Posts Tagged With: Ian Worthington

Honours Even

In this post I continue my look at Ptolemy I King and Pharaoh of Egypt by Ian Worthington. For an explanation of this series, visit the first post here.


… killing Cleitus was a grave error… It was hardly the act of a great general or king: the personal honor that had driven his [i.e Alexander’s] campaigns, and which he expected of others, had long since evaporated.

Worthington is certainly right to call Alexander’s murder of Black Cleitus in 328 BC ‘a grave error’. However, I don’t see the relevancy of this act to Alexander’s status as a general. Great generals become so by winning battles and wars. They don’t become great by behaving  virtuously.

Worthington is on more solid ground when he says that Cleitus’ murder was not the act of a great king. I could not agree more. Kings should be just and merciful to their subjects. Even – especially – to ones who provoke them during drunken quarrels. Of course, they shouldn’t really be getting drunk in the first place.

However, that’s by-the-bye; as usual, I have put in bold the part of the passage that really stuck out for me when I read it.

Worthington presents here the Achillean Alexander: a man driven by ‘personal honor’ who expected others to be similarly honourable. But while I agree with this understanding of the Macedonian king’s character. I question Worthington’s assertion that by the time he killed Cleitus, Alexander’s honour ‘had long since evaporated’.

When? How? The only incident that I can think of that really speaks to this is the Philotas Affair, which took place two years earlier in the summer/Autumn of 330 BC.

But while Philotas’ downfall took place in very murky circumstances that do not reflect well on any of the people who played a major role in it (I think here especially of Hephaestion, Craterus and Coenus who pressed for and conducted the torture of Philotas) I don’t get the impression that it fatally undermined Alexander’s honour.

Had it done so, I think he would have been more concerned about the Macedonians’ supposedly ‘mutinous’ thoughts when they began to ‘pity’ Philotas after his death (see Curtius VII.1.1-4). Instead, the king risked further alienation from his men by bringing Alexander Lyncestis, and the brothers Amyntas and Simmias to trial.

Perhaps the Macedonians were not so fussed about Alexander Lyncestis but Amyntas and Simmias were close friends of Philotas. Their trial would only have put the Macedonians in mind of Philotas whom they now pitied – something that, had he been truly afraid of their ‘mutinous remarks’, Alexander would surely have wanted to avoid. Curtius calls the Philotas Affair and trial of Alexander Lyncestis a time of crisis. It was certainly a difficult time for the king, but not a crisis. Curtius is talking Alexander’s difficulty up for the sake of his narrative.

I’m open to other suggestions on what Worthington means in this passage, but as matters stand, it seems to me that like Curtius with Philotas et al he is simply overstating the effect of Cleitus’ murder on Alexander for the sake of his narrative. The king never lost his honour. It was certainly battered and bruised over the years but even at his death Alexander was acting honourably, and was loved by his men.

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A Motive Force

In this post I continue my look at Ptolemy I King and Pharaoh of Egypt by Ian Worthington. For an explanation of this series, visit the first post here.


The battle [of the Granicus River] was an example of Alexander’s tactical genius, audacity, and daredevil courage. It also exposed his love of fighting for the sake of fighting.

Worthington gives the impression here that the Battle of the Granicus (334 BC) was an unnecessary confrontation. In my view, it was absolutely the reverse. Alexander had no choice but to meet the satrapal army. This is because, if he didn’t, it would pursue him and either wear him down in the rear or force a confrontation at a time and place of its choosing; or else, it would cross the Hellespont to Macedon and take the fight to Antipater.

That was a potential disaster waiting to happen. The viceroy had 12,000 infantry and 1,500 cavalry(1) at his disposal. The sources disagree radically on the size of the satrapal army but in The Generalship of Alexander, J. F. C. Fuller proposes a figure of 10,000 cavalry and 5,000 Greek mercenaries (p.147).

We don’t know how many Persian infantry there were but whatever the figure, it was surely more than 2,000, and therefore enough to put Antipater at a major disadvantage (as if the 8,500 cavalry he was already shipping to the satraps wasn’t enough) should the two sides meet.

If I am correct, the Granicus exposed no more in Alexander than his understanding of the fact that if his war and kingship were to continue he had to face and beat the satrapal army.

Does Worthington’s statement work as a general principle? That’s more difficult to answer. To do the question justice we would have to look at each and every battle that Alexander fought and ask if, in military terms, he needed to fight it. And if he didn’t, why did he?

My first reaction is that yes, Alexander enjoyed fighting, but he did nothing without a motive. If fighting could be avoided then he was perfectly prepared to take that route. We see this when he tried to persuade the Thebans to surrender (Arrian I.8) and when he accepted the surrender of various peoples during the expedition itself.

In the above passage, Ian Worthington’s Alexander is nothing more than a thug, a hooligan or vandal. The real man, however, had ideas and ideals. He fought for revenge, for liberation, for domination; he fought to emulate and surpass his ancestors; he fought for glory. But never, not when it mattered, do I believe he fought just for the sake of fighting.

(1) Arrian The Campaign of Alexander Penguin Classics 1971 Bk. I n.38

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Ptolemy I: Some General Observations

In this post I continue my look at Ptolemy I King and Pharaoh of Egypt by Ian Worthington. For an explanation of this series, visit the first post here.


Ptolemy was not in [Parmenion’s or Antipater’s] league, and even under Alexander was never a general, but it is possible that because of his relationship with Alexander, Philip had him on the Macedonian left wing with the young heir.

Even under Alexander, [Ptolemy] was never a general…

In yesterday’s post, I said that I disagreed with this idea. How can I say that, though, when – as I must admit – I don’t know how a man became a general in Philip’s or Alexander’s army.

But, does anyone?

Ian Worthington is quite sure that Ptolemy was not a general. Frank L. Holt, in Into the Land of Bones, is of a different opinion. Here are some quotes from his book,

Out of the one shaft flowed a fatty substance so strange that the Macedonian general Ptolemy summoned his king and the royal soothsayers.

… the work progressed under the supervision of three Macedonian generals: Ptolemy, Perdiccas, and Leonnatus.

Subsequently, a few of Alexander’s surviving generals felt free to proclaim themselves kings… Ptolemy in Egypt…

So, who’s right? I suspect both and neither. We don’t know; we just don’t know for there is no text that tells us how it happened. This leaves historians free to make up their own minds.

In respect of Ptolemy, Holt says yea, while Worthington says nay. And me? Well, after joining the Royal Bodyguards (Arrian III.27) Ptolemy certainly joined the upper ranks of the Macedonian army. Not long later, he was granted his first independent command (Arr. III.30). In India, he was put in charge of special missions by Alexander (Arr. IV.29) and led a division of the army during the march home (Diodorus XVII.104). These are all the kinds of jobs that I would expect a general to undertake; therefore, while I admit the fragility of my position, I believe whole heartedly that Ptolemy was a general.

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Ptolemy I and the Periphery

Recently, I read Ptolemy I King and Pharaoh of Egypt by Ian Worthington.

How does one write a biography about a person of whom we know almost nothing? Worthington does so by looking at Ptolemy in relation to the events that took place around him; chiefly, Alexander’s expedition (334-323 BC) and the wars of the Successors (323-282 BC).

As I read Ptolemy, I did something I too rarely do and underlined the passages that most interested me. I even wrote a quick note on my mobile phone to remind myself why I had underlined the passage. This post, therefore, and those after, come to you sponsored by the Notes function on the iPhone. Thank you, Apple.

As for this post, and the rest in this little series, I don’t mean to go into the book in depth. Instead, what I would like to do is quote one of the passage that I underlined and share my thoughts regarding it. I will go through the book sequentially.



After Alexander’s death in Babylon in 323, Ptolemy, then about 44 years old, found himself suddenly pitted against Alexander’s generals and satraps when crucial decisions had to be made about the future of the empire. He had largely remained on the periphery of the king’s retinue in Asia, but if the senior staff thought little of him because of his status they were mistaken. [Emphasis mine]
(Ptolemy I p. 3)

For me, this is a very contentious passage, most of all for the statement that I have put in bold.

Firstly, I disagree with the insinuation in line two that Ptolemy was not a general. This is something I shall be coming back to in my next post so I shall leave it hanging for now.

Secondly, and now the line in bold, I reject the notion that Ptolemy was on the periphery of Alexander’s ‘retinue’. For the last seven years, he had been one of the king’s royal bodyguards (the Somotophylakes). As such, and by and bye, he was not just a piece of muscle between Alexander and everyone else; he was an advisor, too. When Alexander wanted counsel, Ptolemy was one of the men he went to.

The idea, therefore, that Ptolemy, lived on the periphery of Alexander’s court is inconceivable to me.

Why does Worthington take this position? I think it is so that he can present Ptolemy as the outsider who made good. He left Macedon a nobody and died not only a king but one of the most brilliant of the Successors. That’s a great story but I don’t believe the record bears it out.


Before finishing, I should say that this will not be the only occasion that I disagree with Worthington. However often I do, though, don’t think that I didn’t enjoy reading his book. I did, and I am very glad that I have this blog to hold a kind-of conversation with it. If we were in a pub, I’d certainly buy Worthington a beer. For now, though, I’ll just say that if you are interested in Alexander’s captains and Successors I would absolutely recommend the book to you.

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