Philip II of Macedon: Twilight of the Polis in Ancient Greece


Philip of Macedon coin / British Museum


Lecture by Dr. Donald Kagan / 12.06.2007
Sterling Professor of Classics & History
Yale University

The Rise of Philip of Macedon

Philip II of Macedon ivory portrait from tomb in Vergina / Wikimedia Commons

It’s always useful to remember that while we look back on these events and know their outcome and can assign to them a special significance, let’s never forget they didn’t know that they were on the brink of the end of the independent polis. In fact, I’m sure if you came along in 362 after that battle it would never have occurred to you that that whole fundamental arrangement of the world that had been sort of in place, to some degree, perhaps as far back as the eighth century was going to change its character very sharply, and that although there would still be poleis that would be going on, it might seem in the same old way, even after the Macedonian conquest, the fact was that none of them ever again really was autonomous in the sense of to be fully in control of its own fate both in terms of the internal constitution and also, more importantly or at least the one that was most in danger, the capacity to engage in international relations freely and to be free to make their own foreign policy.

So, as I say, it’s going to be a very major change but it’s something that they don’t know they’re in the middle of watching. Well, in 359 a man called Philip became King of Macedon. We know the Macedonians were fundamentally Greeks. That is to say, they were Greek speakers and ethnically, if there is such a thing, they were Greek. But they were so far out of the mainstream of the development of the Greek poleis that we have been examining this semester that many, many Greeks, perhaps most of them, didn’t think of them as being Greek. When Greeks thought about what it was to be a Greek they thought about more than the fact that they spoke the Greek language, they thought fundamentally — if you get to Aristotle you see how thoroughly true this is, it had to do with a culture, a way of life and that way of life was based upon the independent polis.

Well, Macedon did not have such a structure. The Greeks called the Macedonians an ethnos, a tribal group is what that sort of means. We use the word “nation” somehow to translate ethnos and that’s okay. The word “nation” itself, you remember, comes from the Latin word which means to be born; people who are born of the same stock. But for the Greeks it had a different meaning; it was people who participated in the culture that they designated as Hellenic and they thought the Macedonians fell outside of that. There were no poleis in the Macedonian kingdom. It was something that we might call feudal. That is to say, yes there was a monarch, but there were powerful noblemen who were practically independent and who owed only a limited allegiance to the king and who were really the dominant figures in the state for most of the history prior to the appearance of Philip.

On the other hand, the king was an important and powerful character so that you have — this was true of European feudal states at certain periods in their development. On the one hand, the fundamental society was based upon great lords, great noblemen, barons, but there was a king and he was not inconsequential. That’s the situation that pertained in Macedon. In a certain sense, if a Greek had looked at Macedonian society prior to Philip, he might have described it as Homeric, and you’ll be familiar with that. Sure, there were guys called basileus, but they were not really the rulers over the barons, these great noblemen in their kingdom. They thought of it as uncivilized in the technical sense.

Map of the Kingdom of Macedon at the death of Philip II in 336 BCE / Wikimedia Commons

If you don’t live in a polis, a city, as they understood it, then you are not civilized; you are part of an ethnos and that’s the term they used of the tribal societies all around them, Illyrians, Scythians, they were all from an ethnos. The Macedonians, on the other hand, claimed very proudly and powerfully, and insistently that they were Greeks; they were Hellenes, and they probably invented a myth of their descent. Indeed, not merely from Greeks but from the real Greeks, that is to say the Argives, who were the leading people in the time of Homer’s poetry and they claimed direct descent from Agamemnon and the other Argive kings. We hear about various Macedonian monarchs of some importance prior to Philip, back at the time of the Persian War, Alexander the first played an interesting and shady role between the Greeks and the Persians. During the Peloponnesian War we hear of a King Perdiccas, who also played a role shifting between the Spartans and the Athenians.

This business of shifting between sides is not just because they’re shifty people. It’s that their status is such that they’re always vulnerable and not powerful enough to defend themselves and so they have to make the best deal they can with whoever has the power at any moment. One other Macedonian king has left a name that we know something about, Archelaus, who followed Perdiccas, one of the things about him was that he kept a kind of a cultural court at his capital, and for instance Euripides, for reasons that we do not know, left Athens at some point in the Peloponnesian War and came to Macedon where he joined a collection of artists and scholars, and whatever that Archelaus was gathering in his kingdom.

Well, Philip becomes king in 359 and the Macedonian kings were very much like Homeric kings as we have described them here. That is, yes you had to have a dynastic claim, you had to be a member of the royal family to be king, but that wasn’t good enough. You had to also have — remember, to rule as I said about the Homeric kings, iphi, by force, by power, you had to have the actual capacity to command and sometimes you had to demonstrate that by fighting it out among various potential successors with having the winner coming out as the king. Something like that is what Philip did. He was not the most direct descendant of the previous king. He was left as a kind of a regent over the under-aged young king of just a boy and he was actually Philip’s nephew and Philip’s ward, and Philip took care of him in more senses than one, finally killing him and replacing him on the throne.

That was not a unique event in Macedonian history. So, Philip is now on the throne and, of course, with this disputed descent, this disputed right to the throne, you can imagine that he is not in the most secure position when he takes over this job, and so I think some part of his actions, certainly at the early part of his career, and perhaps all the way through, was meant to demonstrate his own greatness, his own capacity to be king so as to put down all resistance internally and for that purpose what could be better than spreading the boundaries, increasing the power, and in making the greatness of Macedon more than it had been before and that’s what he undertook. It looks as though, I think we have enough evidence to believe, that he certainly, of course, meant to rule Macedon and to do whatever was necessary, however harsh to make that secure. But it is pretty clear that he had it in mind to conquer Greece, to make himself the master of Greece. That was certainly one of his objectives.

As a matter of fact, an interesting part of his biography was that as a young man — probably I should say as a boy, probably in his teens, he was sent to Thebes as a hostage as a result of a war between the Thebans and the Macedonians, but he was treated as a member of the royal family. He was treated very decently and with respect, and he spent his time in the house of Epaminondas. Can you imagine a better place for a young king with his military ambitions to be brought up than in the house of the man who is surely the foremost general in the Greece of his time and perhaps of any time, and I think we should imagine that he must have learned a great deal about military affairs there.

There remains the question, did Philip already have in his mind the plan of conquering the Persian Empire, which was, of course, the job that was completed by his son, because whatever Philip’s intentions may have been he died before he could carry them out. I don’t think we can be certain about that, but it was an idea that he didn’t have to do a lot to dream up. I’ve mentioned to you how many an orator, Isocrates, most famously, had been calling on various Greek states and individuals to conquer the Persian Empire, to solve Greece’s problems, and he wrote such a letter to Philip once Philip became the most powerful figure in that world. So, he certainly could have had the idea; I mean, he certainly did have the idea — whether he was planning to do that or not we don’t know.

Philip, the Military Genius

Ancient depiction of a Macedonian cavalryman. This shows Alexander the Great as a cavalryman. He wears a helmet in the form of the lion-scalp of Herakles. Detail of the so-called Alexander Sarcophagus, excavated at Sidon. / Museum of Archaeology, Istanbul

Philip is the revolutionary, the military genius who creates the weapon which will allow him to conquer Greece, and it’s the same military force that enables Alexander the Great, who had brought to it brilliant military talents, but he had an instrument shaped for him that was already far and away the best army in the Greek world, the best army of the Greek world had ever seen, perhaps as good an army as there ever existed in the ancient world.

This is the great achievement of Philip, or at least that was a basis of it. He was not merely a hoplite battle leader in the old style. One thing about Philip that was very important was his temperament, his mind, his approach to warfare. He simply didn’t accept the notion of defeat. He didn’t accept the notion of making some kind of a deal except on his terms when he found it necessary to do so. He’s famous for having said after a temporary setback against one of his opponents, Philip has said, “I have not fled, but I have retired as rams do in order that I might make a stronger attack the next time.” He really lived that principle. Nobody ever defeated him permanently. If he had to accept a temporary setback he immediately went to work to repair it through a variety of means, military, diplomatic and whatever else he had available.

But as I’m saying at the moment, he crafted this great grand new army, supplied, led, and organized quite differently from what I have described to you in the past as the standard Greek practice, which was essentially the hoplite phalanx, and as you know, in the course of the Peloponnesian War in the fourth century new gimmicks were added to that and different devices were contributed to it but still that was true. Now, Philip absorbed all the things that had been going on before his time, but he also made fundamental changes in the way that things worked. To his phalanx, and I was going to say, of grim professional soldiers — now, that I think is in itself an enormously important thing. We have something new on the Greek scene, an army which is a national army. That is to say, it is made up of Macedonians serving Macedon, under a Macedonian king, but they are not the citizen soldiers that we have examined in the case of the polisand its phalanx. They are hoplites in that phalanx.

They were professional soldiers so that their full time job was being an army; they did not spend their spare time back on farms. That means Philip had to pay them a salary for them to perform. At the same time, they were not a mercenary army in the traditional sense. They were not people gathered anywhere who fought for whoever hired them; they were very much Macedonian soldiers. Something we can understand in the United States today — an unusual thing in American history beginning only a couple of decades ago. We have that sort of an army. We have a professional national army, and I think this is an objective statement, it has become the best army in the world. There are many reasons for that, but I would argue one reason is that if you can have the sociological background to permit that kind of an army, you are in very good shape indeed. That’s what Philip was able to create.

The kind of loyalty, the kind of commitment, the kind of association with the cause that only a citizen or a subject of a king can have, along with the skill, and the practice, and the conditioning that is part of being a professional soldier. So, he has this phalanx made up of these professionals that I’m talking about, but he added to that a group of people called the foot companions, pezetairoi is the Greek word, who were the biggest and the strongest of all the Macedonians and to that group he added the companion cavalry, the hetairoi themselves, the companions of the king, and of course these were the noblemen and they became personally attached to Philip in a special way and were the most effective, the most reliable forces that he had, an elite core, and here again is something different.

The cavalry will play a much more important role in fighting than it ever has in the Greek fighting of the past. One of the great geniuses of Philip would be to create a combined force that could use cavalry and infantry and some other subordinate forces I’ll tell you about in a minute, jointly together, to carry out a rather complex military plan. These, of course, are these hetairoi, our aristocratic horsemen, heavily armored on strong horses. That’s very important as well, because if you’re going to use them as shock troops, which he did on many an occasion, all of that has to be in place. Then there was another contingent of infantry with probably less body armor than his phalanx had, who were called the shield bearers, hypaspists, and they occupied the center of the Macedonian line next to the phalanx.

These fellows were usually the first infantry forces to follow behind a cavalry charge if that’s the way Philip fought the battle, charging a cavalry at the enemy, and as the enemy provided opportunities, these shield bearers, these lighter armed infantrymen would find their way and expand the holes, opening the way for the major blow to be struck by the phalanx. I’m describing one kind of battle that could be fought. The thing about having this kind of varied military force is that you could have different tactics for different battles and Philip does things differently on different occasions. This group of hypaspists, lighter infantry, provide a crucial link between the first mounted attack and the follow up by the phalanx proper.

On top of all of this, you have a professional core; again, they’re all Macedonians remember, made up of really light infantry. That is to say, slingers, archers, javelin men in the traditional mode that the old Greek armies had, but didn’t make too much use of typically and so that rounds out the composite army group made up of these different kinds of forces, and these missile men I guess you could call them, supplied both preliminary bombardment with the things they did to help harass the enemy phalanx, but also they provide a kind of crucial reserve support. If you need to throw some forces into a suddenly important piece of the battle these guys were very mobile and you could order them into that place to support whatever was going on there. You can see how infinitely more complex this was than the kind of fighting we’ve talked about before.

Now, these Macedonian contingents I’ve been describing do not represent a fragmentation of forces as might possibly be thought, but rather a diversification and a sophistication of arms, as one historian puts it, a symphony not a cacophony of professionally equipped men. Philip’s contribution to the history of western warfare, therefore, is not so much tactical as it is organizational, creating this complex organization that could have a variety of tactical uses. Now at first, the equipment and the tactics of this Macedonian phalanx for itself did not differ considerably from the traditional hoplite columns of the Greeks, but he then subsequently made a very important change.

Warrior weapons in the antechamber of the tomb of Philip II in Vergina / Wikimedia Commons

Now, he does keep the spear, the pike that was the fundamental weapon of the old phalanx. But it was lengthened from being let’s say roughly eight feet long to fourteen feet or so. Now, you cannot hold a fourteen-foot pike with one hand. This is a two-handed weapon; if you’re going to control and use it effectively that’s what you have to do. Well, if you’re going to have two hands on this thing you can’t have that hoplite shield that was the characteristic of the old hoplite phalanx. So, the shield shrank and became unimportant. You realize that once you do this to your hoplite phalanx, it can only function successfully as an aggressive force, if you see what I mean. You can’t just take blows; you have to be delivering blows all the time.

The greaves and the breastplates, and the heavy head gear were replaced either with leather which was lighter, or various composite materials, or else abandoned altogether. So, you can see these hoplites don’t look anything like the hoplites we’re accustomed to. The central idea, however, of a fighting mass of infantrymen remained predominant. In fact, integrated with and protected by such diverse forces, Philip’s phalanx of true pikemen, their lances now allowed the first five, not merely the first three ranks to strike at the enemy, was both more lethal and more versatile than the traditional hoplite columns. The historian Polybius, who wrote in the second century B.C., but you have to realize he was a contemporary of Macedonian soldiers, who were still fighting fundamentally in the same way that Philip had created, so he knew what he was saying.

He, for instance, he describes the great battles between the Romans and the Macedonians that occurred late in the third and into the second century. So, he even saw or certainly knew about the new phalanx, the Macedonian phalanx, tackling the Roman Legion and fighting it practically to a standstill. Polybius says that infantry, who faced such a storm of spears, as he puts it, might have as many as ten iron points concentrated on each man. Nothing Polybius concluded can stand up to the phalanx. The Roman, by himself with his sword, can neither slash down nor break through the ten spears that all at once press against him. Well, he has to face the fact that the Roman Legion did defeat one of these phalanxes in the course of the third century, but I think if you look at the details you realize that there was nothing inevitable about that defeat.

Circumstances in battle allowed the Romans to win, because it put a premium on the great advantage that the legion had over the phalanx; namely, that it was divided up into smaller fighting units that could adjust and move about the field much more freely than the fighters in the phalanx of the Macedonians. That was certainly an edge that the legion had, but there never was a time when a legion fighting a good Macedonian phalanx could predict that it would win, much less that it would be any kind of a walk over. Of course, against the kind of forces that Philip faced, it was all the more likely to produce a Macedonian victory, because those were not Roman legions that they had to face.

Philip, the Diplomat

Ruins of ancient Amphipolis / David Padfield, padfield.com

Now, if you’re going to have a national mercenary army, a national army made up of professionals, that means it costs money in a way that the old phalanx system did not require the expenditure of funds very much. So, Philip, early in his career, had to gain control of sources of money and he did so. Early as king he immediately had to put down his opponents from within Macedonia, but he also did what I suppose Macedonian kings always had to do on their accession, they were surrounded by what the Greeks called barbarian peoples and these barbarian peoples were always fighting against the Macedonians and trying to push back their frontiers and so on. So Philip turned against these, the Illyrians and various other peoples, and did an excellent job of defeating them, driving them back, establishing the boundaries where he wanted them.

In the process, accomplishing two very important things. One was to establish his credentials as a great general and leader for internal purposes and for military purposes is in a sense of winning the confidence of his soldiers, but also it meant that his own stature in general and the reputation that he gained both among enemies and friends grew, and finally the last point, this kind of fighting allowed him to train his army and to create this army, and to make it as excellent as it became before he had to face more formidable forces than these. So, now he has won the loyalty of his nobility to a degree that no predecessor ever had. He now has these barons who are so independent, happily, gladly serving him and being rather in awe of him, and the army in general was devoted to him in a way that was unprecedented for the Macedonians.

Now, with this weapon largely forged he was able to begin serious expansion in the Greek world. A critical step rather early in his monarchy was his attack on Amphipolis, and you will remember Amphipolis was this Athenian colony that was such a big deal for the Athenians that they were prepared to do almost anything to get it back, but they never had thoroughly been able to get it back until recently. So, now he took Amphipolis — what was more important than anything for him was that who held Amphipolis was likely to hold Mt. Pangaean which is right near Amphipolis, which contained gold and silver mines that were producing wealth as they had been for centuries now, and now that wealth was going into Philip’s pocket and he used it for the purpose that was most important, chiefly for paying for that army that I have been talking about.

We are told that this produced about 1,000 talents a year for Philip’s use, and that’s about the same amount that the Athenians got out of their empire. So, you are talking about lots and lots of money and this explains the economic capacity that gave Philip the chance to use the kind of army he had. But he was extraordinarily skillful at the game of diplomacy. I say game, because he treated it in that way. Diplomacy, I think, for him was an extension of military forces by peaceful means. It’s kind of a standing Clausewitz’s definition of war on its head. Who was it? Sir John Fortescue, I think, it was in the fifteenth century defined a diplomat as a man sent to lie abroad for his country. I think the spirit behind that pun was certainly right for Philip, that for him diplomacy was a way for advancing his country’s interests by whatever means that he possibly could; he was very good.

One of his very great skills was precisely to lie in a very convincing manner and, of course, it’s much easier to get people to believe what you say if you have got the strongest army anywhere in sight in case you should be so impolite as to say “you’re a liar.” I think that must have assisted him. But what I mean is Philip would come into conflict with some polis or some poleis over some territory that was in dispute or whatever, and they would say Philip what are you trying to do, you seem to be trying to conquer this territory. Oh no, no Philip said, I have absolutely no interest in this territory, I’ve got other things to do that are much more important. Those Paeonians in my background require my attention and when the other guys would calm down he would calmly take the place that he had left alone.

I’m reminded, and I guess after the Second World War, in fact even before, there were some scholars who made the analogy between Hitler and Philip, and Demosthenes and Churchill, it’s not the worst one. It’s very imperfect, but it’s not the worst analogy possible, but I remember Hitler kept saying before his strength was great enough simply to launch a major war he would say, if you give me this that’s all I’m interested in, that is absolutely my last territorial demand in Europe, and then in a few months he would then seize Austria or something like that. So, Philip reminds me of that, because he did such things from time to time. It’s just too much to tell in terms of the detail of his career, but let me just hit a few highlights and give you the direction in which it was going.

Philip’s Expansion

Ruins of the asclepeion in ancient Thessaly / Wikimedia Commons

The first business that he had to do after he gained Amphipolis and the wealth of the mines was to gain control of the shoreline of the northern Aegean Sea, and that meant of course his own Macedonia, which he had, but also eastward into the region of Thrace. He began precisely to gain control of those places. It was in 357 that he took Amphipolis and that meant that he had to clash with Athens, because as I say, Athens had never given up its claim to Amphipolis and kept trying to get it back, because of its value to the Athenians. What we will see is war between Philip and Athens on and off until the final victory of Macedonia. It’s a period of quite a stretch of time in here in which that’s going on.

On the other hand, it’s never a full scale war with Philip trying to conquer Athens. How could he? He’s still outside from a territorial point of view, outside the entire old Greek world. But he can cause all the havoc he wants to in the northern Aegean and the Athenians will be unhappy about it; they will send forces up into that part of the world to contest Philip’s expansion and that’s where the fighting goes on. But the Athenians are not ready to take him on and really try to stop him from going where he seems to be going. What they do is they respond when he does something that annoys them or that they’re worried about. Sometimes they go out and fight him, but usually they don’t, or sometimes they do and they do so too little and too late. That’s the story of the relationship between these two powers throughout this whole stretch of time.

With the expansion of Philip in a variety of directions, he increases his revenues wherever he conquers. He gets down into Thessaly, now we’re talking about territory that the Greeks consider to be Greece and Philip is now gaining more and more control of that area. The revenues grow and he even builds a navy and begins to challenge Athens and others at sea. He attacks Athenian commerce when he is quarreling with the Athenians. The Athenian position in general is badly weakened in the years between 357 and 355 in what the traditional historians call the Social War. That doesn’t mean that they fought over teacups or anything like that, “social” derives from the Latin word socii, which means allies.

It was a rebellion against the allies of Athens in the Athenian Confederation, which really frightened the Athenians, and kept them busy putting it down for a couple of years. There is some debate among scholars today as to how oppressive or not was the Athenian rule of its empire. The more recent scholarship has suggested that the Athenians were not really very oppressive, which leaves for, I think, for them an uncomfortable question, if that’s true why was there this rebellion in the years 357 to 355? We just don’t know enough to talk details about this, but I think there can be no mistake; the Athenians abused their position of power and leadership in the empire. They didn’t do so as thoroughly and completely as they did in the great Athenian Empire of the fifth century but that was largely because they couldn’t. They never had the power, they never had the financial strength to be able to impose their will as the earlier empire had, but they did what they could and they did enough to annoy their allies into such a rebellion.

Athens recovers, they win, they put down the allied rebellion, but they are weakened in the process. In 356, there breaks out on the mainland of Greece, what they would call the Sacred War. It’s the old business of who controls the Delphic Oracle. The neighbors, Phocis, Locris, frequently take advantage of opportunities to gain control of the oracle and to deprive the priests of their control of the region. The priests then call on other Greeks traditionally led by Sparta but not always to beat up the people who have taken over the oracle’s place and drive them out and restore it to the priest. Well, this is another in that theory, in that series of events. Thebes and Phocis are involved in a war over Delphi. The Phocian general is the only time he crops us in this story, Onomarchus apparently was an outstanding military leader and defeated the Thebans and even pushed into Thessaly, and that brings Philip into the picture, because Philip has been expanding Macedonian power into Thessaly from the north coming south.

So, Philip takes his forces and he pushes the Phocians back, defeats Onomarchus, sends them off. Now, here’s the question. Is this good or bad for the Greeks? On the one hand the one thought would be well, sure he’s just put down this fellow who has arrogantly seized the Delphic Oracle, but now who is there, who is sitting in Thessaly, this great big new army. Is he going to be a menace to the Greeks in general? Well, we who have had a chance to know how it came out and know that it did. But at the time people were divided, some say oh my heavens this is a thoroughly aggressive man at the head of an army that looks incredibly strong and he has terrific ambitions, what are we going to do, against those who said, no it’s okay, he’s okay now, he’s happy, he doesn’t want to do anymore than that.

Athens’ War Tax and Demosthenes’s Opposition to Philip

Silver tetradrachm from Athens, c.350 BCE / Wikimedia Commons

Let’s take a look at Athens, which will necessarily be the leading figure in the opposition to Philip such as it is. Thebes, last time we looked at Thebes, Thebes had reached a position of power perhaps greater than that of Athens, but you remember the deaths of Pelopidas and Epaminondas simply did not allow Thebes to continue to have that vitality and power that it had before. It’s still a very strong state. Its hoplite phalanx is still formidable; they still have great ambitions and so on, but it turns out they don’t really have the capacity to take the lead in such a business. The Athenians do and they are very much concerned about what’s happening. But it’s not the same Athens that we saw in the height of its power in the fifth century. Relatively speaking, it is a very poor place indeed. It is, however, still the number one naval power in the Greek world and therefore very important.

Let’s take a look at the internal life of Athens a little bit and notice some changes they will have some significance in terms of what decisions the Athenians make. There is something that was introduced — we don’t know just when — it might have been late in the Peloponnesian War it, might have been afterwards. It is called the theoric fund, and it gets its name apparently because there was a payment to the Athenian citizens of the price necessary to pay for the ticket to see the great theatrical festivals that went on twice a year in Athens, which had apparently degenerated pretty much into a dole, into a kind of a welfare fund for the very poor. It did not amount to a stunning amount of money, but given the poverty of Athens in general, any fund of money could be very significant at critical moments, especially on issues of national defense.

But there was a lot of argument, a sort of a democratic party, the party of the underprivileged or whatever, always insistent that everybody’s supposed to keep hands off the theoric fund which should only be used for its welfare state — I’m embarrassed to use such a term because of course there was nothing like that in the ancient world. Just for that portion of the national income that was used to alleviate the worst poverty they wanted that untouched, but when the state was under siege, it was under threat, it was — had to go to war, so it seemed to some politicians, they needed money to do it and say let’s take the theoric fund for now while we have this necessity and there would be a fight about that. You remember the Athenian Empire in the fifth century? Never had a money — not never, but could generally handle its money problem because it had this great income from the empire, say roughly 1,000 talents a year coming in.

That was not true. So, that if Athens wanted to send an expedition anywhere, they had to levy a direct war tax; it was called the eisphora. They had done so two or three times during the Peloponnesian War. As far as we know they had never done it before that time. We have stressed how unnatural direct taxation was in the Greek world, but here that’s what they really had. They had to pay this eisphora, if they were going to conduct a military and naval campaigns that they felt were necessary. In fact, it used to be true that individual Greeks back in the fifth century could pay their share, what was assigned to them for the eisphora, individually, but now they were so few people who could do that they organized groups of taxpayers whom they called symmories who would share the burden. It makes me think that it probably sank further down the — sort of the wealth class of Athens. More people I guess were now paying taxes than before.

In the fifth century the only people who paid taxes were the very wealthy and now that I think was attenuated as people who were not so wealthy had to pay something as well. Another thing is that we find the Athenians using, as a regular thing in these campaigns that they will have to fight, mercenary soldiers. I don’t mean mercenaries of the Macedonian kind, the kind that Philip was using. I mean hiring a band of mercenaries who might come from anyplace in Greece. That was because the Athenians were reluctant themselves to go out on expeditions. Nothing could be more different I think from the way the Athenians behaved in the fifth century when they were all over the joint, as you remember, in 457 that inscription that talked about those died from one tribe all over the battle. They were proud of it and they never ran short of soldiers willing to do this kind of thing. The assembly voted it and the people win. Not now.

Roman copy of a Greek Hellenistic original sculpted by Polyeuktos / Photo by Maria Lan-Nguyen British Museum

The Athenians are reluctant to engage in these activities. Our main source for complaint about this is Demosthenes, who much of the time is pleading with the Athenians to recognize the danger presented by Philip and for them to take the necessary steps to check Philip before it was too late. What he asked them to do repeatedly was to first of all vote the money that was necessary to support the expedition and then not to hire mercenaries but to serve themselves in the fighting, and he did not win those arguments very often. There were in Athens throughout this period people that we would call in our own jargon hawks and doves; people who were ready to fight for these purposes and people who were very reluctant to do so. The people who seemed to be the most reluctant to do this were the upper classes, of course, because war meant taxation and they were going to do the bulk of the paying of the taxes.

It may well be — I don’t want to make too much of this, Philip, wherever he could would install oligarchic governments in places that he ruled. He was not interested in democracy; he was not a friend of democracy. There were some Athenians who had never given up their hope that an oligarchy could be placed into Athens, instead of a democracy. They would have been doves and more. I mean, there is a pretty clear indication that Philip did in Athens what he did in other states as well. He bribed important Athenians to be champions of his cause and the people it’s easiest to get this to work with are people who agree with your approach, who on your side of the argument. So, there was some of that. I mean, there was a real difference of opinion as there always is.

We should be very aware of it and in recent years this is the kind of thing you see. Some people in society seeing a great danger out there that must be prepared for and confronted, others thinking that that is overblown, that that is too pessimistic, that there is no such great danger or that it can best be dealt with by negotiation and conversation, and anything but fighting, and that was the situation in Athens. If you were hostile, if you were a member of the hawk faction, you would say your opponents were deluding themselves about the degree of the danger and that Philip was a very special kind of a menace. If you were a dove you would accuse your opponents of being alarmists, excessively afraid and worse. Of course, both sides accused each other of much worse things having to do with their characters and so on, as people always do.

The first statement we have of Demosthenes, who will emerge as the dominant hawk for most of the time that he is doing business in Athens is in 351, when he delivers the speech that we call the First Philippic. He delivered a series of speeches attacking Philip and warning the Athenians of the danger presented by Philip. To this day, philippic is a word in English which means a strong attacking piece of rhetoric against some individual or some nation. He charged the Athenians with having created the great danger that they faced by making Philip into a great man through neglect by their refusal to stop him when it was relatively easy to do so. They should send, he thought, a fleet, a good-sized fleet to serve in the northern Aegean Sea and to stop Philip’s expansion and to stop Philip period. He urged them, and he will do this over and over again. Don’t hire mercenaries, enlist for service yourself, vote for war tax, and those of you who should pay it should do so. He lost the argument.

The Athenians did not take that action that he recommended. Philip, pretty soon after that, attacked the Olynthians; you remember Olynthus is an important state on the Chalcidic Peninsula; it has been a very significant state back in this century you remember when the Spartans went up there to defeat the Olynthians who had constructed a league of their. Well, they weren’t out of business yet. So, Philip went after them and, again, Demosthenes urges the Athenians to get involved and to prevent Philip from taking Olynthus an the Chalcidic states and gaining control of the northern Aegean Sea and all the danger that that presented to Athenian interests. Again, he loses the argument. He delivers three Olynthiac speeches which have the same character as the one I’ve described, but the Athenians do not do it.

In the year 348 Olynthus falls. That city and the other cities of the region were destroyed. You remember this is not a typical way in which the Greeks dealt with defeated states, although heaven knows the Peloponnesian War had seen examples of it, but it was a very, very harsh kind of warfare that Philip carried forward. He destroyed the cities physically, he enslaved what was left of the population and so this was a message. I think it wasn’t just that he had a cruel temperament, though I suppose he must have had that too, but it was meant to be exemplary. It was meant to say when Philip says do this, do it, because if you don’t, he will crush you and this is what will happen to your city and to you. That’s an old technique. We know that the Assyrians used to do that way back in biblical times in which they would deliberately be as brutal and cruel as they could be, and having done so would broadcast how brutal and cruel they had been, in order to encourage other states to behave appropriately in the future.

Hitler had used those same tactics early in the Second World War when he destroyed the city of Rotterdam from the air, completely not military whatsoever. It was obviously intended to terrify everybody who might want to resist him. So, that’s what Philip did up there. Finally after further fighting of one kind or another, the Athenians and a number of other Greeks make a treaty with Philip. It is called the Peace of Philocrates; he was one of the negotiators on the Athenian team. There really didn’t seem to be much disagreement among the Athenians as to the desirability of this peace, even Demosthenes who is normally opposed to anything like it, felt that it probably had to be done, and I think that just reflected the realities of the distribution of power and also of the willingness of the Athenians to do anything more than that, and so there is this period of the Peace of Philocrates in which the Athenians make a defensive alliance with Philip.

Increased Threats from Philip and Athens’ Response

Ruins and Temple of Apollo at Delphi / Wikimedia Commons

There things sit when another development raises the panic button, I think, for Demosthenes and some others. The Sacred War, there’s another Sacred War going on. This time the people who want to restore power to the priests invite Philip to lead the Greek forces in the Sacred War. That is a very big deal. First of all, it recognizes the Macedonians as Greeks in the truest sense of the word. It should have been, probably was, a major source of satisfaction for Philip and extraordinary glory in the eyes of his fellow Macedonians that the Greeks should have done this. Not only accepted them as Hellenes, but asked them to save the Oracle of Apollo, the center of Greek worship there. So, he takes his army, he runs into the Phocians, blasts the Phocian army and does what he was asked to do. In the process, when it’s all over, he decides that from now on Macedon and King Philip will take not just one vote on the council that governs the Delphic Oracle. There was the Amphictyonic Council, the council of those who dwell around Delphi. He took two votes on that council, and he made himself president of the Pythian Games — you remember these panhellenic festivals.

There were four great panhellenic festivals, Olympia, Nemea, the isthmus of Corinth, and the one at Delphi which was called the Pythian Games and here is this barbarian from Macedonia not only sitting on the council but being the chairman, holding the position of honor as all the Greeks gather for the Pythian Games. Well, this must have had an enormously intimidating effect on many in the Greek world, and it becomes more and more Athens that has to take the lead, if anybody is going to resist. The Athenians were concerned; at least those who were not determined to accept the course of events. Phillip was very careful with Athens, for this there was a very good reason. They had a special strategic set of advantages that nobody else in the Greek world had, and that Philip didn’t have an easy answer for.

Athens was a walled city which had proven itself capable of defending those walls. You should realize that up to this point in Greek history, nobody has demonstrated any kind of ability of taking a walled city by force, the only way you can take a walled city is by surrounding it and starving it out, but you remember now that the Athenians have a navy and walls, they can’t be starved out in the same way. So, taking on Athens, if you really want to take the city, is a job that’s very difficult indeed. Of course, the Athenians have their navy which makes that true, but also allows the Athenians to do you harm in a way that other states cannot do. So, all of that means that Philip is not about to make a headlong assault on Athens, but to try to have his way by going around Athens somehow.

He tried to win Athenian support through his usual technique of soft words, explaining how he had no aggressive intentions in areas that the Athenians were interested in, even though he had already demonstrated that that wasn’t right. Also by working Athenian politics, by bribing Athenian politicians to be on his side and using every device he could to make it harder for the hawkish people to have their way. Demosthenes from here on in is determined, and determinedly against Philip, spending all his energy and time trying to get up Athenian support and then, indeed, to put together a coalition of states besides Athens to resist and fight and defeat Philip. Indeed, he is more successful than he was before, because the danger from Philip is obviously greater, so that more Athenians can see it that way. The league he puts together includes Euboea, Megara, Achaea, Acarnania, Lucas, Phocis, and finally Thebes.

Now, that’s a pretty good trick. Phocis and Thebes are traditional opponents, but they’re both in the league and what that tells you is that those states, and especially those states which are in central Greece, closest to where Philip is located with his forces into Thessaly and so they now see that there is a great danger from him and they join in an anti-Philip coalition. He doesn’t go at them immediately directly; he goes to war but he does so up in the north on the shores of the Aegean Sea. He moves eastward — this is an enormously clever thing to do, towards what the Greeks call the Chersonese, the peninsula which we call the Gallipoli Peninsula, the Hellespont. Philip wants to gain control of that, because if he can control the Hellespont, it’s the old story, he can cut off trade, he can starve Athens out and it would hurt others too but Athens would be the main attack.

So, he moves forces to the Thracian coast, taking various cities there, and gaining more and more territory towards that end, and then he goes all the way across to the Bosporus to Byzantium, modern Istanbul, and he takes that city as well, and, of course, you can cut off trade, if you can control the Bosporus. So this is very, very serious for Athens and it’s on this occasion that Demosthenes delivers his third Philippic making the same case as he has been making all along, and only doing so but I think with even greater intensity and this time with more persuasiveness, because more and more Athenians understand how serious this menace has become.

Ancient Bosporus (modern Istanbul) / Wikimedia Commons

Small point but not so trivial that the Athenians were able even to enlist the support in language at least by Persia. If the Greeks are going to fight this guy, it would be awfully handy if you could get the Persian support. As it turns out, the Persians don’t do anything of importance in resisting Philip, but it shows you how Demosthenes and those Greeks who agreed with him were attempting to put together as strong a coalition as they could to try to stop him. Forgive me. Don’t pay too much attention to what I’m saying but I’m constantly being reminded of the behavior of the European states just prior to the Second World War, and in place of Persia I think we would have to put the United States of America, which was out of the game and sort of constantly trying to stay out of the game, powerful isolation of sentiment in this country, and people in Europe, some people urging that everything be done to get the United States into the game and others reluctant to do that.

It wouldn’t have made any difference, nothing would have gotten the Americans to take an active part against Hitler at that time, and I suspect there was no chance that anybody could have convinced the Persians to do anything at this point either. But the Athenians do send a force and it’s a good size force and it does a very good job, and they drive Philip back out of some of the places that he has conquered, which I think is interesting to think about. It’s not obvious that if the Athenians had gotten their collation together earlier, and if they had done the best they could, it’s not obvious that they couldn’t have defeated Philip. There’s this terrible danger that we will all become victims of a fait accompli, what happened obviously had to happen, it couldn’t happen any other way. No, I don’t think that’s right. We certainly don’t live our lives as though that’s true, and we shouldn’t allow ourselves to imagine it’s true in retrospect.

The fact that the Athenians could have such success against Philip as they did at this moment is evidence that that was by no means a hopeless cause. Once again, a Sacred War breaks out over Delphi. Again, the Amphictyonic League, this time of course having as its president Philip invite Philip to lead the forces of the Sacred War. The Sacred War has been declared against the town near Delphi called Amphisa and that’s the force that he’s going to use against it. Philip moves down from Thessaly, arrives at a place not very far from Delphi called Elatea on one side, and the other side at Thermopylae. These are the roots to get down into central Greece. Once you go through those places you are right next to Boeotia, you are a couple of days from Athens, you’re right in the middle of a position where you could do terrific harm.

Demosthenes’s Stand and The Battle of Chaeronea

Battle of Chaeronea / Wikimedia Commons

When the Athenians received the news, there really is panic. Demosthenes tells the story. Now, Demosthenes is a witness who is excellent because he’s a participant, contemporary, that’s great, but you’ve got to look at him with a certain amount of skepticism because he’s a participant. He’s a guy who held a certain point of view, he was very active in politics, he has strong views on everything, his reputation depends upon how you look upon what he did. So, you must understand that when he tells us these things he’s telling it form his perspective. It’s very much like Winston Churchill’s histories of the two world wars in which he played a very large part, even in the first but certainly in the second, and it’s not that he lies, it’s not that he deceives, but when you read those stories you read them as Winston Churchill sees them and you have to be alert to them. There’s a wonderful — about Churchill is a wonderful story, apparently true, that when Churchill’s book on the First World War came out — I forget the title; let’s say it was called “The Great War,” which it wasn’t. The former prime minister, Arthur Balfour, who didn’t like Churchill at all is supposed to have said, “I see that Winston has published another book about himself and called it The Great War.”

The enemies of Demosthenes might say the same things about what he says in some of his speeches. But later on in his career when there was a big battle between him and his chief opponent, Demosthenes’ friends were asking the assembly to vote him a crown. It meant a crown of leaves, not of gold, but the honor for things he had done for Athens and his opponents thought that what should be done for Demosthenes for what he had done to Athens is to throw him off the Acropolis. So, there’s a great debate that we have both halves of. It’s in that debate that he recounts the things he has done for Athens, why they should be grateful to him, and this moment is one he points to. He tells about the news came to Athens that Philip was in Elatea, and he says, we all gathered there first thing in the morning and the place was full.

If you remember that passage I read to you from Aristophanes about how things usually were in the Athenian assembly, where everybody came ambling in late, no problem, nobody was in a hurry, no he says, everybody was there. When theprytany for the day, the president of the meeting said, who wishes to speak, no one, no one raised their hand. Then I got up and gave you guys the good advice that followed and all that stuff. But I think we can’t doubt the essential truth of the situation, that there was just a terrible fear and no idea how to cope. Demosthenes then suggested what steps should be taken to resist. One of them, and he was able to do it now, was to use the theoric fund to supply the forces that were necessary. Secondly, to do something that was quite an achievement from a diplomatic point of view, to make an alliance with Thebes.

Ever since the late 370s Athens had not been allied to Thebes, it had become alarmed that Theban power had joined even with Sparta against the Thebans, but here as we’re into the very late 340s, early 330s, he makes an alliance with Thebes so that what is surely the strongest ground force on the side of the Greeks against Philip will be there, namely the Thebans, and the Boeotians in general. Finally, in 338 the Battle of Chaeronea takes place in western Boeotia and the result is a victory for Philip. The battle itself was by no means a walkover; it was very close. Our accounts of it make it clear that there was every possibility, even then, even though the Spartans weren’t there, even though Philip’s forces were at their peak. The Greeks might have won that battle, that’s a very important thing to remember, but they didn’t. Philip won and that was the end of Greek freedom. Thereafter, the states all had to bow down to Philip in terms of foreign policy.

In many cases, he actually interfered in their internal autonomy. He established garrisons at key places in the Greek world, including Chalcis and Euboea, Corinth and Mount Ambracia in the west and they were called the fetters of Greece. It was like he put a great chain across Greece to show and demonstrate, and make real his control. Athens was forced to abandon the confederacy, its own confederacy; they were forced to make an alliance with Philip. He constituted in 336 the League of Corinth with himself as president. It was an offensive and defensive alliance. Philip was commander in chief and he could tell everybody what to do, and they would have to do it. This truly was the end of Greek freedom. As it turned out, Philip was assassinated in the same year so that he never was able to demonstrate how he would carry on once he had that power.

Location of the Gulfs of Ambracia and Corinth / Wikimedia Commons

The business of the conquest of Persia, if that was in the mind of Philip, had to be left to his very young son Alexander, who I think was eighteen at this point. So, that gets us to the interesting question of history’s judgment on these events, and especially I think the interesting person is Demosthenes, and as you read in your problems collection, the nineteenth-century German historian Droysen and the German historians of that time in general had no doubt about the judgment. It was very negative about Demosthenes. After all, what was Athens anyway? According to Droysen it was ein advokaten republic, it’s the lowest blow anybody could deliver, a republic of lawyers. What Demosthenes was trying to preserve was kliene Städte, the world of small independent states, a contemptible term in the eyes of Droysen and his fellow nationalists. German, you remember had just — I forget the date of his writing, either it had already been unified by Bismarck or nationalists were demanding that these little states all be brought together into a great German empire and that’s where Droysen was.

The future, Droysen said, was with Philip. Demosthenes was a reactionary trying to retain things that were — whose time had come and gone. What was needed was the unification of the ancient Mediterranean and this was a step in that direction. Why was it necessary to have a unification of the ancient Mediterranean? As would finally be accomplished, not by Philip and Macedon, but by the Romans, because it was all part of the great plan without which there could not have been Christianity. Christianity could come to the world and dominate Europe, because it had been made into a single word by virtue of the Macedonian and Roman conquest, and Demosthenes in his small minded petty way was standing in the way of that.

Yes, there were admirable things about Demosthenes, but his behavior and his policy was quixotic, because it was hopeless. I think this is my reading of what Droysen really is saying; he lost so he must have been wrong. Winners are always right or else they wouldn’t win. Now, I think we can evaluate that in a different way. If we think about a different situation, I’ve been thinking about it all along and telling you about it, which is let’s take a look at Winston Churchill who had been called by historians the Demosthenes of that time. The man who had been calling attention to the danger from Hitler and trying to rally support and really treated like an idiot until finally the knife, the dagger was at the throat of the British and only then, and with great reluctance did the British put him in control.

Now, if we look at his experience and what he did I think it’s illuminating. The difference between heroic victory and disaster can be terribly thin. Taking office at a low point in the fortunes of his country and its allies, Churchill made a famous speech, which just breathed defiance when there was no physical justification for such a position. He said this, “I have myself full confidence that if all do their duty, if nothing is neglected, and if the best arrangements are made as they are being made, we shall prove ourselves once again able to defend our island home. To ride out the storm of war and to outlive the menace of tyranny, if necessary for years, if necessary alone, we shall go onto the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and the oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, and we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields, and in the streets, and we shall fight in the hills, we shall never surrender.”

Yet England came within a hair’s breath of losing that war and suffering the horrors of invasion and occupation by Nazi Germany. In fact, had Hitler and Guering continued bombing the RAF’s landing fields and ground facilities as they began to do with the Battle of Britain, instead of turning away from that and using their planes to bomb cities and scaring civilians, it’s very clear to me that Germany would have won the Battle of Britain and control of the air, which would have made their success inevitable. Now imagine that it had gone that way; in that case, Churchill’s bulldog determination, his refusal to accept what was a relatively generous peace offer after the fall of France, would seem in retrospect the wrong-headed defiance of a man, who brought his people low by his own intransigence. He would have been treated, I think by history, as some kind of a gallant fool, some kind of a brave imbecile.

But men like Churchill and Demosthenes know that those who love liberty must fight for it, even against odds, even when there is little support, even when victory seems impossible. In spite of the outcome, it seems to me that the stand of Athens and its Greek allies at Chaeronea may have been in words that Churchill used in another context, “their finest hour.”

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