Macedonian Colonization Under Philip II


Athanasios Fountoukis
published on 28 February 2022
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Available in other languages: French, Greek, Russian

Philip II of Macedon (359-336 BCE) envisaged a broad Macedonian kingdom and his colonial expansion resulted in the forging of an empire that his son Alexander the Great (r. 336-323 BCE) would use as a springboard for even greater things. Philip's strategic and economically valuable colonies and garrisons in Thessaly and Thrace included such great cities as Philippi and Philippopolis.

Theatre of Philippi
Theatre of Philippi
Carole Raddato (CC BY-SA)

The overpopulation of Archaic cities in the region of modern Greece was one of the primary motivations for the first waves of colonization in the 8th century BCE. The threat of famine was one of the main consequences of an overpopulated city and one solution was to send a part of the population to a new colony. Given the unequal land distribution by the aristocratic elites in these archaic cities, through colonization, a non-elite citizen had the opportunity to seek a higher standard of living. Consequently, by investigating Macedonian colonialism under Philip II, the already mentioned reasons for establishing colonies could hypothetically apply in this case. However, they are not the sole reasons behind the foundation of new settlements. One should always keep in mind that every era and any historical event has to be studied and analyzed as a unique event. Each unique event was defined and shaped by a series of other events that took place in the region at that time. Philip used the colonies in Thrace and Thessaly to support his swift and fierce military expansion. This argument, as we shall see, can be supported by the strategic position, as well as Philip's exceptional use of the colonies.

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Main Macedonian Colonies

In Thrace:

  • Crenides - renamed Philippi (modern Kavala, Greece)
  • Philippopolis (modern Plovdiv, Bulgaria)
  • Cabyle (modern Yambol, Bulgaria)

In Thessaly:

  • Gomphoi - renamed Philippopolis (modern Karditsa, Greece)
  • Thebes in Phthiotis - renamed Philippi (modern Magnesia, Greece)

Macedonia under Philip II
Macedonia under Philip II
Marsyas (GNU FDL)

The Protagonist

Perdiccas III of Macedon (r. 365 to 360 BCE), Philip's brother, had chosen to continue the tradition of the endless slaughters between the Macedonians and the northern neighboring Illyrian tribes. In 360 BCE, Perdiccas was killed, and his military units were destroyed by the rival Illyrian king Bardylis. According to the 1st century BCE historian Diodorus Siculus, Philip II, the descendant of the Argead dynasty, succeeded by election as the basileus of Macedonia. In a period of 23 years, the king subjugated and annexed vast peripheral territories around Pella, the kingdom's capital, and managed to overcome the continual raids from the surrounding tribes of Thracians in the east and the Paeonians and Illyrians from the north. The king conducted many campaigns to achieve his strategic objectives, and he concurrently established colonies which not only fortified his annexations but enabled him to develop mining, agricultural, and trade activities. A considerable share of the effectiveness of the later Macedonian territorial expansion under Philip's son Alexander the Great (r. 336 to 323 BCE) has to be given to Philip's colonies.

Every Macedonian king had to prove his military capabilities & earn the respect of the army.

According to some ancient authors, notably Demosthenes (c. 384 - 322 BCE), Philip II was quite an individual. Philip must have built up an immense body strength compared to modern standards. He suffered several fierce wounds in battle that scarred Philip for life. Demosthenes describes a fractured collarbone and the mutilation of his hand and leg, and, of course, his most famous wound, the loss of an eye. Additionally, it is worth considering that authors such as Demosthenes tend to be more extravagantly against Philip, so their texts and speeches would contain more intense elements of persuasion. If the accounts of the proud Athenian author resemble any kind of truth, one can notice some fundamental qualities of Philip’s nature. These characteristics depict some core values of the Macedonian leadership, which indicates what Macedonian society expected from its rulers. In particular, kingship could be awarded or lost through the consensus of the army. This idea illustrates the importance of the leader's military conquests. Every Macedonian king had to prove his military capabilities and earn the respect of the army to claim and hold his throne. By only isolating Demosthenes’ mention of his physical characteristics, we can assume that the Argead king was able to command the respect of the rank and file.

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Philip II of Macedon (Artist's Impression)
Philip II of Macedon (Artist's Impression)
Mohawk Games (Copyright)

The Motivation

One of Philip's motivations to found colonies was the territorial benefits. While he rapidly subjugated the neighboring tribes of Illyria, Paeonia, and Thrace, he needed to find a way to hold these recent annexations. From Philip's perspective, the foundation of colonies in these areas provided a series of stabilizing factors to the territory. Firstly, there was the placement of Macedonian garrisons for the suppression of indigenous revolts. Secondly, the regional natural resources, such as the vast areas of timber and mines, were exploited. Thirdly, the Macedonian colonies contributed to the necessary security that the regional land trade routes needed to flourish. Lastly, the colonies provided a defensive barrier to each region, as they were usually established in strategic positions. However, what distinguished Philip from other colonial kings was the exceptional use of his colonies. He exercised his kingly rights in a way that enabled him to move the populations inside his kingdom as he saw fit. Furthermore, he was settling his subjects according to the expansion's needs. This strategy enabled Philip to administer his territories more efficiently. When the Macedonian king came up against any civil turmoil, he would transfer the suspect perpetrators to different newly annexed territories or colonies, where manpower was available or needed.

Philippi provided King Philip with a vast yearly income, plus the capability to mint his own coins.

The Thracian Colonies

As a result of various contemporary scholarly debates and archeological evidence on the origins of the Macedonian colonies, we can distinguish a few of their names. As a pretext for Philip's endeavors for an expansion eastwards into Thrace, he exploited the calls for help of the indigenous people of Crenides. The already settled Thasians (from the island of Thassos), among other colonists, were likely greatly affected by the continuous raids of the local Thracian tribes and their annihilation seemed imminent. A series of events led to the foundation of one of the first Macedonian colonies. In 360 BCE, the assassination of Cotys the Odrysian King of Thrace showed the way for his three sons to divide their kingdom respectively. In c. 356 BCE, Cotys' kin, Ketriporis who governed the western region of Thrace, joined a coalition between the Illyrians and Paeonians against Philip. The colonists from Crenides were also aware of the sudden rise to power of Philip. Thus, since the Thasians or their allies, the Athenians, were too slow to respond, they were forced to plead for Macedonian assistance or perish at the hands of the Thracian raiders. In c. 355 BCE, after Philip's successful triumph over these competing tribes, he reinforced Crenides with Macedonian colonists and gave the colony his name.

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Philippi offers an exceptional example for us to envisage an ideal Macedonian centre. The king fortified the colony against possible future Thracian and Paeonian invaders and commanded the drainage of the swamps so that the area could then be cultivated. As a result, the colonists could produce the maximum resources out of the soil. Philip also exploited the colony's gold and silver mines, which provided the Macedonian king with a yearly yield of 1,000 talents. The colony provided Philip with a vast yearly income, plus the capability to mint his own coins. Also, the southern, almost coastal, location of the colony provided the king with the ability to muster a naval fleet. As a consequence, the existence of coastal support would have disrupted any intentions of foreign occupation. The colony's advantageous geographical position can be attested from the regional accessibility. Philip could at any moment invade either the Thracian tribes of Triballi or Getaes. Furthermore, the colony was only a ten days' march from Pella.

Philip II, Macedonian Silver Tetradrachm
Philip II, Macedonian Silver Tetradrachm
Mark Cartwright (CC BY-NC-SA)

Further invasions could have been made, with Philippi as an operational starting point. On the one hand, the nomadic Scythians were 320 km (198 miles) away, on the other hand, Byzantium, with its crucial passage of the Athenian grain from Pontus, was 387 km (240 miles) distant. Both of them were within the army's strategic range. Surely, after re-founding the colony, Philip's options for further expansion had increased significantly. In addition, Philippi's importance is all-too evident from the later construction of the great Roman road Via Egnatia, which passed over Philippi. The road connected the south Adriatic Sea with the Dardanelles, crossing Macedonia and Thrace, currently, modern Northern Greece. The area became the Kavala regional unit of east Macedonia, in Greece. In 2016, UNESCO listed the Philippi archaeological site as a World Heritage Site.

14 years later, while Philip was already in control of the mines of Mt. Pangaion, thanks to Philippi, he again advanced eastwards into Thrace and annexed the Hebrus River Valley. As for any historical event, the reasons behind the expansion were multilateral. While the ambitious Thracian ruler, Cersobleptes was increasing his diplomatic relations with the Athenians, Philip saw the threat of a possible expansion move. The Argead king understood that by capturing Thrace he would gain a significant territorial stronghold against the Achaemenid Empire and Athens. On the one hand, a Macedonian Thrace would block any possible Persian invasions - and the Achaemenids had attached great importance to the region in their previous invasions. As a matter of fact, the Persians, by crossing the Hellespont, had deployed their army in eastern Thrace three times in the last 150 years. So, blocking the most obvious marching route of one of the vastest empires of the time was indeed a significant action.

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On the other hand, Philip's Greek competitors beyond his southern borders, the Athenians, would have certainly been depopulated by a Macedonian capture of Byzantium, as it was a route of their imported grain from Pontus. Considering Thrace's strategic qualities, one can understand the need for Philip to campaign against Cersobleptes with large armies, as Diodorus Siculus noted. Therefore, Philip founded two colonies close to his enemies' frontiers for the security of his conquests.

Achaemenid Empire Map
Achaemenid Empire Map
Fabienkhan (CC BY-SA)

Cabyle was located ten km (6 miles) away from Yambol, in what is today southeastern Bulgaria. Philippopolis, founded in 342 BCE, also bore the king's name and aimed to control the Thracian routes to the Axios River Valley, in Upper Macedonia. The ancient colony became the city of Plovdiv, derived from the ancient Thracian name Pulpudeva, located in modern-day Bulgaria. These foundations authorized Philip not only to control the coast of the North Aegean Sea but also, to create alliances with the Greek city-states of the Black Sea. Furthermore, the king had chosen or at least planned to settle colonists from elsewhere who either disrupted directly or indirectly his affairs and interests. Hence, the 4th century BCE historian Theopompus informs us of 2.000 colonists sent to Philippopolis. The evidence is very limited for most of Philip's colonies but one can assume that Cabyle had a similar population as Philippopolis.

The Thessalian Colonies

Numerous ancient authors refer to the spectacular nature of the Thessalian region. Already Xenophon (430-c. 354 BCE), in his book Hellenica, commented on the hospitable and magnificent Thessalian behavior. Beyond these perceptions, Plutarch (c. 45-50 CE to c. 120-125 CE), in the Life of Alexander, praised the Thessalian cavalry under Alexander the Great. Herodotus also recounts the Thessalian cavalry as “the best in Hellas'' (Histories, 7.196). Certainly, Philip, due to his aristocratic education, and like the ancient authors, was aware of these military advantages of the region. He knew that if he controlled Thessaly, not only would he be able to muster one of the best cavalries in the Mediterranean region, but he would also secure his southern Macedonian borders. As a result, Philip would ensure the prosperity of his motherland and provide a notion of security and prosperity to his subjects. Therefore, in 358 BCE, he exploited the opportunity to intervene in Thessalian affairs, when he responded to his neighbours' call for help.

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The reasons behind Philip's intervention began in 370 BCE when Jason of Pherae, who already had mustered a significant army for the time, was assassinated and his far more authoritative nephew, Alexander the II, ascended to power. Then, the western part of Thessaly formed the Thessalian League as a countermeasure to the holders of the eastern coastal part of Thessaly. Ironically, in 358 BCE, the nephew met the same fate as his uncle. Cineas of Larissa, as a representative of the League, then called for help from the Macedonians, which, at least initially, was restricted to diplomatic measures before progressing to more aggressive means. It must be emphasized that the League's condition in terms of finances, due to the continuous conflicts, was exceptionally poor. In c. 353 BCE, Philip, after dealing with the ambitious descendants of Jason and the Phokian allies, sacked and subjugated the rest of Thessaly. Among the sacked cities, he renamed the city of Gomphoi Philippopolis and changed Phthiotic Thebes to Philippi. The former colony can now be found in the region of Karditsa in central modern Greece, while the latter can be traced to the small Greek village of Mikrothivai in the Magnesia regional unit. Subsequently, Philip sold a part of the decimated populations into slavery, profiting greatly from the sale.

Greek Phalanx
Greek Phalanx
CA (Copyright)

The events and the reorganization of Thessaly under Philip's involvement led to a remarkable occasion, the election by the Thessalian League of a foreign king to be the archon for life. This indicates a high admiration and submission of the Thessalian aristocrats to the power of Macedonia. The king of Macedonia and archon managed to put at his disposal both the population and resources of a region which were at least equal to the population and resources of the Macedonian kingdom in 359 BCE. Thereby, the two provinces were able to muster at least 3,000 superb cavalry units and 30,000 heavy infantry units. In addition, the foundation of the Thessalian colonies indicated Philip’s intention to improve his cavalry by gaining access to the apparently unique breed of the Thessalian pastures. Finally, he secured his southern realm against expected attacks or raids from other Greek city-states.

The Macedonian Garrisons

According to Diodorus, Philip reinforced the colony of Philippopolis in Thrace with a garrison. The establishment of garrisons at key Thracian locations emerged from the need to "keep them under control". The imposition of the garrisons was accompanied by a tithe tax. The introduction of the yearly taxes and the re-organization of the Macedonian fortifications implies a tendency towards the creation of an administrative structure in Thrace. This implication was made more clear when Philip created the administrative position of the strategos to administer the region. Another demonstration of an administration plan accompanying the imposition of garrisons can be traced some years earlier in Thessaly, to 344 BCE. Philip restored the old tetrarchies, the four administrative districts of Thessaly, and established a decadarchy, an administrative assembly, which he enforced with garrisons. Additionally, he assigned a governor to each district. Thus, Philip envisaged the garrisons as a tool to force his administrative authority and to offer protection to the regional status quo. Furthermore, there is evidence that Philip also installed garrisons in newly conquered territories.

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Approximately two years before the internal administration system of Thessaly, Philip had already installed a garrison in Nicaea, located east of the pass of Thermopylae. The maintenance of the infamous pass was crucial for his future access into the heart of the Greek city-state territories. Lastly, another example of Philip's garrison usage can be ascertained from his actions after the battle of Chaeronea in 338 BCE. The last famous battle of Philip with his son Alexander (before he became "Great") at his side was characterized by a triumph over the Thebans and Athenians, leading to the dependence of the Greek city-states under the Macedonian king. Philip, to secure the "spear won" territories and to avoid future conflict with the locals, abolished their hegemonies and installed pro-Macedonian oligarchies and permanent garrisons at Ambracia, Thebes, Corinth, Chalcis, and probably Megara. So, as a general characteristic of the Macedonian garrisons under Philip, one can notice that he used them as a tool of enforcement of his rule.

To summarize, the colonies Philip founded provided a widespread expansive structure in his newly conquered territories, allowing the king to garner a multitude of social, military, and economical advantages. The Macedonian king achieved what no other of his Argead ancestors ever accomplished in the first 18 years of his reign. In almost two decades he doubled the size of the previously diminished kingdom. He mustered both a naval fleet and an infantry army capable of bringing havoc and despair to one of the largest empires of the known world, the Achaemenid Empire.

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About the Author

Athanasios Fountoukis
A historian, who acquired a BA degree in History and Ethnology in Greece, and an MA degree in Ancient History in the Netherlands. He is fascinated by the ancient history of maritime and nomadic cultures.


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Questions & Answers

Who was Philip II of Macedon?

The father of Alexander the Great, Philip II of Macedon was an accomplished king and military commander in his own right, setting the stage for his son's victory over Darius III and the conquest of Persia.

How did colonies help Philip II’s military campaigns?

Colonies helped Philip II's military campaigns, firstly, by the placement of Macedonian garrisons for the suppression of indigenous revolts. Secondly, the regional natural resources, such as the vast areas of timber and mines, were exploited. Thirdly, the Macedonian colonies contributed to the necessary security that the regional land trade routes needed to flourish. Lastly, the colonies provided a strategic defensive barrier to each region.

How did the Macedonian empire start and end?

The Macedonian empire started during the reign of Philip II with his endeavors for colonization and the establishment of garrisons, creating a springboard for his son Alexander the Great, who conquered Persia. Alexander's conquests in Persia, Egypt, and the Levant defined the Macedonian Empire. In Babylon, in 323 BCE, his death signified the end of the empire.

What was the Macedonian empire known for?

The Macedonian empire was known for the unification and Hellenization of regions of Europe with Asia and Africa, thus making it one of the largest empires in the world. Alexander the Great connected under his empire the isolated city of Pella in modern Northern Greece with Alexandria-Eschate in modern-day Khujand in Tajikistan.

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APA Style

Fountoukis, A. (2022, February 28). Macedonian Colonization Under Philip II. World History Encyclopedia. Retrieved from

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Fountoukis, Athanasios. "Macedonian Colonization Under Philip II." World History Encyclopedia. Last modified February 28, 2022.

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Fountoukis, Athanasios. "Macedonian Colonization Under Philip II." World History Encyclopedia. World History Encyclopedia, 28 Feb 2022. Web. 14 Apr 2024.