Ian Worthington --> reviewed by Bruce S. Thornton -->
The outsized glamour of the life and conquests of Alexander the Great have obscured for us the achievements of his father, Philip II. Yet in many ways Philip’s deeds are as historically significant as those of his son. Indeed, Alexander’s success would not have been possible if not for his remarkable father, who, in the words of the historian Diodorus Siculus, “established his kingdom as the greatest of the powers of Europe.” Now, thanks to Ian Worthington’s lively new biography, readers can more fully understand the circumstances and origins of the world-changing transformation of the ancient Mediterranean initiated by Philip, who as Worthington writes, “deserves to live beyond the shadow of his more famous son.”
Worthington is a professor of history at the University of Missouri and the author of several first-rate studies of the fourth century and Alexander. This familiarity with the sources and scholarship of that complex century is indispensable for making sense of a seemingly endless parade of inter-city feuds, full-scale wars, and intra-city political wrangling, all spread over the equally complex geography, states, and peoples of northern and central Greece. Moreover, our surviving ancient sources for this period, as Worthington explains in one of his many invaluable appendices, either are fragmentary or were written centuries after the fact; they invariably describe events from a Greek and Athenian rather than a Macedonian perspective. We do not possess a Herodotus, a Thucydides, or a Xenophon, who all lived during or close to the events they describe. More difficult for the historian are the contemporary sources that do survive intact—the speeches of Athenian orators, especially the greatest of them all, Demosthenes. Ancient speeches are notoriously unreliable as history, since personally demonizing one’s political opponent was more important than accurately recounting facts.
Worthington has done a masterful job of integrating this farrago of evidence into a coherent and readable narrative. When Philip scrambled onto the throne in 359 B.C., few could have predicted that in two decades he would destroy the liberty of the Greek city-states, something not even the mighty Persians had accomplished. Macedonia itself was equally unpromising, a land of tribal Homeric land-barons, squabbling and murderous royal families, and distasteful habits such as buggery and binge drinking. To the southern Greeks, Macedonia was virtually a barbarian land, despite its decades of Hellenizing, its Greek dialect, and its invention of Homeric genealogies and Olympian ancestors. As the Athenian orator and Philip’s worst enemy Demosthenes snorted, you couldn’t even get a decent slave from Macedonia.
Yet Philip quickly set about consolidating his rule and unifying Macedonia. He defeated in battle northern enemies like the Illyrians, he bought off the Paeonians by “corrupting some with gifts,” as Diodorus put it, and he bamboozled the Athenians, sponsor of a rival to the Macedonian throne, by grandly promising them something that wasn’t even his: their northern colony of Amphipolis, which the Athenians had been eager to recover ever since they lost it to the Spartans in 424 B.C. As for the Thessalians, the horse-breeding Greeks to his south, Philip picked a side in a simmering intra-state war between two cities, making himself an ally of the Thessalian League and thus providing a pretext for interference in Thessalian and central Greek affairs. Finally, Philip shored up his western flank by making a treaty with the kingdom of Epirus, marrying the king’s daughter Olympias, who in a year would bear him a son, Alexander.
As Worthington narrates the story of Philip’s consolidation of his rule, he illustrates the various tactics Philip would use over the next twenty years to become master of Greece. Military power, of course, was crucial. Under Philip’s innovations and reforms, the Macedonian army—30,000 strong—became the premier fighting force in the ancient world. He shifted the main attacking force from the hoplite infantry to the cavalry—the Macedonians and their Thessalian allies were superb horsemen—which attacked the enemy’s flanks while the infantry phalanx took on the center. He improved the phalanx by discarding the short sword the hoplite typically carried and lengthening the spear to somewhere between fourteen and eighteen feet. This meant the infantryman had to use both hands to wield the sarissa, as it was called. But the extra length and the spearhead designed to penetrate armor gave the Macedonians an immense advantage in killing power. Finally, Philip created an engineer corps whose innovations in siege-machinery and tactics revolutionized ancient warfare.
Perhaps more important than these military innovations, Philip was a master of duplicitous diplomacy, “charming and treacherous at the same time,” Worthington quotes the Roman historian Justin, “the type to promise more in conversation than he would deliver.” Philip understood the weaknesses and obsessions of the Greek city-states, expressed in their traditional feuds and ancient enmities, and he turned them to his advantage, knowledge no doubt picked up while he was a hostage in Thebes during his adolescence. That is why he so easily tricked the Athenians into abandoning the pretender Argaeus on the promise of receiving Amphipolis, which Philip besieged and captured a mere two years later. Most important, Philip understood that the dysfunctions of city-state governments, especially Athens’s, with their endless internal wrangling, chronic prosecution of politicians, and factional strife, gave an autocrat such as himself an enormous advantage: “Multiple meetings of the Assembly,” Worthington writes, “in which the people were all too easily swayed by the rhetoric of a few individuals, were no match for the single-minded purposefulness of a king like Philip and his army.”
Philip also understood the value of public relations and the manipulation of perception. He worked at presenting himself as Greeker than the Greeks, an upholder of Hellenic traditions and institutions, all in the service of increasing his power and influence in central Greece. When the city-state Phocis seized Delphi, site of Apollo’s oracle, and started buying mercenaries with the god’s treasure, the Phocians ignited a Sacred War that they were winning until Philip was invited in to tip the scales against the blasphemers. At the Battle of the Crocus Field in 352 B.C., Philip had his soldiers wear crowns of laurel in honor of Apollo, thus casting himself as the champion of the Hellenic deity and the punisher of those who desecrated the god’s shrine. Despite losing that battle, the Phocians dragged the war on until 346 B.C., when Philip once again turned the tide and ended the war. As a result, Philip was styled the “savior of Apollo”; the Macedonians now occupied Thermopylae, the gateway to Athens, which promptly made peace with Philip; and Philip took Phocis’ two votes on the Amphictyonic Council, one of the most important city-state federations in ancient Greece. The Amphictyonic League oversaw the cult center at Delphi, and had the power to declare a “sacred war” on those city-states that blasphemed against the god. Thus Philip now had a prestigious and legal mechanism for interfering in the business of the other Greeks.
The stubborn xenophobia of the Greek city-states, coupled with the endless factional warfare within the states, kept the Greeks from recognizing Philip’s threat. By the time Demosthenes convinced the Athenians to set aside their traditional enmity with Thebes and unite against Philip, the Macedonian was too powerful, his professional army too seasoned for amateur citizen-soldiers. At Chaeronea in 338 B.C., Greek freedom was lost for two thousand years. “The Battle of Chaeronea,” Worthington writes, “changed Greece forever. It made Philip master of a Greece that used to be composed of autonomous states, each of which believed in its freedom at all costs.” After Philip was assassinated in 336 B.C., any hope of recovering that freedom was destroyed by Philip’s more ruthless son Alexander, who when Thebes rebelled against Macedonian hegemony, razed the city to the ground and sold its inhabitants into slavery.
The story of Philip’s achievement and the Greeks’ failure to defend their freedom still resonates today, when once again many people are too shortsighted to comprehend the foresight, sacrifice, and vigilance freedom demands. Worthington’s masterful, comprehensive story of Philip’s life and achievements restores for us an important episode in freedom’s long struggle with tyranny.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 27 Number 5, on page 71
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