The story of Alexander the Great, the dashing young prince who conquered vast swathes of the world before his mysterious death at the age of just 32, is a familiar one. It has fascinated historians for over two millennia, but our knowledge of it remains frustratingly incomplete.
Here, Adrian Goldsworthy approaches the tale afresh, stating that in order truly to understand the history of Alexander we need to study it alongside that of his father, Philip II of Macedon. This, Goldsworthy argues, is because Philip’s role in the story is often overlooked. We need, he maintains, to consider the story as one born of two men with a desire to excel and outdo all others – and one which unfolds with a speed that barely seems credible.
What follows is ostensibly a narrative history of the combined 78 years of the two men’s lives as they shattered the existing status quo in the Mediterranean and turned Macedonia into a superpower.
Goldsworthy deals with the gaps in our knowledge with refreshing candour, resisting speculation and instead weighing available source material and mostly deciding on the most realistic option. This strips away much of the glamour that characterises Alexander as a new Achilles, instead painting a picture of a brave warrior, a frequently cynical politician, and a man with astonishing self-belief.
This is, at its heart, a story of violence and conquest, and Goldsworthy is predictably excellent when it comes to placing the reader in the heart of the great battles. One gets a visceral sense of the exhausting nature of these encounters: the blood, sweat, and dust; and the knife-edge nature of victories that combined disciplined tactical planning with incredible nerve and personal courage.
Equally impressive is the way in which Goldsworthy articulates the development of tactics and military techniques in the narrative. For example, his account of Philip’s siege of Amphipolis in 357 BC skilfully brings together the nature of siege warfare in the Hellenistic period with Philip’s key role in its development.
Philip’s achievements were the building blocks of Alexander’s later success. While the development of Macedonia’s military strength was key to this, so too was Philip’s extraordinary political sense and his use of deception, counter-intelligence, and treaties.
These elements are often lost in favour of the blood and thunder of campaigning. Goldsworthy rectifies that oversight. It is a theme that persists throughout the book, with Alexander later making use of similar techniques.
This is just one example of the manner in which a joint biography serves to tell a more complete story. In the epilogue, Goldsworthy considers the story in comparison with Julius Caesar and Augustus, both of whose achievements he has previously chronicled. He describes how their stories intertwined and the fascination both of the later men had with their Macedonian forebears.
The author concludes that the true natures of both Philip and Alexander would have been as remote and unknowable to the Romans as they are to us now, but he does himself a disservice. Through this narrative a clear picture emerges of Philip and Alexander as leaders, warriors, and politicians. For readers both new to the period and those very familiar with it, there is much to enjoy and to ponder in this fast-paced, authoritative, and incisive study.
Review by Stephen Batchelor
This is an article from the April/May 2021 issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about the magazine and how to subscribe, click here.