Philip II of Macedon


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Podcast Transcript

Alexander the Great was one of the most famous people from the ancient world. 

He defeated a vastly larger Persian Empire and conquered everything from Egypt to India. 

Yet, what Alexander achieved wouldn’t have been possible without his father. In fact, if Alexander hadn’t accomplished what he did, his father would probably be the one given the title “great.”

Learn more about Philip II of Macedon and how he changed the world of Ancient Greece and laid the foundations for his son on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

Before I discuss Philip II, I want to talk about the statistical topic of regression to the mean. 

Regression to the mean implies that eventually, over time, things will go back to average. If you have a run of good luck or bad luck, it will eventually come to an end. 

The concept of regression to the mean also applies to people. In particular, between generations. 

Consider for a moment anyone who is talented. An athlete, an actor, a singer, or a scientist. How many times does someone who is supremely talented have a child who surpasses them in talent? 

There are a few cases, but they are few and far between. Bobby Bonds was a very good baseball player, and his son Barry surpassed him. Henry Fonda was a great actor, and his daughter Jane won two Academy Awards for acting, more than her father. 

However, these are the exception, not the rule. Albert Einstein’s son, Hans Albert, was a fine engineer, but he wasn’t his father. Bob Dylan’s son Jacob is a singer-songwriter, but he never reached his dad’s level. Likewise, Colin Hanks hasn’t quite reached the level of Tom Hanks.

Historically, the same has played out with rulers and kings. A great king is almost always replaced by a very mediocre son who cannot live up to his father’s accomplishments. 

That is what makes the story of Philip and Alexader so remarkable. 

In a previous episode, I covered Alexander the Great’s life, at least as much as I could, given the time constraints of this podcast. At a young age, in a very short period of time, Alexander conquered more than anyone else in history before him. 

However, Alexander’s accomplishments, as impressive as they were, were only possible because of what his father did before him. 

Macedonia was on the periphery of the Greek World. They were considered yokels by the rest of the Greeks.  The Greek world at the time was divided into autonomous city city-states. They might control the land surrounding their city, but for the most part, they fought with each other and sometimes banded together to expel foreign invaders. 

At no point had anyone proven powerful enough to conquer all of Greece and bring the entire region under the control of a single ruler. 

Philip was born in 382 BC in Pella, the capital of the Kingdom of Macedonia. Macedonia was located in what is today Northern Greece, the country of North Macedonia, and a bit of southern Bulgaria.

He was the youngest son of King Amyntas III and Queen Eurydice I, but he was not the heir apparent. 

At the age of six, he was sent to the Greek city of Thebes as a royal hostage. Royal hostages were not uncommon during this period. It was an insurance policy against going to war. 

While in Thebes, he was tutored by the great Greek general Epaminondas. 

It was Epaminondas who defeated the Spartans and turned Thebes into the most powerful Greek city-state for a short period of time. 

This instruction turned out to be invaluable in his education.

He returned to Macedonia in 364 BC at the age of 18. While he was away, his older brother Perdiccas ascended to the throne. However, in 359 BC, Perdiccas died in battle with the Illyrians to the west, and the throne passed to his infant son and Philip’s nephew, Amyntas IV. 

Philip was selected to be the young king’s regent, but he took the throne for himself with little opposition.

Philip became the leader of a kingdom that was a mess. Illyrians from the west, Paeonians and Thracians from the northeast, and Athenians from the south were all making incursions into his kingdom. 

Now that he had become king, he began to show his true brilliance. Macedonia had many enemies, and he had to get things under control in order for it to survive. 

He first bought off the Paeonians and Thracians to give himself some breathing room. He then went west to attack Illyria, which was along the Adriatic coast in what is today Croatia. He defeated the Illyrians at the Battle of Erigon Valley in 358 BC, where he inflicted heavy losses on them. 

The victory secured the western and southern flanks of Macedonia. 

One of the reasons for his success on the battlefield was because of the changes he made to the Macedonian army. 

Prior to Phillip, almost all Greek armies fought in a phalanx formation, using spears as their main weapons. A phalanx was a tight group of soldiers known as hoplites, all equipped with shields and spears. Each spear, known as a Dory, was about 2 to 3 meters long or about 6’7″ to 9’10”. 

Philip’s innovation was to use spears that were about 6 meters long, or twice as long as a traditional Greek dory. This ultra-long spear is known as a sarissa.

The idea behind it was quite simple. If you have a longer spear than your enemy, you can reach them before they can reach you. 

The formation of hoplites with sarissas was simply known as a Macedonian Phalanx. 

He also implemented other reforms in the army, including common soldiers’ ability to advance up the ranks. 

He was also one of the first generals in the ancient world to use torsion catapults in siege warfare. A torsion catapult is an ancient artillery weapon that uses twisted ropes or sinew to store and release energy for launching projectiles. They could throw objects much further than tension-based catapults like the ballista, which used the flexion of wooden arms to store energy for launching projectiles.

In 357 BC, he married Olympias, his fourth wife. She was the daughter of Neoptolemus I, the King of Epirus. The next year, she gave birth to a son named Alexander. Because Macedonian kings took multiple wives, and Philip would ultimately take seven, there was no clear-cut path of succession. 

Having multiple wives allowed Philip to use marriage as a bargaining chip

Over the next several years, he began a series of military conquests to both protect his borders and expand his kingdom. 

He conquered the cities of Potidaea, Amphipolis, and Crenides, which he changed to Philippi. He also took the city of Methoni, which was the last vestige of Athenian control in the region. 

In the battle to take Methoni, he lost his right eye in combat.

One of his generals went to Illyria and defeated them again. 

Beginning in 354 BC, he became involved in what is known as the Third Sacred War in Thessaly, the region just south of Macedonia. The war got its name because it was over control over the sacred town and temple of Delphi. 

The result was a victory over the forces of Phocius, still further south of Macedon, and Phillip being declared arcon of the Thessalian League.

During all these battles in the periphery of Macedonia, Philip never directly conflicted with the Athenians, but both sides knew that such a conflict was a matter of if, not when. 

From 352 to 346 BC, Philip ignored the south and focused his attention on the region in the Balkans to the north and west and along the northeast coast. 

In 348 BC, he took the city of Olynthus, which he subsequently razed to the ground. 

By 346 BC he had established firm control over the Macedonian surroundings, he turned his attention to the Peloponnese Peninsula. He was going to invade the southern part of the peninsula known as Laconia, which was occupied by the Spartans. 

He famously sent a message to the Spartans that said, “If I invade Laconia, I shall turn you out.”

The Spartans sent a one-word reply that was even more famous. It read…..”if.”

In 342 BC, Philip attacked the Scythians to the north, and in 340 BC, began to fight the Persians over Asia, or what is today Turkey. 

In 338 BC, he defeated an alliance of Athens and Thebes at the Battle of Chaeronea. This battle was one of the most decisive in the ancient world and destroyed the Athenian and Theban forces.

After Chaeronea, there was no longer any major resistance to Philip. 

In the aftermath of the battle, he created the League of Corinth and established himself as the head.  

The League of Corinth was ostensibly a defensive alliance against the Persians, but it was a way to unify all of southern Greece, save for the Spartans, under one ruler. 

At this point, Philip of Macedon had done something that no one else had every done. He had united all of the Greek city-states, except for Sparta, under a single ruler. 

Having unified Greece, not willing on their part, I might add, he was now prepared to try and take on the biggest existential threat to all of Greece, the Persian Empire. 

Persia had tried to conquer Greece several times before and failed. The Greeks defeated them through a combination of luck and heroic battles. 

The Persian Empire was much larger than everything Philip had conquered combined. It would be like “a minnow swallowing a whale.”  It would be impossible even to consider doing without a unified Greece. 

However, despite all the work Philip did to lay the foundation for the conquest of Persia, it never happened. 

In October 336 BC, Philip was celebrating the marriage of his daughter Cleopatra to King Alexander I of Epirus. Cleopatra was the daughter of Olympias, and the sister of Alexander, and Olympias was the sister of King Alexander….which means that he was marrying his niece. 

During the wedding celebration, he entered a theater to meet many of the Greek diplomats and dignitaries in attendance, and he entered without his bodyguards to appear approachable. 

At that moment, one of his personal bodyguards, Pausanias of Orestis, lunged at Phillp and stabbed him in the ribs. 

Pausanias tried to flee but was killed by Philips’s other bodyguards. 

Over 2000 years later, the assassination of Philip II is still debated amongst historians. Some think that his wife, Olympias, might have been behind the plot in an attempt to secure the throne for her son. 

Others think that Alexander himself might have been responsible for his father’s death. 

Other authors, years after the events occurred, claim that Pausanias may have attacked Phillip because of a love affair gone wrong. 

What isn’t debatable is that Alexander inherited a kingdom with a unified Greece. He was given a weapon that was primed and ready to be pointed at Persia. 

Without taking away any of Alexander’s accomplishments, which were indeed remarkable in many respects, Philp did the hard part. 

Phillip had to unify an extremely fractured Greece through a series of battles that took place over 23 years to even think about taking on the Persians. 

Without Phillip, there would not have been an Alexander the Great. That is true both biologically and geopolitically. 

There is an interesting footnote to the story of Philip II. In 1977, an excavation was conducted at the ancient city of Aigai, the traditional capital of Macedonia, located near the modern city of Vergina. 

There, they found the tomb of Philip II. 

It has many well-preserved artifacts and is a museum and a UNESCO World Heritage Site today. 

Could Philip II have conquered Persia like his son eventually did? We’ll never know. Ultimately, Philip was one of the greatest generals in the ancient world, and the only reason we don’t call him “the Great” is because he was overshadowed by his son. 

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Gary Arndt