10 Amazing Facts About Philip II of Macedon, the Father of Alexander the Great

10 Amazing Facts About Philip II of Macedon, the Father of Alexander the Great

Patrick Lynch - May 7, 2018

Philip II of Macedon was born in Pella, Macedon in 382 BC and was the third son of King Amyntas III. He was held captive in Thebes as a teenager and it was here where he learned his remarkable military and diplomatic skills. Five years after his return to Macedon, Philip became regent for King Amyntas IV but he was able to secure the crown for himself within a few months. Over the next 23 years, Philip enjoyed some incredible victories and a handful of defeats as he expanded his kingdom.

During that period, Philip transformed Macedon from a struggling state with a weak military into one of the strongest kingdoms in Europe. He had planned to expand into Persia by the time of his death in 336 BC but his son, Alexander the Great, took up the mantle and produced the single greatest set of conquests the world had yet seen. However, his father deserves an immense amount of credit for setting the platform and several historians believe Philip was an even greater commander than Alexander. In this piece, I look at 10 fascinating facts about this legendary king.

10 Amazing Facts About Philip II of Macedon, the Father of Alexander the Great
Macedonian conquests by 348 BC during Philip’s reign – History of Macedonia

1 – He Was an Exceptional General

A few historians, notably Richard A. Gabriel, assert that Philip was a better military leader than Alexander. While Alexander conquered more territories than anyone in human history up until that point, he inherited an exceptional army that had been created by his father. Although it took Philip a few decades, he did something that the Athenian, Peloponnesian, and Persian Empires couldn’t do at their respective peaks, he tamed Greece. He transformed a rabble of herders and peasant farmers into one of the greatest armies in ancient times.

Even more impressively perhaps, Philip revolutionized warfare by improving the phalanx which ultimately served Alexander so well, mixing cavalry and light infantry, and providing his men with incentives. He was also one of the first commanders to stay away from the thick of the battle in order to analyze it from afar. One of the best examples of this successful system in action came at the Battle of Chaeronea. By revolutionizing logistics, Philip was able to campaign for several years instead of weeks or months at a time. One of his best innovations involved replacing oxen with horses which traveled triple the distance and twice as fast on less food.

Philip was also one of the first commanders to understand the importance of developing a bond with the men he led. Rather than distance himself from rank and file troops, Philip ate the same food, wore the same clothes, and suffered the same hardships. He refused to wear the insignia of rank and in the early years of his command, Philip led from the front. During his career, the king was wounded at least five times in battle and eventually learned that surveying the action from a distance gave his men the best chance of victory and survival.

Unlike his son, Philip did not have an unblemished battlefield record. However, he had an extremely high win rate and successfully besieged Methone, dismantled the Thessalians at the Battle of Crocus Field, and completed the siege of Olynthus in 348 BC. His masterpiece came at the Battle of Chaeronea in 338 BC where he defeated a combination of Athenians and Thebans. It is clear that Philip laid the foundations from which Alexander rose and created one of the greatest fighting machines the world has ever witnessed.

Philip treated his soldiers extremely well by the standards of the era. As well as living amongst them, he ensured they were well paid and fed while protecting them as much as possible. In the king’s eyes, a soldier’s ranking was best determined by his efforts in the army rather than his ‘status’. No matter who you were, if you showed bravery in battle, you had an excellent chance of promotion. Philip even saw to it that veterans retained the right to vote in the assembly and also received land. Unlike other generals who saw their men as expendable, Philip always attempted to create strategies that reduced the risks to his army.

10 Amazing Facts About Philip II of Macedon, the Father of Alexander the Great
Depiction of the Sacred Band of Thebes in Action – HistoryBuffed

2 – He Was Held Captive in Thebes & It Shaped His Military Outlook

One of the reasons for Philip’s exceptional prowess as a commander and diplomat was the military education he received in Thebes. To be clear, he did not go there willingly. He was sent there at the age of 15 or thereabouts as part of an agreement and young Philip quickly understood the violent and uncertain time he lived in. He also learned that diplomacy was all about self-interest and it was possible to get anyone to do your bidding for the right price.

Initially, he was regarded as an uncultured Macedonian but this didn’t prevent Philip from throwing himself into his studies. During his spell in Thebes, Philip became acquainted with some of the best generals of the age. One of these men was Pelopidas, the leader of the legendary Sacred Band of Thebes. Philip admired the discipline and skill of the group and they later became the model of his new Macedonian army. He also lived with a general named Pammenes, who was a close friend of the legendary general Epaminondas.

It was arguably Epaminondas’ victory at Leuctra in 371 BC that inspired Philip to become a military commander. He studied the great battle in detail and used it to help him come up with his own tactical and structural innovations. At Leuctra, Epaminondas came up with a brilliant innovation to offset the numerical advantage of his Spartan enemy. Basically, he created a strong left wing which he used to shatter the strongest part of the Spartan force in a single blow. Meanwhile, his weakened right and center were positioned so they could avoid battle for as long as possible.

Philip now believed that the key to victory was to attack the strongest part of the enemy lines and not the weakest as was previously believed. Epaminondas was also the first commander in the West to use the strategically forced march and force a tactical decision on the battlefield. Previously, Greek armies relied on decisive single-set-piece battles. Epaminondas was able to build on his victory at Leuctra to severely weaken Sparta. Later on, Philip used the strategic forced march to unify Greece.

10 Amazing Facts About Philip II of Macedon, the Father of Alexander the Great
Pliny the Elder – The Famous People

3 – He Lost an Eye During a Siege

Before he became a calmer and more cerebral commander, Philip was known for his bravery and routinely led from the front on the battlefield. In some ways, it is remarkable that he survived so many fights because he was known for his utter recklessness in the heat of battle, a trait shared with Alexander. His obsessive desire for conquest and an unwillingness to contemplate defeat meant that Philip practically ignored the growing scars and disfigurements that came at the hands of his enemy.

His gravest battle wound came during the Methone siege in 354 BC. Interestingly, it is said that the injury, the loss of his right eye, was foretold by the Oracle at Delphi. Philip was apparently guilty of spying on his wife, a crime punishable by a loss of sight. During the siege, the king was inspecting sheds that housed the Macedonian siege machinery. At that moment, an enemy sniper spotted the king and hit Philip’s right eye with an arrow. According to Pliny the Elder, the king came into the field dressing station with the projectile protruding from his eye.

Philip was exceptionally fortunate because if the arrow had hit him head-on, he would have died instantly. It is likely that the king was wearing his iron helmet which was tipped back at the time the arrow struck him. The arrow deflected off the iron and turned a probable direct hit into a glancing blow. The king remained alive but the arrow did ensure he became blind and disfigured in his right eye.

The king was treated by the royal surgeon, a man named Critobulus. The medic managed to remove the arrowhead from the king’s eye socket without completely disfiguring his face. He stitched the eye socket shut but it became infected. Critobulus gave Philip some medicine to aid the healing process and also ordered that the dressing was changed every day for several weeks. Methone fell to the Macedonians a few days later and Philip quickly returned home to tend to his wound. According to Demetrius, Philip was extremely sensitive about the wound and flew into a rage if it was ever mentioned in his presence.

10 Amazing Facts About Philip II of Macedon, the Father of Alexander the Great
Angelina Jolie as Olympias, Val Kilmer as Philip II and Colin Farrell as Alexander in the movie ‘Alexander’ – Protothema

4 – He Had a Strained Relationship with Alexander

Although Philip was the man who gave Alexander his first military command, the pair had a difficult relationship. Philip had Alexander with his fourth wife, Princess Olympias of Epirus, but the couple had an unstable marriage; mainly down to Philip’s frolics with men and women. According to legend, Philip once told Alexander that the boy should be embarrassed by his high-pitched voice. This is a rumor but it probably speaks to a relationship where a father was perhaps concerned about being surpassed by his son.

While we don’t know a great deal about their interactions in Alexander’s early years, we know the two men’s relationship practically fell apart in Philip’s final years. After Philip married a young Macedonian woman named Cleopatra Eurydice, Alexander was concerned about being disinherited as he was not deemed to be a ‘pure Macedonian’. Cleopatra was his seventh wife and Olympias was greatly upset because of the possible ramifications for her son. She was right to be concerned because the youthful Cleopatra produced a boy named Caranus and a girl named Europa.

After a drunken bust-up during Philip’s wedding ceremony, Alexander left the Macedonian court with his mother. Demaratus of Corinth, a family friend, helped to patch things up between the two and Alexander returned to Pella with Olympias. At this time, Caranus had not been born yet but Alexander knew that his future was only secure for as long as Cleopatra failed to produce a male heir. In 336 BC, Philip negotiated with Pixodarus of Caria with a view to marrying off his only other adult son, Arrhidaeus to the Persian’s daughter. Alexander tried to get the princess’s hand in marriage first and when Philip found out, he was furious because his son’s actions were in danger of thwarting the diplomatic portion of his Asian conquest.

Plutarch wrote that Philip scolded Alexander for trying to marry a lowly girl whose father was little more than a slave of a barbarian king. Philip apparently placed Alexander under house arrest and banished four of his closest friends, including future Egyptian pharaoh, Ptolemy. Philip never had the opportunity to lead his planned invasion because he was murdered by his bodyguard and one-time lover, Pausanias. Despite their fractious relationship, Alexander was not involved. After Philip’s assassination, Olympias ordered the murders of Caranus and Europa while Cleopatra committed suicide.

10 Amazing Facts About Philip II of Macedon, the Father of Alexander the Great
Statue of Philip II – Hellenicfighter in DeviantArt

5 – He Was Capable of Brutality

If you only listened to Greek sources, Philip was a complete monster. Demosthenes, the legendary Athenian politician and orator, knew how dangerous the Macedonian king was and worried that Philip was capable of turning Macedon into an international power. Prior to Philip’s reign, disputes amongst the Macedonian aristocracy prevented the country from attaining its military potential. Macedonian kings were so frightened of assassination that they used to have bodyguards outside and inside the royal bedroom. This all changed when Philip became king although he ultimately met the same fate as many of his predecessors.

Theopompus of Chios, an important Greek historian, wrote that Europe had never seen a king like Philip before. As a product of his era, where it was normal for a winning faction to brutalize the conquered, Philip engaged in his fair share of atrocities. When he invaded Illyria, he murdered the majority of the surviving defenders. Sources say that Philip ordered the execution of all adult males while the women and children were sold into slavery.

The crueler aspects of the king’s personality came to the fore during the Siege of Olynthus in 348 BC. First of all, he would not enter into conversation with the city he was trying to siege and then he bribed two of its commanders, Lasthenes and Euthycrates. Their treachery enabled him to take Olynthus and once Philip had captured the city, he turned it over to his army with predictable results. The Macedonian army began killing the city’s inhabitants at will while Philip gave Olynthian women as ‘gifts’ to his army and supporters in other Greek city-states.

After taking the city of Pydna, Philip betrayed the Athenians and sold them into slavery. Non-Macedonians were kicked out of the city, or murdered, and Philip ordered the city to be razed to the ground so he could rebuild it as a Macedonian city. After defeating the Scythians in 339 BC, his men took 20,000 women and children as slaves. The list of his atrocities goes on and should come as no surprise to anyone who has studied military history. Philip was brutal but he needed to be to expand. In many ways, he was a typical military commander and was probably no more tyrannical than most ancient kings.

10 Amazing Facts About Philip II of Macedon, the Father of Alexander the Great
Mosaic of Alexander the Great – Wikipedia

6 – He Left Alexander an Incredible Inheritance

The kingdom that Alexander inherited in 336 BC was very different from what Philip II had to deal with when he became king in 359 BC. When the future king was born in 382 BC, Macedonia was relatively weak and his father, King Amyntas III, found it almost impossible to defend the country from attacks and ultimately had to ‘lease’ his own kingdom from the Illyrians. Philip’s brother, Alexander II, became king in 370 BC but was assassinated by Ptolemaeus of Alorus within a few years.

There were several rulers in a short space of time as intrigue and murder enveloped the Macedonian royal court. When King Perdiccas was killed in battle in 360 BC, his young son became Amyntas IV but Philip acted as his regent. Over the next quarter of a century, Philip established Macedonia as the most powerful kingdom in the region as he defeated a number of Greek city-states. He created the League of Corinth in 337 BC and members agreed to never wage war against one another unless they were suppressing a revolution.

Much is made of the fact that Alexander conquered more territory than anyone in human history until Genghis Khan some 1,500 years later. However, Philip had already launched an invasion of Persia in 336 BC and given his expertise in military matters, it is likely that he would also have defeated the Persians. Whether he would have continued all the way to India is another matter entirely.

By the time Alexander became King of Macedonia, he had inherited the world’s most advanced military and logistical system in the world at that time. He even benefitted from his father’s instruction in battlefield matters and while the two were not particularly close, Philip gave him command of part of his army during the Battle of Chaeronea in 338 BC when Alexander was just 18 years of age. Although he was only 20 years old when his father died, Alexander was ready to step into his father’s shoes.

Upon Philip’s death, there was no question as to what Alexander would do next. He had inherited the mandate to invade Persia that Philip had secured from the major Greek city-states. From there, Alexander used his natural military brilliance to destroy the Persian army and the cocky young commander used the momentum to invade India. While Philip inherited a mess, Alexander had the world at his feet. Yes, Alexander was indeed ‘Great’ but it was the efforts of his father, Philip II of Macedon, that helped him become that way.

10 Amazing Facts About Philip II of Macedon, the Father of Alexander the Great
Philip II of Macedon – Wikipedia

7 – He Loved the Arts & Was Far from Being a Barbarian

There are very few writers in antiquity that have ever written an unbiased account of Philip’s personality. Greek sources, in particular, are scathing in their criticism of the Macedonian king and suggest he was an alcoholic, temperamental, lying, cheating, violent, aggressive, cowardly womanizer who also had sex with young boys. While there is little doubt that Philip was a fighting man who enjoyed sex with both genders, there is evidence to suggest that the king wasn’t the tyrannical despot of lore.

In fact, a Greek diplomat named Ctesiphon claimed that Philip was “sweet and charming” while also possessing an excellent memory and outstanding oratory skills. The king was a known lover of theatre and drama and was interested in philosophy, history, and poetry. In fact, some of the greatest intellectuals of the age were invited to the Macedonian court, including Speusippus (nephew of Plato). Also, Aristotle was hired as Alexander’s tutor.

Despite his outstanding military prowess, Philip wasn’t averse to diplomacy as a means of avoiding war. When his brother, Perdiccas III, was killed by the Illyrians, and his army destroyed, Philip renewed the confidence of his men and he did so again after suffering defeat to Onomarchus in 353 BC. One of his great skills was the ability to hide his true feelings and intentions; he was able to do so even when in the company of great diplomats known for their ability to read an individual.

The writer Justin noted the difference in personality when compared to his son, Alexander. According to Justin: “Philip preferred to be loved while his son, Alexander, preferred to be feared.” As his ultimate goal was to transform the semi-feudal Macedonian state into a superpower, Philip knew that diplomacy would occasionally be necessary. Historian J. F. C. Fuller concluded his assessment of Philip by suggesting that the king was “a man of outstanding character; practical, long-sighted and unscrupulous.

10 Amazing Facts About Philip II of Macedon, the Father of Alexander the Great
Queen Olympias – Wikipedia

8 – He Engaged in Numerous Homosexual Affairs

Given the barbarity of the era, it seems remarkable to learn that ancient civilizations had a far more enlightened opinion of homosexuality than many modern nations. As well as being a renowned womanizer, Philip was also involved in a wide array of homosexual affairs and trysts. Philip was a product of his time; homosexuality was considered normal in Greek city-states such as Thebes, although other states were quick to judge the Thebans if they didn’t approve of same-sex relationships.

It is probable that Philip first learned that he had sexual feelings for males when he trained in military tactics in Thebes as a youth. Thebes was known for two things: Its exceptional military prowess and its celebration of same-sex affection. The famous Sacred Band of Thebes was comprised entirely of homosexuals. In fact, the elite fighting unit consisted of just 300 men; 150 gay couples who swore an oath to die in battle rather than retreat or surrender.

Plato believed it was an excellent idea because, in his opinion, it would be more shameful for a warrior to act like a coward in front of his lover than in front of his companions, father, or anyone else. Plato said that these warriors “would be ready to die a thousand deaths rather than endure this.” The Sacred Band remained true to their word as all but 46 were wiped out at the Battle of Chaeronea in 338 BC as Thebes was defeated by Philip and Alexander. Philip reportedly wept when he discovered the fate of this special unit.

There are claims that Philip had sexual relationships with young boys which would fit in with the relatively common practice of Pederasty in Ancient Greece. Certainly, he had two male adult lovers, both of whom were called Pausanias. Incidentally, Alexander’s main male lovers were Hephaestion and Bagoas. It was Philip’s cruel treatment of the older Pausanias that lead to his demise; but not before he tried to stab Alexander in a drunken attack.

10 Amazing Facts About Philip II of Macedon, the Father of Alexander the Great
Queen Olympias of Macedonia – Wikipedia

9 – He Was in a Drunken Punch-Up at a Wedding

In early 337 BC, Philip married Cleopatra who was the ward of an extremely powerful baron called Attalus. She was 22 years old and at first glance, it is easy to see the marriage as nothing more than the actions of a man in the midst of a midlife crisis. However, Philip had good reasons for marrying Cleopatra. Obviously, she was of childbearing age and Philip knew that if Alexander was killed in battle, he had no heir which would almost certainly lead to a bloody civil war upon the king’s death.

While the wedding ceremony passed without incident, the banquet did not. Attalus apparently said something about Philip finally fathering a legitimate heir; Alexander did not have ‘pure’ Macedonian blood. It was a badly timed remark because practically everyone was drunk and Alexander did not take it lying down. He threw his cup at Attalus and swore at him. According to the story, Philip stood up, drew his sword and began to charge at his son.

Alas, the king was worse for wear considering the enormous amount of alcohol he had consumed. He didn’t make it as far as his son before tripping and falling into a drunken stupor. Alexander reportedly mocked Philip by stating that he was a man getting ready to march into Asia yet was unable to move from one table to another without falling over. It was a dark time for the family as Alexander fled the country with his mother and remained in Epirus until he found out that Philip would allow him to return.

There had been a rivalry between father and son for several years but the incident at the wedding was the final straw. While Alexander did return to the Macedonian court, he remained isolated and enjoyed no real relationship with his father. Despite this, it is extremely unlikely that he was involved in the king’s death. A handful of sources suggest that Alexander coerced Pausanias into killing Philip but there is no evidence to substantiate these claims.

10 Amazing Facts About Philip II of Macedon, the Father of Alexander the Great
The Assassination of Philip II by Pausanias – Wikipedia

10 – He Was Murdered by a Spurned Lover

Although Philip had made many enemies during the course of his life, his power seemed absolute and an assassination attempt was unthinkable. Only Amyntas IV could be classified as a rival in the early 330s BC and since the king had allowed the former ruler to live untroubled as a private citizen, there was little chance of a revolt coming from that direction. Ultimately, Philip’s death came from a mess of his own making when he married Cleopatra in 337 or 336 BC.

The aforementioned chaos at the wedding did not prevent Philip from celebrating the marriage further and he brought his court to Aegae, the kingdom of Macedon’s ancient capital. It was here where Philip met his end, and it was probably because of his love affair with one of his bodyguards, a man called Pausanias. It seems as if Philip had fallen for a younger man, also called Pausanias, and the elder version taunted and insulted the younger man mercilessly. Eventually, the younger Pausanias told Attalus of his troubles and within a few days, he had effectively committed suicide by throwing himself in front of King Pleurias of the Illyrians in battle as the king was trying to kill Philip.

The irate Attalus invited the older Pausanias to dinner under false pretenses. Once the old bodyguard arrived, he was plied with wine and raped by a group of men. In front of Philip, Pausanias accused Attalus of instigating the sexual assault and while the king was angered, he couldn’t punish Attalus because he needed the man’s services. Instead, he tried to appease Pausanias by giving him valuable gifts and promotion. However, Pausanias became even angrier and decided that Philip must die.

One night, Philip was walking toward the theatre in Aegae without protection. Pausanias seized the opportunity and stabbed the king multiple times before fleeing to his horse to escape. Unfortunately for the assassin, his sandal became entangled in a vine and caused him to fall. His pursuers caught up and stabbed him to death. In the end, one of the greatest ancient kings died because he carelessly tossed aside one of his lovers. It was a history-changing moment because his son, Alexander the Great, become the King of the Macedonians and embarked on one of the greatest series of conquests of all time.

Where Do We Get This Stuff? Here is a list of our sources

“The Macedonian Empire: The Era of Warfare Under Philip II and Alexander the Great.” James R. Ashley. MacFarland & Company Inc., Publishers, 1998.

“Philip II of Macedonia: Greater Than Alexander.” Richard A. Gabriel. Potomac Books Inc., 2010.

“The History of Homosexuality: Ancient Greece.” Kate Aaron.

“Alexander of Macedon – Alexander the Great.” Historyofmacedonia.org.

“The Death of Philip.” By Diodorus of Sicily in Livius.org.

“Philip of Macedon. The Scars of Battle.” Alan Fildes.

“The Ambitions of Philip II.” Thomas R. Martin, An Overview of Classical Greek History from Mycenae to Alexander.

“Philip II of Macedonia.” Livius.org. 2004.