Philip II and Macedonian Imperialism

Philip II and Macedonian Imperialism

by John R. Ellis


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691610344
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 07/14/2014
Series: Princeton Legacy Library , #489
Pages: 314
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.80(d)

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Philip II and Macedonian Imperialism

By John R. Ellis


Copyright © 1976 Thames and Hudson
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-00602-4



One is hard pressed to comprehend the lasting forces that shaped the character of the ancient Greek and his polis without a firm appreciation of the geographical and topographical features of his peninsula, features that more perhaps than anything else have borne the responsibility for the comparative continuity of Hellenic society through the ages in the face of immigrations, occupations, political dismemberment and arbitrary reconstruction. But not much less fundamental to the historical processes played out upon this peninsula are the very different characteristics of the southern Balkan region, whence it protrudes into the Mediterranean basin. If the predominating feature in the formation of the peninsular societies was the mountain-ranges that separated and circumscribed them in small inland and coastal spaces, that limited their agrarian capacities and forced many to turn their eyes to the sea for trade and communication, in Macedonia – though the mountains are there too – it was more the extensive, fertile plains carrying large populations of more loosely knit tribal organizations that shaped these frontier-people of the Greek world. The society nurtured on these plains was quite different from those of the bulk of the contemporary Hellenic world, in the fourth century BC still more akin in many ways to the heroic kingdoms of Homeric times.


For formal purposes the king himself was the state; in documents of state his name alone, ungarnished by title and uncomplemented by other executives, stood for Macedonia. (Where the title – King of the Macedonians – was included, which is extremely rare at this period, it seems to have been only when the king was to be represented or addressed as an individual and not as the state.) For example, in the Delphic hieromnemon-lists, by contrast with the delegates of all other Amphiktyonic tribes, whose representation was expressed in the form of ethnics, the Macedonians were styled simply 'those from Philip' or 'those from Alexander'. This however is not to be taken to mean that the king was regarded constitutionally as absolute ruler of the state – for there were certain qualifications to his power – but rather that circumstances had not yet arisen (or were in our period only now beginning to arise) to render inadequate the primitive concept of the king as the personification of the state. With the conquests of Philip, Alexander and the successors, with the dismemberment of the expanded state and with the appearance of several 'Macedonian' armies and several different king-commanders there first grew the pressing need of a more precise definition not only of the state itself but of the status of the king in relation to it. The confusion of the sources during this period of expansion and fragmentation (especially between 334 and the 220s), during which theoretically national rulers acquired extra-national territory to which their claim as conquerors was automatic but which it will not always have been politic to treat as their private property, has given rise to some eccentric, legalistic theories, but these need not detain us here.

The origin of the monarchy is lost in antiquity but there is good reason for likening it to the Germanic chieftainship described by Caesar and Tacitus, involving an elected military commander whose authority in peacetime was initially a function more of his personal standing and strength than of his office. Such systems may have gone back to a common Indo-European root. By the time of the historical period, however, the Macedonian monarchy had evolved and solidified into something more formal but with residual traces of its beginnings. With such a theory in mind, as well as such features as the common informality between king and subject, scholars have often and rightly called the Macedonian ruler primus inter pares, presupposing origins in a system in which power pre-existing in the people is in a sense delegated to the king by acclamation, or election – as opposed to one in which power pre-existing in the person of the king is acclaimed or recognized by the people.

In practical terms the king was leader in all military action unless he cared to commission subordinates to specific commands. He was chief priest, responsible for the religious obligations of the state and its people to their gods. Certain specified cases apart, he was supreme judge. But his power was limited – to an extent that no doubt varied according to the personal auctoritas of the individual monarch – by ancient law or tradition, not necessarily the less real for being oral. In general this must have governed the proprieties of the king's actions with respect to his people and theirs with respect to him. It tended to restrain him from absolutism. In a difficult situation one of Alexander the Great's courtiers – not even a Macedonian – was to remind his leader that Macedonian kings ruled 'not by force but by law' – this in a context where the king, by attempting to enforce on his own subjects the Persian practice of prostration, was in effect seeking to alter the legal (or at least the traditionally proper) relationship between ruler and subject. On the accession of a new king the Macedonians swore to him an oath of allegiance and, if (in the absence of further evidence) we may judge by the similarly constituted, neighbouring Molossian state, this was an undertaking 'to serve (or guard) the kingdom according to the laws', to which the king responded with an oath 'to rule according to the laws'.

There seem to have been two specific limitations on the powers of the ruler: he could not designate his own successor, nor did he have legal jurisdiction in trials for treason, to which he, the state, was a party. As regards the former, the crucial question is whether the act of acclamation (anadeixis) by the army represented a form of selection or merely one of recognition. The aftermath of Alexander's death strongly suggests the former. Although circumstances at that time were complicated by the lack of a clear successor the issue was resolved by an assembly of the whole army – or, rather, the expeditionary army then at Babylon. The leaders had their own various schemes and interests but the army as a whole was prepared and able to go its own way. From the solution itself and from the expressed wishes of the army it is clear that there was a strong and natural preference for the nearest-born; 14 and no doubt under normal circumstances the eldest son always succeeded. But is is also evident that, as in this case where no clear-cut and obvious choice was open, the decision was in the hands of the army, however much it might be influenced by the machinations of the living or the preparations of the dead. Normally, that is, in practice this military power may have amounted to no more than a confirmation of what had been made inevitable by birth and training. But when no suitable prince was available it provided a mechanism for designating a successor from outside the immediate family. In the case of a king's death before his eldest son was old enough to rule it may have been normal nevertheless to acclaim the boy king and to appoint a regent-guardian – provided at least that there was not too long an interregnum to fill and that there was a suitable regent offering. But it must have been possible – and in this lies the only real difference between the Macedonian and a truly dynastic system – when extremely difficult circumstances made it imperative to find a successor mature enough and of sufficiently regal stature to command the kingdom's loyalty from the outset, to by-pass the natural recipient. As in the case of Philip II's accession this will have been an easier decision when the alternative to a very young son was a mature brother of the deceased.

With respect to the jurisdiction of treason-cases, the king, through his personal authority and through the role he chose to play in the proceedings, might influence the decision, even practically put it beyond doubt; but the judgement was not his. Obviously enough, he might investigate and prosecute a case of treason; as the state in person he was automatically, one would imagine, the plaintiff. But, as with the Roman Republican tradition described by Polybios, he (like the Senate) was responsible for the 'public investigation while the people or the army (in Rome's case, the military assembly of centuries) was the sole judge. In peacetime, according to Curtius, this function of the army was discharged by 'the people'. While we can scarcely believe that in a country so dispersed as Macedonia any meaningful assembly of the people could be convened, we may perhaps take it that the reference is to the army organization when not actually under arms. As we shall see, it seems likely that no other national institution existed in any case.


Around the king stood his people. In the military context, virtually the only one surviving, they appear to have been his Companions (hetairoi), the common soldiers and certain others referred to as the Macedonians of the camp – possibly analogous to the Roman capite censi (i.e. citizens without property) and probably indigenous and enslaved subjects, serving as menials and camp-followers.

Unfortunately, the term hetairoi seems to have been used somewhat vaguely. It applied, for example, to a certain element of the army: the Companion Cavalry (or simply 'the Companions'). Near the beginning of Alexander's reign these must have numbered 3,300 or more, in as many as fourteen territorial divisions plus a so-called Royal Squadron. But only a few years earlier it could be said by Theopompos that the hetairoi were no more in number than 800, that they owned large estates ('no less land than 10,000 of the richest Greeks with the largest estates') and that they included not only Macedonians but Thessalians and others from elsewhere in Greece. They were distinguished – or they should have been, according to this most jaundiced of authors, who thought they were not – by their excellence. These were 'the Companions of the King', or 'the Companions of Philip.' The word thus seems to have a narrower and a broader sense – or perhaps a social and a military sense; from the noble, large-landowning class, whose heads of families were the king's barons, came also (from its younger men, the sons and close retainers) the heavy cavalry force of the army. From the former came also the experienced commanders and administrators, a pool of talent on which the king drew for appointment to responsible positions. It – or part of it – formed as well an inner circle, a council of elders who might advise the king and served as his personal retainers, very like the Homeric hetairoi or the comitatus in Tacitus' Germania. It was a class which lived, fought and drank hard, which hunted and feasted for relaxation and whose interests – since, like those of the Spartans, its estates were tended by serfs – were primarily fostered by war. During Philip's reign the hetairoi seem to have been swollen by numbers of new men, even non-Macedonians, whose status, conferred by the king, was confirmed by grants of land from conquered territories.


The soldier-class, presumably the smaller landowners (in practice, perhaps, the remainder of the Macedonian citizenry), might serve the king as infantry – either in the regionally levied Foot-Companions (pezetairoi), in the elite corps of Shieldbearers (hypaspistai) or as light cavalry (prodromoi = scouts, or sarissophoroi = lancers). In 334 the infantry component of the Macedonians under arms, both in Alexander's expeditionary force and in the home guard under Antipatros, was 30,000 or more, which included the 3000-strong Hypaspists (the Royal Bodyguard) and perhaps a total of twelve to fourteen territorial divisions of Foot-Companions. The light cavalry were small in number; only 1000 or fewer seem to have served in the expeditionary army.


Of the lowest class we know even less. There must certainly have been a substantial body of sub-citizens, increased hugely by the conconquests of Philip, serfs like the Spartan helotai and the Thessalian penestai, whose labours on the land made economically and socially possible the operation of large citizen armies over long periods. It will have been from this element and perhaps from lower citizen groups with particular non-fighting skills that the groomsmen, servants, wagon-drivers, labourers and camp-followers in general were levied.


These four divisions within Macedonian society are presented to us almost exclusively in a military context by sources whose interest in the kingdom, outside that in the king and his more immediate retainers, was exclusively in its military achievements. But, even allowing for this bias, it is surprising that we learn almost nothing of other aspects of this society. Perhaps in institutional terms there was no other aspect. Military service was a part of the citizen's obligation to his state – which is to say, to his king. The oath of allegiance, whatever its form, in all likelihood embraced this. But other liturgies were owed by people to state. After the battle at the Granikos in 334, Alexander buried the dead and to the surviving parents and children of the Macedonians he granted remission from three forms of liturgy: personal service (presumably the military obligation) and two taxes, apparently local and national. Taxes had to be collected, and this was probably effected in local administrative districts coinciding with the regional divisions in which troops were levied. In Lower Macedonia, since the time of Archelaos, such towns as Pella, Mieza, Aigai, Beroia, Alkomenai, Pydna and Aloros and, in the territories annexed by Philip, such towns as Amphipolis functioned as regional centres. In Upper Macedonia, where the population was less concentrated, the administrative system was grafted on to the indigenous structures in the tribal principalities, Orestis, Eordaia, Tymphaia, etc.

But there is no sign of any administrative class or of state officials other than the military-officer element, which raises the presumption that even in the regionalized post-Archelaos system the whole country and all its districts were administered through the military hierarchy – a 'civil' organization which drew its executives from the parallel military structure and took its orders, like the army, ultimately from the top, the king-commander-state. Thus when Alexander remitted what appear to be military and civil obligations they both fell in reality under the same military heading.


Such was the basis of the tough, rugged and bellicose society forming an effective shield across the top of the Greek peninsula. It was a frontier society preoccupied with the survivalist concerns of a people obliged to defend a land of relative plenty against pressures from the massive tablelands and the precipitous valleys to the north. Its own frontiers were extremely long, like 'a great circle, the southeastern segment of which is filled by the Aegean Sea,' and they had to be carved out and maintained by the sword and the spear.

The western border at Philip's death – to establish the mise-en-scène of his reign – was formed by the high, rugged Pindos range and its outriders Mt Petrino running between the Lychnitis and Prespa lakes, and Mt Touria, farther north. The Pindos divides the major part of the Hellenic peninsula in half, into a northeast and a southwest, and level with the top of the Aegean it separated the Macedonians from their kin, the Epeirotes, on the Ionian Sea. From its northwestern extremity the border ran eastwards by Mt Babouna and the northern limits of the Erigon river plain, turning farther northwards as far as Stoboi, at the confluence of the Erigon and the upper Axios, farther eastwards via Mt Messapion and after crossing the Strymon it followed the southeasterly line of Mt Orbelos and thence across to the Nestos, which formed the eastern frontier. The southern limits were defined by the Aegean coastline, including the peninsula of the Chalkidike, as far south as Mt Olympos and the mouth of the Peneios.


Excerpted from Philip II and Macedonian Imperialism by John R. Ellis. Copyright © 1976 Thames and Hudson. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

  • FrontMatter, pg. 1
  • Contents, pg. 5
  • Preface, pg. 6
  • The Chronology of Philip's Reign, pg. 14
  • Chapter I. Macedonia: People, Landscape and Tradition, pg. 21
  • Chapter II. 359-357 The Athenian Alignment, pg. 45
  • Chapter II. 359-357 The Athenian Alignment, pg. 66
  • Chapter IV. 351-346 Towards a Greek Settlement, pg. 90
  • Chapter V. 346-342 The Uneasy Peace, pg. 125
  • Chapter VI. 342-340 Breakdown, pg. 160
  • Chapter VII. 340-337 The Second Greek Settlement, pg. 181
  • Chapter VIII. 337-336 Philip, Alexander and Persia, pg. 211
  • Appendix, pg. 235
  • Select Bibliography, pg. 240
  • Notes, pg. 245
  • Select Index, pg. 309

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