Review: Philip II of Macedonia by Ian Worthington

Last Updated: 12:01am BST 30/08/2008



Lorna Gibb sees Alexander the Great's father put in his place


Philip II ruled Macedonia from 359-336BC, but he has long been burdened with a reputation principally as father to Alexander the Great. Here, Ian Worthington allows him to take his own place in ancient history, both as a great king and diplomat and as a necessary precursor to his son's reign.

When Philip became king, his country was fractured. Upper Macedonia was host to many independent chiefs. The region was encircled and invaded by hostile powers and a lack of any centralised government meant that attempts at defence were weak and disorganised.


Yet, at the peak of his rule, Philip's united kingdom "stretched from mainland Greece to Byzantium".

He exploited the country's natural resources and promoted trade so that Macedonia gained in wealth at the expense of its enemy, Greece. He replaced the bartering system with coinage and changed Macedonia from a "near feudal, tribal society into the first nation state in Europe, in the process doubling its size and population".

But such achievements by themselves do not necessarily make for interesting reading. The captivating thing about Philip is how he achieved so much for his nation.

Advantageous marriages were one tactic - Macedonians practised polygamy and Philip took seven wives, only one of whom, the last, was a possible love match - and bribery another, but he was also skilled in battle and possessed an ability to manipulate his enemies.

Worthington alludes to other scantily documented characters, so that in spite of the paucity of sources, we catch a glimpse of the people around Philip.

Particularly intriguing is Philip's fourth wife, Olympias, the mother of Alexander, who practised a mysterious religion involving snake handling. Worthington tells us that "when she was married to Philip and living at court … her snakes instilled fear in the men around her".

Any biography requires the piecing together of partial sources and the working through of contradictory ones to create a plausible narrative. When the protagonist lived more than 2,000 years ago, this task is even more difficult.

There are many gaps. Particularly sad is the lack of information about Philip's early life. Worthington skilfully uses information from the rich documentation of Alexander the Great's early life to speculate about and suggest that of his father, and does so with a great deal of style.

Where more than one outcome or motivation is likely, the alternatives are given, discussed and an author's preference justified. This technique is especially evident in the chapter looking at Philip's assassination.

At the age of just 46, Philip was stabbed by his bodyguard, Pausanias, in the public surroundings of a busy theatre. Two possibilities exist as to why he was murdered. The first, that it was a private matter resulting from the fact that Philip had ended a homosexual relationship with Pausanias and taken up with a new lover; the second, that it was a plot involving Olympias and her son Alexander.

Was Olympias fearful that any male heirs of Philip's newest wife, Cleopatra, might supplant her son and allow her enemy Attalus (the guardian of Cleopatra) to act as regent?

The evidence that Alexander the Great and his mother orchestrated the death of Philip is convincing; shortly after Alexander's accession, Olympias seemed to confirm this by killing both Cleopatra and her new baby girl.

Philip's posterity was assured by a son who probably helped to kill him, but also by another enemy.

His greatest public critic, Demosthenes, the speechmaker, left many of the written sources that provide the keys to his life. After Philip's death, Demosthenes celebrated by breaking his month-long mourning for his baby daughter and appeared in public magnificently dressed, wearing a garland. His continual defiance of Philip's imperialism left a legacy that spoke far louder than any of the king's achievements.

Cicero, Horace and Juvenal all echoed Demosthenes's opinions of Philip and, in the Thirties, Churchill likened himself to Demosthenes and Hitler to Philip.

One irritation remains. In stressing the importance of his subject, Worthington resorts to hyperbole. Alexander the Great, he claims, is "the best known person from antiquity after Jesus Christ".

The natural inclination is to retaliate with a list: Homer, Aristotle, Plato, Cleopatra, Julius Caesar and Virgil are all strong contenders.