Fourth Sacred War or Amphissean War, 339-338 BC

The Fourth Sacred War or Amphissean War (339-339 BC) was the final step in Philip II of Macedon's rise to a position of dominance in Greece, and ended with the defeat of the joint Athenian and Theban army at the battle of Chaeronea.


The war came against a background of an existing war between Athens and Philip II. After the end of the Third Sacred War in 346 BC Philip had attempted to win over Athenian public opinion, but his supporters had struggled against the anti-Macedonian faction led by the orator Demosthenes. They were able to block a Macedonian suggestion of a common peace in 344. Athenian attitudes hardened further after Philip supported the collection of the first instalment of the reparation imposed on Phocis after the Third Sacred War. Supporters of the peace were prosecuted, and Philocrates, whose name is now associated with it, fled into exile.

The flashpoint that eventually triggered open warfare came in the Chersonese. Here the Athenians still had some key allies, protecting the grain routes from the Black Sea. Probably in 343 a new commander, Diopeithes, was sent to the Chersonese to support the Athenian colonists in this area. The new colonists then clashed with Cardia, an ally of Philip at the northern end of the Chersonese.

Diopeithes, like so many Athenian commanders, suffered from a lack of funds. He attempted to solve this problem by plundering shipping in the northern Aegean and extorting money from coastal communities. In 342 he captured a Macedonian herald, Nicias, and in the winter of 342/1 the herald was sent to Athens, where his dispatches were read out in public. Philip responded by sending a small force of mercenaries to Cardia. Early in 341 Diopeithes raided Thrace and plundered two towns under Macedonian control. Amphilochus, an envoy sent to ask for their release was tortured and held to ransom, a clear breach of the established norms of behaviour.  

Early in 341 Philip wrote to Athens to protest about Diopeithes. This caused a debate in Athens in which Demosthenes and the war party got their way. Diopeithes was given more men and money, while Chares was sent north to Thasos. Demosthenes went to Byzantium, where he was able to arrange a renewal of their old alliance (ended 15 years earlier). Other Athenian envoys went to Abydos, Thrace, Illyria, Chios and Rhodes. There was also an attempt to forma  Panhellenic League, although only Corinth, Megara, Achaea and Acarnania attended this league's first congress in Athens in 340 BC.

Open war between Athens and Philip was finally triggered by events at Byzantium and Perinthus. In 340 Philip demanded that these two cities, which were still officially his allies, should help him against Diopeithes. They refused, and Philip laid siege to Perinthus. The city held out, despite Philip's impressive siege train, and received aid from Byzantium and from the Persians. Even the capture of the main city wall didn't help, as the defenders had already built a new set of fortifications between the city buildings. In an attempt to remove one of her allies, Philip then led half of his army to besiege Byzantium, but he had no more success there.

Early in this siege Philip seized 180 Athenian merchant ships, waiting for their escort home, and claimed that they were illegally supplying his enemies. Our sources for this all come from fragments, reported in a later source. As a result we can't be entirely sure exactly where this event falls into the timeline of the sieges. Both of our fragments were included in the work of Didymus, who used extracts from Philochorus and Theopompus. Philochorus gives us a total of 230 ships, Theopompus only 180. This different is now interpreted as meaning there were 180 Athenian ships and 50 ships from other powers with whom Philip had no dispute. Philip took 700 talents from the fleet.

The extract from Philochorus gives us the main details of the event. Chares left his ships at Hieron (a port and sanctuary on the Asian side of the entrance to the Black sea) to wait for the cargo ships coming from the Black Sea, while he went to visit nearby Persian generals. Philip made two attempts to capture the cargo fleet. The first, which only involved his warships, failed. He then landed some troops on the far side of Hieron (presumably on the Black Sea coast), and they were able to capture the fleet. A total of 230 boats were taken, judged to be prizes of war, broken up and used to build more siege engines. He also gained supplies of corn, hides and money.

Philip's actions and his letter triggered a debate in Athens. Demosthenes helped convince the people to declare war, while the column that recorded the existing treaty of peace and alliance with Philip was demolished. The Athenian fleet now took an active part in the siege, and drove the Macedonian fleet into the Black Sea.

After final assault on Byzantium in the spring of 339 BC failed, Philip decided to abandon both sieges. Before he could do that, he needed to find a way to get his fleet out of the Black Sea. According to Frontinus he achieved this by writing a letter to his general Antipater ordering him to follow Philip into Thrace to deal with a revolt. This letter was then deliberately allowed to fall into Athenian hands. The Athenians either dropped their guard, or moved to take advantage of the news, and Philip's fleet was able to escape.

Polyaenus reports the exact same strategy during the Fourth Sacred War, used when Philip's route into Boeotia was blocked. While it seems unlikely that Philip's enemies would fall for the same trick twice, revolts in Thrace were fairly common, so it is at least possible. However it seems more likely that the details of one or the other of these events have been lost. As his fleet sailed south past the Chersonese it raided Athenian territory in the area. Phocion conducted some counter raids on the Thracian coast in revenge.

After abandoning the sieges, Philip decided to punish Ateas, king of the Scythians in the Dobrudja, the area around the Danube delta on the Black Sea. Ateas had previous asked for Macedonia help, but then solved his problem before they arrived, and refused to pay. He also refused to help against Byzantium. Philip captured vast numbers of slaves during this campaign, and Ateas was killed in battle, but on their way home the Macedonians were attacked by the Triballi, a Thracian tribe. Most of the loot was lost and Philip was badly wounded in the fighting, but the army managed to reach home safely.

Outbreak of Fourth Sacred War

When Philip returned to Pella he found that the short-lived peace that followed the Third Sacred War had already fallen apart. The Fourth Sacred War was triggered by a dispute within the Delphic Amphictyony, the council responsible for running the Oracle of Delphi. Probably at some point during the Third Sacred War, when Athens had been allied with the Phocians and opposed by Thebes, they had erected a new treasury in which they dedicated some shields captured during the Persian Wars. These had been re-gilded, and inscribed as being 'taken from the Persians and Thebans, when they fought against the Greeks'. At a council meeting either in the autumn of 340 or the spring of 339 the Amphisseans had tabled a motion condemning the Athenian move, and asking for them to be fined 50 talents. The Athenians had also been denounced as allies of the sacrilegious Phocians in the Third Sacred War.

Battles and Sieges of Philip II of Macedon
Battles and Sieges of
Philip II of Macedon,
358-338 BC

If this motion had carried, Athens might have found herself the target of an attack by a united Amphictyony, a dangerous prospect. That danger was averted by Aeschines, the Athenian envoy at the council, who tabled a counter motion condemning the Amphisseans for cultivating the plain around the harbour of Cirrha, which was sacred to Apollo, and taking the harbour dues for their own use. The port of Cirrha controlled access to Delphi from the Corinthian Gulf, and it had been an abuse of that position by her people that had triggered the First Sacred War (595-585 BC). Aeschines managed to win over the council, and triggered a riot. A mob from Delphi attacked and sacked the harbour at Cirrha and some of the surrounding houses, but they were then forced back to Delphi by the Amphisseans.

Cottyphus of Pharsalus, the president of the council, summoned an extraordinary meeting of the council to be held at Thermopylae. This council would pass sentence on Amphissa, firstly for the original sacrilege, and secondly for attacking the councillors involved in the raid on the harbour.

This presented the Athenians with a fresh problem. It was likely that Thebes would side with Amphissa, while Athens, having made the initial charge, would have to support the council. Demosthenes was determined to avoid any open breach between Athens and Thebes, as he believed that an alliance between the two cities was the only way to defeat Philip II. He managed to convince Athens not to send a representative to the meeting at Thermopylae.

The special meeting was held early in 339 BC, and war was declared on Amphissa. Cottyphus was appointed as commander of the League army, but he doesn't seem to have been able to raise many troops. He did advance from Thermopylae, imposed a fine on the Amphisseans, and expelling the leaders alleged to be involved in the sacrilege.

Thebes had also avoiding attending the meeting at Thermopylae, but she now took sides by capturing Nicaea, which dominated the pass at Thermopylae, expelling a Macedonian garrison in the process. This probably wasn’t meant as a hostile act against Philip II - after all Thebes and Macedon were officially allies at this point, but rather as a move to protect Amphissa. The Amphisseans recalled their exiled leaders, and expelled others, and defied the League.

At the autumn meeting of the council Philip II was asked to take command of the League army. This gave him a legitimate reason to bring an army into central Greece, a move that posed an immediate threat to Athens. To make things worse, Philip bypassed Thermopylae, and instead crossed the mountains of Oetaea from Thessaly, and moved to Cytinium in Doris, on the northern side of Mount Parnassus. From here he could easily move south-west to Amphissa. Probably in early September he moved east from Cytinium to Elatea in Phocis, which he fortified.

Philip now paused to try and make sure that Thebes was still on his side. He sent an embassy to Thebes, with two demands. The first was to surrender Nicaea, and thus open up the pass of Thermopylaea. The second was to either take part in his invasion of Attica, or at least allow him free passage through Boeotia. At least according to our sources, he didn't mention Amphissa, the official reason for his presence in central Greece.  

Philip was in theory only three days march from Athens and two days from Attica. This caused an unsurprising panic in the city, where a joint Theban and Macedonian attack was expected any day. This finally gave Demosthenes the chance he wanted to form anti-Macedonian alliance with Thebes. Demosthenes suggested that Athens should send its full military levy to Eleusis, on the road to Boeotia, while he led an embassy to Thebes. This suggestion was accepted. Once he was in Thebes, Demosthenes made a very generous offer. Athens would accept Theban supremacy over Boeotia, thus abandoning her old allies at Plataea and Thespiae. Thebes would command the land war, and contribute one third of the costs. Athens would fund the entire naval war and two thirds of the land war. The war would be led from Thebes.

This offer was too good to resist, and Thebes abandoned their Macedonian alliance to side with Athens. Surprisingly, given the rapid start to his campaign, Philip now paused, allowing the new allies to plan their defences. Philip spent the winter attempting to avoid a major battle and if possible to break up the alliance.

Neither side had much luck with their diplomatic efforts. Philip had the support of Thessaly and some members of the Amphictyonic Council. Athens and Thebes gained the support of Euboea, Achaea, Megara, Acarnania, Leucas and Corcyra. Most of the Peloponnesian states stayed neutral, partly because many of them were officially allies of both side and partly because those who were tempted to aid Philip couldn't get to him.

This gave the Allies time to mount an effective defence of Boeotia. One force, of 10,000 mercenaries, was placed in the Gravia Pass, blocking the route south to Amphissa and the Corinthian Gulf. Another force was placed at Parapotamii, well to the west of Lake Copais, where the Cephisus Valley narrowed. The Athenian Chares and Theban Proxenus were given command of these forces. Other smaller forces blocked the passes across Mount Parnassus.

Two minor battles followed over the winter (or were at least mentioned by Demosthenes) - the 'winter battle' and the 'battle by the river'. These caused great jubilation in Athens, but were probably only defeats of minor probing attacks by Philip. He used some of the winter to secure his control of the Amphictyonic Council, and to restore Phocis after the punishments from the Third War

Early in 338 Philip managed to trick his way past the defenders of the Gravia Pass, repeating the trick he had earlier used to get his fleet out of the Black Sea. A message was sent to Antipater announcing that Philip was planning to return to Thrace to deal with a revolt. This message was allowed to fall into the hands of the Allied commanders. Philip then feigned a movement from Cytinium. Once Chares relaxed his guard, Philip struck. The Macedonians attacked at night, defeated the defenders, and broke through to Amphissa. Once there the city walls were destroyed and its leaders exiled. Philip then moved to Naupactus, on the Corinthian Gulf, opening up communication with the Peloponnese. Naupactus was then handed over to his Aetolian allies, and Philip then returned to Elatea.

This success broke the Allied defensive line. The defenders of Parapotamii and Mount Parnassus were now in danger of being attacked from the rear, and the Allies were forced to retreat back down the Cephisus Valley to Chaeronea.

Once again Philip paused and attempted to use diplomacy, and once again this failed. This continued for four months, before finally Philip advanced to force a battle.

The battle of Chaeronea took place on the Attic date 7th of Metageitnion, but such is the obscurity of ancient Greek calendars that we can't be entirely sure what modern date that would fall on, with 2 August or 1 September 338 BC suggested.

The battle ended as a major Macedonian victory. The young Alexander commanded on the Macedonian left, and his cavalry attack might have been the decisive factor in the battle. The Athenians lost 1,000 dead and 2,000 captives. The Thebans suffered very heavy losses, including their entire Sacred Band, which fought ot the last man. Amongst the minor allies the Achaeans suffered very heavily.


In the aftermath of the battle Thebes was punished harshly, as a former ally that had betrayed Philip. She had to play a ransom before she could bury her dead, the leaders involved in the decision to support Athens were exiled or executed. An oligarchy of 300 trusted men was put in power. Macedonian forces took over the citadel on the Cadmea. Plataea, Thespiae and Orchomenus, all Boeotian cities weakened or destroyed by Thebes, were restored

Philip was keen to win the support, or at least the co-operation of Athens. He took advantage of the presence of the orator and politician Demades amongst the prisoners to make first contact with Athens. Demades was followed by Alexander, Antipater and Alcimachus, who returned the Athenian dead and offered to return the 2,000 Athenian captives without a ransom. Philip was probably motivated by his desire to lead an invasion of Persia, something that would have required both the use of the Athenian fleet, and a peaceful and stable Greece.

In the aftermath of the battle Athens had been gripped by panic. A siege was expected at any moment. Command of the military was given to Charidemus, a long term enemy of Philip, and Demosthenes, who had escaped from the battlefield, also played a part in the defence. The arrival of Demades with good news, followed by Alexander, changed the mood in the city. A delegation made up of Phocion (who had replaced Charidemus as military commander, Demades and Aeschines was sent to the Macedonian camp to open negotiations.

Philip's terms were very generous. Athens was to dissolve her League, but since the Social War that had been a fading power anyway, and lost her possessions in the Chesonese. She was allowed to keep the key Aegean islands of Lemnos, Imbros, Delos, Scyros and Samos. She also regained Oropus on the Boeotian border. Philip promised not to invade Athens by land or sea, she kept her place in the Amphictyony, and was to remain free and independent, with no Macedonian garrison.

This Peace of Demades was greeted with initial enthusiasm in Athens. Philip and Alexander were both made citizens of the city, and a statue of Philip was raised in the agora. However there was still a strong anti-Macedonian faction, still led by Demosthenes. The refuges expelled from Thebes by Philip were granted Athenian citizenship, and Demosthenes was chosen to give the public funeral oration for the dead of Chaeronea. Over the next few years most of the public figures involved in negotiating the peace were hounded in the law courts (Demosthenes was also prosecuted, but was always found not guilty).

Philip placed further garrisons in Chalcis and Ambracia. He forced the Acarnanians to expel their anti-Maccedonian leaders. He then went to the Peloponnese, and was greeted at Megara and Corinth in his way. He reorganised the Arcadian Confederacy, adding Mantinea to it. Although Sparta had stayed neutral, he gave the Arcadians, Argives and Messenians areas they claimed from the Spartans, and invade Laconia when the Spartans refused to accept these changes.

Late in 338 Philip summoned a Congress of all Greek states at Corinth. All attended apart from Sparta. At this meeting he set up the League of Corinth. This was a defensive and offensive alliance of all Greek states, designed partly to preserve the peace of Greece and partly to support Philip's planned invasion of Persia. Philip was the hegemon of the league. A synod was set up, with representatives from every member. No garrisons were to imposed, no tribute taken, and the autonomy and independence of the Greek states was guaranteed. One key difference between this peace and earlier examples, such as the King's Peace, was that it attempted to preserve the existing situation, rather than restore some earlier position or impose a new settlement. Philip then announced that the first task of the league would be an invasion of Persia, punishment for the invasions of Greece under Xerxes and Darius.

Philip didn't survive long to enjoy his great success. In 336 BC he was assassinated, and succeeded by his son Alexander. His reign began with great uncertainty, and a revolt in parts of Greece. Alexander quickly demonstrated that he was not as lenient as his father. In 335 BC he captured Thebes, destroyed the city, and sold the majority of the population into slavery. The battle of Chaeronea is often said to have ended the freedom of the Greek cities, but that probably came about under Alexander and his successors.

How to cite this article: Rickard, J (13 March 2017), Fourth Sacred War or Amphissean War, 339-338 BC ,

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