Hammond: Still wrong, but with some good points

So I have come down off of my high horse and realize that Hammond actually has a point when talking about the Macedonian aristocracy as though it did not exist, just that it did exist. The following is now a piece of my thesis, but could be an entire book/thesis/article on its own and may seem odd, so bear with me.

Philip II caused the creation of the Hellenistic kingdoms. Alexander’s father died in 336 BCE, Alexander followed in 323, and when Alexander’s heirs finally died in 305, members of the Macedonian Aristocracy took the title of basileus (king). Even then, the final shape of the kingdoms was not established until around 280 BCE when Seleukos Nikator defeated Lysimachos, which allowed Demetrios Poliorketes (then Antigonos Gonatos) retake Macedonia. So the real question is how did Philip, who had died 31 years before the coronation and 56 years before the final shape of the kingdoms was established cause their creation?

Prior to Philip the aristocracy was quite independent, especially in Upper Macedonia, but they never seriously threatened the king beyond an occasional assassination because the Argead family had so much more power. The king controlled a monopoly on all metal mines (gold, silver, iron, tin, copper, etc), as well as timber resources. With these resources firmly in his grasp, the king was the state, plain and simple. Further, the king was the military commander at every battle and there was an instance of an infant king arriving at the battlefield for no other reason than that the the king had to be there.

The Macedonia Philip inherited (or stole from his nephew, however you want to read that), was weak, surrounded by enemies and not in control of all its own territory. Early in his reign Philip won victories militarily, but also diplomatically and financially (one of his most famous sayings was that no fortress is impregnable if he could get a donkey cart full of gold into it). Previously the kingdom had been small enough that the king was able to command every military venture, but as Philip expanded it and campaigned elsewhere, he was no longer able to lead all of the soldiers. Gradually more and more aristocrats rose to command segments of the army. Alexander continued this trend since he campaigned even further afield than did Philip, and had to leave troops behind to protect areas, such as half of the available military remained in Macedonia with Antipatros.

Another of Philip’s policies that strengthened the aristocracy was that as the kingdom expanded, he also increased the number of aristocrats and strengthened the ones already in existence by giving out land grants in the conquered territories, and incorporating the Upper Macedonian noble families. While Philip kept the usual monopolies of the Macedonian aristocracy, expanding land grants meant that other families grew in strength vis a vis the Argead dynasty. Alexander then took a massive leap by giving away all land owned by the king in Macedonia in favor of whatever he could take in Asia, though he probably kept the mines and timber monopolies intact. Then in Asia land, treasure and honor was given to various aristocrats in the same way that Philip had distributed such prizes.

Finally in 305 the token fealty given to Alexander IV evaporated and the young man was killed. Afterwards the aristocracy took the provinces that they ruled and declared themselves kings over that territory. The obvious answer is that Alexander caused this divide by not providing an heir before leaving on campaign–if he had, the young man would have been around 12 when Alexander died and may have been old enough to grow into the kingship while loyalty to Alexander still existed, considering that it took nearly 18 years without a proper heir.

My contention, however, is that Philip caused the eventual creation of the Hellenistic kingdoms because he strengthened the aristocracy. Even for a 12 year old things could have easily degenerated into the same situation because there was no other Argead and the Macedonian aristocracy was so strong. Going down a contrafactual thread, even if the Hellenistic kingdoms didn’t immediately emerge, the moment the Argead king suffered military setbacks the aristocracy could have killed him, or the first heir could have done well, but would have needed the aristocracy that they would have grown increasingly in strength until they removed the king in a generation or two.

Partly this is the nature of the Persian state Alexander transformed Macedonia into because the empire was so expansive that aristocrats had virtual autonomy in most places, but Alexander also tried to incorporate Persians who were used to the system. Philip started the trend of empowering the nobility and with so much of what he did, Alexander was not so much innovating as continuing the policies of Philip.

Why NGL Hammond is wrong.

In his book, The Macedonian State: Origins, Institutions, and History, N.G.L. Hammond makes an astounding error. He argues that Macedonia had no aristocracy (much less landed aristocracy) and that claims to the contrary mistakenly superimpose medieval feudalism on the Macedonian kingdom. Instead, his theory is that the Macedonian king was effectively all powerful and the royal family was the only aristocracy. The king had a monopoly on material resources, land and so on, and that there were no hereditary posts or lands, but people rose and fell on the whim of the Argead king. Each king then chose from a pool of eligible “hetairoi” or companions to supply advisers, officers and so on. Lucky hetairoi had their children at the head of the list for acceptance into the paides (royal pages), who then were educated with the royal princes and may have had a leg up for higher office under the next king.

Ignoring the consensus of EVERYONE other than Hammond and that his several paragraphs nullifies at least one dissertation, I am going to explain why Hammond is wrong.

1) The Argead kings ruled Macedonia for over 200 years by the time of Alexander, so even if the Argead family were the only aristocracy initially, their family had to marry outside of it. Of course many of these marriages would have been with Greeks, Illyrians, Upper Macedonians and Thracians, but some would have been Macedonians (Philip II had a Macedonian wife). Presumably the royal family would have married people in some way distinguished and not the shepherd’s daughter. Further, after 200 years, even with the royal family being the only aristocracy, they would have been a broad group that would have constituted a broad aristocracy on their own.

2) The strength of Macedonia was it’s cavalry. In ancient warfare, cavalry was a distinct sign of nobility as people had to supply their own equipment. In “Greece” one had to supply their own arms and armour and the same was true in Macedonia, or it would not have been as big a deal that Philip II reformed the army in part so that the cost was less and in part by supplying some of the equipment, allowing for the rise of the pike phalanx. Still, the greatest cost of this warfare was borne by the soldiers themselves. If this was true for the infantry, it could have been no less true for the cavalry, and only the aristocracy could afford the cost of weapons, armor and a horse. Since horses also required large amounts of land to breed on, the aristocracy probably also owned land.

3) In promoting some people over others, an imbalance was automatically created in the system. Since there were no assurances that someone would easily step down from his post when asked to by the new king and many are recorded serving more than one king, this by nature creates powerful families.

4) The Macedonian aristocracy *loved* hunting. Hunting was an activity only available to people who had free time, which probably meant that the aristocracy owned land. True, some of this is accounted by the king providing for his companions, but with the all encompassing nature of hunting for all hetairoi (they could not recline at meals until they had slain a boar), it is probable that they all owned land.

5) If land was redistributed under each king, there would have been even greater upheaval. A system that operated by regularly disenfranchising some while enfranchising others could not have lasted. Further, if this were true, then Philip taking the land around Amphipolis would not have been such a big deal. This land he distributed to hetairoi, including making new companions, but he did not redistribute huge amounts of land withing Macedonia proper.

6) Upper Macedonia had its own set of royal houses, but when the cantons merged with Lower Macedonia, the Lower Macedonian hetairoi still held a higher position than did these royals. The only way to explain this was that the hetairoi were an aristocracy and that the royalty from Upper Macedonia joined their ranks in the merge.

The paides were an institution for young nobles, an education and exposure to the Argead princes, but to enter the children had to be from families of some importance. The king was still the first amongst these nobles, but they had to have existed. Before the Persian campaign, Alexander gave away all the royal land, which was an enormous amount, but was not the entire kingdom. To think otherwise it utter nonsense. To call the system a form of feudalism is somewhat anachronistic, but yet is quite apt. The aristocracy owed an oath of fealty to the king and it was kept to with surprising regularity, but these men were far from tame.

I will go on more later, but words are escaping me. For now I will put my ego back in the box and let this simmer for a while in my head.

The spotlight effect

For two years now my greatest complaint about studying ancient history is a spotlight effect. This effect is that in the primary sources certain “great” men dominate the attention and it is impossible to know what else goes on. The best example of this is Alexander III who has at least three ancient works dedicated to him and another that covers him extensively, yet it is nigh impossible to know what some of his officers, in particular the more junior ones, are doing at a given time. Alexander has a spotlight on him that follows wherever he goes and we mostly know what the other men were doing as they entered the spotlight.

Of course there are other problems with the histories, not least of which is that their source was mostly Ptolemy who in turn rewrote history to slander his opponents and make himself show up more often, but Alexander also hogs the spotlight. Some of the time what Alexander ordered and the sparse information from elsewhere does provide adequate knowledge, but other times men who are not immediately around him disappear entirely.

With Alexander I can somewhat understand it because in terms of pure charisma he was by far the most dynamic person of his time, but it is a disservice to the men who served under him who were often brilliant military commanders (Parmenion likely had a better grasp of strategy, if not tactics than did Alexander, Krateros and Seleukos were each defeated but once, etc), fiery personalities (Krateros and Hephaestion fought each other at one point and only Alexander stepping in prevented a battle), and so on.

Still, this is a recurring trend in ancient scholarship, and really before there was information commonly available for what pretty much everyone did, and is one of the difficulties of scholarship at such a great length.