The history of the ancient world, as with any other, is brimming with notable figures worthy of study. Standing head and shoulders above them all is Alexander the Great, the young Macedonian king that toppled history’s first superpower, conquered most of the known world and ushered in a new period in ancient history. His achievements in a reign that lasted just 13 years dwarf the life’s work of all but a few individuals in history.
However, there is one man, perhaps more than any other, that deserves to be brought from Alexander’s colossal shadow into the light. The man in question transformed a weak, divided, backwater kingdom on the very fringe of the Greek world into an all-conquering superpower. His name was Philip II of Macedon and he was Alexander’s father.
Before we delve into the life of Philip and the reasons why he deserves far greater attention than he receives, it is necessary to set the scene, so to speak, of the kingdom of Macedon that Philip would inherit in 359 BC.
Macedon was centred around a fertile alluvial plain (known as Lower Macedonia), watered by two rivers, in the northwestern corner of the Aegean Sea. Upper Macedonia, comprised of the mountainous terrain that characterised most of Greece and the Balkans, lay to the north, north-east and east and was inhabited by independent Greek-speaking tribes. The cultural divisions between the plain-dwelling Macedonians and their hill country counterparts plagued the kingdom for the first few centuries of its existence. To the south lay Thessaly, the inhabitants of which shared many cultural ties and similarities (notably the emphasis on horsemanship) with the Macedonians. Macedon was bordered to the north by the fierce Illyrian and Thracian tribes. Scattered eastwards along the Aegean coast were a number of Greek city-states. To the west, on the Adriatic coast, lay the kingdoms of the Molossians and Epirotes.
Geographically, Macedon inhabited the edge of what was considered Greece itself, the frontier between the ‘civilised’ Greek heartland and the barbarian tribes of the Balkans. Indeed, many natives of Greece proper believed the Macedonians themselves had a little too much barbarian blood in them and were only half-civilised.
The dynasty to which Philip belonged, the Argeads, founded the kingdom of Macedon in the 8th Century BC. By 359 BC, the deaths of Philip’s older brothers, Alexander II and Perdikkas III had set the stage for his ascension to the throne.
At the moment of his coronation, Macedon faced no less than four existential threats. The first and perhaps the greatest was the invasion of the Illyrians under their chieftain Bardylis. Perdikkas III had marched to meet them and was killed in battle, along with 4,000 other Macedonians. The Illyrians now pressed deeper into Macedonian territory, threatening Lower Macedonia itself. To the north of Macedon, the Paeonians were preparing for an invasion of their own. The last two threats came in the form of pretenders to the throne. One, Pausanius, was backed by Berisades, the King of Western Thrace. The other, Argaeus, had landed in the Thermaic Gulf with a force of 3,000 Athenian troops.
How Philip neutralised these threats and even turned them to his advantage was an indication of the formidable political and military figure Philip would become.
Fight for survival
Understanding that the Illyrians represented the gravest threat, Philip immediately began negotiating with Bardylis, eventually agreeing to marry the chieftain’s granddaughter, Audata. It is worth noting here that while the rest of the Greek world had long since abandoned the custom, the Macedonians (or, at least, Macedonian kings) still practiced polygamy. Audata was Philip’s second wife and this was first but certainly not the last time he would use the custom of multiple marriages as a political tool. In any case, Philip secured peace with his marriage to Audata. Bardylis retained control of Upper Macedonia but Philip was content that the immediate Illyrian threat had been negated. The Illyrians dealt with, Philip turned his attention to the Paeonians, whom he swiftly dissuaded from their invasion via a hefty bribe. He used the same tactic with Berisades of Thrace, who accepted the bribe and duly put the pretender Pausanias to death as agreed. Finally, Philip turned his attention to the last, and possibly the most complex of the threats he faced. The pretender Argaeus was at Methone, planning his march on the old capital at Aegae, with a formidable Athenian force at his disposal.
The reason the Athenians had furnished Argaeus with an army was tied to their long-standing desire to reclaim their former colony of Amphipolis, located on the Macedonian border with Thrace. The city was originally founded to give Athens access to the rich mines in the area and, perhaps more importantly, a rich source of timber needed for the Athenian fleets. The colony had defected from Athens during the Peloponnesian War in 424 BC. The Athenians had made several attempts to reclaim the city over the decades, all of which had failed. To secure the colony’s independence, Perdikkas III had installed a Macedonian garrison in the city. With Argaeus on the throne, Macedon would no longer support the city’s independence and Athens would finally be able to return Amphipolis to its rightful place.
Understanding that he could not risk facing Argaeus in battle while the pretender was backed by Athenian troops, Philip instead chose a different path. He understood the Athenian interest in Argaeus and, more importantly, their interest in Amphipolis. In a display of political savvy, Philip withdrew the garrison from Amphipolis, a move that was interpreted, as he had intended, in Athens as a sign that Philip would return the colony to them. They promptly abandoned Argaeus, who was forced to march on Aegae with only a handful of supporters. He was swiftly intercepted by Philip and disappeared from history.
With the immediate threats to Macedon neutralised, Philip followed up by sending a letter to Athens. At the time, the Athenians were debating whether to join the Chalcidian League in union. The Chalcidian peninsula was Lower Macedonia’s immediate neighbour and central to Philip’s ambitions for the future. In his letter, Philip called for an alliance between Athens and Macedon, as well as insisting that he had no claim on Amphipolis. Convinced, the Athenians rejected the union with the League, since it was no longer necessary, in favour of Philip.
Thus, Philip had saved Macedon at time of unprecedented peril. In the process, he had been burdened with several agreements that were less than favourable. In truth, however, those agreements served a purpose – to buy time. As evidenced by his subsequent actions, Philip had no intention of honouring those agreements unless it suited him.
The time that he had bought allowed Philip embark on what would be among his greatest legacies to his son Alexander – the reform of the Macedonian army.
Traditionally, the armies of the Greek city-states were comprised almost universally of non-professional, though well trained and well-equipped, citizen-soldiers. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule, the most notable of which was the unique Spartan social system and the Theban Sacred Band. Typically, however, the wealthier, often aristocratic citizens formed the cavalry (as they could afford the maintenance of a horse) while the main body of the male citizenry fought as heavy infantry known as hoplites.
Each hoplite carried a large circular shield, called an aspis, and an eight-foot spear called a dory, as well as a short-sword as a secondary weapon. They were usually well armoured, with a leather or bronze cuirass, metal greaves and a metal helmet.
In combat, hoplites fought in a close-packed formation known as a phalanx, presenting a ‘shield wall’ to the enemy, from behind which they could strike with their spears. These formations were traditionally around eight men deep, though, as always, there were exceptions. Greek hoplites were possibly the best heavy infantry in the ancient world, a testament to which is the fact that they were highly valued as mercenaries in the arch-enemy of Greece, the Persian Empire.
The armies of Macedonia were not dissimilar to those of the Persian Empire. Like the Persians, the Macedonians had a great tradition of horsemanship (due to the broad, flat alluvial plain that was Lower Macedonia) and their cavalry was of the highest quality, while the infantry was of poor quality, comprised mostly of peasant levies. That was about to change.
During his youth, Philip had spent several years as a political hostage in the Greek city of Thebes, the dominant city-state at the time. During his time in Thebes, Philip had the opportunity to learn from the great Theban general Epaminondas, the man who shattered forever the myth of Spartan invincibility at the Battle of Leuctra.
Firstly, Philip established a professional standing army, the first of its kind in the Greek world. To attract recruits he introduced a regular pay system and a promotion pathway. In contrast to the Greek system whereby the citizens had to supply their own equipment, Philip provided arms and armour for his new infantry, though the cavalry, drawn from a wealthier social stratum as it was, had to pay for their own horses. In addition to regular pay, Philip would provide cash bonuses and land grants in conquered territories to his soldiers in recognition of their services as incentives. These reforms alone dispensed with the need for conscription.
Although he had been given a military education in Thebes, Philip decided not to adopt the hoplite system of warfare. Instead, he took that tradition and adapted it. In terms of equipment, the traditional dory was replaced with the sarissa, an 18-foot pike. The greater length of the sarissa meant that the first five ranks of the phalanx could lower their pikes into position, so any enemy attacking front on would face a veritable hedge of spears.
Through constant drilling and training, Philip’s infantry were able to move in and out of battle formation with speed and precision. Their strict training regimen also allowed Philip to vary the depth of his phalanxes from 8 to 32 men deep (16 was the preference of both Philip and Alexander), giving him the flexibility to adapt to various terrains and conditions. The increased depth was a lesson learned from Epaminondas, who utilised a phalanx 50 men deep (spearheaded by the elite Sacred Band) to smash through the Spartans at Leuctra.
The Macedonian phalanx was undoubtedly superior to its traditional Greek counterpart. A testament to this is the fact that, eventually, the system would be adopted by every Greek city-state. Even the notoriously tradition-bound Spartans. Philip’s phalanx was essentially impenetrable via frontal assault. However, if it had one weakness it was that it was not particularly manoeuvrable once it was in battle formation and was vulnerable to attacks from the flanks and rear. To protect the flanks of his phalangites, Philip created units of soldiers known as Hypaspists (‘shield-bearers’), who were armed in the hoplite fashion and thus were less restricted in their movement. These units would prove invaluable on Alexander’s campaigns in the East.
While most of his reforms concerned his infantry, Philip did not neglect his cavalry, though their need for reform was far less dire. He organised his cavalry into divisions of 200 men called Ilai, in addition to a royal cavalry squadron of 300 riders.
Collectively, these elite horsemen were known as the Companion Cavalry. Perhaps Philip’s most important reform involving his cavalry was how it was utilised. He trained them to use the wedge formation, thereby increasing their effectiveness as shock cavalry. Instead of the support role Greek cavalry typically performed, Philip turned his cavalry into a decisive arm of his military, capable of delivering a killing blow to an enemy army.
As a whole, Philip’s new army was designed not to operate as separate branches but as a unified force, with the heavy and light infantry, cavalry, peltasts (ranged units) and siege train all working together. It is considered an early example of the principle of ‘combined arms’ (central to all modern military operations) and was a significant factor in the military success of both Philip and Alexander.
By the spring of 358 BC, the agreements Philip had forged to save the kingdom from oblivion a year earlier had served their purpose. Now, with the core of his new army at his disposal, he set about securing the borders of his domain once and for all. Firstly, he led 10,000 infantry and 500 cavalry against the Paeonians and, in one decisive battle, crushed them. Paeonia was absorbed in Macedonia and the Paeonians were inducted into his army. Without missing a beat, Philip then turned to deal with the Illyrians and their chief Bardylis, who remained in control of Upper Macedonia. As he had with the Paeonians, Philip routed the Illyrians in a single decisive engagement. Bardylis, having survived the battle, offered to negotiate terms, but Philip refused. Nothing less than the total end of Illyrian influence in Upper Macedonia would satisfy him.
Thanks to his victory, Upper and Lower Macedonia were, for the first time, united under the rule of a Macedonian king. This allowed him to centralise the kingdom with Pella as its capital. It also allowed him to begin a program of economic reform, starting with the exploitation of the rich gold and silver mines at Damastium. This was a sign of things to come and, under his rule, mining would become the backbone of Macedonian economy.
With his northern and northwestern borders as secure as they ever would be, Philip shifted his attention to his southern neighbour, Thessaly. In 358 BCE he had received an appeal from the ruling family of the city of Larissa, which was the leader of a ‘Thessalian League’ consisting of the cities situated on the broad and fertile inland plain. Larissa felt threatened by Pherae, which headed its own league of coastal cities. Philip did not hesitate to form an alliance with the influential Larissa, as it would both secure his southern border and give him access to the famous Thessalian horses for his cavalry. To secure the alliance, he married a Larissan lady named Philinna (his third wife).
Next, Philip turned to his southwest, to the kingdom of Epirus. He concluded an alliance with its king, Arybbas and cemented it by marrying the king’s niece, Olympias (his fourth wife). Fatefully, in 356 Olympias bore Philip a son. His name was Alexander.
As for his eastern border with Thrace, in 357 Philip was not particularly concerned. Two years earlier, Thrace had been divvied up between the three sons of the old king. These sons now feuded between themselves. One of the brothers, Cersebleptes, held aspirations of reuniting Thrace under his own rule and his ambition would prompt Philip to intervene in future, but at that point, Philip was content to let the brothers fight amongst themselves.
Thus, in just two years, Philip had unified Macedonia, secured the kingdom’s borders for the first time, centralised Pella, implemented ambitious military reforms and stimulated unprecedented growth in the Macedonian economy.
Now, Philip set his sights on two powers that had long been thorns in the side of the Kings of Macedonia: Athens and the Chalcidian League
By 357, realisation finally dawned in Athens that Philip had no intention of returning Amphipolis to them. It is easy to understand why he would be extremely reluctant to do so. An ambitious king such as Philip could never tolerate an Athenian presence so close to his borders, especially since he had his eye on the rich mines of the Chalcidian peninsula. It is for these reasons that Philip laid siege to Amphipolis in 357. In response, the Amphipolitans appealed to the very power against which they had been defending their independence for decades: Athens.
However, Philip had foreseen this and headed off any Athenian response by dispatching a letter to Athens claiming that he was merely attempting to take the city so that it could be returned to them. Somewhat surprisingly, given it was now clear that they had been duped the last time they dealt with Philip, they took him at his word. No Athenian help was sent to Amphipolis and by late summer the city had fallen. Almost immediately, Philip followed up with an attack on Pydna, with the city falling soon after. Pydna was an ally of Athens. This was the first act in a political, diplomatic and military duel with Athens that lasted the rest of Philip’s life. It also highlighted Philip’s next objective: to established control of his entire coastline.
The fall of Pydna finally shook the Athenians from their stupor and they immediately declared war on Philip. Naturally, the Athenians sought allies in their conflict with Macedonia (being so far removed from the cities and territories in question). However, they soon found themselves preempted by Philip at every turn in a masterful display of diplomatic and military skill. When the Athenians sent an offer of union to the city of Olynthus on the Chalcidian peninsula, they found that Philip had already secured a treaty with the Olynthians by offering to capture and turn over to them nearby Potidaea, an Athenian cleruchy (military colonies established in strategic locations). In this case, Philip made good on his promise. When the Athenians turned to the Illyrians, they realised they were too late. The Illyrians had already been subdued by a rapid Macedonian campaign, led by Philip and his noteworthy general Parmenion. This situation was repeated with the Paeonians. And the Thracians.
Athens was on its own.
Athenian fortunes deteriorated further in 356 when several of their allies revolted during the Social War. Although it will never be known for certain, some historians believe that Philip played a role in these revolts, in an effort to distract Athens from his activities in the north. In any case, by the time the Social War was concluded the following year, Athenian coffers were sufficiently depleted that they could not mount any large-scale military expeditions at all, let alone against Philip, for several years. This suited the Macedonian king just fine as he continued his own military operations in Thrace, conquering the town of Crenides and changing its name to Philippi.
In Macedon, the economy received another booster shot when Philip assumed control of the gold and silver mines in the area around Mount Pangaeum in Western Thrace. These mines alone produced a whopping 1,000 silver talents (26 tonnes) annually. To put that in perspective, the famous silver mines at Laurium produced 100 talents for Athens, allowing it to put 200 trireme warships into the water in the lead up to the Second Persian invasion more than a century earlier.
By the winter of 355, Philip’s goal of controlling his coastline, with the exception of the Chalcidian peninsula, was almost complete. Only Methone, another Athenian ally, remained. However, the city would prove to be no easy conquest, with the siege lasting until the following spring. It was during this siege that Philip lost his eye to an arrow. However, he did not allow the wound to slow him down and, once Methone had fallen, he conducted a quick-fire offensive into Thrace, seizing a number of towns. It was at this point that Philip was drawn once more into the rivalry between Larissa and Pherae. The subsequent events in Thessaly would threaten everything he had built.
When Philip marched with an army into Thessaly in 353, Pherae appealed to its new ally in Phocis for aid. The Phocian general Onomarchus marched north into Thessaly with 20,000 infantry and 500 cavalry and, in a stunning turn of events, decisively defeated the hitherto unbeaten Philip in battle. The defeat sent shockwaves throughout Macedonia and its neighbours. Immediately, the Illyrians, Paeonians and even the Epirotes (to whom Philip was bound by marriage) began to reassert their independence, while Cersebleptes of Thrace and the Olynthians began negotiations with Athens. In Greece, the defeat was seen as the beginning of the end for this upstart barbarian from the North.
But Philip was not going to let a single defeat ruin everything he had achieved. In 353, he charged back into Thessaly with a new army and gained swift retribution, routing Onomarchus and 20,000 Phocians at the Battle of Crocus Field. Onomarchus himself was among the 9,000 Phocian dead. This victory reestablished Macedonian morale and Philip’s authority over the army. It also led Pherae, deprived of its Phocian ally, to surrender. Hoping to secure goodwill in the city, Philip married the lady Nicesipolis (wife number five). However, the most important reward for his victory came when Larissa, on behalf of its Thessalian League, elected Philip archon of Thessaly in perpetuity. Suddenly, the barbarian king held a Greek constitutional office.
The appointment allowed Philip to levy troops from Thessaly (including the superb Thessalian cavalry) and gave him a portion of the income from Thessaly’s harbour and market taxes. Finally, and perhaps most importantly for Philip, the office gave him the right to serve on Thessaly’s official deputation to the Amphictyonic Council.
The Amphictyonic Council was a body of 24 Greek states that oversaw the administration and protection of the Oracle of Apollo at Delphi, the most sacred place in the Greek world. Macedon, on the edge of the Greek world as it was, was not among these states. At the biannual meeting of the Council in 356, geopolitical friction between Thebes and both Phocis and Sparta flared into open conflict when the Phocians occupied Delphi itself with an army of several thousand mercenaries. When negotiations failed to dislodge the Phocians in the winter of 356/55, the Council declared a Sacred War against Phocis the following spring. This war was still raging when Philip crushed Onomarchus at the Battle of Crocus Field in 353 and would continue to do so until 346 BCE.
Having brought Thessaly under his control, Philip now moved to attack Phocis itself. He had no real quarrel with the Phocians, but being the one who put an end to the Sacred War would bring great prestige and influence in Greece proper. However, upon finding the pass at Thermopylae blocked by an Athenian force, Philip decided to withdraw to the north. Though he probably had the strength to force the pass, any attempt to do so would likely have been costly and Philip was unwilling to risk his recent gains in Thessaly.
By 352, the Chalcidian League, led by Olynthus, had grown fearful of their Macedonian ally’s power. They made peace with Athens, in clear breach of their alliance with Philip. Philip did not immediately respond to this betrayal. Instead, he spent that year on campaign in Thrace. He quickly subdued two of the three Thracian kingdoms, reducing them to client states.
While Philip was campaigning in Thrace and almost certainly in response to his activities, an Athenian force occupied the Thracian Chersonese (modern Gallipoli Peninsula). The Chersonese was perhaps the most strategically important region for Athens outside of Greece itself.
Athens had long been of such a size that it required an external source of grain to feed its massive population. The most important source of this grain was the Ukraine and Crimea. The annual grain fleets from the Black Sea passed through the Hellespont and thus control of the Chersonese was vital to ensure the safe conduct of the all-important grain. With Philip and his army operating in the region, Athens was forced to take measures to protect its interests.
The presence of Philip in the region also prompted the Thracian king Cersebleptes to be more accommodating of Athenian interests in the Chersonese than he had been in the past. Indeed, he gave over to the Athenians control of the entire peninsula with the exception of one city in return for their support against Philip.
As it happened, Philip drove deep into Cersebleptes’ territory, eventually laying siege to a fortress near the Sea of Propontis (modern Sea of Marmara). Unusually, it is not clear exactly how this campaign came to an end. What is known is that the ancient sources do not record Philip being active militarily or politically in the years after 352 BCE.
End of the Chalcidian League
This period of inactivity came to an end in 349 BCE, when Philip finally turned his attention to the recalcitrant Chalcidian League. In the autumn of that year, Philip invaded the peninsula. It is commonly said that Philip systematically destroyed each of the 32 cities of the Chalcidice, with Olynthus saved for last. This claim stems from a speech given by famed Athenian orator and statesman Demosthenes. However, some historians view the veracity of Demosthenes’ claim as suspect, given the Athenian was among Philip’s most strident critics (even going so far as to publicly call Philip a ‘barbarian’ on more than one occasion) and is known to have used at times wild statements in an effort to goad the Athenian Assembly into action, something he successfully did in response to a plea for aid from Olynthus.
In any case, what is known is that Philip did destroy several Chaldicidian towns and cities as an example to the others. Seeing what became of those that resisted, many cities chose to surrender to the Macedonians. However, Philip’s campaign in the Chalcidice came to an abrupt end when word reached him of trouble in Pherae in Thessaly, where a tyrant Philip had previously expelled had returned to power. Deciding the Thessalian issue was more pressing, Philip marched south to deal with Pherae.
During this break in hostilities, Athens dispatched a force to the Chalcidice, which in partnership with the Olynthians reclaimed much of the territory conquered by the Macedonians.
When Philip returned to the peninsula in early 348 BCE, he began operations against Olynthus itself, winning at least two pitched battles and laying siege to the city. The Olynthians appealed once more to Athens, which dispatched another, larger force. However, not for the first time, Philip had timed his campaign to coincide with the annual Etesian Winds, which blow strongly from the north and made it extremely difficult for Athens to deploy its considerable naval resources to the northern Aegean. By the time the Athenians did arrive, the siege was already over. Olynthus had been razed to the ground and its inhabitants, as well as a significant number of captured Athenians, were enslaved.
The Chalcidian League had ceased to exist and the peninsula was formally annexed by Philip. In addition to removing a hostile power on the very doorstep of his kingdom, the Macedonian economy received yet another booster shot from the valuable gold and silver mines at Stratoniki.
Peace At Last
Due to their support of Olythnus, many in Athens braced themselves for reprisals from Philip. Instead, they were surprised when he sent a letter to Athens professing friendship and peace. The Athenians were initially unreceptive to Philip’s offer, but after the king continued to express his desire for peace they sent an embassy to Pella hear his terms.
After an extraordinary two-day debate in the Assembly, the Athenians accepted Philip’s terms and swore their oaths in the presence of the Macedonian ambassadors. The agreement would become known as the Peace of Philocrates, after the Athenian politician who proposed the treaty.
When the Athenian embassy arrived in Pella to take Philip’s oath of peace, they found embassies from Thebes, Thessaly, Phocis and Sparta already present. By this point, the Sacred war had descended into something of a stalemate. Neither the Thebans or the Phocians, the principal combatants, had the strength to overcome the other. It was clear now that the conflict could only be settled by an external power and there was no other such power than Philip of Macedon.
In June of 346 BCE, the embassies had gathered in Pella to negotiate with Philip to end the war and to plead their case. The Thebans and Thessalians wanted him to punish Phocis without mercy. The Phocians could only have pled for mercy. The Spartans and Athenians also wanted Philip to show mercy, but they were motivated by the fact that Phocis was an important ally against the power of Thebes.
The presence of these embassies reflected a shift in the geopolitical balance of the Greek world. 13 years prior Philip had been fighting for the existence of his kingdom. Now he had the most powerful city-states in Greece pleading for him to rule in their favour.
For their part, the Phocians and their supporters were quietly confident Phocis would escape punishment. This confidence stemmed from the fact that they controlled Philip’s access to Greece via the pass at Thermopylae. The Macedonian king could not enforce his ruling if he could not march his armies into Greece. Thus, if Philip truly desired an end to the Sacred War, he would have to act in favour of Phocis and her allies. However, the situation suddenly changed when the Phocian general Phalaecus returned to power in Phocis. He surrendered control of Thermopylae to the Macedonians and submitted to Philip, who just so happened to be in nearby Thessaly with his army. Now the king could militarily enforce whatever decision he made. It is not known for certain what prompted this drastic change of heart, but it appears highly likely that Philip had assured the Phocian embassy in Pella that if they reinstated Phalaecus, handed over Thermopylae and surrendered to him, he promised to moderate their punishment. As it happens, that is exactly what came to pass.
Some members of the Amphictyonic Council wanted the Phocis to be wiped off the face of the earth as punishment for their sacrilege. However, Philip, in a testament to his growing influence, managed to negotiate a settlement that was more lenient despite not actually holding a position on the Council. In the end, Phocis lost its membership on the Council and the Phocian state was required to repay the money stolen from the sacred treasuries at Delphi. The cities and towns of Phocis were razed to the ground and the population was forcibly relocated to small new villages about 200 yards apart.
As a reward for his part in ending the Sacred War, Philip was given the two votes on the Amphictyionic Council previously held by Phocis and the right of priority in consulting the Delphic Oracle that had been stripped from Athens for their support of Phocis. He was also elected President of the Pythian Games, which were part of the Olympic games cycle.
Within weeks of coming into effect, the Peace of Philocrates was already under significant strain. The Athenians were furious that Phocis had not been better protected from the wrath of her enemies on the Amphictyonic Council and thus Thebes had been left unchecked, as well as the fact that the barbarian king was now a member of the Council and a President of the sacred Pythian Games. It quickly became apparent that it was now a matter of when, not if, the Peace would collapse. With this in mind, the Athenians began preparing for the inevitable conflict. They started building up their own military resources and searching for allies in the coming war. Even the most hated enemy of all, Thebes, was considered a possible ally against the Macedonians.
For his part, Philip appears to have been largely unaware of the gathering storm in Greece. Or, if he was aware, he was not particularly concerned. In 345 BCE, Philip campaigned against the Ardiaioi, a powerful Illyrian tribe to the northwest in what is now northern Albania. Details of the hard-fought campaign are scarce, but Philip is known to have suffered a shattered tibia in battle. Despite this, the expedition was a success and Philip returned to Macedon with a significant amount of booty.
In 344, Philip’s relationship with Thessaly underwent a drastic change after Simus of Larissa unexpectedly minted his own coinage. Evidently, Philip had had enough. He expelled Simus and his family from Larissa, dissolved the Thessalian League and reorganised the region into four administrative districts, the governors of which were personally answerable only to him. Thessaly was now officially part of the Macedonian empire.
The following year, the young Alexander of Epirus (not to be confused with the future Alexander the Great, Philip’s own son) came of age. He had been removed by Philip from Epirus to Pella in 350 BCE and had in the years since grown to be a great admirer of his much older brother-in-law (Olympias was his sister). Now that Alexander was of age, Philip invaded Epirus, deposed Alexander’s uncle Arrybbas and installed the young man in his place, just as he had always intended. Arrybbas fled to Athens, which promised to help him retake his throne. Despite this, Alexander of Epirus would remain on the throne and loyal to Philip for the rest of his life.
That same year Philip installed the famed philosopher and scientist Aristotle as tutor to his young son, Alexander. The scholar would remain in the position until Alexander came of age in 340 and would continue to exchange correspondence with the young king while he was on his world-changing conquest of Persia.
In 342, the Thracian king Cersebleptes was proving troublesome once again, attacking several cities on the Hellespont. In response, Philip marched for Thrace in June of that year. Details of this important campaign are surprisingly scarce. What is known is that, eleven months later, Philip had defeated the Thracians in several battles, dethroned Cersebleptes, imposed a tithe tax and established garrisons in key towns and cities, including those he had just established, such as Philippopolis (modern Plovdiv, Bulgaria). The entirety of Thrace was now under direct Macedonian rule. In addition, Philip made his way home via northern Thrace, where he secured an alliance with the semi-nomadic Getae people by marrying their king’s daughter, Meda (wife number six).
Justifiably, the Athenians and the few cities of the Propontis (notably Perinthus and Byzantium) that remained outside Macedonian control were alarmed at this rapid expansion of Philip’s already formidable power. Clearly fearing that they were next on the Macedonian king’s list, Perinthus and Byzantium entered into an alliance with Athens and Philip was vociferously denounced in the Athenian Assembly, where Demosthenes made a series of increasingly aggressive speeches calling for war against Macedon.
With the Peace of Philocles all but collapsed by 340 BCE, Philip now marched against the defiant cities on the Propontis with an army 30,000 strong. He left 16-year-old Alexander behind as regent. However, this campaign was not to mirror the success of its predecessor. Philip besieged Perinthus first but after months of unsuccessful attempts to storm the city, he cut his losses and moved on to Byzantium. Unfortunately for Philip, Byzantium would prove no happier a hunting ground than Perinthus before it, largely due to the city’s massive fortifications. Not even his new torsion catapults could breach the thick walls. Soon enough, Philip was forced to abandon a siege for the second time in as many months.
En route back to Pella and possibly in an effort to offset some of the financial losses of his failed operations on the Propontis, Philip conducted a rapid campaign against the Triballi, a Scythian tribe to the north of Thrace. In a skirmish, Philip was wounded once again, suffering a spear to the leg. The wound left him with a limp for the rest of his life.
Philip’s failures at Perinthus and Byzantium were trumpeted throughout Greece and particularly in Athens as a glorious triumph of Greek arms over the half-civilised warlord from the north. Philip’s authority in Greece was now badly compromised. The stage was now set for the final confrontation between Philip and his erstwhile Athenian adversaries.
In 339 BCE Philip marched into Greece with 30,000 men, ostensibly to settle the Fourth Sacred War, which had been declared against the state of Amphissa for illegally cultivating land sacred to Apollo near Delphi. In reality, however, he was there to settle the Athenian question once and for all.
To reach Athens the Macedonians would need to march through Boeotia, the domain of Thebes and her allies. To that end, Philip sent an embassy to the Thebans requesting that they join him against Athens or, at the very least, that they allow him to pass through their territory unhindered. As it happened, Athens also dispatched an ambassador to Thebes. It was Philip’s old adversary Demosthenes and he was charged with convincing their most hated enemy to join with Athens in an alliance against Philip.
Given the age-old enmity between Thebes and Athens, Philip was likely surprised when the Thebans elected to ally with the Athenians against him, apparently for the cause of liberty for Greece.
Combined, the Athenian-Theban army numbered around 35,000 men, more than matching its Macedonian counterpart in size. It was the largest Greek army put into the field since the great victory over the Persians at the Battle of Plataea 141 years earlier.
The Battle of Chaeronea was to be just as decisive as Plataea had been. Only, this time it was not the Greeks that would emerge victorious. Philip and his revolutionary Macedonian army proved its superiority over the old Greek style of warfare once and for all, routing the Athenians and Thebans in a hard-fought but generally one-sided affair. Notably, this was the first taste of battle of an 18-year-old Alexander, who was given the honour of commanding the left flank of the Macedonian army while his father commanded the right. Both of them are known to have been involved in the thickest of the fighting. In total, it is estimated that 2000 Greeks were killed, including the elite Sacred Band of Thebes, which was wiped out to a man. In the aftermath, Philip is said to have wept when he observed the heaped bodies of the Sacred Band, whom he greatly admired from his time as a hostage in Thebes.
The Battle of Chaeronea is considered one of the most decisive battles in ancient history as it effectively ended the war. Thebes surrendered to Philip, who expelled the city’s leaders, reinstalled pro-Macedonian Thebans that had been exiled and stationed a garrison in the city. As for the Athenians, who understandably feared severe reprisals, Philip merely dissolved the Second Athenian Confederacy and released his Athenian prisoners without ransom.
The reason Philip was so lenient on his defeated enemies, instead of making an example of either of them as he had done at Olynthus, was that the Macedonian king now had his eye on a far more formidable foe.
Philip spent the months after Chaeronea travelling around Greece, making peace with those that had opposed him and installing Macedonian garrisons in strategic locations.
In 337 BCE, Philip appears to have been based at Corinth. It was there that he began the work of uniting the disparate states of Greece under a single banner. Modern historians have termed the resulting federation the League of Corinth, named after the location of the first congress. Sparta was the only state that refused Philip’s invitation to the congress and was thus the only Greek city-state that was not a member of the League. For the first time in history, virtually the entirety of Greece was united into a single political entity.
The purpose of this unprecedented unity? The invasion of the Persian Empire.
At Philip’s instigation, the League declared war on the Persian Empire and elected Philip as leader of the planned campaign. This represented the apogee of Philip’s powers.
However, if this marked the height of Philip’s powers, it also marked the moment after which his relationship with his son Alexander began to decline.
In the summer of 337 BCE, Philip married for the seventh time. While his previous marriages had all been politically motivated, it appears that his relationship with the teenage Macedonian noblewoman Cleopatra Eurydice was one of love. Unsurprisingly, Olympias is well known to have hated the young bride, though she had no love for Philip either.
At the wedding banquet, Attalus (Eurydice’s father) made a toast and prayed that the happy couple might produce a legitimate heir. This taunt was directed at Alexander, the heir presumptive, whose mother was Epirote rather than Macedonian. When Alexander demanded Attalus apologise, the father of the bride pointedly refused. Unsatisfied, Alexander turned to his father for support, only for Philip to order him to beg Attalus’ pardon. By now all involved were well lubricated with alcohol. When Alexander angrily refused, Philip drew his sword and made to rush his son, only to stumble and fall. This prompted Alexander to mockingly declare: “Here is the man who was making ready to cross from Europe to Asia and yet who cannot even cross from one table to another.”
Alexander and Olympias fled Pella to the court of her brother, Alexander of Epirus. To forestall any potential military action by the king of Epirus, Philip offered his young daughter by Olympias, Cleopatra, in marriage. The Epirote accepted the offer and the wedding was set for the following year. Deprived of his uncle’s support, Alexander returned to Pella in a sour mood.
In the meantime, Philip began preparations for his Persian campaign in earnest. In early 336, a force of 10,000 men under the ever-reliable Parmenion and Attalus were dispatched to Asia Minor to win over the Ionian Greek city-states and to pave the way for the main army.
Feeling buoyed by good news from Parmenion, Philip decided to turn his daughter’s wedding into an international event, inviting dignitaries and ambassadors from all over Greece. It would also mark the one-year anniversary of the League of Corinth.
The wedding itself went off without a hitch. It was followed by celebratory athletic games in the theatre at Aegae, the ancient capital of Macedon. The theatre was packed with spectators eager to watch the day’s events. Philip, dressed in all in white, strode into the arena, accompanied by the two Alexanders (his son and new son-in-law). His bodyguard hung back, as Philip wanted to show his guests that he had no need for such protections in the presence of his fellow Greeks. The younger men took their seats and Philip, standing alone, basked in all the glory as he was showered with cheers and applause.
It was at that moment that an occasion of celebration was turned on its head. Pausanius, one of Philip’s bodyguards, now approached the king and, without warning, stabbed him in the chest before fleeing. Pandemonium erupted. Some of Alexander’s friends drew their weapons and closed ranks around him in case he was also a target for assassination. Some of the bodyguards took off in pursuit of Pausanius and, after the assassin tripped on a vine, killed him without hesitation. By the time they brought his body back to the theatre, Philip II of Macedon was dead.
The general Antipater remained calm in the chaos and immediately crowned Alexander as King of Macedon.
It will never be known for sure why Pausanius murdered Philip, though there is no shortage of theories. One has Pausanius as a jilted lover, who killed Philip for leaving his for a younger man. While it seems highly likely that Philip and Pausanius were lovers at one point, this theory is unsatisfactory.
Other ancient sources level the blame squarely at Olympias and, in some cases, Alexander himself. They certainly had the most to gain from Philip’s death and the posited motive, that they were fearful that Philip’s newborn son with Eurydice would replace Alexander as heir, is not without merit. Others point to the fact that the other bodyguards killed Pausanius instead of capturing as he could easily have done as suspicious. However, correlation does not mean causation.
In the 23 years since he assumed the throne, Philip transformed his kingdom from a poor, weak backwater into the most dominant state in the history of ancient Greece. The Macedonian economy was stronger and more productive than ever before. The people were more prosperous than they had ever been and the population grew at an unprecedented rate, fuelling the growth of towns and cities across the empire.
In contrast to his own succession experience, upon Philip’s death, Alexander faced none of the threats that his father had so many years before. Indeed, so stable was the state that Philip had built that, in the 11 years after Alexander departed for Persia, there was no unrest at all.
The army that Philip built, virtually from scratch, not only facilitated the unprecedented expansion of the Macedonian empire during his reign but also gave Alexander the tools and means by which he would topple the world’s first superpower. It was also a military system that would remain the dominant style of warfare in the eastern Mediterranean for more than a century until it was ultimately superceded by the Roman system.
Though he certainly had his faults and his military career does not shine as brightly as that of his son, Philip’s political savvy and his own military skill are undoubtedly among the most impressive of the era.
Indeed, it could be said that while Alexander was unquestionably the greater general, Philip was arguably the greater king. It is these reasons that Philip should be brought out from his son’s long shadow to receive the attention and admiration he thoroughly deserves.
- Worthington, Ian. By The Spear: Philip II, Alexander the Great and the Rise and Fall of the Macedonian Empire. Oxford University Press, 2014
- Cawkwell, George. Philip II of Macedon. Faber & Faber, 1978.
- Buckler, John. Philip II and the Sacred War. E.J. Brill, 1989.
- Errington, Robert Malcolm. A History of Macedonia. University of California Press, 1990.
- Worthington, Ian. Philip II of Macedonia. Yale University of Press, 2008.
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