Alexander I the Philhellene

Alexander I the Philhellene: king of Macedonia (r. c.498-454 BCE).

Towards the end of the sixth century BCE, Macedonia consisted of several principalities, which can be divided into two groups. The Macedonians of the plain probably spoke Northwest Greek and worshipped Zeus and Heracles, while the people of Upper Macedonia spoke dialects that may have been related to Illyrian and Thracian. They worshipped snakes, joined in orgiastic cults, and venerated Dionysus. Contemporary observers believed the inhabitants of Macedonia were some kind of Greeks, although they also recognized differences: the Persians, for example, made a distinction between Yaunâ tyaiy paradrayâ ("Greeks across the sea") and Yaunâ takabarâ ("with sunhats", i.e., Macedonians). The Greeks held a similar view: Hesiod had presented the Macedonians as related to the Greeks.

The Macedonian principalities were united under one supreme leader, king Amyntas, a member of the Argead dynasty. After 513 BCE, he was subdued by the Persian commander  Megabazus.note In Achaemenid royal inscriptions written after this moment, Macedonia is mentioned among the Persian subjects.note The negotiations between Amyntas and the Persians were conducted by his son Alexander.note The Argeads soon became a member of the administative elite of the Achaemenid Empire, especially after Amyntas married his daughter Gygaea to a Persian nobleman named Bubares.note

Twenty years later, the Persian general Mardonius organized Macedonia as one of the regular tax districts of the empire.note Darius recognized Alexander as the Macedonian king and may even have awarded him the Persian rank of satrap. Usually, these officials were responsible for more people than just their own nation. For example, the satrap of Lydia was also the ruler of several nearby Greek towns. We may assume that Persian recognition and support gave Alexander a decisive advantage over the mountain tribes. There is no proof, but it would fit Achaemenid practice. 

However this may be, Alexander was a loyal ally of Darius' son Xerxes when he tried to conquer Greece in 480 BCE. As is well known, the Persian annexation of Greece was not successful. In 479, the Greeks defeated the army of Mardonius near Plataea. During the next years, the Athenian alliance, the Delian League, expelled the Persians from Europe. 

These years were decisive for the development of the Greek and Macedonian self-image. Until then, they had probably seen each other as different but related nations; after 479, relations worsened and two new identities started to grow. Darius and Xerxes had grouped the Macedonians of the plain into one political unit with the mountain tribes, and Alexander kept it this way. At the same time, the Greeks, who had only been united by religion, their legendary cooperation during the Trojan War, and their language, started to recognize that they also shared their cooperation in the Persian War. As former allies of Xerxes, the Macedonians could not be Greeks. 

Of course, the separate development of Macedonia and the Greek cities did not prevent close ties. Greece needed the timber and cereals that Macedonia exported and Alexander needed support to control the mountain tribes. He tried to deny the differences by calling himself philhellenos ("friend of the Greeks") and claiming that his dynasty descended from the Greek city of Argos (text), a claim that was recognized by the authorities at the Olympic Games.note Alexander also claimed that he had never been fully loyal to his Persian overlord, but this is contradicted by his behavior during the war, by the marriage alliance, and perhaps - as late as the 460s - by his support of Themistocles, who had been exiled by the Athenians and was on the run to Persia. Writing in the third quarter of the fifth century, Herodotus tells the strange story that Alexander had ordered the execution of Persian diplomats, a story that is unlikely to be true and probably documents the way Alexander tried to sell his volte face.note

When he died in 454, he left behind a kingdom that consisted of the inhabitants of the central plain, of mountain tribes and some territories that he had conquered (or reconquered after they had revolted during the collapse of Persian power). He had also added silver mines, which greatly improved his income and gave the Macedonian king a better position vis-à-vis the barons.note His statue was to be seen in Delphi.note

The tribal barons recognized Alexander as their overlord, and although future kings would meet with opposition, the hegemony of the Argead dynasty was never seriously challenged. Macedonia's foreign policy had also been created: it wanted to cooperate with its southern neighbors. A nation was born. 

This page was created in 2018; last modified on 2 November 2018.