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The Sun of Vergina, found in a tomb near Pydna. Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki (Greece). Photo Jona Lendering.

Ancient Macedonia

Macedonia: ancient landscape and state, situated in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and northern Greece, best known because its king Alexander the Great (336-323) conquered the Persian Empire and inaugurated a new period in Greek history. The first part of this article can be found here.

Coin of the Macedonian king Alexandros Philhellenos.
Coin of Alexander of Macedonia (©!!)


As we have seen above, the Macedonians spoke a language that shared a part of its vocabulary with Greek and appears to 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 this 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 Yaun‚, distinguishing between those tyaiy paradray‚ ("Greeks across the sea") and those takabar‚ ("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, 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 (as the Greeks called them). 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. It 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 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 family 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 -as late as the 460's- 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. 

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Early history
After Alexander
The Roman Age
Tombstone of a warrior, last quarter fifth century BCE. Archaeological Museum of Istanbul (Turkey). Photo Jona Lendering.
Tombstone of a Macedonian warrior, last quarter fifth century BCE (Archaeological Museum of Istanbul)

Early history

Greece and Macedonia had been on opposing sides during the Persian war. Other developments acerbated the opposition. As long as Athens ruled the waves, naval commerce was easy and safe, and many towns in the Aegean Sea experienced an economic boom. Athens, Miletus, Argos, and Corinth benefited, but Macedonia, which lacked a good port, did not. (Even Sparta had better access to the interregional trade routes.) Compared to the Greek towns, Macedonia remained a backward land with conservative customs. 

Alexander was succeeded by his son Perdiccas II (454-413). A summary of his foreign policy explains why it took so long for Macedonia to become the superpower that it potentially was: 

  • In 433, he had to fight against Athens, which supported one of his dynastic rivals.
  • In 431, he concluded a peace treaty with Athens but
  • he immediately quarreled with Methone, an Athenian ally. Athens was too occupied with the Archidamian War against Sparta to intervene at full strength.
  • In 429, he had to ward off an attack from the Thracian king Sitalces, who had probably been convinced to attack Macedonia by the Athenian ambassador Hagnon.
  • In 424, Perdiccas supported the Spartan general Brasidas, who in return helped him to strengthen his grip on Lyncestis, one of the western mountain districts; after Brasidas had snatched the strategically important city Amphipolis away from the Athenian alliance (text),
  • Perdiccas concluded an alliance with Athens, but
  • in 418, he allied himself to Argos.
  • But after a couple of years, he joined Athens again.
This means that he revised his position to Athens six times. Perdiccas was, in fact, toying with the Athenians. He needed them because they bought his timber, but he was ready to benefit when they were weak, and certainly wanted to keep them away from Macedonia as far as possible. On the other hand, the Athenians knew that Perdiccas could not afford a full-blown conflict and they had means to manipulate him as well: for example, by supporting rival candidates to the Macedonian throne. 

However, this is only a part of the story. It's only the second half of it. Without any doubt, relations to Greece were equally complex during the first twenty years of Perdiccas' reign. Moreover, similar complex international relations must have existed to the Epirotes in the west, the Illyrians in the northwest, the Paeones in the north, and the Thracians in the east. Only Macedonian kings with special qualities were able to forge their own foreign policy; it was very easy to lose the initiative and become a pawn of foreign powers. 

Fortunately, Perdiccas' successor was every inch as competent as his father and grandfather, even though he abandoned Perdiccas' policy. Archelaus (413-399) preferred to ally himself closer to Athens, which was no longer a superpower after it had incurred the wrath of the Persian king Darius II Nothus, who started to support Sparta in the Ionian War. Archelaus used the profits of the timber and grain trade to improve the Macedonian infrastructure. The historian Thucydides was impressed: 

The forts that are now in Macedonia were built by Archelaus [...], who also built straight roads through the country, reorganized the cavalry, the arming of the infantry, and equipment in general, so as to put the country in a stronger position for war than it had ever been before. 
[History of the Peloponnesian War, 2.100.2; 
tr. Rex Warner]
Archelaus also did his best to adopt the Greek way of life. Even a town in the interior like Aeane became an important city that resembled the poleis of the south. In c.410, the old capital Aegae was replaced as royal residence by Pella, a newly founded city. The Athenian playwrights Euripides and Agathon were invited to Macedonia, and the famous painter Zeuxis also came to Pella. 

Archelaus also organized Olympic Games in Dion, at the foot of the holy mountain Olympus. This is interesting, because it suggests that -even though the king may have won a victory at the "real" Olympics- ordinary Macedonians were not allowed to compete in Olympia, and were, therefore, not recognized as Greeks. This is confirmed by the list of victors at Olympia. A substantial part of which survives and it mentions no ordinary Macedonians until the reign of Alexander the Great

Not even Archelaus' own claim to Greekness went unchallenged. Although an author like Thucydides accepted the king's descent from Argos, his contemporary Thrasymachus of Chalcedon exclaimed: "Must we Greeks become slaves of the barbarian Archelaus?" This was, of course, meant as an insult to a man who had done much to look like a Greek, and we may not take this as evidence that Archelaus' policy had failed. On the contrary, it proves that the Thrasymachus understood Macedonian foreign policy, which in turn shows that Macedonia had become a power that mattered. All the same, it is certain that the Greeks did not know what to think of their increasingly powerful neighbor. 

After the assassination of Archelaus, the Macedonian rulers were not in a position to live up to their claim to be Greek. There was no strong king and the Illyrians, Athenians, Spartans, Thebans, and the Greeks from the nearby Chalcidian League tried to expand their influence in Macedonia. In rapid succession, Orestes (399-396), Aeropus (396-393), Amyntas II and Pausanias (393-392), Amyntas III (393-370), Alexander II (370-368), and Ptolemaeus (368-365) were king. Some of them did not even belong to the Argead dynasty. 

Family tree of the Argead dynasty. Design Jona Lendering.

The barons benefited from the decline of royal power. They may have been able to gain control of the export of cereals and timber, and showed their wealth in splendid tombs. At the same time, they may have started to claim descent from figures of Greek legendary history. For example, the rulers of Lyncestis (a barony in the west of Macedonia) claimed that the Bacchiads of Corinth were their ancestors. Elsewhere, the dynasty that ruled the Epirote Molossians claimed that Achilles was its ancestor, the Enchelei of Illyria did not settle for anyone less than Cadmus, and even as far away as Lavinium in Latium, a sanctuary was dedicated to Aeneas. 

to part three
Jona Lendering © 2005
Revised: 1 April 2006

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