Tom Holland

Like father like son

Phillip II of Macedonia by Ian Worthington<br /> <br type="_moz" />

Phillip II of Macedonia by Ian Worthington

Alexander the Great, it goes without saying, was a man not much given to modesty. In 334 BC, as he was preparing to embark on his invasion of Asia, his mother, the sinister witch-queen Olympias, whispered in his ear ‘the secret of his birth’, revealing that he was in fact the son of a god, of Zeus himself — and Alexander believed her. Three years later, in Egypt, he travelled hundreds of miles out of his way to consult the desert oracle of Siwah and the priest, it is said, ‘left him in no doubt that he was indeed the son of Zeus’. By 324, with a record of victory behind him second to none, he went the whole hog, and openly demanded divine honours, before promptly dying the following year.

The response to this megalomania, among most Greeks, was a mixture of outrage and hilarity. ‘Let him be the son of Zeus,’ sneered the great Athenian orator, Demosthenes, ‘and of Poseidon too, if that is what he wants’. Alexander’s own overwrought pretensions, however, were not the only target of this joke. To hail someone as the son of a god was, of course, to cast his true father as a cuckold — and Demosthenes was hardly the man to miss out on doing that. Philip II, the king of Macedon whose assassination in mysterious circumstances back in 336 had originally brought Alexander to the throne, was a man who had proved himself the most dangerous enemy that Athens had ever faced. Inheriting a kingdom on the verge of implosion, Philip had left it a superpower. The monarchy itself had been centralised, Greece subordinated, and the Macedonian army transformed into a lethal and incomparable killing machine.

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