The death of Philip II: a cold case


The death of Philip II of Macedonia is permeated by particularly mystifying circumstances and most likely was only partly influenced by previous events occurred a few years before and more likely due to political and dynastical motives. According to the tradition a Macedon nobleman Pausania (one of Philip’s bodyguards) had profoundly offended a young man who, in consequence to the humiliation had taken his own life. In vengeance one of his friends, Attalus, was behind a serious degrading offence against Pausania. When Pausania demanded justice to Philip II, being the king related to Attalus he did not executed any punishment and limited his intervention by trying to sooth Pausania’s rage with significant gifts. Unfortunately Philip did not realise the vindictive temperament of his safeguard as in 336 b.C. during his daughter’s wedding Pausania murdered his king. Diodorus reports in fact:

“Pausanias, nevertheless, nursed his wrath implacably, and yearned to avenge himself, not only on the one who had done him wrong, but also on the one who failed to avenge him. In this design he was encouraged especially by the sophist Hermocrates. He was his pupil, and when he asked in the course of his instruction how one might become most famous, the sophist replied that it would be by killing the one who had accomplished most, for just as long as he was remembered, so long his slayer would be remembered also.

Pausanias connected this saying with his private resentment, and admitting no delay in his plans because of his grievance he determined to act under cover of the festival in the following manner.

He posted horses at the gates of the city and came to the entrance of the theatre carrying a Celtic dagger under his cloak. When Philip directed his attending friends to precede him into the theatre, while the guards kept their distance, he saw that the king was left alone, rushed at him, pierced him through his ribs, and stretched him out dead; then ran for the gates and the horses which he had prepared for his flight”.

In truth the preliminary accident seems to have happened years before the king’s homicide, thus apparently Pausanias had lingered quite a while before pursuing his reprisal; coincidentally – is it truly a coincidence?  As it seems that the murder occurred in a crucial moment for Alexander to take over and become then The Great. By the by, there is no trace of a sophist named Hermocrates, unless this character coincides with an effective syntactician of that age. Actually, in spite of Diodorus’ reticence, Justin in his Epitome of Pompeius Trogus, makes a specific reference to a conspiracy in murder involving Philip’s first wife Olympias and their son Alexander who shared their worries after Philip’s new marriage with Cleopatra and  thus perpetrated remarkable atrocities:

“It is even believed that he was instigated to the act by Olympias, Alexander’s mother, and that Alexander himself was not ignorant that his father was to be killed; as Olympias had felt no less resentment at her divorce, and the preferment of Cleopatra to herself, than Pausanias had felt at the insults which he had received. As for Alexander, it is said that he feared his brother by his step-mother as a rival for the throne; and hence it happened that he had previously quarrelled at a banquet, first with Attalus, and afterwards with his father himself, insomuch that Philip pursued him even with his drawn sword, and was hardly prevented from killing him by the entreaties of his friends. Alexander had in consequence retired with his mother into Epirus, to take refuge with his uncle, and from thence to the king of the Illyrians, and was with difficulty reconciled to his father when he recalled him, and not easily induced by the prayers of his relations to return. Olympias, too, was instigating her brother, the king of Epirus, to go to war with Philip, and would have prevailed upon him to do so, had not Philip, by giving him his daughter in marriage, disarmed him as a son-in-law. With these provocations to resentment, both of them are thought to have encouraged Pausanias, when complaining of his insults being left unpunished, to so atrocious a deed. Olympias, it is certain, had horses prepared for the escape of the assassin; and, when she heard that the king was dead, hastening to the funeral under the appearance of respect, she put a crown of gold, the same night that she arrived, on the head of Pausanias, as he was hanging on a cross; an act which no one but she would have dared to do, as long as the son of Philip was alive. A few days after, she burnt the body of the assassin, when it had been taken down, upon the remains of her husband, and made him a tomb in the same place; she also provided that yearly sacrifices should be performed to his manes, possessing the people with a superstitious notion for the purpose. Next she forced Cleopatra, for whose sake she had been divorced from Philip, to hang herself, having first killed her daughter in her lap, and enjoyed the sight of her suffering this vengeance, to which she had hastened by procuring the death of her husband. Last of all she consecrated the sword, with which the king had been killed, to Apollo, under the name of Myrtale, which was Olympias’s own name when a child. And all these things were done so publicly, that she seems to have been afraid lest it should not be evident enough that the deed was promoted by her”.

Even Plutarch, albeit in a more telegraphic style, corroborates this theory:

“The assassin was Pausanias, who was angry because Philip had refused to give him justice for some injury done to him by Attalus.  But it was Philip’s wife who was the instigator. Olympias took this enraged young man and made him the instrument of her revenge against her husband. Once Philip was out of the way, Olympias tortured her hated young rival, Cleopatra, to death. So, at the age of only twenty, Alexander became king of Macedonia.”

In addition Alexander, to throw into disarray any potential accuser, distinctly directed towards the Persians the suspicions of having arranged the plot; as can be read in a letter reported by Arrian from Alexander to the Persian king Darius that:

“My father was killed by conspirators whom you instigated as you have yourself boasted to all in your letters”

As narrated by Plutarchus, Philip’s assassination was interpreted by the Athenians as a good omen as they felt freed from the threat hovering over their territories, but, as history has subsequently taught this was the very sad beginning of the irreparable end of classic Greece.

“Demosthenes had secret intelligence of the death of Philip, and laying hold of this opportunity to prepossess the people with courage and better hopes for the future, he came into the assembly with a cheerful countenance, pretending to have had a dream that presaged some great good fortune for Athens; and, not long after, arrived the messengers who brought the news of Philip’s death. No sooner had the people received it, but immediately they offered sacrifice to the gods, and decreed that Pausanias should be presented with a crown”.

Yet not only the suspect murderers seem to deserve attention and hideous comments from the historians, as Plutarch deplores also the conduct of Demosthenes under this specific circumstance:

“Demosthenes appeared publicly in a rich dress, with a chaplet on his head, though it were but the seventh day since the death of his daughter, as is said by Aeschines, who upbraids him upon this account, and rails at him as one void of natural affection towards his children. Whereas, indeed, he rather betrays himself to be of a poor, low spirit, and effeminate mind, if he really means to make wailings and lamentation the only signs of a gentle and affectionate nature, and to condemn those who bear such accidents with more temper and less passion. For my own part, I cannot say that the behaviour of the Athenians on this occasion was wise or honourable, to crown themselves with garlands and to sacrifice to the gods for the death of a prince who, in the midst of his success and victories, when they were a conquered people, had used them with so much clemency and humanity.”

It is hardly conceivable – and even otiose – what would have occurred to the destiny of Greece, Asia and Europe if Philip had not been assassinated. Yet his personality and greatness seemed coupled with more wisdom and moderation than his son Alexander, and perhaps, perhaps the history and geography of Greek poleis would have been quite different. Again Diodorus:

“Such was the end of Philip, who had made himself the greatest of the kings in Europe in his time, and because of the extent of his kingdom had made himself a throned companion of the twelve gods. He had ruled twenty-four years. He is known to fame as one who with but the slenderest resources to support his claim to a throne won for himself the greatest empire in the Greek world, while the growth of his position was not due so much to his prowess in arms as to his adroitness and cordiality in diplomacy.

Philip himself is said to have been prouder of his grasp of strategy and his diplomatic successes than of his valour in actual battle. Every member of his army shared in the successes which were won in the field but he alone got credit for victories won through negotiation”.

Are classic studies worthless nowadays?

After reading Mary Beard’s post where she quoted a capital question a speaker asked rhetorically to a symposium audience:

… whether the whole project we were engaged on was now worthless and time-expired. Hadn’t Classics really had its day? Shouldn’t we be going off and learning Chinese and Arabic?…(omissis).… Shouldn’t we get real?

I have been meditating on the subject and I wish to report some of my conclusions. Naturally I am aware that this issue has involved in the past numerous and endowed academics, consequently I am humbly positive I will not be able to add any particular advancement to this debate – which, besides, is far from being in my blog’s aims; nevertheless I will employ this commentary as my personal justification for my own studies.


It is not false rhetoric to underline the strategic pivotal role of education in a culture: the celebrated Greek Παιδεiα, as well as the Institutio oratoria for the Romans, the ratio studiorum for Jesuits are just a few significant examples.

I will leave to your personal meditation Cicero’s celebrated apophthegm “Historia Magistra vitae” and point out instead Niccolo’ Machiavelli (1469-1527) who emphasize the importance of learning lessons from the past experiences:

…(omissis) quanto onore si attribuisca all’antiquità, …(omissis) e veggiendo, da l’altro canto, le virtuosissime operazioni che le storie ci mostrono, che sono state operate da regni e republiche antique, dai re, capitani, cittadini, latori di leggi, ed altri che si sono per la loro patria affaticati, essere più presto ammirate che imitate; anzi, in tanto da ciascuno in ogni minima cosa fuggite, che di quella antiqua virtù non ci è rimasto alcun segno; non posso fare che insieme non me ne maravigli e dolga. E tanto più, quanto io veggo nelle diferenzie che intra cittadini civilmente nascano, o nelle malattie nelle quali li uomini incorrono, essersi sempre ricorso a quelli iudizii o a quelli remedii che dagli antichi sono stati iudicati o ordinati: perché le leggi civili non sono altro che sentenze date dagli antiqui iureconsulti, le quali, ridutte in ordine, a’ presenti nostri iureconsulti iudicare insegnano. …(omissis)

Nondimanco, nello ordinare le republiche, nel mantenere li stati, nel governare e’ regni, nello ordinare la milizia ed amministrare la guerra, nel iudicare e’ sudditi, nello accrescere l’imperio, non si truova principe né republica che agli esempli delli antiqui ricorra. Il che credo che nasca non tanto da la debolezza nella quale la presente religione ha condotto el mondo, o da quel male che ha fatto a molte provincie e città cristiane uno ambizioso ozio, quanto dal non avere vera cognizione delle storie, per non trarne, leggendole, quel senso né gustare di loro quel sapore che le hanno in sé. Donde nasce che infiniti che le leggono, pigliono piacere di udire quella varietà degli accidenti che in esse si contengono, sanza pensare altrimenti di imitarle, iudicando la imitazione non solo difficile ma impossibile; come se il cielo, il sole, li elementi, li uomini, fussino variati di moto, di ordine e di potenza, da quello che gli erono antiquamente.

Volendo, pertanto, trarre li uomini di questo errore, ho giudicato necessario scrivere, sopra tutti quelli libri di Tito Livio che dalla malignità de’ tempi non ci sono stati intercetti, quello che io, secondo le cognizione delle antique e moderne cose, iudicherò essere necessario per maggiore intelligenzia di essi, a ciò che coloro che leggeranno queste mia declarazioni, possino più facilmente trarne quella utilità per la quale si debbe cercare la cognizione delle istorie. [Discorsi sopra la prima Deca di Tito Livio, I, Proemio]

Relatively more recently Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) was firmly positive on the higher importance of classic studies, – although on a elitist and almost discriminatory basis – confirmed by his statement of a concomitant necessity for the restrictedness of their teaching:

Une étude peut être utile à la littérature d’un peuple et ne point être appropriée à ses besoins sociaux et politiques.

Si l’on s’obstinait à n’enseigner que les belles-lettres, dans une société où chacun serait habituellement conduit à faire de violents efforts pour accroître sa fortune ou pour la maintenir, on aurait des citoyens très polis et très dangereux; car l’état social et politique leur donnant, tous les jours, des besoins que l’éducation ne leur apprendrait jamais à satisfaire, ils troubleraient l’État, au nom des Grecs et des Romains, au lieu de le féconder par leur industrie.

Il est évident que, dans les sociétés démocratiques, l’intérêt des individus, aussi bien que la sûreté de l’État, exige que l’éducation du plus grand nombre soit scientifi­que, commerciale et industrielle plutôt que littéraire.

Le grec et le latin ne doivent pas être enseignés dans toutes les écoles; mais il im­por­te que ceux que leur naturel ou leur fortune destine à cultiver les lettres ou prédis­pose à les goûter trouvent des écoles où l’on puisse se rendre parfaitement maître de la littérature antique et se pénétrer entièrement de son esprit. Quelques universités excel­lentes vaudraient mieux, pour atteindre ce résultat, qu’une multitude de mauvais collèges où des études superflues qui se font mal empêchent de bien faire des études nécessaires.

Tous ceux qui ont l’ambition d’exceller dans les lettres, chez les nations démocra­tiques, doivent souvent se nourrir des oeuvres de l’Antiquité. C’est une hygiène salutaire.

Ce n’est pas que je considère les productions littéraires des Anciens comme irré­pro­chables. Je pense seulement qu’elles ont des qualités spéciales qui peuvent mer­veil­leu­sement servir à contrebalancer nos défauts particuliers. Elles nous soutiennent par le bord où nous penchons [De la démocratie en Amérique, vol. II, I, Ch.XV].

Undoubtedly the importance of classic studies relies on both similarities and diversities between past and present. In the first place the study of similarities has often guided those early historians who tried to teach, by means of their writings, lessons to future generations and thus hoped to prevent them from committing the same mistakes. This approach, as we have witnessed in these last 2000 years, has proven to be somewhat naïve and unfortunately ineffective – this does not imply that we must stop trying, though… Nonetheless this course of studies, we should admit it, has probably over-exploited the classic sources and texts.

On the other hand, the interpretation of the diffrences to the past through the present “multidisciplinary and magnifying lens” opens a never ending course of studies. Following this approach events, terms, concepts, sources and characters of the past can be re-studied and re-interpreted by using findings from other disciplines and modern technologies, and enhanced by easier and more frequent contacts and relations among scholars – and this sounds very promising for classic disciplines that have been declared almost dead…

However, in my opinion, the real barycentre of the question needs to be shifted to what we ought to expect from education. The problems lies into the interpretation of what we consider adaptation of our schools and institutes to current and modern needs. It seems to me that without teaching the classics, schools and universities will progressively lose their main function: to educate – where for Education I mean the crucial transmission of principles, moral, values and knowledge.

The proliferation of enriched school programs with more management, foreign languages and IT oriented subjects in spite of classic and human studies, solely for the sake of seeking a hopefully immediate impact on the labour market does not mean to me true Education. Thus ultimately, the main issue is: true Education or mere technical training? Which in the medium-long range ought to be read as: are we trying to “generateman and women and conscious citizens, or just aspirant employees and managers?

Classic studies educate, silently and minutely, to logic, aesthetic and psychology; they produce the habit to reflection and analysis and develop a natural reluctance to passive acceptation of new concepts and impositions – something nobody should ever give away.

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Love and romance in the ancient Greek literature

Many characters and stories of the archaic Greek literature are still alive in our imagination. Epic battles and travel adventures have portrayed us authentic heroes on both sides of winners and defeated, nonetheless we must note that love and romance play a minor role in this literature. Certainly the farewell between Hector and Andromaca – one of the most beautiful pages of Iliad – or the love of Kalypsó for Odysseus are romantic episodes, although they are principally used to enhance the tragic climax and/or magnify the power of will of the hero rather than to describe a love story the way we would expect nowadays.


Undoubtedly Sappho’s poems or Alcman’s nocturne are verses of unimaginable power and love. Nonetheless is during the Alexandrine period that love becomes a major theme of poetry and also – something rather new – novel. In these centuries a new sensibility and attention are devoted to romance, affections and love. Love for the beloved, for the nature, for family members and even for pets is often praised in long and somewhat tedious descriptions (εκφρασεις). The Alexandrine authors mostly loved small compositions like idylls and epigrams, nonetheless in the very same period some long novels and poems were produced like Alexandra, Phenomena and the Argonauts.

Several revolutionary changes had happened in those days: the freedom of poetry from music – which for centuries had been inextricably tied together; and a wider alphabetisation among the Greek world together with the enlargement of the borders after the conquest of Alexander, which had opened a larger audience to the novel productions. Under these circumstances the Greek fiction and romance novel developed amazingly quickly as a new and successful genre. In the beginning these romantic novels kept an historical (or semi-historical) framework and background, while the tale itself was a sort of written transposition of Menander’s New Comedy’s stories and themes. Therefore an amiable combination of history, religion and myth were all subdued by the main theme i.e. love, that always triumphed on anything and won any adversity. It is also interesting to observe that in the beginning, the early authors – in spite of their success – wrote under pseudonyms, most certainly to avoid the critics from the academics.

Several were the sources of inspiration for these fiction and romance novelists: many recurring themes have also Assyrian, Syrian, Jewish and Egyptian roots. However these themes gave birth probably to the very first fiction and romance novels of the ancient literature.

Ninus Romance, within an historical framework is a love story with happy ending between an Assyrian King and his beloved.

The story of Joseph and Aseneth, narrates the love and religious conversion of the Egyptian spouse of Joseph.

The Dream of Nectanebo, based on the prophecy of the demise of Nectanebo II (359-342 BC), the last native ruler of Egypt is filled with both romance and destruction as the story exploits this dual nature of the goddess with which Petesis (the protagonist) falls in love. He is attracted to the girl, but the affair will eventually lead to his destruction. Sesanchosis is a fiction story based on the historical character of King Senworset I of Egypt.

The Oracle of the Potter into which a prophecy looks forward to a golden age, when a good daemon or king will come as a source of evil to the Greeks, and reduce the upstart city by the sea (i.e. Alexandria of Egypt) to a place where fishermen dry their nets and thus revealing dissatisfaction in Egypt with the Greek-Alexandrine administration.

Later on during the Roman Empire – Heliodorus of Emesa with his Aethiopica, Longus with his Daphnis and Chloe and Virgil with his Aeneid, followed these forerunners helping to pave the way to modern romance and fiction novels.

Love themes take over also epic-poetry as probably the first and best description of passions and sufferings caused by love in a true romantic guise is found in the Argonauts of Apollonius Rhodius, where for the first time love, and not action, is the main theme of the epic poem. The desperation and the incredible love of Medea for Jason, as no obstacle can stop Medea from her obsession towards her beloved, are portrayed in such a deep and new way, that neither Euripides had reached nor Virgil’s Aeneid would later succeed to imitate. The impact of Apollonius representation of love and the pathos he expresses could easily pass for modern romance literature:

Her heart fell from out her bosom,

and a dark mist came over her eyes, and a hot blush covered her

cheeks. And she had no strength to lift her knees backwards or

forwards, but her feet beneath were rooted to the ground; and

meantime all her handmaidens had drawn aside. So they two stood

face to face without a word, without a sound, like oaks or lofty

pines, which stand quietly side by side on the mountains when the

wind is still; then again, when stirred by the breath of the

wind, they murmur ceaselessly; so they two were destined to tell

out all their tale, stirred by the breath of Love.

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Modernity of Theocritus poetry

The centuries of transition from the Greek classic period to the Roman Empire are characterised by a remarkable individual quest for spiritual peace. Several philosophical schools, religious sects and esoteric cults flourished and prospered in order to satisfy this widely diffused thirst for new values and aspirations. Nonetheless a very original approach was instead proposed by a poet: Theocritus. His suggested solution was the repudiation of the stressful and extravagant city life and the refuge to the quiet countryside lifestyle, thus creating what is still presently renowned as bucolic poetry.


Naturally this genre was nothing particularly new (just think to a certain extent Hesiod, but most certainly Epicharmus of Megara Hyblaea [circa 540 b.C.?] and Sophron of Syracuse [circa 430 b.C.]), but Theocritus succeeded to deepen the idea and convey on it a far larger attention and audience; besides his original touch resisted for quite a long time after his death culminating with Publius Vergilius Maro’s Eclogues, before ending up into mannerist and ridicule pastoral sketches. Later on, with due adaptations, this genre regained its high aesthetic sense inspiring John Milton’s Lycidas (1637) and Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Adonaïs (1821)

Theocritus, born in Syracuse, left (or probably fled) for Kos where he lived until he settled in Alexandria, Egypt. Philologists are almost positive to ascribe him at least 31 poems (mimes, bucolic compositions, lyrics and hymns) and some brief epigrams. Later on his poems were renamed ειδυλλια (Idylls)diminutive of ειδος (larger composition), since his masterworks were tiny, neat, erudite and at the same time complete.

Regardless the poet’s refusal for long epic works and heroic and/or Gods protagonists, Theocritus poetry has numerous allusions to Homer’s masterpieces, but completely revisited. His protagonists, shepherds and farmers clumsily quote Homer’s hexameters, or ironically revive some epical scenes, with a mixture of embarrassment, softness and sometimes hilarity.

Some of Theocritus poems have defined the bucolic genre – from βουκολος (herdsman); these delicate, light and deep works consciously cast away from reality contributed to show a new path for individual spirituality. It appears that their scenario and topic are often trivial; nonetheless they have been conceived and written for an urban audience in order to induce the readers to compare two different lifestyles and find refuge in the country life from the dangers, stress and anguishes of the city. Life in metropolis like Alexandria, Syracuse in those days (250 b.C.) was considered quite difficult, dangerous and alienating and Theocritus gathers for the first time this growing feeling. In his poems he mixes sometimes hilariously sometimes sadly the two worlds, so that the countryside is set apart, like a limbo where you can find refuge, but at the same time – and more important – is also a view point on how city life can be hard to live and sometimes just a useless rush. Theocritus instead aims at a simpler life, a small trustful community based on transparent and concordant relationships among people and in perfect harmony with the environment, thus the quest for ηδυς (sweet serenity), takes the place of the actual flee from the urban reality.

Despite to other schools of thought, implying sacrifices, studies and often religious repudiations, Theocritus solution to a deeper spiritual life appears ready to be followed and almost effortless – it takes only the courage to leave city life behind and start a new and more genuine life in the countryside. The location of these idylls was or could have been either Sicily, Magna Graecia or more likely Kos – but this is unimportant, since clearly the environment, hills and kettle, is only a scenario, the choice that his poems demand to the readers is more profound, is spiritual and ethical. Therefore Theocritus tries to show a way to his readers to regain the true significance of their lives, now that the city and the Gods have no more an omni comprehensive impact on men’s life. The reward strictly connected to what Theocritus is offering is the ησυχια (tranquillity and silence) of soul, which is something that is so spiritual and at the same time so affordable.

It is surprising how the aims, the analysis and the impact of Theocritus poetry are so modern: under a light veil of apparently petty descriptions of country life, episodes and dialogues, it lurks a deeper invite to meditation and re-appropriation of our own lives:

Why such haste, you are not catching fire.

You will sing better if you rest here by the trees,

under this olive.

(Theocritus – Idylls V-31)

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