In This Chapter
Alexander marches against Thebes
Despite having to end his Thracian campaign prematurely, Alexander had done enough to ensure that Macedon’s northern borders would not be troubled for the rest of his reign.
He would not be so fortunate in regards the Greek city-states: they were always on the look out for an opportunity to rebel, and in Arrian’s Anabasis the first one to do so was Thebes.
The rebellion started when a group of rebels within the city invited likeminded exiles back home. Together, they murdered two Macedonian officers outside their garrison (established by Philip II in 338 BC following the Battle of Chaeronea) and persuaded the Theban Assembly to support their revolution.
The rebels employed a three point strategy to win the Assembly over.
– They used slogans. Arrian describes how they made ‘play with the fine old slogans of ‘freedom’ and ‘independence’
– Deceit. They claimed that Alexander had died in Illyria
– Wish fulfilment. The rebels’ deceit worked because people wanted to believe that it was true
Alexander knew that if he let Thebes’ rebellion go unchecked, other city-states might follow. He may have had his head stuck in The Iliad but he was also a realist. So, he marched south at speed to confront the rebels.
Thirteen days later, Alexander entered Boeotia. The Thebans were taken back by the speed of his arrival. The rebels assured them, however, that the Alexander who had come was not Philip’s son but Alexander Lyncestis.
Arrian doesn’t tell us at which point the Thebans found out that Alexander son of Philip was still alive. On the fourteenth day after his departure from the north, however, Alexander arrived outside Thebes. There, Arrian tells us, he did not attack the city but paused so that the Thebans could have ‘a period of grace, should they wish to reconsider their disastrous decision’.
It would be easy to get carried away by Alexander’s kindness here but it was no doubt influenced by two practical concerns (a) a desire to avoid damaging his reputation among the Greeks by attacking a Greek city, and (b) a desire to rest his men in case fighting became necessary.
The rebels, however, were in no mood to turn back. Not only did they decline to reconsider but they sent out a large force of cavalry and infantry to attack the Macedonians. It managed to kill a few of the enemy before being chased back into the city.
The following day, Alexander moved his army to be closer to the Macedonian garrison in the Cadmea – ever since the murder of the two officers, the garrison had been under siege there. Then, Alexander stopped. He did not try to relieve the siege (the cadmea was surrounded by Theban palisades) or begin a general assault of the city. He still hoped, Arrian tells us, to end the rebellion peacefully.
And indeed, there were Thebans who wanted a return to Macedonian rule but the rebels were in too strong a position for the doves to make any headway. They ‘did everything in their power to press the people into war’.
– ‘making play with the fine old slogans‘ – Ouch. That’s proper sarcasm, there!
– Something pointed out by the Notes in The Landmark Arrian – how Alexander, while in Illyria, knew what was going on in Thebes but the Thebans had no idea regarding where his army was or if he was leading it. That speaks to an impressive intelligence operation on Alexander’s part. The Notes say that Alexander had better intelligence than his rivals throughout his campaigns. I love spy stories so this is a really interesting angle for me.
Hammond, Martin (tr.) Arrian: Alexander the Great (Oxford, OUP, 2013)
Romm, James (ed.) The Landmark Arrian: The Campaigns of Alexander (New York, Pantheon, 2010)