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Wars of the Alexander the Great: Battle of Chaeronea

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Conflict & Date:

The Battle of Chaeronea is believed to have been fought around August 2, 338 BC during King Philip II's wars with the Greeks.

Armies & Commanders:

Macedon

  • King Philip II
  • Alexander the Great
  • approx. 32,000 men

Greeks

  • Chares of Athens
  • Lysicles of Athens
  • Theagenes of Boeotia
  • approx. 35,000 men

Battle of Chaeronea Overview:

Following unsuccessful sieges of Perinthus and Byzantium in 340 and 339 BC, King Philip II of Macedon found his influence over the Greek city-states waning. In an effort to reassert Macedonian supremacy, he marched south in 338 BC with the goal of bringing them to heel. Forming his army, Philip was joined by allied contingents from Aetolia, Thessaly, Epirus, Epicnemidian Locrian, and Northern Phocis. Advancing, his troops easily secured the town of Elateia which controlled the mountain passes to the south. With the Elateia's fall, messengers alerted Athens to the approaching threat.

Raising their army, the citizens of Athens dispatched Demosthenes to seek assistance from the Boeotians at Thebes. Despite past hostilities and ill-will between the two cities, Demosthenes was able to convince the Boeotians that the danger posed by Philip was a threat to all of Greece. Though Philip also sought to woo the Boeotians, they elected to join with the Athenians. Combining their forces, they assumed a position near Chaeronea in Boeotia. Forming for battle, the Athenians occupied the left, while the Thebans were on the right. Cavalry guarded each flank.

Approaching the enemy position on August 2, Philip deployed his army with its phalanx infantry in the center and cavalry on each wing. While he personally led the right, he gave command of the left to his young son Alexander, who was aided by some of the best Macedonian generals. Advancing to contact that morning, the Greek forces, led by Chares of Athens and Theagenes of Boeotia, offered stiff resistance and the battle became deadlocked. As casualties began to mount, Philip sought to gain an advantage.

Knowing that the Athenians were relatively untrained, he began withdrawing his wing of the army. Believing a victory was at hand, the Athenians followed, separating themselves from their allies. Halting, Philip returned to the attack and his veteran troops were able to drive the Athenians from the field. Advancing, his men joined Alexander in attacking the Thebans. Badly outnumbered, the Thebans offered a stiff defense which was anchored by their elite 300-man Sacred Band.

Most sources state that Alexander was the first to break into the enemy's lines at the head of a "courageous band" of men. Cutting down the Thebans, his troops played a key role in shattering the enemy line. Overwhelmed, the remaining Thebans were forced to flee the field.

Aftermath:

As with most battles in this period casualties for Chaeronea are not known with certainty. Sources indicate that Macedonian losses were high, and that over 1,000 Athenians were killed with another 2,000 captured. The Sacred Band lost 254 killed, while the remaining 46 were wounded and captured. While the defeat badly damaged Athens' forces, it effectively destroyed the Theban army. Impressed with the Sacred Band's courage, Philip allowed the statue of a lion to be erected on the site to commemorate their sacrifice.

With victory secured, Philip dispatched Alexander to Athens to negotiate a peace. In return for terminating hostilities and sparing the cities that had fought against him, Philip demanded pledges of allegiance as well as money and men for his planned invasion of Persia. Essentially defenseless and stunned by Philip's generosity, Athens and the other city-states quickly agreed to his terms. The victory at Chaeronea effectively reestablished Macedonian hegemony over Greece and led to the formation of the League of Corinth.

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