The Rise of Macedon and The Battle of Chaeronea

By Dugit

The Rise of Macedon

In 359 BC, Philip II became the King of Makedonia, and immediately began a series of reforms both to the Makedonian economy and army. The reforms to the army itself became the most instrumental to the rise of Makedonia, helping her eventually secure Greece. Philip effectively applied the reforms made by Iphicrates of Athens and vastly improved upon them. The first notable reform was reorganizing and re-equipping the adopted Hoplitai. The xyston, which was originally wielded over-hand, was now replaced by the sarissa, a circa 15′ long spear, that now required not only the use of under-hand thrusts but also the use of two hands to keep the balance. The new Phalangitai were given the lighter linen cuirass as opposed to the original bronze or iron cuirass, and were given a new helmet that allowed for better view and head mobility, modeled on the Phrygian cap. This new infantry line was rearranged into the newer phalanx formation, a continuation of the phalanx reform begun by Iphicrates, with the first two or three lines with their spears horizontal with the next rows with successively raised spears, to both disavow cavalry charges and to deflect missile fire. This made them impervious from the front, but more- vulnerable from the sides and rear. They were arranged into syntagma, units of 256 (16 men by 16) that made the phalanx relatively more flexible than the Hoplitai line. This allowed the Phalangitai to form up into other formations to fit the battlefield and the enemy, such as the echelon, and many other wedges and crescents.

As Makedonia was constantly in conflict with the Illyrian, Moesian and Thracian tribes, it was inevitable that Philip would adopt their sub-system of a larger and more organized cavalry force, that allowed for greater mobility in an army. Philip organized what mercenaries he could find, chiefly those from Thessaly, Epirus and almost certainly barbarian mercenaries, and reformed them into the main Makedonian cavalry force. They were equipped with xystons to allow for a maximum impact on charge. Most riders wore a Boeotian helmet, and a bronze or possibly linen cuirass. The elite cavalry were also organized, into the Makedonian Royal Guard- the Companion Cavalry, or the Hetairoi. A detachment of the Hetairoi guarded Philip (and later Alexander), by the name of the Hetairoi Somatophylakes, the addition derived from the peninsular Greek name for a basileus’ bodyguard. Of course, in Makedonia, there was no shortage of cavalry (a vastly different story compared to the peninsular Greeks), allowing the efficient idealism to come to life, and remain so. To guard the flanks of a phalanx, especially when the cavalry where engaged elsewhere, the Hypaspistai were employed. Unlike with the cavalry and the phalangites, it is unclear if there was a uniform equipment and combat strategy, although it is certain that they were an elite force, usually employed at the position of honor on the phalanx- the right side, and kept the hoplon shield (concurrently, it seems that some Hypaspistai may also have adhered to the Hoplite combat strategy also, or may have been colonial Hoplites in the first place). The Hypaspistai derived their name from the Greek for shield, ‘aspis’.

Also becoming prominent in the peninsular conflicts was the Peltast. Philip subsequently employed them to a much greater volume than ever before, and began equipping them to fight effectively in hand-to-hand along with skirmishing, by giving them large shields (the thureos) and proper Hoplite swords. They became known later as the Thureophoroi. This reform was already happening in Greece. Although Philip did indeed employ archers, he did not do so in large volumes, like the Persians did. It seems the vast majority of Philip’s archers came from the peasantry class (where most were experienced hunters, and could use a bow effectively), or from Crete. Later on in the reforms, the Toxotes (mostly those of the peasantry class) would be equipped with lances also, to combat the threat of cavalry destroying them- they became known as the Akrobalos. All these changes would not have come to pass if Philip had not spent a large portion of his young adulthood in Thebes, studying philosophy and warfare.

Brewing Conflict

However, Philip was not without rivalry or political obstacle. Philip’s arch nemesis in Greek politics soon became the Athenian orator, Demosthenes. He saw who Philip really was- a man with an overpowering ambition to conquer Greece, a move which could only be thwarted by the native Greeks through unification. Even so, this would be very difficult to achieve, since a large number of Greek states were now militarily paralyzed, due to prior conflict, such as the Peloponnesian War. Furthermore, Athens was ripe for the taking in any case: it had already been sanctioned by Sparta after the Peloponnesian war, and it spent surprisingly little on defense, as the Athenian government’s main expenditure was the theoric fund, which involved the execution of civil duties and events, leaving little of the tax income for defense. Between 352 BCE and 338 BCE, the two sparred with each other constantly, each gaining and losing allies as time passed. In 346 BCE, Makedonia captured the province of Phocis, and thus was able to assume its place on the Amphictyonic council- a “UN” of ancient Greece that chiefly dealt with religious affairs (Makedonians mostly revered Greek gods).

The flash point came to pass in the form of the rebellious city of Amphissa, in Locris. They charged Athens with sacrilegious acts; they supported Philip, seeing him as a man who could unite Greece against a common enemy- Persia. Athens, however, implored that Amphissa had committed greater sacrilegious offenses than the Locrians had, and the Amphictyonic council agreed. Athens realized it had gone too far. Not only, in an Athenian incursion against Locris, would Makedon find its way into conflict with Athens, but so would Thebes, a long standing rival of Athens and friend to Amphissa. Athens called off the incursion. Even so, the Amphictyonic council in early 339 BCE, demanded such an incursion, and allowed the order to follow through, especially as the Athenians did not attend the meeting. The incursion failed, and the Amphictyonics (minus Athens) appealed to Philip to serve up the punishment to Amphissa. Demosthenes, however, was contemplating an alliance with Thebes, as relations between Thebes and Makedonia had never been strong, and at this point were wavering. Both Philip and Demosthenes realized that showdown was inevitable. When Philip marched the Makedonian Grand Army into central Greece, Thebes responded to a powerful oration from Demosthenes, and joined Athens against this invader. Demosthenes promised the full commitment of the Athenian navy, Theban command of the land forces, and for Athens to pay for two-thirds of the war.

Philip’s army, at first, marched towards Amphissa, as if they were actually going to enforce the Amphictyonic council’s mandate. But after capturing Cytinium, they turned east to Elateia. This put pressure on Thebes without actually entering Boeotia, and allowed an efficient means of communication with the homelands. Philip then halted at Elateia and awaited developments. Demosthenes immediately began persuading the Athenian council to dip into the theoric fund to raise an army, and successfully exited Athens with a small but considerable force. They march north and were stationed at every mountain pass to guard against potential Makedonian incursions, especially the Parapotamii and the Gravia passes, and successfully held them against probes for the winter of 339-338 BCE. Although the success was but minor, it did well for the Athenian and Theban morale. However, eventually the probing died down, but the Allies continued to hold the passes. It soon became clear that keeping amicable relations between Athenians, Thebans and assorted mercenaries would become impossible, and both the army and the commanders became restless. A waiting game favored the Allies, but such was not to their temperament.

Philip began to spread rumors of his retreat, and even allowed a letter to that effect to fall into enemy hands. To further this facade, he withdrew his troops from Cytinium, after which the mercenary force near Amphissa lowered its guard. Philip destroyed them in a night attack, and took Amphissa, and then Naupactos, which he turned over to his allies, the Aetolians. Philip had now secured the gulf, and could now receive reinforcements from his Peleponnesian allies. Philip was now in a position to strike at the Parapotamii pass. Although Philip offered peace, Demosthenes convinced the allies to remain steadfast. Eventually the allied army at Parapotamii drew back to the plain of Chaeronea, to combat any Makedonian attempt of catching them in a pincer. Philip re-collated his forces and marched through the Parapotamii. He met the Greeks at Chaeronea, under the commanders Stratocles, Lysicles, and Chares for the Athenian contingent, and Theagenes for the Theban contingent.

The Battle of Chaeronea

The Greeks deployed about a mile wide, with their left flank anchored on Mount Petrachos, upon which the town of Chaeroneia was situated. On their right was Mount Acontion and the Cephissus River. The streams Haemon and Marius flowed along their front and rear respectively. The left segment of the line was occupied by the Athenian contingent, with 10,000 Athenian Hoplitai and 600 Ippiko cavalry. The right segment of the line was occupied by the Theban contingent, with 12,000 Theban Hoplitai and 600 Ippiko cavalry, with a further 200 cavalry as private mercenaries from surrounding territories, such as Thessaly. A further 14,000 mercenary Hoplitai and 600 mercenary cavalry filled out the ranks of Athens and Thebes. The key allied fighting unit was the Theban Sacred Band, 150 pairs of homosexual lovers that had been the elite of the Theban army for decades. At this stage, they were arguably the most elite force in Greece, having bested the Spartans at Leuktra decades earlier. They were stationed at the far right flank. Thus, the allied force numbered circa 36,000 infantry and 2,000 cavalry.

Philip’s army arrayed itself directly opposite the Greek line, coming to the field with 30,000 Phalangites, Hypaspists, and skirmisher infantry, and 2,000 cavalry, the majority of which were commanded by Philip’s son, Alexander, on the left wing. These were the Companion Cavalry. The 18-year-old Alexander commanded the left wing of the Makedonian army, opposite the Thebans, whilst Philip commanded the right, opposite the Athenians. Philip followed the tactics of Epaminondas of Thebes, in that he also employed the echelon, or “refused left” tactic. The most hotly contested part of the plain was indeed between the Companion Cavalry and the Theban Sacred Band; the Thebans were slowly being pushed back, as unfortunately, the Athenians were pushing the Makedonians back on the right. It is unknown whether this was ruse on Philip’s behalf, or indeed the weight and skill of the Athenians. Either way, the advancing Athenians became tired when under the blindfold of euphoria (in what they saw as victory), as the “retreating” Makedonian syntagma, due to their flexibility, were able to easily reform and exploit the new-found faults in the Athenian lines. The Athenians were tired; Philip’s veterans were not.

The Athenians broke, and the Theban flank, even the Sacred Band, was beginning to buckle, when Alexander made a breakthrough and put the Hoplitai line into disarray. As the Athenians had advanced, they had lost their escape route- the Para-Petrachos pass to Coroneia, a rocky and uneven road where the Makedonian cavalry would be unable to operate. At this stage, however, Mount Petrachos itself was at their backs. Without the Athenians to bolster the Theban wing, Alexander wheeled round from the left to completely encircle the allied force. 1,000 Athenians died with a further 2,000 captured; the Theban army suffered similar losses. 254 of the Sacred Band were dead; 46 wounded and captured. The mercenaries also suffered similar losses, and many were captured, but no further repercussions took place, and most of the captured mercenaries were able to return to their home polis. Many, however, switched allegiance to Philip, and assisted him in his further campaigns.


Although it seems like history written by the winner, Philip seems to have been remarkably generous to the Athenian prisoners after the battle, and let the majority return to Athens. Philip secured peninsular Greece, and oversaw the creation of the Corinthian League, with which he would use to attack the real enemy of Greece, Persia. Each member pledged resources, money and troops. Until the Romans would invade, centuries later, the Corinthian League remained the most stable political body to ever grace Greece. Knowing how restless the unified cities would become, Philip and later Alexander always kept representatives and troops in Greece to keep any city state from reasserting their dominance. With this firm foothold, Philip began to make plans of an attack on Persia, but was assassinated in 336 BCE, whereupon his son Alexander took over, and would continue his father’s plans of an attack on Persia. By Alexander’s death in 323 BCE, Anatolia, Syria, Egypt, Mesopotamia, and all the way east to India and Baktria, the new concept of Hellenism would rein supreme for centuries, and would herald a legacy that would last millennia.


Paul K. Davis, 100 Decisive Battles: From Ancient Times to the Present