Philip and Alexander: Kings and Conquerors

In the mid 4th century BC, Greece experienced a seismic convulsion whose shockwaves would be felt as far away as India, when an energetic young commander took the throne of Macedon, led his army to a string of victories, and consolidated a new empire. His identity? Not Alexander (though his career, too, would be stratospheric) but his father, Philip, who, learning his military trade as a hostage in Thebes, turned his newly equipped phalanxes on hostile local tribes and kingdoms before making himself hegemon of mainland Greece.

Yet there was more to Philip than brute force. A brilliant diplomat and canny politician, he united his subjects behind a common cause – a Panhellenic campaign against the old enemy, Persia – before, preliminary operations under way, he was assassinated. All he had built could have collapsed had not his 20-year-old son Alexander inherited not just the throne but Philip’s acumen and ruthless drive. He would outstrip his father’s ambition, before, his empire stretching from the Ionian Sea to the River Indus, he died in Babylon aged only 33 – like Philip on the eve of another new offensive, this time against Arabia.

While for many readers Alexander’s campaigns will be well-trodden ground, Philip’s achievements are less often sung, and one of the accomplishments of Adrian Goldsworthy’s magisterial tome (at more than 600 pages, weighty in every sense) lies in refocusing the spotlight to illuminate not just the son but the father, and so show how the need to stabilise Macedonia – a relatively minor north Greek kingdom – led ultimately to the defeat of Persia. We will never know the true nature of the two men’s vision or the bounds of their ambition. Yet, by setting the one in the context of the other and establishing both within the context of their age, and considering the key roles played by other crucial actors such as Olympias, Demosthenes, and Darius III, Goldsworthy presents a credible account of leaders driven by circumstances and caught up in a momentum of their own making, as efficiently reactive as they were brilliantly proactive, as bewildering to their contemporaries as they are to modern scholars.

Alive to the dangers of hindsight, Goldsworthy is meticulous in his use of sources (both literary and archaeological), as he seeks to unravel the Gordian Knot of contradictory and often biased evidence, while at the same time sifting the stardust to produce a sober and well-argued account of two men who, in a few extraordinary decades, influenced millennia to come. With maps, diagrams, colour photographs, and endnotes, a useful bibliography, index, and appendices (including on the Royal Tombs at Vergina), his book belongs on the (sturdy) shelf of any reader interested in military, political, or social history.

Review by David Stuttard.
Philip and Alexander: Kings and Conquerors, Adrian Goldsworthy, Head of Zeus: an Apollo book, £35, Hardback, ISBN 978-1784978709.