Use the article on Philip II in Wikipedia (or any other appropriate reference source, on-line or in print) to discover the challenges faced by Philip in the early years of his reign and to gain an understanding of his interests in different areas.
1.2 The Persian Background
Interaction between the Greeks and the rulers of Asia Minor and beyond had a long history. Homer’s poems the Iliad and the Odyssey deal with a Greek expedition to Asia Minor against the city of Troy; these works were very important to Alexander (see the section 2.3 on the Mythological and Religious Background), as can be seen by his visit to the site of Troy in May 334 BC.
The Persian Empire was established by Cyrus the Great; he came into closer contact with the Greek world when he conquered the Lydian king, Croesus (c 547 BC). His successors continued the development of the Achaemenid Empire, which stretched from the coast of Asia Minor south to Egypt, north to shores of the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, and east as far as the Hindu Kush.
The encroachment of the Persians into the Greek-speaking areas was well advanced by 500 BC, and in the early years of the fifth century BC there were a number of conflicts. First there was an attempt by states on the coast of Asia Minor and the islands of the Aegean Sea to escape Persian control (the Ionian Revolt, 499-493 BC). As a result of this, Darius I turned his attention to Greece, which resulted in the campaign leading to the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC. In this battle, against the odds, the Athenians (with a little help from Plataea) were able to defeat the Persian land forces and force them to withdraw. Darius is said to have become more determined than ever to conquer Greece, but his death forestalled any immediate plans for invasion.
His successor, Xerxes I, took some time establishing his control over the Achaemenid Empire. Egypt had seized the opportunity offered by Darius’ death to revolt, and had to be brought back under Persian dominance, so it was only towards the end of the 480s BC that preparation could begin for a major expedition against the Greeks. The resulting campaign is recorded by the earliest Greek historian, Herodotus, in considerable detail. The two most important Greek city-states of the period, Athens and Sparta, both played very important roles in the battles of this war (Thermopylae, Artemisium and Salamis (480 BC) and Plataea and Mycale (479 BC). The majority of Greek states were involved, though some fought on the Persian side, either because they were already in the Persian sphere of influence (island and coastal states) or because they ‘medized’ (literally joined the Medes), in effect surrendering in advance to the advancing Persian juggernaut. Macedonia (under King Alexander I) was forced to support Persia.
The Greeks achieved their freedom, though it was by no means clear that the Persians would not attempt a further invasion in 479 BC. The scale of the expedition made a lasting impression, as did the fabulous wealth and resources that the Great King (of Persia) could call upon.
Persia continued to pose a threat in the fifth century BC. The Battle of Eurymedon (469 BC) between the Persian fleet and the Delian League, led by Athens, prevented a further expedition, though the Persians controlled Asia Minor apart from the coastal area. It is possible that a formal peace was made in the early 440s (the so-called ‘Peace of Callias’), at least between the Athenians and the Persians, but the local Persian satraps (governors) continued to be interested in exploiting any opportunities they found to gain influence in the Greek world, especially when there was conflict. During the later stages of the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC) between Athens and Sparta (and their respective allies), both sides looked to the Persians to provide resources to break the deadlock between them. In the end, the Persians offered sufficient financial support for Sparta to man a navy strong enough to challenge and then defeat Athens at sea. This victory left Sparta as the dominant state within the Greek world.
Sparta was not able to exploit its success in the Peloponnesian War, and other states in Greece challenged her. The Corinthian War (495-387 BC) involved Sparta fighting against four states in coalition (Thebes, Athens, Corinth and Argos). Persia supported the Athenians at one point, but later decided that Sparta suited her interests more. In the King’s Peace (or Peace of Antalcidas) in 387 BC, the Greek states committed to abide by a peace treaty guaranteed by the Persian King, who agreed to make war on those who broke the terms of the peace. Persia retained control of the coastal areas of Asia Minor, Clazomenae and Cyprus, while the Greek states were independent.
The most significant outcome of this was that the Ionian cities returned to the control of the Persian King; this lasted until the time of Alexander the Great. In this way, the great achievement of the Persian Wars of the fifth century BC was overturned. Greece was now independent, but the continuing squabbles between states further weakened the old-established states. Sparta managed for a time to use the terms of the peace treaty to her own advantage, but her own power was broken in a conflict with Thebes that resulted in the Battle of Leuctra in 371 BC. This defeat undermined the basis of Sparta’s power at home by breaking her hold over Messenia. For a short time, Thebes was able to exercise considerable authority, but she was to be challenged by other Greek states. This weakness to the south provided opportunities for Macedon to emerge as a significant, and before long a dominant, power under Amyntas III and Philip II.
1.3 The growth of Macedon as a political and military power
Amyntas III, once he had established control of his kingdom, made a series of alliances with significant Greek states to help ensure the stability of his regime and strengthen his interests in areas close to Macedon. He gained control of Olynthus with Sparta’s help, and also agreed to assist Athens regain control of Amphipolis. Athens was particularly interested in good relations with Macedon at this time as the kingdom provided a significant supply of timber for shipbuilding.
After the death of Amyntas, there was considerable turbulence in Macedon for a number of years, and the succeeding rulers were forced to concentrate more on shoring up their own position at home than extending their influence beyond the boundaries of the kingdom. During the reign of Alexander II, Philip spent some years in Thebes as a hostage to secure Macedonian good behaviour. This provided him with an opportunity to study at first hand the Theban army whose success at Leuctra had brought to an end the dominance of Sparta, and he lived in the house of a Theban general, Pammenes.
On the death of Perdiccas III, Philip was in a position to become king himself in turn. Once he had secured the throne, he began to look beyond his borders. The most important of the Greek states (Thebes, Athens, Sparta) were now weaker, and, to the north, Thrace had been split into three parts after the murder of Cotys in 360 BC.
Philip dealt with the Illyrians in 358 BC, and again in 356 BC, using his loyal general Parmenio against them. He also dealt with the Paeonians, first by diplomacy, then he subjugated them to Macedonian control by 356 BC. Once this immediate problem had been dealt with, Philip looked to the east: in 357 BC he captured Amphipolis and then moved against Pydna, which was held by the Athenians at this time. He also seized the opportunity to respond to appeals from further along the coast to the east, assisting the state of Crenides against the Thracians; he refounded this city as Philippi, and subjugated the Thracian king who opposed him. In late 355 BC, Philip attacked Athens’ last stronghold on the coast, Methone, and forced it to surrender.
Philip also had the energy to look to the south towards Thessaly, which Macedonian kings had often sought to influence. Interventions in 358 and 355 BC brought some success, but Philip could not make headway further into Greece. He therefore turned his attention back to the north, where he dealt with the Chalcidian League, centred on the state of Olynthus, which was destroyed in 348 BC.
By 346 BC, Philip had further successes to the south. He made an agreement with Phocis and a peace with the Athenians, who gave up all interest in the areas now controlled by Macedon on the Aegean coast. Relations with the Athenians were still problematic, as they still feared Philip’s involvement both in the north and in central Greece. Philip had turned his energies to Thrace which he conquered by 341 BC; his control of this area threatened Athenian interests in the Hellespont, vital to them because of the grain shipments they needed. In 338 BC, Philip’s problems with states in central Greece came to a head at the battle of Chaeronea in August, when Philip’s army secured an emphatic victory over a coalition of states, many of whom had been allied to him at some point. Amongst these were Athens and Thebes, with contributions from others such as Corinth, Megara and Euboea. In the battle, Alexander was placed on the left wing and distinguished himself in the fighting. The Theban army, still one of the most powerful in Greece, was routed. After his overwhelming success, Philip took the opportunity to weaken the other Greek states to make sure his position could not again be challenged. Thebes was forced to accept a Macedonian garrison and its position in central Greece was weakened. The Athenians were treated less harshly. They were forced to give up control of the last remaining part of the northern shore line they controlled, the Thracian Chersonese, though Philip allowed them to maintain control of a number of islands. However, because of their dependence on grain from the Black Sea, the Athenians were now not free to oppose Philip, as he could easily use his control of the Hellespont to threaten vital supplies.
In the winter, Philip marched into the Peloponnese, and then organised the foundation of the League of Corinth. At a meeting held in Corinth, it was agreed that there should be a formal structure; there was to be a synedrion or council of representatives for member states who were guaranteed freedom and independence, and a military hegemon (leader), who was tasked with organising military contributions and ensuring that states maintained the peace. This role was given to Philip, and the council declared war on Persia, so giving Philip the opportunity to stamp Macedonian authority on the old enemy and to unite Greeks under his leadership against a common enemy.
Theme: the upbringing, character, life and death of Alexander
2.1 Olympias: character and influence
Olympias was no doubt a significant figure in Macedonian life and her influence on Alexander considerable. Some of the more lurid stories about her may reflect the negative views of the author towards her son. She was able to survive in the tempestuous world of Macedonian royal politics, which must have taken considerable skill.
What does the following passage tell us about Olympias?
On his father’s side Alexander was descended from Heracles through Caranus. On his mother’s he was a descendent of Aeacus through Neoptolemus. This is beyond doubt. Philip is said to have been initiated into the mysteries at Samothrace with Olympias, when he was still a young man. He fell in love with her when she was an orphan and proposed marriage to her, after persuading her brother, Arymbas, to consent. The bride, on the night before they slept together in their bedroom, thought that there was a peal of thunder and that a thunderbolt fell on her womb. From the blow much fire sprung up, and then it broke into flames that went everywhere, before being extinguished. Philip, at a later time, after his marriage, dreamt that he was putting a seal on his wife’s womb. In his opinion, the carving on the seal had the image of a lion. When the other seers considered the vision, they thought that Philip needed to keep as close an eye as possible on his marriage relations. Aristander of Telmessus said that the woman was pregnant, because a seal is not used on empty things, and that she was carrying a child who was bold in spirit and had a lion-like nature. In addition, a snake was seen stretched out next to Olympias’ body as she slept. And they say that this, more than anything else, reduced Philip’s love and friendliness towards his wife, and that he no longer slept with his wife, either because he feared some spells and enchantments might be used against him by his wife or because he was avoiding association with her, as she was the partner of a superior being.
Plutarch, Life of Alexander 2
Plutarch, Life of Alexander 2 [‘There is another story ... terrify the men.’]
Use the links below to find out more about Olympias.
‘An envious and sullen woman’ (Plutarch Alexander 9): to what extent can we understand the influence and importance of Olympias?
When Alexander left for Asia, he left Olympias behind and placed Antipater in charge of Macedonia and Greece. However they did not agree with each other about what should happen, and both wrote many letters to Alexander, which gave rise to the story reported by Arrian (7.12) that Alexander in exasperation remarked that his mother was charging him a very great deal for his nine months’ stay in her womb.
Plutarch finishes his Alexander (77) with some further stories about her which suggest how important she was in Macedonian affairs. Whether they are true or not, Olympias continued to be a significant figure in the struggles for supremacy after Alexander’s death, until Cassander, who later proclaimed himself King of Macedonia, had her put to death in 316 BC.
2.2 Alexander’s childhood and youth
Alexander was raised within the Macedonian court, with more direct contact with his mother than with his father, who was often away from Macedonia, campaigning to the north or trying to establish Macedon’s position in the Greek world. Although he was a member of the royal family, he was not isolated from others of his own age. One of the ways Philip promoted stability in Macedonia was to bring to the sons of leading families the court for education. This provided the basis for the close relationship Alexander enjoyed with his ‘companions’, the important group on whom he relied particularly both for support in battle and for relaxation.
We have only limited information for Alexander’s youth. The first two books of Curtius Rufus have not been preserved, so we are heavily dependent on Plutarch. As a biographer, Plutarch was very interested in character, and his selection of material reflects his desire to bring out the essential aspects of Alexander’s nature.
What do these passages suggest about Alexander’s character?
Whilst he was still a child, his self-restraint became clear: although he was impetuous and violent in other respects, the pleasures of the body moved him little, and he made contact with such things with great moderation. Love of honour made him think seriously and in a lofty way, beyond what might have been expected at his age. He did not like all forms of fame and from any quarter, as Philip did.
(Plutarch Alexander 4)
When ambassadors came from the Persian king while Philip was away, Alexander entertained them and spent time with them and impressed them with his friendliness. He asked no childish or trivial questions but wanted to know about the length of roads in Persia and what the journey from the coast into the interior was like, and also what sort of warrior the king was and how courageous and powerful the Persians were, with the result that they were astonished and considered that Philip’s reputation for cleverness was as nothing compared to Alexander's eagerness to achieve great things. At any rate, whenever it was announced that Philip had taken a famous city or achieved a notable victory in battle, Alexander was not very happy to hear it but said to his friends, “Boys, my father will capture everything first. He will leave no great and brilliant deed for me to achieve with your help.” For he did not seek pleasure or wealth but courage and glory, and he thought that the more he received from his father the less he would be able to achieve for himself. For this reason, as he considered that the opportunities for success were being used up by his father as he became more successful, he wanted to inherit from him not money and luxury and pleasures, but rather contests and wars and ambitions.
(Plutarch Alexander 5)
Philip made arrangements for Alexander to receive an education that would prepare him for an important role in the wider Greek world; this was all the more important because of Macedon’s cultural isolation, though the royal family had long been accepted as fully Greek. By 343 BC, Aristotle was already a significant figure in the Greek intellectual world, and the impact of his teaching on Alexander was profound (Plutarch Alexander 7-8). This may have contributed to Alexander’s desire for exploration and discovery. Plutarch writes:
He admired Aristotle from the beginning and loved him not less, as he himself said, than his father, as he gained the gift of life from his father, but from Aristotle he had learnt how to live nobly.
Plutarch Alexander 8
There are two important incidents that give a sense of Alexander’s relationship with his father. Read through these sources carefully:
Philoneicus the Thessalian brought Boucephalas to sell to Philip for 13 talents. They all went down to the plain to inspect the horse, and he appeared to be difficult and completely unmanageable, not allowing anyone to ride him or responding to the voice of any of Philip’s men, but rearing at all of them. Philip was annoyed and ordered them to take the horse away as it was completely wild and untrained. Alexander was there and said, “What a horse they are losing when they cannot handle him through lack of skill and patience.” At first Philip kept quiet, but when Alexander said the same thing many times and was in great distress, he said, “Do you find fault with your elders because you know more than they do or are better able to handle a horse?” Alexander replied, “I could certainly manage this horse better than anyone else.” “And if you don't, what penalty should you pay for your recklessness?” Straightaway Alexander said, “By Zeus, I will pay the price of the horse.” This made everybody laugh, and then father and son made an agreement about the penalty. At once Alexander ran up to the horse and, taking the reins, turned him towards the sun, as he had noticed that the horse was disturbed by seeing his own shadow falling in front of him and dancing around. Then he calmed the horse a little by doing this and stroked it, and when he saw that it was full of spirit and energy he took off his cloak quietly, leapt up and seated himself safely. Then gently directing the bit with the reins without striking the horse or tearing his mouth, Alexander held the horse back. When he saw that the horse had stopped misbehaving and was eager for a run, he spoke more boldly, kicked with his heels and gave the horse his head. At first those with Philip were terrified and kept quiet. But when Alexander came back proud and overjoyed, everyone there cried out and his father is said to have cried with joy; when the boy had dismounted he kissed him on his head and said, “My child, you must seek a kingdom equal to yourself; Macedonia is not big enough for you.”
Plutarch Alexander 6
But the disturbances in the Royal household, brought about by his marriages and his love affairs, caused problems in his kingdom very similar to those in the women's quarters of the palace and resulted in great quarrels between Alexander and his father, which the bad temper of Olympias, an envious and sullen woman, made still worse, as she encouraged the young man. The most obvious quarrel was brought about by Attalus at the time of Philip's marriage to Cleopatra; Philip fell in love with a young girl, even though he was too old for her. Attalus was her uncle and when he was drunk at a banquet he called on the Macedonians to ask the gods for a legitimate inheritor of the kingdom from Philip and Cleopatra. Stung by this remark Alexander said, "Do I appear to you to be a bastard, you fool?" And he threw a cup at him. Philip drew his sword and stood up to face Alexander, but fortunately for both of them because of his anger and the wine he tripped and fell over. Alexander insulted him and said, "Look at this man, my friends, who is preparing to cross to Asia from Europe, who comes a cropper crossing from one couch to another." After this drunken brawl he took Olympias and put her in Epirus, while he spent time amongst the Illyrians.
Meanwhile Demaratus the Corinthian, who was a friend of the family and prepared to speak his mind, went to Philip. After they greeted each other, when Philip asked how the Greeks were agreeing with each other, Demaratus replied, "It is certainly very appropriate, Philip, to be worried about Greece, when you have filled your own house with such strife and difficulties." Philip realised he was right, and sent for Alexander and brought him home with Demaratus’ help.
Plutarch Alexander 9
What can we learn from these passages about the relationship between father and son?
How important was Alexander to Philip?
In 340 BC, Alexander was left as regent in Macedonia while Philip was away on campaign, which shows how highly regarded he was by his father. When the Maedi caused trouble to the north, Alexander did not hesitate to lead forces against them, and he set up a military colony there called Alexandropolis.
2.3 The Mythological and Religious Background
Alexander grew up in the tempestuous Macedonian court. His status as a son of the king must have marked him out from an early age, and the claims on both sides of his family to descent from important figures in the distant past must also have given him a sense of his own standing in the world. The kings of Macedonia performed an essential role as leaders of their people in peace and war, but they were also a link to the gods; their religious role was sanctified by tradition, and Alexander certainly seems to have taken it very seriously, even before the issue of divine honours was raised.
It is important to understand the significance of the heroic world described by Homer in his poems and the impact this had on the development of Alexander. This can be seen in his visit to Troy (Arrian 1. 12); Arrian wrote that Alexander ‘had been eager to emulate Achilles ever since boyhood’ (Arrian 7. 14).
The importance of religious ritual to the king can be seen in the accounts of Alexander’s last days (which may go back to the so-called court journals). It is also worth considering his visits to Gordium and to the oracle of Ammon.
Use an appropriate reference book or the internet to discover more about these: