Philip II of Macedon

Philip II of Macedon lost his eye at the siege of Methone, 354 BC

Philip II developed into the master-statesman of his time, a creative politician whose work made Macedon a world power for three decades and a great power for a century after that. This aspect of his achievement took some years to emerge, however, since for the first period of his reign he was preoccupied with securing his own position, and with providing security for his kingdom. These were, of course, much the same problem.

Philip had to use a combination of qualities: a wily and cunning diplomacy, military leadership which brought victories, and a keen eye for developing the resources of his kingdom. He had precedents in the activity of previous Macedonian kings, but not every new king in his early twenties would have deployed them. It is part of Philip’s genius that he was able to utilize all these actions and qualities successfully at the same time.

Philip was about 23 years old when he became king, a few years older than his brothers at their accessions, with a life experience somewhat different from theirs. He grew up at the court of his father, Amyntas III, in a time when Macedon was more or less at peace, having been born in the year following Amyntas’ recovery of his kingdom in 383/382. He saw the efforts his father had made to develop his kingdom, but he had also witnessed the threats the outside world forced upon him. In his family he was one of the middle children, with older brothers, an older sister and their younger half-brothers. Getting attention cannot have been easy.

At the age of 12 he was sent as a hostage to the Illyrians – presumably to King Bardylis – along with tribute which Alexander II paid to avoid an invasion. Soon after, at 14 or so, he was sent to Thebes, again as a hostage. This was not a situation of danger or discomfort. A hostage, especially a child, was taken into the house hold of a prominent man, treated as a member of the family and given an education. At Thebes Philip lived in the house of Pammenes, an important politician, in the years when Thebes was the greatest power in the Greek peninsula. He missed the killings in Macedon of his brother Alexander and of Ptolemy of Aloros, returning home when his other brother Perdikkas emerged as king in his own right in 365. For the next five or six years he was completely loyal to Perdikkas, and was entrusted, perhaps after some years, with lands of his own, on which he is said to have maintained an armed force, possibly little more than a bodyguard.

His conduct in his first year as king suggests that he had given thought to what was required. In what he accomplished in his first years, Philip was clearly helped by two important factors: the crisis in Macedon was so bad that he had a free hand in dealing with it; and the Greek powers ignored what was going on in Macedon, reasonably assuming that the continuing political collapse of the kingdom was yet another example of its fragility and instability. They were rather slow to intervene, and then only minimally. Despite the Common Peace of 360, further international crises developed, notably at Athens, whose league began to crumble in 357; then the `Sacred’ war embroiled all central Greece for the next ten years. Philip had a breathing space in which Macedon’s main enemies were either uninterested or preoccupied elsewhere. In this time he laid the basis for his later more extensive achievements.

The first priority was to attend to the internal condition of the kingdom. Philip had his half-brother Archelaos killed; this secured him the throne, for Archelaos was the next member of his family. The invading pretenders were next. Pausanias came with Thracian backing, originally that of King Kotys, and then his successor Berisades. Perhaps because Berisades was also newly in power he was persuaded to accept a bribe to leave. Philip’s persuasiveness was at work here: Berisades was joint heir to Kotys with his two brothers, who now fought each other; Thrace could thus now been ignored for a time.

Argaios’ support from Athens was as uncertain as that of Pausanias from Thrace. A force of 3,000 Athenian hoplites landed with him at Methone, but Argaios was then expected to make his own way to the throne. This was reasonable, since a pretender needed to show he had local support, and without it no backer would bother with him. Athens’ main ambition in the north was to gain control of Amphipolis, now an independent city, with a Macedonian garrison. Philip withdrew these troops. No doubt he was glad to have them available for more active uses, but the act of withdrawal was also directed at influencing Athens. Supposedly it signalled Amphipolis’ new vulnerability, and by implication Philip’s political acquiescence in an Athenian takeover. Argaios’ Athenian troops stayed in Methone, and Argaios went on to Aigai with only his own small force of mercenaries and the few Macedonian exiles and Athenians who supported his enterprise.

He marched the 20 km to Aigai, but gained no support from the locals, either on the march or in the city. He turned back to return to Methone, perhaps hoping to persuade the Athenians there to be more active in his cause, but was intercepted by Philip on his march. Philip easily beat Argaios’ troops: many of the mercenaries were killed; the Macedonian exiles, many of them related to loyal Macedonians, were taken prisoner; the Athenians were released with gifts. Philip had no wish to set up a situation where Athens might seek revenge; the Athenian force in Methone then sailed home, taking the released men away as well. At Athens, the prospect of regaining Amphipolis, combined with the failure of the intervention in Macedon, persuaded the Assembly towards peace. Argaios vanished, no doubt executed, if he had survived the fight. What happened to the exiles is not known, but Philip is as likely to have held them as hostages for the good behaviour of their relatives as to have had them executed as traitors.

The landward invaders of the kingdom were tackled with a similar mixture of force and diplomacy. Bardylis did not follow up his successful invasion, either because of the casualties his own forces had suffered in the battle, or because Philip had arranged a truce with him. Philip certainly bought off the threatened Paeonian invasion from the north by gifts to the Paeonian king. Neither of these measures could be decisive in the long term: gifts would only whet the Paeonian appetite, and Bardylis’ victory could only encourage him to mount another invasion.

The precise sequence of all these invasions, diplomacies and manoeuvres is uncertain, but they certainly all took place during 359, very early in Philip’s reign; indeed, most of the manoeuvres and diplomacy probably took only a fairly short time, probably more or less simultaneously. Their success will have consolidated his local support among the Macedonians. The unwillingness of the people of Aigai to join Argaios is a sign of this.

Philip had to attend to internal governmental matters. Even in his first year he had no difficulty in finding gifts rich enough to buy off the Paeonian and Thracian kings, and to give presents to the Athenians in Argaios’ force – nor to forgo the ransoming or selling of those captives – though where he found the money is unclear. 9 Kallistratos’ customs reforms may have helped, but not by much. But the main internal problem he faced was the development of an effective army.

In 358, after a year as king, Philip was able to muster a force of 10,000 infantry and 600 cavalry for a campaign in which he needed his full strength. Perdikkas’ defeat had cost 4,000 Macedonian lives. By adding these figures together it seems that the maximum force available to the Macedonian kings before Philip was about 15,000 men, of which the effective element, the cavalry, numbered 1,000 at most. This was a fairly small force for such a large kingdom – Athens could produce forces double that. Yet even with that smaller force, Philip won battles against larger armies. This was due to his intelligent generalship in part, but he also instituted better training for the men, in particular the infantry. He had seen, during his earlier life in Thebes and Macedon, that infantry needed to be properly trained, drilled and equipped for them to be effective; he only needed to compare the old ineffective Macedonian foot soldiers with the all-conquering Theban phalanx. He was up-to-date with the military developments which had taken place in recent years in Greece, including the use of light infantry, peltasts, developed by Athenian commanders. And he added something particularly Macedonian, the use of a shock force of heavy cavalry.

It will not do to emphasize the innovations Philip made at the expense of the continuities. The kings had always had a bodyguard of cavalrymen, called Companions (hetairoi). The very name shows that they were of high status, socially almost the equals to the king by birth, being noble landowners and their sons. They numbered only 600 in Philip’s army of 358, no doubt the survivors of Perdikkas’ disaster, and probably others were available who did not turn out for the new king. Their numbers increased in the next generation as Macedonians and Greeks were awarded lands in conquered territory: by 334 the cavalry numbered 3,500. As the numbers grew, Philip implanted change. One group was singled out as the Royal Squadron, 300 strong, and the rest were organized as squadrons (ilai), recruited from the several regions of Macedonia. They rode bareback, wore a metal breastplate and helmet and were armed with a longish spear. They were `heavy’ only in a relative sense, owing their shock value to their ability to charge in formation, particularly in a `wedge formation’, in which the narrower front allowed a widening penetration of the enemy formation and the maintenance of good control.

This is the most remarkable of Philip’s military innovations. By the end of his reign it is clear the cavalry had been induced to put aside their innate individualism and submit to discipline, just like hoplites. This involved a major change in behaviour by the baronage, whose preferred method of fighting was in loose formation, leaving room for individual display and activity. This would seem to have been one of the lessons Philip had brought from Greece. The Balkan tribes fought in the `old’ manner, loosely, and the Persians in Alexander’s battles were almost as undisciplined. The carefully controlled cavalry Philip developed was capable of defeating any number of their undisciplined enemies – just as hoplites could beat their less controlled light infantry enemies.

The infantry were little more than a mob in earlier battles, more notable for their speed of retreat than their constancy in the fight. There had been an earlier elite group, called the Foot-Companions (pezhetairoi), which may have fallen out of use; Philip re-formed it. They were the equivalent of the hetairoi of the cavalry: well equipped, polished, proud, and capable of standing guard over the king and the palace. The rest of the infantry was levied, like the cavalry, by regions. This was not a new system, but Philip did insist on improvements: drill, discipline, uniform armament and, above all, obedience to orders. It seems likely that the improvement was mainly due to the fact that the infantry had earlier been simply the followers of the nobles, brought along when the army was called out. Philip’s innovation was thus to separate them from their landlords to organize them into disciplined formations. Both cavalry and infantry became better drilled and more competently employed. He spent a good deal of time in the first year of his reign meeting his forces, consulting them in assemblies, speaking to them, drilling them, getting to know them, and them to know him. The infantry were trained to move and march as units; instead of a mob they became a phalanx.

It is in this organization of the troops that Philip’s real contribution to Macedon’s military power lies, but he is also credited with the introduction of a longer infantry spear, the sarissa. Its effect in battle was to keep the enemy at a greater, and so safer, distance. The heavier weapon also required a reduction in defensive armament, so the troops used a smaller shield, and wore no breastplate. The net effect was to make the infantry much more mobile and aggressive, and yet also more vulnerable. Philip had taken in the power of the heavier Theban phalanx, and the Athenian innovation of the use of peltasts and the overall value of drill, discipline and careful preparation, and had added in his own longer spear. He was able to do much of this reorganization in his first year, which suggests that he had worked out what needed to be done during his years as his brother’s subordinate, based in part on his experience at Thebes. But to think it all out and to apply his ideas were two different things; and to put into practice what he was preaching required him to win battles. The Paeonians and the Illyrians of Bardylis were to be his testing ground. No doubt the disaster suffered by Perdikkas’ army had predisposed Macedonians to accept, or at least to try out, new methods, but only victory would be convincing.

Most of what Philip imposed on the Macedonians was not new. The sarissa, possibly, but the Macedonian barons were used to wielding long spears in hunting. Infantry in phalanxes, cavalry under discipline, uniform equipment, drill, obedience to shouted orders, pride after victory, were all part and parcel of Greek warfare. He adopted the use of siege weapons developed particularly in Dionysian Sicily, and had them available for use by 357. This basic unoriginality may be an aspect of the changes which led to their acceptance: Greek warfare was something familiar to the Macedonians, who had been easily beaten in the past by smaller Greek forces. Earlier kings back to Alexander I had tried to implement many of these innovations, but Philip would seem to have been the first to try them all out at once on a receptive population at the beginning of his reign. There was also Philip’s generalship, a quality enhanced in his son, which was even more important than all his innovations.

That he was able to do all this so early in his reign is what makes Philip so important in Macedonian history. Earlier kings had established themselves in power first and then introduced changes, generally on a fairly small scale. Given that the average reign of a successful Macedonian king was only two decades, the reforms had only started to have effect when the king died, and were then lost in the subsequent succession crisis. Philip, compelled by the all-enveloping crisis at his accession, had a relatively free hand as well as a compelling necessity to innovate. It was essentially a succession crisis followed by a military crisis; the first was dealt with diplomatically and by assassination, so it was in the military area that he introduced his changes. Other governmental deficiencies were ignored or tackled later. The emphasis on the current crises coloured the future indelibly with a military hue; once Philip had survived, any other innovations could be introduced in the old manner, slowly and cautiously, if at all.

The several pretenders had not, thanks to Philip’s diplomacy, presented a real threat. The Macedonians’ northern and western neighbours were more dangerous. The Paeonian king died soon after the agreement with Philip, and the agreement became void. Philip had made progress with his new army, and in the spring of 358 he invaded Paeonia, won a victory, and imposed a treaty on the new king, making him a subordinate ally of the type well understood in the region. This was an easy victory; Philip was able to choose his victim, so giving his new army confidence, something the army surely needed after Perdikkas’ disaster.

The Illyrians were next. Bardylis, perhaps prompted by a peace offer from Philip, demanded that Philip accept that Bardylis should keep those parts of Upper Macedon he had occupied, regions such as Orestis and Lynkos. These Illyrian demands, when publicized, demonstrated to the Macedonians that the Illyrian threat remained, so an Illyrian war could be justified, both as revenge for their dead comrades and Philip’s dead brother, and as a preventive against future Illyrian attacks. Philip inevitably refused Bardylis’ demands, and marched his new army into Illyrian-occupied Lynkos.

Of all the enemies besetting Macedon in 359, Bardylis was the most formidable, and it was no doubt for this reason that Philip had left him to the last. Philip had agreed to an armistice – perhaps he even requested one – as soon as he became king, though this left Bardylis in possession of the conquered lands. Philip had, it seems, accepted an Illyrian princess, Audata, as his wife. Philip was always willing to marry, but if Bardylis imagined that Philip was now his ally, or even his subordinate, he discovered otherwise when he presented his peace terms. Between Perdikkas’ death and the spring of 358, Philip had survived, seen off many enemies and invaders, and trained up his new army. He had been king for a year, and had done very little actual fighting, for the victories over Argaios and the Paeonians were fairly minor affairs. Bardylis had good cause to be confident that he could again win a battle.

The two armies were approximately equal in numbers, each with 10,000 infantry, and Bardylis with 500 and Philip 600 cavalry. Bardylis formed his men into a square, which is an interesting action, suggesting that he was well aware of the new Macedonian tactics. Philip commanded the pezhetairoi, his newly trained Foot Companions (described by Diodoros as `the best of the Macedonians’) personally. They were armed with the new long sarissa, and were used to break into the square, no doubt at a corner. When the square broke he sent the cavalry on a ferocious pursuit. Bardylis’ army was destroyed, losing 7,000 men killed, and he at once made peace. The terms were the return of the Upper Macedonian kingdoms to Macedonian suzerainty.

The battle, described fully enough by Diodoros for us to appreciate the tactics involved, demonstrated to any who cared to notice that a military commander of genius had arrived. Philip coordinated the actions of his soldiers and operated on his opponent’s weakest point. He cannot have faced an infantry square before, nor can he have expected to face one now, but he took command personally at the decisive point, and understood that the battle was only won after the pursuit was finished. He was able to inspire his soldiers to fight, and to fight as he wished.

On top of this newly revealed military expertise, Philip showed in his dealings with his enemies that he was a most cunning and accomplished diplomatist, using negotiations to hold off dangerous enemies (Bardylis, the Paeonians, Athens) until he was ready to confront them, to deal with his enemies one at a time, and to choose the time to strike. This combination of military genius and diplomatic finesse was the key to the history of Greece for the next quarter-century.

If Audata was not given to Philip at the armistice in 359, she was now, in the peace terms. One of Philip’s diplomatic innovations is here on view: instead of offering daughters and sisters to neighbouring kings as wives and daughters-in-law, he used himself, collecting daughters of other kings. These marriages performed differing diplomatic purposes: Audata symbolized peace and the subordination of an enemy, whereas his second marriage, to Phila, daughter of Derdas of Orestis, bound the important Elimaian region to Macedon. A year later he married Olympias, the niece of the king of the Molossi, whose lands had also been subjected to Illyrian raids just as had the Macedonians’. These marriages linked these areas together politically, but the destruction of Bardylis’ army had been the key to the whole system. This diplomatic structure was designed, presumably, to block Illyrian expansion southwards. By these military and diplomatic victories Philip revived Macedonian power and added an association with the Molossi to a serious restriction on the power of Bardylis.

There was little reason for others to take much note of what was going on. To southern Greeks, the battle in Lynkos was one between barbarian kings, of no real interest. Dangers still lurked to the south, in Thessaly, and to the east, at Amphipolis, areas that were possible sources of hostility to Macedon. Athens’ enmity was not something to be conjured away by eliminating a pretender, and the possibility of it recovering control of Amphipolis was ominous. Thessaly had been troublesome for Macedonia repeatedly for the past 20 years, either in the persons of Thessalians, or from Thebes by way of Thessaly.

1 thought on “Philip II of Macedon

  1. Pingback: PHILIP OF MACEDON’S MILITARY REFORMS | Weapons and Warfare

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