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Review of Philip II of Macedonia

Philip II of Macedonia
By Ian Worthington
Yale University Press, 2008

Unless we understand both the kingdom of Macedon and especially the nature and achievement of its ruler Philip II, wrote a great classicist, “Alexander’s career must remain for us no more than the progress of a comet, flaring in unparalleled majesty across the sky: a marvel, but incomprehensible.”

Ian Worthington, in his admirably thorough new biography of Philip, would no doubt agree with the overall point Peter Green was making, although necessarily not the way its cause-and-effect couching places Philip permanently in the shadow of his illustrious son. Indeed, being a biographer of Philip (and this is the best biography the man is ever likely to receive, unless a vast treasure trove of new material suddenly comes to light) entails a certain measure of defensiveness, and this can get a little comical – more than once, Worthington somewhat pettishly comments “the most famous king of ancient Macedonia has still to be Alexander the Great.”

This frustration is certainly understandable: the Philip who emerges from Worthington’s highly detailed portrait is a remarkable figure, a powerful, charismatic maverick – but his son is most famous non-divine individual in the entire history of the human race. So Philip is destined to remain a perpetual also-ran … despite all his achievements in unifying ramshackle Macedon and transforming it into the most effective military state the world had ever seen, he’ll go through all of recorded time with “the father of” tacked on the end of his name.

Still, Worthington is to be commended. Macedonian royal history is an intractable welter of regicides, patricides, fratricides, rampant bastardy, bloodthirsty catamites, and plain old-fashioned murder – any historian willing to wade into that backwater chaos and sort it all out deserves the thanks of history readers everywhere. Worthington accomplishes this with considerable smoothness, and he always keeps the living person behind the facts in mind:

As a man, he must have been engaging, a lover of life and probably a great raconteur. He needed to be, for if the reconstructed face is accurate in its detail, he would not have endeared himself to people with his looks. He was certainly afraid of no one and nothing, and never shirked his responsibilities, remaining the traditional Macedonian warrior king to the end.

By that end, Philip had lost an eye, overawed Greece, laid plans to conquer Persia, and accumulated several wives, even more concubines, a cadre of pretty lover-boys, and a queen (Olympias) and heir (Alexander) who were quite possibly murderous with resentment. His assassination in a crowded amphitheater in 336 B.C. is thus an enduring mystery (as in any decent Agatha Christie mystery, virtually everybody present had a motive), and it’s only the mid-way point of Worthington’s interesting book. Those interested in ancient history – and yes, Alexander fans – are urged not to miss it.