BMCR 2016.08.32

King and Court in Ancient Macedonia: Rivalry, Treason and Conspiracy

, King and Court in Ancient Macedonia: Rivalry, Treason and Conspiracy. Swansea: The Classical Press of Wales, 2015. xxvi, 326. ISBN 9781905125982. $110.00.

[The Table of Contents is listed below.]

Every few years, I teach an undergraduate seminar on Alexander the Great. I’ve learned that there will be a day when students spontaneously begin to debate which of Elizabeth Carney’s articles or books is their favorite. Once, I had two students arguing vehemently about the political savvy of Olympias vs. Adea Eurydike, while a third pushed for Alexander’s sister Cleopatra. I begin with this anecdote to illustrate that Carney’s work reaches that elusive audience of both specialists and students just beginning to learn about ancient Macedonia. She is probably best known for her work on Macedonian queens, but her work on the female members of the royal family has always been situated within Carney’s wider study of the Macedonian court.1 This volume collects thirteen of Carney’s previously published articles on subjects related to Macedonian monarchy and court relations. The articles themselves are reprints, but what makes this collection an exceptionally worthwhile addition to libraries are the volume’s Introduction and the Afterword that accompanies each chapter. Each Afterword surveys the scholarship that has appeared since the original publication together with Carney’s assessment of the arguments presented. Since much of her research draws on the material culture of Macedonia, new discoveries can also have an impact on her original interpretations, and these are also incorporated into the Afterword. The result affords students and specialists the opportunity to review developments in a field that has changed from a focus on Alexander the Great to a study of regional history. In my view, this volume offers a master class in the practice of ancient history. That it is written by leading female historian is also important since, as Carney recalls of her early career, “Being the only woman in the room (often literally, apart from, perhaps, the ghost of Grace Harriet Macurdy), whether that room was the site of a department meeting or an academic conference, occasionally turned out to be an advantage, but more often was the reverse.” (p. x)

Carney’s introductory essay achieves several goals: to explain the purpose of the collection and how she selected these 13 of her more than 30 articles on Macedonia, and to review developments in Macedonian studies over her career. She also raises some points of reflection that will reappear in the Afterwords in the rest of the book. When she began her study of Macedonian history, Ernst Badian’s views of Alexander “reigned supreme,” as she put it. The discovery of the tombs at Vergina altered the way that historians dealt with Macedonian cultural context and also stimulated study of Philip II in a way that called attention to Alexander’s Macedonian heritage. Carney describes how historians and archaeologists have interacted with Macedonian material culture in a clear assessment of the potential and limitations of the disciplines.2

As the title claims, subjects of rivalry, treason, and conspiracy dominate this collection. She comments in the Introduction that Badian saw Alexander as the instigator of conspiracies, but her view, as characterized in several articles, is that “the Macedonian elite was generally conspiratorial,” (p. xi). One of the most complex issues for historians lies with the sources for Alexander’s rule, most of which are Roman. To what extent is the Alexander described in Plutarch and Arrian a representative of Roman culture rather than a Macedonian or Greek? Several articles listed in the Afterwords raise this question, indicating revived interest by scholars in the past decade or so, and Carney often comments on the matter in response to that work. Carney also discusses the criticisms of Alexander scholarship in public fora by Mary Beard, James Davidson, and Hugh Bowden. She notes that, in some ways, their essays created straw men since the current scholarship on Alexander is rarely as narrowly focused as these authors claim from their selective survey of publications. The intersection between political history, textual analysis, and material culture is particularly dense in Macedonia. Other work has explored interactions between Persia, the Balkans, and Macedonia, although she notes that archaeologists are mainly focused on these contacts. The Introduction thus provides an overview and commentary of Macedonian scholarship and how this research affects the study of Philip and Alexander.

Part I, “Argead Monarchy: Image and Practice” collects articles that explore the presentation of rulers and their families to audiences at home in Macedonia and abroad. Topics like women and basileia, an examination of the Philippeion at Olympia, and the tombs at Vergina raise issues that have expanded in light of archaeological discoveries since they were originally published. Evidence of elite and royal females in burials and sanctuaries has persuaded some that women (at least the elites) occupied a different, more public role than women in central and southern Greece. The increase in the repertoire of burials stocked with metal grave goods and elaborate tombs has led archaeologists to question what a “royal” burial looks like, a query that Carney had already asked in the 1990s (reprinted here as Chapter 5). One way to approach the issue is to take a closer look at specific elements of burials, such as whether differences in materials (silver vs. bronze vessels) rather than the number of grave gifts or size of the tomb distinguishes royal from elites. Carney’s Afterwords describe the arguments in various archaeological and historical analyses of the evidence.

Another benefit to this collection of articles is the chance to consider the individual subjects that Carney treats in a thematic way. Part II, “Conspiracies, Real and Alleged” and Part III, “Life at Court” work particularly well when read together, as long as the reader is prepared to enter a world filled with wealth, suspicion, intense competition for royal attention, sexual assault, and aspersions on personal honor. Court activities such as hunting and symposia and the institution of the basilikoi paides were intended to strengthen the bonds between king and elite. However, Carney shows that all of these high-profile situations held the potential for danger to those involved. Dishonor through social exclusion or physical assault that was witnessed and discussed by the court emerges as a motivation for attacks on the king. By reading these chapters together, the repeated references to rape and sexual violence at the court surface as a subject that merits further attention as threats to elite male honor. In the Afterword of Chapter 9 (“The Politics of Polygamy: Olympias, Alexander, and the Murder of Philip”), Carney writes that, “A refusal to talk about male rape, specifically gang rape of a male, a marked tendency to euphemism and avoidance characterized virtually all previous work” (p. 189). In her view, Philip II had violated his obligation to protect Pausanias’s honor and that was likely the cause of Philip’s assassination. A king’s public slights to his companions and court could have real consequences to ruler and subject. Alexander may well have been paranoid, but these articles argue convincingly that they really were out to get him.

The Afterwords to this group of articles are particularly rich in commentary on scholarship concerning these topics. The discussion of bibliography on Cleitus’s murder (Chapter 7) illustrates many ways that scholars have sought to understand Alexander’s behavior through interpretation of his drinking, possible PTSD, the influence of Roman experience with conspiracies on the sources, among others. Other Afterwords show comparable breadth in research on Macedonia and Alexander, reinforcing the multidisciplinary approaches that Carney described in her Introduction. Symposia and hunts include comparisons to Attic and Persian practices, and throughout, she lists research that returns to the important question of the impact of Roman culture on the ancient authors who write about Alexander. It is clear from several of her comments that she continues to reassess the Roman context of several sources, but she also counters some of these objections with reference to Diodorus and to the archaeological evidence.

To sum up, the collection of articles presented in this volume speaks to a clear and important theme concerning the ruling Argead clan and the expectations of the Macedonian elite. Carney has long sought to convince us that kings cannot be assessed without considering their closest companions, and the scholarly debates that she reports in the Afterword essays show how significant her work has been over the past forty years. This volume will offer my students more opportunity to delve into the family, friends, and enemies of Philip and Alexander.

Table of Contents

1. Women and Basileia : Legitimacy and Female Political Action in Macedonia
2. Macedonians and Mutiny: Discipline and Indiscipline in the Army of Philip and Alexander
3. The Philippeum, Women, and the Formation of a Dynastic Image
4. Tomb I at Vergina and the Meaning of the Great Tumulus as a Historical Monument
5. Were the Tombs Under the Great Tumulus at Vergina Royal?
6. Alexander the Lyncestian: The Disloyal Opposition
7. The Death of Cleitus
8. Regicide in Macedonia
9. The Politics of Polygamy: Olympias, Alexander, and the Murder of Philip
10. Elite Education and High Culture in Macedonia
11. The Role of the Basilikoi Paides at the Argead Court
12. Symposia and the Macedonian Elite: The Unmixed Life
13. Hunting and the Macedonian Elite: Sharing the Rivalry of the Chase (Arrian 4.13.1)


1. See Elizabeth D. Carney, Women and Monarchy in Macedonia (University of Oklahoma Press, Norman 2000) and Arsinoë of Egypt and Macedon: A Royal Life (Oxford University Press, Oxford 2013) BMCR 2013.09.54

2. Jonathan M. Hall, Artifact and Artifice. Classical Archaeology and the Ancient Historian (University of Chicago Press, Chicago 2014) presumably appeared too late for Carney’s consideration in this volume. In Chapter 6: The Tombs at Vergina, he also assess the archaeological and historical interpretations of the tombs, although he is less explicit than Carney about the disciplinary idiosyncrasies that have influenced these interpretations.