It’s 338 BC.
After more than two decades of rule, Philip II of Macedonia was at the height of his power.
Together with his son, a certain Alexander, he descended with his army into the plains
of Boeotia where he was about to fight against an alliance led by Thebes and Athens,
for the supremacy over the whole of Greece…
By mid 4th century BC, Athens, Sparta, and Thebes were the dominant city-states in the Aegean,
vying for power sometimes as allies and sometimes as enemies.
To the north lay Macedonia, regarded by the city-states of southern Greece to be little
more than barbaric, who’s people spoke a barely-recognizable version of the Greek language.
The kingdom was under constant pressure from its’ neighbours,
but this all changed in 359 BC when Philip II, a leader of a shrewd breed,
became ruler of Macedonia.
He inherited an unstable and weak realm, but from the onset of his reign he set into motion
a series of military reforms that would have a profound impact .
He was one of the first generals in history to build a lasting intelligence gathering
system that will support his army both in the field and on campaign.
He formed an engineer corps, which led to the construction of the first torsion catapult
Equipment was redesigned to make his infantry more lightweight than the hoplites, which
gave his phalanx the ability to cover greater distances at a faster pace on the march.
The hoplite spear was replaced with the much longer two-handed sarissa. The additional
length gave the Makedonian phalanx a tactical advantage over the hoplite as it negated their
deadly ability to engage in close quarter combat.
Philip introduced innovative tactical reforms,
which showed his deep understanding of his enemies’ strengths and weaknesses, as well
as his own ability to adapt.
In addition, the new Macedonian king revolutionized the use of cavalry by organizing it into an
effective, cohesive unit that had a crucial role in the field of battle, whereas previously
Greek cavalry was purely a supporting element of the army, used to flank, harry, and pursue,
but never to deal a decisive strike.
Philip’s military reforms were ahead of their time and he used his now reformed, professional
army against his neighbours, the Thracians, Illyrians, Paeonians, as well as any city-states
that drew his wrath, and, most importantly, he took cities in northern Aegean that were
vital for grain shipments to Athens, which the Macedonians regularly intercepted, greatly
affecting the city’s food supply.
Added to this, Philip’s success on the battlefield
got him a seat on the Amphictyonic Council, an association of Greek city-states, which
the Athenians viewed as a further insult.
Meanwhile, the ten years long Third Sacred War, fought over Phocis’ cultivation of
sacred land near Delphi, saw the decline of Theban hegemony over Greece, exhausting all
participants in the war except Macedonia.
And, showing leniency towards Phocis , by 346 BC
Philip forced a strained peace on Athens and its’ allies, with the exception of Sparta.
Apprehensive about their northern neighbours,
Athens sought an ally in Thebes.
The two had long been considered enemies, but they now had a common foe: Philip.
In addition, the two city-states relied on a famous orator Demosthenes,
to dissuade the states of the Peloponnese from entering
an alliance with Philip and charged him with forming a Hellenic league to withstand the
And he also sought aid by looking east to Persia, who disliked Philip
for his presence near the Anatolian coast, although they refused to openly join the conflict.
By 340 BC, the two sides were effectively at war and this political maneuvering made
it clear that a decisive battle against Makedonia could not be avoided.
Hostilities began in the east, where Philip besieged Perinthos and Byzantion, perhaps
because of their failure to meet obligations to provide troops for the Thracian conflict.
But without a fleet to blockade the two cities, supplies kept coming in from Persia and Athens,
and after several months Philip abandoned the two sieges.
While Athens celebrated this as a glorious victory, the Macedonian King turned to deal
with the root of the problem, rather than be detained by Byzantion.
Because he already planned to invade Persia, Philip needed a united Greece behind him and
wanted to be seen as a unifier, so a further escalation of conflict was most unfavourable.
But, luckily, his campaign became linked with
the new Fourth Sacred War, caused by the cultivation of land sacred to Apollo by citizens of Amphissa.
Conveniently, Philip was chosen to lead the
Amphictyonic League in settling matters with Amphissa, which gave him a pretext to campaign
in southern Greece.
In early 339 BC, Philip’s army reached the pass of Thermopylae only to find it blocked
by the Theban army.
In addition, Athenian and Theban troops guarded
the most strategic mountain passes, blocking the way south towards Thebes.
Lacking supplies for a prolonged campaign, Philip turned back, retreating out of sight…
But the shrewd king’s agents began spreading rumors that the Macedonian army was about
to withdraw back home.
This is instilled a sense of security and as the months passed, those guarding the
passes grew restless as the centuries-old animosity between Thebes and Athens resurfaced.
Catching the Athenians with their guard down,
Philip suddenly re-appeared.
The garrison was driven back as the Makedonian army marched into Phocis.
A secondary attack was launched that destroyed the garrison in the Gravia pass, with Amphissa
taken soon after, as well as Naupaetus further west, which secured the flank and access to
the Gulf of Corinth.
Philip himself proceeded south to Elatea.
His lenient treatment of the Phocians at the end of the previous Sacred War several years ago bore fruit.
He now gained a valuable ally and was welcomed to establish a base
of operations in Elatea, with supplies readily available for his army.
He spent several months there, discharging responsibilities to the Amphictyonic Council
in settling the situation with Amphissa, by turning the city over to Delphi .
The Macedonian King then offered peace, wishing to stay on good terms with Thebes, who could
provide elite hoplite troops, and Athens, on who’s powerful navy he counted on for
his planned invasion of Persia.
Demosthenes convinced Thebes and Athens to refuse .
Finally, in August 338 BC he marched south towards Boeotia, where the allied army defended
the main road at Chaeronea…
At dawn, both armies began deploying.
Thebans and Athenians chose the battlefield carefully.
With mountains to the south and the Kifisos river to the north, their slanted line was
secured on both flanks.
Philip mirrored their formation and placed on his far right his missile troops.
The King himself commanded the infantry on the right, troops that he called his “picked men",
armed similarly to traditional Greek hoplites, but wearing light or no body armour
and carrying a spear 2-3m in length.
Deployed in the center was the Macedonian phalanx, armed with 4-6m long sarissas.
They arrayed 15 to 20 ranks deep, forming an impenetrable wall of spears.
Another block of infantry formed to the left of the center, with light Thessalian and heavy
Macedonian Companion cavalry further left, commanded by the 17-year old Prince Alexander.
Another contingent of missle troops was stationed
on the far left.
All told , Philip commanded some 30,000 infantry and 2,000 cavalry.
The Coalition army’s left flank was formed by the well-equipped Athenian heavy infantry.
But despite being better equipped, wearing heavy body armour, large shields, hoplite
helmets and 2-3m spears, the Athenians were inexperienced and, unlike the battle-hardened
Macedonians, for most hoplites in Athenian ranks this battle would be their first.
The center consisted of hoplites from various Greek city-states and likely a contingent
of mercenaries, paid by Athens, who’s fighting prowess served to bolster the mixed force.
Thebans on the right formed the largest portion of the coalition army, consisting entirely
of extremely well-trained and drilled hoplites.
On the far right arrayed the Theban “Sacred Band”, composed of 150 pairs of male lovers,
who fought fiercely to protect and impress their partners.
This unit was probably the most elite on the battlefield.
In total, Coalition forces numbered some 35,000.
As midmorning approached , Philip led his “picked men” forward.
The rest of the Makedonian army remained in place, keeping their slanted formation.
Philip ordered Alexander to wait for a moment of crisis to occur, before joining the battle.
Although it was perhaps risky to put such responsibility on the shoulders of a 17-year-old,
the Prince was already an experienced and exceptionally talented battlefield commander
and the King felt that Alexander could judge when to act.
As Philip’s troops approached the enemy, his missile troops advanced forward.
Peppering the Athenians with projectiles, they sought to disrupt their formation and
lure them into attacking.
But, despite seeing the numerically inferior and lightly armoured Macedonian infantry approaching
at a deliberate pace, the Athenian line stayed put.
As Macedonian troops came to within 50 metres of the enemy line, Philip ordered his men
It is said that a desperate fight developed on the plain beneath Chaeronea, as Philip’s
experience troops inflicted heavy casualties, but couldn’t break the Athenians.
On the Makedonian left, Alexander then ordered the center and left flank to slowly advance.
He wanted to prevent his father’s contingent from becoming isolated, and his advance kept
pressure on the Coalition center, especially the Thebans on the right.
This kept the Greek allies in place, denying any chance of reinforcements for the embattled
Athenians on the left.
By now, Philips’ elite infantry traded blows with the Athenians for hours,
the ground beneath them awash with blood.
Finally, the Macedonian king could see that the Athenians were tired and thirsty under
the hot August noon sun, but incredibly, he gave the order to retreat!
As Philip’s right began a slow, orderly withdrawal, the elated Athenians chaotically
surged forward, thinking the enemy was on the run.
Across the field, Alexander watched closely as his father withdrew,
waiting for the right time to act.
The Phalanx in the center also fell back, keeping contact with Philip on the right.
The Greek center was now faced with the dilemma of either staying in contact with the Athenians
on their left or the Thebans on their right.
Part of the Coalition center shifted to the left to keep pace with the advancing Athenians
and, seeing the Makedonian right and phalanx in the center retreating, they rushed forward
to square up against the fleeing enemy.
Alexander lunged forward at the helm of the Companion cavalry, realizing this was the
crucial moment to strike, as Philip successfully goaded the enemy into a chase, effectively
breaking up their formation.
As he galloped across the field, the young Prince signalled the infantry and missile
troops on the Macedonian left to advance on the Theban line!
The King’s faith in his son paid off.
Seeing Alexander cutting across the enemy’s battle line was the moment to order his own
troops to stand and fight!
What seemed until now like an onslaught of
the allied Greek troops became a bloodbath.
Men were crushed in shield-to-shield fighting, as Philip pushed the Athenians back, while
the Greek hoplites in the center ran into a bristling wall of spears of the Macedonian
phalanx that was now relentlessly moving foward.
Meanwhile, the Macedonian infantry on the left and the second block of phalanxes closed
in on the Greek troops in the center.
At that moment, the sound of thundering hooves grabbed the attention of both armies.
Charging head long ahead of the Companions and Thessalians, Alexander steered his men
around the flank of the Coalition center, crushing the Greek troops
in the famous Hammer and Anvil maneuver.
Within a matter of minutes, Greek formation in the center disintegrated, as the Macedonian
cavalry sent survivors fleeing southward.
Up the field, the Athenians lost heart, and began fleeing the carnage inflicted upon them
by Philip’s troops.
The Thebans now remained isolated as Alexander and his Companions, and the Thessalian cavalry
pressed their left flank.
Their cohesion was soon shattered and streams of Theban warriors started fleeing.
One exception was the Sacred Band, who made a brave last stand.
They fought off the Macedonian infantry on the left, as well as Alexander’s Companion cavalry.
But, before long, the heavy fighting took its’ toll and the 300 warriors of the Sacred Band
were wiped out, their men scattered on the ground.
Losses on the Makedonian side weren’t recorded,
but despite nearly six hours of intense fighting, casualties on both sides were unexpectedly light.
With his victory on the plain near Chaeronea, Philip of Macedon was now the leading political
figure on the Greek peninsula.
Rather than besieging either Athens or Thebes, he was surprisingly lenient with the two cities,
and the rest of Greece.
He knew that he needed allies for his forthcoming campaign against Persia.
To that end, in 337 BC he founded the League of Corinth, with Macedon the "first among equals".
This coalition was the basis for the Macedonian invasion of Asia in 334.
Philip was elected hegemon, as the army began assembling…