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Philip II of Macedon

Philip II of Macedon

History is full of many great warriors, political strategists, and military tacticians. One who, in my opinion, doesn’t get nearly the coverage that he deserves, is Philip II of Macedon. He’s often overshadowed by his much more famous son Alexander III, better known to us as Alexander the Great. However, without his father, Alexander the Great would most likely not have been able to achieve the greatness that most of us attribute to him. Today it was Philip who laid the foundation for Alexander’s success.

Most of what we know about the early life of the king, who would become Philip II of Macedon of the Argead dynasty, comes from book 16 of the Greek writer Deodora Seculosa’s Biblioteca Historica or Library of History. In it, we learned that Philip, whose Greek name was Filippos, was the son of a Amyntas III of Macedon, born around 383 BC and the youngest of three brothers. The odds of Philip becoming king simply due to his birth were low.

When his father died around 369 BC, Philip’s elder brother Alexander II succeeded him as king of Macedon, but he was assassinated after barely two years on the throne, purportedly by his brother-in-law, a man named Ptolemy. Who would then become regent since the next in line, Alexander’s brother Perdiccas, was too young to rule. That same year, 369 BC, Philip and the sons of 30 Macedonian nobles were sent to Thebes as hostages. At that time, Thebes was the most powerful state on the Greek mainland and they may have demanded such hostages as a sort of assurance that Macedon would not cause trouble for them in Thessaly. Ptolemy, who was serving as regent, was probably more than happy to comply as he’d be able to at least temporarily get rid of another possible contender to the throne of Macedon should anything happen to the young Perdiccas whom he sought to control like a puppet.

Though politically the kingdom of Macedon was weak, being a member of the Aegean royal family allowed Philip to live comfortably as a guest in the house of Pammenes, a wealthy and well-connected aristocrat and general. This was a great privilege because most Greeks looked down on Macedonians and considered their country to be little more than an uncultured backwater full of thieves. This, though, wasn’t really true. The Macedonians were actually extremely capable warriors and a fiercely independent people. Despite this, most Macedonians generally believed that their country and kingdom could not compare and would never be on par with the more established states of Athens, Thebes, Corinth, and Sparta.

The Young Philip of Thebes

Though only 13 to 14 years old, Thebes and its highly disciplined and organized military must have made quite an impression on the young Philip who, being under the wing of Pammenes, was able to meet the great Theban general Epaminondas, who was arguably the most respected and popular warrior of his day. Ancient sources don’t go into the specifics of exactly what he did and witnessed during his three years in Thebes, but given the environment and his connections with the Theban elite, the teenage Philip must have learned quite a bit about politics and military strategy. He must have also dreamed that one day his country of Macedon could also be as powerful and respected as the Thebes of Pammenes.

Macedonian King Philip II

While still a hostage in Thebes, Philip’s elder brother Perdiccas broke free from the yoke of Ptolemy to rightfully assume his position as king Perdiccas III of Macedon. However, he was killed in battle around 360 BC in a disastrous campaign against the Illyrians and their old, but well-respected king Bardylis. Perdiccas had designated his young son Amyntas IV to be his heir with the now 23 year old Philip as his caretaker and regent. Philip, though, had his own plans and, after about a year, usurped the throne from Amyntas and declared himself king of Macedon. Not fearing Amyntas as a threat, he let his young nephew live, no doubt being inspired by what he saw and learned in Thebes.

Almost immediately after seizing power, Philip began to reform the Macedonian armed forces. Up until then, the Macedonian military had consisted mostly of cavalry, along with the light infantry drawn primarily from the common people and peasants. With better training and new equipment, Philip created an innovative sort of heavy infantry that we commonly refer to as the Macedonian phalanx. Though the typical phalanx formation had been around since before the days of the first hoplites, modern scholars generally use this term to describe the distinctive battle unit that Philip devised, which was later used all over the Hellenistic world for the next few centuries. Each soldier within the phalanx was armed with a long pike called a sarissa. While a sarissa could be any length between 13 to 20 feet long, most soldiers carried ones that were around 14 or 15 feet.

A Wall of Death Lunged Forward from the Typical Phalanx

When the first five rows presented their sarissas forward, a wall of metal pikes was formed extending about 10 feet ahead. As this nearly impenetrable wall of death lunged forward, the sarissas would tear through the enemy with devastating force. The typical phalanx held a great advantage over the standard, heavy infantry and hoplite armies of the day whose pikes and spears were only six to eight feet long on average.

In addition, Philip also pioneered new tactics with regard to siege warfare and utilized siege towers and armored shooting catapults. He used these and other military innovations to build what would soon become the most disciplined and capable fighting force in the Greek world.

Philip had two main goals. One was to subjugate the non-Greeks around his northern borders, most notably the Thracians and Illyrians, and two to seize the wealthy Greek cities along the northern Aegean. Perhaps to help with the former, Philip married an Illyrian woman named Ada, who was reportedly the great-granddaughter of the old and well-respected king Bardylis, the same ruler who in the past had defeated in battle several previous Macedonian kings. However, the marriage didn’t stop Philip from going to war with Bardylis and seizing some land that had previously been taken from Macedon during the conflict. The aged Illyrian king, who still led his armies into battle, was killed, which resulted in the Illyrians surrendering and giving back to Philip several cities that they’d taken in years prior. With a new peace treaty to augment the marriage alliance that had previously been forged between Macedon and the Illyrians, Philip had secured his northwestern border from future attacks. It was a great start to what would prove to be a relatively long and eventful reign.

Philip II of Macedon

The following year, in 357 BC, Philip captured the former Athenian colony of Amphipolis, whose location near the gold and silver producing regions of Mount Pangaeum had made the city extremely wealthy. All of that wealth now belonged to Philip. It’s reported that Amphipolis provided the Macedonian treasury with an annual sum of at least 1,000 talents of silver, which in those days was a considerable amount. In response, the Athenians declared war on Macedon, but refrained from any real attempt to take Amphipolis because they were unable to commit so many men to fight so far from Athens for what would likely be a long and grueling siege.

Philip’s Son and Successor Alexander

That same year, Philip took a second wife, a young noblewoman named Olympias from the land of Epirus to the southwest. Classical sources seemed to indicate that theirs was not the happiest of unions. Though Olympias for most of Philip’s life remained the principle of his eventual seven wives, she’s most famous for giving birth to Philip’s son and successor Alexander. Yes, that Alexander. We’ll get to him later on.

For the rest of his life, Philip was constantly campaigning throughout northern and central Greece all while strategically marrying several women and making military alliances to further strengthen his position. While he won many battles, his hard-handed tactics also created many new enemies and caused numerous cities to rebel whenever the opportunity arose.

One of these was the northern Aegean city of Methoni, where in 354 BC, Philip lost an eye in battle. He eventually took the city and raised it to the ground, though he spared its population and allowed each person to leave with one piece of clothing. What really propelled Macedon into the forefront of Greek politics was Philip’s involvement in what became known as the Third Sacred War when, in 347 BC, the leaders of the area of focus, modern Phocis, used treasure that had been looted from the temple of Apollo at Delphi. To raise an army and threaten others in the region, the Thebans reached out to Philip for help.

This must have been a dream come true for the Macedonian king. As now his country was seen as at least in equal to the once powerful polis of Thebes, a state whose military institutions he’d respected and learned so much from during his youth as a hostage there. Philip’s involvement in the Third Sacred War against the Phocians had given him immense influence in Greece within less than a generation. Macedon had gone from being regarded as a rural backwater to one of the main power brokers in Greek affairs.

Philip II of Macedon

Philip took advantage of his country’s new position to expand his realm into central and southern Greece in 346 BC. Philip made peace with Athens, his enemy, since he took Amphipolis a decade earlier. This, though, was after he took the strategic pass of Thermopylae, which made him a much greater threat to Athens than ever before. Scholars debate as to why Philip felt the need to make peace with the Athenians and not proceed further south into Attica. The reason seems to have been that the Macedonian treasury was simply running out of money. Still controlling Thermopylae allowed Philip to end the Third Sacred War on his terms, since no one in the region was powerful enough to challenge him while he controlled the pass. As for the Phocians, their war chest was completely empty and they were forced to surrender to Philip and his allies. The final terms were that the looted funds from the temple of Apollo had to be restored at a rate of 60 talents a year and that the cities in focus were to be broken up into unwalled villages of no more than 50 households each.

The Amphictyonic League and the Amphictyonic Council

For his role in defeating the Phocians and helping to restore the treasury and wealth of the temple of Apollo at Delphi, Philip and Macedon were awarded entry into the Amphictyonic League. An ancient but important council of various states in central Greece that voted on matters in the region and was associated with Apollo and his holy sanctuary. The council gave Philip the two votes that had previously been held by the Phocians which, with his Thessalian and other allies, allowed him to influence affairs in the region. The more success he obtained, the more ambitious he became.

After consolidating his positions in northern and central Greece, Philip focused his attention towards the east and expanded into Thrace and the region surrounding the Hellespont. Up until then, the Macedonians had been tolerated by the other main powers of the day. After all, none of the other Greeks really liked the Phocians. Everyone was weary of a revival of Athenian power and most didn’t trust the Thebans, but when in 340 BC, Philip laid siege to the city of Paeonians on the northern shores of the Sea of Marmara and threatened the shipping lanes that passed by Byzantium to the Black Sea many of those who had for generations been bitter enemies temporarily reconciled their differences and united against him. Even the great king of the Persian Empire, Artaxerxes III, sent aid to Paeonia. Still, Philip was not deterred, since he was making little headway in taking Paeonia. He sent a sizable force to Byzantium to simultaneously besiege that city. This alarmed the Athenians who finally sent a force of their own to stop him, realizing that he had spread himself too thin, Philip withdrew from both arenas and declared war on Athens. Despite having a better navy, the Athenians couldn’t resist the Macedonians alone. It turns out, they didn’t have to. A most unexpected ally, the Thebans, joined them in attempting to check Philip’s advance.

The conflict came to a head when, in the spring of 338 BC, Philip invaded central Greece yet again and marched towards Thebes at a site near the town of Chaeronea. The Athenians and Thebans hastily put together an army of about 35,000 men that included smaller numbers from Achaea, Corinth, Chalcis, Epidaurus, Megara, and Thespiae. The Macedonians and their allies, led by Philip and his 18 year old son Alexander, numbered approximately 30 thousand infantry and two thousand cavalry. In short, the battle ended up being a complete Macedonian victory with the Athenians and their allies routed and forced to surrender. Their dead numbered in the thousands and included the elite Theban unit, known as the Sacred Band of Thebes. With his superior infantry, which utilized the Macedonian phalanx to its fullest extent, along with his cavalry, Philip had essentially defeated the last major opposition to his rule in northern and central Greece. After the Battle of Chaeronea, Philip established what became known as the Hellenic League, also referred to by scholars as the League of Corinth. This was a panhellenic organization with him at the helm. All of the major states of mainland Greece were essentially forced to join.

Pausanias and Philip II: The Great Escape

The great exception being Sparta whose leaders tersely warned Philip to stay out of their territory. As now the leader of a Greek superstate, Philip made the people a promise that he would liberate the Greek-speaking cities of Asia Minor from Persian rule. However, such bold plans would not be attempted during his lifetime for in 336 BC, Philip II was assassinated during the wedding celebrations of his daughter, Cleopatra of Macedon. The man who held the blade was Pausanias, a member of his royal bodyguards, who himself was quickly killed as he fled the scene of the crime. There are many theories as to why Pausanias killed Philip and what his motives may have been. One is that he was Philip’s lover and that the two had a falling out. While others contend that Pausanias could have been acting on behalf of one of Philip’s many enemies within Greece or even the Persian Empire. And then there are several theories about a conspiracy within his own family, especially involving his then estranged wife, Olympias, and their son Alexander.

Philip II of Macedon

According to Plutarch, in 337 BC, Philip married a noblewoman named Cleopatra Eurydice, though she was his seventh wife and quite young. She was the only true Macedonian among them which, in the eyes of many nobles, gave her a greater sense of legitimacy as a queen than his other foreign-born wives. This must have terrified Olympias, who, though she had a rocky relationship with Philip and had gone into exile to her homeland of Epirus had always been his principal wife. It also threatened Alexander’s position as a crown prince if Cleopatra Eurydice bore Philip a pure Macedonian, it would mean that he would eventually become king. She actually did end up giving birth to a son named Caranus, and so Philip was killed to ensure that Alexander would indeed succeed him. These are just some of the explanations for the assassination.

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