Demosthenes/Chapter 2

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The name of Macedon, though it is heard of from time to time in Greek history, can hardly be said to have become really famous till the fourth century B.C. and the reign of Philip. It could never have occurred to the mind of a Greek that this outlying northern kingdom might possibly one day be formidable to Greece and its freedom. There were no signs pointing in this direction; and it may be fairly assumed that no political sagacity could have foreseen such a result. The Macedonians were always looked upon by the Greeks as barbarians, although their royal family—Temenids, as they were called, from their legendary ancestor, Temenus—came from Argos, and the people themselves perhaps had some distant affinity to the Hellenic race. For a long period they were nothing better than a collection of rude tribes, with scarcely any cohesion or organisation, and before the disciplined army of a Greek state they would have been utterly powerless. They were surrounded, too, by fierce and unquiet neighbours—Illyrians to the west, Pæonians to the north, Thracians to the east,—all savage, warlike peoples, whom they could only just hold in check. The country, indeed, with its rivers and rich valleys and strips of seaboard, had natural advantages which a vigorous prince with organising capacity might develop; and this was partially done by Archelaus, who reigned from 413 B.C. to 399. He was a man of great energy, and he may he said to have put Macedon in the way to become a flourishing and powerful kingdom. According to Thucydides,[1] he had roads constructed, fortresses erected, and established a standing army on a greater scale than any of his predecessors had kept up. Probably the last years of the Peloponnesian war, which were so disastrous to Athens, were favourable to Macedon, and enabled it to acquire an influence on the northern coasts of the Ægean, which previously Athens had possessed. Still, no doubt Archelaus deserves the credit of having steadily applied himself to the work of strengthening and consolidating his kingdom. At the same time, he did his best to civilise his people, and to bring them into connection with the Greek world. He cultivated the friendship of Athens, and sought to introduce its literature and art. He established a grand periodical festival on the Greek type, with all the humanising adjuncts of music and poetry. The great poet Euripides visited his court at his special invitation, and was treated with such favour and respect that he remained there till his death. The philosopher Socrates was invited, but it appears that he declined the honour. The famous painter, Zeuxis of Heracleia, was one of the king's guests, and he was employed to adorn with pictures the royal palace at Pella, the new capital of Macedonia. In fact, Archelaus was an enlightened despot; and though he could not eradicate barbarism and make Macedonians into Greeks, he at least gave the higher class a varnish of Greek civilisation and culture.

It was not unusual for the kings of Macedon to perish by the hands of conspirators and assassins, and this was the fate of Archelaus. The dynasty was now changed; and after a few years of disturbance, Amyntas, the father of Philip, became king in 394 B.C. His reign was not a prosperous one, Macedonia went back, and its very existence as an independent kingdom was in jeopardy. According to one account, Amyntas was obliged to surrender Philip as a hostage to the Illyrians, who were then particularly troublesome. He left his kingdom at his death, in 370 B.C., in an almost desperate plight. The succession to the throne was disputed, and the enemies on the border were as formidable as ever. Macedon, indeed, seemed on the eve of being wholly extinguished. The eldest son and successor of Amyntas, Alexander, was murdered; and shortly afterwards the Theban Pelopidas was invited into the country by the friends of the royal family, with the view probably of securing the throne for the two younger brothers, Perdiccas and Philip. Pelopidas, it seems, forced on Macedonia the adoption of this arrangement, and took Philip with him to Thebes, as a hostage for its being faithfully carried out. Philip passed three years at Thebes, while his brother Perdiccas was king. He then, in 368 B.C., was intrusted with the government of a portion of Macedonia under Perdiccas, and employed his time in equipping and organising some troops. His brother's reign had a disastrous termination. He was defeated with heavy loss by the Illyrians, and died soon afterwards. And so Philip, now twenty-three years of age, became king of Macedon in 359 B.C., there being only an infant son of Perdiccas whose claim to the throne it was not difficult, under the circumstances, to set aside with the national approval.

No prince could have begun his reign with gloomier prospects than the future conqueror of Greece. He was encompassed by enemies. There were other claimants of the throne—one of these being Argæus who was supported by Athens. He thus had to fear attack from barbarian neighbours by land, and from Athenian fleets by sea. The hostile attitude of the Athenians was determined by their very prudent desire to recover the important position of Amphipolis at the mouth of the Strymon. To Athens the possession of this place was of the utmost value, as it was the key to a region rich in gold and silver mines, as well as in forest-timber. To this the people had an eye, in supporting the pretensions of Argæus to the throne of Macedon against Philip. The king, however, met them promptly, and won a victory over a little force which they had sent to Methone on the Macedonian coast of the Gulf of Thermæ. He took some Athenian citizens prisoners; but as he was anxious to conciliate Athens, he treated them with marked respect, and allowed them at once to return. He then made peace with Athens, and waived all claim to Amphipolis, in which his predecessor had placed a Macedonian garrison. The city was now left to itself; and the Athenians, had they been wise, would have spared no effort to secure it. As it was, they let slip a golden opportunity of regaining a position which might have been in their hands a barrier against the growing power of Macedon, and would have certainly enabled them to maintain their maritime supremacy on the Ægean.

Philip meanwhile, having freed himself for the present from the fear of Athens, was at liberty to fence off his kingdom from the attacks of its land enemies. He had already organised something of a military force, and with this he prepared to strike a decisive blow at the Illyrian, Pæonian, and Thracian tribes, which were perpetually crossing the Macedonian frontier in plundering expeditions. It seems that these tribes, which were scattered over what are now the provinces of Bosnia, Servia, and Albania, were at this time being pushed south wards by a great movement of the Gauls. The Illyrians were Macedon's most dangerous neighbours, and they had inflicted many a disastrous defeat on Philip's predecessors. Now they were at the height of their power, and were united for purposes of war under a chief named Bardylis, an able leader and a brave warrior. Philip, after thoroughly vanquishing the Pæonians, which he seems to have done easily, turned his arms against the more formidable Illyrians, and attacked them in western Macedonia, which they had invaded. He won a hard-fought battle, chiefly through the efficiency of his cavalry. The Illyrian army was utterly discomfited, and their chief was glad to make peace, and cede whatever portions of Macedonia he had conquered and occupied. The result of this victory was, that the Macedonian frontier was pushed to the lake Lychnitis (now Okridha), and was made far more secure than it had hitherto been, by the occupation of mountain-passes through which the Illyrian invaders used to pour into Macedonia.

The famous phalanx, which we connect specially with the names of Macedon and Philip and Alexander, is said to have taken part in this battle. Philip has been credited with this military invention; but, in truth, he can be said only to have introduced it. He may have considerably modified it, but it had always been an important element in a Greek army. It was the great Epameinondas of Thebes who seems to have first organised it in its most powerful and effective form. He, in fact, it was who brought the science of war to the highest perfection hitherto known in Greece. Philip, during his residence as a young man in Thebes, may well have had opportunities of personal intercourse with this illustrious general, and have derived from him many profitable hints and suggestions. At all events, he had daily under his eyes the magnificent soldiers who had fought and conquered at Leuctra. His first military ideas were thus drawn from the best of all schools, and we may well suppose that a deep impression was at the same time made on his young imagination. He would soon see that the barbarous enemies of Macedon would never be able to stand against really well-trained troops. He had also at Thebes the literary and philosophical teaching which often lays the foundation of able statesmanship. Possibly he may have made the acquaintance of Plato, and there is certainly ground for believing that the philosopher conceived a high opinion of his ability. Nor is it unlikely that he may also at this time have had his admiration directed by some circumstance to Aristotle, whom he afterwards made the tutor of the young Alexander. It is certain that he became imbued with some amount of Greek culture, and that he acquired the power of speaking and writing the language almost as well as a professed orator or rhetorician. He liked to look on himself, and to be regarded by others, as thoroughly a Greek; and this it was, no doubt, which inclined him to be always considerate towards Athens, as the foremost state of Greece. Perhaps he was not too young, before he left Thebes, to imbibe some political notions. In such a city he would at least have a good opportunity of getting an insight into the character of Greek politics, and he might have early learnt some of those weak points in Greece which his adroitness subsequently enabled him to turn to such profitable account.

Philip, after his victories over the Illyrians and Pæonians, which for a time at least made Macedonia secure on the land side, still reigned over a poor and half-barbarous kingdom. He had much to do before he could hope to become a considerable power in the Greek world. As yet, he did not possess a single town on the coast. He had, as we have seen, given up Amphipolis to please the Athenians. He must have been surprised to find that they did not make haste to recover that important place. But they committed the blunder, and allowed the people of Amphipolis to remain their own masters. Soon afterwards, in 358 B.C., Philip thought he might as well possess himself of it; and when the inhabitants refused to surrender, he laid siege to the city. Envoys were sent to Athens, asking for help; but it is possible that at this crisis the war with the allies had just begun, and that the Athenians may have thus found themselves fully occupied. Philip, too, promised them in a very civil letter that he would put them in possession of it as soon as he had taken it. The Athenians did nothing, though it could not have been very difficult for them to have saved the place and secured it for themselves. This was indeed shortsighted, as they now again had an opportunity of securing a commanding position, and of nipping Philip's power in the bud. It was one of those errors which can never be retrieved. Athens lost prestige, as well as a most useful dependency. When Philip took the city, Olynthus, which was not far distant, and was at the head of a group of Greek townships in the peninsula of Chalcidice, was seriously alarmed, and proposed an alliance to Athens. The offer was rejected, as the Athenians, it seems, still wished to look on Philip as their friend, and were persuaded to trust his promises. The cunning prince contrived not only to buy off the hostility of Olynthus, but actually to win its friendship and to become its ally by the cession of a disputed strip of territory near Thessalonica. The next thing he did was to venture on an openly hostile act against Athens by conquering and wresting from her a most important possession, the city of Potidæa, on the gulf of Thermæ. This, too, he gave up to the Olynthians. Pydna, also, on the shore of the same gulf, opposite to Potidæa, likewise an Athenian possession, fell into his hands through internal treachery; and Athens, it appears, made no effort to save the place. Thus, in a single year, 358 B.C., Philip gained three most valuable positions on the coast, and a severe shock was given to Athenian influence in the north of the Ægean. He had hitherto been poor; now he had the means of raising an ample revenue. Master of Amphipolis, he had free access to the gold region in the neighbourhood east of the Strymon. Here he founded the city which we know by the familiar name of Philippi. He had now a well-organised army, and he was able to maintain it. In little more than two years he had immensely increased the strength and resources of his kingdom. But it was not till six years afterwards that Macedon was felt to be a distinct menace to the Greek world.

  1. Thucydides, ii. 100.