Ancient Who Dunnit-  The Death of Philip II of Macedon

Ivory bust of Philip II found in a Macedonian Tomb
Vergina Museum

Philip had been the ruler of Macedon for twenty-three years and was currently on wife number seven.  He had turned Macedonia into a force to reckoned with by revolutionizing the army into a efficient fighting force.  He subdued Greece and conquered the surrounding territories.  Now he had a raft of children from his various wives.  His son, Alexander, was from wife number four, Olympias, whom he divorced and was Greek to boot.  Even though Alexander was older, the oldest son did not always get the throne and Philip and wife seven had a young son named Caranus.  In fact, there had been an incident where members of the court expressed opinions that the heir should be a pure Macedonian.  Alexander took exception and words exchanged and Alexander and his mother were exiled temporarily.

In October 336, Philip was celebrating the wedding of his daughter, Cleopatra, to King Alexander of Epirus.  They were also celebrating Philip’s upcoming invasion of Asia.  Philip arranged lavish musical competitions and feasts in the bridal pair’s honor.  Everyone who was anyone in Greece showed up to be apart of the party.  At the beginning of one of the competitions after a night of hard drinking, Philip went to the theater of Aegae in procession with twelve statues of the gods.  His bodyguards were dismissed according to some sources and following at a distance according to others.  This was to prove Philip was all powerful and didn’t need such things.

According to the account from Diodorus of Sicily, Philip was having an affair with one of his bodyguards, a man named Pausanias.  This was not unusual in Greek society.  The first Pausanias was upset that the King’s eye had been caught by a second Pausanias.  The first Pausanias had earlier insulted the second Pausanias, who complained to his friend Attalus.  All kinds of unsavory things happened, which resulted in the second Pausanias being killed and the first Pausanias being raped.  Pausanias complained to Philip about Attalus, but he did nothing.  Pausanias was angry and decided to get his revenge on both Attalus and Philip.  When he saw Philip was without his bodyguards, Pausanias rushed forward and stabbed him in the chest with a Celtic dagger.  Then he bolted to escape while half the bodyguards went after him in hot pursuit.  He was killed by one of them, and that was that.  Alexander became king.


Gold Medallion of Olympias
Walters Art Museum, Baltimore

But was this really what happened?  Many historians believe Olympias had something to do with the plot.  She and Philip had a contentious relationship, which Olympias urging her brother to declare war on her ex husband.  Incidentally, Cleopatra was marrying this brother, so it is possible since outright war was not possible to move more subtly.  She certainly had a motive.  Even though the Macedonians wanted a “pure heir”, they were less likely to choose a child over a grown man proven in battle.  That would put her son on the throne, and her back in a position of power.  Indeed, once back in the saddle she forced Philip’s seventh wife, Cleopatra Eurydice, commit suicide after she killed her children with Philip.  This was not a woman who played at trifles.

Historians are divided as to whether Alexander was involved in the assassination or not.  He also had motive, and had recently quarreled with his father.  Also, the bodyguards who went after Pausanias and killed him were close friends with Alexander.  It is possible they were silencing him before he could spill the beans about their patron’s involvement.  There are theories that the bodyguards may have executed this plan on their own without Alexander’s knowledge.

What is known is Philip was buried in a lavish tomb and Alexander went out to conquer the known world.  A treasure filled tomb was found in 1977, and historians are undecided whether it was Philip’s tomb or the tomb of Alexander’s successor and half brother, Philip III Arrhidaios.  The skeleton does have a notch in the eye socket which was consistent with a battle wound that left Philip’s face disfigured.  Historians are still divided on this point.

ER