Vol. VIII. Book XVII Ch. 8, 9, 11-14 (Loeb Classical Library)
Read the other posts in this series here
Alexander Dead: Exclusive Report
[Correction: In yesterday’s paper we reported that Alexander III, son of Philip II had died; this has been proved incorrect by the sight of him outside our city. The man responsible for this unfortunate error has been executed]
Thebes Falls: Many Dead, Captured
Demosthenes’ Swords: A Futile Gesture by a Worthless Man – Comment by Aeschines
After our detour into Asia Minor yesterday we return to Greece and her neighbours today. At the beginning of Chapter 8, Diodorus explains that upon subduing the Greek city-states, Alexander entered Thrace to deal with the tribes there who had risen up against him. Once that had been done, he marched west to Paeonia and Illyria. He was still fighting there when he received word ‘that many of the Greeks were in revolt’. If I read Diodorus correctly, Alexander immediately broke off his Paeonian/Illyrian campaign and headed south to confront his new enemies.
Diodorus focuses his narrative on Thebes. Determined to recover their freedom, the Thebans put the Macedonian garrison in the Cadmeia under siege. They built ‘deep trenches and heavy stockades’ to ensure that no ‘reinforcements [or] supplies’ could be taken in. Messengers were sent to other Greek cities – Diodorus names Arcadia, Argos and Elis – to ask for their help. An appeal was also sent to Athens.
For his part, Demosthenes sent weaponry to Thebes. However, while various cities sent soldiers, these did not enter the city but hung back to see which way the war with Macedon went.
When Alexander arrived at the city, the Thebans held a vote to determine how to proceed. The hawks got their way and the council voted unanimously to fight. Outside the city gates, Alexander made no move. He could not imagine that ‘a single city would… dare to match forces’ with his army. Diodorus says that the king had 30,000 infantry and 3,000 cavalry ‘all battle-seasoned veterans’.
In Diodorus’ opinion, had the Thebans come to terms with Alexander, the king would have let the city have whatever it wanted because he was more interested in beginning his war against the Persian Empire. Sadly, ‘… he realized that he was despised by the Thebans, and so decided to destroy the city utterly…’
The Destruction of Thebes
Phase 1 Alexander invited any Theban who wished to ‘enjoy the peace… common to all the Greeks’ to leave their city and join him. The Thebans retorted ‘that anyone who wished to join the Great King and Thebes in freeing the Greeks and destroying the tyrant of Greece should come over to them’.
Phase 2 Being called a tyrant angered Alexander intensely. Diodorus says that he ‘flew into a towering rage’. He began building siege engines and preparing for battle.
Phase 3 After only three days preparation, Alexander was ready to begin his assault of Thebes. He divided his army into three divisions:
- One to attack the palisades in front of the city
- One ‘to face the Theban battle line’
- One to be kept in reserve
The Thebans set up the defence of their city in this way:
- Cavalry were stationed behind the palisades
- Enfranchised slaves, refugees and resident aliens were placed at the city walls
- Thebans were stationed in between the palisades and city walls to fight the Macedonians about Alexander
Phase 4 The battle cry went up and the Macedonian army approached the city. Both sides showered each other with missiles.
Phase 5 Hand-to-hand fighting followed the deadly rainfall. The Macedonians fought in phalanx formation. Diodorus says that while the Macedonians were numerically superior, the Thebans were stronger due to their ‘constant training in the gymnasium’.
The battle was long and bloody. The Macedonians were encouraged to ‘not… be unworthy of their previous exploits’ while the Thebans were reminded of the parents, wives and children whose lives depended on them. Great play was also made of Thebes’ past military successes, for example, at the Battle of Leuctra and Mantineia.
Phase 6 ‘At length Alexander saw that the Thebans were still fighting unflinchingly… but that his Macedonians were wearying’. He brought his reserve into the attack. This move reaped immediate results and many Thebans were killed.
Phase 7 And yet, the city was not ready to surrender itself into Alexander’s hands. Theban soldiers shouted that the Macedonians were ‘openly’ confessing to be their inferiors. Indeed, Diodorus suggests that they drew strength from having to fight the fresh Macedonian soldiers.
Phase 8 As the battle raged, Alexander noticed a postern gate ‘that had been deserted by its guards’. He ordered Perdiccas to break into the city through it. He and ‘a large detachment of troops’ broke the gate down and entered the city without being seen.
Phase 9 Once the Thebans realised that their defences had been compromised, they withdrew into the city. Unfortunately, their retreat was disorganised. Cavalrymen trampled over infantry before, in their haste to escape the Macedonians, falling off their horses and onto their swords.
Phase 10 At the same time as the Thebans were retreating, the Macedonian garrison in the Cadmeia broke out and fell upon the enemy. The Thebans’ disorder allowed the garrison soldiers to carry out ‘a great slaughter’ of men.
Phase 11 The fight for Thebes was violent even by the standards of the time. Diodorus informs us that the Macedonian army was ‘enraged’ by the Theban proclamation (phase two, above). They yelled curses and slew ‘all whom they met without sparing any’. Despite the wrath being visited upon them, the Thebans continued to defend their city. None would be ever seen ‘begging the Macedonians to spare his life’ and neither ‘did they in ignoble fashion fall and cling to the knees of their conquerers’.
Phase 12 As the Macedonian army rampaged through the city, all her buildings were pillaged and ‘[e]verywhere boys and girls were dragged into captivity as they wailed piteously the names of their mothers’. ‘[C]hildren and women and aged persons who had fled into the temples were torn from sanctuary and subjected to outrage without limit’
It is worth remembering that the Macedonian army did not fight the Thebans alone. Diodorus says that other Greeks did so alongside them; he names Thespians, Plataeans and Orchomenians as well as some others. In the Footnotes, we learn that, Justin added Phocians to that list. Conversely, Plutarch and Arrian only name the Phocians and Plataeans.
6,000+ Thebans were killed in the battle.
30,000+ Thebans were captured and sold into slavery (earning Alexander 440 talents of silver).
Once the battle was over, Alexander buried the Macedonian dead – over 500 in number. He then held a meeting with the representatives of the Greek cities in his army to discuss what should be done with Thebes itself. Now was the time for score settling. Destroy it, some of the representatives said; after all, Thebes allied herself to Persia during the Greek Wars. Other reasons were also given but Diodorus does not name them. A vote was taken and it was agreed that the city should be razed to the ground. Here is what the meeting decided:
- Raze Thebes
- Sell all prisoners
- Outlaw Theban exiles from Greece
- Prohibit all Greeks from sheltering Thebans
Diodorus covers Alexander’s Thracian campaign in a matter of lines. Fortunately, Arrian is on hand to tell us more about it in the first chapter of his account of Alexander’s life. I wonder why Diodorus treats it so briefly. Did he not regard it as being important? Was that why he wrote only briefly about the Battle of Chaeronea?
Something else that Diodorus fails to tell us much (actually, anything) about is why the Thebans revolted. Again, Arrian fills in the gaps. According to him, an anti-Macedonian party managed to persuade the Thebans that Alexander had died.
With friends like these… Nothing says cynical more than the actions of the Greek cities who sent soldiers to Thebes’ aid presumably with orders not to actually enter the city until they knew which way the fight was going. Diodorus makes no issue of this rather unsatisfactory state of affairs so I suppose it was an accepted part of ‘helping’ your neighbour back then, but really; no one could have liked it, could they?
Reading Diodorus’ account of the fight for Thebes has not been the easiest experience. By modern standards, it was a very nasty affair, indeed. Credit has to go to the Thebans for fighting so well. On a different occasion, perhaps Alexander would have treated them more leniently afterwards. If only they had not insulted him.
Perdiccas at the postern gate reminds me of an incident much later on in Alexander’s career, which I have been reading about lately. During his Sogdian campaign, Alexander laid siege to Cyropolis. As his men assaulted the city, Alexander noticed a dry river bed running out of it. The tunnel through which the river (during winter) ran was large enough for a man to crawl through. So, that’s exactly what Alexander and a few others did. Once again, Arrian covers that story. The Footnotes here say that Perdiccas may have carried out a similar manoeuvre at Halicarnassus.
Speaking of the Footnotes, they also note that whereas Diodorus states that Perdiccas broke through the postern gate during the fighting, Arrian (citing Ptolemy as his source) says that it happened at the outset and that Perdiccas acted without Alexander’s authorisation. Ptolemy also states that Perdiccas was badly injured during the assault, which Diodorus does not. I’ve seen this incident cited as proof that Ptolemy was bad-mouthing Perdiccas, although if he was writing his book in old age he would have no need to. Could it be evidence that Ptolemy wrote his narrative between 323 – 321 B.C.?
- The price of slaves must have plummeted due to the sudden influx of so many onto the market
- The cost of building a must also have decreased thanks to all the Theban rubble that was now available
- The Greek economy must have suffered at least a little due to Thebes’ fall. It was an important city and surely contributed a great deal to the wealth of the country.