• James Houser

336 BC - Assassination of Philip II of Macedon

Updated: Jun 14, 2021

October 9. 336 BC. King Philip II of Macedon, the most powerful man in Ancient Greece, is assassinated during his daughter's wedding. No one expects too much from his young son, the famous hothead Alexander. We all know about Alexander - but give credit where credit is due. We need to talk about his Dad. And maybe a little of the Young Alexander Files along the way.

The ancient Kingdom of Macedon had long been on the fringes of the ancient Greek world. Situated well to the north of Athens, Thebes and Delphi, it was much closer ethnically to the Balkan tribes of modern Serbia and Albania than to the Greeks themselves. Culturally, though, the Macedonians lived in the shadow of Greece. They mimicked many of their religious and aesthetic practices, hired Greek tutors for their sons, and acquired Greek wine and marble for their small cities.

But the Macedonians were still a distinct people. Unlike the Greeks in their narrow valleys and on their small islands, the Macedonians were actually decent horsemen and used more cavalry in warfare. Though Greek was the language of the “cultured,” there were precious few of these men in Macedon; the Macedonian tongue was harsher and more guttural than Greek, and even if the two languages were related they were not close enough to be mutually comprehensible. The Greeks also looked down on the Macedonians because these northern barbarians drank like it was going out of style. Alcohol abuse would always be a major issue for Macedon, and their parties can only be described as “ragers” that often ended in boozed-up violence. Very far from Athenian sensibilities, definitely.

For most of the classical Greek age, Macedon was a weak state, with its monarchs holding little real power over the lands they theoretically ruled. The royal court was a den of vipers, and most rulers were more worried about getting poisoned than being invaded. During the long Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta, Macedon had sided with whoever it looked like was winning. They weren’t sought as allies for their military strength or power, but instead for the raw materials – food and shipbuilding materials – they could provide to Athens in particular. All told, Macedon was decidedly peripheral to the Greek power struggle.

That would all change with the ascendancy of Philip II. Philip had been born in 382 BC, one of several children of the Macedonian King Amyntas III. Early in his life, Philip was given up as a hostage to the Kings of Illyria, and then to the city-state of Thebes, which had defeated the Macedonians in war. Philip’s time in Thebes occurred at a critical moment in Greek history. The Theban general Epaminondas had delivered the Spartans a crippling defeat at the Battle of Leuctra in 371 BC, using innovative tactics and a more flexible command system.

Thebes was therefore at the cutting edge of military thought in the ancient world. The whole Greek world was undergoing something of a military revolution at this point, with the increased use of light infantry, cavalry and siegecraft beginning to change the old hoplite vs. hoplite methods of classical Greek warfare. With Philip in Thebes during this era, he was able to see and learn a lot about the new ways of war – especially given his patron, Pelopidas.

It’s time to talk about that worst of ancient Greek topics: the practice of pederasty. Yes, this is nasty and despicable, so pinch your nose and here we go. In ancient Greece, it was considered common practice for an older man to take a younger man (usually in his teens) as a lover. This partnership was often considered mutually beneficial and desirable, since the older man would often serve as the younger man’s mentor, patron and advocate, allowing him to gain political office and prestige.

THAT being said, it was f***ing gross, there was a HUGE potential for abuse, and it was often just as much about power as it was about some sort of sick mentorship. There are some who will try to dress this system up as a cultural quirk, and I’m extremely tolerant of cultural differences, but I think that some things should just be unacceptable no matter what your cultural framework. Pederasty is one of them.

Now that I’ve gotten that off my chest, the great Theban general Pelopidas took Philip as his lover during Philip’s time in Thebes. In between all the terribleness this relationship implies, Philip learned a lot about military tactics and strategy, and when he returned to Macedon at age 18 he had learned from the best generals and seen firsthand the military revolution underway. When Philip II took the throne at age 21, though, he inherited a whole bunch of enemies that surrounded his vulnerable kingdom. It would not have been unusual for him to be another in the long string of Macedonian kings who had died violently without accomplishing anything of note.

Unfortunately for every other country within reach, Philip II was one of history’s most natural military geniuses, and there is a strong argument that he was more talented in this field than his much more famous son. Philip was grounded, cunning, and deceptive, a master strategist who could easily play his enemies against each other and balance his problems with sublime deftness. He was a magnetic commander, as personally brave and daring as they came – which his multiple, and I mean MULTIPLE, battle wounds can attest to. By the time he died, Philip was a mass of scars and had even lost an eye in battle. He was always getting beat to shit.

One of the big reasons Philip was basically a tenderized steak by middle age was because he was just ALWAYS at war. Much like my behavior on Facebook during election season, Philip was constantly running out to go start a fight somewhere. And he was good at it. When he won, he won *hard*, and extended the Macedonian frontier over critical objectives like the gold mines at Philippi or the ports on the Aegean coast. When he was defeated, he fell back for a year, figured out what he did wrong, then came back smarter, faster, and tougher. When he wanted someone as an ally, he went and kicked their ass, then helped them off the ground and made a marriage alliance. Macedonian traditions allowed for polygamy, so Philip picked up wives like Pokemon to secure his alliances.

How did Philip win these wars? He took the lessons he had learned as a, um, child sex slave in Thebes and combined them with his innate perception and the natural strengths of Macedon. Philip formed what might be history’s first professional combined-arms military. The core of his army were units of his own personal creation: the Macedonian phalanx. The lightly armed Macedonian foot soldier had never been able to compete with the heavily armored Greek hoplites. Philip decided to make a hoplite-killing machine by arming the hardy Macedonian peasant with a much longer pike – the sarissa – and forming them into dense, disciplined formations. The Macedonian pikeman became the world’s best soldier until the Roman legionary came along, and due to their relative lack of armor compared to the hoplites they could move a lot faster. Philip’s pike phalanxes were not just defensive, but thanks to their speed and the shock of their pike charge they were also an offensive weapon.

To this new infantry system, Philip married elite forces of heavy cavalry known as the “Companion Cavalry” and hordes of light skirmisher infantry on the model of the Greek peltasts. In short, Philip created the war machine with which his son Alexander would conquer the world. Philip also recognized and advanced talent, especially his generals Antipater and Parmenion – men who would serve Alexander well. But now that I’ve hinted enough about it, let’s bring the one we’ve all been waiting for onto the stage.

After Philip had forged an alliance with the Kingdom of Epirus in 358 BC, its king gave him his daughter as a bride in order to cement their new relationship. This bride was Olympias, the fourth of his eventually seven wives, and for some time at least his favorite and principal wife. This was probably because she was the only one to give him a healthy son. This son, born in 357 BC while Philip was off knocking heads somewhere, was Alexander. Legends have surrounded Alexander’s birth, mostly stories of religious dreams Olympias and Philip had. Olympias allegedly dreamt that her womb was struck by lightning before her consummation with Philip on their wedding night, and later claimed that this meant that Alexander was actually the child of Zeus. Given what we all know about Zeus, it seemed pretty plausible. The man got around.

Another fun story holds that the same day that Philip received news about Alexander’s birth, he also received word of three other events: Parmenion’s defeat of an Illyrian army, his favorite racehorses’ victory at the Olympic games, and the burning of the Temple of Artemis. These were all great omens for any Greek-minded figure, except for the whole burning temple thing. Apparently, Philip claimed that it had only burned down because Artemis herself was away tending to the birth of Alexander. Leaving aside the question “what kind of a shitty goddess can’t do two things at a time,” most of these stories seem to have actually emerged when Alexander was already king. Since Alexander sorta believed he was a god himself, it’s as likely as not this was all part of a concerted propaganda campaign.

Philip had to find a tutor for young Alexander, and in keeping with his long-term goals for Macedon would only accept the best. So he went and hired Aristotle, which is sorta like hiring Einstein as your kid’s math tutor. Philip was able to persuade Aristotle, one of the greatest Greek philosophers, to come teach his kid basically by dumping a metric ton of money in his lap. Thanks to his conquests and careful management of his kingdom, Philip’s Macedon had become the wealthiest power in the ancient Greek world. Philip didn’t just pay Aristotle handsomely, he even funded the rebuilding of Aristotle’s hometown Stageira. Why did it have to be rebuilt? Because Philip had burned it down, of course. No one ever said this guy was a saint.

So Aristotle came to teach Alexander. Essentially, Philip set up a boarding school for his son and for the children of other wealthy Macedonian nobles. This was, again, a smart move: not only was he educating and culturing the future leaders and generals of his kingdom with the best education the Greek world had to offer, but he was placing them in an environment where they would grow close.

And they did. Alexander’s schoolmates would become his friends, generals, and governors, the immortal “companions” whose descendants would rule the eastern Mediterranean for centuries. Among them, for instance, was Ptolemy, whose last descendant Cleopatra you may have heard of. Aristotle taught these young people the latest in medicine, philosophy, logic, rhetoric, and “natural philosophy” – i.e. science. Alexander in particular loved the Iliad and its tales of heroism and valor. Aristotle gifted his pupil an annotated copy of the Iliad, which Alexander would carry with him throughout his future campaigns.

And it’s at about this point that Alexander begins to emerge as a figure in his own right. The historical approach to Alexander is always difficult, since it’s hard to see him as a human being. Every single source of ours treats him as something approaching divine, a near-omniscient military savant and charismatic thunderbolt who could do anything, be anything, and win anything. It’s hard to get past this sense of awe even in modern histories and biographies because his accomplishments were legendary even in his own time. Alexander the man probably has more of a mythos than any other non-religious historical figure, so carving the myth out to find the man is much more difficult because it’s almost all myth.

But right NOW, he is 16 and Philip was ready to start giving him responsibility. While Philip was away waging war against the Greek city of Byzantium (yes, that Byzantium) Alexander was left as regent of Macedon. During that time, Alex went looking for a face to push in, and crushed a revolt in Thrace. He drove the tribe from their territory, founded a city, and named it Alexandropolis – the first of like a hundred cities he would name after himself. Of course he didn’t have an ego, why do you ask?

Alexander led multiple smaller campaigns over the next year and a half – all successful – before he joined his father for the big one. Finally awake to the growing threat to the north, many of the Greek cities had joined together in a coalition to deal with this Macedon problem before it got totally out of hand. Alexander mustered up an army while his father hurried back from the frontier, handed over the keys to Dad, then father and son rode off together to face the combined might of the Greek cities.

The two major Greek powers that stood against Macedon were Athens and Thebes – Sparta had refused to join. The two armies met on the field at Chaeronea on August 2, 338 BC. Philip commanded the right wing of the 30,000-strong Macedonian army, while the teenage Alexander (assisted by some of Philip’s generals) commanded the left. The fight was long and bloody, lasting all day, and resulted in Philip’s greatest victory. He ordered his half of the line to fake a retreat, separating the two Greek wings by drawing the Athenians after him, before he turned around and smashed the Greek hoplites with his lighter pikemen and swift horsemen.

On the left, Alexander led his cavalry into the gap created by the splitting of the Greeks, and surrounded the legendary Theban Sacred Band. Alexander’s attack annihilated the 300 elite warriors, who died to a man. That night, as the shattered Greek force fled, Philip danced happily on the battlefield, laughing softly to himself. Was this sweet revenge against Thebes for his imprisonment and abuse as a child?

The Battle of Chaeronea, one of history’s decisive engagements, made Macedon the dominant power in Greece until the arrival of the Romans. The power of the city-states was completely broken. Even though Sparta had been left out of the coalition, they would get theirs during the reign of Alexander. Philip forced most of the Greek cities into an alliance under his banner, but he had even grander plans on the horizon. He began to formulate a strategy for an attack on the Persian Empire.

There was trouble brewing at home, though. Philip had recently taken a new wife, Cleopatra Eurydice – a full-blooded Macedonian. This made Alexander’s position as Philip’s heir insecure, since he was only half Macedonian. At the wedding feast, when one Macedonian general toasted the marriage with the hope that the gods would give Philip a “lawful successor,” Alexander threw a cup of wine at his head and yelled “What, am I then a bastard?” Philip and Alexander, both drunk out of their minds (as Macedonians do) almost came to blows before Philip slipped on his own wine and fell on the floor, upon which Alexander publicly mocked him in front of the whole court.

This is obviously not the symbol of a stable royal family. Alexander and his mother were forced into exile for some time. Philip, though, despite his drunken brawl, had never intended to disinherit Alexander. Alex was bright, a good general, and obviously the most competent successor to the throne. After six months, Philip and Alexander publicly made amends, and the prodigal son returned. They continued to clash, but never as dramatically.

This makes the next event all the more suspicious. While attending the wedding of his daughter to Olympias’s brother (not strictly incest, but still kinda freaking weird right?) Philip led a procession into the theater of Aegae, the ancient capital of Macedon. As he walked into the center of the dais, he was suddenly killed by Pausanias, one of his bodyguards. As Pausanias tried to escape, he tripped on a vine and was quickly killed by Philip’s other guards – but the damage was done. Philip II of Macedon was dead at the age of 46.

Of course, conspiracy theories abound, with the most popular version being that Alexander and his mom Olympias had something to do with it. This, however, seems unlikely. Alexander’s position was as secure as it had ever been, and there was no reason to fear his displacement as Philip’s chosen heir. Natural suspicions fall everywhere, including that old bugbear of Greek pederasty: according to one historian, Pausanias had been Philip’s lover until the king put him aside for a younger man. Enraged by this and subsequent drama, Pausanias was driven to kill his King and ex-boyfriend. This seems salacious and probably completely untrue. We will never know why Philip II was killed, or who ordered his dearh.

And ultimately it didn’t matter. Because Alexander III of Macedon had just taken the throne at 18 years old. He believed he was descended from gods – maybe even from Zeus. He was young, full of energy, a budding genius tutored by Aristotle and obsessed with the Iliad. He was in charge of the strongest state in the ancient world, and in his hands was the greatest military machine the Mediterranean had ever seen, already preparing to go to war with Persia. On his own, Alexander would have been a dangerous, radical figure; with his father’s inheritance, Alexander had the potential to change the world. It was the perfect storm of a psychotic, brilliant young King and the ancient world’s equivalent of the German blitzkrieg.

But give credit where credit is due. Alexander might have been Great – but he never would have gotten there without his dad. Philip II of Macedon arguably deserves “the Great” even more than his son. Maybe he’d be better remembered if not for all that damn pederasty.

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