A visitor to Mieza, a small site at the foot of Mount Bermion, in 343 BCE would have first admired the breathtaking beauty of the landscape: tree-covered slopes, streams of clear water and a series of grottoes on the face of a rock wall. It was the beauty of this location that had inspired the inhabitants to believe that it was a dwelling place of nymphs, a Nymphaion.
Our imaginary visitor would have been surprised to see that the nymphs had received male company in a nearby gymnasium: a bearded teacher in his early forties and a group of teenagers and young men engaged in discussions about poetry, geography, myth and natural phenomena. Never would our imaginary visitor have thought that the people gathered in this idyllic place were destined to make a lasting impact on world history. One of these men, Aristotle, would lay the foundations of western philosophy and science; no other individual until Descartes was to exercise a stronger influence on European thought. He had been assigned by the Macedonian king, Philip, to educate his son Alexander and the offspring of the kingdom’s elite. Aristotle’s nephew, Kallisthenes, in his late twenties, was to write an influential history of Alexander that would later inspire the “Alexander Romance”, a true best-seller from Late Antiquity to the early modern period that circulated in Greek, Latin, Syrian, Armenian and Slavonic adaptations. Alexander, thirteen years old, would launch less than ten years later a military campaign in Asia and Egypt that would change the face of the known world; eleven years on, he would found Alexandria, a city destined to overshadow all other cities of the eastern Mediterranean in wealth, population size and culture. In this city, Ptolemy, another teenager, was to establish a dynasty that surpassed any other known dynasty of the ancient world in longevity; but more importantly, he would found the greatest center of learning the world had ever known: the Mouseion, with its famous library.
Such constellations of extraordinary personalities present in the same place at the same time are uncommon in history. If they occur when the demand for change is strong, great things may happen, as during the Renaissance, the Enlightenment or the French Revolution. In 343 BCE, demand for change was strong in Greece. A new military and political power had emerged in on the fringes of the Greek world, ready to challenge the great Persian Empire in the East. This power were the Macedonians (Makedones), ruled by King Philip II. The Makedones were a tribe with a Greek name, which probably meant ‘the Highlanders’. They worshipped Greek gods, the Olympian Zeus in particular. Their most important settlements bore Greek names: Dion, ‘the sanctuary of Zeus’, and Aigai, ‘the place of goats’. Their personal names had Greek etymologies: Philippos, ‘the one who loves horses’; Ptolemaios, ‘the warlike’; Perdikkas, ‘the partridge’; Amyntas, ‘the defender’; Alexandros, ‘the one who wards off men’; Berenike, ‘the woman who brings victory’; Kleopatra, ‘the daughter of a glorious father’; Archelaos, ‘leader of the army’. And they spoke a Greek dialect. What distinguished them from the Greeks of mainland Greece and the colonies was not so much their dialect – probably as hard to understand for an Athenian as the English of the Deep South for an Oxford don – as their way of life. Until the fifth century BCE, they were mainly pastoralists living in small settlements, although they did have close cultural contacts with the rest of the Greeks. Unlike the Greeks of the south, who had abolished hereditary monarchy before the sixth century BCE – Sparta’s dual kingship is an exception – they were ruled by kings. The distinction that is sometimes made in public documents between ‘the Hellenes and the Makedones’ is not based on ethnicity but refers to different forms of communal organization.
Until the beginning of the fourth century BCE, the Macedonians lived in the shadow of the Achaemenid kings of Persia and then of Athens. King Archelaos (413–399 BCE) invigorated the kingdom, advancing urban life and culture; it was in his court that Euripides composed his Bacchae. But the most radical changes occurred when in 359 BCE Philip II became king. In the twenty-five years of his rule, he transformed Macedonia and the entire Greek world as dramatically as his son Alexander would later transform the rest of the known world. Recent archaeological research in Macedonia has shown, his remarkable achievements. A military genius, a shrewd diplomat, a great organizer, skilled at propaganda and with unlimited ambition, Philip II deserves the epithet ‘the Great’ no less than his son. Having spent some years of his youth as a hostage in Thebes, Philip had learned the new tactic of the “oblique phalanx” and improved it. He equipped his infantry with a long spear that protected five rows of soldiers and was lowered in unison. His military victories over the years, which enlarged his kingdom, were accompanied by administrative measures. The offspring of his noblemen were educated under the supervision of the court, cities were founded, the natural resources of the new territories – timber and silver – were exploited for the construction of a fleet, and land was granted to soldiers in exchange for military service.
That Philip invited Aristotle, a rising star in philosophy and science, to educate his son, who seemed to be a suitable successor, shows that Philip was more than a man of action. His recently excavated palace at Aigai (modern Vergina) reveals ideological sophistication. One of the courts was decorated with an emblematic theme, Zeus abducting the Phoenician princess Europa. Contemporary viewers would have recognized an allusion to the conflict between Europe and Asia. Herodotus begins his narrative of the Persian Wars with a reference to this myth in order to explain how the continual conflicts between Greeks and barbarians began. Philip was consciously preparing the Greeks for the next step in their conflict with the then weakened Persian Empire: a renewed campaign against Asia, under his command. While Philip’s palace was being built and decorated, an Athenian intellectual, Isocrates, was urging him in an open letter in 346 BCE ‘to champion the cause of concord among the Hellenes and of a campaign against the barbarian’: that is, against the Persian Empire.
In order to achieve his plan to invade the Persian Empire, Philip gradually secured a network of support, which culminated in the creation of an alliance in 337 BCE, his most ingenious diplomatic move. After having defeated the allied troops of Athenians and Boiotians in the Battle of Chaironeia in 338 BCE, instead of destroying his defeated enemies, Philip invited them to a conference – one of his unexpected and ingenious diplomatic moves. The location was chosen carefully: Corinth. In the place where a narrow corridor of land joins central Greece with the Peloponnese was a sanctuary of Poseidon, the locus of one of the four traditional Panhellenic athletic festivals. More importantly, Corinth was the place where the Greeks had first agreed on an alliance against the Persians in 480 BCE. It was this Corinthian Alliance that defeated Xerxes at Salamis in 480 BCE. Philip reminded the Greeks that they could defeat the Persians and protect their freedom only if they were united; and he reminded them of their duty to liberate the Greek cities of Asia Minor from Persian rule, as they had done in 478 BCE. With the exception of Sparta and Epirus, most Greek cities and federations accepted the invitation. The delegates concluded a peace treaty guaranteeing what the Greeks valued most: their independence, exemption from tribute and freedom from garrisons. Those who swore the oath of the treaty obliged themselves to maintain the peace and not to attempt to overthrow the constitution of the members or the royal rule of Philip and his successors. The members of the alliance were represented in a council, presumably in proportion to the size of their population or their troops; small communities may have shared a delegate. In case of conflicts between members, the council functioned as a court of arbitration. An attack against the territory or the constitution of a member obliged the other members to declare war against the assailant. The alliance elected a leader who had command of the military in the event of war and determined the size of the contingents to be dispatched by each ally. As expected, Philip was elected supreme commander and mobilized the Greeks in a war against the Persians. His ultimate aims were probably to expand his realm, liberate the Greek cities of Asia Minor from Persian rule and incorporate them into his alliance; he probably did not intend to destroy the Persian Empire. Although many details of this treaty escape us, its influence on future history was substantial.
At the height of his power, on the day that Philip was celebrating the wedding of his daughter Cleopatra in the theatre of Aigai, he was murdered by one of his bodyguards. Only minutes before the murder, images of the Twelve Gods had been carried into the theatre in procession, accompanied by a thirteenth image of Philip himself. With this image Philip assimilated his worldly power with that of the gods. Many Greeks would have regarded this as insolence, hubris, and his death as divine punishment. Indeed, the fact that his murder took place in the theatre was tragic irony. Audiences went to the theatre to see how the hubris of mythical heroes was punished without delay by the gods. This is precisely the spectacle that fate offered to the audience gathered in the theatre of Aigai on that day. Life imitated art.
Alexander, now twenty years old, succeeded his father. His father had laid the foundations for the campaign against the Persian Empire: a well-organized kingdom, a strong army, and a great alliance. Philip II had prepared the path that brought his son from Macedonia to India in the greatest military campaign that the world had known. This was the entrance of Macedonia into world history.
Professor of Ancient History
Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, USA