PHILIP AND ALEXANDER
The Greeks of the 4th century simply couldn't stop
fighting with one another. With Persian gold flowing just to make
sure the fighting never stopped, what's going to happen? Well, a house
divided against itself cannot stand, and, sooner or later, an outside
invader is going to take over.
Enter: Philip of Macedon.
Philip marks an important turning point in both Greek and world
history. Both he and his son Alexander both deserve the nickname
“the great” if one understands “great” to mean important. But
were he and his son great in any other sense? Maybe—or maybe not.
I haven’t mentioned Macedon much in this course: with good
reason! The Macedonians weren’t very important. To the rest
of the Greeks, they were just barbarians who happened to speak Greek.
Macedon had been a simple warrior society. The soldiers elected
as king whoever they felt was the best leader, not very advanced at
all. But this had begun to change about 50 years before the time
of Philip. Macedon began trading extensively with Athens, and
with trade came culture as well. Art and poetry begin to develop:
Euripides himself went to Macedonian capital, Pella.
But Macedon was still not very powerful…not until Philip.
Philip took the throne in 359 BC at age of 23. He had been a
hostage at Thebes where he learned from Epaminondas and from
Pelopidas. If fact, Philip apparently was apparently “inspired”
by Pelopidas. Philip later adopted Epaminondas ideas, but he
added innovations of his own including the sarissa, a long spear, and
the Macedonian phalanx. He centralized government, created a
powerful army with which he subdued his immediate neighbors, got access
to sea, and secured control of gold mines.
Philip was not just a fighter, but a shrewd diplomat. He married
Olympias of Epirus—a shrewd move, but political marriage is really
Where Philip’s diplomacy was innovative was in the way he used the
Sacred Wars, wars that involved the oracle at Delphi. It was the
Sacred Wars that gave Philip the excuse to deal with another threat,
the threat that came from that perennial Greek power, Phocis.
Phocis? Where does Phocis come from?
Well, as religion broke down among the Greeks, religious taboos broke
down too. Apollo’s oracle is rich: but if Apollo isn’t really
there, if the oracle is just a Delphian scheme, why not help
oneself? Phocis seized the treasury at Delphi—then hired enough
mercenaries to make sure they are a military powerhouse.
Philip first managed to get himself admitted to confederation
protecting Delphi, then took out Phocis in a “just cause.” Somewhat
refreshing to have a leader who cares about such things again…at least
in appearance, if nothing else.
With the defeat of Phocis, Philip was now a power in Greece itself: and
certainly there was a possibility he might dominate all of
Greece. Not everyone welcomed this proposal:
In Athens, the orator Demosthenes delivered a series of Philippics,
warnings about the danger to freedom Philip posed. But
Demosthenes said that Philip wasn’t the real problem. More
worrisome, the deteriorating character of Athenian democracy. Among the
1. Politicians who tell you what you want to hear
rather than truth.
2. Slander of those in public office/leaders who have
to fight legal challenges
4. Citizens who prefer what’s palatable to truth
5. Apathy to public affairs “no new taxes”
But Philip found it easy enough to counter Demosthenes. He simply
paid another orator (Aeschines) to make the case that Philip was a good
guy… and, even if Aeschines was completely convincing, he didn’t find
it all that hard delay action by people who didn’t really want to act
Aeschines had an easy job defending Philip.
1. Philip will make peace.
2. Philip’s intentions are good.
3. If we get behind Philip, we can fight the real
In 338, Philip moved south. Thebes and Athens decided to oppose
him. At Chaeronea, Philip won convincingly. He treated
Athens leniently, but no so the Thebans, though, interestingly, he
built a monument to the Sacred Band, a monument that still stands.
Chaeronea left him in a very strong position. But conquering is
one thing, consolidating one’s conquests is something else. And
here Philip again show his versatility.
He called a congress at Corinth, where he formed the Corinthian League
and dissolved all other Greek leagues. He took the title hegemon
(leader), and (wisely) left Sparta (weak but proud) alone.
Earlier, he had sent the Spartans a message, "You are advised to submit
without further delay, for if I bring my army into your land, I will
destroy your farms, slay your people, and raze your city." Their reply,
Leaving the Sparta issues aside for another time, Philip unites the
Greeks by promising them they are now going to beat the real
enemy—Persia. He then puts together the army that will do just
that…but not under his leadership.
Philip had some real weaknesses. He was constantly drunk, and
constantly unfaithful to his wife. Both these problems
contributed to his downfall when he fell in lust with Cleopatra, a
Macedonian girl of too high a rank to make a concubine. Philip
decided to divorce Olympias and marry Cleopatra.
A problem: Epirus was too important to alienate, so Philip had to
create a counter marriage. He proposed giving his daughter as
wife to the king of Epirus. This was good enough, apparently, and
Philip proceeded with his marriage to Cleopatra.
But at a celebration of the marriage, Philip got drunk as a
skunk. One of the Macedonians proposed a toast: may this marriage
produce a legitimate heir (casting aspersions on Alexander’s
legitimacy). Alexander tossed a cup of wine in the face of the
man making the toast, and Philip was angry. He drew his sword,
but tripped. Alexander mocked the man who would conquer
Persian but couldn’t even cross the room.
Olympias and Alexander were both alienated: not good enemies to
have. Sometime later, Philip, at a wedding celebration for his
daughter is assassinated. Was Olympias behind it? Probably.
Alexander too? Maybe.
The actual assassination was carried out by a man named Pausanias.
Texts (at least the discreet old texts) will tell you only that the man
had a private grudge against Philip. Diodorus Siculus (a Greek
historian who lived 300 year later) tells us what the grudge was.
Pausanias, a “hearer” of Philip’s, lost his favored place to another
man. Pausanias insulted the new “hearer,” apparently provoking him to a
rash action causing his death. Attalus (another figure in the lovers’
triange/quadrangle, now pentagon) was angry with Pausanias, got him
drunk and raped him. Pausanias complained to Philip who wouldn’t
do anything about it, so Pausanias was ready to assassinate Philip.
Ok. So Philip is dead, and all his work would have done for
nothing had it not been for an even greater man, his son Alexander.
We’ve got all sorts of admiring stories of Alexander. The stories
mark him out as perceptive and brave (e.g., the Bucephalus story) and
well-educated (a man who had Aristotle for a tutor, and carried around
with him the Iliad as his most prized possession).
He certainly was precocious in terms of military leadership, commanding
the Macedonian cavalry at Chaeronea—at the age of 18!). He
reacted quickly—and reacted rightly: great instincts.
This is shown by his reaction to Philip’s death in 336. Alexander’s
position on the Macedonian throne wasn’t at all secure. Illyrian was
ready to attack Macedonia, Thessaly is up in arms, and the Greeks
Alexander headed south, found the Thessalians holding the pass,
maneuvered behind them, and forced their submission without
bloodshed. He then moved quickly to the south, stopping the Greek
revolt before it could even get organized, and only then then head
north and to take-on and defeat the Illyrians: the threat closest to
home and the one most of us would have thought it right to deal with
After the Illyrian victory, the rumor spreads in Greece that Alexander
had died, and so they launch new revolts. Alexander has his army on the
spot in the south again before they even figure out he’s not dead!
Alexander offers the Thebans mercy if they surrender. They
refuse. He beats their army, and then destroys Thebes, killing
6,000, enslaving the rest, and dividing Theban territory. He then
heads toward Athens…and the Athenians beg his pardon. Which he
Alexander then Unites the Greeks by preparing a war with Persia.
With 30,000 foot soldiers and 5,000 cavalry he’s going to take on the
largest empire the world had ever seen.
He crosses into Persia, wins at the Granicus river, cuts the Gordian
knot, wins antother battle at Issus, capturing tons of Persian
treasure. He then heads to Egypt where he is welcomed as a
liberator: a new pharaoh. At the Siwah Oasis, the priest declare
him the son of Ammon.
Alexander now heads into Persian territory, winning at Gaugamela
(Arbella). This leaves wide open Susa, and Persepolis: all of
Persia is in his hands. He pushes farther on, even into India. He
wanted to go farther, but his men forced him to turn back.
Wounded and sick from Malaria—he dies in Babylon.
He had created the largest empire the world had ever seen. A
great conqueror? Certainly. A great man? Well….maybe.
It’s hard to evaluate him fairly since he died so young, too young to
consolidate his empire. But he tried!
Everywhere he went he spread Greek culture and encouraged trade.
He created all sorts of new cities (Alexandrias!).
He valued other cultures as well. He married Roxanne, a Persian
princess, and encouraged his Macedonians likewise to intermarry with
Ancient historians wrote admiringly of his conduct toward women and
boys. He had Macedonians executed for rape. He married a
princess he could simply have taken without marriage, and he considered
it insulting when he was offered boys for his use.
But consolidating his empire wasn’t easy. Persian and Macedonian
royal customs were drastically different. A Macedonian king was
first among equals. His closest associates were hetairoi,
companions. Persian royals were, if not gods, the next thing to
Alexander adopted Persian royal dress and royal customs: perhaps
necessary adornments for his Persian subjects, but offensive to his
Macdeonians. In particular, they objected to proskunesis, “bowing
the knee,” a word we usually translate as worship.
The Siwah incident seemed to go to Alexander’s head; he was a god, and
wanted to be treated as such. Callisthenes, Aristotle’s nephew,
refused: and fell into disfavor. Flatterers like Anaxarchus (who
told Alexander that a King does whatever they want) grew in importance.
Naturally enough, Alexander’s conduct provoked plots against him, and
like all people with power, he was determined to get them before they
got him. Calisthenes was killed with no evidence. The son
of Parmenio (Alexander’s finest general) actually was plotting.
Alexander ordered him killed…and ordered Parmenio killed too.
Further, Alexander had his father’s tendency to drunkenness. At a
drinking party, the courtesan Thais suggested burning Persepolis to
avenge the burning of Athens. And that’s what they did. At
another party, Alexander offered a prize to one who could drink the
most. The winner polished off 12 quarts of wine. He got the
prize, but died of alcohol poisoning! At another drinking party,
those present began praising Alexander as the son of Zeus and
belittling Philip. Clitus, a man who had saved Alexander’s life,
started praising Philip. Alexander thought it an insult and
killed Clitus. Alexander felt guilty: but the flatterers stepped
in; a King does whatever he wants said Anaxarchus.
And the truth of the matter is that the positive picture we have of
Alexander’s character is derived in large part from flatterers.
In truth, he was not always the admirable man they portray.
After the capture of Tyre, he had 2000 Tyrians crucified. He was
sometimes a cruel man, no matter what the flatterers say. And then
there’s his persecution of the Zoroastrians and his burning of their
ancient books. Alexander is remember by both Zoroastrians and
Moslems as a devil
But perhaps Alexander’s greatness is best judged not by such failings,
but by the lasting results. Here, in part, Alexander
failed. His empire did not survive him. At his death,
Alexander’s generals ended up splitting the empire: and for three
centuries they and their descendents fought one another to see who
would be the next Alexander.
But what did survive: Alexander’s spreading of Greek culture, and his
attempts to mix it with other cultures. Alexander’s conquests led to
what we call the Hellenistic age, a period in which many non-Greeks
pick up aspects of Greek culture.
The most important feature of the Hellenistic age, the widespread use
of koine (common) Greek. This somewhat simplified version of
Greek allowed Greek culture to spread, and, later, the New Testament
(written in koine) spread far more quickly because so many people in
the eastern Mediterranean had koine as a common language.
Plutarch in his “On the Fortune of Alexander” praises Alexander as
exceeding the philosophers in terms of actual results.
Take a view of Alexander's discipline, and you shall see how
he taught the Hyrcanians the conveniency of wedlock, introduced
husbandry among the Arachosians, persuaded the Sogdians to preserve and
cherish—not to kill—their aged parents; the Persians to reverence and
honor—not to marry—their mothers. Most admirable philosophy! which
induced the Indians to worship the Grecian Deities, and wrought upon
the Scythians to bury their deceased friends, not to feed upon their
carcasses. We admire the power of Carneades's eloquence, for forcing
the Carthaginian Clitomachus, called Asdrubal before, to embrace the
Grecian customs. No less we wonder at the prevailing reason of Zeno, by
whom the Babylonian Diogenes was charmed into the love of philosophy.
Yet no sooner had Alexander subdued Asia, than Homer became an author
in high esteem, and the Persian, Susian, and Gedrosian youth sang the
tragedies of Euripides and Sophocles. Among the Athenians, Socrates,
introducing [p. 480] foreign Deities, was condemned to death at the
prosecution of his accusers. But Alexander engaged both Bactria and
Caucasus to worship the Grecian Gods, which they had never known
before. Lastly, Plato, though he proposed but one single form of a
commonwealth, could never persuade any people to make use of it, by
reason of the austerity of his government. But Alexander, building
above seventy cities among the barbarous nations, and as it were sowing
the Grecian customs and constitutions all over Asia, quite weaned them
from their former wild and savage manner of living. The laws of Plato
here and there a single person may peradventure study, but myriads of
people have made and still make use of Alexander's. And they whom
Alexander vanquished were more greatly blessed than they who fled his
So that if the same Deity which hither sent the soul of Alexander had
not too soon recalled it, one law had overlooked all the world, and one
form of justice had been as it were the common light of one universal
government; while now that part of the earth which Alexander never saw
remains without a sun.
Too much praise? Well, that depends on your attitude toward
Greeks and Greek culture—and toward Western civilization in general.
Athens and Jerusalem—the Greeks and the Hebrews. These are the
two major sources of what we call Western civilization—we’ve looked at
the first of those sources in this course, next semester for me—it’s on
to Ancient Israel. I hope many of you will join me.