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Posted on Apr 23, 2009 in Books and Movies

Phillip II of Macedonia – Book Review

By Duncan Rice

Phillip II of Macedonia. Ian Worthington. Yale University, 2008. Hardcover: 303 pages, 33 plates, 3 figures, 6 maps. $35.

Ian Worthington does a splendid job of examining Phillip II and what he did for Macedonia in this new biography.

If asked who was the greatest warrior-king of history many armchair generals would answer Alexander the Great and be able to put forward a convincing argument. But consider, what would Alexander be had Phillip II not ruled before him? What foundation would Alexander have to work with? Without Phillip and what he did for Macedonian policy, military, economics, and culture there could be no Alexander the Great. Phillip II laid the foundation for the great and vast Macedonian Empire, which Alexander would inherit.


This is a substantial claim and it is not the only one made in this book, which discusses Phillip II as his own man with specific aims and motivations. Phillip II is much more than simply a beneficial precursor to Alexander. Ian Worthington does a splendid job of examining Phillip II and what he did for Macedonia in this new biography.

To begin, Worthington presents a background of Macedonia including the people, society, and political structure. Phillip II inherits a kingdom that is on the brink of collapse in 359 BC. The army consists of poorly equipped conscripts unable to prevent Illyrian incursions from the north. The economy is dependent on eastern ports controlled by the Chalcidian League with whom relations were frequently difficult. In addition, Macedonia suffers from rapidly changing leadership ­– a dozen kings in a space of thirty years – and was rarely free from outside influence. It is clear that Macedonia before Phillip II is a fractured and weak state.

Worthington goes on to discuss Phillip’s unification of Macedonia. This includes building a new army in order to end threats to Macedonia, securing the borders, taking control of valuable mining resources, and unifying the land by force. Phillip II is also a skilled diplomat. When he isn’t actively attacking, he is maneuvering politically and diplomatically for advantages. Like a grandmaster chess player, Phillip doesn’t wait for an opportunity – he creates it. There is almost no tool Phillip is unwilling to use. He brokers advantageous peace agreements, plays enemies against each other, uses bribery, or will outright lie if it is necessary. He demonstrates skill in the diplomatic and political arena particularly well when dealing with Athens. At one point I found myself wondering why the people of Athens kept believing Phillip and falling into his traps. Even Phillip’s marriages are designed with an eye to gaining a political advantage. Worthington presents Phillip II as a hard drinker and carouser but an even harder fighter and negotiator.

Worthington relies heavily on Phillip’s contemporaries for his information. This material is scarce and often only found as fragments or in secondary sources. More recent findings confirm some of this information. For example, Diodorus writes that the city of Olynthus fell after a number of assaults. Archaeological findings of sling bullets and bolt-heads from non-torsion catapults with ‘Philippou’ inscribed on them support this. Educated speculation also plays a large part in the book. Worthington states that Phillip may have razed Olynthus as an example to other Greeks that resistance and interference in Macedonian politics – Olynthus gave refuge to claimants to the Macedonian throne – would not be tolerated.

This can be a challenging read at times. Names are difficult to remember. Cities and borders have changed. I was thankful for the maps included near the beginning. The preamble is a good primer and easily read. The book also concludes gently with a description and analysis of Phillip’s assassination, a retrospective, and a discussion of Alexander. The bulk of the book is rich with information and deserves a close reading. Worthington states, “While my book is meant to be authoritative, it is also written to be accessible to a non-specialist readership.” He’s successful, but you will want to find a quiet place so that you can give his work the attention that it deserves. I would recommend Phillip II of Macedonia to any skilled readers regardless of their knowledge on the subject.

ACG Intel

Phillip II of Macedonia