The chaos that followed the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC was felt across his empire, which had stretched from Greece’s Pindus Mountains to Asia’s Indus Valley. Instability had been chronic beneath the surface. This was true of the situation in Athens, a prestigious polis which had been conquered by Alexander’s father Philip in 338 BC.
News of Alexander’s death triggered a mutiny to regain the city’s liberty. The revolt pitched Athens against the forces of a superpower and plunged mainland Greece into anarchy.
The Macedonians in Athens
In 434 BC Athens was the mightiest metropolis of the Mediterranean. It was the nucleus of an Aegean empire and its Acropolis gleamed with monuments. But one hundred years later, everything had changed. Athens no longer ruled the waves. Instead that responsibility rested with its northern neighbour: Macedonia.
King Philip II ascended the Macedonian throne in 359 BC. Having learnt much during his itinerant youth, Philip transformed Macedonia from an underdeveloped backwater into a formidable power. Over 20 years, Thrace, Paeonia, Thessaly, Epirus, Illyria and the Chalkidike fell under Philip’s influence. This was just the beginning. Philip then turned his attention south, towards Athens. Alongside several other city-states, Athens attempted to resist Macedonia, but a decisive defeat at Chaeronea in 338 BC ended their struggle. Athens had a new master.
Philip’s success at Chaeronea proved the zenith of his kingship. Barely two years later Philip was dead, murdered at his daughter’s wedding. Power passed to his eldest, battle-proven son: Alexander. Relations between Alexander and Athens were uneasy. Many of its citizens mourned the city’s past and many resented Macedonia’s control. But such unease was tempered by the reality of Macedonian protection, which ensured Athens enjoyed rare peace and prosperity.
Alexander’s rule set the stage for Athens’ prolonged peace, but it was the tireless work of statesmen within the city which ensured it lasted. Phocion was probably more responsible for this than any other. Born into a noble Athenian family after the Peloponnesian War, Phocion cultivated an unrivalled reputation. He had received a stellar education as a pupil of both Plato and Xenocrates, while he had held military commands from a young age. A skilled orator and capable commander, Phocion aimed to emulate Athenian heroes such as Pericles, Miltiades and Aristides.
Initially Phocion had zealously opposed Philip’s expansion. Yet following defeat at Chaeronea, the statesman recognised that Athens’ best interests did not lie in fighting to the last in a hopeless war. Skilfully mediating between his home city and Macedonia, Phocion became greatly admired by both sides. His oratory secured support from the Athenians, while his conciliatory tone earned him the respect of both Philip and Alexander. By 324 BC, Phocion’s achievements had established him as one of the greatest statesmen of the age.
But in 324 BC, this period of stability became seriously strained.
Harpalus on the horizon
In the spring of that year, Athenian guards spotted an armada on the horizon. The fleet belonged to Harpalus, a senior Macedonian official and former favourite of Alexander, renowned for his love of luxuries. By 324 BC, the friendship had turned sour. Fearful of Alexander’s criticism of his decadent governing style, Harpalus embezzled a small fortune from the royal treasury and took a small army to Athens.
Fearing Alexander’s anger at his decadent approach to governing, Harpalus embezzled a small fortune from the royal treasury, gathered a small army and set sail for Athens. A wealthy, powerful, but isolated fugitive. Harpalus’ armada of 6,000 battle hardened mercenaries, 60 warships, plus transport and supply ships approached Athens seeking entry.
In a rare show of unity, the Athenians denied the request. The corrupt Macedonian appeared to be attempting to seize their city. Having sailed south, Harpalus deposited his mercenary army at the southernmost tip of the Peloponnese. He then returned to Athens as a suppliant, keeping his small fortune close. Using bribes to placate the Athenians, the corrupt Macedonian was admitted in June or early July, 324 BC.
The arrival of the Macedonian fugitive and his treasure presented an opportunity. Finally Athenians might have the resources to raise an effective army and throw off the Macedonian yoke. Phocion and his supporters were less convinced. Even Demosthenes, one of Athens’ most bellicose statesmen, was wary. They resolved to detain Harpalus and confiscate his treasury. Hypereides waited for another opportunity.
The atmosphere in Athens was tense. Over the next month, three separate Macedonian missions arrived demanding Harpalus face the king’s justice. They were rejected. Harpalus was there to stay, a useful bargaining chip in any upcoming dispute with Macedonia. Not long after Harpalus’ arrival, many Greeks travelled to Olympia for its famous games. Many had also followed rumours that a significant announcement was to be made, authorised by Alexander himself.
Indeed, during the games a certain Nicanor, loyal subordinate to Alexander, took centre stage and declared:
King Alexander to the exiles from the Greek cities. We were not the cause of your exile, but we shall be responsible for bringing about your return to your native cities, except for those of you who are under a curse. We have written to Antipater about this matter so that he may apply compulsion to those cities which refuse to reinstate their exiles.
Diodorus Siculus, 18.8.2-7
Cheers erupted when Nicanor finished speaking. Alexander had ordered all exiles be reinstated into their home cities; any past sins they may have committed were washed away. The decree was well-received by many. For Athens it was disastrous.
The Samos situation
In the proclamation was a special clause targeted at Athens, regarding the city of Samos. Since 366 BC, the city had been an Athenian satellite. Among Samos’ population were a significant number of Athenian settlers who retained their home city’s citizenship and ensured the colony remained closely-aligned. Alexander’s announcement put this arrangement in jeopardy.
By demanding that all Greek cities reinstate their exiles, this included the large number of exiled Samians who had sought support from Alexander for the return of their city. Their pleas had convinced the Macedonian king to act, determining that Athenian control of Samos – one of the last links to its imperial past – would end. Anger erupted in Athens, fuelling a blazing fire of anti-Macedonian sentiment. Still, Phocion and the Athenians attempted to negotiate.
It appears a compromise was initially reached: the Athenians could keep Samos, so long as they handed over Harpalus to Alexander. But Harpalus’ suspicious escape from Athens ensured this compromise fell through. At the beginning of 323 BC Alexander delivered a stinging reproach to Athenian pleas: Samos belonged to the Samians. Athenian discontent intensified.
Death of the king
On 11 June 323 BC, Alexander the Great succumbed to a mysterious illness and died. In his lifetime he had conquered the mighty Persian Empire and lead his armies as far as the Beas River in India Yet his death at 32 with no clear heir plunged his empire into turmoil, sparking conflict and chaos from east to west. Greek mercenaries in the east revolted and began their long journey home. In Babylon itself, a power struggle erupted pushing Alexander’s kingdom to the brink of civil war.
In Athens, Hypereides and his followers used the rumours to their advantage, playing on resentment to encourage revolt. Phocion must have known that Athenian appetite for war was now insatiable. Yet experience had taught him to remain cautious. Twelve years earlier, similar rumours had provoked the nearby city of Thebes to massacre the Macedonian militia. Athens had avoided joining thanks largely to Phocion’s efforts. Alexander’s response to the Theban revolt had been swift and brutal.
Phocion advised the policy that had served him so well over his career: caution: “If he is dead today, he will be dead tomorrow.” In the autumn of 323 BC, a ship arrived in Piraeus, Athens’ port. Among the ship’s passengers were men from Babylon who confirmed Alexander’s death.
While a desire to revolt hardened, Phocion and the Athenian property owners (the citizens who Athens would force to fund the fighting) remained hesitant. They had benefited from Macedonian overlordship. Was Athens ready to throw this all away?
Phocion and his supporters still had influence in the Athenian assembly. Yet Hypereides had planned to ensure his peoples’ eagerness to engage the enemy could not be curbed. The demagogue introduced to the Athenians a dashing young general called Leosthenes. Although Athenian by birth, Leosthenes had spent little time inside his home city. When Alexander began his expedition against the Persians in 334 BC, Leosthenes served as a Greek mercenary and saw action in at least one of Alexander’s most famous battles.
It is not certain which side Leosthenes actually fought for. Did he fight among Alexander’s ranks or was he one of the dissatisfied Greeks to side with the Persian king Darius? We do know that by 324 BC, Leosthenes loathed Alexander. While Alexander completed his brutal Indian campaign, Leosthenes began his rise to prominence.
Harpalus’ corruption had been just the tip of an iceberg. Many officials had used their resources to raise powerful, personal armies. At the core of these forces were Greek mercenaries. On returning from India, Alexander ordered that they be disbanded, and suddenly thousands of Greek soldiers found themselves unemployed. To the west a camp emerged specifically for professional soldiers seeking service. The base was situated in southern Greece at Taenarum, south of the Peloponnese and beyond Macedonian reach.
Over the next few months various commanders led their mercenary bands west. By summer 324 BC, Taenarum was home to some 8,000 soldiers. It was with this force that Leosthenes came to the fore. Soon after gathering in Taenarum, the charismatic Leosthenes was elected as their leader.
Athens crosses its Rubicon
Leosthenes’ hatred of Macedonia was no secret and he soon attracted the attention of Hypereides. Both sought a war of liberation, but they also knew that discretion was vital. Leosthenes received gold and silver from his Athenian backers and covertly commenced enrolling his comrades for service. His ranks swelled with soldiers.
As rumours of Alexander’s death were confirmed in Athens, Hypereides introduced Leosthenes to the Athenian assembly. Led by this proven commander and funded by Harpalus’ seized treasure, Hypereides made convincing arguments to refute lingering Athenian concerns. Swept away by Hypereides and Leosthenes, the Athenians decided on war. Leosthenes and his men marched through Athens, but the parade did not convince everyone. Phocion admitted the force looked formidable, but where were the reserves? War is rarely a sprint, but a marathon.
Nonetheless, the decision had been made. Leosthenes, Hypereides and the Athenians had crossed their Rubicon. The war to regain their independence had begun.