By the Spear: Philip II, Alexander the Great, and the Rise and Fall of the Macedonian Empire
Ian Worthington
Oxford University Press
388pp, 24 black-and-white illustrations and 10 maps
Paperback, £25/$20

In 334 BC, as the vessel carrying Alexander of Macedon across the Hellespont neared the Asian shore, the young king threw a spear onto the shore, and claimed Asia as his 'spear-won land'. Over the next decade, Alexander built, by spear and sword, an empire that changed the course of history.

In By The Spear: Philip II, Alexander the Great and the Rise and Fall of the Macedonian Empire, Ian Worthington argues that the scale of Alexander's achievement and the glamour that accrued to his name have obscured the figure of Alexander's father, Philip II of Macedon. It was Philip who turned Macedon from a petty kingdom into an empire, by conquering first his neighbours and, then, Thrace and Greece. And it was Philip who, by planning and launching the expansion of the Macedonian Empire across the Hellespont, placed the spear in Alexander's hand.

When Philip came to power in 359 BC, Macedonia was 'a backward, economically weak, and perilously unstable kingdom'. It was 'prone to invasions from neighboring tribes and interference in its domestic politics by Greek cities', and defended by 'a conscript army of poorly trained and equipped farmers'. Over the next 20 years, Philip turned Macedonia into a wealthy and secure empire, with 'the most feared and powerful army in the Greek world'.

The traditional historiography has tended to follow Alexander's contemporary Cleitarchus, son of the historian Dinon of Colophon, whose work was adopted by Diodorus Siculus in the 1st century BC. In this narrative, Alexander's tactical skill and physical bravery are confirmed by anecdotes of his father's military abilities. But this inverts the chronology.

Worthington incorporates the ancient sources, yet reverses their interpretation. In By the Spear, Alexander's vision and ability derive less from his ambition to create a new kind of empire, than from his desire to emulate and surpass his father.

Philip, Worthington writes, was 'a great general and strategist' and 'a skilled diplomat' who used Macedonia's new wealth to subvert the influence of Athens. He lost an eye to a wound at the siege of the Athenian-controlled city of Methone in 355–354 BC. A decade later a near-fatal leg wound acquired while fighting the Ardialoi in Illyria left him with a permanent limp. Alexander's campaigns may have been larger and more exotic, but his personal conduct fits the paternal template. Philip 'lived large and drank copiously'. He 'had no qualms in marrying for political ends', and accumulated seven wives without divorcing any of them. While these habits recur in Alexander, Philip was more of a 'traditional Macedonian king' than his son and a more intelligent emperor. Many of Alexander's men resented his penchant for Eastern luxuries. Philip bequeathed a smaller but sustainable empire, his son left chaos on a grand scale.

Alexander did not administer wisely his conquered peoples – in particular, his failure to 'recognise native religious beliefs and customs' led to open revolt during the last years of his reign. Admittedly, Philip had faced the more manageable challenges of a smaller empire and more familiar subject peoples, but the ultimate test of an ancient empire was its ability to survive the death of its founder.

In 336 BC, Philip was murdered at the wedding of his daughter, Cleopatra of Macedon. His killer, Pausanias, was one of his bodyguards. According to both Cleitarchus and Diodorus Siculus, Pausanias was Philip's erstwhile lover. Worthington suspects that Philip's fourth wife, Olympias, the mother of Alexander, 'may have plotted to kill her husband'. Philip's empire survived his death – but Alexander's fell into civil war.

Worthington, with fluent control of the material, uses the biographies of Philip and Alexander to describe the rise and fall of the Macedonian Empire. There is, he writes 'no doubt that Alexander was the empire's master builder'. Nor can the reader of By the Spear doubt that 'Philip was certainly
its architect'.
Dominic Green

 

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