Battle of Chaeronea (86 BC)

For the earlier battle, see Battle of Chaeronea (338 BC)

Battle of Chaeronea
Part of the First Mithridatic War
Date86 BC
Result Roman victory
Roman Republic Pontus
Commanders and leaders
Sulla Archelaus
30,000 120,000
Casualties and losses
12 (figures are greatly disputed) 110,000 (figures are greatly disputed)

The Battle of Chaeronea was fought by the Roman forces of Lucius Cornelius Sulla and Mithridates' general, Archelaus, near Chaeronea, in Boeotia, in 86 BC during the First Mithridatic War. The battle ended with a complete rout of the Pontic army and a decisive victory for the Romans.

The Pontic numbers present at the battle are varied in estimates ranging from a "modest" 76,500 up to a possible total of 120,000. Of these, anywhere between 75,000 and 110,000 are infantry troops while the rest, 1,500 to 10,000, are cavalry and chariot troops. Roman numbers are more stable at an estimated 30,000 men total, with around 17,000 of these being Romans and the rest being a composition of Macedonian and Greek allied troops. The total number of casualties and losses are also disputed, Sulla cites himself that 110,000 Pontic soldiers were killed while only 14 of his own men had gone missing, with two of those even returning the next day.


Pontic troops

One of Mithridates generals, Taxiles, and a force of around 110,000 men and 10,000 cavalry were sent to join up with Archelaus and his forces in the Elatean plains.[1][2] Baker presents a reduced figure of the force, he cites a Roman army of less than 17,000 thousand, excluding allied troops, and the enemy Pontic army outnumbering those troops 5 to 1, or around 85,000 troops.[3] Delbruck presents both a "supposed" figure of 120,000 troops and a reduced figure of a "more modest" 60,000 Asiatics.[4] Delbruck further makes comments on the available primary sources and specifically refers to "vague and boastful" memoirs of Sulla which were the primary source that other historians of the time used, such as Plutarch.[4]

Mithridates' armies were a compound make-up of Greek and Oriental elements, the infantry was made up of Macedonian style phalanxes, with Pontic phalangists for missile units, and the cavalry a combination of horse and scythe-wheeled chariots.[5]

Sulla's troops

Sulla's forces are approximated to have been around 30,000 men,[4][6] with Baker commenting that of these less than 17,000 were Romans and the rest were composed of Macedonian and Greek allies.[7] Baker, however, doesn't give a concrete value for the number of Macedonian and Greek soldiers involved in the battle, merely noting a disparity of "over three to one" between the Roman and Pontic troops once the allies are accounted for.[7] The Roman forces were composed of veteran Roman legions and some cavalry.[6][8]


Sulla advanced his army from Athens and into Boeotia, where he met up with Hortensius, who had advanced southward from Thessaly, at Philoboetus.[1][2] Hortensius himself had moved through the mountains with a guide intent on avoiding an ambush.[1][2] Baker remarks that this movement put Sulla in a favourable position, his supplies were secure, wood and water were plentiful, the roads into Thessaly could be watched and guarded with ease, and the hills provided an advantage.[1][2] Baker describes this position as "commanding the Elatean plain and the valley of Cephisus."[1] Sulla was determined to dictate the time and place of the battle.[7]

Taxiles and his large force had to go north through a defile, before turning into the narrower valley, between Orchomenos and Chaeronea to meet up with Archelaus and his forces.[1][2] The consequence of this was that once Taxiles and his forces arrived, it became impossible for the forces to retreat and instead had to stand and fight.[1] This force was encamped in the valley in a position which allowed the commanders to watch the Roman army.[7] Archelaus intended to pursue a war of attrition, Taxiles with his far larger force, however, was determined to defeat the Romans in battle and insisted on an engagement and, given the circumstances, Archelaus was in no position to refuse.[9]


The Pontic forces, encamped in the valley, sent out numerous foraging parties which plundered and burned the countryside.[1][2] Sulla was unable to defend the region with his far smaller force and instead was forced to stay camped up on the hill.[1][2] Instead of remaining idle, Sulla ordered his men to dig entrenchments on the flanks to protect against possible envelopment by cavalry and also ordered the construction of palisades in the front to defend against the chariots.[10] The exercise was twofold in intention, first Sulla sought to ensure the discipline of his soldiers and second, he hoped to tire the soldiers out so that they were more willing to battle.[5][11] When his troops came to him requesting battle, Sulla challenged the men, citing that their new found will to fight was a response to inherent laziness to work, to occupy the hill of Parapotamii.[11] The men agreed to this task, Archelaus had already marked the position for his own men and it became a race between Archelaus' and Sulla's men to occupy the position first.[11] Baker describes this position as "almost impregnable", the occupier had no choice but to turn eastward towards Chaeronea to advance and if action took place here, one army or the other would be fighting at an angle.[11]

Order of battle

For Rome, Sulla was in command of the right flank of the Roman army, the legate Murena on the left, Hortensius and Galba commanded the reserve cohorts in the rear with Hortensius on the left and Galba on the right.[2][8] Finally, Gabinius and one full legion were sent to occupy the town of Chaeronea itself.[8] For Mithridates, Archelaus was in command.[8]


Sulla opened the engagement with an apparent retreat, he left one unit under Gabinius to occupy and defend the town of Chaeronea, had Murena retreat back onto Mount Thurium, while he himself marched alongside the right bank of the river Cephisus.[8] Archelaus in response marched forth to occupy a position facing Chaeronea and extended a flanking force to occupy Murena's troops at Thurium.[8] Sulla linked up with Chaeronea and extended the Roman line across the valley.[8] Murena's position was the weakest, possibly untenable, to strengthen the position Gabinius recruited some of the locals to help deal with the danger, a proposition which Sulla approved.[8] By this point, Sulla had taken up his position on the right and the battle began.[12]

Murena, assisted by the force of natives from Chaeronea, cautiously launched an attack against the right flank, the flank having been attacked from above is forced down the hill with disastrous consequences and possibly up to 3,000 casualties there.[2][13] In exchange the chariots charged forth against Gabinius who was in the centre, Gabinius withdrew his troops behind defensive stakes thus forcing the chariots to retreat.[13] As the chariots retreated they were met by a barrage of Roman javelins and arrows causing confusion and rendering Archelaus' main infantry line of phalanx vulnerable to attack.[10]

The entrenched Roman legions were then pitched in a battle against the Macedonian style phalanx troops in the centre with missile support in the form of stones and bolts coming from the rear.[14] The phalanx, unable to put up a full charge, engaged the Roman legions.[14] Despite this, the Romans still had to contend against pike phalanx units with their own short swords.[14] In order for the troops to use their short-sword they had to swat away the opposing pikes with their bare hands before drawing themselves near enough to attack.[15]

With the centre engaged, Archelaus extended his right wing in an outflanking maneuver.[2][15] Hortensius attempted to counter, but in doing so left his unit vulnerable to a counterattack.[2][15] In response to this vulnerability, Archelaus' cavalry launched a successful cavalry charge and engaged and surrounded Hortensius' troops.[2][15] Sulla, who had up until this point remained uncommitted in battle, moved quickly to alleviate the pressure on Hortensius' troops.[2][15] Archelaus, recognizing Sulla's maneuver by the dust rising from the ground, recalled some of his cavalry and instead ordered them to attack the weakened Roman right flank.[15]

Murena, still engaged, was then forced to face Taxiles and his troops as well.[15] Hortensius moved in to provide support to Murena while Sulla returned to the right flank where he led a charge against Archelaus' left one.[15] At this point, the Roman lines began to advance forward at all points.[2][15] The weakened left flank of Archelaus routed and was pursued off the field, the centre began advancing forward being led by Gabinius who was slaughtering the enemy troops, Murena and the right flank, despite being in danger, was also advancing forward.[15] The entire Pontic army routed and went into retreat while being pursued by the Romans.[2] Allegedly, only 10,000 of Archelaus' troops made it back to their camp.[2] Sulla reported that 100,000 of Archelaus' troops were killed, that 14 of his own were missing at the end of the battle and that two of those made it back by the next day.[5] These figures are, however, called into question as being wholly unconvincing.[4][5] Despite the odds, however, the Romans had emerged victorious.[16]


In the immediate aftermath of the battle Sulla erected a trophy which he dedicated to the Roman gods Mars, for delivering victory to Rome, and also to Venus, in the spirit of fortune for the luck granted to the Romans.[16] Further, he held victory games at Thebes, during which he may have been made aware of the approach of Valerius Flaccus who had recently landed in Epirus.[2][16] Flaccus and Sulla met in Thessaly, though neither army made a move, both armies set up camp and waited for the other to attack.[17] No attack came, and after some time Flaccus' soldiers began to desert in favour of Sulla, at first slowly but with time in increasing numbers, eventually Flaccus had to break camp or lose his entire army.[17] During this time, Archelaus, who had wintered on the Island of Euboea, was reinforced by Mithridates. He then marched with another large army from Chalcis back into Boeotia.[2][5][17] Both Sulla and Flaccus were aware of these developments, so, rather than waste Roman troops to fight each other, Flaccus took his soldiers and headed for Asia Minor while Sulla turned back to face Archelaus once again.[18] Sulla moved his army a few miles to the east of Chaeronea and into position near Orchomenos, a place he chose for its natural entrenchment.[18] Here, Sulla once more, and once again outnumbered, faced off against Archelaus at the Battle of Orchomenus.[10]


  1. Baker, George (2001). Sulla the Fortunate: Roman General and Dictator. Rowman and Littlefield Publishers. p. 198. ISBN 1-4617-4168-8.
  2. Venning, Timothy (2011). A Chronology of the Roman Empire. A&C Black. p. 207. ISBN 1-4411-5478-7.
  3. Baker, George (2001). Sulla the Fortunate: Roman General and Dictator. Rowman and Littlefield Publishers. pp. 199–200. ISBN 1-4617-4168-8.
  4. Delbruck, Hans (1990). Warfare in Antiquity. University of Nebraska Press. p. 438. ISBN 0-8032-9199-X.
  5. Warry, John (2015). Warfare in the Classical World: War and the Ancient Civilizations of Greece and Rome. Pavilion Books. ISBN 1-84994-315-X.
  6. Eggenberger, David (2012). An Encyclopaedia of Battles: Accounts of Over 1,560 Battles from 1479 BC to the Present. Courier Corporation. p. 85. ISBN 0-486-14201-9.
  7. Baker, George (2001). Sulla the Fortunate: Roman General and Dictator. Rowman and Littlefield Publishers. p. 199. ISBN 1-4617-4168-8.
  8. Baker, George (2001). Sulla the Fortunate: Roman General and Dictator. Rowman and Littlefield Publishers. pp. 200–201. ISBN 1-4617-4168-8.
  9. Baker, George (2001). Sulla the Fortunate: Roman General and Dictator. Rowman and Littlefield Publishers. pp. 198–199. ISBN 1-4617-4168-8.
  10. Tucker, Spencer (2009). A Global Chronology of Conflict: From the Ancient World to the Modern Middle East. ABC-CLIO. p. 113. ISBN 1-85109-672-8.
  11. Baker, George (2001). Sulla the Fortunate: Roman General and Dictator. Rowman and Littlefield Publishers. p. 200. ISBN 1-4617-4168-8.
  12. Baker, George (2001). Sulla the Fortunate: Roman General and Dictator. Rowman and Littlefield Publishers. pp. 201–202. ISBN 1-4617-4168-8.
  13. Baker, George (2001). Sulla the Fortunate: Roman General and Dictator. Rowman and Littlefield Publishers. p. 202. ISBN 1-4617-4168-8.
  14. Baker, George (2001). Sulla the Fortunate: Roman General and Dictator. Rowman and Littlefield Publishers. pp. 202–203. ISBN 1-4617-4168-8.
  15. Baker, George (2001). Sulla the Fortunate: Roman General and Dictator. Rowman and Littlefield Publishers. p. 203. ISBN 1-4617-4168-8.
  16. Baker, George (2001). Sulla the Fortunate: Roman General and Dictator. Rowman and Littlefield Publishers. p. 204. ISBN 1-4617-4168-8.
  17. Baker, George (2001). Sulla the Fortunate: Roman General and Dictator. Rowman and Littlefield Publishers. p. 218. ISBN 1-4617-4168-8.
  18. Baker, George (2001). Sulla the Fortunate: Roman General and Dictator. Rowman and Littlefield Publishers. p. 219. ISBN 1-4617-4168-8.


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