The Scars of Battle



Philip’s astounding victories did not come without a price and the king, leading from the front in battle after battle, paid this price repeatedly. In his recklessness in the face of the enemy Philip was only surpassed by his son, a fact borne out by the sheer number of wounds both sustained in their never-ending pursuit of victory.

As Philip’s body grew increasingly scarred and disfigured from the years of punishment at enemy hands, it is a miracle he managed to stay alive until the relatively advanced age of 46, and even more miraculous that his death was the result of assassination at home rather than being killed in the field.

In 354 bce Philip sustained his most severe wound when he lost his right eye during the siege of Methone. The loss had apparently been foretold by the Oracle at Delphi, which Philip had consulted over his concerns about his wife Olympia. Having spied on her having intercourse with a snake, the Oracle revealed the creature was in fact Zeus-Ammon, the true father of Olympia’s child. The oracle then told Philip that his spying had been an act of sacrilege and he was destined to lose the eye that saw the god.

The ancient sources are quite detailed in describing Philip’s many wounds, ranging from his missing eye to a broken collar bone, maimed arm and a lame leg, debilitated by a Thracian spear. His arch enemy Demosthenes lists them all as the result of Philip’s greed for power, with more detailed information given by Didymus Chalcenterus in his C.1st bce commentary on Demosthenes’ work (also drawing on Theopompus, Marsyas and Duris) – “He had his right eye cut out when he was hit by an arrow whilst inspecting siege engines during the siege of Methone”. Although this is the most likely explanation for such a terrible wound, Duris states it was inflicted by a soldier named Aster using his spear, whilst Strabo says the damage was the result of a catapult bolt (which would surely have killed him outright).

Philip of Macedon

Small ivory-head, portrait of Philip II,
found in the royal tomb at Vergina

After having examined the recently identified skeletal remains of Philip, complete with damage to the right eye socket, found in the Royal Tomb II at Vergina, an archery expert concluded that the wound “must have been made by a heavy “Cretan” arrowhead since the smaller “Scythian” type is unlikely to have caused so much damage to the bone”.

The Roman writer Pliny the Elder describes the skill of Philip’s surgeon Kritoboulos, which prevented such a wound from seriously disfiguring the king’s face. “Kritoboulos achieved great renown for having removed the arrow from Philip’s eye, and having treated the loss of the eyeball without disfiguring his face”. To achieve such impressive results the surgeon is likely to have used a specialised surgical instrument designed to remove arrows, known as “the spoon of Diokles” after its inventor Diokles of Karystos, a contemporary of Aristotle (whose own father had been court surgeon at Pella, where Hippocrates, the “Father of Medicine” had also resided for a time.

The stalemate between father and son was eventually broken by family friend Demaratus of Corinth, who acted as a trusted go-between for the two. At Philip’s summons, Alexander and Olympias returned to Pella and were reinstated at court, Philip’s new wife having given birth to a girl, Europa. Yet with the ever-present Attalus and his clan growing ever more powerful, Alexander’s inheritance was only secure until the time Eurydice produced a male child.
By 336 bce Philip was also in negotiation to marry off his other adult son Arrhidaeus to the daughter of Pixodarus of Caria, client king of Persia. Imagining himself to have been passed over in favour of his retarded half-brother, Alexander sent his friend the actor Thettalus to ask for the princess’s hand for himself, but Philip found out and was furious that his plans for a diplomatic marriage to help in his forthcoming Asian invasion had been thwarted. Plutarch says that Philip went to Alexander’s room and gave him a serious dressing-down, “angrily reproaching him for behaving so unworthily as to wish to marry the daughter of a mere Carian who was no more than the slave of a barbarian king”. Apparently placing Alexander under temporary house arrest Philip also banished four of his son’s closest friends, Ptolemy, Nearchus, Erygius and Harpalus as having contributed to the unsettled times.

Royal Tomb at Vergina

The archway, Royal Tomb at Vergina


With everything secured at home, Philip decided to send an advance force into Asia Minor in the spring of 336 bce prior to his planned invasion. The army of 10,000 men including 1,000 cavalry was led by his second-in-command Parmenio and his son-in-law Attalus with a remit to secure the Dardanelles, prepare supplies and liberate the Greek cities of Asia Minor from Persian rule. As they marched south down the coast of Ionia the cities of Chios, Erythrae and Ephesus all opened their gates in welcome, and in Ephesus the citizens set up Philip’s statue alongside that of the goddess Artemis herself. Pursuing the notion of divine intervention, Philip also sent enquiries to the Oracle at Delphi to ask if he would conquer the Great King. Upon receiving the answer “The bull is garlanded. All is done. The sacrificer is ready”, Philip chose to interpret its ambiguous words as confirmation of his imminent success, yet he could not have been further from the truth.

The one to be sacrificed was Philip himself.

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