Tag Archives: Greek history

Good and bad polytheists (part 6): Phillip II and Alexander III


Philip1[1]The 4th century BCE was an age of such decline and decay for the Greeks, that it became difficult for any notable person, whose name is recorded in history, to be considered truly as a good polytheist, except in comparison with bad ones. The huge Peloponnesian War of the preceding century, which had raged for 20 years between Athens and Sparta, resulted from ambitious greed and moral corruption, causing great destruction throughout Greece. This horrible war and dangerous decay was anticipated by the Second Sacred War, a conflict that broke out between Athens and Sparta in 449 BCE, each striving to control the pre-eminent religious sanctuary in Delphi for its own interests. During the middle of the 5th century also, we also see the rise of philosophy in Greece and its defiance to traditional polytheism, most especially in Athens with such characters as Protogoras, Antiphon the Sophist, Hippias, Diagoras of Melos, and to some degree, Socrates and Euripides, among others. The old conflict between the Greeks and the Persians was now forgotten as the Greek city-states fought amongst one another for domination, especially Athens and Sparta. In 371 BCE, the situation grew more complicated when Thebes entered as a third great player in the game for the domination of Greece, after defeating their Spartan rival in battle and capturing large territories. About this time, when Thebes invaded the northern region of Thessaly, bordering on Macedonia, a young Phillip II of Macedon, the future father of the famous Alexander, was taken as a hostage to be raised up in Thebes, where he received a fine military education.

Phillip returned to Macedonia in 364 BCE, and succeeded his brothers on the throne five years later. He soon refined his skills at war while fighting with the Thracians and then with the Athenians, who were attempting to restore their old domination over Greece. In 356 BCE, however, the decay of Greece grew deeper than ever when the Third Sacred War broke out for political reasons, i.e. the hatred of Thebes (a leader of the religious council of Delphi, called the Amphictyonic League) towards Phocia. The Phocians were punished with a huge fine after they began to plant sacred land, but instead of protesting this decision reasonably, they most shamefully captured the Temple of Delphi and used its riches to fund an army for their protection. Athens and Sparta, jealous of Thebes’ growing power, rather than disappointed with the Phocian sacrilege, joined themselves with the Phocians. Phillip, who came from a more conservative region of Greece (even accused of being barbarous by the Athenians), saw the greed for domination and disregard for religion, but because he was a King rather than a philosopher, he was forced to join in actively and prevent a total destruction to Greece that would allow the Persians (who had taken the side of Sparta before) to conquer them all, Macedonia geographically being the first in danger. Phillip took the side of Thebes in 353 BCE, after hostilities with Athens, and the war lasted until 346 BCE, ending with the victories of Phillip against Athens. However, the Athenians, jealous of his power and growing territory, called for continued resistance. The hostility lasted, with a peace of six years, until the armies of Athens (as well as other city-states, including Thebes, which now hated Phillip too) were utterly defeated at the Battle of Chaeronea in 338 BCE. Phillip now established domination over all Greece, an unfortunate but necessary situation. Only a year after his victory, however, he did appear wise and pious in establishing the League of Corinth, a confederation of all Greek cities, which took sacred oaths of peace, and his motive in doing so was to direct his attention to the Persian threat. His assassination soon after prevented him from going forward in the project, but his intention and accomplishments prepared everything for his son Alexander.



alexanderthegreat-bustThis king of Macedonia, successor to Phillip II, is commonly given the epithet of “the Great”, but I will refrain from using it and justify doing so. As was said, when Alexander became king in 336 BCE, his father had prepared the foundation for everything towards an invasion of Persia. The young king also, thanks to his father’s efforts, had received an excellent education in the Temple of the Nymphs at Mieza at the hand of Aristotle, the most learned of the Greek philosophers (though a monotheist). Alexander’s favorite books were Homer’s Illiads and Odysseys, and he admired Achilles above all heroes. This was indeed a noble beginning for a young king, but the conquests of his father had made him vain and pampered. The Roman historian Justin even speculates that his mother Olympias had a hand in the murder of his father, perhaps to raise her son to power. Although this is not certain, some ancient historians hold that she filled the ears of Alexander with vanity, telling him he was the son of Zeus, rather than Phillip. But if all this is to be doubted, Plutarch (who actually admired Alexander) records that the young King, in the same year his father died, went to the Delphi and requested a prophesy that he would conquer the world. When the oracle declined to comment and directed him to return later, Alexander, known for his moments of fury, dragged her out by her hair until she screamed with fear “You are invincible, my son!”. This disregard for the sanctity of Delphi and the prophecy of Apollo, as great a crime as it was, did not stop Alexander from offending the Gods.

Alexander was certainly a fine general who distinguished himself at battle against the Persians, but he inherited this skill as well as his skilled army from the work of his father. Flattered by his victory at Granicus against the Persians in 334 BCE, even though his army was larger than theirs,  Alexander proceeded to travel to Egypt, after destroying the Phoenician city of Tyre. In Egypt, Alexander was proclaimed a liberator and savior by the Egyptians who resented Persian power, and even though he had already gotten a forced prophesy from Delphi, he travelled to eastern Libya to the oracle of Zeus-Ammon. There, a strange mistake happened: As Plutarch records, the oracle of the temple greeted Alexander in bad Greek, saying Ο παι διος! (Oh, son of God!) instead of Ο παιδιον! (Οh, my son!). Alexander was utterly amazed and when one of Alexander’s sycophants asked the Oracle whether the King should be given divine honors, he was answered “This would please Ammon”. Ever after, Alexander called himself the son of Zeus-Ammon and demanded to be addressed and respected accordingly, which displeased his men. Although Alexander utterly defeated the Persians in 331 BCE, and then subsequently conquered their empire, his arrogance and vanity kept him from returning home, and in order to keep his men, he married them to Persian wives as he did for himself. However, when the men complained that they needed to see their families and that they did not like how he thought himself a half-God nor how he imitated the Persian kings, he began to grow very suspicious of them, especially after two plots against his life were discovered, perhaps false ones invented by himself. He had his father’s most trusted general, Parmenion, executed on charges of treason, because he feared he would plot to assasinate him as his son did. Also, in a fit of drunken rage, he murdered Kleitos, a loyal officer who had saved his life at Granicus. Alexander’s madness drove his campaigns to continue; for his personal ambition alone, he carried his men as far as India, but he was forced to return, since he concluded, after a costly victory, that he could not be “invincible” against elephants. He died after drinking wine in Babylon, either from a fever contracted from intoxication, or from poison, the latter being more likely. Alexander’s evils did not end with his death; he refused to name a successor on his deathbed, which afterwards caused a civil war among his generals. Furthermore, he had already established a new empire with new principles that had not been practised by the Persians; he encouraged his men and indeed all Greeks to intermarry with native populations and mix their cultures and Gods together. This led to the great corruptions in religion and culture prevalent during the Hellenistic age that would later pave the way for Christianity.