The Defeat of Chaironeia (338 B.C.) and its Aftermath

Werner Riess

Rather than concentrating on the rise of Macedonia and the demise of the independence of the classical Greek city-states subsequent to the battle of Chaironeia (338 B.C.), this paper explores how the defeat created a climate in which Athenians developed a growing awareness of their own constitution. This mental refinement brought about the ultimate definition of what an ideal democracy should look like as opposed to Macedonian monarchy.

Athens’s defeat in the battle of Chaironeia at the hands of Philip II of Macedonia immediately provoked contradictory reactions in the city. On the one hand, some panic-stricken people were determined to put up strong resistance. On the other hand, those people frightened by an imminent sack of Athens by Macedonian troops pled for making adjustments to the new situation.

When it became clear that Philip would treat Athens mildly, emotions calmed down and paved the way for an intense debate on what policy to pursue with regard to Macedonia. For nearly two decades, the situation was ambiguous in this respect: Whereas flatterers tried to curry favor with Macedonia, staunch hardliners made a case for resilience. It is remarkable to what extent Demosthenes, Hyperides and Lycurgus could make use of the freedom of speech still intact in Athens.

The sack of Thebes by Alexander in 335 B.C. made clear to everybody what might be the consequences of too anti-Macedonian a policy. A compromise between pro- and anti-Macedonian forces was found in the Lycurgan era: While Athens kept a low profile by concentrating on domestic issues, Lycurgus launched an immense building program that stressed democratic ideals and values. The constant debates about Athenian identity as confronted with Macedonian hegemony sharpened the Athenians’ awareness of their unique democratic constitution. It is no coincidence that the bulk of evidence, literary and architectural alike, testifying to a common democratic identity, dates from this short period of time between Chaironeia (338 B.C.) and the Lamian War (323/2 B.C.). The erection of the Panathenaic Stadium, the expansion of the Pnyx, the habitual assembly place of the Athenian people, and the renovation of the theater of Dionysus, to give just three examples, demonstrate the emergence of a democratic urban topography. Sociologically speaking, Athens, locked in struggle with Macedonia, strove for a clearer self-definition. The defeat ultimately set free productive forces, influenced the Athenians’ self-perception, and helped form a distinctive democratic identity in opposition to the perceived oppression of the Macedonian monarchy.

The sources reflecting these developments are copious, but one literary masterpiece stands out above the rest – Demosthenes’ refutation of Aischines in his speech On the Crown (330 B.C.). In this moving speech Demosthenes lifts our veil and reveals a refined concept of democracy and a complete awareness of Athens’s distinctiveness. The stiffened democratic identity ultimately exacerbated the long-term conflict to the degree that it escalated into the showdown of the Lamian War (323/22) between Macedonian monarchy and Athenian democracy, but by then the new democracy had left its mark on Athens and on our exploration of the ancient world.

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