How did Phillip II of Macedon change Ancient Greek history?

A modern statue of Phillip II

Alexander the Great is one of the most famous men in history. However, it is generally recognized that Alexander’s achievements would have been impossible without his father, Philip II of Macedon, who reigned from 359 to 336 B.C. He is not as well-known as his son but he laid the foundations for the great Empire of Alexander. Phillip was a great soldier and statesman and he transformed Macedonia and turned it into a well-run state. He also established a professional army that employed innovative military tactics. Phillip also established an Empire in the Northern Balkans and most importantly he subjugated the Greek City-States. Phillip conquered Greece and it was to remain under the influence of Macedonia, for almost two hundred years, until the Roman conquest. Phillip II changed the history of Ancient Greece and allowed the rise of his son Alexander the Great.


Macedonia was a small kingdom to the north of Greece. Unlike the rest of Greece, it was rather backward and it did not have any major urban centers. The country’s economy was based on pastoral farming and many Macedonians were semi-nomadic pastoralists. The Macedonian nobility and population measured their wealth in the number of horses and livestock, they owned. The kingdom was regularly shaken by civil wars between the kings and the nobles. The kings of Macedonia were rarely in full control of the kingdom and often the powerful local lords acted as semi-independent rulers. Macedonia was very vulnerable to invasions. It was regularly invaded by its neighbors, including the Celts, Scythian, and Thracians.

The kingdom was never a significant player in the politics of Greece and had been conquered by Darius during the Second Persian Invasion. Many of Phillip II critics claimed that the Macedonians were not really Greeks and implied that they were non-Greeks or ‘barbarians’ [1]. The vast majority of scholars today believe that the Macedonians were Greeks and they had originated from North-East Greece and had expanded into the Modern Republic of Macedonia. Evidence of their ‘Greekness’ is in the fact that they worshiped the same Pantheon of Gods as those worshiped in Sparta and Athens[2]

Life of Phillip II

The tomb of Phillip II

Phillipe was the son of Macedonia's King Amyntas III and his wife, Queen Eurydice. He was born in 383 BCE and his elder brother became king after his father’s death.[3] He was sent as a hostage to Thebes, which was briefly the supreme power in Greece, this was to secure the good behavior of his brother, the king. Later another brother who had become king was able to secure his release. King Peridiccas, Phillip’s brother was killed in an invasion of his kingdom by a powerful Illyrian army. Phillip was appointed regent of his brother’s eldest son, who would be crowned king of Macedonia upon his coming of age. Phillip, although not the king, was the most powerful man in the kingdom.

Phillip proved to be an excellent military leader and diplomat.[4] He first set about re-organizing the Macedonian military. Phillip soon turned the army into a formidable fighting force and he used it at first to defend the kingdom and then he used it to expand the territory of the kingdom.

Macedonia had been forced to concede territory to its neighbors in the recent past and Phillip used the army to retake these territories. He and the new army was able to conquer several new territories and greatly improved the strategic position of the kingdom. This expansion made it less vulnerable to invaders. Phillip was married several times and he had at least seven wives and he formed marriage alliances with many of his neighbors. [5] By 357 BCE Phillip was all powerful and he sidelined his nephew from the succession and had himself crowned as King of Macedonia. After securing his position in Macedonia he turned his attention to the south. He intervened in the Third Sacred War and was able to annex Thebes.

From 357 BCE, he fought a series of wars with the Athenians for control of Thrace and especially rich mines in Amphipolis. Phillip struggled with Athens for control of much of Greece. Phillip II built up a series of alliances with his neighbors and he became even more influential after he managed to defeat a large Scythian army. Phillip controlled much of the Balkans by 340 BCE. Rich mines had been discovered in Macedonia and Phillip used his wealth to bribe his enemies and to purchase allies. The king was able to overcome the resistance of the Athenians and he was able to secure possession of the rich gold mines at Amphipolis. This allowed him to strengthen his kingdom and expand his army and create a navy. The first in Macedonian history. The Greek city-states became very fearful of Macedonian power and they united in an alliance against Phillip II.[6]

The Greek City-States, under the leadership of Thebes, met the army of Phillip at Chaeronea in 338 BCE. Phillip’s new phalanx formation annihilated the Thebans and the rest of the Greek army. [7] This was a great victory for Phillip II and in its wake, he was master of nearly all of Greece. No one had dominated Greece to such an extent and to formalize his control he established the League of Corinth, with himself as its ‘hegamon’ [8]. This was a political-military alliance that effectively subjugated all of Greece to the Macedonian king. Phillip II lost none of his vigor as he aged despite walking with a limp and being blind in one eye. He dreamed of invading and conquering the Persian Empire and had pressurized the Greek City-States to join his proposed invasion army.[9] However, he did not live long enough to invade Persia. During a procession, Phillip II was assassinated by a former friend and bodyguard. Some have claimed that the assassin of Phillip was motivated by a personal grievance. There have long been suspicions that the wife of Phillip II, had been behind the assassination. She was concerned that Phillip II was going to disinherit her son Alexander and that another of Phillip’s sons would be made his heir. Phillip II was only 46 when he was killed.[10]

Military Reforms

A bust of Phillip II

As a young man, Phillip was sent as a hostage to Thebes. At the time, it had the most powerful army in Greece and the Theban army had defeated the once invincible Spartans at the Battle of Leuctra in 373 BCE. Phillip was a shrewd young man and he spent his time in Thebes studying its army and especially the tactics of the renowned Theban commanders Epaminondas and Pelopidas. He also saw how a phalanx could be utilized to drive an enemy from the battlefield. In particular, he studied the famous ‘Theban wedge’ and this was a mass attack over open ground by a phalanx at pace. Phillip was also deeply impressed by the Theban elite force the ‘Sacred Band’ and he was later to model his own elite forces on this unit. Using these experiences, he completely reorganized Macedonia’s army. When he became regent of Macedonia he increased the size of the army and indeed doubled its size. He also greatly expanded the cavalry and trained the army in the latest Theban tactics. He ensured that the Macedonians were well drilled and disciplined. He also made sure that the army was regularly paid and received other benefits and he transformed the army from one, that was a militia of citizen-soldiers to one composed of professional soldiers. He provided his army with uniforms and every soldier gave him an oath of allegiance. Phillip II also established a corps of engineers and they were soon to prove adept at siege warfare.

Phillip learned much from the Thebes but he also introduced his own tactics. He adapted the phalanx and he made it more flexible. He appointed a commander to every phalanx and established a system for communications. The Macedonian King also adapted the equipment of his army. He abandoned the traditional spear and introduced a very long spear, up to twenty feet in length. It meant that the Macedonian phalanx could reach the enemy before they were within reach of their spears. He also equipped every soldier with a short sword, that was ideal for close combat. The army that Phillip II developed was to help him establish an empire. It was this army that allowed him to turn Macedonia from a second-rate power into the major Greek power. It was this army that allowed Alexander to conquer most of the known world[11].

State Building

Phillip was also a state builder. He built the city of Pella and he made it his capital. It was the administrative and cultural center of the kingdom. Phillip used the vast revenues from the gold mines at Amphipolis not only to expand his army but to develop a bureaucracy. To secure his kingdom he held the son of neighboring rulers as his hostages. He also held the sons of many of his nobles as hostages and this secured their loyalty and ensured that Phillip’s was obeyed in all his realm. During his reign, the nobles generally accepted his rule and law and order was established for the first time in the history of the kingdom. This stability and the expansion of the kingdom led to rapid economic growth. Later Alexander when trying to quell a mutiny reminded them how poor Macedonians had been before Phillip became king [12]. Phillip also encouraged urbanization in his kingdom. To secure his own position he established the Royal Pages, an elite unit that secured Phillip’s throne. Phillip’s also introduced fiscal reforms and developed tax—gathering facilities that would be later used by Alexander the Great to finance his campaigns. Perhaps Phillip II’s greatest innovation in Macedonia was that he transformed the notion of kingship in the kingdom. He was an autocrat and was an absolute ruler in his realm. He greatly expanded the power of the Macedonian king. Phillip II greatly weakened the power of the nobles and created a well-run, centralized state.[13]


Phillip not only build a strong and stable state, he also built an empire. He expanded Macedonian territory and influence greatly. He conquered Thrace, Molossia, and Thessaly. This greatly expanded the resources of Macedonia and allowed Phillip to pay for his professional army. His great victory over the Greeks allowed him in the words of Demosthenes his great enemy, ‘to settle the destiny of Hellas.’[14]. Phillip was so powerful that he could impose his own terms on Greece, with the exception of the defiant Spartans. He forced the defeated city-states to enter into the League of Corinth. The League bound the various city-states to Macedonia. They did not have an independent foreign policy and they had to provide military support if requested by the Macedonian monarch. Phillip II also imposed garrisons on key Greek cities. These garrisons ensured that the Greek city states complied with the terms of the League of Corinth. Phillip created a system that ensured that Greece was subjugated to Macedonia and that it was not a threat to it. Phillip II was able to neutralize any threat from Greece for many decades. This allowed Alexander to concentrate on the invasion of Persia, without worrying about the obedience and loyalty of the Greek City-States. The conquest of Greece effectively ended the autonomy of many of the Greek states and they increasingly became cultural and economic backwaters. The Macedonian victory at the Battle of Chaeronea effectively ended the age of the Greek city-states as independent powers and as the center of one of the most remarkable civilizations in western history.[15]


Phillip II was a remarkable ruler and his achievements have been eclipsed by his son, Alexander the Great. He created a strong Macedonian state that was stable and prosperous for many decades. He created a professional army that was arguably the best in the known world and conquered an empire. The army and the state that Phillip II created changed the history of Macedonia and Greece. His successes and policies also laid the foundation for the Macedonian domination of Greece that lasted almost two centuries. Phillip II conquest of Greece marked the end of the era of the Greek city-states and the end of a great period of cultural achievement [16]. He also laid the foundation for the Empire of Alexander the Great and the great Hellenistic monarchies. Phillip II changed the Greek World and paved the way for his more famous son to change World History.


  1. Demosthenes. Philippics. 1 8
  2. . Worthington, Ian. Philip II of Macedonia (Yale: Yale University Press, 2000), p. 13
  3. Lewis, D.M., The Cambridge Ancient History Volume 6: The Fourth Century BC (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press,1994), p 37
  4. Lewis, p. 39
  5. Plutarch, Life of Alexander 1 7
  6. Plutarch, Life of Alexander, 2. 8
  7. Plutarch, Life of Pelopidas. 18
  8. Lewis, p. 45
  9. Plutarch, Life of Alexander, 6
  10. Plutarch, Life of Alexander, 7
  11. Lewis. p 101
  12. Arian. The campaigns of Alexander 8. 5
  13. Worthington, p. 113
  14. Demosthenes, Philippics, 3.10
  15. Lewis, p. 118
  16. Lewis, p 119


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