Jule Romans has over 30 years of experience researching and writing on educational topics. She presently works in State Government.
The assassination of Philip of Macedon was not only one of the boldest and most dramatic in recorded history, but it also stands as one of the earliest of all famous political murders. The assassination of Philip of Macedon took place in the year 336 B.C. It can be considered one of the most important assassinations of ancient history.
A Political Assassination
Philip’s assassination terminated the glorious career of one of the most remarkable men of his times. It also caused Alexander the Great to take the throne. If Philip of Macedon had not been assassinated, he would have lived his full life and selected his own heir. Because of family chaos, it seems likely that young Alexander would not have been Philip’s first choice as his successor. However, the timing of Philip’s murder allowed Alexander to succeed Philip and later become widely known as Alexander the Great. Thus, the course of history was made. This makes the assassination of Philip of Macedon a highly influential, if little known, ancient murder.
A Beloved Soldier King
Two years before his death, in 338 B.C., Philip of Macedon won the battle of Charonea and became master of Greece. He was at the height of his power. Philip was a diplomatic and magnanimous ruler.
The conquered citizens voluntarily appointed him as “Amphictyon League Commander-in-Chief” of all the Greek forces. The title is a mouthful, but it reflected the tremendous pride and trust that was given to him by his people.
Philip intended to lead the Greeks, along with his own Macedonia army, against the Persians. It is a great misfortune that Philip was assassinated before carrying out his triumph. Philip’s son, Alexander, later managed that glorious achievement long after the death of his father. But that is a different story.
Diplomatic Genius of Philip of Macedon
A Pretty Awful Husband
As a ruler, Philip of Macedon was greatly prized. As a husband, he was less than stellar. Philip was frequently far from home and far from his queen Olympias. He was known for forming illicit liaisons wherever he traveled. Several illegitimate children were openly recognized by him and by his courtiers throughout many lands. His home life and domestic affairs were never in very good order. His domestic affairs began to rise to the point of crisis just as Philip was planning his attack on Persia.
The Public Humiliation of Queen Olympias
Philip’s domestic affairs in Macedon had never been good. Olympias, the royal spouse, may have finally had enough of the turmoil. She was, in 338 BC, held in suspicion of adultery – a great sin for a Queen, and tantamount to treason.
Philip returned to Macedon and publicly humiliated Olympias with accusations and threats. Philip even went so far as to question whether or not Alexander was really his legitimate son.
After this debacle, Olympias retreated with Alexander, preparing to return home to her native state of Epirus. Alexander, a fairly young man, was livid with hatred for Philip at the treatment of his beloved mother.
King Philip's Second Marriage
Undeterred, Philip of Macedon contracted himself into a second marriage. He chose a woman named Cleopatra, the niece of General Attalus. General Attalus had served loyally in Philip’s army, and this was a good political match.
The wedding feast was held.
A Disastrous Wedding Feast
At the feast, General Attalus became intoxicated and made remarks that inflamed the conflict. Under the influence of too much wine, Philip expressed the wish that his new wife should soon bear a child and provide the Macedonians with a “rightful” heir to the kingdom.
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The Public Humiliation of Prince Alexander
Alexander, Philip’s son by his first wife Olympia, overheard these unwelcome comments.
Upon hearing what Atttalus said, Alexander became enraged. Alexander threw a full cup at Attalus’s head and shouted at him. Alexander is reported to have exclaimed to Attalus,
“What, you scoundrel! am I then a bastard?”
The Embarrassing Brawl
King Philip took up the defense of Attalus and rose from his seat, drawing his sword. Philip attempted to rush at Alexander. Philip was exceeding drunk himself, though, and fell down on the floor before he could do any real damage.
This was an embarrassing moment for the new bridegroom king. As the onlookers most likely tried to stifle their laughter, Alexander responded with the scorn the act deserved.
According to historical reports, Alexander looked down at his father and said
“See there the man who is making great preparations to invade Asia at the head of a powerful army, and who falls to the ground like a helpless child in going from one seat to another.”
A Family in Turmoil
After this terrible public scene, Alexander and Olympias left the capital city. Alexander went to Epicurus and Olympias retired to Illyria. At this point, some of the courtiers got involved.
A Corinthian noble named Demaratus was an old friend of the family. Damaratus took up the cause and finally convinced Philip to call Alexander back to court. Alexander did return to court, just in time to be present for the birth of Philip and Cleopatra’s son.
Alexander's Fears Come True
Thus, the remarks made by Attalus at the wedding came true, and Alexander’s fears for his future were increased. Alexander remained in communication with his mother Olympias, who began to fan the flames of Alexander’s fear and jealousy.
Queen Olympias Desires Revenge
It has been speculated that Olympias herself planned the assassination of King Philip. Although this has never been proven, it would make sense as she was also filled with desire for revenge.
King Philip has not only insulted her pride as a woman, he had also appeared to usurp the rightful passage of the throne from her own oldest son. The opportunity for revenge presented itself, and Olympias may have had a hand in it. It is not as clear whether Alexander was involved.
There was a young Macedonian named Pausanias who felt he had been mortally offended by King Philip and Queen Cleopatra. Pausanius appealed for reparations, but was denied.
Historians do seem to agree that Pausanius was incited to violence by Olympias or her compatriots. Pausanius planned his violent revenge, but in many ways was simply a pawn in a much larger game.
Pausanius and the Play
The assassination was planned to take place at another grand wedding. King Philip of Macedonia had arranged another good political marriage, this time for his sister. Because Philip was so proud of this arrangement, he made the event a huge celebration. There were games, presentations of gifts, and the performance of a play written by the famous dramatist Neoptolemus.
It was at this play that Philip met his untimely end. Although he was accompanied by a large cotillion, Philip insisted on entering the amphitheater ahead of his crowd. He shook off the warning of his bodyguards. Philip stepped forward at the head of large and impressive procession.
At that very moment, Pausanius slipped in from a shadowy corridor and stabbed Philip in the side with a knife. The wound was fatal.
Pausanius ran toward a horse that was saddled and ready for him. According to Dr. Johnson, author of Famous Assassinations of History, “[Pausanius] would probably have escaped, had not his sandal caught in a vine-stock and caused him to fall, which gave some of his pursuers time to lay their hands on him before he could get up. In their rage, they killed him with their spears and tore him to pieces.”
Whether or not this account is strictly true or somewhat embellished, Pausanius was killed for his actions.
This is how one of the earliest political assassinations of the ancient world took place.
Philip of Macedon was murdered in public, potentially because of private turmoil in his personal life. Philip’s assassination will always be significant because it opened the way for Alexander the Great to rise to power.
As a final note, Dr. Francis Johnson suggests that:
The surroundings and execution of this plot bear a strong resemblance to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. In both cases there was an individual murderer, the scene was a theatre, the act was done with incredible audacity in the presence of a large concourse of people, and the murderer made a misstep after the fatal blow.
- Johnson, Francis. (1903). Famous Assassinations of History. A.C. McClurg & Co.
- Staff. Diodorus on the Death of Philip. (2002, Modified 2020). Livius: Articles on Ancient History <Livius.com>. Accessed November, 2021.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 Jule Romans