In effect, a king like Philip was not an autocrat but a tribal leader, and his success or failure would largely depend on his performance in war and his magnanimity in peace. It was important that he be generous with personal favors, together with gifts of estates, money, and loot on campaign.
Like Agamemnon, he was wise to consult his senior officers. Philip suited the role very well, ruling with a relaxed sense of humor on the surface and adamantine determination underneath. An anecdote epitomizes his style. At the end of one campaign, he was superintending the sale of prisoners into slavery. His tunic had ridden up, exposing his private parts. One of the prisoners claimed to be a friend of his father and asked for a private word. He was brought forward to the king and whispered in his ear: "Lower your tunic a little, for you are exposing too much of yourself the way you are sitting." And Philip said, "Let him go free, for I'd forgotten he is a true friend indeed."
Little is known about a king's constitutional rights, but it seems that he was appointed by acclamation, at an assembly of citizens or of the army. Capital punishment of a Macedonian had to be endorsed by an assembly. But even if his powers were limited, a canny ruler could almost invariably get his way. The eldest son usually—but by no means always, as we shall see—inherited the throne.
The philosopher Aristotle, whose father was official physician at the Macedonian court, was thinking about Philip when he observed that "kingship...is organized on the same basis as aristocracy: [by] merit—either individual virtue, or birth, or distinguished service, or all these together with a capacity for doing things."
Successive rulers tried again and again, without conspicuous success, to impose their will on their untamable subjects. Then, toward the end of the sixth century B.C., the outside world intervened in the shape of Darius I, absolute lord of the vast, sprawling Persian empire, which stretched from the shores of the eastern Mediterranean to the gates of India, from Egypt to Anatolia. It has been well described as a desert punctuated by oases. There were well-watered plains, often more abundant than today, and arid wastes. Rugged mountain ranges and broad rivers made travel—and for that matter warfare—complicated and challenging.
The empire was founded by Cyrus the Great in the middle of the fifth century B.C. The Persians were originally nomads, and even in their heyday as an imperial power, their rulers were always on the move between one or other of their capital cities, Susa, Persepolis, and Ecbatana. Their great throne halls were versions of the royal traveling tent in stone. Like all nomads, they were enthusiastic horsemen and their mounted archers were ferocious in battle.
It has been estimated that the empire was home to about fifty million inhabitants. They came from a variety of cultures, spoke a medley of languages, and practiced a wide array of religions; wisely, they were governed with a light touch. However, if they rebelled against the central authority, they could only expect fire, rapine, and slaughter. In the last resort, the empire was a military monarchy.
The Great King, as he was usually called, wanted to secure the northwestern corner of his wide domains by establishing an invulnerable frontier, the river Danube. This would entail subjugating Thrace, the large extent of land between the Balkan mountains, the Black Sea, and the Sea of Marmara. On today's political map, it includes portions of Greece, Bulgaria, and Turkey.
About 512 B.C., a vast Persian army invaded Thrace and then marched on beyond the Danube, but here Scythian nomads outplayed Darius by refusing engagement. They knew perfectly well that his forces would run out of time and supplies and would be forced to withdraw.
The Great King saw that his gains were at risk from the mountain tribes in the west and he decided to annex Macedonia. He commissioned one of his generals to deal with the matter. Envoys were sent to the king of the day, Amyntas I, demanding earth and water, the symbols of submission and allegiance. Amyntas accepted his role as a vassal and married his daughter to a Persian high official, for he saw many advantages in allowing Macedonia to become an imperial province (or, to adopt the Persian word, satrapy). With Darius's backing he knew he would have a good chance of enlarging his kingdom and beating down his independent-minded subjects.
His teenaged son, who was to succeed him as Alexander I, saw things differently and, according to Herodotus, took violent measures at a state banquet in honor of the envoys. As the evening wore on, the guests became more and more drunk. Respectable women did not usually attend such events, but were brought in at the Persians' express request. Amyntas was deeply offended and, doubtless pressed by his furious son, laid a plot. He told the Persians they could have sex with any of the women they liked. He added: "Perhaps you will let me send them away to have a bath. After that they will come back again."
The women were exchanged for beardless male teenagers, armed with daggers, who lay down beside the envoys in the dining room and made short work of them. Their retinue, carriages, and so forth were disposed of, and it was as if they had never existed. The Great King tried to have them traced, but without success. Any inquiry was received with a blank face.
The mature Alexander was probably Herodotus's source for this story, and it may be a boastful fabrication, but it illustrates the humiliation felt in leading Macedonian circles by the Persian occupation, which was to last thirty years.
It was this humiliation, though, that laid the foundations of
Macedonian power, for it did not prevent Alexander I, once he had succeeded to the throne, from using Persian support to make substantial territorial gains. It is a painful irony that without the Great King's armed intervention Macedonia would never have become a great power.
This excerpt ends on page 7 of the hardcover edition.
Monday we begin the book Motherland
by Elissa Altman.