Nipissing University

History 2055 -- Ancient Civilizations

Fourth-century Greece and the Rise of Macedon

Steve Muhlberger
This discussion concerns what happened in Greece during the 4th century B.C., from the end of the Peloponnesian War to the time of Alexander the Great.

The Peloponnesian War was a victory for Sparta and its allies.  The peace of 404 B.C. stripped Athens of its empire, of its defensive walls, and of its democratic regime.  Sparta, traditionally the head of a solid Peloponnesian alliance, now dominated all of Greece.  Now it had both the
Peloponnesus and the Athenian League or Empire under its rule.

In 404 B.C., what Sparta wanted was a stable Greece.  It sought to accomplish this by imposing
oligarchy universally on all the cities of Old Greece.  The Spartans considered  demokratia  to be the antithesis of stability.  Considering the history of the past half-century, one can hardly blame them.

With Athens humbled, Sparta was stronger than ever before.  In the years around 400, a few in Sparta even dreamed of leading Greece against Persia.  In 401 B.C., an exiled Spartan raised a huge army, 10,000 strong, to help a Persian prince seize the throne from his brother.  The usurpation went
wrong, but the 10,000 Greeks survived.  Their retreat from Mesopotamia to the Black Sea and back to Greece was written up by an Athenian aristocrat and pupil of Socrates, Xenophon.  He had been on the expedition and ended up leading the retreat.  His book, The  March Up the Country  (or  Anabasis  in Greek), is the most down-to-earth account of the Greeks at war.  It shows
them as a dangerous bunch of "barbarians," a clever and vigorous bunch
living off the bounty of a much bigger empire.  They remind me irresistibly
of the Scots Highlanders in, say, the 18th or 19th century.  The expedition recorded by Xenophon ended up accomplishing very little, but it showed how important an impact Greeks had on Persia and vice-versa.

Spartan hegemony over the rest of Greece did not last very long -- at a generous estimate, 30 years.  The energetic Greece of the early fourth-century turned out to be too much for the Spartans to handle.  Spartan overlordship had been established by imposing unpopular governments on
many cities -- remember the 30 Tyrants at Athens.  These imposed oligarchies sparked resentment, revolution, and defiance of Sparta.  Sparta was not really capable of fighting all those who defied her.

There were two main reasons for this.

First, although Spartan citizens were tough, disciplined, and terrific soldiers, there were not
really very many of them.  At one point during the Peloponnesian War, Athens had forced a truce because, through luck, a couple of hundred Spartan citizen-soldiers had been captured.  The loss of
these men had terrified Sparta.  In the early 300s, the fact that minor wars were taking a constant toll of citizens was very worrisome.

Second, there was  the danger of corruption.  This is a problem for any empire, of course, but it was much worse for Sparta.  Only discipline made Sparta anything more than an insignificant village up in the hills.  Sparta had achieved discipline by peer pressure and regulating daily life to an unusual decree.  When a Spartan was sent out to rule a foreign country, where he exercised absolute
power over everyone who surrounded him, the famous "contempt of pleasure" usually broke down.  So imperial power could easily destroy the one thing that made imperial power possible.

By 386, Spartan domination of Greece had been severely undermined. The renewed disunity of Greece gave Persia a renewed influence.  Persia, which had allied with Sparta to destroy Athens, was now quite willing to help Athens to weaken Sparta.  In 393, the Persian satrap at Sardis allowed a Greek mercenary admiral named Conon to use the Persian fleet and Persian money to rebuild the Athenian walls, thus at a stroke reviving Sparta's most dangerous rival.  Soon after that, the Greek cities on the Asian shore threw off Spartan rule, restored democracy, and asked Persia for
protection rather than fall again under the Spartans.  In 386, after some years of general war, Persia was able to impose a peace on all the states of Greece.  No one had the heart or the nerve to defy it, at least for a few years.

For the generation after 386, the politics of Greece are difficult to describe in detail.  Here it is in the barest outline.  Various Greek leaders tried in turn to build up hegemony over Greece.  None of them achieved success for more than a few years.  The would-be overlords bear a certain resemblance to each other.

Hoplites were not eliminated; but the new tactics for light infantry made
the citizen armies of old somewhat less useful.

 Opposed to all regional powers of this sort was one power of a different sort -- Athens.  In the fourth century as in the fifth, Athens with its walls and its port was as good as an island, and it depended on its naval and commercial fleets to exert its influence.  In the fourth century, Athens assembled a new league or empire.  It was not as big, or as rich, or as abusive of its members as the old empire, but it existed for the same reason.  Athens needed security of the sea, and especially
security for its major trade route.  This was the route through the Dardanelles and the Bosphorus to the Black Sea.  The Black Sea was Athens' source of grain, and its main market for olive oil and other Greek products.  Athens, now as before, was willing to fight any warlord who looked dangerous to commercial interests.

The difference between the conflicts of the fourth century and the Peloponnesian War was this:  In the 5th century, the fighting had been between citizen armies, at least most of the time.  Now it was warriors for hire, who fought not for the survival of their community, but simply to eat.  Behind
this change is a change in Greek society as a whole.  The average Greek town was perhaps richer than it had been formerly.  The citizens, the core of that town, were less anxious to shed their blood.  Because they had money, they were able to shift the danger onto outsiders, who were poor
and willing to try a dangerous line of work.  Some of these outsiders were
from the periphery of old Greece.  Other mercenaries were raised from what Toynbee called the "internal proletariat;"  Greeks who had little and could foresee no future in their own villages.

Overpopulation probably produced many such desperadoes.  But the relative overpopulation of Greece was probably a worse problem than absolute overpopulation.  Relative overpopulation resulted from social stratification.

Some people, the settled members of prosperous cities, were probably doing very well.

For instance, the cities of Greece built many theaters in the fourth century, and even more in the third.  The tragedies and comedies of Athens had turned theater into a necessity for any self-respecting city.  Facilities were needed, and were built.

The art of the fourth century was no pale shadow of the art of Periclean Athens. It was subtle and beautiful and produced by a growing class of master artists.  Fourth century luxury pottery was painted in many colors instead of one or two; walls were painted, too, in landscapes and portraits.  (None of the wall painting survives directly; but later imitations show us how good it was).  This art, however, was aimed at a richer, more comfortable audience than art of the previous century.

The Old Comedy of Aristophanes was for a wide public, aimed at a community where much took place in public.  The New Comedy of Menander was about private life, not public life; it was comedy of manners, for the appreciation of people more concerned with what happened in their homes and their circles of friends than what happened in the  polis  as a whole.

The other side of this comfortable scene?  The poor were poorer, and there were more of them, and they were more desperate.  In the words of Peter Levi:  "There were appalling civil disorders; the wealthy had control and the less wealthy and the poor had reached the stage of being prepared to beat them to death with cudgels, as they did at Argos" (p. 173).  There were not settled places in society available to all those who wanted them:  and that is what I mean by relative overpopulation.

This was the Greek world after the Peloponnesian War.  It was not a world that was burned out and desolate, by any means.  There was creativity, energy, conflict, and turmoil.  It is just as evident in
Greater Greece and Sicily as it is in the old homeland.  The wars and revolutions of the Sicilian Greeks of the fourth century were very dramatic, and indicative of a society under strain.

This disorderly period came to an end, at least in old Greece, with the rise of one more regional warlord.  It was Philip of Macedon, the father of Alexander the Great, who created a regional power that lasted long enough to conquer Greece and then go on to reshape the world; or at
least, western Asia.
Macedonia was an ill-defined northern country that most Greeks thought of as half-Greek at
best.  Coastal Macedonia had long been part of the Greek world.  Achilles, it was said, was the ancestor of the Macedonian house.  Macedonia had particularly come under Athenian influence, since Athens had important interests on the north Aegean shore.  A variety of Athenian politicians in
exile and artists looking for patronage had found their way there over the generations.

Behind this civilized coast, however, was a wilder Macedonia that only occasionally obeyed its supposed king.  There were all sorts of tribesmen there who could scarcely pass as Greek in the south.  These people might be a problem, but if properly handled they could also be an asset.

Philip of Macedon came to power in 359 B.C., at the age of 24. Originally he was not king, just regent for an infant nephew.  But when he made his name, Philip pushed aside the nephew and took the crown himself. The way he made his name is this:  close to the Macedonian capital of Pella
was a city named Amphipolis, near which there were important gold mines. In 357 he seized the city and the mines.  Suddenly wealthy, he then turned inland, and beat the hill-tribes into submission.  These two elements, men to fight, and gold to pay and equip them, were the basis of Macedonian

Philip needed all his cunning to establish his ambition to be overlord.  Macedonia was quickly becoming the greatest power in old Greece, but the rest taken together might have been stronger.
Philip had also alienated the greatest Greek state by taking Amphipolis.  Athens had an interest in the mines there and in fact in the entire north coast, which was on the strategic route to the Black Sea.

Athens, however, was now in a weak position.  Its second league had just broken up, and the Athenians by and large were in no mood for further foreign adventures.  Philip was inclined to be friendly to Athens, and did his best to strike an alliance -- an alliance in which he, of course, would
be the senior partner.  And this might have happened if it hadn't been for Demosthenes.

 Demosthenes has a place in history because he was considered the greatest of classical Greek orators.  He owed this talent to circumstance and ambition.  Demosthenes's father had died when
his son was very small, and Demosthenes had been bilked of his patrimony by his guardians.  Determined to regain the money, he pursued oratory as a means of getting justice in the courts.

Despite eventual legal victory, he did not get his money back.  The crooks had spent the loot.  But Demosthenes had acquired a skill that, in still-democratic Athens, could make him a very important man.  He had the ability to sway the assembly as no one since Pericles had.

 Demosthenes's speeches, both political ones and ones he composed for litigants in the court, were prized for their literary qualities, and so they come down to us.  The legal speeches preserve many fascinating details of life in Athens.  The political ones have been examples to public men down to and including Winston Churchill for their argumentation and their emotional qualities.

In fact, Demosthenes can be compared to Churchill in one important respect.  Like Churchill in the 1930s, Demosthenes believed that his homeland was facing the greatest threat that it had faced in a long time; and he believed that most of his fellow-citizens were oblivious to it.  The threat for Churchill was Hitler and Germany; for Demosthenes it was Philip and Macedon.

Demosthenes and his friends in the 350s and 40s did their best to rouse Athens to contest the leadership of Greece with the king. Demosthenes' contribution were speeches called the Philippics, or speeches denouncing Philip.  Demosthenes told Athens again and again that Philip was
determined to destroy Athens.  He told the citizens that they were doomed because they refused to pursue a consistent policy against Macedon.  That was Demosthenes' problem:  sometimes he got Athens to fight Philip, but never for long enough.

Demosthenes was a man of great ambition, for himself and for Athens.  But most Athenians were not like that.  They did not long for the days of Periclean imperialism; or if they did, they didn't think it was practical.  And many Athenians did not trust Demosthenes.  He was neither as honest nor as good a strategist as Pericles.  In fact, historians argue that if Athens had followed his advice, it would have suffered far more disasters than it did.

 Through those same 350s and 340s, Philip slowly gained influence in Northern Greece.  A war over the shrine of Delphi did a great deal for his prestige.  The shrine was the most respected oracles in all of Greece.  It was believed that the god Apollo spoke there, and those wishing to know the
future, especially the outcome of a planned action, would go to Delphi.
 Key events in Greek history, such as the decision to abandon Athens and take to ships during the Persian war, depended on the interpretation of oracles.  Because Delphi had been consulted ever since the eighth century, it was a rich shrine.  Cities and individuals competed with each other in giving gifts to the god, and erecting treasuries to hold the richer ones.  The control of Delphi had its

In 356, a political dispute between Thebes and Phocis, both near Delphi, ended in Phocis being excluded from the shrine.  The Phocians, who thought the ban was a put-up job, decided to seize the place.  After all, Homer had said that Delphi belonged to them, and Homer was as good a
precedent as you could wish.  Phocis succeeded in taking over Delphi, and held on to it for ten years, excluding their enemies and making free with the treasures stored there.  The matter became a great controversy in Greece.

In 346, Philip came south with a great force and beat the Phocians, took Delphi, and threw it open to all of Greece.  Philip became the head of a council supervising the shrine, and president of that year's
games at Delphi.  This gave him some of the prestige that medieval emperors got by entering Rome and being crowned by the pope.  And as medieval emperors sometimes took an Italian city or two on their way south, Philip got control of all of Thessaly.  By the mid-340s he also controlled all of
Thrace and had a marriage alliance with Epirus.  He had accumulated a huge power bloc by Greek standards.  Put this together with his military reforms:  he had invented a new kind of hoplite phalanx and improved his supporting light infantry and cavalry to support it.  The picture one gets
is of a mighty and terrifying monarch.

Certainly the Athenians, helped along by Demosthenes, were terrified. Finally, in 338, they put together an alliance against Philip that included Thebes, Phocis, and Corinth.  The allies fought Philip at Chaeronea.  The allied army was large, but it was not good enough to stop Philip.  The new
Macedonian phalanx faced the Theban phalanx, the best in southern Greece. The cavalry, commanded by the king's 18-year-old son Alexander, was on the flank.  Together they destroyed the Thebans, the best part of the allied army.  When they broke, the rest of the allied army was doomed.

 In the aftermath of Chaeronea, Philip was master of Greece.  The event showed that Demosthenes was wrong.  Philip did not want to destroy Athens.  He let the city off with no penalty to speak of.    But Philip was determined to have an admission of supremacy from everyone.

He recruited Athens into a new Hellenic (or Greek) League headed by himself; then he marched into the Peloponnesus and got submission from all the states there, except Sparta.  Sparta, now a shell of its former self, he stripped of all its subject territories.

In 337, every state in Greece save Sparta sent a representative to Corinth to hear what their master had to say.  Philip on this occasion announced a plan that he hoped would do more to unify Greece than all his previous victories.  He declared that now was the time for all of Greece to
unite to attack Persia.  The Greek cities of Asia would be freed, and the Persians punished for their previous attacks on Greece and her gods.  This was a pretext, however sincere Philip may have been:  we are now 150 years after the attacks of Darius and Xerxes.  The other states were not
enthusiastic, but they dutifully voted contributions to the common effort.

The next year, 336, a Macedonian force was sent to the Hellespont to secure a crossing for a bigger army to follow under the king.    But that army, at least in its original form, never came.  A domestic
dispute felled Philip.  At least twenty years previously, he had married a noble woman from the allied dynasty of Epirus, a woman named Olympias.  In recent years they had fallen out because of Philip's infidelities.  He responded by divorcing Olympias and marrying a noble Macedonian woman named
Cleopatra, the daughter of one of his generals.  This infuriated Olympias and cast doubt on the status of Alexander, up until now Philip's undoubted heir.  The situation was cleared up in a dramatic fashion in the summer of 336, when an assassin murdered Philip.  The deed was then and usually since laid at Olympias's feet.  It had the effect, however, of making Alexander king of Macedon.

If Alexander had been someone else, that might have been the end of Macedonian hegemony in Greece.  The great expedition against Persia might have died, as several before had.  But Alexander was hasty, determined, and militarily talented.  It took him only two years to convince both his
fellow Greeks and his barbarian subjects and neighbors that he was the boss.

In spring of 334, only two years after Philip's announcement, the great enterprise of Persia was launched.  Alexander crossed to Asia, never to return to Europe, but to find his way into history, not to mention myth.


J.B. Bury,  A History of Greece

Peter Levi,  Atlas of the Greek World

Another Facts on File atlas.

Original material copyright (C) 1998, Steven Muhlberger.