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Philip and Alexander:
Kings and Conquerors

by adrian goldsworthy
basic, 608 pages, $35

An immensely successful father poses a problem for a son. The son may follow in his father’s footsteps, with the likely result of living always in his shadow; or depart his father’s field of endeavor and set out on a different course; or surpass his father in the same field, thereby casting his father into his own shadow. Alexander of Macedon (356–23 b.c.), son of Philip (382–336 b.c.), chose and would seem to have achieved the last of these possibilities.

Plutarch reports that whenever the boy Alexander heard that

Philip had taken any town of importance, or won any signal victory, instead of rejoicing at it altogether, he would tell his companions that his father would anticipate everything, and leave him and them no opportunities of achieving great and illustrious actions.

Years later, Julius Caesar, at thirty-two serving his term as quaestor in Spain, is said to have wept, “when I consider that Alexander at my age had conquered so many nations, and I have all this time done nothing that is memorable.”

Philip, Alexander’s father, never earned the epithet “great,” but his accomplishments may have been more impressive than his son’s. Philip took Macedon from a backwater Greek polis, neither politically powerful nor a center for culture, whose very Greekness was challenged (Macedonians were often viewed by other Greeks as barbarians), to a position of dominance in Greece. In a political atmosphere where authority seemed to exist chiefly to be undermined and the assassination of leaders was common, Philip, through sound political instincts and subtle machinations, emerged as supreme.

A warrior king, Philip was a brilliant military tactician. The speed of his army was renowned; he modified the phalanx that was at the heart of infantry battle in his day and improved the methods of siege warfare. He subdued the Illyrians, the Thracians, and others who for so many years had been so pestiferous, not to say murderous, to the Macedonians. “Still only in his twenty-eighth year,” Adrian ­Goldsworthy writes in his excellent new study Philip and Alexander, “Philip had already more than doubled the size of his kingdom, eradicated the independent cities close to its heartland, [and] vastly increased his wealth,” while making it far more difficult for Athens or any other powerful Grecian polis to attack Macedonia. The chief reason Philip did not attack Athens itself was the expense, in manpower and treasure, of such a campaign and because Athens’s destruction was likely to upset the fragile balance of power among the always contentious and unstable Greek poleis.

“Diplomacy,” Goldsworthy writes, “was always Philip’s preferred approach.” The consummate diplomat, Philip used marriage, as von ­Clausewitz said of diplomacy, as warfare by other means. He married no fewer than seven—some say eight—times, almost always with the intent of strengthening or forming alliances and in the hope of producing male heirs. His fourth wife, Olympias, whom he married in 357 b.c., daughter of the king of the Molossians, would become the most famous, for she was the mother of Alexander. Alexander and Arrhidaeus, a child Philip fathered with a woman named Philinna, were the only two of his legitimate male children to survive, and Arrhidaeus, for reasons that remain unclear, was early judged unfit to rule.

Much of the life of Philip is ­unknown, and what sources we have, when not improbable, often conflict. The vastness of his achievement, however, is unquestionable. “The scale of Philip’s success was unprecedented,” Goldsworthy writes. “There was surely far more to Philip’s reign than we can now reconstruct, but what we cannot doubt is that without Philip, the story of ­Alexander would be very different.” Philip, so to say, built from the ground up; Alexander built upon Philip.

In 336 b.c., his forty-sixth year, Philip was assassinated by a man named Pausanias, who had earlier been his lover and who resented ­Philip’s refusal to punish the men who had humiliated him by gang rape. In the hope of calming him, Philip had named Pausanias one of his seven bodyguards, and at a festival celebrating the marriage of Olympias’s daughter, Pausanias rushed forth and stabbed Philip between the ribs, killing him instantly. He was himself immediately captured and crucified.

Alexander assumed the kingship, with the backing of Antipater (397–319 b.c.), one of Philip’s trusted advisors. Groomed for the role from an early age, he had no hesitation in stepping into it. When he was off fighting on the Thracian coast, Philip had appointed the sixteen-year-old Alexander as his regent. When trouble broke out among the Maedi, Alexander gathered a force of Macedonian soldiers and defeated the troublemakers, expelled the population, resettled it, and renamed the town after himself (one of many Alexandropolises and Alexandrias to come), much, Goldsworthy reports, in the manner of his father. In 338 b.c., at the Battle of Chaeronea, Alexander distinguished himself for bravery in leading a cavalry troop against the Thebans and Athenians.

When Alexander was thirteen, Philip acquired the services of ­Aristotle, who was forty at the time, as his son’s teacher. “Inevitably,” ­Goldsworthy writes, “the meeting of the two most famous names from the ancient world excites our interest, but as usual the meager evidence prevents us from saying anything definite on what passed between them.” Goldsworthy does report that ­Aristotle stirred his pupil’s interest in the natural world, and later gave him a specially prepared and annotated copy of the Iliad, which Alexander “took on all his campaigns, keeping it—alongside a ­dagger—under his bed.”

Aristotle, greatest of all polymaths and possessor of the least ornamental and most powerfully straightforward prose style among ancient philosophers, turns out to have been, in his dress and grooming, a fop. In ­Alexander of Macedon, 356–323 b.c., Peter Green writes that

he was balding, spindle-shanked, and had small eyes. Perhaps in an effort to compensate for these disadvantages, he wore dandified clothes, cut and curled his hair in an affected manner and spoke with a lisp. . . . The overall effect must have been rather like young Disraeli at his worst.

In Aristotle, contra Buffon, the man and the style were clearly not the same.

We do not know what Philip looked like, though we know that he lost one eye in combat at the siege of Methone and walked with a limp owing to an arrow that landed in his thigh when he was ambushed by the primitive Triballi tribe. As for ­Alexander, Goldsworthy describes him as “much shorter than the average for Greeks and Macedonians in the fourth century.” Both Goldsworthy and Peter Green report that he was muscular and fast of foot, with one eye gray-blue, the other dark brown, and with longish, light-colored hair resembling a lion’s mane. Green adds that “there is something almost girlish about his earliest portraits, a hint of leashed hysteria behind the melting charm.”

All the anecdotes about the boy Alexander presage the confident man he was to become. Consider the story of Bucephalus, the only horse in history to have a city named after him, though, unlike ­Caligula’s horse Incitatus, it never held a seat in any senate. As Goldsworthy recounts, the magnificent stallion was offered to Philip by a Thessalian merchant. The horse appeared unbreakable, allowing no one to ride him. The twelve-year-old Alexander stepped up to claim he could do so, and presently he did, in a calm and masterly manner. “The king kissed his son,” Goldsworthy writes, “and then supposedly told him that Macedonia was too small for him, so that he would need to find a greater realm.”

Everywhere in the histories, the confidence of Alexander to do what no one else could do or had done ­emerges. “Indecision,” Goldsworthy notes, “was never one of Alexander’s faults.” During the lengthy Asian campaign, the Persian King Darius offered ­Alexander generous peace terms: his lands west of the Euphrates and his daughter in marriage. Parmenio, ­Alexander’s older and most trusted advisor, counseled him to accept the terms, remarking that he would do so “if he were Alexander.” Alexander is said to have replied that he might indeed have accepted “if he were ­Parmenio.” But he was Alexander, and so wanted a more resounding victory over the Persians, which indeed he would eventually achieve. Between confidence and rashness, only losers are judged rash; and Alexander was reinforced in his towering confidence by his never losing a significant battle.

Nor was cowardice one of ­Alexander’s faults. Leader of all Macedonians and Greeks, subsequently king of Asia, he felt it incumbent on him to undergo the same hardships and dangers as the soldiers he led. In the field, he marched or rode at the head of his troops, conspicuous by his dress and armor. He wore a helmet with a high central crest and white plumes on both sides and an ornamental belt. He reserved Bucephalus to ride in combat. In Goldsworthy’s vivid accounts of the Macedonians’ battles are many sentences like the following: “At the head of the royal squadron, he [­Alexander] charged headlong into the thickest concentration of Persians who had just driven back the spearhead.” At least six times, Alexander came away wounded, struck by arrows or objects hurled from catapults or injured in personal clashes or while climbing parapets.

Alexander thought himself a living analogue to Achilles. In the standard account of his life, his boyhood friend Hephaestion plays Patroclus to Alexander’s Achilles. Visiting what was presumed to be Troy, ­Alexander laid a wreath on his hero’s tomb. At the siege of Gaza, he had Batis, the Persian eunuch in charge, as Peter Green describes it, “lashed by the ankles behind a chariot and dragged round the walls of Gaza till he was dead: a grim variant on Achilles’s treatment of Hector’s dead body in the Iliad,” except that Batis was alive. The Greek historian Arrian (a.d. 89–160) reports that ­Alexander regretted having no Homer to record his deeds. Arrian claims that he wrote his The Anabasis of Alexander to fill this Homeric vacancy and added this boast: “I do not deem myself unworthy to rank among the first authors in the Greek language, if Alexander indeed is among the first in arms.”

Throughout the pages of ­Philip and Alexander, Adrian ­Goldsworthy warns against the want of real sources for the history of Philip’s and Alexander’s reigns and encourages us to distrust many that have passed for authentic. He reminds us that Arrian and P­lutarch, “both of whom wrote in the second century a.d., more than 400 years after Alexander’s death, [were] as distant from him as we are from Elizabeth I and the earliest days of Colonial America.” Goldsworthy peppers his own book with such qualifying notes as “Much about Darius is uncertain . . .” Of a supposed meeting between Philip and the king of Thrace, he reports that “we cannot say how much or how little basis there was to it.” As for Alexander’s sex life, it “attracts a lot of interest, but is attested only by a few fragments in our sources, many of which are dubious.” Numbers of troops, casualties, and hostages are always under suspicion in ancient history, and Goldsworthy attempts to adjust for this whenever possible: “Estimates of enemy numbers were always likely to be guesswork.” Not shy of criticizing contemporaries, he writes in connection with the casualties of the battle at the river Granicus that “modern historians, who are always inclined to be bloodthirsty, have often doubted these figures [of Arrian’s] as too low, but they reflect casualty patterns in ancient battles and are entirely plausible.”

In Philip and Alexander Goldsworthy chose to write what he calls “old-fashioned history,” having concluded that “a true biography of Philip or Alexander is impossible, for there is so much about them, and especially their thoughts, emotions, and ideas, that cannot be known.” He chiefly recounts the wars fought by Philip and Alexander, and the politics that led to these wars and followed from them. But portraits of the two figures do nevertheless emerge. The gargantuan ambitions of father and son, and how they went about realizing these ambitions, by themselves reveal a great deal about the psychology of both men.

Alexander felt it necessary to do what no man had ever done before. The difficulty, even the seeming impossibility, of any military mission served only to excite him. That the Persian army was said vastly to outnumber the Macedonian must not stand in the way of his plan to attack Persia. Presumably, Alexander fought Persia as an act of vengeance for the Persian raid on Greece and its destruction of Athens in 380–79 b.c. More likely he did so because, as George Mallory said of his own motive in climbing Everest, “it was there.” In the well-known anecdote of Alexander’s visit to the philosopher Diogenes, when Alexander asks if he can do anything for him, ­Diogenes is supposed to have answered: “Yes, stand aside; you’re keeping the sun off me.” Alexander, impressed with the philosopher’s disregard for worldly ambition, allegedly said after the meeting, “If I were not Alexander, I would be Diogenes.” But he, indubitably and inexorably, was Alexander, intent on ruling all the known world.

As one reads about ancient warfare, one’s mind tends to glide past the sheer horror of it. “Murder and rape were accepted as inevitable when a city was stormed,” Goldsworthy writes. Terror was an effective weapon, and in his day, Alexander ordered more than his share of mass executions and massacres. In Some Talk of Alexander Frederic ­Raphael calls him “one of the greatest slaughterers in history.” After completing the siege of Tyre, Alexander crucified two thousand of the city’s defenders. He set to flame Persepolis, the city founded by Cyrus. His only true competitor in this dubious realm was Julius Caesar. Who between them, one wonders, was responsible for stoning more victims, cutting off more hands, slicing out more tongues, sending more women and children into slavery? As for slaughter on the battlefield, one detail must suffice: At the battle of Gaugamela, Darius found fleeing difficult, for the ­corpses clogged the wheels of his chariot. After ­Alexander sacked Thebes, he razed it, using as his justification that the city had sided with Persia in the earlier war. Arrian reports that only “the house and descendants of Pindar the poet” were left standing, “out of respect for his memory.”

Touches of mercy crop up in accounts of Alexander’s rampages. Often the recipients of his mercy were women. When a Theban noblewoman named Timocleia pushed the ­Thracian soldier who had raped her down a well, Alexander praised her courage and let her and her children go free. He is said to have been greatly solicitous of the mother, wife, and daughters of Darius, who were captured after the battle of Issus. He took another woman, one Barsine, also captured at the battle of Issus, as his mistress. Where possible, ­Goldsworthy notes, “Alexander acted the part of the good king rather than the tyrant,” though he adds that he could afford to do so, for his behavior was always reinforced by “Macedonian military and financial dominance.”

Such acts tend to humanize ­Alexander, though it is less than clear, after he seated himself upon Darius’s throne, that he any longer considered himself human, or merely among the favored of the gods, but instead a god himself. As ­Goldsworthy writes, “there is no way of knowing whether he had come to see himself as fully divine rather than in some mystical way special because he was part [as his mother claimed] sired by Zeus Ammon.” What is known is that ­Alexander began to don Persian clothes and demand the rituals of obeisance, the proskynesis, owed a Persian god-king, which much put off many of his fellow Macedonians.

“Our sources,” writes Golds­worthy, “portray ­Alexander’s character as changing, generally for the worse, and disapprove of his flirtation with the symbols and traditions of Asian kingship, his greater suspicion of those around him, and a tendency to drink ever more heavily.” Paranoia soon kicked in. Philotas, one of the Macedonians’ most successful generals, was put on trial for failing to report an attempt on the life of ­Alexander. Found guilty, he was tortured, then executed. In a culture where vengeance was at the forefront, killing the son, Philotas, meant that ­Alexander had next to arrange for the death of the father, Parmenio, who had been among Philip’s most trusted generals and Alexander’s most sensible advisors. Next came Callisthenes, nephew to Aristotle, a man who refused either to approve the medizing of Alexander or to live the luxurious life favored by several of the Macedonians at court. He, too, was put to death for a ­supposed connection to an ­assassination plot.

Then there was Cleitus, a soldier who had saved Alexander’s life at the battle of Granicus, but whom, at a drunken party, after an exchange of insults, Alexander killed with a spear—an incident, in Plutarch’s account, that he greatly regretted, for

in a profound silence, he pulled the spear out of the dead body, and would have thrust it into his own throat, if the guards had not held his hands, and by main force carried him into his chamber, where all that night and the next day he wept bitterly, till being quite spent with lamenting and exclaiming, he lay speechless, only fetching deep sighs.

Alexander began his campaign in India after his conquest of Persia and his domination of Egypt. After a long march through the Gedrosian desert, his troops were exhausted, many dying, the rest weighed down by their booty and their homesickness. ­Alexander and his most faithful troops had left Macedonia more than twelve years before, and he was never to return. His dearest friend Hephaestion died, not in combat but of a fever, possibly caused by malaria. Alexander provided him with a Homeric funeral, “cutting his [own] hair,” as Goldworthy recounts, “and ordering horses’ manes and tails to be docked just as Achilles had done” at the death of Patroclus.

Not long after, Alexander would die of natural but not precisely known causes, at the age, according to Arrian, of thirty-two years and eight months. His early death may well have been what we today should call a good career move. There is no guarantee that had he lived longer he would have achieved more. More likely, had he grown older his belief in his own divinity would have deepened, making him less tolerant and more intolerable.

In the closing pages of The Anabasis of Alexander, Arrian writes in tribute to Alexander’s military prowess:

In marshalling, arming, and ruling an army, he was exceedingly skillful; and very renowned for rousing the courage of his soldiers, filling them with hopes of success, and dispelling their fear in the midst of danger by his own freedom from fear. . . . He was also very clever in getting the start of his enemies, and snatching from them their advantages by secretly forestalling them before anyone feared what was about to happen.

Goldsworthy concludes that “no ­Roman ever equaled the military success of Alexander, let alone surpassed it, although Julius Caesar came close.” Peter Green saw in Alexander “an archetypal element, restless and perennial in human nature: the myth of the eternal quest for the world’s end.”

Alexander left no heir, nor did he name a successor. Chaos followed his death, with a number of self-­appointed candidates putting themselves forth for the leadership of Macedonia. His mother Olympias, his half-brother Arrhidaeus, various generals and admirals—­Perdiccas, Nearchus, Craterus, Antipater, ­Cassander—jockeyed for position and power, but none dominated for long. The Hellenic influence continued in Egypt and in many of the old Persian satraps, though Frederic ­Raphael notes that “it is easy to ignore the simultaneous ­orientalization of Hellenic thought and morals.”

Macedonia would never again be the power it was under Philip and ­Alexander. Unlike that of Julius ­Caesar—who had the good sense to adopt the young Octavian, later ­Augustus, the first Roman emperor, though he claimed to be no more than primus inter pares, thereby extending the Roman empire by centuries—­Alexander’s heritage dribbled off into oblivion after a few generations. Peter Green ends his biography of ­Alexander with the last line of Tennyson’s “­Ulysses”: “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.” But one wonders whether Shelley’s line from “Ozymandias” isn’t more to the point: “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair.”

Joseph Epstein is author of Gallimaufry, a collection of essays and reviews.

Photo by Carole Raddato via Creative Commons. Image cropped.