This Battle Paved The Way for Alexander the Great’s Incredible Career

This Battle Paved The Way for Alexander the Great’s Incredible Career

Patrick Lynch - April 14, 2018

While Alexander the Great is widely regarded as one of the greatest military commanders in history, his father, Phillip II of Macedon, is arguably underrated as he continues to stand in the long shadow of his son. The Battle of Chaeronea is often said to be the beginning of Alexander’s career because it was the first time he played a significant role in a conflict. Although he was just 18 years of age, Alexander had won his father’s confidence to the point where he was given command of one of the Macedonian army’s two wings.

At Chaeronea, Alexander was de facto second in command but the battle was all about Phillip’s planning, patience, and tactical brilliance. It was also a masterpiece of innovation. Before Chaeronea, Greek generals fought at the front. While it was good for morale, it was less effective in the heat of battle because the general was no longer able to maintain control over the army. Phillip was the first Greek commander to stay away from the thick of the fighting; a tactic that enabled him to coordinate his forces, something he did brilliantly at Chaeronea.

This Battle Paved The Way for Alexander the Great’s Incredible Career
Philip II of Macedon – Famous People

Background to Chaeronea

Phillip II of Macedon came to power in 359 BC and was in charge at a time when his country was a weak military force. He gradually created an extraordinary fighting machine which was inherited by Alexander. Phillip’s army was based on the Sacred Band of Thebes and was comprised of professional soldiers rather than citizen troops. He also altered the antiquated phalanx defense, replaced the hoplite spear with a long pike known as a sarissa and added a double-edged sword called a xiphos to proceedings. Phillip even improved the helmets and shields of his army.

Phillip soon defeated the Thracians up north and showed the Athenians that his reformed army was a major threat. From 352 BC onward, Phillip was at odds with Athens and captured several Greek cities including Crenides, Methone, and Olynthus. These conquests impacted the Athenian grain supply so the city actively sought out allies to help them deal with Phillip. Thebes was a traditional enemy but Athens reminded their old foes that their geographical position meant they would fall to Phillip first. Meanwhile, Thebes requested assistance from Persia, a nation that shared a mutual dislike of Phillip.

This Battle Paved The Way for Alexander the Great’s Incredible Career
Tactics at the Battle of Chaeronea 338 BC – Beasts of War

By 339 BC, it was clear that Athens and Thebes had no choice but to fight a pitched battle with Phillip and Demosthenes, one of Athens’ most gifted orators, managed to persuade his fellow citizens to fight the Macedonians and seek Thebes’ temporary assistance in doing so. He spoke of the Greek victory over the Persians at Marathon and used it as ‘proof’ that Athens could easily defeat the northern invaders. Demosthenes spoke with the Thebans and ultimately helped win a vote for an alliance.

His cause was helped by the fact that Phillip and an army of 30,000 men were already only a few days march from Athens. The Macedonians were in the area helping the Delphic Amphictyony fight against Amphissa during the Fourth Sacred War. Phillip tried to gain an alliance with Thebes but the city-state sided with Athens after receiving a very generous offer from its increasingly desperate traditional foe. There were a couple of skirmishes during the winter of 339/338 BC, but it would be several months before real fighting broke out.

This Battle Paved The Way for Alexander the Great’s Incredible Career
Philip II of Macedon Statue in Skopje – Balkan Insight

The Trickery of Phillip

Phillip was a commander that left nothing to chance and passed up the opportunity to attack in the spring of 338 BC. This is despite having an army with vast combat experience facing an enemy filled with troops that had never seen the battlefield including Demosthenes. Even so, Phillip used brain over brawn and tricked his enemies with a fake letter to one of his most prominent generals, Antipater. In it, Philip wrote that he was going to rush to Thrace to deal with a revolt there.

He ensured that his courier was captured and the letter seized. The allied commanders of the mercenaries guarding the crucial pass to Amphissa, Chares and Proxenus, believed the contents of the letter and relaxed their guard. When Phillip sent scouts to the pass, he found that it was deserted and burst through. The enemy generals reacted too late and were unable to hold off the enemy. There is some doubt over the veracity of this account because it is the same ruse Philip used during the siege of Byzantium. The odds of an experienced commander like Chares, who was also at Byzantium, falling for the same trick twice are long. Even so, Philip did manage to get through the pass and forced his enemies to retreat to Chaeronea.

This Battle Paved The Way for Alexander the Great’s Incredible Career
Tactics at the Battle of Chaeronea 338 BC – Vis Lardica

The Greek Allied Forces Pay for Their Naivety

Plutarch’s account of the battle suggests that it took place in early August 338 BC as Philip brought 30,000 men to the field. The Greek alliance had a similar number of troops but they had never fought together before. According to Diodorus, Alexander was placed on one wing, possibly the left, with Philip on the right. In contrast to the well-oiled Macedonian machine, the alliance had several commanders including Chares, who was one of the Athenian side’s generals, and Theaganes, who led the Thebans.

Although accounts vary, it is believed that the Athenians occupied the left wing, the Thebans were on the right, and a group of assorted allies was in the middle. This means Alexander faced off against the Thebans while Philip was up against the Athenians. According to Plutarch’s Life of Alexander, the young lion was the first to charge against the Theban Sacred Band, an act of bravery that greatly pleased Philip. The Athenians attacked Philip and were utterly fooled by his decision to order an apparent retreat. In reality, he was luring the enemy into a trap and the inexperienced Athenian army fell for it.

The Athenians marched forward and were joined by their allies in the center. It was a critical blunder because there was now a clear gap between the Athenians & allies, and the Theban army. Alexander, who was given sole command of the cavalry, spotted the gap and immediately charged into it. Alexander’s men attacked the rear and flank of the Thebans who were suddenly in serious danger. The Battle of Chaeronea had raged for several hours but for one side, total defeat was imminent.

This Battle Paved The Way for Alexander the Great’s Incredible Career
Tactics at the Battle of Chaeronea 338 BC – Wikimedia Commons

Philip Crushes Athens & Thebes at Chaeronea

The Athenian army was already in grave danger after falling into the Macedonian trap but its fate was sealed the defection of its allies in the center. Meanwhile, Alexander’s cavalry surrounded the Theban Sacred Band and utterly obliterated it. The legendary Band was apparently wiped out at Chaeronea and buried under a stone lion. If you’re a tourist in the area, you can visit the lion which still exists across from a modern road.

On the other flank, Philip refrained from launching his major attack until the enemy was exhausted. Once he ordered a general advance, the Athenian army fell apart, panicked, and retreated. Sources suggest that the allied forces lost 12,000 men, 4,000 died and 8,000 were captured. It was a devastating defeat for Athens and its allies as the Battle of Chaeronea confirmed Macedon’s position as the most powerful Greek state. After Chaeronea, Philip gathered the bodies for burial, offered sacrifices to the gods to thank them for the victory, and honored the fallen men who had fought bravely. It was the beginning of Alexander’s military career, and close to the end of Philip’s.

This Battle Paved The Way for Alexander the Great’s Incredible Career
Map of Macedonian Empire upon death of Philip II in 336 BC – Wikipedia

Like Father, Like Son

The relationship between Philip and Alexander began to crumble in the aftermath of Chaeronea. The precise reason is unknown although the king’s decision to marry Cleopatra, a lady from a high-ranking Macedonian family, was likely the main reason. Alexander was possibly jealous that his father could finally sire a male heir with his young wife. Plutarch wrote about the drunken altercation between Alexander and Philip at the wedding where Alexander supposedly said “Villain, do you consider me to be a bastard?” The king allegedly drew his sword to confront his son but drunkenly fell over.

Soon after the wedding, the royal court gathered at Aegae to celebrate it. In October 336 BC, Philip was murdered by Pausanias of Orestis who was one of his bodyguards. Pausanias was killed by three of his fellow bodyguards as he tried to escape the scene. Although Alexander was the main beneficiary of the crime, there is no evidence that he was involved in the plot. Whatever the reason, it was an assassination that changed history because as the king, Alexander began a series of military campaigns which have had few equals.

Meanwhile, Philip remains a somewhat underrated general. His victory at the Battle of Chaeronea was a tactical masterpiece because of his positioning on the battlefield. Instead of being preoccupied with fighting, Philip was able to coordinate the movement of his light infantry and phalanx while keeping an eye on his son and cavalry. He was legitimately one of the best commanders of the ancient world and his son Alexander derived the greatest benefit. While Alexander was a magnificent leader, his father’s hard work paved the way. By the time the young legend became king, he had benefited from a well-drilled, battle-hardened army with excellent equipment; he also had the help of brilliant generals such as Parmenion.


Where Do We Get This Stuff? Here is a List of Our Sources

“Philosopher Prince to Islamic Prophet: 9 Surprising Legends About Alexander the Great”. Alexander Meddings, History Collection, October 22, 2017.

“Philip II of Macedonia: Greater Than Alexander.” Richard A. Gabriel. Potomac Books, 2010.

“Alexander the Great: Selections from Arrian, Diodorus, Plutarch, and Quintus Curtius.” Edited by James S. Romm and Pamela Mensch. Hackett Publishing Company, Inc, 2005.

“1001 Battles that Changed the Course of History.” R. G. Grant. Chartwell Books, 2011.

“Battle of Chaeronea.” Donald L. Wasson in Ancient History Encyclopedia. September, 2009.