Macedonia before Alexander

Macedonian background

Before looking at the history of the Greek city states and the kingdom of Macedonia after the time of Alexander the Great, we should first give some historical background. The previous history of the Greek city-states is fully covered elsewhere, but a look at the early history of Macedonia will help to give some understanding of the kingdom and its traditions.

The Macedonian kingdom probably emerged in the early 7th century BCE. It was located in the north-east of the Greek peninsula, just north of Greece proper. The people spoke a Greek dialect, but because they did not live in city-states but in tribal societies, they were regarded as, at best, semi-barbarians by the Greeks in the south. According to varying foundation legends, however, the kings claimed descent from a royal family of one or other of the Greek city states.

The kingdom was divided into three broad regions. The coastal plain was open to cultural influences from the wider world, and several Greek-style cities had emerged here. Inland from these was a fertile plain, and this gave way to a mountainous region. Here, Macedonian hill tribes jealously maintained their autonomy, and only loosely acknowledged the suzerainty of the king.

The Macedonians had constantly to deal with aggressive neighbors, especially from the north and west, from whence the warlike Paeonians, Thracians and Illyrians repeatedly raided. This must have helped forge a closer relationship between hill tribes and the rest of the kingdom than would otherwise have been the case, and the chieftains were bound to the Macedonian royal family by a network of marriage alliances.

In 512 BCE the Macedonians (along with the Thracians to their north) came under the loose control of the Persian empire. This lasted on and off well into the 5th century, when the Greek-Persian Wars enabled them to re-establish full independence.

During the 4th century, Macedonia began to develop from being a comparatively loose confederation of tribes and city states to being a unified kingdom. At the same time Greek culture became more widespread in the interior. These internal developments were accompanied by greater political involvement with the city-states of Greece proper.

Philip II

Philip (reigned 359-336 BCE) came to the throne by deposing his infant nephew – a move supported by the bulk of the powerful aristocracy who knew that strong leadership was needed to defend the kingdom’s borders. Philip soon not only defended these, but expanded Macedonian power into the territories of the Paeonians, Thracians and Illyrians.

He achieved these successes by reorganizing the Macedonian army along lines based on the Greek hoplite model (in his youth Philip had been a hostage in Thebes), but introducing a few important innovations of his own. He increased the size of the infantry formations, thus increasing their sheer weight of numbers, a crucial factor in Greek warfare. He also armed the soldiers with longer spears (and smaller shields), enhancing their offensive capabilities. This formation became known as the phalanx.

He also expanded the number of cavalry and armed them more heavily. Instead of playing a role scouting before battles and mopping-up after them, they could now play a more important part in battle by protecting the infantry’s flanks and in charging the enemy’s ranks.

Philip subdues the Greeks

After expanding his borders to north and west, Philip turned east and south, towards Greece. He had soon expanded Macedonian power along the coast, which the Athenians regarded as being in their sphere of influence; he then moved south and occupied Thessaly. After defeating Athens in 353 BCE Macedonia was recognized as one of the major powers of the Greek world.

Athens responded to what they correctly saw as the growing threat of Macedonia by organizing an anti-Macedonian coalition, which included most of the powerful cities in Greece, including the strongest of them all at that time, Thebes. The alliance’s forces met the Macedonians at the battle of Chaeronea (338 BCE), where Philip and his Macedonians decisively defeated them.

This victory made Philip the most powerful figure in Greece. To formalize his power he created the League of Corinth, by which all member states agreed not to go to war with each other. The League elected Philip as its leader, with the intention of invading the Persian empire. Of the major city-states, only Sparta remained aloof from the league.

Philip was assassinated in 336 BC, before he could launch his intended invasion of Persia. The task was taken up by his youthful son, Alexander III, who had already gained a reputation for courage and leadership in battle. After securing Macedonian control over Greece, which had been shaken by Philip’s assassination, he went on the conquer the mighty Persian empire, and would go down in history as Alexander the Great.

For the history of Macedonia after Alexander, down to its conquest by the Romans, see the article Greece and Macedonia after the time of Alexander the Great.

Further study

TimeMaps resources:


Survey of Greek civilization

History of Ancient Greece

Overview of Hellenistic civilization

Alexander the Great and the Hellenistic Kingdoms

Greece and Macedonia after the time of Alexander the Great


Map of Ancient Greece and the Aegean at the time of the Persian Wars, 500 BCE

Map of Ancient Greece and the Aegean after the time of Alexander the Great, 200 BCE

See also:

A timeline on ancient Greek history