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Rediscovering Philip V of Macedon: An Unrewarding Venture?

Conference Paper · May 2014

DOI: 10.13140/2.1.4215.0087


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Emma Louise Nicholson

Newcastle University


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Emma Nicholson: PGF Conference 16 May 2014: Discovery, Invention and Reinvention

Rediscovering Philip V of Macedon: An Unrewarding Venture?

As Professor McGing’s paper illustrated, there has been a recent re-emergence of interest in
the second century BC historian, Polybius of Megalopolis; this resurgence of interest has led
to renewed investigations into his historiographical methods and techniques, his didactic
purposes, his biases, his moralistic agenda, and his reliability, as well as the historian’s
attitudes, for example, towards Rome, imperialism, kingship and military leadership.
Despite this recent reassessment of Polybius as a historian, however, there has so far only
been a limited re-evaluation of an important aspect of Polybius’ subject matter: the ancient
king, Philip V of Macedon, for whom our knowledge mainly stems from his Histories and
within which he is one of the primary players. Furthermore, a perception has also emerged
that any new study of the Macedonian king would be fruitless - not only is a large portion of
Polybius’ later account of the king missing, but the material we do have has been vigorously
examined for example by Maurice Holleaux, Paul Pedéch, Robert Malcolm Errington, Erich
Gruen, Arthur Eckstein and John Ma,i and most importantly, Frank Walbank, whose 1940
monograph Philip V of Macedon has been so influential for our understanding of, and later
work, on the ancient king.

This perception was recently iterated by Kenneth Sacks in his book review of the edited
2013 volume, Polybius and His World, a collection in commemoration of Frank Walbank.
Whilst reviewing Professor McGing’s contribution entitled ‘Youthfulness in Polybius: The
Case of Philip V of Macedon’, Sacks commented that the study of Philip had ‘seemed to be a
largely unrewarding subject’.ii Yet he accredits McGing’s article, which focuses on Polybius’
attitudes towards youthfulness and investigates how the historian manipulates the
narrative to display Philip’s early potential, as being a ‘promising entry’ into the field as it
offers ‘some significant gains for scholarship’. Boris Dreyer, publishing in the same volume,
has also written an article on Polybius’ account of Philip’s last years, in which he claims that
the Greek historian knowingly used a dramatic anti-Philip source for the final part of the
king’s life because it suited the overall increasingly negative and tragic depiction of Philip
that he wanted to create. Despite the unescapably speculative nature of Dreyer’s argument
Emma Nicholson: PGF Conference 16 May 2014: Discovery, Invention and Reinvention

- we have so little of the latter part of Polybius’ Histories and have no way of telling for
certain who his sources were – this study shows that interest in the king is being rekindled
and that scholars are finding new ways of interacting with the literary material, aided
increasingly by a growing collection of epigraphic evidence. But this rediscovery of Philip V
as a rewarding subject does not have to stop with McGing’s exploration of youthfulness or
Dreyer’s hypothesis on the historian’s source for the king’s last years; in my view it can be
taken even further.

But first a brief introduction is necessary. [SLIDE] Philip V was one of the last kings of ancient
Macedonia, ruling from 221 to 179 BC. His early policies revolved around securing his
position and influence within mainland Greece, his southern neighbour, and this period was
primarily occupied with a war in aid of his Greek allies the Achaean League against the
Aetolians. At the end of this war in 217 BC, having secured Greece to the south, Philip was
then able to pursue his own imperialistic ambitions of conquest. It was when his gaze turned
west that he became embroiled in conflict with Rome, conflict which would eventually lead
to the First and Second Macedonian Wars. His defeat in 197 in the second war, and that of
his son, Perseus, in the Third Macedonian War in 168, would mark the end of the monarchy
and the beginning of Roman control over the region. Polybius’ Histories is our main literary
source for this turbulent period and his presentation of the king is vital for our
understanding of this monarch and his role within the wider historical context of his time.

In this paper, due to space constraints, I will discuss only one instance from Polybius’
account of Philip’s career which I believe deserves reassessment - Philip’s ‘change for the
worse’ at Messene in 215 BC, an episode which Polybius attributes with particular
importance in shaping the king’s character. However, this is not the only episode, theme or
characterisation of the king which would benefit from further study, and I wish very briefly,
before moving onto Messene, to discuss an approach which could prove rewarding not only
for the figure of Philip, but also for many other areas touched on within the Histories.

It has already been observed by several scholars that the literary aspects of Polybius’
Histories in general have not received the same attention as other aspects of his work;
something which is only now being rectified most prominently by Nikos Miltsios and Lisa
Hau.iii Of the limited literary attention thus far only McGing’s article focuses specifically on

Emma Nicholson: PGF Conference 16 May 2014: Discovery, Invention and Reinvention

Polybius’ depiction of Philip, and there remains therefore plenty of room for exploration.
For example, an examination of the interplay of Polybius’ narrative and his digressions
seems to bring up some interesting results. Polybius’ narrative gives at times a very different
impression of events to the one offered by his digressions, and it is the latter which have
tended to be the more memorable elements of his writing and the more intensively studied.
By separating these two elements and distinguishing between the narrative information and
Polybius’ judgements on them, we may uncover new understandings of the Macedonian
king and the way that Polybius has constructed his image. One such area opened up by this
observation is Philip’s treatment of his Greek allies: despite Polybius’ statements claiming
that the king’s treatment of them changed and worsened after the events at Messene in
215 [SLIDE] - a view which has been generally accepted by modern scholarship - the
historian’s narrative actually seems to show that Philip, although certainly heavy-handed,
remained supportive and attentive towards them for as long as he was able. It seems
therefore that Polybius has painted Philip’s character and conduct, at least in this respect, in
a more radical form than it might actually have been.

To understand Polybius’ depiction of the Macedonian king we must realise that it is

part invention, tailored by the historian’s literary manipulations to fit in with the
overarching aims and themes which resound throughout his Histories. One of the most
important of these is the historian’s desire to provide a didactic model with which to
educate his readers – these ideally being statesmen and future leaders (both Greek and
Roman), who wish to inform and correct their conduct by the study of history. This aim is
explicitly confirmed in a number of instances throughout his work, and is even emphasised
in a digression specifically related to Philip. [SLIDE] Polybius uses the king as an extended
case study in the achievement of this aim throughout his Histories.iv Philip serves as a
warning to Polybius’ audience against corruption of character, and the events of the king’s
life must therefore be carefully sculpted, and certain events singled out, perhaps above
their real significance, as conspicuous instances of immoral behaviour.

Polybius therefore created a specific image of the king to produce a didactic

paradigm, which also incidentally allowed him to pursue a narrower, if very important
political agenda: notably, to defend the actions of the Achaean League and its leader Aratus
of Sicyon. Polybius and his family had held positions within the League, and the historian

Emma Nicholson: PGF Conference 16 May 2014: Discovery, Invention and Reinvention

shows a clear bias towards the confederation and Aratus, his predecessor, from the very
beginning of his Histories.v This Achaean bias is likely to colour his depiction of Philip as the
League held a close relationship with the king, particularly at the beginning of his reign,
Aratus even became one of Philip’s advisers, and it is likely that the League suffered
criticism for their Macedonian connections, especially in regards to the king’s less well-
received acts during the middle of his reign from 215 to 200 BC.

Keeping in mind his didactic aim and his Achaean connection, we should be careful
to understand how Polybius has constructed the king and should not take what he writes as
necessarily all historical. His account of Messene, which fortunately survives almost entirely
complete, illustrates this point perfectly.

Polybius’ depiction of the king at the beginning of his reign, between 221 and 215
BC, is one of a leader who excelled in benevolent, kingly behaviour – he is even referred to
by Polybius as ‘the darling of Greece’ [SLIDE]- but who took a sudden turn for the worse in
215, becoming a self-seeking and untrustworthy tyrant. This change, so Polybius explicitly
states, occurred when Philip encouraged a revolution and massacre in the Greek city of
Messene, then an ally of Macedonia and Achaea in the Hellenic League and attempted to
place the city under Macedonian control. The historian details [SLIDE] the advice given by
the Achaean leader, Aratus of Sicyon, and an Illyrian adviser, Demetrius of Pharos, to Philip
in response to his question about whether or not to take possession of Messene. Demetrius
suggests that Philip should take the city: by holding Messene’s stronghold along with the
one in Corinth, he would be able to control the whole of the Peloponnese; Aratus in
contrast suggests that unless Philip can take Messene and still retain the goodwill of the
Messenians, he should relinquish the town and save his relationship with his allies. Philip is
eventually persuaded by Aratus to leave the city ungarrisoned, allowing it to govern itself
freely and not be constrained by Macedonian forces. However, despite Aratus’ success in
keeping the city free in this instance, Philip comes back and captures Messene just one year
later. This seizure of Messene had serious repercussions for the king’s reputation in the
Achaean League. Not only was Philip taking a town that was an ally of himself and the
League, but the garrisoning of Messene also increased Macedonian power within the
Peloponnese, the incursion of which was always unpopular with Greek states.

Emma Nicholson: PGF Conference 16 May 2014: Discovery, Invention and Reinvention

While Polybius explicitly claims that the events at Messene were very important for
Philip, strangely it is an episode which has not received much critical attention and the
historian’s manipulation of narrative and digression has not been fully This paper
will attempt to rectify this in as far as space will allow and will suggest that the event’s
significance within Polybius’ Histories owes more to Philip’s role as a didactic paradigm and
to Polybius’ Achaean bias, rather than from a genuine radical change in the monarch.

Polybius designated a specific time and place for the beginning of Philip’s change, so
that his readers could clearly understand what had happened to the king. Messene is placed
into this prominent position. Yet there was an earlier event in 218 which could also have
been used to indicate this change for the worse – Philip’s attack and plunder of the Aetolian
religious and administrative centre, Thermum. [SLIDE] Here, in a long moralising digression
in Book 5, Polybius declares that Philip and the Macedonians had acted sacrilegiously and
contravened the laws of war in their attack and plunder of the Aetolian sanctuary,vii levelling
harsh criticism at the king for his unrestrained and unkingly behaviour. Why then did
Polybius reads Philip’s actions at Messene, and not those at Thermum, as the start of the
king’s ‘change for worse’? The answer, as will hopefully soon be evident, comes down to
Polybius’ aim to protect the Achaean League and Aratus.

[SLIDE] Just after his narrative account of the massacre of Messene, but before the
counselling of Aratus and Demetrius, Polybius summarises the early years of the king’s reign
as politically and militarily successful, showing benevolent conduct. This review of the
period interestingly does not mention Philip’s sacrilege at Thermum, and shows the king in
an entirely positive light. Polybius seems to have completely ignored, or possibly forgotten,
his earlier invective against Philip. Yet, the lack of any mention of Thermum in the summary
is not surprising once we realise that Polybius intended to make Messene the crucial
turning-point in the king’s character all along.

At the end of the long invective against Philip at Thermum, Polybius conceded that
readers should not place all the blame on the young king, but on the advisers who
influenced him. [SLIDE] This comment is also repeated at Messene. His remark, however,
appears more of an after-thought to the criticism of the king’s behaviour in the previous
passages, and might even be seen to undermine it. On the other hand this comment has a

Emma Nicholson: PGF Conference 16 May 2014: Discovery, Invention and Reinvention

very deliberate purpose and is meant to deflect the seriousness of the historian’s recent
allegations. Polybius did not want to make Thermum so important in the development of
Philip’s character, despite wanting to comment on the king’s behaviour; Messene was still
the crowning moment for him. Reflecting back on an argument made about the sacrilege at
Thermum two books earlier would not have made this incident as momentous as Polybius
wanted to argue.

Messene’s importance for Polybius rests on the changing relationship between Philip
and the Achaean League after the joint war against Aetolia, and his need to defend the
actions of Aratus and the League while allied to Philip. In this instance he was probably
trying to fend off criticism for Aratus’ failure to stop Philip from taking Messene. [SLIDE]
Polybius uses both Thermum and Messene to defend Aratus’ character and conduct, and to
explain that Aratus could not have advised Philip to commit sacrilege at Thermum and did
everything he could to stop Philip from contravening the terms of the alliance by taking
Messene. At Thermum, we find the first part of a polarised presentation of two advisers,
pitting the praiseworthy Aratus of Sicyon against the evil Illyrian and non-Greek adviser,
Demetrius of Pharos;viii the second part of this defence of Aratus and indictment of
Demetrius is finished at Messene after Philip questions them about garrisoning the city. By
simplifying the process of counselling and depicting only two advisers, Polybius is not only
shaping his material to help his readers understand the influence of advisers on kings, but
also makes it clear that Aratus should not be associated with Philip’s more ruthless actions
towards the Achaean League, the Hellenic League or the Greeks in general.

[SLIDE] Polybius himself also notes that other historians viewed the Messenian affair
as either a praiseworthy achievement resulting in the settlement of the city’s civic troubles,
or omitted it and considered it of minimal importance in the grander schemes of the king’s
western ambitions.ix Unfortunately neither the names of the historians nor the nature of
their work survives for comparison.x Recognising that other interpretations existed,
however, we can argue that Messene was not universally believed to be a defining moment
in the king’s career. Polybius was probably using Messene to emphasise what he construed
to be a significant moment in the relationship between the Achaean League and the
Macedonian king. That is, when Philip turned his attention away from pandering to the
goodwill of the Achaean League after the end of their war with Aetolia and focused on

Emma Nicholson: PGF Conference 16 May 2014: Discovery, Invention and Reinvention

ambitions of expansion elsewhere. Polybius claims that Philip’s reputation worsened in the
years after the war as he aimed for conquest and the historian wanted to assert that the
Achaean League and Aratus, as its leader and the king’s adviser, had no part in this change,
nor in the capture of Messene, an ally of Achaea and Macedonia in the Hellenic League, by
Macedonian forces. He was defending the Achaean League’s association with the king, and
dissociating it from his less well-received acts. Furthermore, the historian wanted to portray
Aratus as the noble adviser and defender of Greek interests by illustrating that Philip’s
behaviour worsened when Aratus lost influence to Demetrius.

Yet it is only by strong implication that Polybius claims Demetrius was part of the
reason for the king’s change for the worse. There is no evidence, even in Polybius’ narrative,
that Demetrius had any part in advising the king to instigate the Messenian massacre or
commit sacrilege at Thermum; in the latter instance, Demetrius makes no appearance in the
narrative before or during the attack of Thermum, and is only brought into the text during
Polybius’ digression regarding advisers after the account. But it is very likely that Demetrius
would have wanted Philip to turn away from Greece to other areas, specifically Illyria
[SLIDE], as he had been deprived of his position there by Rome in 219.xi At this point Philip
had established himself as a young, but strong and successful king. He had recently quashed
his advisers’ attempts to intimidate and manipulate him into following a more conservative
policy under their control. This attempt, labelled by modern scholars as the Apelles
conspiracy, was dealt with by the young king with brutal and fatal force, resulting in the
death of a number of prominent Macedonian advisers who had been recruited by his
predecessor, Antigonus Doson.xii Philip was now ready, having also just rid himself of the
war with Aetolia, for new enterprises. Demetrius was in prime position and quickly drew the
king's attention. For Polybius, Demetrius was the perfect antagonist of Aratus, propagating
the noble image of the Achaean leader.

This stage in Philip's reign marks the shift in influence of the two advisers, Aratus of
Sicyon and Demetrius of Pharos. Or at least, this is the impression we get from Polybius’
account. It marks the period when Philip's attention is being diverted from Greece, and
Aratus, the hero of the Achaean League, falls from his position of influence. It is an
important moment for the League, but it is not the first moment when Philip imposed more
explicit Macedonian control. A Macedonian military presence with direct influence over

Emma Nicholson: PGF Conference 16 May 2014: Discovery, Invention and Reinvention

domestic affairs had been felt by several Peloponnesian cities even before Philip’s reign. He
had inherited garrisons at Corinth, Heraea and Orchomenus from his predecessorxiii and
since 219 had also brought the region of Triphylia under Macedonian control. xiv The capture
of this region not only put a wedge between Aetolia and her Spartan allies, but also secured
the problematic area of Phigalia, a region allied to Aetolia since 244 and used as an Aetolian
base throughout the war.xv The placement of Triphylia under Macedonian authority was a
policy therefore more in aid of Macedonian interests than Achaean or Greek ones as Philip
could just as easily have handed the district over to the Greek city Arcadia, or granted it free
government with Hellenic League membership.xvi By putting a Macedonian garrison into
Messene, the king could more effectively control all communication between his enemies in
the Peloponnese and ensure the continued security of Macedonian affairs.xvii

Therefore, we find that Polybius gives us evidence for continuity. Philip’s seizure of
Messene is not particularly surprising and does not therefore show much change in policy.
Nor as we see, is it a moment when Philip's character changes dramatically. He has shown
already that he is not opposed to ruthless behaviour at Thermum. This policy of garrisoning
Peloponnesian cities, inherited from his predecessor, was in effect both before and after the
end of the war and therefore appears to have been part of Macedonia’s general policy
within the Peloponnese. Rather than a sudden change in character and conduct therefore,
as Polybius makes out, there instead seems to be a clear degree of continuity in Philip’s
actions from the beginning of his reign.

The events, as Polybius writes them, also produce a number of consequences which
pave the way for his depiction of Philip’s later career. Philip is revealed to break the terms of
a treaty-alliance, to be highly influenced by his advisers, and Polybius now foreshadows that
Philip, from this moment, would become increasingly ruthless and treacherous. Our
interpretations of Philip have been based off these assumptions, but, as we lack a significant
portion of Polybius’ later account, they may in fact skew our interpretation of the king’s
later character and reign, and we must be wary of this easy trap.

Unfortunately, an effective exploration of these assumptions, and the king’s middle

and later years in general, will always be hindered to a considerable degree by the
fragmentary nature of Polybius’ work. There is therefore a limit to the rediscovery of Philip

Emma Nicholson: PGF Conference 16 May 2014: Discovery, Invention and Reinvention

as a subject. Yet, I hope this paper has shown that there is still scope for further study of
Philip, contrary to the perception that the area is no longer rewarding. Professor McGing’s
work has already shown that some significant gains can be made by investigating Polybius’
literary constructions, and this route, as I hope my discussion of Messene proves, has the
potential to be even more fruitful. It is necessary, since our understanding of Polybius as a
historian and his Histories has changed, that our interpretation and perception of Philip V of
Macedon should be reconsidered also. This rediscovery of Philip entails, to some extent, a
meaningful deconstruction of Polybius.

For examples of their works, see Holleaux, Rome, La Grece et Les Monarchies hellenistiques, 1921; Pedéch, Le
methode historique de Polybe, 1964; Errington, ‘Philip V, Aratus and the “Conspiracy of Apelles”’ in Historia:
Seitschrift fur Alte Geschichte, 1967; Gruen, ‘The Supposed Alliance Between Rome and Philip V of Macedon’ in
California Studies in Classical Antiquity, 1973, and The Hellenistic World and the Coming of Rome, 1984;
Eckstein, Moral Vision in the Histories of Polybius,1995 and Rome Enters the Greek East, 2008; and Ma, ‘Court,
King and Power in Antigonid Macedonia’ in Brill’s Companion to Ancient Macedonia, 2011.
Kenneth Sacks, ‘Review of Polybius and His World’ in Histos 8 (2014)
For this recognition see Davidson, ‘The Gaze of Polybius’ Histories’ in JRS, 1991:10-11; Marincola, Greek
Historians, 2001: 113; Nikos Miltsios, ‘The Perils of Expectations: Perceptions, Suspense and Surprise in
Polybius’ Histories’ in Narratology and Interpretation: The Content of Narrative Form in Ancient Literature,
2009: 181-83; and McGing, ‘Youthfulness in Polybius: The Case of Philip V of Macedon’ in Polybius and His
World, 2013: 181. Miltsios, The Shaping of Narrative in Polybius, 2013, is the most recent and comprehensive
response to this problem. Miltsios and McGing both explore focalisation in Polybius’ work; for focalisation in
Classical scholarship in general see Hornblower 1994: 131-66; Rood 1998; Fowler 1990; Bal 1997 and Genette
Polyb. 4.77.4.
See particularly Haegemans and Kosmetatou, ‘Aratus and the Achaean Background of Polybius’, in The
Shadow of Polybius, 2005
See Pedech 1964: 104-5 for Messene and Aratus’ concerns, and 416-7 for the parallel of Aratus of Sicyon and
Demetrius of Pharos. See also Golan, ‘The Μεταβολη of Philip V’ in The Res Graeciae in Polybius. Four Studies,
1995 esp. 39-52.
Polyb. 5.9-12
Walbank Commentaries II: 61
Pédech 1964: 105
See Walbank Commentaries III: 1.30
Polyb. 3.19.8
Polyb. 5.1.4, 2.7-10, 4.8-13, 5.5-8, 14.11-16.10, 25-29
Garrisons were present at Corinth, Heraea and Orchomenus for example. See Polyb. 2.54.1 for Corinth;
Polyb. 2.54.10, Plut. Cleom. 23.1, and Arat. 45.1 for Orchomenus; and Polyb. 2.54.12 and Livy 28.8.6 for
Polyb. 4.77.5-8
220 BC; Polyb. 4.3.5-6, 4.6.9. 4.31.1. See also Syll. 472; cf. Walbank, JHS 61, 1936, 68 n. 30.
Walbank, Philip V of Macedon, 1940: 47
See also Walbank 1940: 41-2 for his argument that Philip is pursuing a policy opening a west coast route
through the friendly territories of Epirus, west Ambracia and Acarnania to consolidate his influence among the

Emma Nicholson: PGF Conference 16 May 2014: Discovery, Invention and Reinvention

western allies and make it easier to reach Achaea from Macedonia.


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