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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.

Portrait of Philip, from Welschbillig. Rheinisches Landesmuseum, Trier (Germany). Photo Jona Lendering.
Portrait of Philip, from Welschbillig (Germany). Rheinisches Landesmuseum, Trier.


Macedonia had been plunged into a crisis after the death of Archelaus in 399, but recovered when the young Perdiccas III became king in 365. At first, he appeared as weak as his predecessors, and the Athenians were able to force him to cooperate with them in an attempt to conquer the city of Amphipolis. Once this strategically important city had been captured, however, Perdiccas kept it for himself and broke off the collaboration in a move for which his ancestor Perdiccas II (above) would not have felt ashamed. 

Amphipolis controlled important gold mines, and from now on, the king was a rich man, wealthier than any of the barons of Upper Macedonia. He now had the means to recruit large armies without being dependent on others, and could pursue the hellenization policy that had been initiated by Alexander I (above). Immediately, Perdiccas invited the Athenian Callistratus to reform the Macedonian economy and toll system. He was not the only Athenian who went to the north: Euphraeus, a student of Plato, settled in Pella as court philosopher. However, Perdiccas would not see the edifice for which he had laid the foundations, because in the last weeks of 360, his army was defeated by the Illyrian king Bardylis. The young king was killed in action. 

He was succeeded by his brother Philip II (360-336), who had lived in Thebes and had studied Epaminondas' use of the phalanx. Once Philip had become king, he embarked upon a very efficient policy of conquest. Although he briefly gave up Amphipolis to regain Athenian support and avenge himself upon the Illyrians, he seized the town again at the earliest possible occasion, promised it to the Athenians under the condition that they would give him the port of Pydna, and in the end kept both towns. Like other Greek poleis that Philip captured, they retained some of their autonomy and Greeks in Macedonian service could proudly continue to call themselves after their home towns: Aristotle of Stagira, Callisthenes of Olynthus, Nearchus of Amphipolis

Philip had read the signs of the times. The allies of Athens were about to revolt (the "Social War"; 357-355) and the Athenians were unable to punish the Macedonian king, who proceeded to capture other Greek towns in the neighborhood, improved his army, pacified the Illyrians, allied himself to the Molossians of Epirus (by marrying Olympias), defeated the Thracians and conquered "New Macedonia", intervened in the Third Sacred War (355-346), and gained control of both Thessaly and a vote in the council that controlled the oracle of Delphi (the Amphictiony). Without any doubt, the king of Macedonia had become the most important man in the Greek world. 

The Athenian orator Demosthenes, who hated Philip like the gates of hell, called him a barbarian and tried to win the Greeks for a united anti-Macedonian policy. He could not prevent Philip's capture of the important city of Olynthus (348), however, because other Greeks acquiesced in the rise of Macedonia. Not only was its king allowed a vote in the Amphictiony, but he was also permitted to compete at Olympia.

The Greeks recognized him as "one of us". The attitude is summarized by the orator Isocrates, who tried to convince Philip not to follow up his successes by the conquest of Greece, but to lead the united Greek towns in a war against the barbarian Persians. Isocrates congratulates the king that his ancestors had not tried to become monarchs in Greece, but instead 

left it and devoted themselves to establishing a kingdom in Macedonia; for they knew that the Greeks were not accustomed to put up with monarchies, while the rest [i.e., the non-Greeks] were unable to order their life aright without such a form of government. The result was that [...] their rule was one of quite a different character from the rest; for they alone among the Greeks claimed to rule over a people not of kindred race.
[To Philip, 107-108; 
tr. J. A. Freese; modified]
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The theater of Aegae where king Philip was murdered. Photo Jona Lendering.
The theater of Aegae where king Philip was murdered.
In other words, if Philip proceeded to conquer the Persian barbarians, he was merely continuing the family tradition to conquer nations "not of a kindred race". As it turned out, Philip appreciated the suggestion, but he judged it better to subdue the Greeks first. In 340, he provoked a crisis, and in 338, he mopped up the last Greek resistance in the battle of Chaeronea

At the same time, the Persian king Artaxerxes III Ochus died (text). It was the perfect moment for an Asian expedition, and the Macedonian king forced the Greeks to join a military alliance (the Corinthian League) to attack Persia. However, Philip was assassinated before he could leave (text). The Asian campaign was to be led by his famous son Alexander

Bust of the philosopher and scientist Aristotle. Archaeological Museum, Palermo (Italy). Photo Jona Lendering.
Aristotle (Archaeological 
Museum, Palermo)
The historian Arrian of Nicomedia says that Philip 
found the Macedonians wandering about without resources, many of them clothed in sheepskins and pasturing small flocks in the mountains, defending them with difficulty against the Illyrians, Triballians and neighboring Thracians. He gave the Macedonians cloaks to wear instead of sheepskins, brought them down from the mountains to the plains, and made them a match in war for the neighboring barbarians. He made his subjects city dwellers and civilized them with good laws and customs. He annexed much of Thrace to Macedonia, seized the most favorable coastal towns, opened up the country to commerce, and enabled the Macedonians to exploit your mines undisturbed. 
[Anabasis, 7.9, modified; full text;
tr. M.M. Austin] 
Although this is exaggerated, it is true that during the reign of Philip, Macedonia became a superpower. As a consequence, his crown prince Alexander was educated at an international court, where Macedonians, Greeks (e.g., Nearchus), Thracians, and even a couple of Persians (e.g., Amminapes and Artabazus) appear to have become more or less integrated. Religiously, Macedonia was an open society as well. A town like Aphytis boasted a sanctuary for Ammon, an Egyptian deity. 

Those living in Philip's kingdom could, whatever their ethnicity, join his Companion Cavalry and receive land to maintain their horses. In fact, Philip created a new nobility that he used as a counterweight to the old barons. Still, although Philip was not obsessed with ethnicity, independent military commands were reserved to Macedonians (e.g., Parmenion and Attalus). 

Philip's contemporary, the Greek historian Theopompus of Chios, put it well when he said that "Europe had never seen a man like king Philip, the son of Amyntas," and it is no coincidence that Theopompus called his books on the mid-fourth century BCE the Philippic History. It can be argued that not even Philip's son Alexander the Great has done so much to change the course of Macedonian and Greek history.

Bust of Alexander the Great, from Delos, now in the Louvre, Paris (France). Photo Marco Prins.
Bust of Alexander the Great, from Delos, now in the Louvre.


Alexander had been raised at an international court. One of his teachers had been Aristotle, who had told the crown prince that he should treat the Greeks and Macedonians as his equals, and the Persians who he wanted to conquer as subjects. Alexander followed Aristotle's advice. Although he sacked the Greek city of Thebes (text), he entrusted important commands to Greeks like Erigyius, being more generous to the Greeks than his father had been.

Political reasons played a role. The Asian campaign officially was a panhellenic ("all-Greek") enterprise to punish the Persians for their attack on Greece in 480-479. To some extent, this was empty propaganda - the Macedonians were the last ones who could punish the people they had once loyally supported. On the other hand, Alexander had been educated as a Greek. Accepting the Greeks as equals must have been his natural attitude.

From their side, the Greeks finally opened the Olympic Games to all Macedonians, who were now fully recognized as Greeks. Again, this must have had much to do with politics, but on the other hand, it was hard to deny that the Macedonian kings had hellenized at least the elite of their country, which must have been bilingual and showed sincere interest in Greek culture. And it could not be denied that during the Asian war, Greek and Macedonian interests coincided. Accepting each other must have been uneasy, but was a simple recognition of facts.

In 334, Alexander crossed the Hellespont and started the conquest of the Achaemenid Empire, which was finished by 330, when the last Persian king, Darius III Codomannus, was killed. After this, he conquered modern Uzbekistan and Pakistan, returned, and died in Babylon on 11 June 323. He was succeeded by his brother Philip III Arridaeus. The story is told elsewhere.

For Macedonia, the successes of Alexander had disastrous consequences. He needed many soldiers and repeatedly had to ask for reinforcements, which his governor in Europe, Antipater, was not always able to send. For example, between 333 and 330, Greece was unquiet because the Spartan king Agis III tried to expel the Macedonian garrisons. Antipater needed the soldiers himself. By the end of Alexander's reign, the Macedonian army in Europe was crippled by serious manpower shortage, and after the death of the great conqueror, the Greeks achieved some spectacular successes during their war of liberation, the Lamian War (or "Greek War", as it was called back then). Antipater even needed reinforcements from Asia, led by Craterus, to restore Macedonia's control of Greece.

Another result of Alexander's spectacular conquests was the creation of new kingdoms: the Seleucid Empire in Asia and the Ptolemaic Empire in Egypt and Syria. The military elite of these oversea empires initially tried to retain its Macedonian character. For example, the political body of the European settlers in Babylon was called peliganes, a Macedonian word, and not gerousia, as a Greek would have called it. However, there were simply not enough Macedonians. If the conquerors were to maintain control of their new territories, the Greeks had to have equal rights, which they soon received.

Men like Alexander and his successors, who had received a Greek education and sometimes claimed to descend from legendary Greek heroes, were responsible for the expansion of Greek culture to the east. They accepted the Greeks as partners in rule. At the same time, the Greeks accepted the Macedonians as one of the Greek nations.

What in fact happened was the creation of a new type of Greekness. One was not only born as Greek, but could also become a Greek by accepting a Greek education. The Macedonians were the first ones to be assimilated, but Egyptians, Jews, and Babylonians followed, and later, Romans and Gauls were also accepted as "culture Greeks". This process has a parallel in the loss of political influence, which is the subject of the next part of this article.

to part four
Jona Lendering 2005
Revised: 31 March 2006

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