In the Shadow of his Son – Philip II of Macedon


And these deeds he accomplished, not by the favour of Fortune, but by his own valour. For King Philip excelled in shrewdness in the art of war, courage, and brilliance of personality. (Diodorus Siculus, 16.1.6. This is most likely a direct quote from Diodorus’ source, Ephorus.)

For a very long time, Philip II of Macedon has been overshadowed by the larger-than-life figure of his more famous son, Alexander the Great. This is unfortunate, for Philip is one of the pivotal men in history, without whom the course of events would have been irrevocably altered. Philip’s greatness was recognized by almost all in the ancient world. Arrian provides us with perhaps the most impressive summary of Philip’s career through a speech given by Alexander to his mutinous men at Opis:

[Philip] brought you down the mountains to the plains, making you a match in battle for the neighbouring barbarians, trusting for your salvation no longer in the natural strength of places so much as your own courage. As to those very barbarians by whom previously you had been constantly plundered and pillaged . . . he made you their leaders and he added most of Thrace to Macedon. He made you the rulers of the Thessalians – you were once scared to death of them – and by humbling the Phocian people he made the way into Greece for you broad and easy instead of narrow and difficult. (Arrian, Anabasis 7.9.2ff.)

Another major contemporary historian, Theopompus was engaged in writing a History of Greece (for which he had spent 40 years collecting material) but decided to cut short his history in an unlikely place so he could instead write the Philippica. In the proem of the work, Theopompus stated that Europe had never produced anyone to match Philip. In his Encomium of Philip, the historian said that if Philip continued to act as he had been, he would become king of the rest of Europe as well.

So why has Philip been so neglected for so long? The answer lies partly in his flamboyant and unbelievably successful son, Alexander the Great. But perhaps more important were the writings of the contemporary Athenian orator Demosthenes. Demosthenes, in opposition to Theopompus and Diodorus, believed that Philip’s success was almost entirely due to Greek corruptibility. Philip became the enemy of liberty and democracy. Demosthenes’ speeches were studied and imitated at Rome and the Romans generally accepted that Philip had bought the Greeks rather then beating them.

Nevertheless, Philip II deserves mention as one of the greatest kings in history. In addition, he deserves recognition as one of the greatest military minds in history. When Philip acceded to the throne of Macedon, the kingdom was in complete disarray. His brother, the previous king, had been killed in battle against invading Illyrians. The Illyrians had kept Macedon as a tribute paying state. But the Illyrians were not Philip’s only problem. Always seeking their own advantage, the Athenians were backing a pretender to the Macedonian throne. The Thracians were backing their own pretender to the throne, one Pausanius. The Macedonian army had lost more than four thousand in the disastrous fight against the Illyrians. Now, the Illyrians were planning a counter attack, the Thracians were invading on behalf of one pretender, and the Athenians were invading in support of a second pretender. A fourth threat, the Paeonians, recognizing Macedonian weakness, was ravaging unchecked.

Philip responded both diplomatically and militarily. He bought off the Thracians and the Paeonians. He then marched against the Athenian pretender, Argaeus, and defeated him and his Athenian allies. Demonstrating the speed which characterized him, Philip turned on the Paeonians and reduced them to a dependant status they never overcame. Then, with two victories under his new army’s belt, Philip turned to the problem of the Illyrians.

But before he met the Illyrians in battle (indeed, before he even moved against the Paeonians) Philip had to reorganize the Macedonian army which had been shattered by four decades of defeat, and by the recent annihilation at the hands of the Illyrians. There has been some debate about Philip’s role in the reorganization of the army, but the evidence is fairly conclusive that Philip is largely, if not completely, responsible for creating the army his son used so effectively. The centerpiece of his military reforms was the massed infantry Phalanx which used a new weapon, the sarissa. The sarissa was a spear approximately five and a half meters in length. This spear required two hands to wield and this affected the use of a shield, which was either not used at all or was small and strapped into place so as to leave the hands free. The Macedonian Phalanx was drilled deeply in the maneuvers it needed in order act effectively, and it relied on other units within the army to ensure its safety. Philip incorporated the hypaspists into the army, which seem to have been a highly mobile force (either from more extensive drilling or from being more lightly armed) as well as archers, slingers, and other types of troops.

While Philip may well have undertaken some of this organization before he met the Illyrians in battle, much of the drilling and actual construction of his new army would have taken place later, for he lacked the time to hone his army before meeting the Illyrians. Philip used the winter of 359/8 to reorganize the army and give them what training he could. When he received news that the Paeonian king was dead, he seized the initiative and defeated the Paeonians as already mentioned. Philip now turned to the Illyrians.

Mobilizing every able-bodied fighting man in the kingdom, Philip marched against Bardylis, king of the Illyrians with 10,000 infantry and 600 cavalry. The armies met on the plain near Monastir by Lake Okhrida. There was little difference in the size of the armies involved. The difference lay in the tactics newly learned by the Macedonian army. Using here for the first time the tactics that won victories for Macedonia at Chaeronea, Granicus and Issus – the oblique advance, with center and left echeloned back – Philip defeated the Illyrians, killing 7,000 of the 10,000 man strong Illyrian army. The Illyrian threat was decisively defeated and Bardylis agreed to all of Philip’s terms, he had little choice.

Less than a year after Philip acceded to the throne of Macedon in what everyone must have thought impossible circumstances, Philip had emerged as something of a national hero (Peter Green, Alexander of Macedon, 356-323 B.C., 25.). Philip had driven off or killed the other claimants to the throne. He had defeated one pretender in battle, including his Athenian backers. Another pretender’s backing was removed through diplomacy. The Paeonian threat had been removed through a quick and total defeat of the bothersome tribe. And the Illyrians, who had previously wrested control of large chunks of Macedonia from Philip’s predecessors and had levied a tribute on Macedon, were decisively defeated and forced out of Macedonia entirely. Philip was only twenty-three years old, but had already shown the promise that would lead others to say that Europe had never produced another man like Philip.