Every so often we unchain our editorial team from the rowing benches, allow them to stow their oars and dish out some bread and water. The more dedicated among them use this respite to write us some blog posts. So, welcome Tom Owen-Evans with the first of a three part blog on Philip II of Macedon, who has been overshadowed by his more famous son...

Philip II of Macedon

History has not been kind to Philip. It has invariable favoured his more famous son Alexander the Great, whose conquest of Asia captured the imaginations of the ancient writers from whom our accounts of Classical Greece predominantly derive. Consequently our own fascination with Alexander, some 2,400 years later, is still very strong, while Philip II of Macedon resides in history’s shadow. It has become almost fashionable in recent years to compare the exploits of the father with that of the son and many of these accounts find the former wanting – but if Alexander is taken out of the equation, how does Philip II measure up? Ancient writers did not agree – Demosthenes of Athens, perhaps Philip’s most vocal critic, described him as nothing more than ‘a pestilent knave’[1] while Diodorus Sicilius declares him ’the greatest of kings in Europe in his time’.[2] So which Philip should we remember?

As a case study, Philip’s short 24-year reign offers a wealth of information for the military enthusiast and historian alike. His contributions to the history of warfare are numerous indeed. For example, he was one of the first generals in history to successfully establish a functional and lasting system for the gathering and implementation of intelligence to support his armed forces in the field and on campaign, and his establishment of an engineering corps in 350 BC led to the creation of the world’s first torsion catapult. However, the focus of this blog will be on what are, in my view, Philip’s greatest military accomplishments – his military reforms to the Macedonian army, the revolutionary tactics he developed in conjunction to them and finally looking at his ability to wage war through alternate means.

Within the very first year of his reign (359 BC) Philip set into motion a series of reforms that would permanently alter the face of warfare in Classical Greece. Traditionally, the hoplite armies of the Aegean waged war in a set fashion, often with large forces simply roaming the countryside in search of one another. When battle was joined, they invariably favoured a full-frontal assault until one side, usually the smaller, capitulated.[3] Physical combat was cumbersome and tiring due to the heavy weight of hoplite armour and the intense heat of Greek summer.[4] Philip turned this form of warfare on its head. Beginning with the Macedonian Phalanx, he reconstructed its composition from scratch, replacing the Greek spear with the much longer, 14-to-18 foot, two-handed sarissa. The additional length of this weapon gave the Macedonian infantry an immediate tactical advantage over the Greek hoplite as it negated their ability to engage in the close quarter combat.  In addition Philip did away with the heavy bronze cuirass and hoplon (shield), instead favouring the much lighter leather breastplate, greaves, helmet and a tassel around the waist.[5] The reduction in weight meant that the Macedonian Phalanx was far more manoeuvrable on the field of battle than their respective Greek counterparts and able to cover greater distances on the march.[6] Each phalanx was intended to be 16 men deep and could be as wide as 128 men in total; as the unit approached an enemy line its soldiers in the first five rows would lower their sarissas and engage whilst the remaining ranks held their weapons in the close order, or pyknosis, position to fend off attacks from archers, slingers and other projectiles.[7] This gave the Macedonians yet another distinct advantage over the Greek hoplites who could only engage an enemy with their first three ranks at any given time. Writing in the second century BC Polybius chillingly remarked that to stand against the Macedonian Phalanx was to stand against a ‘storm of spears’.[8]

Weapons and armour were not enough on their own so, to strengthen his infantry further, Philip devised a series of innovative tactical reforms. Each unit was trained to adopt flexible formations depending on the type of terrain in which they fought, and the enemy they faced. To achieve this Philip kept his infantry in almost constant training, sending them on long marches across Macedonia’s rough northern terrain for up to 40 miles in a single day. When battle was engaged, his phalanxes were often deployed in an oblique formation, either leading from the left or right. This subtle process of denying an enemy your flank would result in the natural creation of gaps in their lines. A gap which Philip’s infantry reserves or cavalry would then exploit with deadly results.  Indeed, Philip can be attributed as one of the first generals from antiquity to not commit all of his forces from the outset, as traditionally, once a battle had begun, a general would lose control over proceedings due to a lack of reserves.  

[1] Demosthenes, Demosthenes with an English translation by J. H. Vince, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann, 1930. Philippic, 3.30-31.

[2] Diodorus Sicilius, Library of History Book XVII translated by C. Bradford Welles in the Loeb Classical Library Volume III, Harvard University Press: London, 1963, p.103.

[3] Partha Bose, Alexander the Great Art of Strategy: Lessons from the Great Empire Builder, London: Profile Books, 2004, p.50.

[4]Ian Worthington, By the Spear: Philip II, Alexander the Great, and the Rise and Fall of the Macedonian Empire, Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2015, p.32.

[5]N. G. L. Hammond, “Training in the Use of the Sarissa and Its Effect in Battle, 359-333 B.C” Antichthon 14, 1980, pp.53-62.

[6] For further reading on the Greek hoplite and the Macedonian infantry see, Waldemar Heckel & Ryan Jones, Macedonian Warrior: Alexander’s Elite Infantryman, Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2006, or Nicholas Sekunda, Greek Hoplite 480-323 BC, Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2000. 

[7] Bose, p.12.

[8] The Cambridge history of warfare edited by Geoffrey Parker, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005, p.33.