Philip II of Macedonia: Greater than Alexander by Richard A. Gabriel

Book Review by Bryaxis Hecatee

This book is a study of a man often overshadowed by the fame of his son. A man whose life was longer than his son’s, and much more difficult, who lived with permanent danger, a danger which finally manifested itself under the guise of a murderer. A man in fact who left little trace of his thoughts and actions except in the words of his quite eloquent enemies, Demosthenes being foremost amongst them.

The aim of this book is the rehabilitation of Philip’s memory and an attempt to paint the picture of a man of exceptional abilities, far from the drunk one might remember from the movie Alexander or the translation of the Philipics.

Of course he was no Greek, but the son of the Macedonian king who received the best Greek education available in his time, at the knees of Epaminondas and his Theban generals, during a period as hostage for the good behaviour of his family. Hybrid son of two cultures, he came to power in a most difficult time and from a desperate situation led his nation toward eternal glory.

Such is the story that military historian and teacher in various military institutions Richard A. Gabriel, also of History Channel fame, wants to tell us with this book. While no introduction other than the "Greater than Alexander" subtitle of the book provides a precis of the author’s intent it is not until the very last ten pages of the book that we begin to have an explanation for it.

Focusing on the strategic environment of Macedonia, the book looks at Philips decisions to see if they might form a general framework giving us access to the thought processes of the ancient king, looking at what his actions were to determine why they were undertaken, thus often not mentioning how his actions were seen by his contemporaries.

This is probably the main thing lacking in this otherwise well crafted book: the reader is not provided with enough elements to judge how the author’s theories might be different from what was thought in Philip’s time, and controversies are rarely mentioned.

Still R.A. Gabriel has produced through 9 chapters a good overview of the life of Philip from his childhood and adolescence until his death. The book opens with his time in Thebes (chapter one).

Chapter 2 is devoted to the natural limitations and resources of Macedonia, providing a key to understanding the later descriptions of strategies and policies led by Philip. This chapter also makes the case for the building by Philip of a sentiment of national unity amongst a diverse population, leading to arguably the first national state of Europe. Chapter 3 provides a key to understand later developments since it concentrates on how Philip built the army that would provide him with so many victories. Also mentioned are the ways in which the king developed his espionage service. These would play a most important role in his later dealings with Greece.

We then come back to a more chronological approach of the life of Philip with the Illyrian War (chapter 4) and the beginning of the Sacred War (chapter 5), with a particular study of how Philip took control over Thessaly.

The sixth chapter looks at the border policy of Macedonia under Philip and how he slowly secured them through diplomacy and force of arms, although one might have liked to learn more of how the king operated with his senior commanders, whom he sometimes sent away on important missions, including some that would create the diplomatic tension with Athens (chapter 7) that would lead to open warfare and the battle of Chaeronea (chapter 8) where Greece was put under heel.

The last chapter, deals with the king’s murder and here Gabriel point the finger toward Persia, whose King of Kings must have been well aware of the preparations for war that Philip had made.

The “Greater than Alexander” part of the book is also addressed in this final chapter where, bringing up every element presented in the previous chapters, Gabriel makes the claim that Philip, having been a man who started with a war torn country, secured his borders, created a united country from numerous groups of varying interests and, finally, decided to attempt unification of Greece behind a common goal, namely the conquest of parts of Persia.Showing military genius, political acumen and a true mastering of the strategic visions that so lacked in the Greek cities, elements that would also be mostly lacking in his son Alexander who inherited a war machine that allowed his conquests but could not build a nation as his father had and often undertook actions for glory rather than for effective goals.

In conclusion we shall leave the last word on this book to Jesper Majbom Madsen, who reviewed it for the BMCR : "very helpful to specialists, students and readers with a more general interests in Philip, Macedonia or military history per se."

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