Isocrates – Letter to Phillip II of Macedon, 4th Century BC!

Macedonia Ancient

Isocrates was an Attic orator who lived during the 4th century BC, and was a contemporary of Phillip II of Macedon and Demosthenes, another Attic orator. Demosthenes was vehemently opposed to Phillip and Macedonia, as he saw the true intention of the Macedonians and their desire to subjugate the Hellenic city-states and their people. Isocrates, on the other hand, unwittingly thought it more beneficial to the Hellenes if Phillip could be persuaded to treat them as friends. As a result of Macedonian royalty claiming descent from a god (Heracles, no less), a fiction that originates from Herodotus’ story about Alexander ‘Philhellene’ and the Olympic games, Isocrates appealed to the supposed ‘Hellenic’ descent of Phillip, stroking the Macedonian’s ego, who was being likened to a god by this opportunistic old fool.

Here is an example of Isocrates’ false hopes, naivety and flattery:

… and you alone had been granted by fortune free scope both to send ambassadors to whom ever you desire and to receive them from whom ever you please, and to say whatever you think expedient; and that, besides, you, beyond any of the Hellenes, were possessed of both wealth and power…..(15-6)

In the same paragraph, Isocrates goes on to say that persuasion will be helpful in dealing with the Hellenes, clearly hoping to appeal to Phillip’s ‘better’ side, in the hope that the Hellenes will be treated mercifully. Despite the fact that Philip had no genuine interest in ‘Panhellenism’, Isocrates foolishly believed that, were he to draw some apparent ‘ancestral’ links wrapped up in a flattering mythology between the founder of his race (Heracles) and the people (Hellenes) he was preparing to attack, Phillip would listen to reason. The following text being a perfect example:

I affirm that, without neglecting any of your own interests, you ought to make an effort to reconcile Argos and Lacedaemon and Thebes and Athens; for if you can bring these cities together, you will not find it hard to unite the others as well………..Argos is the land of your fathers, and is entitled to as much consideration at your hands as are your own ancestors; the Thebans honour the founder of your race, both by processionals and by sacrifices, beyond all the other gods; the Lacedaemonians have conferred upon his descendants the kingship and the power of command for all time……….Athens single-handed sustained the greatest dangers against the power of Eurystheus, put an end to his insolence, and freed Heracles’ sons from the fears by which they were continually beset. Because of these services we deserve the gratitude, not only of those who then were preserved from destruction, but also of those who are now living………(30-5)
…among all the Hellenes you shall stand forth as a statesman who has worked for the good of Hellas. (140)

Unfortunately, Isocrates doesn’t seem to realise that he is giving Phillip all the more confidence to subjugate the Hellenes, and an idea of what is required to meet that objective.

I think that she will join forces with you in carrying out your policy, especially if she can be made to see that your object is to prepare for the campaign against the barbarians.(56)

Phillip and his son Alexander would often pull out the ‘revenge at Persia’ card when it suited them, as they did with their mythological ‘ancestry’, but few Hellenes of their day were naive enough to believe the Macedonian kings.

if you fall short of your expectations you will at any rate win the good will of all the Hellenes–which is a better thing to gain than to take by force many Hellenic cities; for achievements of the latter kind entail envy and hostility and much opprobrium, but that which I have urged entails none of these things……. (67-8)

Phillip, Alexander and subsequent Macedonian kings did the exact opposite of what Isocrates was begging for, as is clearly evidenced throughout ancient history. And the flattery continued:

…..Men of the highest renown will come as ambassadors from the greatest states to your court; you will advise with them about the general welfare, for which no other man will be found to have shown a like concern; you will see all Hellas on tiptoe with interest in whatever you happen to propose; and no one will be indifferent to the measures which are being decided in your councils….(69-70)

How utterly sweet, all Hellas will be on tiptoe for what Isocrates fancifully describes as a lover of Hellas and one of the blood of Hellas. As it turned out, the Hellenes were on tiptoe while fleeing from imminent death at the hands of the Macedonian soldiers of Phillip, as was the case during the historic Macedonian victory over the Hellenes at Chaeronea and the subsequent subjugation of the Hellenic city-states.…read.php?t=681

…….it is your privilege, as one who has been blessed with untrammelled freedom, to consider all Hellas your fatherland, as did the founder of your race…… will be found that I turned to Athens first of all and endeavoured to win her over to this cause with all the earnestness of which my nature is capable, but when I perceived that she cared less for what I said than for the ravings of the platform orators, I gave her up, although I did not abandon my efforts. (127-9)

Of course Phillip was blessed with untrammelled freedom, he was the king of Macedonia, the most powerful state in Europe at the time. And the underlined text highlights Isocrates’ motive for turning to Phillip – His own countrymen did not want to listen to him or his advice, which proved to be entirely inaccurate in any case. Demosthenes was not alone, and his words are reflective of the thoughts of the overwhelming mass of Hellenes during the reign of the Macedonians. Few actually bought the story that the Macedonian kings were ‘Hellenes’, as Demosthenes indicated in his verbal attack against Phillip:…ead.php?t=1073

Isocrates speaks against the majority Hellenes represented by Demosthenes, calling their very real concerns about Phillip’s true (and ultimate) intentions mere rubbish, as indicated in the following text:

I observe that you are being painted in false colours by men who are jealous of you……..they keep talking about your power, representing that it is being built up, not in behalf of Hellas, but against her, that you have for a long time been plotting against us all………By speaking this rubbish……..(73-76)

Phillip was plotting against the Hellenes and he did succeed in subjugating them.

Isocrates’ views of Macedonia and the Macedonian people are markedly different from that of the Macedonian kings.

More than that, he has about him the ablest men in Macedonia, who, however inexperienced they may be in other matters, are likely to know better than you do what is expedient for him. Furthermore, you will find that there are many Hellenes living in his country, who are not unknown to fame or lacking in intelligence, but men by sharing whose counsel he has not diminished his kingdom but has, on the contrary, accomplished deeds which match his dreams. (19)

A clear distinction is made between the (ablest) men in Macedonia on the one hand, and the Hellenes living in Phillip’s country (as colonists) on the other.

And mark that I am summoning you to an undertaking in which you will make expeditions, not with the barbarians against men who have given you no just cause, but with the Hellenes against those upon whom it is fitting that the descendants of Heracles should wage war. (115)

The above is clearly in reference to Phillip and his barbarians (Macedonians) making expeditions against the Hellenes.

………………….And the founder of your empire……held entirely aloof from Hellenic territory, and set his heart upon occupying the throne of Macedon…….he alone among the Hellenes did not claim the right to rule over a people of kindred race, he alone was able to escape the perils incident to one-man power. (106-8)

Macedonia was entirely aloof from Hellenic territory. That cannot be disputed. Below is another clear distinction between Macedonians and Hellenes.

It remains, then, to summarize what I have said in this discourse, in order that you may see in the smallest compass the substance of my counsels. I assert that it is incumbent upon you to work for the good of the Hellenes, to reign as king over the Macedonians, and to extend your power over the greatest possible number of the barbarians. For if you do these things, all men will be grateful to you: the Hellenes for your kindness to them; the Macedonians if you reign over them, not like a tyrant, but like a king; and the rest of the nations, if by your hands they are delivered from barbaric despotism and are brought under the protection of Hellas. (154)

In addition to Herodotus’ story, Isocrates had also allowed for the ‘Hellenic’ appellation to be attached to the Macedonian kings through other means, which could basically apply to any person of the time that had acquired an Attic education and/or had an appreciation for certain cultural characteristics of the Hellenes. Indeed, the Hellenes were no longer even a race, as stated in his Panegyricus:

And so far has our city distanced the rest of mankind in thought and in speech that her pupils have become the teachers of the rest of the world; and she has brought it about that the name Hellenes suggests no longer a race but an intelligence, and that the title Hellenes is applied rather to those who share our culture than to those who share a common blood. (50)

The basis for Phillip’s false ‘Hellenic’ origins (as proposed by Isocrates) are exposed in several ways, and do not go unnoticed by later scholars that have studied his works. Those that have assessed Isocrates’ works agree that it is little more than flattery and false hope. Peter Green states the following:

“taken as a whole the Address to Philip must have caused its recipient considerable sardonic amusement……..Its ethnic conceit was only equalled by its naivety……….though Philip did not give a fig for Panhellenism as an idea, he at once saw how it could be turned into highly effective camouflage (a notion which his son subsequently took over ready-made). Isocrates had, unwittingly, supplied him with the propaganda-line he needed. From now on he merely had to clothe his Macedonian ambitions in a suitable Panhellenic dress.”

Pierre Jouguet states the following:

“So little do the Macedonians seem to have belonged to the Hellenic community at the beginning, that they did not take part in the great Games of Greece, and when the Kings of Macedon were admitted to them, it was not as Macedonians, but as Heraclids. Isocrates, in the ‘Philip’ praises them for not having imposed their kingship on the Hellenes, to whom the kingship is always oppressive, and for having gone among foreigners to establish it. He, therefore, did not regard the Macedonians as Greeks.”

Ulrich Wilcken wrote:

“When Philip read the book, the insistence of his descent from Heracles must have been welcome to him; for in his policy he had to stress this mythical derivation, as the types of Heracles on his coins show. But on the other hand he must have smiled at the naiveté shown by Isocrates”

In conclusion, it is critical to cite the words of Pausanias:

On a pillar is a statue of Isocrates, whose memory is remarkable for three things: his diligence in continuing to teach to the end of his ninety-eight years, his self-restraint in keeping aloof from politics and from interfering with public affairs, and his love of liberty in dying a voluntary death, distressed at the news of the battle at Chaeronea (1.18.8).

Everything that Isocrates thought Phillip was turned out to be false, and everything he dreaded came true. He died as a result of Phillip going against his wishes and destroying the liberty of the Hellenes. Pausanias confirms it several times:

I have already said in my history of Attica that the defeat at Chaeronea was a disaster for all the Greeks (Hellenes)………..(9.6.5).

It is abundantly clear, the Macedonians were never Hellenes.