Does the Greatest Macedonian Rest In the Royal Necropolis at Aigai?
Aigai (known today as Vergina) is an archaeological site situated in northern Greece, not far from the city of Thessaloniki. This was the first capital of the ancient kingdom of Macedon . No doubt, the kingdom’s most famous ruler was Alexander III (more commonly known by his epithet ‘the Great’), whose military campaigns brought him all the way to the Indus River. Although most people are familiar with the Alexander the Great story, few are acquainted with that of Philip II, his father.
It was Philip who laid the foundation for his son’s conquests and some have argued that Philip was a greater ruler than his son. Although the final resting place of Alexander the Great is one of history’s most enduring mysteries, we do know that many of the kingdom’s rulers were buried in Aigai. In fact, Aigai is best known today for its royal tombs , although there are many other archaeological remains at the site as well.
Archaeological site of Aigai capital of Macedon . ( Schohn / Adobe Stock )
The name ‘Macedonian’ is said to have originally meant ‘tall one’ or ‘highlander’. During the 1 st millennium BC, the Macedonians inhabited the northern side of the Mount Olympus, as well as the northern slopes of the Pierian mountains.
The Macedonian capital was Aigai, which may be translated to mean ‘goats’, which is appropriate considering that the main economic activity of the Macedonians during that period was animal husbandry. Aigai is located on a plateau on the eastern foot of the Vérmio Mountains, on the southern edge of the Haliakmon plain, about 75 kilometers (47 miles) to the southwest of Thessaloniki, the second largest city of Greece.
The Archaeological Site of Aigai
The archaeological evidence suggests that the site of Aigai was inhabited by human beings as early as the 3 rd millennium BC, during the Early Bronze Age. Aigai continued to thrive during the Early Iron Age, i.e. between the 11 th and 8 th centuries BC, and its population swelled. Aigai reached its zenith during the Archaic and Classical periods, i.e. between the 7 th and 5 th centuries BC. During this time, the city prospered, became the most important urban center in the area and served as the capital of Macedon.
At the end of the 5 th century BC, however, Aigai lost its status as a royal capital to Pella, as the seat of the Macedonian kings was transferred there. Nevertheless, Aigai still retained its prestige and significance within the kingdom. For instance, the kings of Macedon continued to be buried in the city’s necropolis up until the 2 nd century BC.
Royal Tombs of Aigai, Macedonia, Greece. ( Andrei Nekrassov / Adobe Stock)
The royal necropolis is one of the most important archaeological remains at Aigai. More than 500 tumuli, dating to between the 11 th and 2 nd centuries BC, have been identified, while three royal burial clusters have been excavated by archaeologists over the decades. While Aigai has yet to be completely excavated, other important monuments that have been unearthed include the monumental palace, the city walls, and the theatre.
The first excavations of Aigai were undertaken during the 19 th century by Léon Heuzey, a noted French archaeologist. In 1938, the systematic excavation of the site was initiated by the Archaeological Department of the University of Thessaloniki, under the direction of the Prof. Konstantinos Romaios. With the exception of a short break during the Second World War, the excavations at Aigai have been carried out without interruption up till the present day.
While the grand monuments, including the palace and the theatre, were the first to be excavated and studied, focus has shifted in recent years to the civic areas of the site.
Among the grand monuments of Aigai, it is the tombs of the royal necropolis that are most frequently mentioned. The majority of the early tombs found at the royal necropolis are complex underground structures built of limestone, which are normally topped with a vaulted roof. Viewed from the outside, these tombs resemble earthen mounds.
Another type of tomb found in the necropolis is the temple-shaped tomb, 12 of which have been identified. These tombs followed the subterranean tombs and were constructed using marble and limestone. The tombs of the royal necropolis have also yielded a large amount of grave goods, which are impressive not only in its quantity, but also in its quality.
The grave goods unearthed from the tombs include iron swords, ivory portraits, and miniature art, as well as numerous objects made of gold, silver, and bronze. Some of the grave goods from the tombs are exhibited in the protective shelters over the royal tombs, whereas others are displayed in the Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki.
The grave goods of Philip II. (Vlas2000 / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
One of the most impressive tombs of the royal necropolis is the one said to belong to Philip II of Macedon, the father of Alexander the Great . Philip was born in 382 BC and was a younger son of Amyntas III. Philip had two elder brothers, Alexander II and Perdiccas III, both of whom became king of Macedon, with the latter succeeding the former. Each of them, however, reigned only for a few years, during which the kingdom was faced with the threat of destruction.
The successors of Amyntas had to face many problems – the insubordination of regional vassals, the rising power of Thebes, and an invasion by the Illyrians on the kingdom’s northwest frontier. The two kings were not very successful in dealing with these problems and Perdiccas lost his life in 360/59 BC while campaigning against the Illyrians.
As a result of Perdiccas’ death, Philip became the new king of Macedon. Philip had spent several years as a hostage in Thebes and would have received his military education during that time. As Thebes was one of the foremost Greek cities during that period Philip would have been given the best education possible. By the time Philip returned to Macedon he was more than ready to command the army.
Model of Philip II tomb, ruler of Macedon. (Astaldo~commonswiki / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Philip as Ruler of Aigai
Philip faced challenges from the beginning of his reign. Following Amyntas’ failed campaign, the Illyrians prepared to deal a final blow to the Macedonians. At the same time, another tribe, the Paeonians were ravaging Macedon’s northern border. On top of that, there were two rival claimants to the Macedonian throne, each of whom was supported by a foreign power.
Philip was aware that the Macedonian army was not yet strong enough to face these problems head-on. Therefore, instead of using brute force to deal with these problems the king resorted to diplomacy. Having paid off the Illyrians and Paeonians, Philip made a treaty with Athens, promising to cede Amphipolis to them.
This gave Philip the time he needed to strengthen his army. Drawing from what he had learned in Thebes, Philip reorganized the Macedonian army, improving its tactics and training. Moreover, it is presumed that during this initial phase, the famous Macedonian sarissa was developed. This was a pike that was about 4-6 meters (13-20 feet) in length, about one and a half times longer than the spears used by the Greeks.
Macedonian sarissa. The sarissa is much longer then the spears used by the Greeks. (Bucephala / Public Domain )
A year after ascending the Macedonian throne, Philip was ready to face his enemies. He invaded Paeonia and then defeated the Illyrians, thus eliminating Macedon’s hostile neighbors in the north. In the following year, Philip married Olympias, the Molossian princess of Epirus. He also married Phila of Elymiotis, a Macedonian princess, and Audata of Illyria. These marriages were political in nature and were aimed at securing the kingdom’s western frontier.
In the east, Philip broke his treaty with Athens and captured Amphipolis for himself. Although this move antagonized the Athenians, it gave the Macedonians a number of advantages. Firstly, the city controlled the river Strymon, which flowed through forests that supplied timber for building ships. Additionally, the city controlled the road from Macedon to Thrace. Lastly, and most importantly, there were gold and silver mines in Thrace. In 356 BC, Philip founded the city of Philippi (originally a Thasian colony known as Crenides), from which the Macedonians mined the gold and silver from Mount Pangaeum.
The Athenians were furious with Philip’s treachery and a ‘war for Amphipolis’ that lasted 10 years broke out. While there was not battle at Amphipolis itself between the Macedonians and Athenians, the two sides fought in other parts of the Greek world. For instance, Philip attacked the allies of Athens, and the Athenians, despite their naval supremacy, could do nothing to save them.
The Macedonians also participated in the Third Sacred War, during which the Amphictyonic League went to war against the Phocians for the control of Delphi. The Macedonians sided with the Amphictyonic League which was headed by Thebes.
The Macedonians fought for control of Delphi. The ruins of ancient Delphi. (Fingalo / CC BY-SA 2.0 )
One of the major battles during the Third Sacred War was the Battle of Crocus Field, which was fought in 353/2 BC between the Macedonians and the Phocians. The Macedonians decisively defeated the Phocians and Philip was rewarded by being appointed archon of the Thessalian League. This was a unique appointment, as the Macedonians were considered outsiders in relation to the other Greek city states, yet he had been given leadership over a Greek confederation. This position also gave Philip control over the revenues of the League and made him the commander of the united Thessalian army, thus strengthening Macedon further.
The Third Sacred War lasted from 356 BC to 346 BC, at the end of which the Phocians were defeated and Philip’s power had grown considerably. In the years following the war Philip continued to intervene in Greek affairs, though diplomacy was his weapon of choice.
The rise of Macedon was perceived as a threat by Athens and in 340 BC the Athenians declared war against Macedon. At that time Philip was besieging the cities of Perinthus and Byzantium, which had been Macedon’s allies but were now reconsidering their position.
When the king heard of Athens’ declaration of war, he lifted the siege and marched his army south to deal with the Athenians. The dominant power in Central Greece was Thebes, an ally of Macedon, and Philip was hoping to arrive in Attica by passing through their territory.
Bust of Philip II of Macedon. (Fotogeniss / Public Domain )
The Thebans, however, had been become increasingly dissatisfied with the Macedonians. Like the Athenians, the Thebans saw the ascent of Macedon as a threat to their own supremacy. Moreover, the Thebans were persuaded by the Athenian orator, Demosthenes, to turn against the Macedonians. As a consequence, the Thebans and Athenians joined forces to face Philip at the Battle of Chaeronea in 338 BC.
The Greeks were crushed by the Macedonians and were incapable of offering any further resistance. After the battle, Philip dispatched his son, Alexander, to Athens to negotiate peace. In return for ending hostilities and for sparing their cities Philip demanded the vanquished Greeks pledge their allegiance to him. In addition, they were to provide Philip with troops and money to for his planned war with the Persian Empire. This was the establishment of the League of Corinth.
Philip Dreams of Conquering the Persian Empire
Now that Philip had established Macedonian hegemony over Greece, he was prepared to pursue his dream of invading the Persian Empire . In the same year that the League of Corinth was established, Philip announced his program for a war with Persia. In the following year, 336 BC, an advance force of the Macedonian army crossed into Asia Minor . The main army was to follow shortly, with Philip at its head and the Greeks with him. Unfortunately, this was not to be, as Philip died on the eve of his planned invasion.
The king was assassinated by a young Macedonian noble by the name of Pausanias during the wedding feast of Alexander I of Epirus and Cleopatra of Macedon (Philip’s daughter). The official explanation is that Pausanias held a grudge against Attalus, the uncle of Cleopatra (Philip’s seventh wife), and was angry at Philip for denying his justice. Ancient authors have speculated on a conspiracy behind the assassination and commonly place the blame on Alexander and his mother Olympias, who had the most to gain from Philip’s death. Unsurprisingly, such a sensational story has survived and is still being told today.
Map of the Kingdom of Macedon at the death of Philip II in 336 BC. (Hogweard / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
As Philip did not live to see his dream fulfilled, the task of taking on the might of the Persian Empire fell on the shoulders of his son, Alexander, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Philip’s Final Return to Aigai
Philip was entombed in the royal necropolis of Aigai where his ancestors were buried. In 1977/8, the three ‘Great Tombs of the Royal Tumulus at Vergina’ were excavated by the Greek archaeologist Manolis Andronikos. It was announced to the world that Tomb II belonged to Philip.
One of the pieces of evidence used to support this claim is a pair of greaves (armor that protected the legs) that are of different lengths. This showed that the armor was custom-made for a person who had legs of different lengths.
In more recent times, the claim has been reassessed and it has been argued that Philip was in fact buried in Tomb I . The leg bone of the male in Tomb I is shown to have sustained an injury which would have left its owner crippled for life. This would have agreed with the ancient sources, which state that Philip was injured in his leg during a dispute with the Thracian tribe of Triballi regarding the spoils of war from his campaign against the Scythians.
Tomb I also contained the remains of a young woman (about 18 years of age), identified as Philip’s seventh wife, Cleopatra, and an infant child. It has also been claimed that Tomb II contained the remains of Philip III Arrhidaeus (an elder half-brother of Alexander the Great) and his wife, Eurydice. This claim, however, is not accepted by everyone and a refutation has been made based on the skeletons that were found in the tomb.
Finally, it may be mentioned that royal women were buried in the necropolis as well, the most famous of which belonging to the so-called ‘Lady of Aigai’. This tomb was found intact and contains the richest female burial from the Macedonian period that we know of today. The exact identity of the ‘Lady’ is unknown, though scholars believe that she was Eurydice, the wife of Amyntas I.
Funerary ornaments of an aristocratic lady of Aigai, the earliest capital of ancient Macedon Greek 9th century BC. (Mary Harrch / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 )
Needless to say, the grave goods include a large amount of gold, including a face mask, a strap diadem, earrings, and necklace beads. Bronze vessels and a large number of clay figurines were also found in the tomb. Apart from the ‘Lady of Aigai’, other Macedonian royal women found buried in the royal necropolis include those of Eurydice, the mother of Philip II, and Thessaloniki, Philip II’s daughter.
Top image: The tomb of Philip II of Macedon at the Museum of the Royal Tombs in Macedonian Aigai, Vergina . Source: Public Domain
By Wu Mingren
Ephorate of Antiquities of Imathia - Museum of the Royal Tombs of Aigai. 2012. Aigai. [Online] Available at: https://www.aigai.gr/en
Griffith, G. 2018. Philip II. [Online] Available at: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Philip-II-king-of-Macedonia
Hickman, K. 2017. Wars of the Alexander the Great: Battle of Chaeronea. [Online] Available at: https://www.thoughtco.com/alexander-the-great-battle-of-chaeronea-2360874
History.com Editors. 2018. Macedonia. [Online] Available at: https://www.history.com/topics/ancient-rome/macedonia
International Publications Ltd. 2017. Archaeological Site of Aigai. [Online] Available at: https://www.gtp.gr/TDirectoryDetails.asp?ID=14599
Kottaridi, A. 2004. The Lady of Aigai. In: Alexander the Great: Treasures from an Epic Era of Hellenism. New York: Alexander S. Onassis Public Benefit Foundation.
Lendering, J. 2019. Philip II of Macedonia. [Online] Available at: https://www.livius.org/articles/person/philip-ii-of-macedonia/
Leonard, J. 2018. Exploring Ancient Macedonia at the Royal Tombs of Aigai-Vergina. [Online] Available at: http://www.greece-is.com/exploring-ancient-macedonia-at-the-royal-tombs-of-aigai-vergina/
Ministry of Culture and Sports. 2012. Aigai. [Online] Available at: http://odysseus.culture.gr/h/3/eh351.jsp?obj_id=2362
Musgrave, J., et al. 2010. The Occupants of Tomb II at Vergina. Why Arrhidaios and Eurydice must be excluded . Int J Med Sci ..
Ninah. 2019. Vergina Royal Tombs & Ancient Aigai. [Online] Available at: https://strollinggreece.com/imathia/vergina-tombs-aigai-greece/
Romeo, N. 2015. Was This Really the Tomb of Alexander the Great's Father?. [Online] Available at: https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2015/07/150720-philip-macedon-alexander-the-great-dad-greece-archaeology/
Swift, L. 2014. Largest ancient tomb found in Greece shows how unique Macedonia was. [Online] Available at: https://theconversation.com/largest-ancient-tomb-found-in-greece-shows-how-unique-macedonia-was-30579
The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. 2015. Verghina. [Online] Available at: https://www.britannica.com/place/Verghina
The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. 2018. Macedonia. [Online] Available at: https://www.britannica.com/place/Macedonia-ancient-kingdom-Europe
UNESCO. 2019. Archaeological Site of Aigai (modern name Vergina). [Online] Available at: https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/780
www.greecehighdefinition.com. 2019. ANCIENT Macedonia: The "Lady of Aigai" Comes to Light - Treasures from an Epic Era of Hellenism. [Online] Available at: https://www.greecehighdefinition.com/blog/2019/5/2/ancient-macedonia-the-lady-of-aigai-comes-to-light-treasures-from-an-epic-era-of-hellenism
You can read here: https://www.pnas.org/content/pnas/early/2015/07/15/1510906112.full.pdf, a paper about the identity of the male occupant of tomb I, in Vergina (Aigai).