In around 513 BCE the Persian king Darius I (522–486) built a great bridge across the Bosporus, the narrow strait that links the Black Sea with the Sea of Marmara, and led an army from Asia into Europe. Darius himself crossed back into Asia the following year, but he left his commander Megabazus with the task of subduing the territories on the north coast of the Aegean Sea. Among the local rulers who gave earth and water to the Persians as a sign of their submission was Amyntas, a Macedonian. He was rewarded with the position of satrap of Macedonia, that is governor of what was now a province of the Achaemenid Persian empire, and he married his daughter Gygaea to a leading Persian called Bubares. When Amyntas died in around 495, he was succeeded by his son Alexander I, who remained a loyal subject of Darius and his son and successor Xerxes. In this way the Persians themselves established in power the family that would, 180 years later, bring down their own empire. Alexander I’s great-great-great-grandson was Alexander III, generally known as Alexander the Great.
The rise of Achaemenid Persia
The Achaemenid empire was the creation of Cyrus the Great (c.559–530), who began as king of Anshan. This title indicated his rule over the ancient kingdom of Elam in what is now southwest Iran. Soon after coming to power around 559, Cyrus started a campaign of conquest, defeating his northern neighbours the Medes (550), and then spreading his power east over the Iranian plateau, and west into Anatolia, where he defeated Croesus, king of Lydia (546), and as a result extended his empire to the shores of the Aegean Sea. He then turned his attention to Babylon in Mesopotamia, at the time the most powerful city in the Near East. Under their kings Nabopolassar (626–605) and Nebuchadnezzar (604–562), the Babylonians had overthrown the Neo-Assyrian empire, which had dominated Mesopotamia and the territory to its west (that is roughly modern Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, and Jordan), for several centuries, and made an empire for themselves. In 539 Cyrus defeated a Babylonian army at Opis, on the Tigris River, and entered Babylon, where he deposed its king, Nabonidus (556–539), installing his own son Cambyses in his place. Cyrus’ campaigns continued until his death, and Cambyses (530–522) expanded the empire further, with the annexation of Cyprus and then Egypt (525).
Cambyses died on his journey back from Egypt—it is unclear from what cause—and was apparently succeeded by his brother Bardiya (522). At this point, however, there was a coup, and Darius, a Persian noble perhaps distantly related to the family of Cyrus, made himself king. He was able to put down a number of revolts, and, once established in power, continued his predecessors’ policy of expansion. In the east he extended the empire as far as the Indus River in modern Pakistan, and he also increased his territory in north Africa, annexing the area of Cyrenaica (in modern Libya). He crossed the Bosporus in order to campaign against the Scythians on the shores of the Black Sea (c.513), and although this was not successful, it left Darius in control of the lands between the north Aegean coast and the Danube, consisting of Thrace and, as we have seen, Macedonia.
Ruling the empire
To maintain hold over so large and disparate an empire required effective organization. Central to the Achaemenid system was the person of the king himself. Persian royal inscriptions emphasize the identity of the king, his right to rule, and the fact that he has the support of the chief of the gods, Ahura Mazda. He is shown in sculptured scenes in royal palaces and elsewhere seated on his throne or standing, always larger than other people, and often with the flying disk that represented Ahura Mazda above him. Achaemenid iconography adopted features of Assyrian royal representations, for example showing the king hunting lions. These images were used on seals, and so were disseminated across the empire. Once Darius had entered Europe he and his successors started to mint coins in the Lydian capital Sardis, gold ‘Darics’ depicting the king as a warrior armed with bow and spear, which circulated in the Aegean area.
The empire had several royal capitals: Cyrus ruled from Ecbatana in Media, Babylon, and Pasargadae, created by him in Fars; Darius built himself a palace at Susa in Elam, and another new creation, Persepolis, not far from Pasargadae. The king and his court moved slowly from capital to capital during the year, partly in response to the climate (Ecbatana on the Iranian plateau was cooler in the summer months, while Babylon and Susa were more appropriate for the winters). The royal progress took the form of a grand procession, and the king spent much of the time living in tents rather than stone or brick buildings, as he also did when on military campaign. This nomadic style was distinctively Persian, in contrast to the urban focus of his Mesopotamian predecessors. Palaces in the capitals were also places where royal power could be displayed. The ruins of Persepolis, the palace built by Darius I and extended by his successor Xerxes (486–465) are the most spectacular surviving example. Sculptured friezes on the outside of its apadana(audience hall) depict the king’s subjects from across the empire bringing him tribute. Each group is distinguished by their clothes and hairstyles, and the gifts they are carrying. Non-perishable items, including large quantities of gold and silver, were stored in the palaces (when he captured them, Alexander found in the storerooms precious metals worth, at a minimum, the equivalent of 2,500 tonnes of silver, according to the ancient authors). As well as receiving tribute kings gave gifts to their courtiers and subjects, although the reciprocity was not even. For example when the king dined, he oversaw at the same time the feeding of his family, his retainers and courtiers, and his guard, through the institution of ‘the king’s table’.
The provinces of the empire were ruled by satraps appointed by the king. These were often leading Persian nobles, but as we have seen, local dynasts like Amyntas of Macedon could be put in charge. They were connected to the king and to each other through marriages, and although some satrapies would be passed down through families, personal bonds to the king remained important. Satraps were required to collect taxes and tribute for the king as well for themselves, and to raise troops when called upon for the king’s military campaigns. These men (and occasionally women) had palaces in their own satrapal capitals, where they kept their own courts. Some had summer palaces and lodges built within great hunting parks called ‘paradises’ where they could imitate the king by hunting lions and other animals. Monuments like the tomb of Mausolus, satrap of Caria (377–353), built at Halicarnassus (modern Bodrum), which was included in the list of the Seven Wonders of the World, demonstrate the ambition of local dynasts who served as satraps. The courts and palaces of the western satrapies were frequently visited by leading men from beyond the edge of the empire, and acted as models for royal courts in the Aegean area, in particular in Thrace and Macedonia. For the king to oversee the activities of the satraps required good communications, and the road system of the Achaemenid empire was admired in antiquity. It made possible the rapid movement of couriers (‘neither snow, nor rain, nor the heat of the sun, nor the night prevents them from completingtheir appointed course at greatest speed’ said Herodotus, writing in the 5th century), the progresses of the royal court, and the movement of armies—both those of the king and those of invaders.
Persia and the Greeks
The Achaemenid empire reached its greatest extent, if only briefly, under Darius’ son and successor Xerxes, who conquered most of northern and central Greece, including Athens, in 480. When Cyrus had defeated Croesus of Lydia 66 years earlier, and taken over his kingdom, its territory had included a number of major Greek settlements on the east coast of the Aegean, and more Greek cities had been incorporated into the empire through Cambyses’ conquest of Cyprus. These cities were governed by individuals or small groups who were kept in power by the satraps and served their interests. In 499 many of them had risen in revolt from Persian rule, and they had been supported by a fleet of 20 ships sent from Athens, and five from Eretria, on the island of Euboea. The revolt had been put down by 494, and one of the largest Greek cities, Miletus, had been sacked. Included in the destruction was the major oracular shrine and temple of Apollo at Didyma.
Some years before the Ionian revolt, in the period c.511–506, Athens had gone through a period of civil unrest, involving the ‘tyrant’ Hippias, and two other men, Isagoras and Cleisthenes, who went on to establish the Athenian democracy. In the course of the struggle Isagoras had called in aid from Sparta, and in response Cleisthenes had opened negotiations with the Persians, through the satrap of Lydia, and possibly had gone as far as offering submission to the king. In Darius’ eyes, therefore, Athens was a rebellious subject as much as the Ionian and Cypriote cities. In 492 the Persian general Mardonius had led a combined army and fleet across the Hellespont and through Thrace and Macedonia, with the intention of marching south to Eretria and Athens, but the expedition had been called off when much of the fleet was wrecked off Mount Athos. Two years later Darius had sent another force, under Datis, across the Aegean. Many of the Greek islands had offered submission to the king, and Eretria had been sacked, but the army had been defeated by the Athenians at the battle of Marathon (490), bringing the campaign to an end.
After Darius’ death, Xerxes had inherited his father’s plans, and in 481 he marched with Mardonius along the same route that the general had previously taken. This time the campaign was a success in that Xerxes accepted the submission of all the Greek cities along his path, routed a small Spartan-led army at Thermopylae, and was able to sack Athens and carry trophies back from there to Susa. This success, however, was short-lived. Xerxes’ fleet (which included significant numbers of Greek ships) was defeated by a Greek fleet at Salamis in 480, and his army was defeated at Plataea the following year and retreated back to Asia.
In the next few years the remaining Persian forces were driven from the north Aegean, and the Greek cities of western Anatolia were, for a few decades, liberated from Persian control, becoming instead members of an Athenian-led alliance. It was not long, however, before Persian authority was restored on the east Aegean coast. Increasing distrust between the Greek cities led eventually to the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta and their respective allies (431–404), and the real victor of that conflict was the Achaemenid empire. Both sides had tried to win support from the Kings Artaxerxes I (465–424) and Darius II (423–405), and it was the intervention in particular of Darius’ younger son Cyrus on the side of the Spartans that gave them the naval power they needed to force the Athenians to surrender. In return for that support the Spartans had agreed to give up the Greek cities on the Asian mainland to the Persians.
Relations between the Spartans and the Persians broke down on the death of Darius II, as Spartan officers with a body of mercenary soldiers supported Cyrus in an unsuccessful attempt to take the throne from his elder brother Artaxerxes II (405–359). This campaign was described by the Athenian writer Xenophon, who took part in it, in his Anabasis, a work that provided a model for Arrian’s Anabasis of Alexander. Artaxerxes finally settled affairs in the Aegean area in 386 by an arrangement that was known as the King’s Peace, in which Achaemenid rule over the cities of the Asian mainland was recognized, and the king threatened to intervene with troops or money if the Greeks of the islands and the European mainland did not respect the settlement and each other’s autonomy. In the following decades Persian money was provided to leading Greek politicians to ensure that they advocated policies that did not conflict with the king’s interests, and there was little direct conflict between Greeks and the forces of the Achaemenid empire.
The Achaemenid empire in the 4th century
Xerxes’ successors put up few royal inscriptions, and as a result we know much less about events elsewhere in the empire than we do for earlier periods. A Greek historian, Ctesias of Cnidus, spent time at the court of Artaxerxes II, and wrote a history of Persia now known only through quotation from other authors, but this does not tell us much. The empire remained mostly intact, although Egypt broke away from Achaemenid control in 404, and was only reconquered in 343, by Artaxerxes III (359–338). We know about the events of the last years of the empire from a number of Babylonian documents including the so-called Dynastic Prophecy, which reports some episodes of intrigue in the Achaemenid court. On the death of Artaxerxes III, possibly by poison but probably from natural causes, most of his relatives were murdered at the instigation of a court eunuch, Bagoas, and his one surviving son was installed as Artaxerxes IV (338–336). Two years later Bagoas had him too killed, and with the rest of the family already dead Bagoas installed a distant relative, Darius III (336–331), on the throne. Darius had been a successful military leader, and turned out to be the wrong choice for Bagoas, who was killed on the king’s orders. This was the man who was to face Alexander the Great.
Macedonia: the first 150 years
Meanwhile, in Macedon Amyntas’ son, Alexander I (c.495–454), was able to hold on to his position after Xerxes’ defeat in the Aegean. He became known as Alexander Philhellene (‘Friend of the Greeks’), and Herodotus reports stories which present him as having secretly worked against the Persians all along. His kingdom faced challenges from all sides, and at times from within. The Macedonian heartland was the substantial plain at the northwest corner of the Aegean, through which the rivers Haliacmon and Axios flowed, known as Lower Macedonia, with its royal capital, Aegae, at the southern edge of the plain. Alexander I had extended his rule into the higher ground to the west and north (Upper Macedonia), and also eastwards to the valley of the Strymon, to control a territory of over 17,000 km2 (that is a little larger than the historic county of Yorkshire in the UK, or a little smaller than the state of New Jersey in the USA). As well as including large amounts of fertile land for agriculture and stock rearing, the area had forests and deposits of silver and gold. It was, however, hemmed in on all sides by potential enemies. To the east were the kingdoms of Thrace while to the northwest and west lay Illyria and Epirus. On the Aegean coast, and in particular on the Chalcidice peninsula, there were Greek cities that had been established in the 7th and 6th centuries.
Macedonian kings sometimes made multiple marriages, and as a consequence tended to produce several sons with different mothers. This practice of polygamy allowed the king to make considerable use of marriage-alliances to seal diplomatic arrangements, and it meant that there was no shortage of male heirs. On the other hand it meant that the death of a king of Macedon more than once led to a period of instability as his heirs fought each other for the throne. This happened on the death of Alexander I, and his successor Perdiccas II (454–413) took several years to establish himself in power. His reign was characterized by frequent threats from his neighbours, dealt with by a combination of limited military action, not always successful, and negotiation.
His successor Archelaus (413–399) is credited with strengthening Macedonian military effectiveness, building roads and fortifications, and possibly introducing new infantry formations. He also built a new capital at Pella, in the Macedonian plain, and established a court which attracted Greek artists and writers, including the Athenian tragedian Euripides, to move there. After Archelaus’ death there was more fighting amongst his successors until his cousin Amyntas III (393–369) was able to establish himself in power. His reign coincided with increased expansionism from Illyria and growing hostility from the Greek cities of Chalcidice. These pressures continued after his death, and new ones were added, as Macedonia started to be more directly involved in the affairs of the Greek cities further south. After Amyntas’ death, his son Alexander II (369–368) campaigned in Thessaly before he was assassinated, and his successor, Ptolemy (368–365), who was probably acting as regent for Alexander’s younger brother Perdiccas, allied the kingdom with the Greek city of Thebes, sending hostages, including the future Philip II, another brother of Alexander and Perdiccas, to Thebes as a sign of good faith. Under Perdiccas III (365–360) Macedon found itself for a while allied with Athens instead of Thebes, but the arrangement was short-lived, as was Perdiccas himself, who was killed in battle against an invading Illyrian army, leaving the throne to his brother Philip II (360–338), the father of Alexander the Great.
It took Philip less than three years to transform the fortunes of Macedonia through a combination of diplomacy, military reorganization, and skilled generalship. As well as having to deal with the advancing Illyrian army, he faced the threat of an uprising in Paeonia in Upper Macedonia and the possibility of a challenge for the throne from three half-brothers and two other pretenders, backed by Athens and Thrace. He was able to negotiate with the Athenians and bribe the Thracians to nullify this last danger, and he had his half-brother Archelaus executed. He also induced the Paeonians to end their threat by offering money, and was able to negotiate a temporary truce with the Illyrians. This gave him time to improve the training and organization of his army. There is some debate about how far Philip was responsible for innovations in the Macedonian way of fighting, and how much was achieved by his predecessors or left to his son Alexander to complete. Since this is a book about Alexander, it makes more sense to look at the army as it was under Alexander, and this will be described in Chapter 3. It is generally recognized, however, that Philip increased the effectiveness of the Macedonian armed forces by recruiting larger numbers of both infantry and cavalry, and instituting more regular and more thorough training. By 358 he was able to march against the Illyrians and to drive them out of Upper Macedonia.
Philip secured his relationship with his neighbours through a series of marriages. The first of his seven wives was Phila, from Elimiotis in Upper Macedonia; she was joined by Audata, a member of the Illyrian royal family, and two women from leading families from Greek cities in Thessaly, Nicepolis and Philinna, and then in 357 by Olympias, a member of the Epirote royal family. Later in his reign he married Meda, daughter of a Thracian king, and finally Cleopatra, a member of a high-ranking Macedonian family. Philip’s father Amyntas III had six sons through two marriages. In contrast Philip’s wives, who produced several daughters, bore him only two sons: Philinna gave birth to Arrhidaeus, who was for some reason considered unfit to rule, and Olympias was the mother of Alexander the Great. Royal wives who did not have sons had little influence at court, and little is known about these various women. Olympias, however, lived through Alexander’s reign, and wielded considerable influence. We will learn more about her in the next chapter.
Philip’s activities after this make it clear that he saw aggression as the most effective way to secure Macedonian interests, but he accompanied it with other activities which demonstrated that he could work with the Greeks as well as against them. In the period 357–354 he took control of all of the Greek cities in the region outside Chalcidice, from Amphipolis in the east to Pydna in the south. He also took over the city of Crenides, which controlled very productive gold and silver mines, and renamed it Philippi. In 356 he entered a chariot in the Olympic Games, and won. This was more than mere display: Olympic victors were recognized in Greece as having the favour of Zeus, and were treated with particular respect, so Philip’s victory made him more difficult to ignore.
In 356 a war broke out in central Greece between Phocis and Boeotia, partly over control of the sanctuary and oracle of Apollo at Delphi. Modern scholars know it as the Third Sacred War. The cities of Thessaly, which lay between Macedonia and Phocis, became involved in the war, and Philip was called on by Larissa, the home city of his wife Philinna, to defend it against the Phocians who supported its rival Pherae (home city of another of his wives, Nicepolis—it is possible that the marriage took place after these events). In 352 Philip defeated the Phocians, and was elected commander of the whole of Thessaly. Gradually he was being drawn into the affairs of the major Greek cities.
Involvement in the south alternated with aggressive advances to the east. Philip returned to Macedonia, and went to war with king Cersobleptes of Thrace, and then moved against Chalcidice, capturing the most powerful Greek city there, Olynthus, in 348. Then in 346 he marched back south into Phocis, occupied the pass of Thermopylae, where Xerxes had defeated the Spartans, which controlled land routes between central Greece and the north, and brought the ten-year war with the Boeotians to an end. The sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi, along with the area around Thermopylae, was overseen by a council of Greeks known as the Delphic Amphictyony, made up of delegates mainly from the area around the sanctuary (‘amphictyon’ means ‘neighbour’). It was not entirely clear before this date who was entitled to membership of the council, but as part of the settlement after the war, the Phocians were expelled from it, and Philip took their place. It is also unclear what influence the council had—its main task was to oversee the festival of the Pylaea, celebrated twice a year at Thermopylae, and to protect the sanctuary at Delphi—but, like his Olympic victory, membership of the Delphic Amphictyony made Philip an honoured individual in the eyes of many, if not all, Greeks. Following this he returned to Thrace, annexing Cersobleptes’ kingdom by 342, and marching north as far as the Danube.
What Philip’s ultimate aims were at this point is something that modern scholars disagree about, and it was unclear to his contemporaries as well. The larger Greek cities of the south, including Athens and Sparta, had interests in the natural resources of the north Aegean area, and at times formed alliances with both the northern Greek cities and the Thracian kingdoms: the growth of Macedonia could be seen to threaten their interests. The Athenians in particular were dependent on supplies of grain from the Black Sea, and so could not have a hostile power controlling the Bosporus or Hellespont. Philip’s advance eastwards was also a potential threat to the Persian king. By 340 Philip was besieging cities on the north shore of the Sea of Marmara, including Byzantium, and Artaxerxes III sent supplies and mercenary troops to support them. He also, like his predecessors, sent money to politicians in Athens and elsewhere to encourage them to oppose Philip wherever possible. On the other hand Philip had been invited to intervene in Thessaly and central Greece by the leaders of Greek cities who saw him as someone who could protect them against their rivals. It is quite possible that, having secured control of the areas around Macedonia, he wanted to maintain peaceful relations with the other Greeks. Some Athenian politicians and pamphleteers, probably the recipients of gifts from him, argued for supporting Philip in a campaign against the Persians; others, equally probably receiving money from Artaxerxes, took an opposite view.
Events at opposite corners of the Aegean led to the final confrontation between Philip and Athens that brought his campaigns in Greece to completion. In 340 the Athenians made an alliance with Byzantium, which was under siege by Philip. He responded by seizing the Athenian grain fleet, and the Athenians declared war. Later that year the Delphic Amphictyony accused the city of Amphissa, just west of Delphi, of cultivating land sacred to Apollo, and began a military campaign against it. When the first season’s campaign did not lead to a settlement, Philip was called down to deal with the problem. He marched against Amphissa, and then turned west to threaten Athens. Demosthenes, Athens’ most effective orator, and one of the recipients of gifts from the Persian king, encouraged the Athenians to march out against Philip, and persuaded the Thebans to join them. The two sides met at Chaeronea in August 338, and Philip was the victor. He installed a garrison in Thebes, but made no attempt to punish the Athenians. Instead, he started to organize his next campaign.
In the Spring of 337 representatives of all the Greek cities except Sparta gathered at Corinth and swore oaths of allegiance to Philip, establishing an organization called by modern scholars the League of Corinth. At the meeting Philip announced a planned invasion of the Achaemenid empire, with the avowed aims of punishing the Persians for the destruction caused by Xerxes, and of once more liberating the Greek cities of Asia. To muster all the troops required for the campaign would take time, but in March 336 a Macedonian advance force of 10,000 men, led by Philip’s generals, Parmenion and Attalus, crossed the Hellespont from Europe into Asia.