Philip and Alexander by Adrian Goldsworthy.

This is a gripping history that combined deep scholarship with readability. The comparison between the two Macedonian rulers, father and son, gives the reader a perspective of the importance of Philip in determining Alexander and Greece’s fate. Something an individual biography of either would convey less well. Philip and Alexander is a major re-evaluation of, and addition to, the history of Greece and the world at this time.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking of Alexander the Great and his conquests as inhabiting a self-contained moment in history, or worse, assimilating too much of the Greek myth that surrounds the man to the exclusion of fact. Alexander has become more legend than man, his story revised, reinterpreted, rewritten to satisfy the demands of each succeeding age. People are captivated by his youth, his audacity, strength and will power, he’s even become a gay icon latterly. The popular image is of a man who becomes a king rising from almost nothing to command a vast empire, an empire that broke up and dissolved upon his death. Of course, nothing is detached from what came before and what follows, certainly not Alexander’s story, it’s deeply bound up with Philip’s. This enjoyable and accessible history seeks to address that and to dispel the myth, to look at the men.

Alexander’s story can only be fully understood within the context of his father’s role in the history of Macedonia and Greece. One of Goldsworthy’s key contentions is that Alexander overshadows Philip to the point of lessening our understanding of the father’s role in taking Macedonia from “backwater” obscurity to the brink of empire building. Reconstructing a poor and ill governed northern state into one capable of challenging the significant city states of Greece and dominating the region. Philip confronted and humiliated rivals Athens, Sparta, and Thebes, making Macedonia the most powerful Greek state. Alexander, who had fought for his father when only sixteen, inherited a well oiled fighting machine when he became king, a disciplined army; one that was seasoned and battle ready. If Philip had lived he may have taken some to the steps to empire that Alexander later did, (that’s a speculation of my own, not one Goldsworthy indulges in). Similarly, if Alexander had lived beyond his thirty-third year it’s hard to imagine what would have stopped his quest for domination of the known world. There were signs of the strain within his command and changes to his character that may have been a factor, but his thirst for glory was never slaked by conquest. At the time of his death his armies had withdrawn from India, his only reversal, conditions more than anything beating him, but he was already planning a new campaign in the Arabian peninsula.

Both men were warrior kings, how we now feel about this is certainly different from the view at the time, war and conquest was the way of the Greek world; internecine wars, repelling invasion, the urge to go on the attack almost seems like a reflex action. Alexander the Great retains the epithet whether lucky or talented, or more likely both, he died without a major military defeat. Like Goldsworthy I won’t speculate on the value of this empire, as opposed to the Persian equivalent, but the changes to the course of world history and culture are evident. The Greco-Roman empire lasted for nearly a thousand years. Greek philosophy, religion, values, language and culture are embedded in our DNA. Goldsworthy questions the difference for ordinary citizens caused by the change from one despotic ruler to another, pondering this is intriguing but the day to day must have been pretty similar in terms of earning a lifestyle, income, worship etc.

There’s a marked contrast between the image of Alexander, youthful, beautiful and strong, and Philip, battered and worn, one eyed, limping and old. Philip showed the scar of the wars he fought, Alexander’s wounds were never disfiguring or permanently debilitating. Alexander died at thirty-three but Philip was only forty-six when he was murdered. The reign of Philip is less well documented and he was less concerned with posterity than Alexander who cared about his personal image. Perhaps that contributed to Philip’s reshaping of Macedonia not getting due recognition, by his death Macedonia was bigger, stronger and more united. Since his death Alexander has been seen as a hero, a saint, a monster, a genius, and a thug, Philip has slipped into relative obscurity.

Goldsworthy explains that this biography examines the available primary sources but that there are significant gaps in our knowledge of the times. Where there is conjecture, or disputed accounts of events, these are meticulously noted. This history is focused on the political and military story of both reigns, drawing on socio-economic factors but the narrative inevitably reflects that this is a time of wars. If it lacks women’s voices, possibly important ones, it’s because they are not recorded. Similarly, the personal lives of both men are less well recorded; this was a polygamous society and Philip and Alexander also had male lovers, but the details mattered little to the Greeks and are more a matter of speculation than considered history. So to Philip:

‘The scale of Philip’s success was unprecedented. His son would carve out a vastly greater empire, and his deeds are described far more fully, while so much of what Philip did must remain a mystery.’

Philip II of the Argead dynasty ruled Macedonia 359-336BC. He brought stability where Kings didn’t tend to last long. It’s a matter of conjecture whether he assumed the throne as a proxy for his nephew, the previous king’s son, but once in power he was not relinquishing it. War preparations began immediately as Philip restructured the army to take on Bardylis of Illyria who had taken north Macedonia. The Greek city states were volatile, aggressive and unstable, Philip took advantage of this. Many had questioned whether Macedonia was Greek or barbarian but this is an argument Philip ended. Macedonia had possibly been a Satrapy of the Persian empire and stood with Xerxes at Thermopylae in 480BC but was now firmly Greek. Philip sought to dominate the neighbouring states, he believed in the pre-emptive strike and cunning diplomacy. His campaigns are detailed in this book, which shows that he learned from his defeats, acquired much wealth and superseded Athens as the dominant regional power, expanded the nation of Macedonia on all its borders. Philip emerged as the natural leader when the Greek states came together to address external threats and plot revenge for Persian incursions. The image of Greece as an entity, as recognised at Thermopylae, was maintained by Philip’s role in uniting the states by force. Philip’s rule was ended by a domestic incident that led to his murder in 336BC. Alexander and, his mother, Olympias were blamed, but his quick accession to power quelled dissent.

‘At some point Cleopatra and her baby were murdered. This is the first recorded case of a political killing of a woman or baby in Macedonian power struggles, although both would become common after Alexander died.’

Alexander acted immediately to put down threats to his leadership but he also gathered the city leaders and philosophers around him to gain a wide acceptance of his legitimacy. Diplomacy and military action hand in hand. His first challenge was a Thracian rebellion, chronicler Arrian describes the workings of Alexander’s, (Philip’s), army for the first time but is still vague on details of routes and composition etc. In his day Philip reached the Danube, Alexander crossed it. As other threats arose Alexander acted quickly and decisive. Goldsworthy says that references to him as a genius may have been a little premature at this stage but he was settling into command very well. His ability to move his army vast distances in short time was remarkable, he was capable of negotiating a surrender or slaughtering to conquer. Something he did throughout his reign.  War with Persia was inevitable given Alexander’s ambition, he attacked Asia believing it to be his destiny, (possibly stoked by Olympias telling him of his Devine birth, but if she did really say that how this is known is unclear). Alexander liked to lead from the front, his record of not losing men in battle is nothing short of astounding and his decisive victories over the Persians secured his reputation and empire. The history of the battles, sources for and probable locations and tactics are covered by Goldsworthy and well illustrated. Alexander’s military prowess, diplomatic skills and force of will are evident. Continually on the move, he had to leave capable leaders in place, Antipater in Greece and men and garrison’s across the empire. Goldsworthy’s account of Alexander’s final campaign into India which saw him retreat for the first time is the most comprehensive explanation of events I’ve read. Alexander died in 323BC, probably on the 10th June, succumbing to a fever. His successor Perdiccas was able to hold power for a while, but divisions between the generals soon broke out and the empire fragmented. As a study of two men and the quest for glory, the corruption of power and creation and collapse of an empire, (although Goldsworthy points out Macedonia remained stronger than before Philip took over), this is an epic history. Very much in the vein of the Tom Holland histories of empire, enjoyable and informative but also gripping.

Head of Zeus
hardback, ISBN 9781784978709, 3/9/20

Personal read 4½*
Group Read    5*