Theopompus, in his critical history of Philip, may have been responsible for the second anecdote.

Philip’s victory at Chaeronea changed the face of Greek politics forever. Gone were the Greeks’ cherished ideals of autonomia and eleutheria (pp. 11-13), and even though the polis as an entity continued to exist, the Greeks now had to contend with the practical rule of Macedonia. The contemporary Athenian orator Lycurgus remarked of the battle, “with the corpses of those who died here the freedom of the Greeks was also buried,” and some centuries later Justin’s comment was equally sober: “for the whole of Greece [Chaeronea] marked the end of its glorious supremacy and of its ancient independence.” But while Philip had won the battle, could he now establish peace? An even greater challenge for him now was to reconcile the Greeks to Macedonian rule. At the same time he had to contend with the worrying prophecy he had received before the battle:

Let me fly far from the battle at Thermodon (Chaeronea), let me take refuge Watching from high in the clouds, as I soar with the wings of an eagle. Tears are for the loser, but death for the victor.

As events the following year proved, he should have heeded that closing line more closely. Philip must also have been delighted at the role that the 18-year-old Alexander had played in the battle. His father had entrusted him with a key command, and he had not failed him. His routs of the allied right flank and the Sacred Band were portents of his future military successes in Asia. So, too, were aspects of his life before the battle and even the manner of his conception and birth, all of which were said to have signaled future greatness.

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