An intruder among Greek states: 4th century BC

The kingdom of Macedonia, to the north of mainland Greece, has a stable dynasty in power from the 7th century BC. At that time it has relatively little involvement with its Greek neighbours to the south. But three centuries later it has acquired the potential to dominate the entire Greek world. As a monarchy it has similarities with Sparta, the powerful kingdom at the southern extremity of the mainland. In each the king leads his troops into battle; both have formidable armies. But Macedonia, a much younger state, is better equipped to conquer and unite the multiple city-states of Greece.

A Macedonian king, if a capable soldier, is more free than his Spartan counterpart to follow up his successes. Sparta is a characteristic Greek city-state in that there are democratic checks on the ruler. Macedonia, by contrast, is like a feudal society. The king and his warrior nobles, known as his 'companions', do as they please.

It is after the accession of Philip II, in about 356 BC, that Macedonia becomes an evident threat to its Greek neighbours to the south.

Philip is one of the rare conquerors in history who combine military genius with a blend, as needed, of skilful diplomacy and shameless bribery. The steel fist and velvet glove enable him, between 356 and 340, to extend his rule over the entire north Aegean coastline, from Thessaly in the west to Thrace in the east, without provoking serious opposition from the main powers of central Greece.

Athens is finally alerted to the Macedonian danger when Philip presses even further east. In 340 he threatens Byzantium. This city, controlling the vital supply of grain from the Black Sea, is too important an ally to lose.

Athens and Thebes declare war on Philip. But their joint army is convincingly defeated by him at Chaeronaea in 338.

Philip follows his victory with a bout of diplomacy, persuading all the Greek cities (except Sparta, which stands proudly aloof) to attend a congress at Corinth, in 337. They enter into a treaty for military cooperation, both defensive and offensive, known as the League of Corinth. Greece is now more nearly united than ever before, even though under duress.

The campaign against Persia: from 336 BC

One of the resolutions of the League of Corinth is to launch a war against Persia, with Philip as commander of the confederate forces. In the following spring (336) an advance guard of 10,000 troops sets off eastwards. But that same summer, at a feast to celebrate the wedding of his daughter, Philip is murdered by one of his courtiers.

The League immediately elects his son, Alexander, in his place as commander. But this degree of unity is short-lived. The Thebans rebel against the League. Alexander storms Thebes in 335 BC, killing 6000. He then puts into effect a stern judgement by the council of the League. Theban territory is divided between its neighbours. The surviving Thebans are enslaved.

This display of ruthless authority enables Alexander to leave Macedonia under the control of a regent, with reasonable confidence that Greece will remain calm during what may prove to be a prolonged absence.

In the spring of 334, still at the age of only twenty-two, Alexander marches east with some 5000 cavalry and 30,000 footsoldiers. There are ancient scores to be settled between Greece and Persia. And they will be settled fast. But first he engages in some romantic tourism, making a pilgrimage to the site of Troy. In a classic Greek ceremony he runs naked to the supposed tomb of Achilles, to place a garland. He is presented with a shield, said to have been dedicated by the Trojans to Athena.

From now on this sacred shield invariably accompanies Alexander into battle. It soon sees action. A short distance to the east of Troy a Persian army awaits the Macedonians. The battle is fought at the river Granicus, with Alexander leading a cavalry charge through the water. The Persians are routed. Many of their troops are Greek mercenaries, of whom thousands are captured. Most of them are killed, but 2000 are sent back to Macedonia in chains to provide slave labour in the mines.

A year later, at Issus, Alexander defeats an army led by the Persian emperor, Darius III. He captures the emperor's mother, wife and children and treats them with every courtesy - a detail which does much for his reputation.

Macedonia after Alexander: 323 - 148 BC

The whole of Greece seems to hold its breath during the astonishing saga of Alexander's conquests in the east. His regent in Macedonia (Antipater, one of his father's most trusted generals) keeps the region calmly under control apart from one brief uprising by Sparta.

But Alexander's death in 323 reopens the floodgates of chaos. Macedonian generals spend the next forty years fighting over the division of his far-flung empire. Closer to home, Greek city-states resume their usual activity of forming military and naval alliances against each other, beginning with an Athenian campaign as early as 323 against the Macedonians.

Macedonia itself, Alexander's homeland, is subject to a succession of violent upheavals. In one of them his mother, Olympias, arrives with an army in 317 BC and kills his half-witted half-brother, Philip III, together with Philip's wife and 100 of his supporters. She loses her own life in the next coup, in the following year.

In 276 a stable dynasty is at last established by descendants of Antigonus, another of Alexander's generals. But its future is relatively short. As the most westerly part of Alexander's empire, Macedonia is the first region to be devoured by its imperial successor. Rome first invades Macedonia in 197 BC. From 148 Macedonia is reduced to the status of a Roman province. Not until the 19th century does it feature prominently again in history.