In ancient Greece two names epitomise power and prestige more than any other: Alexander and Athens.
Alexander III of Macedon, better known as Alexandros Megas, ‘the Great’, conquered the mighty Persian Empire and forged an empire stretching from Epirus to the Indus Valley.
Athens meanwhile was the ‘home of democracy’ and the mother city to several of history’s most significant figures: Miltiades, Aristophanes and Demosthenes to name just three.
Yet when these two titans of antiquity first collided, it would be on opposing sides of battle.
Athens had enjoyed the prime of its power during the fifth century BC – following their immortalised victories in the Persian Wars at Marathon and Salamis.
In the aftermath of the Persian expulsion, the city had become the centre of a dominant Aegean Empire. Militarily Athens’ power at sea was unmatched; culturally too it was a leading light of Hellenism.
By 338 BC however, things had changed; Athens no longer had hegemony in the central Mediterranean. That title now resided with a northern neighbour: Macedonia.
The rise of Macedonia
Before 359 BC Macedonia was a backward kingdom, rife with instability. Countless barbarian raids from warlike tribes surrounding the region – Illyrian, Paeonian and Thracian – had taken its toll.
Yet things started changing when Philip II ascended the throne in 359 BC. Having reformed the army, Philip transformed his kingdom from a backward, barbarian infested domain, into a leading power.
Thrace, Illyria, Paeonia, Thessaly and the powerful prestigious Greek cities on the Chalkidike peninsula all fell to Philip’s forces within twenty years of his accession. He then turned his eyes south, to the most famous Greek cities of history: Athens, Corinth and Thebes.
These cities had no intention of submitting to Philip. Encouraged by the highly-influential demagogue Demosthenes – a severe critic of the Macedonian warlord – they amassed an army to fight Philip.
On 4 August 338 BC their forces clashed near Chaeronea in Boeotia.
The Athenian and Theban-led coalition of Greek cities consisted overwhelmingly of hoplites – heavy infantrymen wielding spear and shield, trained to fight in tight-knit formations called phalanxes.
Among their number was an elite Theban unit of 300 professional soldiers: the Sacred Band. The force had been formed in the 370s to provide the Theban army a unit that could compete with the famous Spartan warriors.
The subsequent Theban successes against the Spartans at Leuctra and Mantinea allowed Thebes to take Sparta’s place as the hegemonic city in Greece and the Sacred Band as the hegemonic force.
According to Plutarch, some claimed the 300 members of this elite band consisted of 150 pairs of homosexual lovers:
For tribesmen and clansmen make little account of tribesmen and clansmen in times of danger; whereas, a band that is held together by the friendship between lovers is indissoluble and not to be broken…and both stand firm in danger to protect each other.
By 338 BC, the Theban Sacred Band had gained a remarkable reputation. Their role would be critical in the upcoming battle.
Similar to the army of the Greek city-states, Philip’s army centred around infantry trained to fight in tight phalanxes. The difference, however, was that Philip’s army consisted of soldiers wielding 4-6 metre long pikes called sarissae.
These men were instructed in a revolutionary style of warfare: the Macedonian Phalanx. They were the nucleus of Philip’s reformed, modern army.
To oppose the Greek centre, consisting largely of Theban and Athenian citizen hoplites, Philip deployed his Macedonian phalanx, supported by light infantry including archers and expert javelinmen.
Dealing with the Sacred Band
Philip knew his foe’s greatest strength was the formidable Sacred Band. Yet to counter this, the Macedonian leader had a plan.
Opposing the Sacred Band, who were positioned on the furthest right of the coalition line – their flank protected by the Kephisos River – Philip placed his son Alexander at the head of the Macedonians’ own elite unit. His task: to crush the Sacred Band.
According to Diodorus, this elite Macedonian unit were the ‘Companions,’ the Macedonian heavy cavalrymen that would go on to play a crucial role in Alexander’s famous victories.
Yet there are problems with this interpretation. The Theban Sacred Band were the best trained company of heavy spearmen in the known world; their ability to form a brazen mass of spears and shields would deter any cavalry charge.
No matter how good their training, cavalry will never charge into such a formation unless a path through is visible.
It seems dubious that Philip provided his son horsemen to aid him in the vital task of defeating the most formidable anti-cavalry force in the world.
The alternative theory
Among the Macedonian pikemen was an elite unit that Philip had modelled on the famous Theban Sacred Band: full-time professionals and the kingdom’s greatest warriors.
The unit was called the Pezhetairoi or ‘Foot Companions.’ Later this name would encompass almost all the Macedonian heavy phalanx infantry. Yet during Philip’s reign this title referred only to an elite company.
What thus seems more logical is that Alexander commanded the Foot Companions at Chaeronea – the men best suited to destroying the Greek coalition’s greatest threat.
The Battle of Chaeronea
Details of the ensuing battle are vague, but we know Alexander successfully defeated the opposing Sacred Band with his force. The effect this had on the already-deflated Theban and Athenian morale was shattering; a complete rout of the Greek city-state army swiftly followed – Demosthenes among those who fled.
The victory was decisive. More than a thousand Athenians and Boeotians fell in the battle and no less than two thousand were captured.
As for the Sacred Band, Alexander and his elite troops annihilated the unit. According to the later biographer Plutarch, who hailed from Chaeronea, all 300 members perished.
At the battle site today a lion monument still stands, under which archaeologists discovered 254 skeletons. Many believe they are the remains of the Theban Sacred Band.
The elite unit was never reformed following the battle; its 35-year hegemony as the most formidable force in Europe ended. That title now belonged to Philip’s Macedonians.
Athens and Thebes surrendered soon after news of the defeat reached them. Philip showed relative leniency to the defeated parties, keen to gain their support for his planned invasion of Persia.
He formed the League of Corinth – a new federation of Greek city-states – with himself as hegemon, military leader; Athens, Thebes and the other recently-subjugated cities swore their allegiance and promised to aid Philip in his ‘war of revenge’ against Persia, providing both personnel and provisions to the Macedonian army.
Thus Athens, Thebes, Corinth and many other famous poleis came under the Macedonian yoke – a baptism of fire. But deep-felt longings to regain lost liberty and prestige remained for many years.
When Philip was suddenly assassinated in 336 BC, barely two years after Chaeronea, his successor Alexander faced a daunting task to keep these cities in line – something he was sure to face with an iron fist.