Despite being the most brilliant Athenian military general and wisest statesman of his time, his fellow Athenians identified Phocion most of all with his incorruptible moral integrity, thus earning him the appellation "the good."
A general who strove to avoid war and a prominent politician who lived as frugally as a monk, Phocion was elected strategos, the general of his tribe, a monumental total of 45 times (the elections were held yearly), despite never campaigning for the office.
Born in 402 BC to a lathe operator, he studied philosophy under Plato and was a close friend of the philosopher Xenocrates. His academic training no doubt gave rise to the many pithy sayings he became known for later in life as well as his personal integrity and tendency to take a broad and impartial view of political and military situations. At one point he traveled abroad, serving as a mercenary in Persia before returning to Athens. No doubt this greater exposure to a wider world contributed to his wisdom, which was all the more marked in comparison to most of his leading Athenian contemporaries.
But Phocion seemed wiser than his fellows even at the beginning of his career. As an aid to the Athenian general Chabrias, Phocion tempered his commander's moods and kept him from being overaggressive in the midst of battle. As a result of Phocion's consistently sound advice, Chabrias gave his trusted aide command over the leading left wing of his forces at the naval Battle of Naxos in 376. The forces under Phocion's command were the key to victory at Naxos, the most significant Athenian triumph since the Greco-Persian wars. As Athen's military might had long been in a state of decline, this victory and others won him renown and the respect of the entire city. Phocion continued to prove himself as a soldier, commander, and diplomat for Athens over the next decades, and Chabrias even entrusted Phocion with the care of his family after the commander's death.
Phocion briefly left Athens to learn more about the world, and enlisted in the Persian military, where he once again rose to command forces. His generalship was instrumental in helping Atarxerxes III put down a rebellion in Cyprus. After this triumph, he returned to Athens, where he immediately became one of the leading voices in the Assembly, and almost constantly held the position of strategos.
The Peaceful Warrior
As a politician, Phocion the general almost always advocated for a peaceful resolution to conflict, preferring diplomacy over war even when the most eloquent orators of his day were united in arguing for battle. Indeed, other leaders of the Assembly insisted that Phocion's policies would diminish the pride of Athens, and hold the city back from its rightful glory. The most influential and well-known of these advocates for renewed Athenian military might was the fabled orator Demosthenes.
While Phocion may have been the most respected member of the Assembly, his advice was frequently ignored, ironically in great part because of his own military successes, which emboldened his fellows and gave them all they needed to indulge their belief that Athens could surpass Sparta and Macedonia to once again become the dominant power in Greece. Phocion's clear-headed recital of Athens numerical and financial vulnerabilities, and his detailed accounting of how the city would be better served by trade and friendly relations with more powerful rivals, in particular Macedonia, too often fell on deaf ears.
His lack of influence may have been in part due to the very academic training that led to his wisdom, and his cutting remarks about fellow Assembly members are remembered to this day. For instance, when a rotund fellow addressing the Assembly urged war, Phocion exclaimed that someone who could barely get through a speech without collapsing from the heat should not be urging others to march to war. While no doubt true, this remark and many others did not incline the insulted and their friends to vote with Phocion.
Against Philip of Macedonia
The true wisdom of Phocion, and the folly of Demosthenes, grew ever more apparent as Philip II of Macedonia became the greatest general of his day, uniting the Macedonians and leading them to one conquest after another.
In 349, after Philip had conquered Euboea, Phocion led the Athenian effort to liberate its neighbors, winning two great victories over the Macedonians. In the first, he took advantage of his own troops' foolishness. Thinking Phocion was a coward for delaying battle, his cavalry swept down upon the Macedonian forces. Swiftly, the Athenian cavalry was routed and fled back to their own lines with the Macedonians in hot pursuit. Believing the enemy force broken, the Macedonian advance was unprepared for the disciplined counterattack from Phocion's ground forces, and the Athenians easily defeated the surprised Macedonians.
Phocion then marched on the primary Macedonian position and defeated them in a ferocious battle. After the fighting, Phocion saw that the Athenians were treating their prisoners too harshly and freed the Macedonians to return home. He then marched on the fort of Zaretra at the most defensible point of Euboea and captured it before returning home to Athens, his goal of stopping the invaders achieved.
Meanwhile, Philip continued to win elsewhere, and all of Greece united against him. Phocion was sent to lead a coalition of Greek forces in Byzantium in 339. He quickly gained the respect of both his Athenian troops and the other Greeks, leading them to victory yet again. However, he was wounded in the fighting and forced to return to Athens as soon as the Macedonians retreated.
Despite these triumphs, Phocion counseled the Assembly that Macedonia was a rising power, and the best course of action would be to make peace and work in alliance with the Macedonians. Indeed, Philip had been so impressed with the only force to successfully oppose him that he offered a mutual alliance, and even asked Athens for its support as equals in his planned invasion of Persia.
Demosthenes and the other respected orators of the day argued against Phocion, however, and their voices carried the day. In 338, when Athens could have stood aside, they joined the rest of Greece in war against the full might of Philip. No longer fighting small parts of the great empire but facing its main force, the Greeks were soundly defeated. Because of his prior diplomatic relations with Philip, Phocion believed Athens would be best served negotiating a separate surrender for Athens from the rest of Greece. The Assembly put down his motion and insisted on a united front. This led to Macedonian troops being garrisoned in Athens, and a heavy tribute taken from the city.
Phocion and Alexander the Great
After the assassination of Philip in 336, the other Greek states celebrated. Athens wished to celebrate as well, but Phocion forbade it, pointing out that Macedonia still possessed a formidable army. Afterwards, led by Thebes, the rest of Greece joined against the Macedonians, believing the death of Philip had weakened their enemy. The skilled Athenian orators, again led by Demosthenes, were savage in their mockery of the new king Alexander, believing him a foolish boy who had inherited a command for which he was unfit. Phocion, understanding Alexander's nature somewhat better, refused to lead the Athenian troops against him and dissuaded Athens from fighting the new king, saying, "My whole object in taking office is to prevent this, and I shall not allow my fellow citizens to destroy themselves, even if they wish it."
The Greek forces were utterly destroyed at Thebes, and Alexander demanded the city turn over Demosthenes and the others who had mocked him. Phocion would have reluctantly acceded but was again voted down by the Assembly. He appealed personally to Alexander, saying he had no wish to fight but could not turn over his citizens against the Assembly's objections, even though they were also his own enemies. Alexander recalled the respect his father had for Phocion and was persuaded. In fact, he was so impressed by Phocion that he sought the older general's advice on his future course of action. Phocion told Alexander that if he wished peace, then he should return home to consolidate his present empire and rule it well, but if he wished glory, he would gain more in conquest of Persia than by slaughtering outmanned Athens and oppressing Greece.
Alexander took the latter part of Phocion's advice, and soon went on to conquer Persia.
The Lamian War and the Fall of Athens
After the Death of Alexander in 323, Athens and the rest of Greece celebrated and rose up in revolt against the Macedonian Empire, which had split into segments. Antipater commanded the part which included Athens. Although Phocion was now 80 years old and despite his continued insistence that Athens should avoid this conflict, Phocion was made one of the two chief generals. When the other general asked him how best to defeat the Macedonians, Phocion said the Athenians possessed the ability to win a few battles, but lacked the resources to wage a long campaign against the superior Macedonian numbers.
Living up to his reputation as a great commander, Phocion routed the first Macedonian forces he opposed. The other Greek generals also won many early victories, even pinning down and surrounding Antipater in Lamia. That is when the greater number of Macedonian forces began to arrive from Asia and elsewhere. Phocion's forces slaughtered the first of the invaders at Rhamnus, but ever more kept arriving, and soon Antipater was at the gates of Athens.
Antipater instituted draconian new rules after his triumph. Phocion was allowed to continue leading the city and did what he could to mitigate the disaster. However, he found himself blamed by the populace for the unhappy peace, and for allowing Antipater to exile 12,000 Athenians, and even for the Athenian defeat by Antipater.
After Antipater's death, a struggle for power ensued between Antipater's son, Cassander, and his chief general, Polyperchon. Phocion sided with Cassander, which proved to be his first and last strategic error with regard to the Macedonians. The forces of Polyperchon triumphed, and Phocion found himself on trial for treason. He was quickly judged guilty and sentenced to death. He was spit upon by the mob before he drank hemlock, and his body was refused burial in the city.
Thus ended the glory days of Athens and the life of Phocion. Yet history, and those of his time who had a sense of history, knew Phocion was not a self-serving traitor. Rather, he was a wise man who lived simply with his wife when he could have ruled slaves in a palace, someone who refused lavish gifts from Phillip II at a time when practically every other Athenian politician was known for his corruption, and a patriot who defended Athens more ably than any other until his end.