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F - 7: Alexander - On the Shoulders of a Giant

On a hot summer day this July, I was in the comfortable, cool Hotel Particulier of the “Monnaie de Paris”, the French Mint, We were working on the 2004 conference of the “eabh”, the European Association for Banking History. The conference topic is “Debasement of Money in History”. At the end of our 2 h meeting, the agency staff took us to the Mint’s unique coin collections. Before I knew it, I held a 2’300-year-old gold coin in my hand, minted under the Macedonian King Philipp II. What a privilege!

A Gold Coin minted during the Rule of King Philip Of Macedon (382 - 336 BC)


The Macedonian King Philip II was Alexander the Great’s father. His son would at the young age of 23 defeat the much larger Persian Army, march with his troops to India, establish his own empire and found dozens of towns named Alexandria – the most famous in Egypt which would house the world’s biggest library.

The Macedonian Kingdom at the time of Philipp II's Assassination in 336 BC


Whilst Alexander the Great gets all the fame and books continue to be written about his military genius – which he undoubtably was.- some people wonder how an only 23-year-old prince could be so successful. Where did he get the military experience from to lead an army at an age when I was a Lieutenant in charge of a tank platoon with 25 men? Even more, how could tiny Macedonia successfully wage war against the mighty Persian Empire? The answer was in the palm of my hand. Alexander the Great benefitted from the significant achievements of his father, King Philipp II.

Athen's Silver Mines got depleted in the 4th Century BC - the Macedonian started production


During his reign, Philipp II significantly expanded his kingdom, taking Thrace and northern Greece. These new territories gave him access to considerable agricultural wealth and manpower. More importantly, he gained control over the silver and gold mines in the region. Under his reign, the area of Bulgaria, Turkey’s European part, Greece’s Thrace and Macedonia, North Macedonia and the eastern part of Albania were united in one kingdom. He controlled the shipping line for grain exports from the Sea of Azov (Bosporian Kingdom) to Athens and the export of timber and cattle to Greek cities. He expanded and modernized cities within his realm. Whilst the Greek called the Macedonians barbarians, they were as sophisticated as their critics.

The Amphitheater in Philippi, one of the Towns Philipp II conquered in 356 BC


The gold and silver mines allowed Philipp II to professionalize his full-time army and train it in combined arms tactics. Never before had infantry and cavalry so closely worked together. The Macedonian Army counted 10’000 full-time soldiers, many of foreign origin, and was the finest fighting force at its time. Alexander was with his father on all his campaigns and picked up military and leadership skills as he grew up. Alexander’s later military successes would have been impossible without the army his father created. Philipp II also trained his troops in siege warfare and how to take fortified places after his attempts to conquer Byzantion and Perinthus had failed. These skills came in handy when Alexander had to besiege the Phoenician town of Tyre in the Levant.

Alexander at the Battle of Issue in 333 BC where he beat the far larger Persian Army


Once Philipp II controlled Athens and Thebes, the previously dominant city-states in Greece, he established the League of Corinth in 338 BC with himself as Commander-in-Chief. He now devoted his attention to the Persian Empire which he considered as weak and bureaucratic. In 336 BC, he sent 10’000 men across the Hellespont (Dardanelles) to open his campaign against Persia with the aim to “liberate” the Greek cities in Asia Minor from Persian rule. Due to his assassination the same year – result of a screwed-up love entanglement - these plans came to naught. Without his leadership, the Macedonian expeditionary force was defeated and returned empty handed back. But the ground work was done and the appetite of young Alexander wetted.

View from Sestos where Alexander crossed the Dardanelles - we pass by here on our first day of sailing this summer


As soon as he had dealt with a few rebellions against his rule, he led his 32’000 men strong Macedonian Army between Sestos and Adydos over the Hellespont and changed history forever. In his first year, in 334 BC, he followed more or less the campaign plan of his late father and freed the towns of Pergamon, Ephesus, Miletus and Halicarnassus (Bodrum). We are going to visit all of them this summer except Bodrum. The more ambitious plan to move into the Persia proper and Egypt took shape in the winter of 334/333 BC when Alexander famously solved the problem of the Gordian Knot with his sword.

Alexander's Campaign in 334 BC followed closely his Father's original Plan


Holding the gold coins of Philipp II and Alexander the Great in my hand reminded me of a sentence Isaac Newton used in a letter to his friend Robert Hook in 1675: “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

Philipp's tomb in Vergina near the ancient city of Aegae was found intact in 1977


The golden Larnax and Grave Crown of Philipp II was still in his intact tomb









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