How did Philip of Macedonia conquer Greece?

You know about Alexander. But do you know how Alexander's father, Philip of Macedon forged the Macedonian Empire from almost nothing? Follow the journey of Philip to become the Master of Greece!

How did Philip of Macedonia conquer Greece?
Philip of Macedon

Everyone knows about Alexander the Great.

After all, it is not often that history produces men who dream of capturing the entire world and very nearly succeed in doing so.

But under the shadow of giants, many others are often forgotten, no matter how important their achievements may have been.

Philip of Macedon was one such figure.

While his claim to fame is being the father of Alexander, Philip was a genuinely effective leader in his own right.

Philip's life began as a struggle for survival. Though he was the son of the King, he happened to be  the youngest and his elder brothers were simply not as competent. But through his remarkable wit and determination, Philip established Macedonian hegemony over the entirety of ancient Greece.

Ironically, though very few give him credit for this, but it was his long-sighted decisions that provided Alexander with the launchpad to go out there and conquer the world.

Greece in the 4th Century BC

In the aftermath of the brutal Peloponnesian Wars, the city-state of Sparta was able to impose its hegemony over much of Greece.

Yes, I'm talking about the same Sparta. The one from the movie 300.

However, this state of affairs was detested by many of the Greek city-states. This led to the 8 year long Corinthian War and even though, Sparta still emerged dominant, it was more due to the timely Persian invasion and less because of Sparta's own power.

The war exposed the fragile nature of Sparta's control. And nothing invites the wrath of your enemies faster than an exposed weakness.

In the next decade, the Thebans from the central region of Greece revolted against Sparta and through a series of wars, they were able to essentially cripple Sparta's power. This gave an opportunity for the Thebans to increase their influence over the entirety of Greece.

However, this did not lead to lasting peace. Resistance to the growing Theban influence led to more bloodshed until things came to a head in 362 BC, culminating in a devastating battle.

The Battle of Mantinea dragged almost every Greek city-state into the conflict on one side or the other.

Though, in general, Thebans prevailed but suffered heavy losses. The Theban King died in the battle. And though, each party in the war tried to claim some sort of victory (just like modern days), neither was better off in any way. Instead of establishing an order, the Battle of Mantinea plunged Greece into a state of greater disorder and confusion.

battle of mantinea
The gruesome battle of Mantinea

The years of fighting and struggle had left the entire country of Greece war-weary and devastated. A general peace was concluded between all the states. Thebans lost so much power that they basically retreated into a defensive posture after the war, thereby allowing Athens to become the dominant city-state in Greece.

The Situation of Macedonia

Though Macedon was in the north of Greece and was somewhat shielded from the battles in central Greece, its situation was even more precarious in the 4th century BC.

Ancient Macedonia was surrounded by more than just difficult mountains. The famous horse warriors of Thessaly to the South cut off Macedonia from the central regions of Greece. To the West, the powerful tribes of Illyria were a constant threat. From the Northern highlands, the Paeonians and Agrianians launched devastating raids whenever they wanted. To the East lay the savage land of Thrace where tattooed warriors regarded plundering as the only honorable means of living.

What a truly great neighbourhood?

In fact, Macedonia itself was divided into two vastly different areas. The mountains of South, West and North was the home of fiercely independent and traditional pastoralists. During the summer, these highland-dwelling Macedonians grazed their flocks in the mountain pastures. However, during the cold winter months, they were forced to bring their animals down to the coastal lowlands.

In the lowlands dwelled the Macedonian farmers, who raised crops and tended to their vineyards. The highland Macedonians had learned to live alongside their lowland cousins for some part of the year. However, it was often an uneasy truce.

It was in this absolutely uncomfortable situation that Philip came to the throne of Macedon. And also, it wasn't a straightforward succession by any means.

When Philip's father, King Amyntas died of old age, his eldest son Alexander II succeeded him, only to be murdered by his cousin Ptolemy. However, Ptolemy was also slain by Perdiccas III two years later. Perdiccas also died soon afterward while fighting the Illyrians, resulting in Philip becoming the King of Macedon.

It was an almost hopeless situation. Macedonia was in chaos with the nobility pitted against each other in a civil war, barbarians knocking at the doors on all sides and the powerful Athenians working tirelessly to weaken and dominate the beleaguered kingdom.

No one believed Philip had a chance of survival, let alone saving Macedonia.

Philip's Early Years

Philip's early years had not been easy. But they were essential for what lay ahead.

When he was only fifteen years of age, Philip had been sent as a hostage to the Greek city of Thebes by his brother, who was King at the time. This turned out to be a huge blessing in disguise for the young prince.

Not long before, Thebes had crushed Sparta's finest warriors at the battle of Leuctra, ending the myth of Spartan invulnerability. The Macedonians immediately negotiated an alliance with Thebes and as per custom, sent hostages to guarantee their good intentions. If Macedonia did not behave prudently, Thebans were free to torture and kill the hostages.

The young prince Philip was one of the hostages.

Thus it was that Philip found himself in the household of the Theban general Pammenes. While the other Macedonian hostages feasted and chased local girls, Philip spent the entire time learning the latest techniques in warfare from the Theban generals.

He learnt that Thebans had perfected the art of hoplite warfare. Each hoplite was a proud citizen, who could afford to equip himself with a bronze helmet, a thick breastplate, greaves to protect the legs and an iron-tipped spear that was almost eight to ten feet long. This spear was not used for throwing but thrusting into the enemy ranks. In addition, each man also carried a razor-sharp iron sword and a heavy shield almost three feet wide on the left arm.

greek hoplites
The Hoplites of Greece

Each hoplite was unshielded on his right side and hence, relied on the man next to him for protection. This encouraged a strong sense of unity and brotherhood in the battlefield.

When a line of hoplites advanced shoulder to shoulder against the enemy, it became a literal wall of death.

The Theban hoplites - common soldiers as well as wealthy cavalrymen were all bound by iron discipline.

This was in stark contrast to the state of the Macedonian army that consisted of a peasant infantry led by undisciplined nobles on horseback. The Macedonian knights considered themselves as the epitome of heroism and treated the infantrymen as cannon fodder.

Philip realized that these shortcomings made Macedonia weak when compared to other Greek states.

However, Philip was not a one-dimensional thinker. While he learned the tactics and discipline of the Theban army, he also took note of the democratic assembly at Thebes. He saw the weakness of a system in which every man could voice his opinion and cast vote on important issues, leading to endless debates, while politicians sought to destroy their opponents.

Pretty much like how it is in our current times!

Philip sensed a chance.

He deduced that in a crisis situation, an an old-fashioned monarchy like Macedonia could act much more decisively than a typical Greek city and be virtually unstoppable on the battlefield. If and only if it was ruled by the right King.

Philip returned to Macedonia when his brother Perdiccas slew Ptolemy and took over the throne. When Perdiccas marched off to fight the Illyrians a few years later, he assigned Philip as the regent.

A few weeks later, Perdiccas and his four thousand men lay dead in the battlefield and Macedonia was in dire straits.

The Illyrian King was ready to strike at the heartland of Macedonia. Paeonians on the Northern border had already started raiding deep into Macedonian territory. Five other nobles were also vying for the throne, thinking Philip to be a pushover. One of them was backed by the Thracians and the other by Athens. Each of Philip's three half-brothers were also plotting to become King.

Philip moved swiftly. He quickly arrested and executed one brother, forced the other into exile. He then bribed the Thracians to murder their own candidate and also struck a deal with the Athenians to withdraw support for their candidate.

By the autumn of 359 BC, Philip had taken over as the King of Macedonia. But his troubles had only begun. There were many who wanted to dispose of the young ruler. And to make matters even more complicated, they had now realized that he was a clever man.

The Rise of Philip of Macedon

Philip knew that if Macedonia had to survive, he needed to build the army of his dreams. And for that to happen, discipline was the key.

To achieve his goals, he started training the soldiers in a rigorous program. Troops were drilled until they became adept at carrying out complex battlefield manoeuvres. Philip personally marched them countless miles over the mountains with heavy packs until they were ready to drop from exhaustion. To increase the morale, he also started bringing the officers of the army in-line.

During the cold winter months, Philip's reforms started to bear fruit. Men and officers alike started to take pride in their newly found strength and abilities.

However, Philip was not oblivious to the fact that discipline would take them only so far against wild bloodthirsty barbarians or Greek hoplites. If he wanted to have a real chance at defeating the Illyrian hordes or the well-equipped army of the Theban Sacred Band, he needed something more.

He could not afford the heavy armor used by hoplites. Macedonia wasn't exactly rich at that point of time. To bridge the gap, Philip decided to change the rules of engagement.

He decided that the troops of his newly-formed army would not wear any armor and carry only a small shield. This ensured that even the poorest young man from the Macedonian villages could qualify for military service. As a result, Macedonia managed to have the largest pool of soldiers when compared to any other Greek city.

But how could lightly armed peasants stand agains the fearsome hoplites?

The answer lay in a brilliant innovation by Philip himself. The sarissa.

Standard hoplite spears were eight to ten feet in length. The sarissa, on the other hand, was almost eighteen feet long.

macedonian sarissa spear
The sarissas of Philip

This allowed the Macedonian infantry to march in a close formation with overlapping sarissas lowered in front of them. Wielding these sarissas, the Macedonian soldiers could skewer hoplites before the enemy spears could even reach close to them. The elimination of heavy armor and weapons ensured that Macedonian soldiers could use both hands to hold and thrust with their sarissas.

With practice, Macedonian soldiers started to drill with absolute perfection. Soon, they could turn together in any direction, open and close a line in an instant and charge the enemy with ferocious speed. Even though the sarissas were made to destroy hoplites, it was an equally effective weapon against other opponents such as the barbarian warriors.

Along with the infantry, Philip also reformed the cavalry. Unlike earlier times, the cavalry now worked closely with the infantry. The cavalry would now wait for the sarissas to open a wide enough gap for them to ride through and strike at the undefended rear.

To bolster his armies, Philip also created a highly trained engineer corps unit. Arguably, he was the first general in history to do so. In time, these men were able to span rivers, cut roads across mountains, and siege any city using new machines of war.

The first test of Philip's new strategies came soon enough when he launched an attack on the Illyrians. Philip gambled everything in this battle and even though the Illyrian leader Bardylis offered a truce before the battle, Philip didn't agree. He wanted to have this battle for a couple of reasons - to get rid of the constant Illyrian threat and second, to prove a point to his enemies.

Personally leading his infantry against the Illyrians, Philip achieved a splendid victory. Thousands of Illyrians were slaughtered and the rest surrendered. The Illyrian leader Bardylis sued for peace and agreed to withdraw from all the territories of Western Macedonia. In fact, he also offered Philip his daughter in marriage.

Philip agreed to the proposal. The victory cemented his position as the King of Macedon.

Philip's Rule

The victory over the Illyrians gave Philip the boost he needed to establish hegemony over Greece.

He soon started expanding the boundaries of Macedon by capturing cities or forging alliances through a mix of bribery and marriages.

After marrying the daughter of the Illyrian leader, he also married Phila from the southern mountain region as part of his grand strategy to bind the highland tribes of Macedonia more closely. After Phila died, he married two women from Thessaly to strengthen relations with the kingdom on Macedonia's southern border.

One of the reasons for these marriages, apart from building alliances, was also the objective to produce a male heir to the throne. As evident from the past, the Macedonian Kings were prone to getting killed in battle or assassinated by conspirators. A male heir was imperative to continue the rule into the next generation.

The second bride from Thessaly gave Philip a son in 357 BC. However, the boy turned out to be handicapped and unfit to inherit the throne.

Soon, Philip found his new wife.

The Kingdom of Epirus had suffered several raids from the Illyrians. To protect themselves, they sought an alliance with the rising Macedonian King. Philip also wanted to secure the trade routes between the Adriatic and Macedonia. Thus it was that the Head of the Royal House of Epirus married his youngest niece to Philip. This lady was none other than Olympias. The mother of Alexander the Great.

Though expanding influence through marriages may sound peaceful (you know the whole Make Love Not War thing), but marriage alliances wasn't the only way Philip used to extend his control.

Philip's rapid expansion of the Macedonian Kingdom was astonishing. And a lot of it was because of his army. Before Alexander was born, Philip had captured the old Athenian outpost of Amphipolis on the border of Thrace. This gave him access to the timber and natural resources available in the Strymon valley.

The same year Philip took over the Athenian fortress on Pydna on the Macedonian coast. The very next year, he struck eastwards, capturing the Thracian town of Crenides near Amphipolis. This resulted in the gold mines near the city falling into Philip's hands. To make his point, Philip renamed the captured town after himself.

The revenue from the gold mines allowed him to enlarge his army and equip it with the finest equipment and horses. With these newly acquired resources, Philip laid siege to the city of Methone in 354 BC to drive out the Athenians the from Macedonian heartland. After a furious fight, Philip managed to take the town. However, he lost one of his eyes in this battle.

The physical setback did not stop him or slow him down. Philip soon took over the port city of Pagasae and continued with the invasion of the Chalcidice Peninsula in 349 BC.

The city of Olynthus in the peninsula was a key centre of commerce and under Athenian protection. However, when Philip marched against the city, the Athenian assembly could never agree on a concrete action. Soon, Philip's armies surrounded the city, battered its walls and rained a storm of arrows on the defenders. When Philip took over, he sacked the city, destroying the buildings and sold the survivors into slavery. The goal of these brutal measures was to send a strong message to the Greeks.

Philip could be merciful. But if he was opposed, he could also be ruthless.

Philip's big chance came in 348 BC when the Thebans called on Philip to join them and crush the Phocian rebels. Phocians were backed by Athens and even though, Philip was initially reluctant to take such a big risk, he finally marched for Thermopylae and forced the Theban allies of the Amphictyonic Council to take decisive action against the rebels.

Faced with the prospect of fighting the Macedonians, the Phocian rebels capitulated. Philip's influence drastically increased and he was offered a seat on the council. Through a mixture of diplomacy and military threats, Philip of Macedon had become the dominant member of the most powerful political alliance in Greece.

By this time, Athens had realized that if something was not done to stop Philip, Macedonians would soon become the master of Greece. The Athenian statesman and orator Demosthenes had been warning for years that Macedon was their primary rival.

demosthenes speech against philip of macedon
Demosthenes in the Athenian Council

On the other hand, Philip had also reached the limit of his patience with the Athenians and their constant conspiracies against him. He decided to crush Athens once and for all.

By seizing the Athenian grain fleet sailing from the Black Sea, he deprived Athens of its primary source of food. Before Athens could calculate what was happening, Philip marched his army and occupied a town near Thebes.

As expected, Demosthenes whipped up a war frenzy and instilled a false sense of bravado in Athenians that they could easily crush an upstart barbarian king. They formed an alliance with Thebes and finally, on a hot day in August of 338 BC, Athens and its allies (including the Sacred Band of Thebes) arrived at Philip's camp near the village of Chaeronea.

As per estimates, there were around 60000 men in total across both the armies. However, while the Athenian army mostly comprised of shopkeepers and farmers, the Macedonians were professional soldiers who had spent several years fighting against hoplites and barbarians. Also, Alexander had grown old enough to assist his father and he had turned out to be a specially gifted warrior and strategist.

The outcome of the Battle of Chaeronea was easy to determine.

Athenians collapsed like a pack of cards. Along with their best generals, nearly a thousand Athenian soldiers were killed in the battle and double that amount was captured. The Sacred Band of Thebans provided some resistance but the Macedonians surrounded them, ultimately grinding them to their death.

battle of chaeronea philip
Battle of Chaeronea

After such a decisive victory, Philip could have marched to Thebes and Athens. But he was gracious.

He sent an embassy to Athens under Alexander to seek for peace. His primary calculation was that Athens and its navy was more valuable to him intact. All Athenian prisoners of war were released and he also allowed Athenians to maintain their control over the Aegean islands. The only condition was that Athens should declare themselves as allies of Macedonia.

The Athenian assembly was ever so grateful at this proposal. They had expected worse. Needless to say, they granted Philip everything he wanted and also conferred Athenian citizenship on Philip and Alexander. They even went so far and erected a statue of Philip in the Athens marketplace.

The so-called barbarian upstart king was now virtually the master of Greece.

The Unfinished Dream

Philip wasted no time in consolidating his power further. Soon after victory, he called for a general assembly of all Greek cities in Corinth. In the aftermath of Chaeronea, no one dared to refuse him, except for the eternally belligerent Spartans.

In the council, Philip laid terms for future stability of Greece. He proposed that all Greek city states should live in peace with each other, defend each other in case of an outside attack and submit to the decisions of a central council. Lastly, they should form an alliance with Macedonia and uphold Philip and his descendants as leaders of a unified military force.

The League of Corinth as it was called seemed democratic in appearance. However, no one had any doubt that Philip was now the undisputed ruler of Greece.

And with this, Philip made the first momentous decision of the League. It was a bold plan he had nurtured for many years. The invasion of the Persian Empire.

No one in the League had the audacity to go against Philip. And thus it was that Philip was ultimately elected leader of the combined Greek and Macedonian crusade against the Persian Empire.

At last, Philip was able to take steps towards his dream.

Unfortunately, fate had other plans. Before Philip could embark upon the crusade for victory and glory, he was assassinated by a man named Pausanias of Orestis.

Why was Philip of Macedon assassinated?
Philip of Macedon stood on the cusp of ruling the world. But his journey was stopped short when he was assassinated by man he knew quite well.

Philip's dream to conquer Persia lay hanging in the balance. Not until his son Alexander took up the mantle of King of Macedonia and achieved the goals his father had first dreamt of.

The Legacy of Philip

Philip's achievements were eventually eclipsed by those of his son, Alexander the Great. This is the nature of history.

Though many may try to deny the fact, it is quite clear that Alexander's achievements were founded on Philip's work as King of Macedonia in turbulent times. Without those works, Alexander may not have found the success he eventually had.

The proof for this could even be found in Alexander's behaviour. Many years later, when Alexander, in a drunken state, boasted of his accomplishments and belittled those of his father, one of Philip's old generals rose and called the drunken king an ungrateful lout and proclaimed that Philip was a far greater man than Alexander could ever hope to be.

The reaction of Alexander was drastic. He personally drove a spear through the old general's chest for his apparent insolence.

It was nothing but the frustration of a young King trying to rise above his father's shadow.