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Death of Philip: Murder or Assassination?


Murder: the unlawful and malicious or premeditated killing of one human being by another.

Assassination: the killing of a politically important person (the underlying motive being to bring about some political change).

This is an examination into the death of Philip, Alexander’s father. It is an article of speculation based on our interpretation of the data. We wish to point out that the currently available ancient and modern sources exhibit some degree of confusion regarding the facts leading up to the day of the event, the facts regarding the murder/assassination itself, and the subsequent events that followed. We have attempted to examine the evidence and cite possible scenarios.

The major characters include:

Philip, King of Macedon

Olympias, wife to Philip and mother to Alexander III and Cleopatra

Alexander III, son of Philip and Olympias

Alexander, King of Molossia, brother to Olympias, marries Cleopatra, Philip’s daughter

Cleopatra, sister to Alexander III, daughter of Olympias and Philip

Cleopatra -E, niece of Attalus (some sources list Attalus as her father), Philip’s young wife

Attalus - some confusion remains regarding Attalus. In the sources, he is listed variously as Cleopatra-E’s father, brother, guardian, or uncle. However, because some sources indicate General Attalus was in Asia Minor at the time of Philip’s death, and for reasons to follow, we have decided to assume there were two men named Attalus, who may or may not have been related: General Attalus, Cleopatra-E’s uncle and guardian, and Attalos, a Bodyguard (We have changed the spelling of the names for ease of reading.)

Parmenion, a General, related to General Attalus by marriage ties

Leonnatus and Perdiccas, Bodyguards, from collateral Macedonian royal branches

Heromenes, Alexander and Arrhabaeus, sons of Aeropus, another collateral royal branch

Pausanius-1, who killed Philip

Pausanius-2, who committed suicide, of sorts, to prove his valour

Note: There were traditionally seven Bodyguards (Somatophylakes) assigned to the King. The use of caps indicates these in this article. These men were traditionally sons of aristo houses, usually in their 20’s-early 30’s and at the peak of fitness and training. This high position served two purposes: to give protection to the King and to hold the families hostage to obedience while giving them honour at the same time.

Here are the facts we began with:

In ancient sources(1) a charge was laid against Alexander that he incited Pausanias-1 to murder his father, King Philip. There is no doubt in those sources that it was Pausanius-1, a member of the King’s Bodyguard, who actually plunged the instrument of death into Philip’s chest. But what was his motive? Was it purely personal as attested by Aristotle, and therefore murder, or was it from some political motive (with or without accomplices) as recorded by Diod. 16. 91-4, and therefore assassination? The basic story is retold here:

It was on the occasion of the marriage of Cleopatra to her uncle Alexander, the King of the Molossians. This was at Aigai in October 336 coinciding with the great religious festival and was almost certainly a countermeasure against Olympias’ pleas to her brother to support her against Cleopatra-E. King Alexander, already Philip’s brother-in-law through Olympias, now became Philip’s son-in-law. Thus Philip would have had no further need of his marriage alliance via Olympias to maintain security on his western border, something he needed to be assured of before his departure into Asia with the main invasion force which was imminent. It is telling that Philip re-named Cleopatra-E

"Eurydike", the name of the dynastic queen-mother. Further, he had named their son "Karanos", traditionally the name of the founder of the dynasty.

The climax of the festival was a gathering in the theatre at sunrise, starting with a procession. Statues of the 12 Olympian Gods were to be carried in, followed by a statue of King Philip(2). A large number of foreign representatives were present (from neighbouring Greek city-states and alliances) in addition to the leading Macedonians gathered for the event. Once the statues were in place, Philip entered the theatre alone, supposedly to show that he did not need his guard around him to stay safe among his own people (he originally intended to enter with the two Alexanders, but changed his mind at the last minute and sent them ahead). Obviously, with hindsight, this seems a big mistake. For the moment, we will assume that this was a rare occurrence and therefore, for someone who wanted to kill him, a chance not to be missed(3). His Bodyguard, which included Pausanias-1, entered at a distance behind him and fanned out into their usual formation.

Alexander III and the King’s Friends were already seated in the theatre, Alexander III presumably close to, or next to, the empty throne in the centre of the front row. At such a sensitive time for him (the official replacement of his mother by another alliance), one can imagine him watching for anything, however slight, that might further threaten his position as the King’s most likely heir. Others, too, must have been watching for any shift in this delicate power-balance between father and son.

As the King moved to "centre stage" to acknowledge the cheers of the crowd, Pausanias-1 rushed forward, stabbed him fatally(4) (or threw a spear which killed him) and then ran to make his escape (there were horses tethered closeby in readiness for his "getaway"). Three of the King’s Bodyguard took off in pursuit - Perdiccas, Leonnatus and Attalos- while the other three rushed to the King’s side. But it was too late. King Philip was already dead or dying. Alexander III’s friends must have rallied to his side too, ready to fight if Alexander became threatened. For a moment, there must have been chaos, panic and a frantic scrambling to find a new order. But with no King, there was no "right" side to take. For a moment, all the possibilities were wide open, then either with great presence of mind, natural self-preserving instinct or certainty from a plan already formed, Alexander, son of Aeropos, stepped forward and hailed Alexander, son of Philip, as King. The Doors of the Possible swung closed and Alexander III became King of Macedon as he began to take charge.

The three members of the bodyguard returned with Pausanias-1’s body - Leonnatus had thrown the spear which killed him.(5)

This, then, is an account pieced together from the ancient sources and papyri fragments.

Now to the hearsay for the motive: it was said that Philip had been Pausanias-1’s lover when Pausanias-1 had been a Royal Page; that Pausanias-1 still loved the King, who had taken a new lover. Pausanias-1 had insulted this rival, and the young man, Pausanias-2, had in effect committed suicide because of it. Feeling that Pausanias-1 had been the cause of the young man’s death, the youth’s relatives had revenged themselves on Pausanias-1 by getting him drunk and having him assaulted by stable boys. Pausanias-1 had asked for justice from Philip against the youth’s relatives, but as the most powerful of them happened to be Philip’s new uncle-in-law, Attalus (also noted as father-in-law), or maybe because Philip thought that justice had already been served, Pausanias-1’s plea went unanswered. It was felt that Pausanias-1 must have nursed his wrong, until he saw Philip as the cause of all his misery and came to believe that only Philip’s death would satisfy his need for revenge. (The code of exacting revenge for a wrong, supposed or real, was very closely related to a Macedonian’s sense of personal pride or self-worth.)

This is the generally believed reason for Pausanias-1’s murder of Philip. From here, things become even more shadowy. There are several possible motives. We present them here:

Ancient sources cite several possibilities: that Olympias turned Pausanias-1’s mind to think of Philip as his real enemy (she could offer him sanctuary in Epiros); that the King of Persia wanted Philip destroyed (because he had sent the vanguard of an invasion force into Asia) and had sent agents to seek out an assassin (finding Pausanias-1 willing enough, they had offered him money and a sanctuary in Persia); that Alexander had asked for Pausanias-1 to kill "bridegiver, bridegroom and bride" meaning Attalus, Philip and Cleopatra-E, his father’s love-bride, and the reason for his and Olympias’ quarrel with Philip the year before.

To examine the death, we had to look at numerous factors, including the following:

1. Pausanius-2 either extracted a promise from Attalus, Philip’s uncle-in-law, before death that Attalus would avenge his death, or blood-ties called for vengance. Philip could not resolve the matter to Pausanias-1’s satisfaction without creating chaos in his own new family. Philip being Philip, it is also rather likely that he simply did not feel the event warranted much on his part. After all, Pausanias-1 had indirectly caused the death of Pausanias-2, whose family had a right to avenge the death.

2. Pausanias-1 was devastated in every way. It was not only the physical assault that mattered, but that the ruination of his reputation and character had been completed. Being the paramour of a king was a far cry from being used by soldiers, servants or stablehands. It is important to remember that Pausanias-1 was one of the aristo and a Bodyguard of the King...thus, the event could have left him bitter and open to manipulation. Desperate men take desperate measures...

3. Attalus was related to Parmenion via a marriage either between himself and one of Parmenion’s daughters, or between a relative (Attalos?) and Parmenion’s daughter.

4. It is possible that Attalos the Bodyguard was a son or nephew of Attalus the General, since there seems to be confusion over this person or persons. Parmenion and Attalus were supposedly in Asia Minor at the time of Philip’s death, so the Bodyguard and the general could not have been the same man. Perdiccas was a brother-in-law to Attalos. Normally, had he been related to General Attalus by marriage, he, too, would have been executed when Attalus was condemned. But this did not happen, which leads to further speculation..

5. Thus, Philip was related via marriage ties to Attalus, and Attalus was related via marriage ties to Parmenion.

6. Antipatros, Philip’s chief advisor up to now, and his faction disliked and distrusted the Attalus-Parmenion-Philip alliance that was developing. In Macedon, factions were common and to see one faction seeming to be raised above another was a clear danger sign that a major power shift was about to occur.

7. Leonnatus and Perdiccas did not support the A-P-P alliance, as they themselves were from collateral royal branches. Also, Perdiccas was already aligning himself with Olympias, though this would not become apparent for years, and Leonnatus had a personal dispute with Philip. Both of these men were aligned with factions that opposed the A-P-P alliance.

8. Olympias(6) had a dispute with the A-P-P alliance. Naming Cleopatra-E "Eurydike" had placed her above Olympias as next in line to be Queen Mother. Naming Cleopatra-E’s son "Karanos" after the founder of their dynasty had implications for Alexander. Whether or not Philip meant to create suspicion, he had done just that. Further, Philip had upset her plans to enlist her brothers aid in this affair by offering Alexander of Molossia the hand of Cleopatra in marriage.

9. Both Attalus and Parmenion opposed Alexander’s succession at this time(7). It could be they opposed the idea of a "non-Macedonian" on the throne; more likely they foresaw a time when they would hold the majority of power, had Cleopatra-E and her son lived.

10. It is highly unlikely Alexander would commit patricide. In the religions of the day, belief in the awful punishment that followed the patricide was very real. The "Kindly Ones", also called "The Sisters", would not forgive patricide. The Assembly could not have allowed a possible patricide to become King. There would not have been enough support to overcome the accusation, since several factions opposed his succession for numerous reasons.

11. Attalus was later convicted of conspiring in the assassination/murder; Parmenion was also suspect but "acquitted" himself by turning Attalus over to be executed, thus "proving" his loyalty. It could be argued that Attalus had master-minded the entire affair, hoping to see the end of Philip and then the end of Alexander, thus putting himself in a powerful position as Regent to the infant Karanos, but that is another thought...that Alexander did not enter the theatre with his father may have thwarted plans for a double or triple assassination.(8)

12. Heromenes, Alexander and Arrhabaeus, sons of Aeropus, were also opposed to the A-P-P alliance, since it put them further away from the throne.

To find the likeliest truth, we started with Pausanias. Whether or not he had a personal motive for killing the King, we can presume he wanted to kill the king and survive, since he had "getaway" horses and ran from the scene. To do this, he would have to get out of Macedon; after all he was well-known, he could not have stayed and lived. The Army would have demanded his death as just punishment for killing their elected leader. (An act against the King was an act against the Macedonian People for the King was the personal embodiment of the People’s will.)

Looking at the factions above, several scenarios were possible:

Imagine you are Pausanias - you hate the King and want to kill him, but you don’t want to die. Olympias contacts you and promises you safety in Epiros. Epiros isn’t too far away, you could probably make it to Epiros, but would you be safe there? If Alexander survived to become King, he would be bound by personal honour and by his oath as King to avenge Philip’s murder. If he were not King but simply survived, he would still be bound by personal honour to avenge his father’s death, and he would probably be seeking sanctuary in Epiros himself. Would Olympias protect you against Alexander, her son? Could she protect you against Alexander if Alexander really wanted to kill you? Not a good bet, so even if Olympias tempted you, you’d probably not accept.

But now, supposing that Alexander III had approached you to kill his father. Knowing Macedonian law and honour and Alexander, and the fact that if Alexander let you live after killing his father, Alexander himself would be dishonoured, would you say "Yes"? Not likely! Also, even though you are angry with Philip, you might reason that, to restore your honour and gain favour in Philip’s eyes, you can now go to Philip and tell him that Alexander has tried to bribe you to kill him. Philip will see you in a new light, your honour will be restored; Philip will be very grateful to you for exposing the treacherous nature of his son. And if Philip is considering ridding himself of Alexander III and Olympias, you have handed him the perfect tool.

If agents from Persia heard rumour of your discontent, they might be tempted to approach you. Your first question would be "From whom and how did you hear this rumour?"- a very important question! The agents from Persia hint that if you kill King Philip, the Persian King would be very generous in his appreciation of your loyal act to someone who, after all, could be considered your true King (historically). You would know the Persian King has riches and power beyond belief. Persia is a long way from Macedon. Lots of Greeks are there as mercenaries and are doing very well for themselves. Alexander would NOT be able to reach you there. Even if he became King, he couldn’t possibly defeat the might of the whole Persian Empire. Looks like a good bet, this one. You’d probably accept the Persian gold and think yourself on the way to a fortunate future- if- and it’s a big IF, you can discover the answer to your first question! From that question all others will follow...

It is unlikely that Athens was involved, at least directly. It is suspected, however, that some rumour of a possible plot had gotten around. The Athenian representative made sure to announce that anyone who harmed Philip would not be made welcome in Athens (this alone would have made me start to look around!); plus, Pausanias would know he would not be able to hide anywhere but the Persian empire. Athens was not a "safe house" for Macedonian traitors.

Now, supposing some fellow Macedonians approach you. They are sympathetic, they understand what has happened and your disaffection. They are, moreover, very highly placed. They have had some time to become acquainted with you, to discuss where Philip is headed, what the future appears to be turning into: with the A-P-P alliance firmly in place, it is clear that the power and influence of some factions are on the wane, the threat of war could lead to both Philip and Alexander dying, and who, then, becomes the power at the throne?

Now, of course, human actions are inexplicable and often go totally contrary to anything we might suppose or invent. And considering the factors, it is almost more reasonable to ask who didn’t either want Philip dead, or know about a plot to kill him! But looking at the end results helps in analyzing the possibilities.

From a papyrus fragment, we have some knowledge of the outcome of the trial of those present at Philip’s murder. Everyone present was considered a possible suspect by the Macedonian Assembly and needed to be cleared by them, including Alexander III. This was their verdict (as much as we have of it): those in the theatre and the King’s attendants were not guilty (thus they found Alexander "not guilty"). The diviner was crucified for reading the omens as favourable for Philip and thereby not warning him that something very bad was about to happen. Two sons of Aeropos (Heromenes and Arrhabaeus) - interestingly, their brother, Alexander, was first to proclaim Alexander III as King - were found guilty of conspiring with Pausanias and were executed. Pausanias’s body was crucified. Heromenes and Arrhabaeus were killed sacrificially, along with the "getaway" horses who were also deemed guilty for their part in the murder of the King. Attalus, who was in Asia Minor with Parmenion, was found guilty of conspiracy and condemned, but was murdered before he could be executed.

Leonnatus and Perdiccas, though found "not guilty", were demoted from the Bodyguard and were not re-instated until much later.(9) Parmenion was given a position close to Alexander as an advisor and general, but this was probably based on an adage similar to "Keep your friends close, your enemies closer".

From the preceding information, we offer a possible scenario: Parmenion and Attalus, in Asia Minor, were approached by Persian agents. Neither of these men particularly supported some of Philip’s foreign policies, and neither was known to support Alexander. They may have then covertly aided Persian agents in contacting the sons of Aeropus, who were promised they would be supported, with Persian gold, as Regents to Karanos, Philip’s son by Cleopatra-E. The sons of Aeropus would have been kept unaware that Attalus and Parmenion were involved in the actual coup attempt, but were probably told that, to avoid a Macedonian civil war, the Persian empire would then negotiate peace between the factions. The sons of Aeropus would believe that, with themselves as Regents and the "grandchild" of Attalus (and thus, Parmenion) on the throne, an alliance could be built between the most powerful factions. Enlisting the cooperation of Pausanias, under the guise of friendship, Heromenes and Arrhabaeus (and possibly Alexander, who quickly switched to the winning side and may even have testified against his own brothers to save his life) plotted the death of Philip. Attalus and Parmenion, in Asia Minor, probably believed themselves outside suspicion. They may have also felt that, in the event of failure, the sons of Aeropus would be found guilty and be executed, leaving no trail back to them and leaving the throne open for the taking. It is also likely that, had the plot succeeded as desired, Heromenes and Arrhabaeus would not have enjoyed the Regency for long, but would have conveniently died, leaving Attalus and Parmenion, in effect, to rule. When Attalus was condemned, Parmenion quickly switched sides and probably had Attalus killed to avoid any tales from getting out.

Based on the facts, we conclude that Philip was assassinated, killed in an attempt to bring about political change. The promise of Persian support for the whole plot, with collusion from inside the Macedonian empire, seems most likely. Aeropus’ sons were of the Royal House of Macedon and could have ruled with Persian backing. They needed

Pausanias to get close enough to the King. The timing? Philip’s death certainly prevented the immediate invasion of Persia. Alexander had to wait two years before the Kingdom of Macedon was secure and strong enough again to allow his departure for Asia.

That Alexander was found "not guilty" and then elected King may have thwarted hidden plans; this in turn probably led to a brief time of turmoil, as factions and loyalties shifted, policies were implemented and tracks were covered! It is interesting that, later, suspected conspiracies against Alexander involved some of the same people suspected in Philip’s death. Power is, and will always be, the great Tempter; the men and women in the halls of power are not there because they are the sort who lack ambition.

Finally, without further facts, and with the known facts standing the way they are, it would be perverse and consistent with obvious personal bias against Alexander to insist that Alexander had anything to do with Philip’s murder. We submit, therefore, that Alexander be found resoundingly "not guilty", thereby returning the same verdict as his own countrymen did, who were there with him at the time.

Sikander and Halil - 1999

(1) Plutarch, Justin, Satyrus
(2) The significance of this to the non-Macedonian Greeks present is not really relevant. (Though after Philip’s murder, they may well have considered it as hubris for which the Gods had struck him down and that Pausanias had merely been their instrument.)
(3) Considering who his murderer turned out to be, that is one of THE Bodyguard, one of the seven most trusted men in the kingdom who traditionally guarded the King, we can only wonder why someone who had a daily opportunity to kill him with less risk to themselves choose such a public occasion to carry out the deed. Maybe the time was all important to the statement the killer was making.
(4) From archaeological evidence, it is believed that the murder weapon was a spear.
(5) For this, Leonnatus was demoted from the Bodyguard and was not reinstated for some years. Maybe he was mistrusted by Alexander as having silenced Pausanias to cover up a deeper plot. If Alexander could have been implicated by Pausanias, then surely Alexander would have not have punished Leonnatus for his action, but would have rewarded him instead - incidental proof, if needed, of Alexander’s innocence.
(6) Olympias herself had too much to lose should Philip die; considered non-Macedonian, without Alexander as King she would be just another target on someone’s road to the throne. And Alexander’s and her own insecure position with Attalus and Parmenion and their factions would place her life in jeopardy. Olympias had probably hoped to enlist her brother’s aid in forcing Philip to acknowledge Alexander publicly as his heir and her as Queen Mother, but this was dashed when her brother accepted Philip’s offer of marriage to Cleopatra. Since Olympias was on a weakened base at the time of Philip’s death, we dismissed the theory that she instigated Pausanias’s act.
(7) Attalus had declared himself Alexander III’s enemy the previous year when he called Alexander’s legitimacy into question.
(8) There were two "getaway" horses. Either Pausanias planned a very hard ride, or there were to be two assassinations that day- Philip and Alexander. When Philip changed the processional plans, he inadvertently affected the assassination plot. It’s likely that Pausanius and Attalos were the assigned killers; Attalos decided against action when Philip changed the entry plan, Pausanius responded to the moment.
(9) We believe the death of Pausanias to be an accident. Though we feel Attalos had every intention of seeing him dead, it was Leonnatus who actually killed him - but we feel Leonnatus intended to cripple, not kill. That the spear hit as Pausanias fell, thus striking higher than we believe Leonnatus intended, was a fluke - but a fluke that allowed a number of conspirators to escape detection and punishment.

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