Who Killed King Philip?
In 336bc King Philip II of Macedon was assassinated.
His death – apart from the fact that it unleashed Alexander the Great upon the world – has been a famous historical whodunit ever since.
There are longer analyses out there (follow, for example, the links on this webpage), but I promise you that mine is more readable!
Diodorus Siculus and the ‘lone madman’
Of course, we all know who killed Philip. His name was Pausanias. According to Diodorus he had asked his teacher how to become famous and had been told: ‘kill a famous man’. Whether you believe the anecdote or not, it worked; Pausanias was the Lee Harvey Oswald of his age.
Diodorus tells the story … and to be fair, it is a story-teller’s dream. A king newly-recognised as the Hegemon of all Greece, who insists on dismissing his bodyguards to demonstrate his invulnerability. Philip’s hubris in putting his statue alongside the gods. The missed portents of a plot. A wedding between an uncle and niece, paedophilia, a hermaphrodite, a suicide, a homosexual gang-rape … and a murderer nursing a grudge for eight years. Then an assassination, a ‘sprint’ to escape, a trip on a vine … and a murderer slain.
It reads like a fiction, and it is probably more-or-less wholly fiction. If you read this webpage and my commentary on the passage you will see that it is deeply suspect. In particular – in addition to the basic historical and factual errors – you have to wonder how Diodorus, writing three centuries after the event, managed to find out the memories (92.4) and intentions (93.1) of the king, a secret conversation between Attalus and the younger Pausanias (93.5), and conversations between the assassin and his teacher (94.1) etc. Thus, if the passage reads like a fiction, it is likely because it IS a fiction.
There can be little doubt that Pausanias did the deed – the story was common enough knowledge at the time for Aristotle to refer idly to it in a list of examples. Pausanias, he comments, killed Philip because Philip had allowed Attalus and his friends to rape him – the Greek word (hubridzo) means ‘commit an outrage upon’, and could also be used for behaving arrogantly or riotously, exulting over a fallen enemy, and physical mistreatment as far as castration – so something pretty awful happened.
So we have our murderer – our Lee Harvey Oswald. But as for the rest…
The rape story was clearly the ‘official’ story of the murder: that Pausanias acted alone. That he was motivated by outrage and revenge. He also died, conveniently, before he could implicate anyone else.
Governments like ‘lone killer’ stories. If the murderer was a lone killer they don’t have to admit to misgovernment, or to admit that there might be an under-current of opposition. Lee Harvey Oswald, we are assured by the US government, killed Kennedy alone, unaided, with a gun he bought through the mail. Princess Diana, we are assured by the UK government, died as a result of an alcoholic driver. There is no plot! No conspiracy! But – as you well know – the only problem with the government line in all these cases is that nobody believes it.
Similarly, for most of us, the ‘official account’ of Philip’s death simply does not hold water. It might well be the case that Pausanias plunged home the dagger. But I can find no independent evidence that Pleurias (the Illyrian king of Pausanias's supposed war) and Hermocrates (Pausanias's alleged tutor) ever existed. The younger Pausanias is probably Diodorus’s attempt to reconcile two differing traditions about Pausanias’s age. Unless there was a war in 337bc which is reported nowhere else by anyone else, Pausanias nursed his rape grudge for eight years … and then killed the king, not the perpetrator. And by the time the story was finalised, both Pausanias and Attalus – the only people who might have contradicted it – were conveniently dead.
It may well be that Pausanias was a lone madman. Students do run amok on US school campuses. Anders Breivik, too, seems to have acted alone. So I suppose it is possible that Pausanias, too, acted alone on that day in October 336bc, for reasons we will never fully understand.
But, having opened Pandora’s Box, we might as well look into it. If the story of Pausanias as told is palpable rubbish, is it worth looking into some of the conspiracy theories about the murder? Was Pausanias the patsy for someone else behind the murder?
It is evident that, even at the time (and even if we dismiss as nonsense the malicious accusations of the Roman historian Justin), there were plenty of people prepared to point the finger at Olympias, and even at Alexander. Even the careful Plutarch explicitly says as much – that Olympias ‘incited him to the deed’.
If we are to proceed like Inspector Morse, Olympias certainly had the motivation – she had been replaced, then exiled by her husband. Besides which, are we not told by Plutarch that she was a ‘jealous and sullen’ woman? She was certainly able to kill, and to kill horrifically (as the story of the deaths of Cleopatra-Eurydice and her infant son Caranus belies).
But did she have the opportunity? At the time of Philip’s assassination, Olympias had been in exile in Epirus for two years, and it was a two-day journey from Epirus to Pella. Even if she had in some general way ‘incited’ Pausanias to murder Philip, she can have had no ‘hands-on’ involvement in the actual planning and execution of the murder.
And there is even less cause to try to blame Alexander. Plutarch bases his accusation upon a private conversation between Alexander and Pausanias which apparently he, Plutarch, is alone privy to – how did he find it out?!? And would Alexander ever have murdered his father – he was a very religious man, and the Greeks believed that patricides would spend the rest of eternity pursued by monsters called ‘the Furies’. He was furious when Olympias killed Cleopatra-Eurydice, never mind his father.
Also, you have to ask yourself what Alexander hoped to get out of his father’s death. You might be able to accept Pausanias as a mad murderer, careless of personal safety, striking out in revenge. But as soon as you go for a conspiracy theory, you bind yourself to the idea that the murder was rational, and planned … and committed because the conspirators had something to gain. The Gunpowder Plotters had their Fawkes and were clearly living in cloud-cuckoo-land, but even they had comprehensible objectives.
In 336bc, Alexander was openly being presented by Philip as his heir. The row with Philip and Attalus at Cleopatra-Eurydice’s wedding, and a later wobble about the succession, had been papered over. The influence of Attalus and the Lowlanders might even have been beginning to wane - the marriage-agreement with Alexander of Epirus is usually presented as an attempt to undermine Olympias, but it could just as easily be presented as a attempt at a reconciliation with the Molossian royal family. Certainly, the assassination of the king was a major setback for Alexander – the northern tribes attacked and the Greek cities rebelled – who had to spend a year of warfare confirming his position.
Above all, do you think for a moment the Army would have followed Alexander if there had been even a hint of truth in the rumours that he had killed the king? The Macedonian army loved Alexander, but they loved Philip too. Is it really conceivable that they would have followed Alexander with the fanatical loyalty they did if they had for a moment suspected that there was any validity in the rumours about Olympias and Alexander?
Lowlanders and Highlanders
A number of historians on the web interpret the murder of Philip in the light of what they see as a Highlander-Lowlander clash in the court of Philip.
Just like England eventually spread out to the ‘fringes’ to incorporate Ireland, Wales and Scotland within the United Kingdom, Macedon in the 4th century bc had been spreading northwards and westwards to incorporate former Illyrian and Thracian lands – places like Molossia, Orestis and Lyncestis.
The Macedonian kings had not only conquered these lands; they relied on them – these were the rich valleys which pastured the warhorses which the Macedonian army its edge. So Philip had consciously welcomed and incorporated these peoples into his court. He married Olympias of Molossia (and was marrying his daughter to Alexander of Epirus). His chief of bodyguards was Pausanias of Orestis.
There is some evidence that the ‘Lowlanders’ (men like Attalus) hated the ‘incomers’ – this was why the row at Philip’s wedding to Cleopatra-Eurydice was so significant, when Attalus called on the Macedonians to ask the gods for ‘a legitimate inheritor’ of the kingdom from Philip and Cleopatra-Eurydice. As his niece, Cleopatra-Eurydice was Lowlander and fully ‘Macedonian’, and the marriage marks a move away from Philip’s policy of incorporation to one of ‘pure-blood-Macedonianism’. I know the sources concentrate on the homosexual side of the matter, but if you lay that aside, you get a story whereby Pausanias (a Highlander) had been a royal favourite, had lost his prominence, had been abused by Attalus (a Lowlander) … and Philip had ignored the whole incident and indeed had made Attalus his general for the attack on Persia.
These events would have alarmed not only Alexander, but ALL the ‘Highlanders’ – who were losing not only royal favour, but their status in the army … and their chance of the spoils of war.
England has spent ten centuries trying to incorporate the ‘fringes’ and has STILL failed; Macedon had had less than a century to incorporate Molossia, Orestis, Lyncestia etc. Immediately after the death of Philip, Alexander and the Army called a trial. Pausanias of Orestis was, of course, found guilty and posthumously crucified. But two other men were found guilty of conspiracy and put to death – Heromenes and Arrhabaeus of Lyncestis. So it is very tempting to interpret the murder of Philip much as British historians have interpreted Magna Carta – as a reaction by half-assimilated ‘northerners’ confronted by an aggressive monarch who was expanding his power, but who at the same time were finding themselves excluded from the benefits of royal power. Pausanias might have had a personal grudge. Arrhabaeus’s name suggests he might have wished to re-establish an independent Lyncestis. But there would have been at Philip’s court an awful lot of people (including, it has to be said, Olympias and Alexander) who – however much they condemned the act – would have understood its motivation.
Attractive though this theory is, however, it does not answer ALL the questions about Philip’s death.
If this was an attempt by the fringes to reduce the power at the centre, why did Heromenes and Arrhabaeus’s brother, Alexander of Lyncestis, immediately run over to Philip’s body and proclaim Alexander king?
And if this was a court takeover, why did Pausanias have two horses ready to run away?
A number of historians on the web have gone ‘outside the box’ and suggested Amyntas as a possible ‘plotter-behind-the-assassination’.
He certainly had motive to kill Philip. Amyntas had been elected king of Macedon in 359bc but, as he was only about 6 years old, Philip had been appointed as his Regent. Later that same year, Philip had gone back to the Army and instead had himself elected as king. In 336bc, Amyntas would have been 25, and absolutely the right age to make a bid to take back what he perhaps regarded as his by right. Indeed, within a year, Alexander had executed Amyntas on a charge of treason, after he was implicated with Attalus in a plot to assassinate Alexander (when his friend Antiochou fled from Macedon to the Persian court).
Just as JFK conspiracy theories tend to focus on the man-on-the-grassy-knoll, Amyntas-advocates wonder who was the man-for-the-second-horse!
To be honest, however, I don’t think there’s much mileage in the Amyntas idea. If he was implicated in the plot as an attempt to seize the crown, he must have been pretty put out when Alexander of Lycentis rushed over and proclaimed Alexander king.
And why did nothing come out at the trial – how did he stay totally unmentioned by anyone?
And what a silly thing to kill the king? To rebel in 335bc, against Alexander – when Alexander was moving against the Lowlanders and had arrested/killed Attalus – is a VERY different matter to killing king Philip in 336bc. Amyntas had done well under Philip, becoming an ambassador and marrying the king’s daughter. With Cleopatra-Eurydice still Philip’s ‘first wife’, Caranus growing older every day, and Attalus at the height of his power as a general in the Persian invasion, the Lowlanders had everything to gain from Philip’s survival … and everything to lose from his death.
And above all, how do you think Amyntas persuaded Pausanias of Orestis to join the Lowlanders in a plot involving Attalus?
Darius and Persian interference
When you are trying to solve a murder, a good question to ask is: ‘Who gained?’ And the person who stood to gain most from the death of Philip was …of course … Darius, whom the League of Corinth was about to attack. Even as things turned out, after a brilliant campaign by Alexander, Philip’s murder delayed the invasion a year – under a leader less brilliant, and with a bit of luck, it could have stopped it altogether.
And we have other evidence that Persia was at this time actively interfering in Greek politics to try to disrupt the Macedonian momentum. In 335bc, Darius sent 300 talents to Athens to try to inspire a rebellion against Alexander. That same year, Amyntas was executed for conspiring with the Persians.
Alexander’s reaction to his father’s death, if anything, suggests just how deep the problem did go. At first, he seems to have been keen to investigate his father’s death … to get to the bottom of it. Two of the bodyguards who killed Pausanias were demoted, presumably because they had thrown away the opportunity to question him. Heromenes and Arrhabaeus were tried and executed.
But then things changed. The story spread about Pausanias’s rape. The investigation was left to lie. Instead, Alexander spent a year seeking out and eliminating the Persiophiles … and it was only later, as he was actually invading Persia, that he openly blamed Darius for organising his father’s murder. And the year ended with a mass-wedding between Highlanders and Lowlanders, such as he was to use later to try to cement his Persian conquests into his dominions.
One explanation of Alexander’s behaviour would be that, having set about uncovering his father’s murderers, he suddenly realised how deep the problem went, and realised that he had to turn from mere justice to politics and statecraft.
Eventually, however, Alexander openly blamed the Persians for his father’s death. Arrian, as often, comes to our aid: ‘Alexander wrote to Darius, the Great King, saying ‘my father was murdered by conspirators, whom you instructed, as you yourself boasted in a letter, before all the world’. (And note there is no ‘it is said’ – just a straight ‘Alexander wrote’, which makes one think that Arrian, or at least one of his most-trusted sources, had access to the letter.)
Such a ‘Persian factor’, also, would explain a number of other aspects of the assassination. In the 5th century bc, the north states of Macedon had been part of the Persian empire; it was quite possible that a number of ‘Highland’ nobles were Persiophiles. Barely a century earlier, places like Orestis and Lyncestis had been in the Persian sphere of influence and it would at least be natural for disaffected ‘Highlanders’ to turn to Persia as an alternative to Pella. It would seem possible, moreover, that the Lyncestis brothers had a Persian connection – during Alexander’s Persian campaign, Alexander of Lycentis was arrested for plotting with Darius to assassinate Alexander.
And what about Pausanias of Orestis? The Persian border was only two weeks ride from Pella. Historians have noted that Pausanias had two horses waiting, and assumed he had an accomplice who was going to flee with him – but perhaps the second horse was so that he might take with him a second horse which would stay fresher so he could ride further, for longer?
So there you have my thoughts.
Aristotle’s official ‘state’ version of Philip’s death would have you believe that Pausanias acted alone after a personal humiliation. Diodorus tarted it up and turned it into a scandalous fable.
An analysis of Macedonian politics, however, would suggest that there was more to the murder than a lone madman. My best bet would be for a Persian-inspired plot, stoking ‘Highlander’ fears and resentments and – yes – finding in Pausanias a Highlander sufficiently angry to do the deed.
But then what do I know – who do YOU think killed King Philip?