Really Bad Family Values

Tuesday, April 8th, 2014

Family values may be on the decline, but if you want to see some really bad family values, Randall Collins says, look at the ruling classes of ancient Greece, Persia, and the Middle-East:

Specifically, the court of Philip II, King of Macedon, and father of Alexander the Great. It is 338 BC; Alexander is 18 years old, and his father is about to marry another wife, relegating Alexander’s mother Olympias to the background. At the nuptial celebration, the uncle of the new bride, one of Philip’s generals, invites the guests to drink in honor of a new legitimate heir. Alexander shouts: “What do you take me for, a bastard?” and throws a drinking cup in his face. Philip drew a sword to cut down his son, but staggered from all the heavy drinking and fell. Alexander jeered: “This is the man who would pass from Europe to Asia, and he trips passing from couch to couch!” Alexander and his mother went into hiding, she back to the kingdom of Epirus where she was sister of the King. Since Epirus was a politically important ally, advisors patched up the quarrel, and Alexander was allowed back into court.

That was not the end of it. On the eve of Philip’s departure with his army to conquer the Persian empire, while the royal procession paraded the streets with pomp and circumstance, an assassin broke in and killed Philip with a dagger. Olympias and Alexander were suspected, but Philip’s other generals supported Alexander– who already had a reputation as a soldier. Once her son was installed as King, Olympias had her rival’s baby killed, and forced the mother to hang herself; the uncle was sent off with the advance guard to Asia and murdered. Alexander took over the Persian expedition and conquered his way to fame far eclipsing his father.

Father tries to kill son; son and mother are implicated in a plot that kills the father; mother has her rival wife (step-wife? we need a term for these relationships) killed along with her son’s half-brother. No one expressed remorse about any of this, implying that what they did was not considered sinful or immoral. No one was prosecuted, since there was no judiciary other than the King, and under these circumstances possession of power was ten-tenths of the law.

These kinds of events were not unusual in that period. Philip’s predecessor as King of Macedon killed his own step-father, who was his guardian, in order to take sole rule in 365 BC. When he in turn was killed in battle in 359 BC, his son and rightful heir was a child; so Philip, an uncle, was appointed guardian. Soon after, he deposed his nephew and became King in his own right. The child was lucky to be left alive (as far as we know). There was not a lot of sentimental attachment in these families. Philip probably never had seen the boy, since he had been dispatched as a youth to be a hostage in another Greek state (Thebes), a typical procedure when alliances and treaties were made between states that didn’t trust each other. Philip’s take-over did not go uncontested; another pretender to the Macedonian throne– i.e. another relative of these convoluted royal families– had been living in exile, and the foreign power that hosted him (Athens) sent a fleet to try to put a friendly ruler on the throne, but failed. All quite normal; Philip took advantage of yet another pretender, his own half-brother who was sheltered by a nearby state, to declare war on it and enlarge his conquests.

Notice that no one disputes the importance of the family. Legitimate rule is passed along as family inheritance: family members fight over the inheritance (sounds familiar today?) Matters are exacerbated because these states are unstable; borders are changing, conquests are made and lost; alliances and federations are created and torn apart. In this situation, in most states there are factions who are in and others who have been thrown out. Prominent members of the outs go into exile, where they are happily received by some other state ready to use them as pawns in the struggle to make favorable alliances, or indeed conquests, of their neighbours.


  1. Rollory says:

    This makes the complete chaos of the Roman imperial successions more understandable in context.

    Salic Law was no bad thing.

  2. People often underestimate just what an achievement Medieval civilization was…

  3. Spandrell says:

    I wish they scanned Randall Collins’ brain, Robin Hanson style, fed him history books, and made him write non-stop.

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