Battle of Chaeronea

The Battle of Chaeronea resulted in a Macedonian victory that heralded the dawn of the Hellenistic age.

Summary of Event

The Peloponnesian War (431-404 b.c.e.) ended Athens’ hegemony in Greece and marked the beginning of Spartan dominance. The result was the outbreak of new destructive wars aimed at the overthrow of Sparta. At the Battle of Leuctra in 371 b.c.e., the Thebans, allies of Athens, inflicted a decisive defeat on the Spartans, and Greece passed to the hegemony of Thebes. This hegemony proved to be exceedingly short-lived. Athens changed sides and, in concert with Sparta and other states, overcame Thebes in the closely fought Battle of Mantinea in 362 b.c.e. Meanwhile, Athens had revived the Delian confederacy, but most of its allies successfully revolted against Athens in the Social War of 357-355, and Athenian power was badly shaken. Alexander the Great
Demosthenes (c. 384- 322 b.c.e.)
Philip II of Macedonia

Men who participated in these unsuccessful wars for the hegemony of Greece called out for relief from conflict. Understanding the vital necessity for escaping continual competition and bloodshed, the Athenian Isocrates advocated the unification of Greece under the leadership of a strong state with a strong ruler. Demosthenes of Athens dreamed of an Athens revitalized culturally and militarily and preeminent in Greece. The philosopher Plato hoped for government by philosophers.

A more likely savior than one of Plato’s scholars appeared in Philip II of Macedonia, who began his reign in 359 b.c.e. He set about to Hellenize and modernize Macedonia with ingenuity and energy. He brought the factious nobility of his country to heel and taught them to serve him with heavy cavalry. He also created a phalanx better drilled and more effective than that of the Greeks. His army was of professional quality, far superior to the citizen militias or hired mercenaries that made up the bulk of the armies of the Hellenic cities. The Macedonian army was, moreover, supported by efficient financial institutions. Philip intended to establish his own hegemony over Greece, although he wished it to be merciful and enlightened. In the 340’s, he began to penetrate southward through Thessaly. The principal Greek states of Athens, Sparta, and Thebes, distracted by their own perpetual feuds and weakened by their precarious fiscal circumstances, only halfheartedly resisted Philip.

In 340 b.c.e., the decisive war broke out between Macedonia and the Greeks. In August of 338 b.c.e., the Macedonian army of two thousand cavalry and thirty thousand infantry came face to face with the united Greek armies of weak cavalry and thirty-five thousand infantry near the small town of Chaeronea in northwestern Boeotia. The Greeks deployed with their right flank near a small stream; it was held by twelve thousand Thebans and Boeotians. The center was composed of various allies from central Greece and the Peloponnesus, and the left was made up of ten thousand Athenians. The Greek phalanx was to make its usual straightforward attack, hoping to crush the enemy by the weight of its charge. On the other side, Philip was a master of more subtle tactics, combining the use of cavalry and infantry. His own left, opposite the Thebans, was headed by his cavalry, which was to thrust itself into a gap to be made in the Greek line. The gap would be opened by luring the Athenians into charging Philip’s own right as it purposefully drew back in pretended retreat.

The battle was probably fought on August 2, 338 b.c.e., and everything went according to Philip’s plan. The Athenians rushed forward, shouting “On to Pella!” (the capital of Macedonia), and when the Greek center and the Theban left moved obliquely to keep in close ranks, a hole opened in the Theban line. Led by the eighteen-year-old crown prince Alexander, the Macedonian heavy cavalry charged into this gap in wedge formation. They were followed by crack formations of infantry, which attacked the flanks on either side of the gap. The Thebans, after heroic resistance, were beaten; the Greek center and left, panic-stricken, broke and ran. The result was a decisive victory for Philip.

During the next few weeks, the Greek states surrendered one after the other. In 337 b.c.e., Philip organized them into a Hellenic League with its seat at Corinth. He served as president of the league, and members were forced to follow his foreign policy. Wars among them were forbidden, as was internal constitutional change except by constitutional methods. Philip’s intentions were to secure a tranquil and contented Greece as the necessary first step in his new plan to liberate the Greeks of Asia Minor from the Persian Empire.


The Battle of Chaeronea was the great event that destroyed the sovereignty of the Greek states. There was a revolt against Macedonia in 323-321 b.c.e. called the Lamian War, and several more occurred in the third century b.c.e., bringing temporary freedom. Nevertheless, the old, unbridled parochialism and imperialism of Athens, Sparta, and Thebes was extinguished.

Further Reading

  • Borza, Eugene N. Before Alexander: Constructing Early Macedonia. Publications of the Association of Ancient Historians 6. Claremont, Calif.: Regina Books, 1999. An excellent update on recent scholarship on Philip II and early Macedonia.
  • Bradford, Alfred S., ed. and trans. Philip II of Macedon. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1992. A lavishly illustrated biography of Philip with its texts drawn from ancient sources. Also includes a good set of maps.
  • Cawkwell, George. Philip of Macedon. Boston: Faber & Faber, 1978. A good biographical introduction to Philip II and the events leading up to the Battle of Chaeronea; intended for the general reader.
  • Hammond, Nicholas. Philip of Macedon. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994. Includes extensive information on the Battle of Chaeronea and valuable bibliographic references.
  • Hatzopoulos, Miltiades B., and Louisa D. Loukopulos, eds. Philip of Macedon. Athens, Greece: Ekdotike Athenon, 1980. An overview of the historical, cultural, and military aspects of Philip II’s reign. Includes maps that are particularly useful in illustrating the background to the Battle of Chaeronea.
  • Montgomery, Hugo. The Way to Chaeronea. New York: Columbia University Press, 1983. Primarily focusing on Demosthenes’ role before the Battle of Chaeronea, this work provides a thorough analysis of Athenian foreign policy in the period before Philip’s conquest.

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Alexander the Great; Philip II of Macedonia. Chaeronea, Battle of (338 b.c.e.)