Did Alexander command the PHALANX at Chaeronea?

This moderated forum is for discussion of Alexander the Great. Inappropriate posts will be deleted without warning. Examples of inappropriate posts are:
* The Greek/Macedonian debate
* Blatant requests for pre-written assignments by lazy students - we don't mind the subtle ones ;-)
* Foul or inappropriate language

Moderator: pothos moderators

Hetairos (companion)
Posts: 720
Joined: Thu Nov 26, 2009 11:16 am

Re: Did Alexander command the PHALANX at Chaeronea?

Post by Alexias »

Just as an aside, I came across this description of Alexander using cavalry against infantry in Arrian when he was fighting the Triballians:
The main body of infantry, preceded by the rest of his cavalry , he led against the enemy centre.

The Triballians held their own while the fighting was at long range; but once they felt the weight and drive of the Macedonian infantry in close order, and the cavalry, instead of shooting at them, had begun actually to ride them down in a fierce assault all over the field, they broke and ran in an endeavour to make their escape through the wood to the river.
User avatar
Posts: 14
Joined: Sun Jun 11, 2017 11:25 pm

Re: Did Alexander command the PHALANX at Chaeronea?

Post by SpartanJKM »


An interesting new book just came out (November of 2019), titled New Approaches to Greek and Roman Warfare (edited by one Lee L. Brice); it’s a compilation of essays from various scientific specialists who aim, through new evidence from modern archaeology and skeletal biology, etc., to hopefully increase some of the knowledge we have of ancient arms and warfare.

One contributory specialist is Maria A. Liston (whose name I’ve seen in the past in connection with archeological work pertaining to Ancient Greece), a Classicist whose forte is the field of Greek archaeology, skeletal and biological anthropology, paleopathology, and military and battlefield archaeology. Dr. Liston’s article Skeletal Evidence for the Impact of Battle on Soldiers and Non-Combatants comprises Ch. 7 (pp. 81-94) of this new book, and relates substantially to this thread.

The significant remark by Plutarch that the Sacred Band all perished together at Chaeronea after facing the long spears of Philip’s phalanx simply means they stood their ground after becoming isolated and surrounded (the Sacred Band was specified, not even a portion of the rest of the Boeotian part of the allied army). The river affording protection on their right flank became a hindrance to any escape, and to economize casualties to themselves, Macedonian infantrymen wielding sarissai in unison, now exorbitantly outnumbering the Sacred Band, could destroy them without any need to fight them hand-to-hand, whereby a much more lightly-armored Foot Companion would be at a severe disadvantage. Nor did they need the cavalry to substantially aid them under this specificity, though as we’ll see, the cavalry did appear to do so in support. Thus Plutarch’s remark does not invalidate the presence of Macedonian cavalrymen (pace Robert E. Gaebel, Cavalry Operations in the Ancient Greek World, p. 156. Moreover, Paul Rahe’s overall fine article cites several Medieval examples including vaunted Swiss pikemen holding off charging cavalry, another misleading comparison. The Macedonian hetairoi per se at Chaeronea surely did not attempt to charge pell-mell into the solid Boeotian line, which is the platform they’re arguing from that no cavalry took part. The situation was more specific, constituting calculated conjunction with the infantry in breaking the solid line of the Boeotians. It didn’t come quickly, but after the their line was stoved-in (the gaps mentioned by Diodorus, their integrity collapsed rather quickly. It didn’t require much space at all for a Macedonian squadron, in wedged formation, to pierce through (One precious detail provided by Diodorus is that individual units were stationed where the occasion required). The herd nature of exceptionally well-seasoned horses would follow suit.

Philip’s cavalry squadrons were there in action, little doubt (some 2,000 of these cavalrymen at the battlefield, trained to the letter as a strike force, sat back and never engaged?), but their actions were almost certainly not as demonstrative as the other battles of Philip and Alexander. The action unfolded commensurate to the circumstances. There were more than a few tetrarchai (the etymology might be anachronistic, but the concept is the same: a Macedonian wedge, of which four made up an ile, would have numbered 36 or perhaps 49 horsemen, under these conditions where mobility was essential amid more spatial compression than other battles) working in concert with the pezhetairoi, and that some cavalrymen, who wielded a hacking/chopping kopis (or machaira) for fighting purposes more suitable on close-quarter than the xyston (which was definitely in full use by 338 BCE, hence Philip introduced the wedge tactic, as told by Arrian via Asclepiodotus almost certainly via a now lost manual by Polybius), came into contact with the stout Thebans after/during a point where the latter became surrounded seems nearly assured with Liston’s findings.

Liston opens her article with ‘The Battle of Chaironeia in 338 BCE was a pitched battle, in which both hoplites and cavalry fought’. She also includes the Herculian sack of Athens (267 BCE) in her study with examples of skeletal biology to further details which heretofore remained less certain. As for our relevance with Chaironeia, Liston elucidates,

“...The land under the Lion Monument at Chaironeia was excavated on several occasions. Seven rows with 254 skeletons were uncovered; selected bones exhibiting significant trauma were saved. These included ten partial or complete crania, teeth, a large number of leg bones, hand bones, an isolated partial foot and a pair of feet, cut off above the ankles (Phytalis 1881). These represent a minimum of 10-12 individuals, and probably as many as 15-18. The remains excavated from the Lion Monument at Chaironeia all have features consistent with adult males, 18-40+ years old, as would be expected in a battle cemetery (Buikstra and Ubelaker 1994)...

...The multiple head wounds on three of the hoplites’ skulls from Chaironeia...attest to the ferocity of the attacks...

...The pattern of injuries provides evidence to the conduct of battle, particularly at Chaironeia. Although Plutarch (Pel. 18.5) described Philip II viewing the bodies of the Sacred Band in the place where they had met with the sarissas of his army, it is clear that many died not in an initial clash between spear-bearing hoplites, but in the aftermath of hand-to-hand combat, facing enemies wielding swords.

Just how, and by whom, those swords were applied has been the subject of some debate. Accounts of the Battle of Chaironeia indicate that the Theban Sacred Band faced the Macedonian left, anchored by Alexander and the cavalry. The degree to which these cavalry had a significant role in the defeat of the Sacred Band is the subject of some debate, generally centering on whether or not the Macedonian cavalry carried sarissas, and if the cavalry was effective against the hoplite phalanx and in the destruction of the Sacred Band (Markle 1978; Rahe 1981).

The nature of the wounds on the Theban dead provides some evidence in this debate. The sharp force trauma wounds on the skulls from Chaironeia are consistently on the top of the head. Evidence from other pre-modern battles, where men armed with swords are facing each other on foot, clearly shows that most of the blows fall on the sides of the head, not the apex (Novak 2000). At Chaironeia all of the sharp force trauma on these skulls resulted from blades directed downward toward the top of the skulls with considerable force. The angle of all but one of the injuries suggests the assailants were above their victims, or at least were reaching high above their heads before inflicting the blow. There are no cranial blade wounds caused by a horizontal or upwardly angled strike. The blades sliced directly into the skull, perpendicular to the surface of the bone, and did not slide or drag or downward, as might happen if the assailant were at the same level as the target. This in turn suggests that the blows could have been inflicted by mounted cavalry or the soldiers were kneeling at the time they were struck...”

I doubt any soldier of the Sacred Band, even after losing his helmet to allow for such a gruesome and fatal blow, kneeled voluntarily (he could have lost his footing amid the action) to surrender to an enemy infantryman wielding a sword as well, even if it was more viable for hacking downwards. If Liston’s findings represent even a somewhat balance of ratio (approximately 20% cavalry action, from three examples to probably upwards of fifteen), it seems fitting for the Macedonian cavalry wedges initially striking in conjunction with preponderant Foot Companions. Of note, it appears the Macedonian cavalry had recently been humbled by the Thebans in the preliminary hostilities leading up to Chaeronea, thus had some redemption to gain: an excerpt from the mid-tenth century Byzantine military manual which seems to have escaped the widespread attention of modern scholarship, the Sylloge Tacticorum, involves an isolated setback for Philip (not the first time he was afflicted by a wily ruse!)

Sylloge Tacticorum 94.3 (see A Tenth-Century Byzantine Manuel: The Sylloge Tacticorum, translated by Georgios Chatzelis and Jonathan Harris, p 146, 2017),

”When the Thebans learned that Philip was approaching with an army of cavalry, they flooded the area in front of the city by night and at first dawn deployed, challenging the Macedonians to battle. Consequently when the engagement began, the Thebans feigned retreat. The horsemen immediately pursued and falling in the marshy ground were easily captured along with their horses.”

That’s a fine exemplar for the ‘Stratagem Genre’! This could not have been Philip V; even though Boeotia forsook Philip V for Rome in the Second Macedonian War, he never threatened, let alone attacked, Thebes or an other Boeotian city. Demosthenes exhorted the Athenian cause in his voicing of two battles against Philip in the same timeframe, mentioning a ‘winter battle’ and a ‘battle by the river’; he doesn’t claim a victory in either of these minor engagements, but was confident enough to rejoice Athenian confidence for the upcoming struggle (On the Crown, 216). These were ‘Men of Athens’ being specified, thus the Theban success appearing in the Sylloge Tacticorum was probably separate.

It’s not unlikely that it’s romantic hyperbole that Alexander charged at the helm into the Sacred Band, broke their solid front, and destroyed them. The Macedonian cavalry wedges likely pierced the Boeotian line at angles, contemporaneous with the infantry sarissai already loosening them up, and also in sync with the entire line being perforated by whatever Polyaenus’ teasing anecdote exactly entailed; Philip totally achieved what reflected his tactical system in its fully developed stage - the basis of cavalry as a strike force (penetrating through openings) with the infantry as its pivoting mainstay. This constitutes a ‘sword and shield’ amalgam, if you will. One incredible trait of Alexander’s leadership on the battlefield was his ability to size up distribution and space, feign one way and adjust to another to strike at opportune times, all while the army, to a holistic degree, sustained supreme battlefield control. Philip was the harbinger to the successful actions of his singularly great son.

The extant record of Alexander at Chaeronea, akin to Achilles if Philip could be Ajax (cf. Richard A. Billows, Before and After Alexander: the Legend and Legacy of Alexander, p. 134), is in sync for the legends which would resonate around him beyond his own time. He could very well had just a nominal command under the seasoned generals on the Macedonian left. At the very least, it strains credibility that that these aristocrats, commanding in a major set battle on a plain open enough for cavalry action, would command only the phalanx brigades, regardless of the muddled ancient record which never wrote ‘cavalry’ (as Guy Griffith wrote in his superb contribution of this subject in the stellar History of Macedonia, Vol. II, this was the surviving Greek literary record at its most poverty-stricken, p. 597); I was too acquiescent earlier in this thread - the extant record on this does not ‘suggest it was solely an infantry battle’. It doesn’t suggest anything concrete in terms of tactics, troop types and placements, weather, topography, etc. We never see the term ‘infantry’, either (but we know these were sedentary armies, of course). Diodorus’ ‘companions’ is even a generic ‘those who followed’! Maybe they didn’t know as much as we may assume they should have.

"A ship is safe in the harbor, but that's not why ships are built"
User avatar
Strategos (general)
Posts: 2846
Joined: Mon Sep 26, 2005 7:13 am
Location: Sydney, Australia

Re: Did Alexander command the PHALANX at Chaeronea?

Post by Paralus »

None of this is new. John Ma (Chaironeia 338: Topographies of Commemoration, JHS Vol. 128 [2008], pp. 72-91) covered the battlefield archaeology in detail. He notes not only head wounds may come from kopides (and cavalry) but also many cut marks to shin bones. One skull, in particular, shows the fellow was dispatched with a but spike to the head.

Ma also destroys the ridiculously oblique line for the allies (and the Macedonians) which Hammond's reconstruction necessitates. I'm sure we've been over all that earlier in this thread but I'm not about to go look for it.

Diodoros' "individual units were stationed where the occasion required" provides no evidence for anything other than his unique ability to use the same stock phrases is as many battle descriptions as possible. Either his source did not supply such information, he was too lazy to bother writing it or both. Most likely the first as when he has a decent source he can supply pertinent details (see the descriptions Books 18-20 - particularly Paraitakene, Gabiene and Gaza for example). And, once more, the word Diodoros uses which has been translated as "companions" has absolutely nothing to do with the Macedonian Companion cavalry.
Ἐπὶ τοὺς πατέρας, ὦ κακαὶ κεφαλαί, τοὺς μετὰ Φιλίππου καὶ Ἀλεξάνδρου τὰ ὅλα κατειργασμένους;
Wicked men, you sin against your fathers, who conquered the whole world under Philip and Alexander.

Post Reply