Battle of Chaeronea: Facts & Significance

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

There are a few major battles that changed the course of world history, and the Battle of Chaeronea is one of them. In this lesson, we'll look at this battle and the impact the aftermath had on the world.

Greek Wars

If you could travel 2,000 years back in time to the ancient Mediterranean and ask someone to tell you about the Greeks, they might seem a bit confused. What we call the civilization of Ancient Greece wasn't actually a single civilization at all. Instead of being a unified country, Greece was organized into independent city-states, with each city controlling its own little kingdom. Athens was its own city-state, as were Sparta, Thebes, and others. So, why do we talk about them as if they were unified? Eventually they were, but this unification did not come without tensions. Numerous battles were fought to unify Greece under a single leader. One of those battles, which would change the course of Western history, was the Battle of Chaeronea.

Background

Before we can get into the Battle of Chaeronea, we need a little bit of background. In the 4th century CE, the dominant powers of the Aegean were Athens, Sparta, and Thebes. These three cities had spent the last century fighting for power, sometimes as allies and sometimes as enemies.

Way up in the northern section of what is now Greece was another kingdom that was relatively unconcerned with all of this, called Macedon or Macedonia. Even when nearly all of the cities came together in alliance against Persian invaders, the Macedonians kept to themselves. However, they were brought quickly into Greek politics when Thebes invaded around 368 BCE during their wars against Athens. Amongst the Macedonians to be captured was a young prince named Philip. Philip was taken to Thebes, where he was educated by some of the greatest military minds and statesmen in the world. Roughly four years later, he returned to Macedon and was eventually crowned King Philip II in 359 BCE.

Philip II on a Macedonian coin
Philip II coin

The Rise of Macedon

Philip II was well aware that his kingdom was vulnerable to invasion, so he immediately moved to rebuild the military. He formed Macedon's first professional army, rather than one of citizen volunteers, and modeled it closely on the elite fighting force of Thebes. Philip also introduced new weapons, armor, and fighting techniques to Macedon.

Finally, Philip II was ready to test out his army, and did so by invading the northern Thracian tribes and kingdoms. His decisive victories announced to all of the Greek city-states that Macedon was no longer a passive bystander. It was a force to be reckoned with, and Philip embarked on a military campaign across northern Greece.

Athens Responds

Athens, which had long regarded the Macedonians as uncivilized savages unfit for Greek politics, did not take this news lightly. They became more and more concerned as Macedonian power increased, and tensions broke after Macedonian troops sieved a supply train heading to Athens. Athens prepared for war with Macedon, and began allying other cities to its cause around 339 BCE. Even Thebes, long-time rival of Athens, joined the alliance for fear of how quickly Philip was moving across Greece.

Athens and Thebes started closely guarding the mountain passes around the Gulf of Corinth, and Philip was unable to get through. By 338 BCE, however, the Athenians and Thebans were starting to get on each other's nerves and were tired of holding this one spot. Philip started a rumor that the Macedonians were going to give up and return to Macedon, then started withdrawing his troops. The Athenians let their guard down, and Philip turned his army, sweeping through the mountains and capturing the last major cities between him and the actual cities of Athens and Thebes. He offered a peace treaty, which Athens and Thebes refused, and the cities prepared for one final battle.

The Battle of Chaeronea

The Athenians and Thebans prepared to meet Philip outside of a town called Chaeronea. Athens brought roughly 10,000 foot soldiers, Thebes brought another 12,000 and each had several hundred cavalry units. Macedon's army included 30,000 foot soldiers and around 3,000 cavalry. This was going to be a substantial battle.

Battle of Chaeronea
Battle Order

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