322 B.C. was one of the most disastrous years in the history of Athens, if not the worst. Two of its most distinguished sons, the philosophers Demosthenes and Hyperides, died within a week, and thousands of Athenians followed them to that tragic fate due to a severe famine. Eleven thousand others were stripped of their citizenship, the city lost some of its territorial possessions, and certain local industries, such as marble and metalworking, ceased to exist. All of this was the catastrophic result of the defeat suffered in the Lamian War against Macedonian domination, whose most severe consequence was likely the humiliation of Athens never regaining its independence.

The Lamian War, also known as the Hellenic War, was a conflict that shook Greece following the death of Alexander the Great. As we know, the absence of the charismatic figure caused the fragmentation and division of the empire he had created among his generals. A portion of its total extension, corresponding to Greek territory, had been inherited from his father, Philip II, but the once most representative city-states, now subjugated, saw this as an opportunity to regain their status.

Paradoxically, the period of subjugation to Macedonia had not led to a decline for Athens, but rather the opposite; its economy and cultural life continued to be a beacon for the world and laid the foundations for what was soon to become a new and brilliant artistic phase, the Hellenistic Period. However, the Athenians were not comfortable with their integration into that type of confederation because they had lost something they considered as important as, or even more than, the positive aspects mentioned: their political independence.

Itinerary and Empire of Alexander the Great
Itinerary and Empire of Alexander the Great. Credit: Mircalla22 / Wikimedia Commons

In the absence of Alexander, Greece was governed by the Macedonian general Antipater, whom the mother of the famous hero denounced as suspected of disloyalty. He was called to Babylon to answer this charge before the treasurer Harpalus, but he didn’t appear, sending only two of his sons. Alexander decided to replace him with another trusted military officer, Crateros, but died before he could issue the order, and while the Diadochi divided the empire, Harpalus, also questioned for his excesses, fled with five thousand talents (a fortune), six thousand mercenaries, and about thirty ships.

The fugitive sought refuge in Athens, where he urged its inhabitants to rebel against Antipater. He didn’t succeed and was imprisoned, though he managed to escape to Crete, where he was eventually murdered. The real problem arose when the Athenians also refused Antipater’s demand to turn over the unruly treasurer, stating they would only explain to Alexander. Meanwhile, to calm the situation, they sent the aforementioned Demosthenes to prison as a scapegoat since he had always been hostile to the Macedonians and recommended listening to Harpalus.

Arrival of news of Alexander’s death was almost like a revelation for Athens

Although the philosopher also escaped, the arrival of news of Alexander’s death was almost like a revelation for Athens: if the only one keeping all the Greeks united was no longer there and had no clear successor, it was time to reclaim their autonomy, as insisted by strategos Leosthenes and orator Hyperides, to resolve the problem created by an Alexandrian decree requiring cities to allow the return of their exiled citizens, threatening Athenian control over Samos, which was colonized after expelling many of its people.

Regions in central Greece
Regions in central Greece. Credit: MinisterForBadTimes / Wikimedia Commons

Consequently, the city joined others from central Greece that formed the Aetolian League, also aggrieved because it had conquered and repopulated nearby Oeniadae, with Alexander’s mandate demanding they withdraw or face intervention. Few opposed the war; among the most prominent were demagogue Demades and military leader Phocion, both representing the aristocratic faction that prospered under Macedonian rule. The former fell into disgrace because his proposal to deify Alexander was still remembered; the latter, however, was appointed strategos along with Leosthenes.

Another who suffered from the new political orientation was Aristotle, whose tutorship over Alexander was not forgiven, leading to charges of impiety and forced exile to Chalcis on the island of Euboea, where he died the following year. In contrast, Demosthenes took advantage of the circumstances to stage a triumphant return. War drums sounded, and conflict seemed inevitable, as Leosthenes had secured the services of eight thousand of Alexander’s mercenaries, further strengthening the already considerable allied army.

Sparta refused because many allies were their ancestral enemies

Aside from some specific cities, Greece rose united against Macedonia with regions and cities from Thessaly, Phthiotis, Melis, Doris, Locris, Phocis, Enianes, Alicea, Dolopia, Atamania, Molossia, and even Illyrian and Thracian tribes. Later, parts of the Peloponnese joined, including Argos, Sicyon, Epidaurus, Troezen, Phlius, Elis, and Messenia. Sparta refused due to its weakened state from Agis III’s War, distrust of Athenian leadership (which didn’t support it during that conflict), and because many allies were their ancestral enemies, such as the Argives and Messenians.

Bust of Demosthenes
Bust of Demosthenes. Credit: Eric Gaba (Sting) / Wikimedia Commons

The Greek islands tended to remain neutral, in solidarity with Samos (remember, usurped by Athens), and only Rodas, Lefkada, and Carystos in Euboea joined the rebels. However, Macedonia retained the loyalty of Boeotia, Acarnania, and the Euboean League, along with its garrisons at Cadmea in Thebes and Acrocorinth in Corinth. With the end of diplomacy focused more on seeking allies than on peace, the dice were cast, and it was time for battle.

Operations began once Phocion resolved doubts about himself—he was reluctant to fight because he believed Athens couldn’t sustain a long war—and overcame protests against his order to enlist all Athenians under sixty—Phocion himself silenced them by reminding them that he was in his eighties. The first front was in Euboea, where General Phedrus destroyed the city of Styra, possibly at Carystos’ request, sending a warning to the others.

But the most significant episode of this phase took place in Lamia, a city in Phthiotis that eventually gave its name to the historical conflict. Leosthenes, who had added seven thousand Aetolians to his mercenaries and later received reinforcements from the Athenian army with two thousand more mercenaries, five thousand hoplites, and five hundred cavalry, led the action. With these forces, he defeated the Cadmea garrison and convinced the still hesitant to join the fight, raising their ranks to thirty thousand men.

Phocion with his wife, by Franz Caucig
Phocion with his wife, by Franz Caucig. Credit: Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

Antipater, leading thirteen thousand hoplites and six hundred cavalry, moved against this threat, keeping them well supplied by sea with a squadron of one hundred ten triremes sailing along the coast. His cavalry grew stronger when he recruited two thousand additional Thessalian horsemen, but this backfired; the newly recruited forces betrayed him and ambushed the Macedonian cavalry, leaving him without troops on horseback and forcing him to barricade in Lamia. Despite this being the first Macedonian defeat in Greece in thirty years, it wasn’t significant because from there, they could block the enemy’s advance northward—they were close to Thermopylae—and receive help by sea.

Indeed, though the allies laid siege to the city, it resisted for months, and one of its slingers, during a surprise sortie, killed Leosthenes. Eventually, Antipater received the requested aid: twenty thousand infantry and fifteen hundred cavalry led by Leonatus, one of Alexander’s seven somatophylakes (personal guards), who wasn’t acting only for military strategy but also because he wanted to marry Cleopatra, Alexander’s sister, following an offer from Olympias because she couldn’t stand Antipater.

In other words, Leonatus aimed for the Macedonian throne, and perhaps Antipater suspected this, offering his daughter Eurydice to him (although he made the same offer to Craterus with his other daughter, Phila). Lisimachus was also asked for help but couldn’t come because of a revolt in Thrace, so only Leonatus responded. The ships carrying his troops from Phrygia crossed the Hellespont without issue thanks to the control over the sea gained by the Macedonian navy, compensating for their initial numerical disadvantage.

The Lamia Acropolis today
The Lamia Acropolis today. Credit: Chabe01 / Wikimedia Commons

Though outnumbered, with one hundred ten ships left by Harpalus plus two hundred forty from the naval commander Clitus the White (out of a series of a thousand ships Alexander was building when he died) against about four hundred Athenian ships, the latter had crews for only half their units, and their admiral Euetion was defeated by Clitus in two battles; the first, at Abydus (near the Echinades Islands), wasn’t decisive, with Athens retaining most of its fleet, but lacking enough rowers; the second, at Amorgos (in the Cyclades), was a crushing Macedonian victory.

Some authors reverse the chronological order of those battles, and some suggest that a third one took place at the Hellespont, although in this case, it wasn’t so much about controlling the Aegean as about preventing Athens from importing wheat. In any case, the only successful action by the allies was carried out by Phocion, who repelled a landing at Rhamnus, so the arrival of Leonatus at Lamia forced the lifting of the city’s siege. His joy didn’t last long: a lack of coordination with Antipater led to his defeat in the first battle, which meant he never got to marry Eurydice (her eventual husband would be Ptolemy, to arrange an alliance against Perdiccas in 321 B.C.).

That battle was the Battle of Melitea, where he tried to prevent the Greek allies, now under Antiphilus’ command, from reaching the city after leaving the siege of Lamia: the Macedonian phalanx held, but their cavalry gave way to the Thessalian superiority—two thousand horsemen—led by Menon of Pharsalia, forcing Antipater, who showed up the following day, to avoid the clash and opt for a retreat. Ironically, the Macedonian ruler benefited threefold from the situation by breaking the siege, eliminating a rival to the throne, and taking over his army.

Ruins of Thermo, capital of the Aetolian League
Ruins of Thermo, capital of the Aetolian League. Credit: Κώστας Κουκούλης / Wikimedia Commons

The situation improved even further when Crateros finally joined him. He came from Cilicia with ten thousand hoplites, fifteen hundred cavalry, and a thousand archers/slingers, boosting Antipater’s forces to forty thousand infantry, five thousand cavalry, and three thousand archers/slingers. These numbers doubled those of Antiphilus, who had only twenty-five thousand infantry and thirty-five hundred cavalry. The Macedonians forced the confrontation, which took place at Crannon, in the Thessalian region of Pelasgiotis, in August 322 B.C.

The numerical superiority of the Thessalian cavalry overwhelmed the Greek infantry

The numerical superiority of the Thessalian cavalry overwhelmed the Greek infantry, forcing them to retreat to nearby hills for better defensive positions. Unfortunately, this led their cavalry to believe they were retreating, and they followed suit, tipping the scales definitively toward the Macedonian side. There weren’t many casualties, about five hundred for Antiphilus and a third fewer for the others, but the result was significant enough for Antipater to refuse to sign an armistice with his adversaries collectively, instead insisting on doing so individually.

The successive capture of several cities caused the alliance to crumble, with its members surrendering in search of the best possible negotiation terms. Athens and Aetolia were left alone and had no choice but to ask for peace without conditions, which were extremely harsh despite the delegates sent to negotiate being those who opposed the war: Demades and Phocion, joined by Xenocrates of Chalcedon (the director of the Academy founded by Plato).

The Death of Phocion, by Joseph Denis Odevaere
The Death of Phocion, by Joseph Denis Odevaere. Credit: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

First, the leaders of the insurrection were to be executed, as happened in all captured cities; we saw the fate of Demosthenes and Hyperides. This implied a political reform proposed by Demades and Phocion, where the characteristic Athenian democracy was replaced with an oligarchic system, changing the constitution to limit citizenship to those with incomes above two thousand drachmas; the number of citizens dropped from twenty-one thousand to nine thousand (Xenocrates was not among them, as he refused to accept the provision, arguing that Antipater treated them well as slaves but not as free people).

In practice, the era of city-states in Greece had ended

Athens ceased to be a thalassocratic power because not only did it have to give up Oropos, Amphiaraus, and Samos, but it also had to host a permanent Macedonian garrison in Mounichia, a fortified hill from which the ports of Phalerum and Piraeus could be controlled. Furthermore, they were imposed with the payment of the war costs and a huge indemnity, which, along with the suppression of local manufacturing industries (marble, metal), ruined their economy—their ports lost their hegemony to Rhodes, Alexandria, and Delos—and ended their status and independence, retaining only their cultural aura. In practice, the era of city-states in Greece had ended.

By way of epilogue, it’s worth mentioning that Athens did not easily give up its former prominence and still played a role in the turbulent succession in Macedonia, which got more complicated with the Wars of the Diadochi. In 319 B.C., upon Antipater’s death, he didn’t appoint his son Cassander as his successor but instead named General Polyperchon. The son, dissatisfied, gained the support of the Athenian aristocratic faction led by Phocion, against the popular faction that preferred Polyperchon for restoring freedoms. When Phocion refused to obey the Assembly’s order to support Polyperchon, the people revolted against him, resulting in his trial and forced ingestion of hemlock. Demades had already been executed by Antipater a couple of years earlier, ironically suspected of treason for conspiring in favor of Perdiccas.

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on April 26, 2024. Puedes leer la versión en español en Guerra Lamíaca, la contienda que supuso el fin de la independencia de Atenas y el ocaso de las ciudades-estado griegas


Diodoro de Sicilia, Biblioteca histórica | Plutarco, Vidas paralelas | Peter Green, Alexander to Actium. The historical evolution of the Hellenistic Age | John Keane, Vida y muerte de la democracia | Pierre Grimal, El mundo mediterráneo en la Edad Antigua. El helenismo y el auge de Roma | Claude Mossé, Historia de una democracia: Atenas | Wikipedia

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