The fled wonders: the battle of Chaeronea, 338 BC

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Last week, six of us refought the battle of Chaeronea (338 BC). In history it was the end of classical Greece. Their spear-armed hoplites (on the right in the first picture, the left in the second) were defeated by the sarissa-armed phalanxes of Philip II of Macedon, father of Alexander the Great.

In our battle Alexander was killed in the same rash cavalry charge that in reality swept away the Theban Sacred Band, on the Greeks’ right flank – with implications for the next bits of history! But the rest of the battle went the way of the records (and three of the four other refights I found on line). This makes sense. Sarissas are longer than spears, so the Macedonian phalanx can bring more ranks to bear when the two meet. The phalanxes need to go deep to take advantage of this. The hoplites could go wide and encircle them. But the width of this battlefield is limited by a river and a marsh on the Greek right flank, a town on the left, so the Greeks can’t take advantage of their extra width.

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Both armies have a smattering of light troops to occupy the broken terrain on each flank. If we fight this battle again I would let the Greeks hold their light troops back behind their hoplite line. After the Macedonians deploy, they could rush them all to one flank and try and win an outflanking victory there.

Patrick Leigh Fermor has this to say:

“The end of Athens at the battle of Chaeronea used to be the signal for Greek scholars to put back their books with a Milton quotation and a sigh. It was closing time. They forgot that Philip’s dishonest victory opened another lustrous age across the water; of course, a more garish one, a shade second-rate and not to be mentioned in the same breath as the fled wonders. But when the victor’s son, with all the East at heel, had led the defeated Greeks to Bactria and the Indies, who could blame their descendants for a certain vainglory? Alexander had founded cities as others throw coins; the language was universal; marble acanthus leaves opened in thousands above the dunes. Letters, poetry, all the arts and all the pleasures throve in the half-Oriental afternoon of the Ptolemies and the Seleucids.”

I’m with the Greek scholars. But I would still like to see the relics of the Bactrian Greek kingdoms that survived for hundreds of years in Afghanistan.

Published by

Paul Hodson

Head of Unit "EnergyEfficiency" at European Commission, Directorate-General for Energy

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