Philip and Alexander: Kings and Conquerors, by Adrian Goldsworthy

Oliver Webb-Carter

A new biography of Philip and his son, Alexander.
Home » Book Reviews » Philip and Alexander: Kings and Conquerors, by Adrian Goldsworthy

Adrian Goldsworthy has been known until now as a bestselling historian of ancient Rome.  Having written acclaimed biographies of Julius Caesar and Augustus Caesar, it is refreshing to see him enter the world of ancient Greece, and take on the challenge of perhaps its two greatest military figures, Philip II of Macedon, and Alexander the Great.  Biographies of Alexander have been so frequent, and Philip so few in comparison that it is perhaps strange as to why they have not been combined more often.  This is especially true since the achievements of the father, in taking a relatively inconsequential kingdom on the outer reaches of Greek ‘civilisation’ to become the political and military leader amongst the Greek city-states, are worthy of further analysis.

Perhaps the answer lies in the scarcity of contemporaneous sources, and we seldom read of the two figures together.  Goldsworthy captures one moment particularly effectively, when Philip was persuaded by the adolescent Alexander to purchase the unruly stallion, Bucephalas, for a vast fee.  Alexander had tamed the beast by leading him towards the sun, having noticed the horse was frightened of its own shadow.  He soothed the Bucephalas with a soft voice until he could mount the animal, and when both rider and steed were ready, Alexander gave a touch with his heels and the two were off.  Philip famously exclaimed, “My boy, you must find a kingdom big enough for your ambitions, Macedonia is too small for you!”  But did this actually take place?  Goldsworthy uses this story to highlight its potential validity through his knowledge of horsemanship, and readers’ hopes are lifted that yes, this beautiful scene could actually have happened. Then, Goldsworthy gives us the real answer: maybe it did, but probably it didn’t.  What certainly did happen was Alexander’s later commemoration of their close bond through the founding of the city of Bucephalia.

With relatively few recent works on Philip, this account of his life is compelling in the hands of a writer such as Goldsworthy, so comfortable in dealing with the difficulties raised by the sources.  Additionally, the narrative is populated throughout with references to Roman figures, as one would expect from a scholar of ancient Rome.  These brief Roman contrasts serve to remind us that our most reliable primary sources were writing within the Roman Empire, when Alexander gained his title, ‘the Great’.  The primary thrust of Goldsworthy’s book is that Philip was very much responsible in laying the platform for Alexander’s stunning victories. That this claim irritated Alexander throughout his conquests as his father’s veterans reminded him of Philip’s accomplishments does not make it any less true.

Philip and Alexander: Kings and Conquerors is a fantastic work of ancient history and by pairing the two giants of Macedonia, Goldsworthy helps the reader understand Alexander’s life all the better, and sheds light on the achievements and character of Philip. The biography compares and contrasts the two figures, in an original and engaging style which should appeal to students and scholars alike.