Philip II of Macedon

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What was the impact of Philip II of Macedon on the relationships between Greek cities?

When Philip ascended the Macedonian throne in 359BC it was as the ruler of a kingdom under threat from all sides. An Illyrian army, having just killed his brother Perdiccas and 4,000 Macedonian soldiers, was about to invade, Paeonians were raiding Macedonian territory and there were a number of rivals for the throne not least the Athenian backed Argaeus (Cawkwell 1978: 29). Survival was the only thing on his mind and in order to achieve this he had to move rapidly and avoid the ‘super powers’ of Athens, Thebes and Sparta forming a coalition against him while he was in the current weakened state. An astute political and military leader Philip, from the outset, applied the Athenian principles of fear, honour and interest (Thucydides 1.75.10-11) to secure and enlarge his kingdom and influence the Greek cities. He did this by playing on their greed, mutual mistrust and inter-city rivalry, supporting the weaker cities against the stronger, and using his political acumen to either engineer or seize opportunities when they arose (Hammond 1994: 29). This essay will look at four aspects that typify this approach by discussing Philip’s manipulation of Athens, the city he feared most because of its naval power, the support he gave the weaker cities of the Peloponnese to neutralise Sparta, his role as champion of the Amphictyonic Council in the Sacred war that brought him an alliance with Thebes and finally the opportunities provided by Hermias and Isokrates for expansion of his kingdom and unification of Greece respectively.

Of the three major cities that had held power in Greece up to 359BC only Athens was trying to cling to the last vestiges of imperial power by maintaining a strong navy whilst trying to halt its decline; Thebes was nominally the leader of the Boiotian league but was dealing with unrest in that body (Sakellariou 1992: 112) and Sparta was the least important as, having been defeated at Leuctra in 371BC, it now concentrated mainly on its parochial interests in the Peloponnese (Warry 1980: 60-61). Initially Philip needed to form an alliance with Athens to remove their support for Argaeus and to counter the naval power of the Chalcidic league. He did this by withdrawing military aid from Amphipolis, to which Athens had a long-standing claim, requesting a formal peace between the two states and backing this up with the generous return of Athenian soldiers, without ransom, following his defeat of Argaeus near Methone. This convinced the Athenians to agree to an alliance with Macedon (Ellis 1976: 51) so even at this early stage Philip was influencing Athenian policy. Later, when Athens was preoccupied in the Social war, Philip besieged and took Amphipolis, on the pretext of a ‘secret deal’ with Athens to exchange it for Pydna, and then took Pydna as well. Athens, realising they had been beaten at their own game, accused Philip of perjury, abandoned the alliance with Macedon and declared war (Hammond 1994: 31). Amphipolis opened up access to the Thracian Chersonese for Philip and he campaigned in that area regularly during the season of the Etesian winds (3 months from mid-June) during which Athens could not intervene as navigation from south to north was almost impossible thus frustrating Athenian attempts to maintain its hold on an area of great significance to the security of its grain supply (Ellis 1976: 65-66). When Olynthus (leader of the Chalcidic league) broke off its treaty with Macedon, and swapped to Athenian support, Philip campaigned and defeated them adding Chalcidice to his growing kingdom. This was the last vestige of Athenian empire in the north and Demosthenes saw that the final settlement would be fought in mainland Greece and that Athens needed to form an alliance with Thebes if it was to stand any chance a halting Macedonian expansion (Hammond 1994: 61-63). However, Thebes was on the side of Macedon in the Sacred War against Phocis. Athens (and Sparta) backed Phocis knowing that in this way the main route south into Central Greece through the pass at Thermopylae could be secured but when Phocis fell Philip seized the pass and installed a Macedonian garrison so Athens was forced to sue for peace. Seizing the initiative Philip would only agree to peace on condition of an alliance as well. In this way he would have the best of all worlds either as an alliance with both Athens and Thebes or an alliance with Athens against Thebes thus preventing them from forming a coalition against him (Markle 1974: 253-4). Following protracted negotiations the peace of Philocrates was finally agreed but with Demosthenes still arguing for a Theban and Athenian alliance it was an uneasy peace that ensued and when Athens sent support to Perinthus and Byzantion against Philip in 340BC the Macedonian king accepted the peace and alliance was over and declared war (Ashley 1998: 140-141). The resulting battle of Chaeronea in 338BC saw Philip victorious and the whole of Greece under Macedonian control (Warry 1980: 69). Throughout all this period Athens had danced to Philip’s tune, never taking the initiative, financially unable to compete and politically and militarily outmanoeuvred. Philip required Athenian naval power to counter the Persian navy, ensure the successful transportation of troops across the Aegean to Persia and maintain his lines of communication and supply. Further he needed a solid ally in Greece to help maintain the peace there leaving him free to concentrate on the Asian theatre but Athenian inability to understand this, without it being made explicit, meant the opportunity was lost as Philip constantly manipulated them to get his own way (Shipley 1998: 72-73).

With Sparta in decline it would have been easy for Philip to dismiss them as a threat but that would have been totally against his nature. Instead he championed the causes of the weaker cities of Messenia, Megalopolis and Argos, who were also supported by Thebes, in keeping the Peloponnese divided in two and Spartan attention firmly focussed on events in their own locality with very little influence on anything else other than the Sacred War in which they backed Phocis (Cawkwell 1978: 64-65). This kept Sparta subdued until events after Chaeronea when Philip invaded the Peloponnese, devastated the land but decided to follow the example of the Theban general Epaminondas and leave Sparta as an independent city that provided a counter to its rivals in that area (Hammond 1994: 158-159).

Macedonian involvement in the Sacred war came about initially through the invitation from the Thessalian league to support them in their fight against the tyrants of Pherae (Diodorus Siculus 16.35.1). Victory brought Philip the opportunity to unify Thessaly and have himself appointed archon for life thus adding significantly to his dominions and considerably increasing his available manpower. It also brought him into the sphere of central Greece for the first time (Hammond 1994: 44). Thessaly was a member of the Amphictyonic Council which administered the oracle at Delphi and when Thebes engineered a huge fine against Phocis for perceived irregularities the league had split into two camps, with Phocis supported by Athens and Sparta and Delphi supported by Thessaly and Thebes. So with his new position in Thessaly Philip found himself allied to Thebes and the militarily weaker cities of the council against the supposedly mightier combination of Athens and Sparta who were supported by a Phocian funded mercenary army using treasures pillaged from the Delphic shrine. Despite initial setbacks Philip was able to cast himself in the role of champion of the god Apollo (thus securing unending Delphic support) and prevail (Hammond 1994: 90-93). Even then Philip turned the victory to his own advantage by redistributing the voting amongst the Amphictyonic Council in such a way as to ensure he would always have majority support for his plans and by protecting the Phocians from an over severe punishment, earning their gratitude and gaining access to the important pass at Thermopylae. He further emphasised his control by re-establishing the cities of Platea and Thespiae that Thebes had sacked. This limitation of Theban power was undertaken safe in the knowledge that, combined with Thessaly, Delphi and Phocis and a pending alliance with Athens that would prevent them supporting Thebes, any threat raised against him from that quarter could be countered (Ashley 1998: 123-124). Philip’s support for the weaker cities, sometimes in combinations alongside the stronger ones, demonstrates his ability to keep his options fluid and to counter any attempts at reconciliation and collaboration of the major powers against him by never revealing his true intentions until it was too late for them to react.

When Hermias of Atarneus proposed an alliance with Philip it opened up a number of opportunities that the king of Macedon would have been eager to seize (Ellis 1976: 160). Firstly it would provide information with regards to any alliance or negotiations between Persia and the mainland Greek cities against him; secondly it would give him a foothold on the other side of the Hellespont and allow him to offer support to the Ionian Greek cities, colonies of the mainland Greeks, either against Persian control or their mother cities. It would also, if he won those cities over to his side, limit the trading options of those mother cities by restricting their markets but most importantly of all it would provide the opportunity to hold Athens to ransom and bend the Athenians to his will by restricting or stopping the grain fleet from the Black Sea out through the Hellespont (Murray 1993: 193). The fact, celebrated by Demosthenes as it would reveal Philip’s plans (Ellis 1976: 172), that it did not come to fruition because Hermias was captured and executed meant the opportunity was lost for the time being but it was resurrected under a different guise when Isokrates wrote to Philip in 346BC advocating the unification of Greece in a crusade against Persia in reparation for the sack of Athens in 480BC. Although Philip was the fourth on the list of potential leaders he saw this as an opportunity to establish his leadership over the whole of Greece but by alliance rather than conquest and in a way which would see him maintaining the balance between the cities whilst representing the Greek nation (Markle 1974: 268). As archon in Thessaly, Macedonia king and a leading member of the Amphictyonic Council that would seem to be the next logical step but if it was in Philip’s long term plans to invade Persia he was unable to do so whilst mainland Greece was not under his control (Shipley 1998: 73). Isokrates gave him the ideal hook on which to hang his ambitions whether or not he invaded Persia.

Philip developed the first significantly large European territorial state that was centrally controlled militarily, administratively and religiously (Green 1991: 1) and he achieved this by keeping one step ahead of his opponents. He was able to use the intrinsic flaw in city-state politics, the open debate, to gather significant intelligence on which to base his long term planning and decision making. He even exploited rival factions within cities as is evidenced by his support of Phalaecus in Phocis that saw the rejection of Spartan and Athenian intervention and the Macedonian acquisition of Thermopylae (Markle 1974: 265). As head of state in all things Philip was able to make and implement rapid decisions as well as seize opportunities that other states could not and this eventually led to their downfall (Sakellariou 1992: 122-125). The final unification of the Greek cities in a common peace and Pan-Hellenic crusade against Persia was not an initial objective for Philip but developed over time as the opportunities provided by the Thessalian League, The Amphictyonic Council, Hermias and Isokrates arose (Ellis 1976: 128-130). By keeping the major powers separated or neutralized through the use of alliances and support of their weaker opponents he was able to achieve the unification on his terms and to his timescale and this has to be seen as the major impact he had on the relationships between Greek cities.


Ancient Sources

  • Diodorus Siculus: The Reign of Philip II. trans E. McQueen. London. Bristol Classical Press. 1995.
  • Thucydides: The History of the Peloponnesian War. trans. R. Livingstone (The World’s Classics). Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1973.

Modern Sources

  • Ashley, J. 1998: The Macedonian Empire. London. McFarland and Co.
  • Cawkwell, G. 1978: Philip of Macedon. London. Faber and Faber.
  • Ellis, J. 1976: Philip II and Macedonian Imperialism. London. Thames and Hudson.
  • Green, P. 1991: Alexander of Macedon. Oxford, University of California Press.
  • Hammond, N. 1994: Philip of Macedon. London. Duckworth and Co.
  • Markle, M. 1974: The Strategy of Philip in 346 BC. In The Classical Quarterly, New Series, Vol. 24, No.2. 253-268.
  • Murray, O. 1993: Early Greece. 2nd Edition. London. Fontana Press.
  • Sakellariou, M. 1992: Philip and the Southern Greeks. Strengths and Weaknesses. In Hatzopoulus, M and Loukopoulus, L. (eds.) Philip of Macedon. Athens. Ekdotike Athenon S.A. 112-127.
  • Shipley, G. 1998: Archaic into Classical. In Sparkes, B. (ed.) Greek Civilisation: An Introduction. Oxford. Blackwell. 54-75.
  • Warry, J. 1980: Warfare in the Classical World. London: Salamander Books.

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