The assassination of Philip of Macedon, which occurred in the year 336 B.C., was one of the most important in ancient history, not only because it terminated the glorious career of one of the most remarkable men of his times, but also because it led immediately to the accession of Alexander, one of the supremely great men of history,—an event which would very likely not have taken place at all if Philip had continued to live for a number of years and had himself selected the successor to his throne.
Philip of Macedon was then at the height of his power. The battle of Chæronea, in 338 B.C., had made him the master of Greece; and by his tactful and generous treatment of the vanquished he had even been appointed by the Amphictyon League commander-in-chief of all the Greek forces, which he intended to lead, at the head of his Macedonian army, against the Persians, and to conquer their mighty empire. This stupendous plan, by whose accomplishment Philip would have anticipated the glorious achievements of Alexander, his son, was frustrated by his assassination.
While Philip had arranged everything for his descent upon Persia, and had been frequently absent from home, his domestic affairs in his own capital, which had never been of a very satisfactory character, took such an unfavorable turn as to require his personal attention. As a husband, Philip had often given just cause of complaint to Olympias, his royal spouse. Wherever he went he formed liaisons, and several illegitimate children were openly recognized by him as his own. But when Olympias, the Queen, laid herself open to a suspicion of having violated her marriage vows in his absence, he repudiated her, charging her with gross infidelity, and intimating that he had very strong doubts of being the father of Alexander. Olympias thereupon went back to her native state, Epirus, accompanied by Alexander, who was highly incensed at the treatment shown to his mother and himself.
Philip contracted a second marriage with Cleopatra, a niece of Attalus, one of his generals; and it is said that at the wedding feast Attalus, half intoxicated, expressed the wish and hope that Cleopatra might give the Macedonians a lawful heir to the kingdom. This remark, overheard by Alexander, so enraged him that, throwing a full cup at Attalus’s head, he shouted to him: “What, you scoundrel! am I then a bastard?” Whereupon Philip, taking Attalus’s part, rose from his seat, and rushing with his drawn sword upon Alexander would have run his son through, if he had not, being himself more than half drunk with wine, slipped and fallen on the floor; at which sight Alexander scornfully 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.”
It is said that after this debauch both Olympias and Alexander retired from Philip’s capital, the one going to Epirus, and the other to Illyria. By the counsels and efforts of Demaratus, the Corinthian, an old friend of the royal family, Philip was, however, induced to send for Alexander, and the son returned to his father’s court. Soon afterwards, Cleopatra gave birth to a son; and the fears of Alexander, who remained in communication with his mother and was filled with jealous rage by her, revived.
It is more than likely—although absolute proof of it has never been furnished—that Olympias, in her revengeful jealousy, planned the assassination of the King who had so cruelly offended her pride as a woman, and who, she supposed, was also plotting to exclude her own son from the throne and place upon it the son of her young rival. An opportunity for this act of revenge soon presented itself. A young Macedonian, named Pausanias, had been mortally offended by Attalus and Queen Cleopatra. He appealed to the King for reparation of the wrong done to him; but this being refused, he resolved to revenge himself by taking the King’s life. All historians seem to agree that Pausanias was encouraged and incited to this act of revenge by Olympias; but whether or not Alexander was cognizant of the murderous plot, and approved it, has never been satisfactorily explained, and remains one of the unsolved problems of history.
The occasion for the murderous act of Pausanias was the wedding of Alexander’s sister with her uncle Alexander, King of Epirus. Philip considered this marriage between his daughter and the brother of his first wife, Olympias, an act of consummate statesmanship, inasmuch as it transferred an enemy and an ally of Olympias to his own side and made a friend of him. He therefore resolved to make the nuptials of this ill-matched couple as brilliant as possible. Grand Olympian games and spectacular festivities were arranged, and an incredible display of luxury and pomp, unheard of in those days, was planned to show to the wondering eyes of Greece the court of the new master of the civilized world in matchless splendor and grandeur. All the cities of Greece had sent delegations to these brilliant festivities; most of them came with costly wedding presents, among which golden crowns were conspicuous. Poets sent nuptial hymns and poems celebrating the beauty of the bride and the genius of the father in the most extravagant terms; and a noted dramatist of that age, Neoptolemus, composed a tragedy for the occasion, in which Philip, under a fictitious name, was represented as the conqueror of Asia and the triumphant vanquisher of the great Darius.
It was at the theatre, in which this tragedy was to be performed, that Philip met his doom. Accompanied by a brilliant cortège of all that were renowned at his court for birth, talent, and wealth, he proceeded to the theatre. On approaching the entrance, he bade the noblemen surrounding him to advance, and his body-guard to fall back, so that he might be personally more conspicuous before the enraptured eyes of his subjects. The procession was led by priests in white robes, each carrying a statue of one of the twelve principal gods; and a thirteenth statue, even more richly draped and ornamented than the others, with the insignia of divinity upon it, was that of Philip himself.
It was the supreme moment of his pride and happiness; but it was also his last. The noblemen and courtiers had already disappeared in the building. The body-guard, obedient to the King’s orders, remained behind. Just at the moment when the King stepped forward, alone, under the gateway of the theatre, a man sprang from a side corridor, thrust a sharp short sword into his side, and hurried off as the royal victim reeled and fell. In the tremendous confusion which arose, the assassin came very near making his escape. He ran toward a swift horse which was kept in readiness for him by friends who evidently knew of the murder and were in the plot; and, dazed as the people were who witnessed the assassination, he 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.
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 was crippled by a misstep after the fatal blow.
The assassination of Philip of Macedon was not only one of the boldest and most dramatic in history, but it was also one of the earliest in point of time.