Rise of Macedon

Arms and the Man

Gautam BasuGautam Basu

Sparta toppled Athens after the Pelopponesian War to dominate all Greece. In this episode, we will talk about how the centre of the Greek world moved from Sparta to Thebes and then to Macedonia under King Philip, one of the first true military strategists. This month we focus on Philip overwhelming all Greece to build a launchpad for his son Alexander to go beyond and conquer the known world

Athens surrendered to Sparta in 403 BC. However, within a generation of Aegospotami (see FORCE June 2013), many Greek city-states paying tribute to Sparta rebelled, and Thebes emerged principal challenger. Epaminondas, son of the king of Thebes, spent months in Sparta as hostage as a boy to guarantee the ‘good behaviour’ of his father. A keen observer of human nature, Epaminondas watched Spartans closely to fathom why they were the best warriors. When he became king of Thebes, Epaminondas refused to pay annual tribute to Sparta. Sparta prepared to invade. Epaminondas was undeterred; he understood the Spartan military mind.

The Theban army was drawn up 10 miles west of Thebes at the battlefield of Leuctra (now Voiotia) in July 371 BC. The Spartans had 11,000 men, the Thebans only 5,800, but Epaminondas had his own ideas about Sparta’s invincibility. Sparta deployed her men in traditional manner, placing the best warriors on the right flank. Epaminondas did the reverse, placing his strongest units on his left, directly opposite the Spartan elite. He also arranged his right flank in an ‘echelon’ that pointed away from the Spartans, thus declining to fight in the usual straight-ahead clash. When the battle began, the strong Theban left, arranged in a column 80 feet by 150 feet, quickly broke through the Spartan right. The Spartans fought stubbornly, but made no tactical innovations to respond to this new form of attack. Sparta’s right flank came crumbling down in the first hour, shocking its generals and stunning its men. More than 2,000 Spartans were killed, including king Cleombrotus. The battle was a milestone as it proved that coordinated troop movements and planned attacks could overcome rigorous armies and bigger numbers. Sparta’s brief spell as leader of Greece was over.

King Philip II of Macedonia in battle drawn by Johnny Shumate

At Leuctra emerged the next great military power of the Aegean: Thebes. But Thebes would dominate for only a few decades, till subdued by another more powerful force, a kingdom that would dominate the Western World. This kingdom of Macedonia would assimilate the best of Grecian culture and civilisation under Philip II. And under son Alexander, it would militarily dominate most of the then known world, except India.

Alexander the Great (356-323 BC), born in Pella, was one of the greatest military leaders ever. And he was also perhaps one of the most ambitious, being the first conqueror in the annals of history to not only dream, but actually embark on, the conquest of the ‘known world’. Alexander is believed to have conquered more land than any man in history, except perhaps Adolf Hitler in 1939-44, and General Douglas MacArthur in 1944-45, though most of his conquests were water. History is strewn with examples of emperors who reckoned him to be the greatest, and were inspired to model their military careers along his. It is said that Julius Caesar of Rome sat down in his tent and wept when he realised that he could not match the conquests of Alexander. Napoleon Bonaparte of France thought no military curriculum could be complete without a study of Alexander’s exploits, and admitted that he began to understand war only after studying the tactics of the Macedonian. Even before he ascended the throne of Macedonia, Alexander was seasoned by many campaigns in the company of his illustrious father, Philip II.

Philip welded the barbaric tribes of Macedonia, a large hilly province in the northern borders of Greece, into a unified kingdom. A veteran of many battles, Philip had lost an eye in his youth to a stray arrow in a siege. A master strategist who commandeered all resources to meet military ends, he freely adopted techniques from other armies. He borrowed the phalanx from Greece. He enlisted horsemen of the Balkan lands and turned them into the fittest cavalry. From Crete he recruited expert tribal archers. He roped in specialist javelin-throwers from Asia Minor. With these moulded into a composite force, Philip II of Macedon had perhaps the most flexible army ever. The delicate balance between arms and armour now tilted towards arms. The length of the average spear was increased from 8 feet to 14, and the diameter of the shields reduced. Now the spears of the first five ranks extended to beyond the phalanx at the front. The effect was deadly: the phalanx now had unstoppable momentum. Philip II trained his warriors all year long and paid them every month. They endured all-season campaigns, marching 30 miles a day when in action. This was the first trained, professional, full-time standing army in the history of Europe.

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