Ancient History & Civilisation


Philip of Macedon

Philip despised those who were of an orderly character and took care of their own property, but he praised and honoured those who were extravagant and spent their lives in playing dice and drinking… Were not some of them shaven and smooth-skinned even when they were adult men, while others dared to mount one another and have sex even though they had beards? They used to take around two or three male prostitutes each, and themselves give the same services to others. Justly, then, would someone suppose them to be ‘courtesans’ not ‘court-Companions’

Theopompus F225 B (Jacoby), after his time at Philip’s Pella

Down to the 350s there were many changes in inter-state relations in Greece, but no great surprise emerged from an unforeseen corner. Within twenty years, however, the freedom of the Greeks would have a new master, a king of Macedon, who ruled beyond Mount Olympus in the north of Greece. The unexpected dominance of Macedon would far exceed that of Periclean Athens and would persist for more than a hundred and seventy years.

Its beginnings were most inauspicious. Its founder, Philip, entered the stage aged twenty or so as the regent for an even younger prince. His elder brother had been killed in battle (not, as rumour said, by his mother) and his kingdom was being overrun by barbarians from the north-west. Greek city-states to the south had seen it all before: murders in the Macedonian royal family, a disputed succession to the throne, oaths sworn and broken by harassed kings. There had been brief flashes of power, but during more than two centuries not a single king of Macedon had died peacefully in old age. Nonetheless, after more than twenty years in power, the new Macedonian leader, King Philip, could now marshal a highly trained army, including many Thessalians and other Greeks, and win a decisive victory over the major Greek city-states, including Athens. By 338 BC his power extended from the river Danube to southern Greece. He then imposed a highly restrictive peace on his Greek ‘allies’. He even began an invasion of the Persian Empire. His making of a new Macedon was antiquity’s most rapid and remarkable feat of power-building.

In the fourth century BC Macedon centred on a lowland palace and capital, Pella, but it was a patchwork of little kingdoms whose own ruling houses had at times followed their own line. Hostile Greeks to the south had sometimes called its kings ‘barbarian’ and the ‘Macedonian speech’ of its ordinary people was very difficult for many southern Greeks to understand. The ‘Macedonians’ did sometimes distinguish themselves, even in official lists, from ‘Hellenes’.1 However, the royal house claimed descent from Argos and traced back their arrival to c. 650 BC, as if they had fled north from the coming age of tyrants and hoplite warfare in Greece. That claim is rather dubious, but in c. 500 BC their king Alexander I had been allowed, after careful screening, to compete in the Olympic Games, which were confined to Greeks only. What, then, was the truth? Were Macedonians Greeks?

In the past thirty years, ever more evidence has been found of Macedonians’ patronage of fine Greek arts and crafts. Texts had already told us how their fifth-century kings had settled Greek exiles in their kingdom. They also patronized great Greek poets like Pindar and Euripides and hired the great painters of the day: we can now add the master-sculptor, Callimachus, to the list after recent archaeological finds. Certainly, the Macedonian kings and courtiers wished to be seen as Greeks. Patronage does not make a patron into a Greek, but there has also been renewed study of Macedonian personal names, the month-names in the Macedonian calendar, and some of the odd words preserved from ‘Macedonian dialect’. A growing number of personal inscriptions have been found in fourth-century contexts; they begin to allow us to connect the ‘Macedonian dialect’ to the Greek which was current in north-western Greece. One of the earliest Greek inscriptions in Macedon, recently found, is a curse written for or by a woman at Pella who invokes the gods against that perpetual human phenomenon, a man who had proved to be a love-rat.2

The ‘perceived common ancestor’ of the kingdom was the legendary Makedon whom Greek genealogy accepted as a son of the Greek god Zeus. At their original capital and dynastic centre, Aigai (modern Vergina), the kings even held local Olympics, a festival in honour of Zeus. Near their kingdom’s southern border at Dion they held a musical and cultural festival for the Muses.3 Within the kingdoms, even the kings had sometimes intermarried with non-Greek ‘barbarians’: Philip’s own mother is said, perhaps rightly, to have been one. But the dominant culture and language of the kings and their nobles was certainly Greek.

Philip’s own upbringing had a double element. As a young man he was sent as a hostage to Thebes, the dominant military power in Greek affairs. A leading Theban general is said to have been his male lover. Yet Philip also spent time as a hostage in barbarian Illyria. He himself favoured Greek artists, actors and orators, although his mother is said to have learned to read and write only in middle age; we have recently found Greek inscriptions, beautifully carved in her name, at the Macedonians’ dynastic centre, Aigai. But Philip also kept company with barbarian kings and allies, people who responded to extravagant shows of prowess and generosity. In this company, it was customary to reward a barbarian ally who cut off an enemy’s head in battle with the gift of a gold cup: ‘heads for cups’ had never been the classical Greek way.4 Some of Macedon’s own traditions were also decidedly primitive. In the past, a man could not wear a belt unless he had killed an enemy in battle. In Philip’s day, he could not recline at dinner until he had killed a wild boar while out hunting. Like previous kings, but unlike contemporary Greeks, Philip was polygamous. Within three years, he had four ‘wives’ in his palace and ended up with seven, three of whom were non-Greek barbarians. One of them, Cynnane, was famous as a warrior on the battlefield and taught martial arts to her courageous daughter. Philip played one wife off against another, much as, publicly, he played off the major Greek powers. His final infatuation, the young Macedonian Cleopatra (also called Eurydice), split the royal family and arguably cost Philip his life. The sensational finds of painted tombs in the royal burial ground at Aigai include a double royal tomb, almost certainly Philip’s, in which, if so, the cremated remains of Philip and Cleopatra were laid to rest. Greek outsiders, including the historian Theopompus, a contemporary visitor, told lurid stories of revenge about this burial ground: in the recently found tombs, we now have the basis of fact from which these unchecked rumours developed.

The self-image of the kings and their subjects was Greek, and as Philip’s power grew, ambassadors from all over Greece were to be found at his court, Pella. The Athenian delegates to him are the best witnesses to his style. By 346 BC Philip had already lost an eye during a siege, one of the many wounds, including broken collarbones, which his strong physique survived in twenty years. Yet his Athenian visitors remarked on his handsome looks, his excellent memory, his hospitality and his talent at his drinking-sessions. Philip had an educated charm, combined with great bravery in battle and an impulsive generosity. They were apt gifts for a court-life which retained its wilder side. It was probably in Macedon that the poet Euripides had written his dramatic masterpiece, theBacchae, on the god Dionysus. At court, the staging of this tragedy must have had a raw resonance, not least because Philip’s main wife, Olympias, was said to handle live snakes (we now have evidence of local women worshipping Dionysus, attested by a strip of gold, inscribed with Greek and newly found in Macedonia).5 At dinner, Philip was also said to toast his guests with wine in great drinking-horns, which were probably modelled on the horns of oxen from the European steppes. There were also tales of women dancing on the table, whips and unsavoury Greek exiles urging on the evening’s revelry.

Publicly, Philip was favoured by the difficulties of his elderly neigh-bours. The ageing barbarian kings around him opted for peace with him and then bequeathed divided kingdoms to their weakened heirs: Philip could conquer these heirs one by one. First in Thessaly, then in central Greece, Philip was also invited south to take sides in the political divisions of Greek communities. In his first three years he followed the traditional ambitions of previous Macedonian kings, as befitted a young prince who was ruling as a regent among hardened older nobles. Then, in one magnificent year (356 BC), he became father to a son (Alexander), routed a coalition of barbarian enemies and captured a nearby Greek city-state (Potidaea). He also won a prestigious victory with his racehorse at the Olympic Games, and signalled his own status by striking silver coins showing himself with a hand upraised, on horseback. He even founded a new town, named after himself, the famous Philippi beside the river Nestus to which he had advanced Macedon’s eastern frontier.

Further conflicts in Greece then brought him into central Greece and to the symbolic ‘rescue’ of the threatened Delphic oracle. Here, Philip profited by invitations from Greeks with wars of their own. After a rebuff in nearby Euboea in 357 BC the Thebans had started a gratuitous war against the local Phocians who were long-standing friends of Athens. When the Phocians resisted and borrowed treasure from Delphi, the Thebans labelled them ‘temple-robbers’ and gained Thessaly, an old enemy of Phocis, as an ally in a war on ‘sacrilege’. Having started the war the Thebans could not finish it. They ended by inviting their former hostage, King Philip, to come south and help them out. The request was to prove disastrous for Greek freedom. In spring 352 BC Philip’s victories in central Greece won him immense support from Thessaly’s traditionalists who even appointed him ‘ruler’ of their League: Thessaly’s revenues were at his disposal, and the greatest gain was her cavalry, which numbered thousands. Fighting in their diamond-shaped formations, Thessalian cavalrymen would loyally follow Philip and his son Alexander, until Alexander dismissed them in 329 BC at the faraway river Oxus in central Asia.

Backed by Thessaly, Philip won a ‘Sacred War’ against Phocis’ ‘sacrilege’, as if he was fighting on behalf of Apollo: Phocis’ captive mercenaries were drowned in the sea, to mark them out as polluting enemies. In 346 Philip then swore a peace and alliance with the Athenians, while promising them vague ‘benefits’: realists in the city were not deceived. This peace should not be understood as Philip’s intended base for a permanent settlement with the Greek city-states. Rather, it would contain affairs in Greece for him while he engaged on massive campaigns into barbarian Illyria (perhaps as far as modern Dubrovnik) and then into Thrace (modern Bulgaria), right up to the river Danube. Meanwhile, before the Greek city-states, his envoys continued to profess his willingness to heed their grievances; professions of ‘friendship’ and ‘benefits’ were classic weapons in Philip’s diplomatic armoury. At the same time, from summer 343 to 341 approaches from discontented factions in Greek cities were rewarded with money, arms and even mercenaries. All the while Philip encouraged the notion that in southern Greece, he would curb the feared and hated Spartans. Sparta’s neighbours, therefore, hesitated to join any opposition to him, because they feared a Spartan revival even more than this untried Macedonian ‘ally’.

After major campaigns in Thrace on his eastern borders from 342 onwards, Philip was brought back into central Greece by local political quarrelling in 339/8. Alarmingly, his previous ally, the Thebans, had finally broken their alignment and turned to the Athenians; since 346 Philip’s cautious retention of several forts near Thermopylae had helped to disillusion Theban opinion and in 340 his attack on a Theban ally, Byzantium, had hardened opinion against him. All along, a Theban–Athenian alliance was the outcome which Philip had feared. However, at the battle of Chaeronea, in August 338, he won his most famous victory, ‘fatal to liberty’, over the combined Theban and Athenian troops.

The diplomacy and conflicts of these years 348–338 have an enduring fascination and their consequences were a turning point for Greek civic life and its setting, Greek freedom. After his victory in 338 Philip ostentatiously respected Athens (the city still had the impregnable Long Walls) but was much harsher to Thebes. War was then declared on the Persian Empire which had been Philip’s long-term aim at least since the late 350s. Supposedly, this war was to ‘punish the Persian wrongs of 480’, especially the burning of Athens’ temples, and to ‘free’ the Greek cities in Asia. In 338/7, Philip imposed a peace and alliance, offering ‘freedom’, on his Greek allies prior to going east, although many of them were reluctant, or sceptical, about his true aims.

For his Asian campaign, Philip’s publicity cleverly recalled the history of the great Panhellenic years from 478 to 465; he formed a second ‘Hellenic Alliance’ which was based, like its predecessor, at Corinth. This time, Sparta was excluded, much to the glee of her enemies in southern Greece. In their eyes, Philip’s supervised ‘freedom’ was far preferable to the risk of a Spartan resurgence. From an Athenian viewpoint, this sort of local calculation was close to treachery. For Philip’s Hellenic Alliance was far harsher than the one in the 470s which Athens had led by sea and Sparta by land. In the member-cities, changes to the political system and the radical menaces of a redistribution of land and an abolition of debts were strictly prohibited. A council of deputies was to arbitrate disputes between member-states, thus enshrining in a sworn treaty the old Greek practice of public arbitration. But there were also to be people ‘appointed for the common safety’, a carefully vague euphemism for Philip’s own men: probably, they were his generals and the army which he left in Greece.6 Rebel states, meanwhile, were to be punished at the Macedonian leader’s own whim.

Throughout, Philip’s remarkable successes in Greece had owed much to bluff and promises, artfully dressed up as diplomacy. He addressed letters repeatedly to the Athenians which were full of vague promises, misleading self-justification and, eventually, tendentious history. Never before had one Greek state communicated so much to another by unsolicited communiqués. Behind the fine words, Philip increasingly had the greater manpower; he had widened Macedon’s frontiers, and so he drew on the resources of a newly united kingdom whose military numbers were so much greater than that of the Athenians. He also multiplied the kingdom’s horsepower by settling Macedonians, his future cavalrymen, on lush new pastures in the wetlands which he conquered on his eastern border. He even improved the strength of his warhorses by bringing new breeding-stock back to his kingdom’s stables. By the end of his reign his cavalry (charging with long lances) numbered more than 5,000, more than five times greater than the numbers which are attested at its beginning. On his north-western and eastern borders, Philip also annexed accessible mines of gold and silver. Archaeologically, finds in Macedon are conspicuous even before Philip’s reign for their quantity of gold objects, a luxury which far exceeds the gold found elsewhere in Greece. The new mines intensified this splendour and transformed the kingdom’s economic base. Their effects were soon seen in Philip’s superb coinage, as for the first time, gold pieces circulated from a Greek monarch. They proved to be one of Philip’s lasting memorials: they lived on in second-hand copies among European barbarians and continued to be used long after his death as far west as Gaul.

Philip’s other memorials were his new towns and his changes to the social and military order of the Macedonians. Various ‘towns of Philip’ were founded on the kingdom’s borders, the forerunners of his son’s Alexandrias. A cluster of them lay on river-sites in modern Bulgaria where Plovdiv still commemorates Philip’s name. The new towns strengthened his frontiers and conquests, while new units, based on a new social order, bound his newly balanced army closer to the king. A large unit of 3,000 ‘Royal Shield-bearers’, Philip’s invention, linked a trained unit of ‘Royal Foot Companions’ to the enlarged Companion Cavalry who rode on the wings of the flexible army-line. These new titles of distinction honoured recruits in the royal service and although their units were still led by their local nobles, they were now trained and merged into a single royal force. The Foot Companions’ symbol was the long pike, or sarissa, which was made from cornel wood and weighted with a butt-spike; held by two hands, it extended to a length of more than sixteen feet. Philip had plainly thought hard about military tactics and so he devised a new model army which was an unusually varied and balanced unity.

Remarkably, Philip bound this new army to himself as king without surrendering any of the monarchy’s powers. Neighbouring kings, by contrast, had become restricted by fixed councils and magistrates; Philip remained an autocrat who was swept along by his success and his ability to make gifts and to bestow grants of conquered land on his soldiers. A Macedonian king had to be a man of prowess and achievement. His people were solidly loyal to monarchy (it lasted far longer than Athens’ democracy), but at any time his nobles might well prefer another king for the job. Behind the charm and the diplomacy, Philip had to be a great warrior and a great hunter, a generous giver and a great drinker. These sides to a man were what formed a Macedonian leader and what the court admired. So Philip fought personally in the front line and after battle would lead a tireless pursuit on horseback against the enemy’s fugitive leaders. His other known skills can even be illustrated now by archaeology. On the double royal tomb at Vergina, a superb fresco shows scenes of hunting in which he, his young Royal Pages and (surely) Alexander attack a lion (lions still lived in and near his Macedon). Even the hunting-dogs are shown with terrifying jaws. Deer, bears and boar are all represented as the Macedonians’ prey, face to face. The superb ceremonial shield and couch in Philip’s tomb-chamber were also decorated with vigorous scenes of hunting on horseback. The grave-goods included a gold arrow-case of a type known in barbarian Scythia: it was a gift to Philip, no doubt, like the gifts he himself liked to give. An array of silver drinking-cups and big jugs and containers, often beautifully decorated, attest the prominence of bold drinking in the parties, on couches, in Philip’s palace rooms.

Philip gained loyalty by excelling at all these arts. Within Macedon, he had advisers, especially his Companion nobles, but there was no formal ‘constitution’: within the kingdom, it was still he as king who dispensed personal justice, in answer to appeals and petitions. This pattern of personal justice would become prominent in the next three centuries under succeeding monarchies; then it would be practised for more than five centuries by subsequent Roman emperors. But it became conspicuous for the first time in Greece with King Philip. The Emperor Hadrian perhaps heard the story which is reported about an old woman who approached him on his travels: she was petitioning for justice, only to be told by Hadrian ‘don’t bother me’. ‘And don’t you be king, then,’ she retorted, whereupon Hadrian did bother to hear her case.7 What Hadrian would not know was that this story had been told of several previous rulers who were also dispensing personal justice. Aptly, the earliest of whom it was told was Philip, king of Macedon.

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