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Athens, Alexander & Ian: An Interview with Professor Ian Worthington

By Danielle Saade

Three undergraduate students had an online interview with Prof. Ian Worthington to discuss his career, highlights and, of course, his opinion on Alexander ‘the-not-so-great’.

If you are an ancient history student interested in Greece and the Classical era, you will already be acquainted with Professor Ian Worthington. Starting at Macquarie University in 2017, Prof. Worthington has brought an array of knowledge and experience to the already esteemed Department of Ancient History. This semester, three undergraduate ancient history students had an online interview with Ian to pick his brains about his career, current research and accomplishments.

Ian as an Undergraduate

As undergraduates, it can be comforting to remember that our Professors were students once too! It was during his years as an undergraduate in England studying Classics, where Ian kindled his passion for Greek history and ancient oratory and rhetoric. Ian pursued these interests when Greek oratory was suggested to him as a topic for his PhD at Monash University in Melbourne. He completed his thesis on the Greek orator, Dinarchus, who wrote in the time of Alexander the Great, thus beginning the journey of Ian and Alexander.

When discussing the beginning of his career, Ian shared some valuable advice: “If something really interests you, you should go for it.” As undergraduates, we might be intimidated by the field that lays before us, but Ian encourages us to pursue our interests.

Ian and Alexander: It’s a Love/Hate Relationship

After completing his thesis, Ian was approached about writing a book on Alexander ‘the Great’. He completed this and was then asked to write another in 2004, to tie in with Oliver Stone’s 2004 film, “Alexander”. When asked what movie depiction of Alexander was his favourite, Ian answered, none. “Who are you going to cast to make it credible?” he continues. In Ian’s unit, ‘Philip II, Alexander the Great and the Macedonian Empire’, he deals with the image of Alexander in pop culture and doubts the capability of casting producers to find a ‘rough-around-the-edges’ actor to fulfil the role of a historically accurate Alexander.

Ian’s opinion on Alexander of Macedon is clear as he explained, “He’s unparalleled in many respects as a military commander but when you start looking at him as a king, as a diplomat, as a statesman, as a man, … a very different Alexander emerges then, one that I don’t think justifies the title ‘great’.” If you have taken one of Ian’s courses, you are familiar with his encouragement to be critical and not to take everything at face value. He elaborates, “Just because someone is called ‘great’, [question] are they really? … What we’re dealing with is the Alexander of legend, we’re not dealing with the historical Alexander.” Prof. Worthington assures us, “there’s no right or wrong answer, as long as students back up their opinions with reading and reasoned argumentation.”

Ian has completed outstanding research on Alexander the Great and his love/hate relationship with the historical figure is famous amongst Macquarie’s history students, but he has also worked on pulling Philip II into history’s centre-stage. Philip II, Ian explains, “who has always lived in the shadow of his more famous son”, established the system from which Alexander profited. “Alexander is a household name… but without his dad, Alexander would certainly not have been great”. Prof. Worthington has authored numerous books and articles on the topic, including his more recent publication in 2014, By the Spear. Philip II, Alexander the Great, and the Rise and Fall of the Macedonian Empire. For a list of further readings on the subject have a look at our recommended readings below.

Some Highlights from a Full Career

Prof. Worthington has achieved many great accolades in his career and adds to the value of the esteemed academics we have here at Macquarie University. One such contribution that attests to this is Ian’s Editorship of Brill’s New Jacoby (BNJ), which he refers to as his “second daughter”. November 2003 was an eventful month for Ian that began with the birth of his first daughter, Rosie, and ten days later his ‘second daughter’ became Brill’s New Jacoby as he accepted his position as Editor-in-Chief. BNJ is a truly massive international research project that involves over 170 academics in 19 countries with over 6,000,000 words published! Ian highlighted that being a part of BNJ has been a big learning experience for him as he has interacted “with so many different people and from so many different backgrounds”. Many postgraduate students might be interested to know that Ian tries to incorporate a lot of early career academics into BNJ to help them establish themselves after their PhD and hopes that they can build a reputation for themselves in this process.

Prof. Worthington highlights his election to the Royal Historical Society in London in 2019 as an honour and stand-out in his career. He also notes the thrill of seeing the relevance of history today, and the interactive discussion he had at the Greek Festival of Sydney in 2019. Ian had spoken on ‘Alexander the Great: Truly Great?’ at the 37th annual Greek Festival of Sydney, sponsored by the Greek Orthodox Community of NSW in Sydney’s Parliament House. The event, Ian explained, generated an amazing dynamic brought by an interested and inquisitive audience. This reveals the highlight of witnessing the relevance of history and the legacy of historical figures, Ian attests that “history is alive today”.

What’s Next?

Prof. Worthington has just finished writing Athens After Empire: A History from Alexander the Great to the Emperor Hadrian, set to be released in 2021. This publication sees Ian’s expertise expand into the Hellenistic age of Greece, spanning approximately 500 years. Being published by Oxford, Ian was recently sent the cover for his new book and we are eagerly waiting for the release.

Another intriguing project that is currently in the works has Prof. Worthington writing about military strategy with his co-author, a decorated US army captain, who is ex-special forces and currently in military intelligence. This new book will focus on what Alexander’s generalship and leadership can teach makers of modern strategy and how relevant it is today. Ian’s co-author is writing from the modern military perspective, while Ian focuses on the ancient. Prof. Worthington explains that although Alexander didn’t have drones, he did work with the most advanced technology for warfare of his time and was an impressive strategist and general. While Alexander can teach us about military strategy, Ian highlights he can also be an example of failed diplomacy at times but that even his failures serve as a lesson. Ian addresses the relevance of history by stating, “no matter how mechanical human warfare gets, you still need diplomacy.” This new book will highlight “the human aspect of generalship” and is more proof of history being alive today. Ian concludes, “bringing Alexander alive today is not just looking at how important he was in history … but about what its relevance is today. What can we learn from it today?”

Acknowledgements

Thank you, Professor Worthington, for taking the time to discuss your career and research with us. It is a privilege to have insight into your interests and opinions as undergraduates and will no doubt help us mould our own.

Further Readings

  • A Historical Commentary on Dinarchus. Rhetoric and Conspiracy in Later Fourth-Century Athens (Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press 1992), hb & pb, pp. xvi & 394

  • Greek Orators Vol. 2, Dinarchus 1 and Hyperides 5 & 6, introduction, Greek text, translation, and commentary (Warminster, Aris & Phillips 1999), hb & pb, pp. xii & 228

  • Alexander the Great: Man and God (London, Pearson 2003), hb, pp. xix & 251 – nominated for the 2004 Criticos Book Prize (UK). Revised & enlarged edition in pb published in 2004, pp. xxiii & 343. Dutch translation published by Bert Bakker (Amsterdam 2004); Serbian translation published by PortaLibris (Beograd 2006); Polish translation published by Ossolineum Publishing House (Warsaw 2008)

  • Philip II of Macedonia (New Haven and London, Yale University Press 2008), hb & pb, pp. xxvi & 303. Greek translation published by Patakis Publishers (Athens 2011); French translation published by Editions Economica (Paris 2012); Russian translation published by Eurasia Publishers (St Petersburg 2013)

  • Demosthenes of Athens and the Fall of Classical Greece (New York, Oxford University Press 2013), hb, pp. xxviii & 382 – nominated for the 2013 Criticos Book Prize (UK). Paperback published in October 2015

  • By the Spear. Philip II, Alexander the Great, and the Rise and Fall of the Macedonian Empire (New York, Oxford University Press 2014), hb, pp. xxi & 388 (‘book of the week’ in The Times (UK), July 26, 2014). Audiobook published by Audible Inc. (2014). Paperback published in November 2016. Chinese translation to be published in 2020

  • Ptolemy I, King and Pharaoh of Egypt (New York, Oxford University Press 2016), hb, pp. xviii & 253

  • Acta of the University of New England International Seminar on Greek and Latin Epigraphy (Bonn, Habelt 1990), pb, pp. iii & 214 = ZPE 83 (1990) pp. 1-214

  • Persuasion: Greek Rhetoric In Action (London, Routledge 1994), hb & pb, pp. xi & 277

  • Ventures Into Greek History. Essays in Honour of N. G. L. Hammond (Oxford, Oxford University Press 1994), hb, pp. xxvi & 401

  • Voice Into Text. Orality and Literacy in Ancient Greece (Leiden, Brill 1996), hb, pp. xiii & 232

  • Demosthenes: Statesman and Orator (London, Routledge 2000), hb & pb, pp. xiv & 289

  • Alexander the Great: A Reader (London, Routledge 2003; repr. 2004) hb & pb, pp. xvi & 332; second, revised and enlarged, edition (2011), hb & pb, pp. xxviii & 420

  • The Blackwell Companion to Greek Rhetoric (Malden, Blackwell 2007), hb & pb, pp. xvi & 616 –– and John Miles Foley, Epea and Grammata: Oral and Written Communication in Ancient Greece (Leiden, Brill 2002), hb, pp. xi & 206 –– and Joseph Roisman, The Blackwell Companion to Ancient Macedonia (Malden, Blackwell 2010), hb, pp. xix & 603

Coming Soon:

  • Athens after Empire: A History from Alexander the Great to the Emperor Hadrian (New York, Oxford University Press: 2021)

  • The Leadership of Alexander the Great, co-author Cpt. M. Ferguson, U.S. Army (under contract with Routledge; delivery: end 2021)


Danielle Saade

Danielle Saade is an undergraduate student at Macquarie University who specialises in Greece, Rome and Late Antiquity. Danielle is a student contributor participating in an internship under the supervision of Professor Ray Laurence for the Ancient History Blog.