In the ancient world, the young and dashing Alexander the Great led his army from northern Greece to what is now Pakistan, leading from the front, killing enemies with sword and spear. He ordered executions and massacres, even stabbing one old friend to death in a drunken rage. He killed a lot of people—but did he launch his career as a king by arranging the murder of his own father, the hugely successful Philip II?

Philip’s career made Alexander’s conquests possible, for it was Philip who saved Macedonia from the verge of extinction, beating off powerful neighbors before expanding until he dominated Greece and the Balkans. In the process, he created a uniquely effective army, combining many different types of troops into one formidable, fast-moving team. This was the army Alexander led against the Persian Empire, composed of Philip’s men, fighting in the same way they had done for more than 20 years.

The facts of Philip’s murder, in 336 BC, are plain and undisputed. The assassin struck in the theater at Aegae (modern Vergina), watched by a crowd who had travelled from all over Macedonia and Greece to show support for the king. As Philip made his entrance—limping from an old wound, but still active in his 47th year—one of his bodyguards, a young man named Pausanias, ran toward him. Producing a concealed dagger from beneath his cloak, he stabbed Philip between the ribs and fled. The king died within moments, followed quickly by his assassin—as Pausanias sprinted towards the waiting horses, he tripped on a vine root and was swiftly dispatched by his fellow bodyguards.

An Assassination Prompted by Personal Grievance

Philip II of Macedon
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Philip II of Macedon

Pausanias’ personal motive for the murder was also widely known. As a teenager, he had for a while been the king’s favorite and lover. Polygamous like all Macedonian kings, Philip was notorious for his numerous affairs with women and young men. Yet soon Philip’s eye wandered, and he replaced Pausanias with another youth. Resentful, Pausanias mocked the new lover, accusing him of being effeminate and an easy conquest. The new lover, stung by the jokes, tried to prove his manhood in battle by fighting recklessly and was killed.

The dead youth had friends and relatives in high places, notably Attalus, whose niece was taken as a bride by Philip in 335 BC. Secure at court, Attalus decided to take revenge on Pausanias, inviting him to a feast and getting the young man drunk. The nobleman and his friends savagely beat Pausanias and may have raped him. Then they gave the battered youth to Attalus’ muleteers, who proceeded to violate him, one after another.

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As word of the humiliation spread, Pausanias went to Philip, seeking justice. Philip, always a wily politician, sought to compromise and keep everyone happy: He sent Attalus away to become one of two commanders in charge of the advance guard sent to Asia Minor as the start of the great war against Persia. And he rewarded Pausanias by making him one of his seven personal bodyguards.

While this was a considerable honor for one so young, it did nothing to remove the memory of the outrage, and no doubt Attalus’ relatives and supporters at court made sure there were plenty of reminders. Brooding on it all, Pausanias focused his hatred on Philip for failing to treat him with the respect he felt was his due as a former lover and more generally from the king to a member of the Macedonian aristocracy, who fought alongside him in battle and feasted with him in peacetime. Aristotle, who knew Philip and spent several years at his court, used the murder as an illustration of an assassination prompted by a personal grievance.

Was the Murderer a Pawn in a Bigger Plot?

Murder of Philip II of Macedon
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Philip II of Macedon was assassinated in Aegae by the captain of his bodyguard, Pausanias of Orestis.

Yet then and now, questions arose as to whether there was more to the story—whether Pausanias acted alone or whether someone used this traumatized young man as a pawn in some larger game. Some thought–and think–it was suspicious that Pausanias had placed more than one horse for his planned escape. Others wonder whether the other bodyguards swiftly dispatched the assassin to silence him before he could implicate anyone else.

Alexander later accused the Persian king of arranging the murder, as a way to end the threat of Macedonian hostility, not knowing how aggressive and successful Philip’s son would prove.

Some accounts blamed Alexander’s mother, Olympias. Out of Philip’s seven or eight wives, she enjoyed prestige as the mother of the probable heir to the throne, but it was widely believed that Olympias and her husband had come to loathe each other. She was believed to resent Philip’s latest wife and was held responsible when Attalus’ niece and her newborn baby were murdered soon after the assassination. Much later, after Alexander’s death, Olympias led armies and killed rivals in the struggle to control the succession. She was without doubt a formidable character—as clever, capable and ruthless as her husband and her son.

The Case Against Alexander Remains Speculative

Alexander the Great
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Alexander the Great

At the time, plenty of people suspected that Alexander himself, the kingdom’s heir apparent, arranged his father’s killing. The obvious motive: an ambition to rule. 

Alexander, at 21, was proclaimed King of Macedonia within hours of Philip’s murder. To secure his position, he swiftly ordered two potential rivals executed and sent orders to Asia Minor for the elimination of Attalus. His rapid military campaigns over the next year or so cemented his domination of Southern Greece and his borders on the Balkans. None of this necessarily indicates any involvement or foreknowledge of Philip’s murder. Once Philip was dead, these were necessary precautions, since any other course of action would likely have resulted in Alexander’s own murder. Hesitation was not a characteristic Alexander displayed at any age.

At the very least, Philip’s death proved very fortunate for Alexander: It placed him at the head of a reformed, unified and flourishing Macedonia, and in charge of its formidable army with the grand expedition against Persia barely begun. History shows the advantage Alexander took of this opportunity. Perhaps he was simply lucky and–like so many famous leaders–a consummate opportunist. Not enough is known about his inner character to say whether he could have arranged his father’s murder, nor do any facts show that he did. This remains one more enigma to add to the many surrounding the great and terrible career of Alexander of Macedon.

Adrian Goldsworthy is historian and novelist specializing mainly in the Classical world. He has written numerous nonfiction histories and biographies, including Caesar. The Life of a Colossus. His most recent book is Philip and Alexander. Kings and Conquerors.

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