If asked to think about the greatest generals of the ancient world, one name is likely to come to mind first: Alexander the Great — the incomparable military commander who amassed the world’s largest empire by the time he was but thirty years old. A name that probably won’t come to mind, however, is that of Philip the II, Alexander’s father.
But my guest today argues that if Philip hadn’t done all that he did, Alexander wouldn’t have been able to do all that he did. His name is Adrian Goldsworthy, and he’s a classical historian and the author of numerous books on antiquity, including Philip and Alexander: Kings and Conquerors. Adrian first surveys the state of the Macedonians before Philip assumed the throne, sharing how they differed from other Greeks, who actually weren’t sure Macedonians even counted as fellow Greeks, and how Macedon was burdened with political instability, a deficient army, and a palace full of deadly intrigue. Adrian then explains how Philip, despite having little political or military experience, was able to take control and turn his army and kingdom around, including the innovations in weaponry and tactics that allowed him to achieve domination in Greece. We then talk about the relationship between Philip and his son Alexander, and how Alexander inherited many things from his father that set him up for his own success, including the plan to invade the Persian Empire. We end our conversation exploring the question of whether Philip, if he had lived longer, could have achieved what Alexander did.
Resources Related to the Podcast
- Sarissa, the long spear introduced by Philip the II
- AoM Podcast #487: Leadership Lessons From the 3 Greatest Ancient Commanders
- AoM Podcast #587: The Audacious Command of Alexander the Great
Connect With Adrian Goldsworthy
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Read the Transcript!
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. If I asked to think about the greatest generals of the ancient world, one name is likely to come to mind: Alexander the Great, the incomparable military commander who amassed the world’s largest empire by the time he was about thirty years old. A name that probably won’t come to mind, however, is that of Philip the II, Alexander’s father. But my guest today argues that if Philip hadn’t done all that he did, Alexander wouldn’t have been able to do all that he did. His name is Adrian Goldsworthy, he’s a classical historian and the author of numerous books on antiquity, including “Philip and Alexander: Kings and Conquerors.” Adrian first surveys the state of the Macedonians before Philip assumed the throne, showing how they differed from other Greeks, who actually weren’t sure Macedonians even counted as fellow Greeks, and how Macedon was burdened with political instability, a deficient army, and a palace full of deadly intrigue.
Adrian then explores how Philip, despite having little political or military experience, was able to take control and turn his army and kingdom around, including the innovations in weaponry and tactics that allowed him to achieve domination in Greece. We then talk about the relationship between Philip and his son Alexander, and how Alexander inherited many things from his father that set him up for his own success, including the plan to invade the Persian Empire. And we end our conversation exploring the question of whether Philip, if he had lived longer, could have achieved what Alexander did. After show’s over check out our show notes at aom.is/philipandalexander. Adrian Goldsworthy, welcome to the show.
Adrian Goldsworthy: Thank you for having me.
Brett McKay: You are a historian and you spent a lot of your career writing about Ancient Rome. But in a book you published last year, you take a detour to ancient Greece to look at the lives of Alexander the Great and his father, Philip. I’m curious, what led you to go to ancient Greece if you spent most of your career writing about Ancient Rome?
Adrian Goldsworthy: Well, you can’t really be an ancient historian and look at the Romans and ignore the Greeks because the Romans, apart from the overlap as they take over the eastern Mediterranean, they are so culturally indebted and have this mix of sort of envy and admiration of Greek culture and Greek language. When you’re reading Roman history, you are reading about emperors and other leaders who are inspired by Alexander. And of course, the paradox is that the bulk of our sources for both Philip and Alexander, particularly Alexander, are all written by people who are Greeks, but also Roman citizens, writing under the rule of the Roman emperors centuries later. The two are always interlinked, and while I did a little bit, when I did a biography of Cleopatra a few years ago, obviously is from family of one of Alexander’s generals, it’s always been there. It’s one of those things I thought I’d get around to. But actually the trigger for this was when the publishers asked me to write this book. And if they’d just said, “Write a biography of Alexander,” I wouldn’t have done it because there are enough out there already.
But when they said, “Could you do us Philip as well?” The more I thought about it, the more I wanted to write the book. You thought, “This is an obvious thing, why hasn’t it been done before?” We want a good, accessible account of these two men and trying to put them into context, not simply Alexander gets on Bucephalus, charges after glory, and then… It’s a great dramatic story, but there’s a reason, there’s lots of backgrounds to why all this happened.
Brett McKay: Yeah. Alexander gets the lion share of attention of historians for obvious reasons. He’s Alexander the Great, he’s one of the few men in history who’s had “The Great” put after his name. But yeah, in this book, you make the case to really understand and appreciate what Alexander did you have to understand and appreciate what his father Philip did during his kingship of Macedonia. And then to understand and appreciate what Philip did, you have to really understand and appreciate what was going on in Greece, geopolitically, and Macedonia before Philip became king. Let’s start there, let’s talk about Macedonia, ’cause it doesn’t get a lot of attention until Alexander the Great. Most of the time you spend thinking about or reading about Sparta or Athens. What’s the story of Macedonia? Where did it come from? How long did it exist? Sort of big picture.
Adrian Goldsworthy: It’s around for a long time. It’s on the fringes of the Greek world. The Macedonians are speaking a dialect of Greek, the Greek language, but there is a question mark, at least from the Southern Greeks over whether or not they really are Hellenes, whether they really are Greek or not. You have the classic case, Alexander the First, ancestor of our Alexander, wanted to enter the Olympic games, and this prompted debate in the committee as to, well, is he a Greek or not. You may be a prince of Macedonia, you may even be king by that time, but is he Greek? And he gets in because he claims that his family had originally come from the Greek city of Argos, they were exiles, so that the Royal Family is Greek. And he gets in and he gets to compete. We don’t know which year, we don’t have all the details, but it’s interesting that he is then known as Alexander the Philhellene, Alexander, the lover of all things Greek, which rather suggests that they’re still not at all convinced that the Macedonians are proper Greeks and they don’t quite do things in the characteristic way of Southern Greece, where the city state is the political institution that dominates life.
You are a citizen first, that’s where you identify most strongly. We sometimes forget a little bit, there are Greeks all over the Mediterranean world and beyond. There are some Greek colonies in the Black Sea. From very early on, the Greeks have been a very adventurous people, they’ve set up these trading and farming communities all around the world about which we know a lot less than we do the sort of famous cities like Athens and Sparta. And there’s a problem that because the Athenians write most of the history, or if not Athenians, people who go to Athens and are heavily influenced by them, we get that narrow view of what it meant to be a Greek. And often when you read modern books, they’ll talk about Greek attitudes to this, that, and the other. When it comes down to it, often what we mean are the attitudes of aristocratic Athenians. We have to be a little bit careful that how we see the Macedonians isn’t over-influenced by the view of a minority, the well-to-do, the well-educated in Athens, which was a city that became so much bigger, so much more important, so much wealthier than anyone else that again, it’s unusual.
It’s the head of a maritime empire, at least for a while. The Macedonians were a fringe people, they are part, loosely, of this broader Greek community, but nobody is quite sure which side of the line they come on. Are they in or are they out? And they don’t do things in the way that southern Greeks would expect. They still have kings, and they are ruled by Alexander and Philip’s family, the Argead family, that claims they’ve come from Argos originally, and for the last few centuries before Philip comes along, the family have been busy murdering each other and fighting wars against the Illyrians, the Thracians, and also Athenians, Thebans, other Greeks who intervene, who see Macedonia as somewhere ripe for the picking. It’s got a lot of natural resources, it’s got better forest which produce better timber that are available in most of Southern Greece, it’s got mines for silver, for gold, for other minerals, lots of things that you don’t get.
It’s even a different climate, to some extent, than Southern Greece, so it’s potentially a very wealthy place. But because it’s so politically unstable, because the Macedonians are not famous as soldiers in the early days, they’re foot soldiers, their infantry are considered to be next to useless, the cavalry are okay, but by Greek standards in that time, who wins a battle with cavalry. They are more someone to be plundered, someone to be picked upon, than a power in their own right. Occasionally they have strong kings, but the pattern for generations before Philip is of civil war, murder, assassination, and wars often unsuccessful against your tribal neighbors and your Greek neighbors. Macedonia is really an important kingdom until Philip. And then it changes very, very suddenly.
Brett McKay: Yeah, the way you describe the assassination, it sounded very mafioso, and it sounded like being king of Macedonia wasn’t a lot of fun because yeah, you became king, but in about a month, someone was gonna try to kill you.
Adrian Goldsworthy: Yeah, it’s one of the problems in that they manage to convince everyone that only a member of the Royal Family, the Argead line can actually be king. That’s good in a way, it can’t just be any old nobleman who suddenly declares himself ruler. The problem is there’s no pattern for succession, there’s no rule that the eldest son of the current king should always succeed. You have to get recognized by enough of the Macedonian adult men, the people who fight in the army, particularly the aristocrats, and you can always get killed. Your own family are likely to be enemies because they could be king just as much as you, and the problem with a system like that is that if everyone knows that they are going to be under suspicion, then you start to reason, “Well, I may as well plot because [chuckle] I’m probably gonna get killed anyway.” It’s all about survival of the fittest, then it does mean that they just waste their strength fighting against each other.
Brett McKay: This is when Philip comes on the scene. Macedonia, it’s politically unstable. The other Greek city states don’t really think of Macedonia as Greek. They basically see it as a place you can go pick on and take their natural resources. What was Philip’s early life as a young man? Was he being groomed to be a future king of Macedonia, or was he sort of seen like one of many potential heirs to the kingdom?
Adrian Goldsworthy: He’s one of many. When Philip was born, this wasn’t big news, even in Macedonia, let alone in the wider Greek world. He’s the youngest of three full brothers, both of whom become king before he does, and both of whom meet violent ends, but there are also at least another three half brothers, there is an uncle, there are cousins, there are lots of people with royal blood who could make a claim for the throne. Philip is someone who is a spare basically. There’s a chance he could become king, but it relies on lots of other people dying or him becoming very strong. And in fact, his oldest brother is murdered via conspiracy within the court, his… The middle brother gets killed fighting against the Illyrians along with a large part of the army. Before that’s happened, Philip spent two, maybe three years as a hostage in Thebes, which is the great city of sort of Northern Greece, I suppose, although… I’m gonna say Northern-Southern Greece almost, that area that has come to dominate the region up in this part of the world, and the Thebans have been arbitrators in civil wars, in disputes between Macedonians, the Salians, Illyrians, and others. Philip actually spends several years in comfortable captivity, he’s raised in the household of a Greek nobleman, he gets to hunt, he gets to go to the gymnasium.
There was all sorts of speculation even in the ancient world, “Well, maybe he learns about the politics of city states, maybe he learns about military drill,” because the Thebans have this famous unit called The Sacred Band that’s doing very well. And this is the period when just for a couple of decades, the Thebans managed to beat the Spartans and dominate the rest of the Greek world, they are the big city for this brief period. And Philip is there for several years, but it’s a striking contrast. Alexander, there’s never any prospect that he’s gonna be a hostage anywhere or prisoner anywhere. Whereas Philip has this period where it’s rubbed in that your kingdom is weak. Your people don’t really matter. We are dominant, you are not. We are civilized, you are not.
Brett McKay: Philip becomes king when his second brother dies, faces challenges from several other contenders for the throne straight away, he’s got the Illyrians, who’ve just massacred half the Macedonian army. He had’ve taken quite substantial parts of Macedonian territory. He inherits a kingdom that looks as if it’s going to be dismembered by much stronger neighbors, or looks that there’s no certainty that he is going to last the next month, and the next year and beyond that, that somebody else won’t become king of Macedon. And he is only in his early 20s, he doesn’t have very much military experience, any political experience, really, that we know about anyway. He hasn’t had much time, but also there hasn’t been the opportunity. This is an untried but charismatic, very self-confident young man who miraculously almost manages to turn this situation around.
Well, let’s talk about how he did that, ’cause as you said, this guy had no military experience, hardly any political experience, but he was able to revolutionize the Macedonian army. What were some of the innovations that Philip introduced?
Adrian Goldsworthy: It’s quite a profound change, but it’s one of those things where it’s very difficult for us to tell at this distance how quickly a lot of this happens. We can see the end result, which ultimately will be the army that Philip leads to such success and then Alexander will take off to conquer Asia. One of the first things he does is very much about morale rather than anything else. It’s worth remembering this because he spends the first few months of his reign, the winter months when there’s very little campaigning, going around, talking to people, encouraging people, trying to recruit a new army and training them differently. The classic infantry soldier of the Greek world is the hot light, the man who provides his own equipment, who is usually a farmer, wealthy enough to provide himself with the shield, the armor, the spear, and fights in this densely packed phalanx next to his neighbors. The same people, you will show off when you’re competing with them in the gymnasium, you fight side by side, and it’s all about this sort of civic identity. Macedonia doesn’t have that culture at all, and it doesn’t have the wealth to do that.
Philip creates a different type of infantry soldier by arming his men with a thing called a sarissa, which instead of being a spear you wield one-handed, is twice as long. It’s 16, 18 feet long, has to be held in both hands, and it’s not a weapon for subtlety, but it keeps your opponent a long way away, and if there are lots of you standing side by side, then you end up with a head-row of spearheads, pike-heads pointing forward. It’s very difficult for the enemy to get to you. Now you have to learn some basic drill and then more advanced drill as you will go on to do anything with that sort of formation, but it’s a new idea, it’s a new weapon, and the new tactics that are involved… He also starts probably in his early battle, still relying very heavily on the sort of traditional Royal guard, but Macedonian cavalry has always been quite well thought of. Philip develops tactics which make the infantry and the cavalry fight a neutral support.
And that’s something again, that has rather been neglected in the Greek world, partly because Southern Greece is not great country for raising horses or for using cavalry. You have this development, it’s these combined arm tactics, but also Philip’s leadership. Philip is there setting an example, leading from the front, risking death and wounds, and he suffers plenty of wounds in his career, including the loss of an eye. That’s one development, that will allow him to beat the Illyrians. And then by moving quickly and out-thinking them and just being bold, basically, taking risks, Philip manages to beat the other contenders. He also starts to do something else that he’ll do throughout his career, and he uses money and diplomacy. And he bribes some of the Thracians to stop supporting one of the rivals to the throne. That rival disappears.
Possibly part of the deal is also that they get rid of him permanently. And Philip is later supposed to have boasted that he was prouder of his diplomatic successes than he was his military ones. If he could get what he wanted without risking a battle, then all the better. But the other big change, which will be a profound one for the later campaigns, and this is slower, is the development of siege-craft. Because up until then, pretty much the only way to capture an enemy city, if it was probably fortified, was either to starve it out, which takes a long time and often means your own… Your besieging army starves before the defenders do, or hope that somebody inside opens a back door for you to nip in in the dark while no one’s looking. You could get in through treachery, you could get in through starvation. Philip developed siege-craft, where you can directly assault a city. He starts to hire engineers from all around the Mediterranean world, pay them well, allow them to research, they develop artillery, siege towers, then mobile siege towers, all the techniques that will allow them to get through, over, or sometimes even under the walls and storm the place. And it makes Philip’s campaigns much more decisive.
‘Cause in the past, if somebody… If things go badly for someone in battle or they don’t wanna risk a battle, they can go and hide behind their walls and wait for the enemy to go away. Philip creates a new situation where you can’t do that because his army comes at you and it keeps coming at you. And he clearly organized his supply well enough that you can stay at a siege for long enough to win, and also that you can campaign most of the year round. You don’t have to have these lulls over winter. Instead, you can attack, even if only in a limited way, but you can do it when the enemy is least prepared, least expecting it. It’s all this combination. But as I say, this is a… It isn’t instant. It’s a gradual thing, there’s a learning process, but one of the great advantages, like a lot of successful military leaders, and you could argue in almost any aspect of life as well, because you have those early successes and then you had another success and another success, you come to believe that you are going to win. And the Macedonians develop this immense self-confidence that means that they don’t give up even when things look terrible. That makes them extremely hard to beat. Success feeds off itself in many ways.
Brett McKay: Well, I’m curious about this. As soon as Philip gets into power, he immediately make these changes and he starts… It’s hard for us modern people to understand ’cause we think, “Well, you go to war for some moral reason,” ’cause you’re defending yourself. In ancient Greece it was different. You would just go… It was about accumulating land and power. What was driving Philip? Why did he set out to… Basically, it sounded like he set out to conquer all of Greece.
Adrian Goldsworthy: Well, it starts as he sets out to survive. And it is as simple as that. And because we know the end result, and he will come to dominate Greece, we forget just how dire the situation was, not just in that first year, but for several years afterwards. And there’s a big risk in all of this because Philip is leading from the front in these campaigns. He takes all these wounds, had the aim of one of those enemies been slightly better or the luck not with Philip that day, he might have been crippled or dead very early on. There’s no obvious successor, no… Alexander’s only born a few years later, he has another son, but who’s not much older. There’s no one there to take over. You could very easily just through the king getting himself killed, have gone back to that chaos where the Macedonians turn on themselves. You have to remember that all the time, and it’s hard to know at which point you sort of tip over from being this purely about survival to being about domination. But you’re right, in the ancient world, you don’t need a great reason to go to war. There is this assumption, it’s quite striking actually from something that a Greek historian in the second century BC, Polybius says about the Romans is that he writes this Universal History to explain how the Romans came to dominate the Mediterranean world.
And he goes on a lot about the Roman military machine, how the Legion worked in the Roman political system that gave him such stability. He never once asked the question, “Well, why are they doing this?” Because as far as he’s concerned, and most Greeks and most other peoples in the ancient world, if you can dominate, you do. Because if you don’t, someone is likely to dominate you. It’s very much this dog-eat-dog situation where you are either the conqueror or the conquered. And ancient states don’t have this ideal of peaceful co-existence with each other. And they will remember grudges from a very long time ago, in the same way that Philip and Alexander will even talk about, “We’re invading Persia for vengeance of Xerxes invasion nearly a century and half ago.” It’s not exactly recent history, it’s certainly not living memory. It is about survival means that you have to be strong. And in order to be strong, you have to keep on proving that, because again, there’s this sense that you can’t simply… Or at least your strength relies as much on people’s perception of it. If they are frightened of you, then you’ve got to keep on reminding them of why they’re frightened of you, and if so, they will treat you with respect, but this is…
It’s very much an honor based system, so that city states that are tiny will go and fight someone much bigger with very little hope of winning, but because they feel that they’ve been slighted, because they feel it would be dishonorable, not to. And it is this culture of competition, of excelling everyone else, of being better, so it feeds into warfare, but it is something that they do very lightly and Philip will make early allies fight on their side and within a few years, will turn against them. But in most cases, they were thinking about turning against him because Philip, while he’s relatively weak, can be a useful ally, it might help you against someone else, other threats can seem bigger. But then when Philip becomes strong, the other threats might seem a bit smaller to you, a bit less important, so you start talking about allying with former enemies against him. And it is a very different mindset to us, but this is the way, not just the Greek world, but to a great extent, the entire ancient world works.
Brett McKay: We’re gonna take a quick break for a word from our sponsors. And now back to the show. Well, let’s talk about what the other Greek city states thought of Macedonia. Before Philip, other Greek city states were like, “Well, they’re sort of these yokels, back-country, we don’t really have to worry about them, maybe pick on them to get their timber,” but then Philip started having these string of successes and then they started expanding their influence and power. What did the other major city states, particularly the southern city states, think? Like Athens or Sparta, were they kinda like, “Man, we gotta start doing something about this guy.”
Adrian Goldsworthy: They tend to think in a fundamentally selfish way in that it’s, “What’s in this for us?” And the question then becomes, “Well, is Philip someone useful that we can actually use against rivals? Is it worth allying with him,” which many Greeks do. Significant factions within Thessaly will do so to the extent where Philip becomes effective overlord, really, of Thessaly, but having helped one side win a civil war against other Thessalians and then keep them in power. And in the Sacred War as well, Philip is seen as a useful ally in an existing struggle that he has had nothing to do with up until this point. Some of them see that, others see him as a threat. The Athenians have always had a lot of interest in the area. They thought of Macedon as an area where they can exploit for their resources. Athenians have always needed a lot of timber, they’re a maritime nation, they’ve based their power on having a large fleet. The best timber for ship construction comes from Macedonia, or at least it’s the most accessible timber so they want that. They’ve got in, what’s now the Gallipoli Peninsula, they’ve got colonies there, they’re trying to dominate that area. They start having conflicts of interest with Philip.
But again, it’s… You’ve got the internal politics within a city like Athens, where some people are saying, “Actually, he’s not really a threat to us, then let’s just let him cause problems for other people and let’s work with him.” Whereas others are saying, “No, this man is going to be a great threat to Athens. His strength demeans us, makes us seem weaker, and he’s gonna take things that are areas that we actually want, so we should fight him.” And you have Demosthenes, the famous orator who composes a series of speeches that are subsequently published and have survived, in a… Probably a tidied up form, that it becomes the big cause of his political career, really, is opposing Philip. And it almost becomes an end within itself. It’s useful for him, it marks him out as different from the other orators. It’s clearly not a unique point of view, because you can persuade plenty of other people to support him at times, but it is not universal. Other people think differently and they change as well. There is this situation where suddenly it seems actually, yeah, we’ve got other problems, let’s go to them. In one of the great paradoxes of Greek history of the late fifth and into the fourth century BC is that having had this union of the Greek states to defeat the Persian invasion in 480, 479, that subsequently, every significant Greek city goes to the Persian king for financial aid in their struggles against other Greeks. [chuckle]
And these things are very fluid. And that’s the situation that Philip exploits very well, he’s got to keep on making enough people think that it’s worth being his friend. To hold the balance of power, and that’s what he does because again, he keeps on trying to woe Athens, he’s never that vicious towards the Athenians, never seems to want to destroy Athens never matches on Athens, always wants peace with them because they are too much trouble… To fight. But the balance changes all the time, and cities that have been friends then choose not to be… The other thing you have to remember is that all these cities have their own local politics, you’ve got different factions vying for power within them, whether they are democracies, oligarchies or whatever, but also they’ve got rivalries with much closer neighbors come enemies.
So if your enemy allies with Philip, then the probability is you’re gonna look for somebody else, some other strong external power to use against Philip to use against your main enemy. That’s your focus. So again, Demosthenes tries to pitch this as, this is, it should be the Greek world against Philip, and it certainly should be all of Athens against Philip, if not, you’re going to dominate them, but… Plenty of other people don’t see it that way, and it’s not even clear that Philip sees it that way. He wants to get respect because that means… And he’s not gonna be attacked, but he’s not setting out systematically to conquer Southern Greece, and if the Southern Greeks would actually ally with him, then he’s perfectly happy with that. So it’s a lot more complicated and it does change very quickly, and we’re only really glimpsing the details of it.
Brett McKay: But he ends up effectively conquering Southern Greeks. People kinda just take it. You’re the guy in charge. We’re not gonna mess with you.
Adrian Goldsworthy: He does, but remember, you’ve got the big the… Supposedly the sort of death of Greek liberty where the Thebans Athenians and allies are are defeated by Philip at The battle of Chaeronea, but half the Greeks fought on Philip side, again, you’ve got to remember who… And some people, like the Spartans, are doing their own thing as usual, and they don’t fight the Macedonians until much much later when it’s far too late for them to do anything, but they’re being… They’re asserting their own independence, their own status by not getting involved in any alliance where they are not Supreme, or with any state that they don’t particularly like it’s a classic case where… As far as they’re concerned, the Thebans and Athenians are far more of a threat to them. Personally, living there in the southern Peloponnese and the Macedonians are at that stage, so you can tell it the simple way, but it is a lot more complicated because once the Greeks have this cultural identity, they are so dis-United politically, in the classic comment is from Justin later on, who describes Phillip sort of as if he’s looking down from a tower, watching the Greek squabbling each other, fighting each other and just picks them off one by one, and there is some truth in it, but again, plenty of Greeks never fight the Macedonians because they see Philip as a useful friend. From the very start. So we shouldn’t forget them.
Brett McKay: And how long did it take from Philip from becoming king to becoming the top dog in Greece? Was that 10, 20 years?
Adrian Goldsworthy: Yeah. It’s again, none of these things last you have to keep proving that you’re the most powerful, and that’s why the Chaeronea campaign comes relatively late, and that confirms things in 338 BC, but… Yeah, it’s the best part of 20 years from then on until his death, which comes in a couple of years later, he is not challenged again in Greece, but as soon as he dies, some Greeks will try and challenge Macedonian dominance because they think Alexander’s just this kid, he’s never really done anything. We should be going back to the good old days when Macedonia is this hopeless place, where they’re just fighting each other all the time, and they’re no threat to anybody.
That’s one of the things to remember that you had Philip and Alexander’s reigns together and you’re still less than 40 years, and there are plenty of people, Demosthenes, one of them, plenty of others who are… Who were alive before Macedonia mattered, who can remember a weak pathetic Macedonia before Philip came along and changed things, and have seen this incredible burst of conquest happen, but part of them are thinking there is this natural thing to assume that the world where you grow up is, that’s how the world should be, that it does happen incredibly fast, and it takes people a while to accept this fate for it to sink in that actually… Certainly, things have changed and the Macedonians do matter. In the same way, the Persians probably weren’t too frightened when Philip launched his invasion and Alexander followed up you just think, it’s just some unimportant Greeks. What’s this gonna matter? They’ve come before they’ve gone away before. They didn’t know things were going to be so different.
Brett McKay: You mentioned Persia, so I think Alexander’s famous for conquering all of Persia. But people forget this, the idea to go and conquer Persia was Philip’s idea. When did he start developing his plans for invading Persia?
Adrian Goldsworthy: It’s difficult to say precisely and he talks about it openly in the last few years of his reign, and you go back to the earlier Alexander who was the king at the time of the Persian invasion, who’d gone as an ally with Xerxes army because he was an ally of Persian Empire, probably not satrap as such, but they been the Macedonians were sort of client kings of the Persians they did what they were told they provided troops for the invasion. There’s a story circulated later that Alexander goes to warn the Greeks before the Battle of Persia in a creek rides up in the night, it gives them a message. And then as the Persian army breaks and retreats out of Greece, the Macedonians turn on them, but the Macedonians had actually been part of that invasion that Philip and then Alexander are claiming to avenge, so there’s an odyssey there from the start, but it’s it’s not a new idea because there have been these panelists that have been talking about this for a while and it comes down to these educated intellectual Greeks looking around and seeing Greek city fighting Greek city, and then they have this dismissive view of barbarian Easterners who are nowhere near as good as fighting as us.
Hey, look, we showed that in the Persian wars, we beat back two invasions, and yet we are incredibly wealthy. So there’s just something wrong about the world if these are effeminate transient wearing barbarians from the East have all the money and we don’t. And wouldn’t it be great if instead of fighting each other, we all got together, we went off, took land from the Persians, and then we Greeks could live as proper civilized Helens because they could preside over these estates worked by Persian serfs and they have enough time and leisure to develop their intellect and their culture, and they wouldn’t be fighting each other anymore. This is sort of the appeal for… You could be the leader of this great crusade, for want of a better term.
To go and conquer the Persian Empire, has been around for a while and other leaders have been approached in this way, so it’s hard to know, but I think that one of the things with Philip is that he creates a system in his strength in Macedonia that really relies on continued conquest, continued success, because again, it’s a much rated historian Justin, has this rather dismissive comment that Philip made war like a merchant. In that, he takes the profits from one campaign, all that plunder and spends the money to buy supporters to buy more troops to prepare for the next war. So in a sense, he’s always investing his profits in the next adventure, so there’s never this period where he’s financially secure, it’s all about, we’ve gotta keep winning, we’ve gotta keep winning. And Persia is the big, obvious juicy target the Greek armies have attacked before, so it develops and it is also…
It’s an obvious way, and many leaders throughout history have used it, if you can bring together people who’ve been fighting each other, then often one of the best ways of uniting them is to find a common enemy or find someone else they can go and hate and preferably defeat and profit from that defeat, so in the same way that Philip’s united Macedonia and then added lots of communities that have been on the fringes of the Macedonian Kingdom, sometimes in, sometimes out. By joining them into one army, mixing up the population and then letting them enjoy the spoils of victory after victory, they fight together, they share the profits together, so you’re doing the same thing on a larger scale with these new found allies, new found subdued former enemies in Southern Greece by saying, “Let’s get together, let’s go and do this, and it’ll be good for all of us because we’re all going to profit from this.”
Brett McKay: And before Philip was really able to get his plan going, he dies, he gets murdered like previous Macedonian kings and Alexander assumes the throne, but before we talk about Alexander’s rule, let’s talk a little bit about the father-son relationship before Philip dies. So about this time, Alexander is a teenager, he’s like 17, 18 years old, but what was the relationship like between him and Philip, was Philip grooming him to be the next king of Macedonia, or was Alexander just one of many potential successors?
Adrian Goldsworthy: He’s not one of many. It’s one of the striking things. One of the ways Philip brings stability to Macedonia is by killing off most of the male members of the Royal Family, he disposes of several half-brothers, of cousins, of others like this. There aren’t many close contenders for the throne left and… Oddly, for a man who is portrayed at least in Greek sources and to some extent, this is the way they portray any tyrant as incredibly promiscuous and having not only marrying eight, possibly nine times. But having countless affairs as well, Philip only has two legitimate sons, one of whom is for reasons that aren’t quite clear from the sources, considered incapable of rule, whether through physical defects or mental defects, so he’s basically got Alexander. Significantly, he’s taken another wife just before he’s murdered. But that would have taken a long time, even if that had produced a boy, that new marriage, then it’s gonna take a while before that boy will be old enough and have proved himself enough to have a chance of succeeding.
So Alexander is sort of the best option, but there have been moments of friction, there have been the dispute at the wedding feast, where the noblemen, the uncle of the new bride is supposed to propose a toast that this new marriage would produce a legitimate heir to the throne. Alexander takes that as an accusation that he’s illegitimate, there’s a fight, Philip tries, takes the uncle side after all it is effectively his father-in-law, and he’s just married, he just had storms at Alexander but is too drunk to make it across the floor, so collapses. But Alexander then goes into exile for a while, self-imposed, he goes and hides amongst his mother’s people, the Illyrians for a while before coming back. He has been groomed because he is really the only clear choice if there are other children then they’re not legitimate and it would be harder for them to succeed though probably not impossible. Alexander is the best bet for the moment, but remember, Philip is only in his 40s and although he keeps getting wounded, his family tend to live very long lives unless somebody kills them. And it’s one of the striking things of how many tough elderly Macedonians there are, and more generally in the Greek world there’s a Spartan King who dies coming back from a campaign in his 80s, around about this time.
The Illyrian King who’s defeated and killed Philip’s little brother is in his 80s, so there’s a lot of really tough old birds around at this time, and there’s no reason to think that Philip would not have expected to live on another 20, 30, maybe more years, so things could have changed and he might have led his Persian expedition, whatever he would have done with that and come back in glory. And maybe Alexander wouldn’t have lived that long, we don’t know whether he was planning on taking Alexander with him or not either, the balance of probability from the evidence is that probably he wasn’t, he was going to leave him behind. That means Alexander is there doing very little while Philip’s winning all the glory and you have all these stories from biographers like Plutarch talking about Alexander being melancholy when he heard the news of Philip’s later victory and his friends ask him why, and it’s well, my father’s leaving me nothing to do in the world. How can I win glory?
You get this mixture of a sort of envy, but you also get the anecdotes that suggest there’s a closer relationship, there’s one where Philip’s complaining about his wounds and Alexander says you should be proud of, they’re badges of honor, and of course, the famous story of him taming the horse Bucephalus and Philip’s great pride, and this kid is able to mount the stallion that no one else could ride, so there are lots of different traditions, there is also the other strong tradition that Alexander’s mother, the famous Olympius had come to hate. Philip, problem is, we just don’t know enough. We don’t know, all of these stories are written down much later, and we don’t know how far they are embellished, how much this has been turned into a soap opera that writers felt, well, this is the sort of story that my audience wants, and how much is reality, we don’t really know enough about any of them as people to be absolutely sure.
So without Philip, there wouldn’t be any Alexander, he said he couldn’t have started and done things as quickly as he could. He is gifted the throne at a time when he’s still young, he’s got the superb army under his control, he’s got a war with Persia that’s only just started, he’s got the energy, he’s got the resources, he’s got the force, and he’s got that sort of confidence that you do tend to have when you’re… Just in your early 20s or late teens, that I can do anything I’m special. Nothing really bad is gonna happen to me. I can do this. So it all comes together very well for Alexander to allow him to steam off and not just do these things, but do these things so fast, but again, it’s chance really.
Brett McKay: Yeah, and I think you do a good job of showing that transition from Philip to Alexander, all the things we talked about, that Philip introduced the new weapon, the really long spear like Alexander continued to use that… The new formations like Alexander continued to use that. Philip was really big on drilling and Alexander continued to do that, and then the whole idea of Persia, while Alexander just picked up where Philip left off… I think the big point, this book without Philip, there would be no Alexander. I’m curious, are there ways in which Alexander differed from his father in leadership style?
Adrian Goldsworthy: It’s a little difficult to say because we don’t have descriptions of Philip’s battles of the same sort of detail as we have for Alexander’s, so we know far less about it, it’s one of those great ironies Philip was up until Alexander, the great man, the man who changed everything. There were lots of books written about him in the ancient world, but they haven’t survived, on the other hand, Philip’s clearly getting wounded, so he’s obviously leading in the same sort of aggressive, very personal style, inspirational style as Alexander, who will also tally up this great catalog of wounds. So probably it’s much the same, the other thing that we sometimes forget, we look at the tactics, we look at the weapons, we look at the institution, but the actual people involved for the first few years of Alexander’s campaigns, nearly everybody in his army has served for much longer under Philip. You know, there’s even the comment in one of our sources that he chose the older soldiers to take with him.
Now, we tend to think of war as being fought by youngsters in their teens, in their early 20s, but actually a lot of these soldiers are middle-aged men when they go off to attack Persia, many of the command is the same. You have people who have served under Philip that reappear after Alexander’s death, and Antigonus Gonatas one of the contenders in the wars of the successes, barely mentioned under Alexander, who leaves him in Asia Minor with very few troops to deal with the situation there. Becomes one of the key figures. He’d already made a name for himself under Philip, so it is very much Philip’s Army doing what Philip’s army has done lots of times before with Alexander in charge. Perhaps the difference is that the sheer scale of it all becomes far, far greater. Philip’s campaigns had been over a relatively small geographical area, whereas Alexander, he just keeps on going and clearly doesn’t really want to stop, and even when he dies, you got all these plans for campaigns to Arabia and beyond.
Because he still, is only in his thirties, there’s no reason to stop. And you have… The whole way the army works has been geared up to constant fighting, but it does cause stress because in the past, yes, you fought a war, but you usually would be able to go home for a month or two, you are gonna go back to your family, and it’s interesting that at the end of the first year of campaigning in Alexander’s Persian campaigns, he lets the newly married men go back to Macedonia, and your sensible reason is to go off and breed the next generation of Macedonian soldiers, but there’s that sort of link with… These aren’t really professional soldiers that are removed from their home communities, they’ve under Philip, they’ve been able to be very much part of their families, their farms, they have gone back to do that, under Alexander because of sheer distance, that becomes less and less possible, but it’s… I think there’s an expansion where Alexander comes to believe that he can do almost anything, and the other thing that changes is that as he goes on, he adds more and more local troops and Asian troops to his army.
So that by the time the army is in Northern India, it’s huge, it several times larger than it had been when he invaded, and the proportion of Macedonians and even Greeks in that force has shrunk because you’ve added so many of these other contingents that might be horse archers or like have real sorts of different ways of fighting, and… Even to the extent where later on you’re taking Persian teenagers, you’re teaching them Greek and you are drilling them as a new phalanx that will appear just before Alexander’s death, so he does develop things, but it’s… We really need to know far more about what Philip actually did and how he did things to say where Alexander differs or whether he does or not it… It’s extremely hard to say.
Brett McKay: I think one distinction you made was Philip is really good at diplomacy, Alexander, not so much Alexander’s like, I’ll just conquer you, that’s how… That’s how he takes care of this.
Adrian Goldsworthy: Because he knows he can, and perhaps that’s a youthful thing in that, Philip began his reign in really dire straits, when Macedonia could easily have pretty much ceased to exist, it could easily have been taken over, at the very least, permanently dominated by stronger neighbors. Alexander has never lived in that world that reality he’s never had to face that possibility, as far as he’s concerned, he’s head of the best army in the world and the strongest kingdom in the world, so he could do anything, and it’s something…
There’s that odd paradox with Alexander, on the one hand, he can be this incredibly inspirational leader, whether it’s, you know, famously, when on the march when nobody’s got water, somebody brings him some water in a helmet and he pours it away ’cause he can’t share it, or helping a soldier who’s gone virtually snow-blind into and sitting him down in his seat next to the fire, or waiting for men to come in through the desert. On the one hand, he can do all these incredible inspirational things and yet also completely misread the mood of his soldiers, and he seems to believe that they want to keep on conquering just as much as he does, and that anything he wants, they’re going to want too… And doesn’t understand, once they’ve defeated Persia once Darius is out of the way, once any challenges are out of the way, most of them are actually thinking, “Well, let’s go home for a bit and enjoy what we’ve won, we’ve got all this money, we’ve got all this loot, we’ve got all this glory, what can we possibly do, that’s gonna be better than that?
Can’t we have a bit of a rest first? And he just doesn’t appear to get that, but then this is a man who’s been fed success and victory and is surrounded by a court where anything he says is gonna be accepted and where people are vying for his affection for his favor, so it’s probably not surprising, add in the exhaustion of the sheer distance he’s traveling, the amount he’s fighting, and we always focus on the big famous battles, but actually he spends most of his time in skirmishes, in raids in sieges and assaults on these little wall villages, which are just as dangerous, they’re not as big in scale, but they are extremely dangerous, particularly for those who go first, and Alexander was always inclined to do that.
Brett McKay: An interesting counterfactual to think about, and you kind of suggest it at the end of the book is, if Philip had survived, could Philip have done what Alexander did? ’cause Alexander did what he did ’cause he… All he knew was success, he had this confidence. Philip came from a world where he basically had to build up Macedonia from nothing, so he had probably a hint of insecurity. Something fun to think about is would Philip had done what Alex… Like just kept going and going and gone into India because of that, that different background.
Adrian Goldsworthy: I suspect it wouldn’t have happened as fast under Philip simply because he’s just that much older and he’s also been a little more cautious because he knows that things can go wrong. On the other hand, once you attack Persia, you have all these offers from the Persians at various times, yes, take the West and half of the kingdom, you know, marry my daughter, all this sort of thing, but the ancient world, being the ancient world, once you’ve attacked someone as powerful as that, if you leave them in existence, they’re gonna come back for revenge eventually, they’re not gonna forgive you for this, so there is an element that unless you just see this as a sort of plundering raid, which the Spartans have done in the past, other people have done on the sort of the fringes of the Persian Empire, take a bit of Asia Minor plunder a bit here, maybe take a little bit of territory, unless it was very limited, which seems unlikely for the scale of what Philip was doing, then you probably have to overrun the Persian Empire, otherwise you’re just setting yourself up for… And that’s an argument that Alexander is supposed to have used repeatedly to his soldiers when they’re saying, Can we go home?
It’s no, look, we’ve got to beat them, because if we don’t put them down permanently, they’re gonna get up again and come back at us when we might be weaker. On the other hand, as you say, Philip’s, much more of a diplomat than Alexander, but there again, was he able to be such a diplomat because he knew the people of Greece, he knew the Illyrians, the Thracians, his mother is an Illyrian. He knows the culture of those groups, so it’s much easier to negotiate and deal with them, would he have coped as well, would he have been able to win over as many people in the Persian Empire? Maybe, maybe not, I mean, Alexander doesn’t do as bad a job as we might think, an awful lot of people don’t have any particular loyalty to the Persians, they’re just part of their empire, as long as the new invader treats them with reasonable respect and does not demand too much, then fair enough, you know The King is dead, long live the king, we don’t mind having another overlord. Areas like Egypt, there’s almost no fighting at all because they didn’t want to be under Persian rule. They’ll happily take the newcomers, why fight them for the sake of the Persians it’s just not worth it.
So a lot of it would have happened, but again, we always like as historians, we try and see these deeper trends, underlying societies, economies, military developments and sort of see the big pattern that will make things happen as in this fairly predictable, almost inevitable way. With people like Philip and Alexander, you’re dealing with individuals who don’t have a replacement, if they get themselves killed, then there is no certainty that somebody else will be able to take over and do what they’re doing, and it does remind you of the thing we don’t like to think about as professional historians, but the role of chance in it all. And the role of personality, in it all. And while clearly the ancient sources, it’s very much all about Alexander the man, Alexander the great hero or the great villain, however you chose to see him, it is one of those situations where that individuals, that his personality did make a huge difference to history in that short term, because… A lot of people wouldn’t have been able to do what he did, but the probability is quite a lot of us wouldn’t even have tried, so it’s a reminder that we are just dealing with human beings, even if we don’t have enough evidence to understand their personalities as well as we’d like, that it does, the individuals do matter, and it isn’t just about the inevitable march of history.
Brett McKay: Well, Adrian, this has been a great conversation, where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?
Adrian Goldsworthy: Well, there’s my website, adriangoldsworthy.com has more about this and all the other books there, and then it will be the same with basic books, is the publisher and they’ve got some stuff up on their website as well, but either of those should be fine.
Brett McKay: Fantastic. Adrian Goldsworthy, thanks for your time, it has been a pleasure.
Adrian Goldsworthy: Thank you very much for having me.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Adrian Goldsworthy, he’s the author of the book, Philip and Alexander it’s available on Amazon.com and bookstores everywhere you can find out more information about his work at his website, adriangoldsworthy.com, also check out our shownotes at aom.is/philipandalexander where you can find links to resources where we delve deeper into this topic.
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