King Philip of Macedon

Having read about how the warlike Greeks defeated the invading armies of the Persians, who until that time were the most powerful empire in the world, you might think that the king who conquered all of Greece and made the proud Greeks recognize him as their leader would be one of the most famous kings in history. But he isn't. Although he conquered all of Greece, his son conquered the whole known world.

To the north of the warring city states of Greece lay the large, loosely knit kingdom of Macedon. Although the Macedonians spoke Greek and were allowed to send athletes to the Olympic Games, the Greeks of the city states considered them to be half barbarian. Few paid any attention when a young man named Philip became king of Macedon in 359 B.C.

Philip was just 23 years old when he became king. His older brother King Perdiccas had been killed in battle against Illyrian tribesman from the north, and Philip found himself surrounded by enemies on all sides. The Illyrian tribesman attacked Macedon from the north, Thracians had invaded from the east, and the Athenians were raiding the Macedonian coast from the south. Yet within his first year as king Philip formed a truce with the Tracians, then defeated the Illyrians and drove the Athenians from the coastal cities.

As a boy, Philip had studied in Greece and watched Greek soldiers train. When he became king he began to organize his Macedonian army into hoplite phalanxes. Philip's Macedonians carried small round shields slung over one arm and their spears were eighteen feet long, twice as long as the spears carried by Greek hoplites. These long spears were very difficult to carry, but they formed a forest of wood and sharp steel in front of the phalanx. Philip's army was made up of professional soldiers who trained until they could not only carry their eighteen-foot spears but charge forward in formation at a run.

The Macedonians also loved horses, and they had some of the best cavalry in the ancient world. In fact, Philip's name came from the Greek words philos (someone who loves something) and hippos (horse). The most elite of the Macedonian cavalry were a unit call The King's Companions, and Philip always led them into battle himself.

Philip was a natural leader and a skilled general, and before long he had defeated all the tribes and city states which had threatened Macedon when he became king. But Philip wanted more. He wanted to become the king of all Greece. One by one he conquered the Greek city states that neighbored Macedon. Some cities surrendered rather than fight against him. Some fought back, and when Philip conquered them he threw down their city walls and sold the citizens into slavery. Other times, Philip bribed the city leaders to turn their cities over to him. He once said that few armies were as powerful as a single donkey laden with bags of gold.

Unlike the Greeks, men in Macedon often had more than one wife. Philip had seven, and the chief of these was a Molossian princess named Olympias. She was a worshiper a Dionysus, the wild god of wine. She would lead her followers out into the hills for wild rituals called bacchanals, and it was said that she slept with poisonous snakes. In 356, when Philip had been king for just three years, Philip received three pieces of news on the day he had conquered the city of Potidaea: One of his generals had won a great victory against the Illyrians; his racehorse had won at the Olympic games; and Olympias had given birth to a son named Alexander.

As Philip was conquering the city states of northern Greece, Athens and Sparta were busy with their own problems. The Spartans believed that their army was so strong that they needed fear no foreign threat, and the Athenians were enjoying the riches of their empire. One man who did see the danger Philip posed to the city states was Demosthenes. He was one of the greatest politicians and orators that Athens ever produced, and he was convinced that Philip would not rest until all of Greece was under his power. He delivered a series of speeches to the Athenian people trying to convince them to lead an alliance against Macedon. These speeches were called the Philipics, and even today you may hear someone call a fiery political denunciation a Philipic.

At last, in 339 BC, Philip was ready to attack Athens itself. After years of ignoring his warnings, the Athenian people put Demosthenes in charge of defending them. He made an alliance with Thebes and led an army of 30,000 Greeks against Philip's invading army. They met in the Battle of Chaeronea on August 2nd 338. The heavily armed citizen soldiers of Greece had defeated a much larger Persian army almost exactly 152 years before at the Battle of Marathon, but they were no match for the longer spears and iron discipline of Philip's Macedonian phalanxes, who easily defeated the Greeks.

Philip knew that the Greeks were too proud to accept him as their king, even in defeat. So instead of making the city states parts of his kingdom he formed the Corinthian League, and demanded that the Greek city states elect him and his descendants as the hegemon [heh-geh-mon] or supreme leader of the League. He promised that his first action as hegemon would be to lead a Greek and Macedonian army against the Persian empire. In this, the Greeks saw a way to acknowledge Philip's victory while keeping their pride, and also a chance to get revenge against a long time enemy. They elected Philip hegemon, and thus the age of independent Greek city states ended. Only Sparta remained independent. They did not come to the aid of the other city states, and Philip decided to leave them alone so long as they made no move against him. One story tells that Philip sent a message to the Spartans saying, "If I enter Laconia, I will level Sparta to the ground." The reply from the Spartans was only one word, "If."

Immediately Philip began preparations to lead a combined Greek and Macedonian army against the Persian Empire. However, before he could set out, he was assassinated by one of his own noblemen in 336 BC. He had been king for 23 years, and left behind a unified Greece and a twenty-year-old son name Alexander.

Go back to: Elementary Program: Volume One

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