Philip II Expands and Empowers Macedonia

Philip II built a powerful military, united surrounding territories under Macedonian rule, conquered Greece, and set the stage for a combined Greco-Macedonian invasion of Persia.

Summary of Event

Macedonia was an unstable band of feuding rural clans, loosely united under a hereditary kingship, when Philip II of the Argead Dynasty came to power. Historians debate the actual date of Philip’s assumption of Macedonian leadership. Traditionally, historians set the date at 359 b.c.e., but some scholars, such as Eugene Borza, have moved the date back to 360 b.c.e. as they refine knowledge of the Macedonian calendar. Also clouding the issue is the debate, in which historians are about equally divided, regarding whether Philip first served as regent for his infant nephew before assuming kingship in his own right. Philip II of Macedonia
Demosthenes (c. 384- 322 b.c.e.)
Alexander the Great

According to Plutarch, Philip was born in 382 b.c.e., the third son of King Amyntas III and therefore not the immediate heir to the throne. Philip gleaned a modest education from his mother, Eurydice, who had learned to read in order to educate her children. Philip’s schooling was cut short by the death of his father and turmoil in Macedonian affairs. Philip’s older brother, Alexander II, had led an unsuccessful attempt to undermine Theban influence in Thessaly, and as a result, young Philip was taken hostage and held in Thebes (369-367). While in Thebes, Philip was able to observe the superior culture and military might of this important Greek city-state. Philip learned at first hand of the infighting among the Greek city-states and perceived that the Greeks were vulnerable to outside forces. He also learned the importance of a powerful military in conquering and ruling other territories. In addition, he was able to experience the beauty and sophistication of Greek culture, for which he developed a lifelong admiration. When Philip returned to his homeland, he took with him these lessons that he would later turn to his advantage as king of Macedonia.

The Macedonia that Philip encountered on his return was in chaos, even within the royal household. During the 360’s b.c.e., no less than three kings had ruled, the last of which was Philip’s brother Perdiccas III. When Perdiccas III died fending off an Illyrian (now Albanian) invasion in 360/359, Philip moved quickly to consolidate power and to quell outsiders’ efforts to weaken Macedonia. The Paeonians and the Thracians, to the north and the east (now Kosovo, Yugoslavia, and Bulgaria), were bought off, and Illyria, to the west, was defeated and incorporated into the Macedonian kingdom.

Philip’s success was in large part due to his knowledge of the superior Theban military tactics. Philip organized his troops into uniform phalanxes (tightly packed lines of soldiers with interlocking shields), which overpowered the disorganized local militias. Philip also equipped his soldiers with 17-foot-long (5-meter-long) pikes, significantly longer than those of his opponents, thus putting Philip’s troops at a distinct advantage.

In addition to military might, Philip used shrewd diplomacy in dealing with his adversaries. When Athens backed an attempted coup against his rule, Philip foiled the plot and then defused Athenian hostility by offering the Athenians the return of their prisoners. When diplomacy failed, Philip did not hesitate to use bribery, coercion, and marriage alliances to achieve his objectives.

By 358 b.c.e., Philip had incorporated the fiercely independent clans of upper Macedonia into his kingdom. In a show of statesmanship, Philip invited the clan leaders to join the Companions, a prestigious group of aristocrats who served as Philip’s advisers and comrades-in-arms. To secure the loyalty of the commoners, Philip created the Foot Companions, thus elevating the status of ordinary soldiers.

Philip did not follow the practice of many of his contemporary generals, who directed battles from a distance, but instead fought alongside his troops—a tactic that gained him the admiration and loyalty of his men but cost him the loss of his right eye during one battle. Much of the land that Philip acquired in his military endeavors was distributed among his followers. The wealth from captured gold and silver mines was used to finance additional military campaigns, to buy favors from foreign diplomats, and to support Philip’s lavish lifestyle, which was legendary, even in his own time.

In 357 b.c.e., Philip moved against Athenian interests by conquering, annexing, and allying with Athens’ territories and allies in northern Greece. As Philip’s power and land holdings grew, so did the fear of the citizens in Athens, and fierce debates arose about Philip and his intentions. Isocrates, a prominent Athenian orator, published the Philippus (346 b.c.e.; English translation, 1927), in which he called on Philip to do the one thing that the Greeks could not do for themselves: unite Greece and bring an end to generations of infighting among the Greek city-states. Isocrates even proposed that Philip lead a united Greco-Macedonian campaign against their mutual archrivals, the Persians.

An assassin attacks Philip II of Macedonia.

(F. R. Niglutsch)

A fellow Athenian, Demosthenes, strongly disagreed, and in a series of speeches known as the Philippics (344 b.c.e.; The Philippics of Demosthenes, 1875), he denounced Philip as a threat to Greece and warned the Greek city-states against negotiating for peace with Philip. Demosthenes went so far as to appeal to Persia to unite with Greece against Philip, but before that alliance was realized, Philip moved against both Thebes and Athens. The pivotal battle was played out at Chaeronea in 338, with Demosthenes and Philip both engaged in the fighting, and Philip’s sixteen-year-old son, Alexander III (later the Great), heading up the elite Macedonian cavalry. The Greek forces were no match for the superior Macedonian troops, and Philip achieved his dream of conquering Greece.

Philip immediately established garrisons across Greece to enforce his dominion and set himself up as hegemon (leader) of the Greek city-states. With his typical flair for diplomacy, Philip made it clear that his intention was to allow the Greeks a large measure of domestic self-rule, as long as the Greeks joined the Macedonians in what was, by this time, Philip’s ultimate goal—to conquer the great Persian Empire to the east. In 336 b.c.e., Philip sent an expedition force to Asia Minor to begin his conquest of the longtime rival.

Back at home in Aegae (now Vergina), the Macedonian capital, domestic rivalries were undermining Philip’s aspirations for a successful campaign against Persia. Philip, a blatant polygamist, had taken a seventh wife, Cleopatra, but this time he ventured so far as to place his new wife in a position of status above that of his first wife and queen, Olympias, the mother of his son, Alexander. When Cleopatra became pregnant, Olympias feared a new son might usurp Alexander’s right to the throne. Olympias left the royal palace in anger, and Alexander was forced into exile. The new child turned out to be a girl, and an uneasy reconciliation was made between Philip and Alexander.

In the autumn of 336 b.c.e., while participating in a procession in celebration of his daughter’s marriage, Philip was attacked and killed by a disgruntled bodyguard. Sources differ as to whether this was the act of a lone assassin or part of a larger plot perhaps spearheaded by Olympias. Historians generally exonerate Alexander in his father’s assassination, however, citing Philip’s favorable treatment and training of the young Alexander, which indicates that Philip was preparing Alexander to take the throne of Macedonia.

Philip left a powerful legacy for the twenty-year-old Alexander: He left the best trained and best equipped military machine of the era, a united Greece and Macedonia, vast wealth from silver and gold mines, and the vision of conquering Persia, the greatest empire the world had yet known. Alexander took this legacy and, within twelve years, fulfilled Philip’s dream.


Through creative diplomacy and military genius, Philip II transformed Macedonia from a backward group of warring clans into the first large-scale unified state on the continent of Europe. By conquering and uniting with Greece, Philip set the stage for his son, Alexander III (later Alexander the Great), to amass one of the greatest empires in history.

Further Reading

  • Borza, Eugene N. Before Alexander: Constructing Early Macedonia. Publications of the Association of Ancient Historians 6. Claremont, Calif.: Regina Books, 1999. An excellent update on recent scholarship on Philip II and early Macedonia.
  • Borza, Eugene N. In the Shadow of Olympus: The Emergence of Macedon. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1990. Macedonian history until Philip II.
  • Ellis, J. R. Philip II and Macedonian Imperialism. London: Thames and Hudson, 1976. The career of Philip II from the Macedonian viewpoint.
  • Errington, R. M. A History of Macedonia. Translated by Caroline Errington. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990. A detailed history including good analyses of ancient sources.
  • Green, Peter. Alexander of Macedon, 356-323 b.c.
    Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991. Begins with an excellent chapter on Philip II, which, although based on sound scholarship, reads like a historical novel.
  • Hammond, N. G. L. The Macedonian State: Origins, Institutions, and History. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1989. A useful overview of traditional Macedonian scholarship for the general audience.
  • Roisman, Joseph, ed. “The Macedonian Background: Macedonia, Philip II, and Alexander.” In Alexander the Great: Ancient and Modern Perspectives. Lexington, Mass.: D.C. Heath, 1995. Excerpts from the ancient writers Arrian, Diodorus, and Plutarch, as well as contemporary scholars A. B. Bosworth and Stanley M. Burstein.

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