Sacred War

B.C. 355 to 352
Phocions — versus — Locrians, Thebes, Macedonia

The war discussed below is sometimes called the Third Sacred War, since there had been two previous altercations regarding control of the Shrine of Delphi. The 'First' and 'Second' Sacred Wars, however, fought in 590 and 448 BC, respectively, were relatively minor skirmishes. Unlike the Third Sacred War, they involved no large scale battles, or destruction of temple property, or important political developments involving the long term fate of the entire Greek mainland.

Third Sacred War : 355 to 352 B.C.

The Sacred war started as a dispute between Phocis, on the northern border of the Gulf of Corinth, and its eastern neighbor Boeotia, but assumed religious importance when the commanders of Phocis took possession of the Shrine at Delphi, and used its riches to fund their war against Boeotia and its allies. It lasted from 355 BC until peace was signed in 346 BC, and was significant mainly because it provided an ongoing pretext for Philip of Macedon to interfere in Greek affairs, and expand his territory all over northern Greece.

The war occurred several years after the death of Epaminondas ended Thebes' dominance of military affairs on mainland Greece. Athens had begun to assume power by attempting to reestablish its Athenian Empire in the Aegean, but was having difficulties holding its allies together. Sparta had lost its domination of the Peloponnese and was still recovering from the oppressions of the Theban era. In short, there was no city state, or league of city states in Greece at the time that was powerful and organized enough to bring order to the situation, as it became increasingly threatening.

Hostilities began in 355 BC when Boeotia used its influence in the Amphictyonic Council (a league of city states charged with the protection of the Oracle of Delphi) to force penalties and retribution against Phocis, which was the region in which the shrine of Delphi was located. Instead of submitting to these penalties however, the Phocians, led by two generals, Philomelus and Onomarchus, sized Delphi and used its riches to hire a mercenary army. With an army of between five and ten thousand, the Phocian leaders invaded Boeotia and Thessaly and were not driven back until Philip of Macedon interfered.

By 352 BC both Philomelus and Onomarchus had been killed in battles, but by then Philip of Macedon had brought all of Thessaly under his rule. This finally roused Athens, spurred on by the orator Demosthenes, to awareness of the danger Philip's presence in Northern Greece. The southern city-states, led by Athens finally united to resist Philip's passage at Thermopylae, but over the next few years Philip used diplomacy rather than force to make enough separate alliances with various southern city states that they could not resist him effectively. In particular, he provided aid to Athens' client state Euboea and encouraged it to rebel from Athenian domination. Although Phocion won back control of Euboea at the battle of Tamynae, the other rebellions in the Aegean kept Athens too busy holding its empire together, to resist Philip's increasing influence. Through all this time, Demosthenes constantly preached about the Macedonian threat, but to no lasting avail.

The Sacred War did not officially end until 346 BC at which time Athens and all the other southern city states abandoned their support of Phocis, and left Philip II free hand to annex this territory to his growing dominion.

DateBattle Summary
355 BC  
Battle of Delphi   Phocians victory
Fought B.C. 355, between the Phocians, 5,000 strong, under Philomelus, and the Locrians. Philomelus, who had seized Delphi, attacked the Locrians on the heights above the sacred city, and routed them with heavy loss, many being driven over the precipice.
354 BC  
Battle of Neon   Thebes victory
Fought B.C. 354, between the Phocians and certain mercenary troops, 10,000 in all, under Philomelus, and the Thebans and Locrians. The Phocians were totally defeated, and Philomelus, driven fighting and covered with wounds to the edge of a precipice, preferred death to surrender, and sprang over the cliff.
352 BC  
Battle of Pagasaean Gulf   Macedonians victory
Fought B.C. 352, between the Phocians, under Onomarchus, and the Macedonians, under Philip. Philip's infantry was about equal in numbers to that of the Phocians, but he was far superior in cavalry, and in the end the Phocians were completely defeated, with the loss of a third of their number. Onomarchus was slain.
352 BC  
Battle of Thermopylae (Argentine ) Greeks victory
Fought B.C. 352 between the Macdeonians under Philip II and the Phocians in alliance with the Athenians, Achaeans, and Spartans. Philip had recently brought Thessaly under his control, but was stopped at Thermopylae by the united Greeks.

Short Biography
Philopmelus Phocian General who raised a mercenary army to maintain Phocian control of Delphi. Killed at Battle of Neon.
Onomarchus Phocian General who took command after the death of Philipmelus. Died at the battle of Pagasaean Gulf.
Philip of Macedonia Used statesmanship as well as military force to bring Greece under sway of Macedonia.
Demosthenes One of Greece's greatest orators. Spoke against Philip and the Macedonians.
Phocion Athenian statesmen who tried to avoid war between Athens and Macedonia. Sometimes opposed Demosthenes.

Story Links
Book Links
Sacred War  in  The Story of Greece  by  Mary Macgregor
Sacred War  in  Historical Tales: Greek  by  Charles Morris
Philip of Macedonia  in  The Story of the Greek People  by  Eva March Tappan