Macedonia: ancient landscape and state, situated in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and northern Greece, best known because its king Alexander the Great (r.336-323) conquered the Persian Empire and inaugurated a new period in Greek history.
As we have seen above, the Macedonians spoke a language that shared a part of its vocabulary with Greek and may have shared a part of its development with Thracian and Phrygian. It is not known when those who spoke Macedonian settled in their country, and even less is known about the language that was spoken before their arrival, but it seems that the speakers of Macedonian accepted words from a substrate language.
The settlement of these people between others marks the beginning of the history of Macedonia. Although Homer does not mention the Macedonians as member of the Greek coalition in the Trojan War, his younger contemporary Hesiod presented the Macedonians as related to the Greeks. Outsiders had a similar mixed opinion: the Persians called both nations Yaunâ, distinguishing between those tyaiy paradrayâ ("Greeks across the sea") and those takabarâ ("with sunhats", i.e., Macedonians). An observer in 500 BCE who knew that the Macedonian kings would one day embark upon a policy of hellenization, might have concluded that the Macedonians would one day be assimilated by the Greeks.
This did not happen, however. The Macedonians of the plain became one state with the people of Upper Macedonia, even though the latter spoke other languages or dialects, related to Illyrian and Thracian, and in spite of religious differences. The mountain tribes worshipped snakes, joined in orgiastic cults, and venerated Dionysus, whereas the Macedonians of the plain worshipped Zeus and Heracles. How and why did these two groups become one nation?
We have hardly any written evidence, and what we do have is often biased. Still, it seems that the Persian conquest was the decisive factor. Macedonia had been subdued by Megabazus and since c.512, king Darius I the Great received tribute from Amyntas, the king of Lower Macedonia, who also gave his daughter in marriage to an Achaemenid nobleman. In the Achaemenid royal inscriptions written after this moment (e.g., DNe), Macedonia is mentioned among the Persian subjects.
Twenty years later, the Persian general Mardonius organized Macedonia as one of the regular tax districts of the empire. Darius recognized the Macedonian leader, Amyntas' son Alexander, and may even have awarded him the Persian rank of satrap. Usually, these officials were responsible for more people than just their own nation. For example, the satrap of Lydia was also the ruler of several nearby Greek towns. We may assume that Persian recognition and support gave Alexander a decisive advantage over the mountain tribes that Mardonius had added to his realm. There is little unambiguous proof, but it fits Achaemenid practice.
However this may be, Alexander was a loyal ally of Darius' son Xerxes when he tried to conquer Greece in 480. As is well known, the Persian annexation of Greece was not successful. In 479, the Greeks defeated the army of Mardonius near Plataea. During the next years, the Athenian alliance, the Delian League, expelled the Persians from Europe.
These years were decisive for the development of the Greek and Macedonian self-image. Until then, they had probably seen each other as different but related nations; after 479, relations worsened and two new cultural and ethnic identities started to grow. Darius and Xerxes had grouped the Macedonians of the plain into one political unit with the mountain tribes, and Alexander kept it this way. At the same time, the Greeks, who had only been united by religion, their legendary cooperation during the Trojan War, and their language, started to recognize that they also shared their cooperation in the Persian War. As former allies of Xerxes, the Macedonians could not be Greeks.
Of course, the separate development of Macedonia and the Greek cities did not prevent close ties. Greece needed the timber and cereals that Macedonia exported and Alexander needed support to control the mountain tribes. He tried to deny the increasing differences by calling himself philhellenos ("friend of the Greeks"), and claimed that his dynasty descended from the Greek city of Argos (text), a claim that was recognized by the authorities at the Olympic Games. Still it must be noted that the title philhellenos itself implies that the nation that Alexander represented was not Greek (no Greek king needed to call himself "friend of the Greeks"). Alexander also claimed that he had never been fully loyal to his Persian overlord, but this is contradicted by his behavior during the war, by the marriage alliance, and perhaps - as late as the 460s - by his support of Themistocles, who had been exiled by the Athenians and was on the run to Persia.
When Alexander died in 454, he left behind a kingdom that consisted of the inhabitants of the central plain, of mountain tribes and some territories that Alexander had conquered (or reconquered after they had revolted during the collapse of Persian power). The tribal barons recognized Alexander as their overlord, and although future kings would meet with opposition, the hegemony of the Argead dynasty was never seriously challenged. Macedonia's foreign policy had also been created: it wanted to cooperate with its southern neighbors. A nation was born.