Epic Battles: Yambolis
When “ghosts” massacred an entire army
History is full of unknown events and epic moments that do not manage to gain the publicity they deserve. One of these events is the battle of Yambolis, whose outcome shocked the ancient Greek world and whose innovative tactics should be a prime example of how a small force is able— with a little bit of planning, determination, and luck — to defeat even the largest professional army. Let’s learn more about this mysterious David versus Goliath moment, which is often overshadowed by Thermopylae or Salamina.
The Historical Background
Ancient Greece was nothing more than a collection of cities that loved to hate each other. There are many examples of city-states that were eternal rivals. Athens and Sparta, Sparta and Argos, Sparta and Messene (as you can see by this pattern, Sparta was really good at making enemies), Corinth and Korkyra, and many others. However, one of the deepest hatreds ran between the Thessalian League and the small cities of Phocis in Central Greece.
The Thessalian League was a “Koinon”, meaning a collection of cities and villages, united under one common rule. In this case, the leaders were members of the Aleuadae family clan, one of the many noble houses of Thessaly. You can imagine the League operating as some sort of feudal kingdom. There were the rulers — the forementioned Aleuadae — hundreds of noble houses who were granted land to rule and farm and in return had to provide the League with taxes and men at arms, and finally, there were the common, free people.
Unlike the rest of the Greek city-states, the nobles in Thessaly did not serve as hoplites — the traditional high-ranking army troops in Greece — but as light and heavy cavalry. This was due to their homeland’s unique geography. The Thessalian plain was and is one of Greece’s most fertile regions, ideal for farming, livestock, and horse breeding. Thessaly was long associated with these animals, after all, it was the mythological home of the ferocious Centaurs. The Thessalian cavalry was (at least in mainland Greece) the best of its kind and the rest Greeks often sought their assistance on the battlefield.
To sum up, the Thessalians were a great force to reckon with. They possessed Creece’s most fertile region, had a great economy running, and most important of all, they were excellent horse masters, able to wipe out entire hoplite armies. But, as with any major regional power in history, there was a thing that they did not have, one important thing that drove them mad:
Access to the sea.
The Thessalian plain is surrounded by mountains, blocking any access to the rich ports of southern Greece. The small Malieus gulf on the south was not able to compete with the ports of Piraeus and Corinth. To sold their goods to the market and gain large profits, they needed to establish contact with the port-towns at the north of the Euboic gulf. Unfortunately for the Thessalians (or the Phocians as it would turn out), the Phocians controlled the region. So, if the first wished to trade with their rich, southern neighbors, they were obligated to cross Phocis and pay the latter a price for using their roads and habrors. This of course caused serious tensions between the two.
Who were the Phocians, you might ask. They were a Greek tribe, living in a part of central Greece, stretching from the pass of Thermopylae and the northern shores of the Euboic Gulf to the Corinthian Gulf in the south. In a quite opposite status with the Thessalian plain, Phocis was poor, mountainous, and lacked any form of goods. The Parnassus mountain range divided the region in half and covered most of its land. The result was that no significant city-states were able to form in Phocis. The natives lived in isolated villages on the slopes of Parnassus and were mostly shepherds.
While their land was poor and insignificant, there was something far more valuable than fertile lands, riches, or even the sea: Phocis was the place where the famous Delphi Oracle was located.
The Delphi Oracle was quite similar in terms of religious, political, and economical importance, to the Papal States in the Middle Ages. Whoever controlled the Oracle controlled the voice of Apollo, and had access to undisputable power over Greece. He was able to create alliances, wage holy wars, and control the economy of entire regions. And the Thessalians craved this power…
First Sacred War
By 595 BCE the Thessalians had subdued the Greek tribes of eastern Pindos and southern Macedon. The road towards the south was wide open. Having great influence as a major power in Greece, they managed to gain control of the “Delphike Amphictyonia”, which is a fancy term for a sacred league of Greek cities that controlled the Oracle. Once in charge, the Thessalians used their power to invade Phocis, following a series of reports that some of their cities mistreated the pilgrims who wished to visit the Oracle (you know, just how the Crusaders came up with a similar excuse for invading the Holy Lands). Protected by the “sanctity” of the war the Thessalians ravaged Phocis, destroying their major cities and enslaving the population. In one case, regarding the port city of Cirra, they committed one of the first recorded war crimes in history, when they poisoned its waters, killing defenders and civilians alike (Anagnostou, 2013). The armies of the League took then a horrible oath to Apollo to wipe out the city from the face of the earth! They massacred all the remaining population — men, women, and children — razed the houses to the ground, uprooted the trees, and they even poisoned the ground, so that nothing could be able to grow again in the place which was cursed by Apollo (Anagnostou, 2013). It is worth noting that even at the time of Pausanias — almost eight centuries after — the ground around Cirra was still a wasteland!
The Phocians lost the war and were obliged to surrender their only fertile region — the Kirsaion plain — to the newly founded city of Delphi. They became subjects of the Thessalians for more than twenty years. The latter became the masters of Thessaly and mainland Greece, enjoying great amounts of wealth and power. They formed an alliance with the Athenians, and the Sikyonians and managed to extend their influence as far as Asia Minor until they were finally defeated by the Boeotians at the battle of Kerissos around 520 BCE. With the Thessalians being forced back to Thessaly the Phocians found a chance to rebel against their oppressors causing them to lose their precious influence over the area and their trade routes. But the horse masters of Greece were not completely defeated. Their small empire had just taken a scratch. After their retreat they started to gather once again their forces, preparing to avenge the Phocians in the most bloody way possible…
The Goliath Marches on…
In 510 BCE the Thessalians were able to gather once again one large army. It consisted of hundreds of elite horsemen — the proud noble elite — , battle-hardened hoplites from southern Thessaly, and ferocious tribesmen from the mountains of Pelio, and Pindos.
The Thessalian Tagoi (generals) knew that they have made a terrible mistake when they left the rest of the Phocians to live after the First Sacred War. This time they would correct their wrongdoings. Legend has it that before the campaign they gathered and took a terrible oath to wipe out any remaining Phocian… No prisoners would be taken, no slaves, or women. Men, women, and children were all to be put to the sword…
As soon as the Phocians learned the news regarding the upcoming invasion and the oath of the Thessalians, they started to organize their defense around Thermopylae. They built a wall — the same wall that Leonidas would defend some 30 years after — and waited for their sworn enemies to arrive. Unlike the Persians however, the Thessalians chose to pass through the neighboring land of the Locroi and took the long road, bypassing the narrow pass. Wishing not to share the same dire fate as the Phocians, the Locroi let them pass without resistance.
The advancing speed of the Thessalians along with the help of the Lokroi shattered the morale of the Phocians. They were left alone, without a proper army or allies, to stand against what was the greatest power in mainland Greece… And it was then, affected by panic and fear that they made a terrible decision…
They chose to send 300 hoplites — the majority of their army — under the command of general Gelon to defend the road to Yambolis, one of the few remaining Phocian cities in the northern borders of Phocis (Pausanias, 1992, 500). The heavy-armored hoplites were forced to marsh through mountainous terrain, a nightmare for every Greek general because the phalanx formation was not able to form if the ground wasn’t completely flat. Of course, such a numerous force of vulnerable, slow-moving targets was spotted easily by the fast-moving Thessalian scouts. Using a combined force of lightly armored missile infantry and their heavy cavalry, they smashed through the ranks of the Phocians, completely massacring them (Pausanias, 1992, 500). The Thessalians stayed loyal to their oath. No prisoners were taken…
The Final Stand
As soon as the night came, the news about the disaster at Yambolis reached the Phocians, and their cries could be heard echoing through the Parnassus peaks. Their general and hoplites — the only hope for defense — were dead and left unburied to rot, while the Thessalians were only a few kilometers away from Yambolis.
Phocis had fallen.
Immediately the civilians started to evacuate their homes and found shelter among the slopes of Parnassos just like their ancestors had done following the destruction of Cirra. In tears, they abandoned their beloved homes, before the enemy could reach them. But even the mountains would not be able to save them this time. After taking over their major cities, the Thessalians would hunt down any survivors left. The Phocian race would be exterminated…
It was at this moment when the Phocians, panicked and desperate, decided to make a final last stand. Legend has it that men, women, and children held their own gatherings at Parnassos, each of them deciding to fight the invaders to death (Pausanias, 1992, 500). The remaining men would march to Yambolis to face their oppressors for one final time. Thirty of them would stay behind to guard the women and children. Meanwhile, the women would light huge fires at Parnassus to distract the Thessalians regarding their numbers and encampment. These fires served also another, more gory purpose… If the Phocians were defeated, the women and children would throw themselves in the fire, thus ending their lives before the Thessalians managed to capture them and suffer a horrible death full of torture and rape (Pausanias, 1992, 500).
Under the pale moonlight, the men left Parnassus, ready to fight a suicidal battle. Artemis — their patron goddess — lighted the sky, giving them hope. Under the command of generals Roios and Daifados, they would sacrifice themselves to protect their families.
But the Phocians were not alone that night!
One seer from the land of Elis, a mysterious figure known as Tellias, was marching with them. It is said (although it is possible that the whole story is made up) that Tellias used his divine skills and came up with a genius plan to face the Thessalians (Pausanias, 1992, 500). The Phocians would advance at the open plain, having the mountain and its vast forest at their backs. Then, under the cover of the night, they would dig a huge trench, stretching in front of their lines. The trench would be filled with vases, and then it would be covered up with dirt and leaves in order to be completely invisible (Pausanias, 1992, 500).
It was a huge trap, set for the Thessalian cavalry. Following the directions of Tellias, the Phocians dug the trench, covered it, and then waited for the sunrise...
When the sun rose from the sky, the Thessalians were caught completely by surprise, seeing the few Phocians ready to fight them on an open field! Many of them bursted into laughs, thinking they had gone insane. Without a waste of time, they mounted their horses, while the hoplites dressed in their copper armor. The generals took their positions. Many nobles were rushing to go no the front lines and have their peace of pie in the massacre that would follow. After letting an intimidating war cry to goddess Athena, they marched on (Pausanias, 1992, 500).
The Phocians held their breath. Roios and Diofados gave them courage with their motivational speeches. They reminded them that their ancestors, the mythical Lapiths, had faced the ferocious Thessalian Centaurs — who were known rapists, murderers, and criminals — and were victorious. Now history would repeat itself once more. Thousands of painted Centaurs decorated the Thessalian shields. And the descendants of the Lapiths were there, ready to face them.
A trumpet sounded, its notes echoing through the battlefield. Immediately, the Thessalian cavalry started advancing at full speed, the cavalrymen’s spears aiming directly at the lightly armored Phocians. Each second they came closer. Their horses’ gallop made the earth tremble, their armor shined under the sunlight. Today was going to be a good day, a glorious day…
A terrible crack sounded, as the feet of the horses fell into the trench. For a few moments, the Thessalians seemed to ride some sort of mythical pegasi, as they were flying through the air.
And then they fell…
Legs broke, bodies were shattered at the broken vases, blood covered the trench. The momentum of the charge could not be stopped. Horses and men cried for help, many were disembodied. A large cloud of dust rose up. In the midst of ultimate destruction, the Phocians drew their swords and charged… Their oppressors, the tyrants who wished to extinguish them simply because they existed, the destroyers of Cirra, the rappers, and murderers, lied to the ground undefended. No mercy was given that day… The Phocians slaughtered every man they could find.
Panic was spread through the Thessalian ranks. The pride of the army, the noble Thessalian cavalry, was decimated in one single moment! The rest of the army retreated without any order, running for their lives.
The Phocians were victorious! Their families were safe! But their oppressors would not abandon their goals so easily. After all, there were a lot of survivors, who managed to reorganize the retreating army. The Thessalian threat had not yet left Phocis. The Phocians knew that they could not have peace until every Thessalian was either dead or out of their land. So, the night after the battle, 500 volunteers, again under the advice of Tellias, painted their bodies white from head to toe and slipped through the encampment of the Thessalians (Pausanias, 1992, 500). In the middle of the night, they started slaughtering their exhausted enemies. The Thessalians woke up and thought that ghosts were attacking the camp! Many were driven mad by fear, others — being totally confused and terrified — started to attack their comrades (Pausanias, 1992, 500). The Phocians on the other side continued their brutal work, having only one thought in their minds:
Kill, whoever is not white.
When the sun was finally up, all that remained of the Thessalian camp was ashes and hundreds of corpses. It seemed as if the land of Phocis had mysteriously woken up and attacked its invaders. In one single day and night Thessaly lost all its influence and power in Greece and Phocis was finally free.
If you ask a random person today “what happened at the battle of Yambolis”, they will scratch their heads before telling you they have never heard that name before. No one knows the great conflicts and powers that shaped the future of ancient Greece, allowing Sparta and Athens to become the protagonists of its history. With the Thessalians defeated the power vacuum left in central Greece was covered by a newly rising force, the Thebans, who started conquering and subjugating their neighboring cities, eventually forming the Boeotian League. Meanwhile, the loss of Thessalian influence over the Delphi Oracle allowed the Spartans to control it and use it for their own goals of becoming masters of the Peloponnese.
When the Persians of king Xerxes invaded Greece in 480 BCE, the Thessalians were a ghost of their former glorious past. They surrendered to the King of Kings and despite providing him with a major force, their role was overshadowed by the more powerful Thebans. The battle of Yambolis was so devastating for them, that it transformed Thessaly into a small regional power.
Yambolis serves also as a beautiful tale of what humans are capable to achieve when desperate. The last stand of the Phocians, the trench warfare, following the “ghostly” expedition at the Thessalian camp is a fine example of how effective and dreadful a small force can be when it has the right leadership and determination to vanish their enemies. Their courage, along with their desperation to save their land from the Thessalians socked the rest of the Greeks so much, that they named every act of ruthless resolution “Phocian despair”.
Anagnostou, C., (2013), The Sacred Wars in Ancient Greece (Part 1), available at https://www.historical-quest.com/arxeio/arxaia-istoria/647-oi-ieroi-polemoi-stin-archaia-ellada.html, (last access: 10/09/2021)
Herodotus, (2005), Η Ιστορία των Περσικών Πολέμων, Oceanida publications, Athens
Pausanias, Frazer, J., G., (1992), Pausanias’s Description of Greece, Macmillan and Co., London