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Battle of Megalopolis 331 BC

They expected that Darius would help them and send them much money so that they could gather great armies of mercenaries, while Alexander would not be able to divide his forces.         Diodorus Siculus

 

One of the worst documented battles of Alexanders reign. Nothing is known about the battle formation, except that the battle was fought in hilly terrain and that the plain where both armies met was too small to contain all the troops involved. It is said Megalopolis was a battle with continuous action and mobility, but also a battle in which many units had to wait for their chance to advance to the front line due to the lack of space. Agis had moved his theatre of operations to the Peloponnese and took with him the veteran troops from Crete intending them as the backbone of an army to put in the field against Antipater. With Alexander far off in Mesopotamia and the 15, 000 recruits well on the road to join him he had timed this escalation of the war to perfection.

With his eastern flank secure, Antipater was able to mobilise all of the military resources available in the spring of 330. The army that was force-marched from Thrace included the whole of the 12,000 infantry and 1,500 cavalry of the national levy that had been left to him by Alexander. He could have travelled more quickly by sea but chose the overland route to pick up reinforcements and supplies from the allied and dependent peoples he passed on the way. Thessaly provided the cavalrymen it was famous for while the states of the Corinthian league were a rich source of hoplites and light infantry. By the time he approached the Peloponnese Antipater commanded an army 40,000 strong; a force larger than the one Alexander had led against Persia. Although many of the high quality Macedonian troops had gone with the king, he had made some amends by sending back 3,000 talents of treasure to his regent. Three times the annual income Philip derived from the Thracian gold and silver mines; this fortune allowed Antipater to fund the military contribution of his allies and thicken out his ranks with mercenaries.

We hear of no opposition during the long march through northern Greece though even a decade before the presence of a Macedonian army south of Thermopylae would have created uproar. Even if sullen acceptance was more general than genuine co-operation it was enough to show that the lesson of Chaeronea had not been forgotten. All this must have been a source of some satisfaction for Antipater-he had seen at first hand the success of his policies of control in north and central Greece-as he approached the Spartan lines outside Megalopolis.

The Megalopolitans had already undergone a winter of siege and Antipater was anxious to rescue his allies. Somewhere near the city the two armies met in battle. The Spartans finding themselves greatly outnumbered had moved back into the hills where space was restricted and this disparity might be less significant. The core of Agis' battle line was the whole of the citizen army. Badians interpretation says that Agis III may have had over 30,000, which is over generous, more likely he had 22,000 of these 8,000 may have been mercenaries including the survivors of Issus, the Laconian complement of Spartiates, inferiors and Perioeci cannot have numbered more than 6,000 leaving 8,000 for his Peloponnesian allies from Arcadia (except Megalopolis), Achaea (barring Pellene and Elis which included 2,000 cavalry. Mercenary commander Thymodes had led the 30,000 Greek mercenaries at Issus in the service of King Darius. Nothing is actually heard from Thymodes after Issus and the  veteran mercenaries were in fact shipped to Sparta by a certain Hippias. His allies provided thousands more of these hoplites but few horsemen as generally cavalry did not flourish in the mountainous and agriculturally poor Peloponnese. The mercenaries were mainly peltasts.

The army Antipater deployed were generally inferior to those of Agis. The reason for this is that Macedonia was already beginning to feel the strain of the war in Persia. Just before Megalopolis Antipater had sent 15,000 reinforcements to Alexander. Of these, 6,000 must have been Macedonians and 4,000 Greek allies. So Antipater was beginning to run out of recruits. Also the fact that the Macedonian phalanx broke early in the battle indicates his troops were not of the of the first rank. The League of Corinth on this occasion supplied 23,000 with 12,000 Macedonians and 5,000 Thracian and Illyrians. The Macedonian phalangites were the key, of which there were 12,000 of them trained and drilled in the fashion taught by Philip. They were armed with their twelve foot pike and they were massed 16 deep with the first 5 ranks holding their sarissas level.

The Spartan hoplites formed up 8 deep but used a shorter 8 foot spear and carried a hoplon, but they were meeting the Macedonian phalanx for the first time. But the Spartans meeting the long sarissa of the Macedonians found themselves up against a threat they were unused to. The sight of the line of  pikes approaching them unnerved them. Agis, as Spartan kings traditionally did, fought in the front rank and was wounded early on. Antipater's men with their discipline, greater numbers and growing confidence were soon driving the coalition army back while the stricken Agis was carried off on his shield by his bodyguard.

When their forced retreat had taken them to higher ground the Spartans rallied with the terrain now giving some advantage against their attackers. According to the Curtius a titanic struggle ensued. The Spartan army "closed ranks and withstood the assault of the enemy line. The battle revolved around the constant changes of fortunes on that day. However the narrow terrain to which the fighting had been confined would not permit a full scale engagement of the two forces.

The Spartans, by luck or stratagem, had drawn their enemy onto a battlefield where the numerical superiority of the Macedonians was nullified and where the rough ground made it difficult for their phalanx to keep its formation. Finally the weight of the Macedonian phalanx told and the Spartans retreat became more pronounced, the Antipater started exerting pressure on his disordered foe and started pursuit of Agis. "Agis seeing his army melt away stood his ground fighting to the bitter end. He was eventually brought down by a javelin thrown from distance, a fatal blow received in the chest, his breastplate having been removed to allow the earlier wound to be tended.

Even with Agis dead, Antipater had no intention of allowing the vanquished to fight another day and a vigorous pursuit was mounted. The Macedonian cavalry and light infantry chased down the fleeing Peloponnesians well into the night. Over a quarter of Agis' army had perished with him but Antipater also sustained heavy losses with many wounded. It is written 5,300 died on the Spartan side and 3,500 on the Macedonian side. But even for Antipater's side normal battle statistics would indicate that up to 90 percent of the Macedonian army might have been wounded, just as Curtius Rufus records. This had been no easy victory with the regent drawing on all his experience and tenacity as well as his tactical skills. An achievement that certainly did not merit the reported remark of Alexander "It seems, my friends that while we have been conquering Darius here, there has been a battle of mice in Arcadia. "