Five Ancient Battles That Changed The World: Chaeronea

November 3, 2014 by crew

The repulsion of Xerxes’ invasion of Greece in 479BC ushered in a golden age for the Greek city-states. Athens and Sparta contended for domination for much of the fifth century, ultimately fighting a protracted war which culminated in the surrender of Athens in 404. Sparta then enjoyed several decades of uncontested dominance, but its hegemony hid a slow decline which was brutally exposed in 371 by the brilliant Theban general, Epaminondas. He again defeated a Spartan army in 362, but his death in the battle brought an end to a decade of Theban dominance in Greece.

Greece 431 BC

The Battle Of Chaeronea

Situated in the north-east Aegean, the kingdom of Macedon had been a decidedly minor player in Greek affairs throughout this period. Macedon was seen by the Greeks to the south as a backward country of uncouth tribesmen, and it was ruled by a monarchy characterised by intrigue and infighting. The period of Theban dominance had been a particularly tumultuous time for the Macedonian monarchy, and as security for its good behaviour, the youngest brother of the ruling dynasty was taken hostage by Thebes in 368. Philip was just fourteen when he arrived in Thebes, eighteen when he left, and by the age of 23 had himself become king of Macedon when he was appointed regent to his six year-old nephew following the death of his brother in an ill-fated attempt to invade Illyria.

Bust of Philip

Philip wasted no time in securing the throne for himself, but he had inherited a precarious position. The Macedonian army had been severely weakened in Illyria, and Athens retained a strong interest in recovering access to gold mines in regions they had once controlled. Capturing control of the mines for himself, Philip used the wealth to institute a large, professional army, which he used to unify the various peoples who made up his kingdom.


Traditional hoplite warfare involved the meeting of two shallow lines of roughly equal width. The hoplite was armed with large shield and a two-metre long spear. Fielded closely together, the hoplite phalanx presented a strong shieldwall that was difficult to penetrate. The long spears then created a zone in front of the line into which several ranks of hoplites could attack at once. Drawing upon the military education he had received at Thebes, Philip fielded his troops in a deeper formation designed to attack the enemy line at a weak point. He replaced the spear with the five-metre long sarissa, which meant doing away with the shieldwall but allowed for many more ranks to attack an even deeper space in front of the line.

Macedonian Phalanx

As Philip was consolidating his position, the Third Sacred War broke out in central Greece in 356. At the instigation of Thebes, the Amphictyonic League, which controlled the sacred site of Delphi, imposed a large fine on Thebes’ rival, Phocis. The fine was so big that Phocis could not pay. The Phocians responded by seizing the treasures from the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, and used the money to field a large mercenary army against the league and its allies. Philip was drawn into the protracted conflict in 353 and suffered two defeats at the hands of the Phocians. A year later, he returned with a larger army and won a crushing victory.

Ruins of the Temple of Athena in Delphi

For the next six years, Philip stayed out of the war and extended his dominance of northern Greece. When he returned in 346, his armies were so powerful the Phocians surrendered rather than face them. The end of the war placed Athens in a difficult position and they too were forced to make peace with Philip. In just thirteen years, Philip had turned Macedon into the most powerful region of Greece.

Front View Of Phalanx

Greece 336 BC

The peace with Philip didn’t sit well with many in Athens and by the end of the decade they were openly flouting it. The final straw for Philip came in 339 when he was besieging the cities of Byzantium and Perinthus. The Athenians formed an alliance with Byzantium which hindered Philip’s ability to capture the city and weakened his standing in Greece. Philip decided to march south to deal with Athens once and for all. The Athenians responded by forming an alliance with Thebes. Many other Greek city-states joined them in the cause of freeing Greece from Macedonian hegemony. In August of 338, Philip marched his army directly towards to the allied Greek army, and they met near the city of Chaeronea with the fate of the Greeks on the line.


The Greek army took a strong defensive position with its left flank occupying higher ground in foothills, and its right anchored against a river. The Athenians anchored the left, the Thebans the right, with the allies in between. The Thebans fielded the Sacred Band, an elite unit of three hundred hoplites who were considered the finest warriors in Greece at the time. The line was arrayed obliquely with the left flank presented closer towards the Macedonian army. This presented Philip with a problem. If he chose to concentrate on that flank then he was fighting uphill, but if he attacked the right flank he was exposing the side of his line. Philip took command of the Macedonian right and placed his 18 year old son, Alexander, in command of the left.

Battle Plan

We are not blessed with reliable accounts of the battle itself, but from what we have it appears that Philip initially engaged the Athenians on the Greek left, but then withdrew. The Athenians took the bait and followed, abandoning their superior position and overextending their line. Philip routed them and at the same time, Alexander routed the Greek right. Casualties were low as is usual for hoplite battles; Athens and Thebes each lost approximately one thousand hoplites, but the Sacred Band was wiped out almost to a man.

Greek Left Flank Advances

The victory at Chaeronea ended the era of the independent Greek city-states and left Philip firmly in control of Greece. The Athenians braced themselves for a siege but Philip had bigger fish to fry. For most of the fourth century, the Greeks believed that the Persian Empire was weak and ready to fall. Rather than pressing his claim to rule the Greeks, he placed himself at the head of a federation of Greek city-states with the intention of conquering Persia. Before he could do so, he was assassinated, and the glory fell to Alexander. Had the allied Greek army held firm at Chaeronea, then Alexander may well have been a footnote in history, and the great Hellenistic kingdoms which gave way to the Roman Empire may never have arisen.

Wargaming Chaeronea

Chaeronea offers the wargamer the chance to field a veritable Who’s Who of ancient Greek warfare. It pits the hoplite phalanx against the Macedonian phalanx, puts Philip and Alexander on the field together, and features the clash of the Theban Sacred Band against the Macedonian companions. Alexander’s companions were an elite cavalry force that served as his main shock troops. It should be pointed out, though, that at Chaeronea, the companions are not mentioned as being mounted so it may be anachronistic to field them in the manner they were fielded in the conquest of Persia, but if you want to do it, knock yourself out!

Hail Caesar Macedonian Phalanx

One of my main criteria when selecting a battle for this series is that both sides could reasonably have been victorious. The Macedonian phalanx is considered so superior to its hoplite cousin that Philip’s victory may seem like a foregone conclusion. If the sources are to be believed, however, then the battle was a fierce one that lasted all day. The key to the Greek resistance will likely have been their strong defensive position so it is imperative that this translate to the gaming table, else most systems will offer the Macedonians an easy victory. The Greeks also did not need to engage Philip. He was the one who needed to defeat them so the Macedonian player cannot be allowed not to cross the battlefield and engage them.

Victrix Theban Hoplites

As usual with Greek battles, we hear little about light troops and cavalry. The best estimates put the Macedonian army at 30,000 infantry and 2,000 cavalry. We’re told the Greek army was bigger, though not by how much. It probably had little in the way of effective cavalry so I advise adding between 10-25% more infantry than the amount of Macedonian infantry that is fielded. Both sides would have some light infantry screening their lines, and there was probably some light cavalry on the flanks. The battle could degenerate into a grind, in which the two lines meet and fight in melee until one side breaks. To simulate Philip’s tactics, it may be worth adding rules which allow him to feign retreat to bring the Greek’s out of their position.

Read part one of this series:-  The Battle of Marathon

Ben Clapperton

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"Fielded closely together, the hoplite phalanx presented a strong shieldwall that was difficult to penetrate..."

"Chaeronea offers the wargamer the chance to field a veritable Who’s Who of ancient Greek warfare..."