BMCR 2024.05.06

The last kings of Macedonia and the triumph of Rome

, The last kings of Macedonia and the triumph of Rome. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2023. Pp. 320. ISBN 9780197520055.



This book provides a readable narrative history of the tumultuous reigns of the last Antigonid kings of Macedonia, Philip V and Perseus, painting a sympathetic portrait of able and dynamic monarchs committed to reviving Macedonian power and influence, even as they faced down the far superior power of Rome. Chapter One, “The Kings of Macedonia” provides an introductory overview of the kingdom of Macedonia and its institutions, especially its crack army of heavy cavalry and pikemen. Chapter Two, “Introducing Philip V,” presents us with the young king, although the bulk of the chapter is devoted to dynastic history from Philip II (r. 359-338 BCE) down to the death of Antigonus Doson in 221 BCE and the accession of his teenage nephew Philip V. Chapter Three, “The Social War,” flashes back to Rome’s First Illyrian War (229 BCE), introducing the city as an assertive and undiplomatic player in the grand game of Adriatic geopolitics. Back with the newly diademed Philip, the Social War (220-217 BCE) with Aetolia saw the young king come into his own as a commander, violently remaking his own court by liquidating the courtier Apelles and his supporters.

Chapter Four, “Taking on Rome and the First Macedonian War,” covers the origins of Philip’s first misadventure with Rome (214-205 BCE). Philip himself proved little threat to Italy, as he lacked a substantial war fleet, and turned tail and ran upon his first encounter with a Roman squadron. Chapter Five, “Keeping Calm and Carrying On,” continues the narrative of the First Macedonian War, as Philip fought the Romans and Aetolians to a draw on land. The chapter continues into Philip’s Aegean offensives between 203-201 BCE in Caria and the Hellespont, which were ultimately stymied by the Attalid and Rhodian fleet at Chios and the looming prospect of renewed war with Rome.

Chapter Six, “The Second Macedonian War,” briefly surveys the origins of the conflict, although Worthington does not take any firm position on the matter, quickly proceeding to the war itself, where Philip sought to fight a rotating cast of opposing consuls to a draw. But with Titus Flamininus prorogued and reinforced, Philip risked battle, and Chapter Seven, “Fall of the Phalanx,” centers on the Roman victory at Cynoscephalae (197 BCE), a chaotic encounter in which the tactical organization of the legion provided a decisive advantage. Chapter Eight, “Macedonia Renascent,” examines Philip’s successful policies to rebuild and strengthen the kingdom, even as Rome hampered attempts to expand. The chapter concludes with Philip’s decision to murder his son Demetrius, seen by some in Rome as a preferable successor to Perseus. With Philip’s death in 179 BCE, Chapter Nine, “Perseus: The Last Antigonid,” surveys the reign of Perseus down to 171 BCE, portraying him as an energetic and assertive monarch, who combined a policy of diplomatic engagement with the Greeks with military activity along his extended northern frontier, proving himself adept at projecting both soft and hard power. In Worthington’s analysis, Perseus prepared for a war with Rome that he did not seek, but which came about owing to Roman paranoia concerning the king’s rising stature, further inflamed by the accusations of Eumenes II. Chapter Ten, “The Third Macedonian War,” discusses the first three years of the conflict, as Perseus held his own against successive Roman commanders, including a modest victory at Callinicus (171 BCE). Chapter Eleven, “Dismembering Macedonia,” presents the sudden disaster of the Battle of Pydna (168 BCE), also a chaotic and unplanned action where the legion handily dispatched the phalanx. The abolition of the Macedonian monarchy followed, and Perseus died in captivity. Chapter Twelve, “Andriscus aka Philip VI and the Fourth Macedonian War,” covers the unstable division of Macedonia into four republics, upended by the claims of the pretender in 148 BCE, whose defeat resulted in the final annexation of Macedonia as a Roman province. A short appendix, “‘Fake News’: The Sources on Philip V and Perseus,” critiques negative portrayals of both kings, particularly in Polybius.

The book’s narrative structure is not unuseful, as Philip and Perseus managed the dangerous dynamics of their world one decision and action at a time. But analytically, myopic focus on the Antigonids obscures some broader Hellenistic dynamics. The sad fate of Demetrius is presented in terms of the political and emotional considerations between the two brothers and their father, but this sort of fratricidal dynastic dispute was in fact quite common amongst the Hellenistic dynasties, an unfortunate byproduct of royal polygyny.[1] Worthington quickly dismisses reports (Livy 39.53.3, Plut. Aem. 8.11-12) that the two brothers had different mothers, although it would have been entirely possible for Perseus to be at once considered legitimate and the designated successor (in contrast to what hostile sources say) while also having a deadly rivalry with his younger half-brother. On the military side of things, Worthington idly wonders why Philip did not retool his army to fight in legionary style (he blames general complacency), but overall the evidence suggests that Hellenistic armies did not reform along Roman lines until the 160s BCE, when Pydna confirmed that the legions’ dominance was a clear and decisive trend, although it was virtually impossible for any Hellenistic kingdom to replicate the republic’s deeper military system.[2]

Worthington explicitly states that his overall goal is to rehabilitate Philip and Perseus from the relatively dim portrayal they receive in our sources. But this studied fairmindedness reduces the kings to rather flat and subdued figures. For all his biases and grudges, Polybius renders a portrait of Philip as a fleshed-out and idiosyncratic character, whereas Worthington serves up a surprisingly bland technocrat. Much of the menace and flamboyance that hostile sources assign to Hellenistic kings were traits they deliberately projected and would have hardly wanted softened. When Philip seduced the wife of Aratus the Younger (while both a military ally and houseguest!) or later received Roman ambassadors while roaring drunk, he was engaged in the sort of power moves Hellenistic kings excelled at, even if such acts reeked of poor character to a prim civic elite like Polybius.

Overall, this is a competent and accessible book by a distinguished scholar of Hellenistic Macedonia. It may be enjoyed by a general audience, but also profitably read by undergraduates as a scholarly introduction and graduate students as a brisk refresher to one of the most important, if doomed, dynasties of the Hellenistic world.



[1] Daniel Ogden, Polygamy, Prostitutes and Death: The Hellenistic Dynasties. London: The Classical Press of Wales, 1999.

[2] Nicholas Sekunda, Hellenistic Infantry Reform in the 160s BC. Gdańsk: Foundation for the Development of Gdańsk University, 2001.