This is a book that is over twenty years old and that I bought over a decade ago. Despite more recent ones on the same subject (in particular those of Ian Worthington and Richard Gabriel, although there are also a couple of others), this one remains the best in my view.
The main reason for this is that it does not even attempt to discuss the merits of Philip versus those of his talented “all-conquering” son Alexander, a discussion which is somewhat sterile even if fashionable to the extent that the son started with what his father left him. In other words, it is highly unlikely that Alexander would have achieved all of his victories, conquests and undying fame (for better or for worse) without the Balkan empire, state and war machine that he received from his father.
The main merit of this book is precisely to try to show in a book of less than 200 pages of text what the “Founding Father” really achieved – the creation of a unified Macedonian kingdom and dominance across the Balkans – and how he achieved it over less than a quarter of a century.
Although a first class piece of scholarship, the book is nevertheless very readable. In particular, while presenting the main debates of the period that saw the rise of Macedon, the author is generally careful not to enter into lengthy (and, for the general reader, often boring) discussions. The notes to the main text are also useful in listing the appropriate references although I would have personally preferred the author to come up with an extent bibliography. There is however a very useful chronology at the end of the book which shows in particular how methodical Philip was in his expansion.
Another element which needs to be mentioned is the author’s somewhat obvious sympathy for his subject. Although I found that he nevertheless managed to stop short of becoming obviously biased, he does have a tendency of presenting events in a “positive light” or at least from the perspective of Philip II, which is something that he cannot really be criticised for, given the topic of his book.
The quality of this book rests largely of the author’s mastery and interpretation of the sources. These are difficult to grasp with the difficulties being somewhat similar to the sources for Alexander. Contemporary sources exist only in fragments and the main extant sources are often second or third hand, writing generations or sometimes centuries later, although including some of the original materials. While some of Hammond’s interpretations may be questionable and have been challenged, they always make sense and are at least plausible, even when they are assumptions.
Some of the most interesting sections of the book are those dealing with Philip’s statecraft is how he managed to unify, conquer and build the Macedonian Kingdom. Of particular interest is his strategic vision of controlling the rich resources of Chalcidice and eastern Thrace, but also the uplands to the North and West, and the various passes leading into the plains in particular. Part of the King’s “genius” was his targeting of and ability to secure economic resources. This allowed him to recruit and pay mercenaries over the full year and therefore to outbid most competitors (except from Persia) because in the Greek world mercenaries were generally paid for ten months.
The creation of military colonies that were “cities of the Macedones” from which the standing professional army was drawn and trained is particularly illuminating if only because both his sons and the Successors would emulate this throughout the Balkans and Asia. His military reforms are also well described, with the author showing in particular that the pike phalanx was not only a response to the hoplite style phalanx developed by the Greeks but also to similar close order battle formations of his non-Greek aggressive Illyrian and Thracian neighbours. The other tools used to foster integration, such as the Pages, the Companion cavalry and the Foot Guards (Hypaspists) are also well presented.
One of the most interesting features with Philip was his vast range of talents. In addition to being a first class soldier who had an excellent grasp of both strategy and tactic and lead from the front as Macedonian “Battle-Kings” did at the time, he was also an excellent leader and diplomat. Both of these features are well described throughout the book. In particular, it shows his ability to manipulate Athens and Thebes, the Greek cities more generally, and how he took advantage of their slower decision making and their very factional and divisive politics. Another feature of his diplomacy was his polygamous marriage policy – he married seven or eight times – with all of his marriages (except for the last one) being with princesses of neighbouring kingdoms that he had subdued.
With regards to his leadership qualities, suffice is to say that he clearly had the ability to select and surround himself with a cadre of talented and competent officers and generals (such as Parmenion, Antipater, Kleitos the Black or Antigonos) which were a key part of his legacy to his son.
There is however some elements that may be questionable and disputable and I will give just two examples of this. One is about the tombs excavated at modern Vergina on the site of the old capital of Macedonia. The claim that one of the tombs is that of Philip himself is possible and even plausible and very probable, but it is not quite as certain as the archaeologist and the author himself may want to make it. The other questionable point is about one of the “cold cases” of Ancient History. While the author does not believe that Alexander was involved in his father’s murder and even knew nothing about it, lingering suspicions remain, if only because he was the main beneficiary of the deed. The extent to which his mother Olympias might have known and encouraged the murderer is also something we will never know and she also had incentives to get the deed done, with or without the knowledge of her son. Five stars, without any hesitation.
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