Was war inevitable between Philip and Athens?

Greek Orators VII is the first detailed commentary on Demosthenes’ political speech, On the Chersonese, delivered in 341 BC at a time when Athens was under political pressure from Philip of Macedon. A brilliant demonstration of Demosthenes’ skill as an orator, the speech argues in favour of the Athenian general Diopeithes, in the face of the threat of retaliation by Philip against his actions. In this blog post, editor of this new volume Stephen Clarke discusses whether war between Philip and Athens was inevitable.

Philip must have been a scary proposition to Athens in the early to mid-350s BC. A once mighty imperial power now living as a ghost of its former self, Athens had rebuilt some of its power to a certain extent. Theban power, nascent in the 360s, had collapsed after the deaths of Pelopidas (364 BC) and Epaminondas (362 BC), and a perpetually weakened Sparta plagued by manpower shortages and the loss of much of the Peloponnese, was no threat to the Athenians either. Athens was no great power, though, and the Social War (357-355 BC) showed that Athens did not even have the power to bring to heel its recalcitrant ‘allies’. At the time of their first encounter in 359 BC, Philip was only new to power, but given the historical weakness of the Macedonian monarchy, it would not have been a concern. Philip promised to take Amphipolis for them in exchange for a city controlled by Athens, Pydna (pg. 5).[1] Did they think that the new Macedonian monarch was showing deference to them?

Of course, this was not the case, with Philip not only taking Amphipolis, but also marching on Pydna and reducing that city also later in the same year (pg. 5). His alliance with Olynthus in 357 BC, would have been the sting in the tail that soured relations between Athens and Philip further. We hear little of the war that followed, primarily because Athens did not have the ability to fight it after the financial exhaustion of the Social War; the Athenian assembly was also under the sway of the economic conservatives, led by Eubulus, who convinced the Athenians not to fight expensive wars, though they did begin to rebuild their influence in the north Aegean (pg. 6). In the meantime, Philip had consolidated his kingdom, fought in and ended the Sacred War against Phocis, which gave him control of Thermopylae and access to central Greece, taken Olynthus, the Thracian Chalcidice and Thrace, become the leader of Thessaly, and had even started meddling in affairs in Euboea (pp. 7, 10, 11, 12, 13, 95-96, 146-47, 168-69). This Macedonian advance must have felt like a storm closing in over Athens (at least to the Athenians).

Philip’s proposals for a treaty in 348 BC, followed up by the Peace of Philocrates, signed in 346 BC, probably felt like a respite from the trouble of the previous decade (pp. 8-11); the Athenians celebrated like it was. And indeed it was a respite: Philip had demonstrated that he was willing to leave Athens alone, as long as the Athenians did not interfere in his plans. I think any attempts in this period to cause problems in key locations, such as Euboea (pp. 124-26, 141), were more to keep Athens busy while he did what he felt he needed to do. Interference in Euboea, for example, was not done with the intent to conquer or destroy Athens, much though Demosthenes was busy telling the Athenians that was exactly what Philip wanted to do (e.g. 8.36, 66). Rather, Philip was demonstrating his desire to shore-up his kingdom’s borders, and his expansion is indicative of this (pp. 7,147, 149, 166). The problem was that there was a key area for Athens that was under pressure, imagined or real, from Philip: the Thracian Chersonese.

While there is debate about the sources of grain for Athens in the fifth century, there is no doubt that the Black Sea had become their grain basket (pp. 100, 121). Chronically unable to feed itself since the sixth century BC, Attica relied on imported grain primarily from the Spartocid dynasty in the Bosporus; the Athenians felt that security of this grain route relied on Athenian control of the Chersonese. In the 340s BC, Athens did indeed control the region, gifted to them almost entirely by the Thracian King Cersobleptes (pp. 110-11), an attempt to have the Athenians support him should Philip cast his eye eastwards to Thrace (which he did, campaigning in both 352 BC and 346/45 BC). In response, Athens sent a hawkish general, Diopeithes, to protect the Chersonese and, though we have no evidence for this, defend the Chersonese ‘proactively’ (pp. 13, 98-99, 104-05, 123). Instead of Philip marching into the Chersonese to respond to these raids on his territory and that of his allies, Philip appealed to Athens and requested arbitration to determine the matter (pp. 12, 155).

In not responding to the provocations of the Athenians, Philip may have been taking the moral high-ground, but is it evidence that Philip was content to allow Athens to live and let live? Providing that Athens did not cause problems for Philip, I feel that Athens would have been able to continue as a regional, albeit minor, power in Greece. Philip could have marched into Attica on several occasions, but he refrained each time. Philip was planning his expedition into Persia at the time of his death – perhaps Philip actually did not have interest in conquering Greece, and the Battle of Chaeronea (in 338 BC) would not have happened without Demosthenes’ opposition to Philip and the coalition of Greek states he built-up to fight him. Philip’s seizure of Athenian grain vessels in 340 BC did show that Philip always had the potential to starve Athens should he choose to do so, so maybe Athens was right to be afraid of him after all. That doesn’t make the war inevitable, and different roads could have been taken, but Demosthenes seems to have chosen Philip as his topic of speciality, rightly or wrongly. However, Demosthenes should take the lion’s share of the blame for any inevitability of war. At the end of it all, all we have to show for it is Chaeronea and the end of an independent Greece.

[1] All page references to S. Clarke (2021), Greek Orators VII. Demosthenes 8, On the Chersonese. Edited with an introduction, translation and commentary by Stephen Clarke, Liverpool University Press

For more information on Greek Orators VII visit our website. For more on the Aris & Phillips Classical Texts series, read our 40th anniversary of the series blog post.


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