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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.

Marble head of Philip Arridaeus? Museo Nazionale, Napoli (Italy).
Philip Arridaeus? (Museo archeologico nazionale, Napoli; !!!)

After Alexander

When Alexander the Great had left Macedonia to conquer the Achaemenid Empire, he had appointed Antipater as his viceroy. This officer remained supreme commander of the Macedonian forces in Europe after the death of the king (11 June 323), even though a courtier named Perdiccas became regent of the new ruler of the Macedonian empire, Alexander's half-brother Philip III Arridaeus, who was mentally unfit to rule.

Perdiccas' regency was short-lived. One of Alexander's generals, Ptolemy, had become satrap of Egypt and ignored Arridaeus and Philip. And when the two last-mentioned decided to restore order in the south-west of the empire that Alexander had acquitted, Perdiccas was assassinated by his own officers, somewhere on the banks of the river Nile. After this event, it was almost certain that the Macedonian empire would fall into pieces. Antipater, who was in the position to negotiate a deal between the rival factions (the Triparadisus settlement), accepted the regency and took the royal family with him to Europe. He left Antigonus Monophthalmus in charge of the Macedonian forces in Asia.

The story of the next twenty years is very complex (for the details, go here). For our purposes, it is sufficient to know that Antipater died soon after his return to Europe (probably in the autumn of 319; text), and that he left the Macedonian royal family in the hands of an officer named Polyperchon. Although he was the new regent, he was no match for Cassander, a son of Antipater who claimed and obtained his father's position as de facto ruler of Macedonia and the Greek world. During his coup, king Philip Arridaeus was killed (text), leaving Alexander IV, the son of Alexander the Great, as only surviving member of the Argead dynasty. The boy was killed soon afterwards (text).

Macedonia was exhausted after the Persian war, and compared to the other successors of Alexander, Cassander refrained from war as much as possible. One of his successes was gaining control of Athens, where he disbanded the democracy and appointed Demetrius of Phaleron (a student of Aristotle of Stagira) as governor. Other towns were garrisoned. This may have stabilized the region. Cassander also did his best to improve the economy, and founded important cities like Cassandria (formerly known as Potideia) and Thessalonica, which he named after his wife, a sister of Alexander the Great.

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Early history
After Alexander
The Roman Age
emetrius with bull's horns, the symbol of the sea-god Poseidon. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (United States). Photo Marco Prins.
Demetrius with bull's horns, the symbol of the sea-god Poseidon (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)
Things took a turn for the worse when the son of Antigonus, Demetrius, liberated Athens (307; text). Cassander rapidly lost control of Greece, and at one point was even confronted with an invasion from the south. The armies of Demetrius and Cassander faced each other for some time in 302, but it soon became apparent that another war zone, Anatolia, was more important. Demetrius joined his father at Ipsus in Phrygia, and Cassander sent troops to Lysimachus, the ruler of Thrace, who had invaded Anatolia. Another general, Seleucus, appeared on the scene too, and in 301, Antigonus and Demetrius were defeated. The result was that Asia was to be divided between Seleucus and Ptolemy of Egypt.

For a while, Cassander's control of Macedonia seemed secure, but he was unable to recover Greece. In 298, he died. Only a few people mourned the man who had massacred the Macedonian royal house and garrisoned Greece. There was confusion about the succession, and Demetrius was able to get himself recognized him as king (294; text).

For six years, he controlled Macedonia and a large part of Greece, but then, his subjects revolted. It is not known why, but it is tempting to suppose that they were shocked by Demetrius' forced conscription, which must have been a disappointment after the quiet last years of Cassander. Demetrius now installed his son Antigonus Gonatas as governor of Greece, and decided to launch an all-out attack on the east. If he could defeat Seleucus, he could reach the eastern parts of the known world, gather troops, and return with a large force. It was a gamble, and few will have been surprised by its failure (285).

The next years were chaotic. Lysimachus of Thrace and king Pyrrhus of Epirus tried to intervene, an adventurer named Ptolemy Keraunos was able to seize power, but was defeated when the Galatians -a Celtic tribe- invaded Thrace, Macedonia, and Greece. In the end, Antigonus Gonatas, the son of Demetrius, seized power in Macedonia and founded a new dynasty.
Demetrius I Poliorcetes
Antigonus II Gonatas
Demetrius II
Antigonus III Doson
Philip V

The great wars were now over, but peace was a rare thing in the ancient world. Antigonus Gonatas had to defend himself against Pyrrhus (who was killed in action in 272) and was faced by a large insurrection in Greece. During this Chremonidian War, Athens and Sparta, supported by king Ptolemy II Philadelphus of Egypt, tried to expel the Macedonians, but in the end, Antigonus kept what he had. However, the Greeks had learned that they had to create federations of city states to defend themselves with more success. The Achaean and Aetolian leagues were to become important factors during the next decades.

After the reign of Demetrius II (239-229), Antigonus III Doson became king. During his reign, the Spartan king Cleomenes III tried to restore his city's fortunes, and the people of the towns in the Achaean League felt threatened. They invited Antigonus to rescue them. At Sellasia, north of Sparta, Cleomenes was defeated. Sparta was occupied, Arcadia became part of Antigonus' possessions, and when the king died, Macedonia resembled a superpower again.

The battlefield of Pydna and Mount Olympus. Photo Jona Lendering.
The battlefield of Pydna and Mount Olympus (background)

The Roman age

Antigonus' adopted son Philip V really believed that he was as powerful as his namesake Philip II, and made a disastrous mistake when in 215 he signed a treaty with Hannibal Barca, the Carthaginian general who was successfully fighting against Rome. Philip promised that he would attack Rome's Illyrian province, and Hannibal hoped that this would distract Rome's attention from the Italian theater of operations. This was a serious mistake. The Romans were able to ward off the Macedonian attack, and -worse- were able to turn to the tables when the Aetolian League became their ally. Other Greek towns and states followed, and it soon became clear that Philip would never be able to help Hannibal. In 205, the Peace of Phoenice put an end to the First Macedonian War.

When Hannibal had been defeated, Rome wanted revenge. During the Second Macedonian War (200-196), Philip witnessed the destruction of all that he owned. In 197, the Roman legions of Flaminius defeated the Macedonian phalanx in the battle of Cynoscephalae: a severe blow for the prestige of Macedonia. Nor was this the end of Philip's humiliation. The Romans retreated their troops and created a power vacuum that the Seleucid king Antiochus III the Great could not leave empty. This gave Rome the motive to invade the Aegean region again, and this time, Philip was even forced to act as ally.

A coin of one of the four Macedonian republics. Bode-Museum, Berlin (Germany). Photo Jona Lendering.
A coin of one of the four Macedonian republics (Bode-Museum, Berlin)

His son Perseus inherited a strained relation to Rome, but was able to gain support in Greece. The Romans, however, had decided to isolate and destroy him. In 171, war broke out, and in the third year, Lucius Aemilius Paullus defeated Perseus in the Battle of Pydna. Macedonia was cut into four republics, with Amphipolis, Thessaloniki, Pella, and Heraclea in Lyncestis as capitals. The final blow came in 148, when the Romans finally annexed Macedonia, added southern Illyria (capital: Apollonia), and transformed it into a tax-paying province. Greece followed two years later.

The new province was developed carefully. A road, the Via Egnatia, was built and connected Apollonia with the capitals of the former republics. Later, this road was continued to Byzantium. Macedonia was important, because it protected the wealthy Aegean provinces against raids from northern tribes. At the same time, Macedonia was midway between Italy and rich territories of the east, and it comes as no surprise that several important battles during the Roman civil wars were fought in this province: in the battle of Pharsalus, Julius Caesar defeated his enemy Pompey the Great (48), and in the battle of Philippi, Marc Antony and Octavian defeated the assassins of Caesar, Brutus and Cassius (42).

During the Roman empire this giant province was divided. Once the country south of the Danube had been pacified, Moesia and Thrace became independent. During the reforms of the reign of Diocletian (284-305), Macedonia received the rank of diocese. In the territory of the old province, the new provinces Macedonia I (capital: Thessalonica), Macedonia II (Stoboi), Thessalia (Larisa), and Epirus Nova (Dyrrhachaeum) were created, to which Achaea and Creta were added.

After the battle of Adrianopel, in which the Visigoths defeated the Roman emperor Valens (378), the invaders were allowed to settle in Macedonia, which suffered badly. Still, Thessalonica remained an important city, guarded by the Second Flavian legion Constantia, and Macedonia continued to export cereals and timber. The emperor Justinian (527-565) repaired many buildings and forts, but was unable to prevent that at the end of the sixth century, Macedonia was invaded by Avars and Slavic tribes, who reached Thessalonica, were repelled, returned, and finally settled down.

Three flags: Europe, Greece, Macedonia.

Appendix: the Macedonian question

In the nineteenth century, the power of the Ottoman empire on the Balkan peninsula was in decline and new kingdoms like Serbia, Greece, and Bulgaria, came into being. They all claimed the area that was known as Macedonia, which was usually described as inhabited by Bulgarians, although there were local nationalists who stressed that the Macedonians were an independent nation. After the Balkan Wars (1912-1914), the country was carved up between the three states and the Serbian and Greek authorities launched harsh policies to change the ethnic composition of the land they had conquered. For example, the "Slavophone Greeks" of Thessalonica were restricted in their cultural activities, sometimes forced to resettle, and replaced by Greeks who had been forced to leave their ancestral towns in the west of Turkey.

After the Second World War, Serbia was the most powerful state in the Yugoslav federation, and the Yugoslav leader Tito tried to counterbalance Serbia's hegemony by giving Macedonia some autonomy, arguing that the Macedonians were an ancient nation and were no Serbs. (In other words, Tito recognized that the earlier policy of forced Serbianization had failed.) Another motive was Tito's hope to incite a revolt in Greek Macedonia, which might result in the annexation of Thessalonica as Yugoslavia's southern port. (The city itself, which had been an important center of Judaism, had suffered from mass deportations, and Tito may have thought that seizing an almost empty city would be easy.) Although Greece was divided by civil war, Tito soon discovered that the Greeks had thoroughly hellenized their part of Macedonia.

During the Cold War, Yugoslavia tried to remain out of the conflict between East and West. Bulgaria, however, was part of the Soviet Alliance, and every time the relations between Sofia and Belgrade deteriorated, anti-Yugoslav propaganda was directed at the Yugoslav republic of Macedonia by the Bulgarians. They also stressed that the inhabitants were no Serbs. As a result of all this, nationalist ideas that had existed among some early twentieth-century Slavs living in Macedonia, were kept alive.

Like all nationalists of all nations in the world, those in Macedonia had thought about the origin of their nation. Of course they had a Slavic heritage, which meant that they were related to the Bulgarians and Serbs, and had -according to most scholars- settled on the Balkan peninsula in the Early Middle Ages. However, the Macedonian nationalists claimed that the Slavs had always lived on the southern Balkans, and they sought arguments to prove that the language spoken by the ancient Macedonians was in fact an early form of Slavic. These ideas were -to put it mildly- highly controversial, and were disputed by historians from modern Greece, who claimed that the ancient Macedonians spoke Greek (cf. our discussion above).

After the end of the Cold War, Yugoslavia disintegrated and in 1991, its southernmost republic became independent. This would not have caused great problems, but the new state demanded an outlet to the sea and already printed banknotes with the White Tower of Thessalonica. These territorial claims were not appreciated in Greece, and a major diplomatic crisis started, in which the Greeks claimed that Macedonia had been Greek for the past 3,000 years. As late as 2008, seventeen years later, Greece vetoed Macedonian membership of the NATO, but generally speaking, the conflict has lost much of its heat.

Summing up: there are nationalists in the former Yugoslav republic who claim that their ancient ancestors spoke some sort of Slavic, and conclude that therefore, modern Macedonia can lay territorial claims to all parts of ancient Macedonia; and there are Greeks who say that the ancient Macedonians spoke Greek. Greece has not made territorial claims.

Probably, both the Slavonic Macedonians and the Greeks claim too much. As we have already seen above, there is no evidence that the ancient Macedonians spoke a language related to Slavonic Macedonian, and there is no evidence that the Macedonians were regarded as Greeks before the reign of Alexander the Great.


... to professor Ruijgh, who discussed the Macedonian language with me but died before he could see this article, and to Gerard Boter, who offered many suggestions to improve this article.
Jona Lendering 2005
Revised: 22 April 2006

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