Sunday, March 09, 2008

Frequently Asked Questions on ancient Macedonia, Part 1

Q1) What were the borders of ancient Macedonia ?

Thucydides (II 99) defined ancient Macedonia as the area extending to the eastw as far as the lands of mountain Paggaion, east of river Strymon, to the south to the Thermaikos Bay, Chalcidice, river Pineios (the border with Thessaly) and the Kambounia mountains, to the north up to (including) the city of Pella, south of the lands of Paeonians, and to the west to the mountains (Pindos, Tymfe etc) that separate Macedonia from Epeiros and ancient Illyria (today's Albania).

Macedonia, as defined by Thucydides, coincides with the region of Macedonia of modern Greece minus some lands of the Chalcidice prefecture.

In later dates the borders of the Macedonian State (that is, the lands ruled by the Macedonian Kings) varied and depending on the circumstances it extended westwards up to the Adriatic Sea, eastwards up to river Evros and beyond, and to the north up to the city of Lychnidon between the lakes of Brygies and Lyhnetis [the translation of some Greek names into English may seem weird. Blame me for this.]. References pointing to the borders of the Macedonian state can be found in Strabo, VII.

The terms Macedonia and Macedonian State may seem analogous to the terms Great Britain and British Empire.

Q2) When did the first hellenic tribes reside in the area later called by them Macedonia?

The first hellenic tribes of Dorians and Achaeoi resided in Macedonia in prehistoric times, first in Emathia near mountain Vermion and later expanded northwards and eastwards to cover the lands outlined in Question 1. Herodotos mentioned that around the 9th century BC the Macedonian State had the city of Aegae as its capital and that either Caranos or Perdikkas was considered the founder of the Macedonian dynasty.

[ Note: The ancient royal city of Aegae is located in modern day Vergine in the Emathia prefecture of Greece. Excavations which began in 1976 by the late Professor Manolis Andronikos revealed that the site of the city was indeed located near Vergina and not near Edessa as many archaeologists, Professor Andronikos included, previously believed. It was Professor N. G. L. Hammond who in 1968 first suggested that Vergina was the place to look for Aegae, a belief peculiar even to himself at that time. The first royal tombs in Vergina were excavated in 1976-1977 and one of them is believed to belong to Philippos II, father of Alexander the Great. ]

According to Herodotos, the Makednoi (Macedonians) who crossed Doris and moved to Peloponnesos were later called Dorians. Since the term Dorians is much more well known than the term Makednoi we shall also use it to identify the latter people in the discussion to follow.

The Dorians who formed the Macedonian state came in contact with the local Pelasgic population whose size was much smaller than the one residing at the sea shores and the islands of Southern Greece. It is for this reason that German Historian K. Belloch considered the Macedonians the purest Greeks of any other part of Greece (Gr. Geschichte, I, 1a, p92). The Dorians(Makednoi) of Macedonia were larger in number than those who moved southwards. This is because those who moved southwards were reduced in number either due to attrition or to settlements in the areas they visited along their movement to Southern Greece.

Such a place of permanent residence for some Makednoi(Dorians) was Doris. When these Dorians (known until then as Makednoi only) moved to Peloponnesos they became known there as Dorians (that is, the people [coming] from Doris).

Q3) What is the meaning of the word 'Macedon'? References.

The word Macedon (Gk: Makedvn) is very likely to come from the greek word 'makednos' first mentioned in Homer's Odyssey (Od. H106), and later by Herodotos, who called 'Makednon eunos' the various Doric tribes among which he included the Macedonians (Her. I.56, VIII.43).

The word 'Makednos' has the meaning of long, tall, and highlander. Some archaeologists believe that the Macedonians were called so because they were tall. Nowadays the meaning of 'highlander' is more prevalent. This is because Macedonians used to live early in prehistoric times in the mountains of Vermio in Greece.

The greek words Macetia (Gk: MAKETIA) and Macetae (Gk: MAKETAI) were also used in early times to identify Macedonia and the Macedonians.

The biblic Hettieim or Kitim and Kitiaioi originate from Maketia and Maketai.

Hesiod in Theogonia, written in the middles of 8th century BC, claimed that Makednos and Magnes who used to live in the lands around mountain Olympos and Pieria were sons of Zeus and Thyias, daughter of Deukalion. This suggests that the other Greeks of that time believed that the Macedonians and Magnetes belonged to the same tribe (a hellenic one).

Hellanikos, who lived at the time of Herodotos, considered Macedon son of Aeolos. Apollodoros considered Macedon son of Lykaon and thus grandson of the king of Argos Pelasgos and Lykaon king of Arcadians whose 50 sons became leaders of various greek tribes. On the other hand Aelianos considered Lykaon, King of Emathia and Pindos, son of Macedon.

Aeschylus, in Iketidai, had the king of Argos Pelasgos boasting that his family was ruling the lands beyond Pindos and Dodoni up to river Strymon (that is including Macedonia, the one part of modern day Greece).

Q4) The Macedonian state until the end of the 6th century BC.

The Macedonians until the 6th century BC lived isolated from the other Greeks a pastoral life known as transhumant pastoralism moving their herds to the mountain pastures in the spring and to the lowland pastures in the winter (see N. G. L. Hammond).

Their language was affected by the way of their life and was not as linguistically developed as that of Athens. Macedonians built their houses on hilltop and well-protected areas and retained the lifestyle of the original Dorians possibly emphasized by the need of intermittent wars needed to preserve their own existence.

A German historian and linguist, O. Hoffmann, considered Macedonians a greek tribe that first lived in the mountains of Pindos then moved towards the lands of river Haliakmon and in some unknown time towards the valley of river Axios.

The first contact between the Macedonians and other Greeks (those of Chalcidice) occurred at the end of the 6th century BC when Amyntas I, father of Alexander I, conquered Anthemounta in Chalcidice. This contact terminates the isolationism of the Macedonian State and signifies a new era of participation in the events taking place in the hellenic world by forging alliances with various city-states, becoming an enemy of other ones, and switching sides, as fit to the interests of the State.

There are some people who advocate the thesis that the Macedonians were not Greek. An English archaeologist, St. Casson, observed that it was difficult to give a definition of what could be considered 'hellenic'. If one, according to him, included in such a definition everything found north or south of the Korinthos bay (in Peloponnesos, Southern Greece) between the 10th and 8th century BC, then Macedonia should be considered greek. The people, according to Casson, living in Macedonia were using the same jewels with those living in Sparta, Olympia, Delphoi, Aegina, and Argos. This at least proves the close relations of the people living in these areas in the first centuries of the 1st millenium BC.

The recent excavations in Vergina confirm the conclusions of Casson for the remaining centuries.

Q5) What were the relations of Macedonia with the other two Greek Kingdoms of Thessaly and Epeiros?

Epeiros, Macedonia and Thessaly were all inhabited by Greek tribes. Epeiros, Macedonia and Thessaly had more in common than any other Greek state. All three were kingdoms [monarchies], a form of government highly disliked by the Greeks in the South [Sparta being a sole exception had two kings]. For Epeiros and Macedonia monarchy was the result of the pastoral life which forced people to live in areas surrounded by mountains and be isolated from the other Greeks.

Despite references by Thucydides that the Epeirotians were not Greek, excavations in Epeiros in the 1950s proved such claims of Thucydides to be totally untrue, since it can now be proved that Molossians, Athamanians, Chaones and Thesprotians and other people living in Epeiros [known collectively as Epeirotians] were Greek, speaking Greek and writing in Greek throughout the lifetime of Thucydides and even before that according to the archaeological evidence found so far.

Ancient Greeks (Iliad P.234) believed that Dodoni in Epeiros was the center of the Hellenic world and that the names Hellas and Hellenes were first given to the people of Epeiros also called Graecoi, the root of the English word 'Greek'. For more details we refer to Aristotle's Meteorologica 352a, 34.

Macedonians were in close contacts with both the Thessalians and the Epeirotians. Marriages among the members of the royal families of the three kingdoms were common. Olympias, mother of Alexander the Great, was a Molossian princess. Molossians believed that the founder of their tribe was Neoptolemos son of homeric Achilles. Macedonians and Epeirotians were many times allies in wars against their common enemy, the Illyrians. Diodoros (XV 13) mentioned that in a single battle following an Illyrian invasion of Macedonia 15,000 Epeirotians were killed, a quite high number, by the Greek standards of that time.

Q6) What were the relations between the Macedonians and the Illyrians?

The Illyrians were Indoeuropeans and used to live in nowadays Albania and the western-northwestern part of the Republic of Skopje. They were not a greek tribe. Nowadays Albanians can be considered descendants of the ancient Illyrians although many other people lived in Illyria in various times (such as Greeks, Latins, Germans, Slavs, and Turks). The modern albanian language seems to have greek elements but these elements were most probably introduced in the older illyrian language during the hellenistic and roman periods and later, in the byzantine times, when Illyrians appeared to be speaking Greek.

Various authors have supported the thesis that Illyrians and Macedonians belonged to the same (non-greek) tribe and spoke the same (non-greek) language. Given that it has been proved beyond any reasonable doubt (see following questions) that the language spoken by ancient Macedonians was a greek dialect such claims are not true. An ancient writer Polyvios (XXVII 8,9) wrote that Macedonians were using translators in their contacts with the Illyrians, which implies that they were not speaking the same language.

Illyrians used to live up to the hellenistic and roman years a primitive life raiding neighboring areas. Raids by Illyrians, whenever they were able to cross the mountain passes, in Macedonia and Epeiros were frequent [See also Question 5]. In the early 4th century BC, when the succession to the Macedonian throne was problematic Illyrians invaded Macedonia and occupied most of the lands of the Macedonian State. They were driven out of the State only with the combined efforts of Macedonians, Epeirotians, Thessalians and the settlers of Chalcidici.

Q7) What was the Macedonian form of government?

It was mentioned in a previous question that the Macedonian State was a kingdom. The form of government reminded that found in Iliad and Odyssey. The rule of the Macedonian king was not absolute and his 'hetairoi', as the Macedonian soldiers were called, were consulting the king sometimes quite vociferously. It was not uncommon even for Alexander the Great to have to convince his Macedonian soldiers for his future actions and to request their approval. The institution of 'hetairoi' had its roots in Homer (Iliad D 204, 532, E 663, Z 170,260) where the Myrmidon soldiers of Achilles were called so.

Q8) What did ancient Greek writers write about Macedonia?

Aeschylus (Iketidai, 250) and Herodotus (V 22) believed that Macedonians were Dorian Greeks. Herodotos claimed that the Macedonians (called at that time Makednoi) who moved to Peloponnesos from Doris were later called Dorians.

[The English translation of the works by Herodotus we use is due to A. D. Godley and published by Harvard University Press in the US, and Willian Heineman Ltd in Great Britain as part of the Loeb Classical Library]

In Herodotus Book I, 56 (page 53) it is mentioned
"These races, Ionian and Dorian, were the foremost in ancient time, the first a Pelasgian and the second an Hellenic people. The Pelasgian stock has never yet left its habitation, the Hellenic has wandered often and afar. For in the days of king Deucalion it inhabited the land of Phthia, then in the time of Dorus son of Hellen the country called Histiaean, under Ossa and Olympus; driven by the Cadmeans from this Histiaean country it settled about Pindus in the parts called Macednian; thence again it migrated to Dryopia, and at last came from Dryopia to Peloponnesos, where it took the name of Dorian".

Elsewhere, VIII-43 (referring to the naval battle in Salamis) Herodotos wrote
"The Peloponnesians that were with the fleet were, firstly, the Lacedaemonians, with sixteen ships, and the Corinthians with the same number of ships as at Atemisium; the Sicyonians furnished fifteen, the Epidaurians ten, the Troezinians five, the people of Hermione three; all these, except the people of Hermione were of Dorian and Macedonian stock, and had last come from Erineus and Pindus and the Dryopian region. The people of Hermione are Dryopians, driven by Heracles and the Malians from the country now called Doris.".

In another passage Herodotos described how the Macedonian state had been founded (VIII,136-138).

There is one passage in Thucydides that descries the Molossians and other Epeirotian tribes among the 'barbarians'. It was proved following the excavations in Epeiros in 1950-1960 that the Molossians and other Epeirotian tribes were Greek, speaking Greek, and writing in Greek well before Thucydides' time. Thus Thucydides was wrong for these tribes. He was also wrong if he claimed, as some translators allege, that Macedonians had not been a greek tribe. Thucydides had also accused the Eurytanes, another Greek tribe, of being barbarians for their bad and improper use of the greek language and their aboriginal customs. The misinterpreted passage of Thucydides is given below. In Thucydides IV,124,1 (Loeb edition by C.F. Smith) the following passage appeared. "The total hellenic force was about three thousand; the cavalry that went with them, Macedonians and Chalcidians, were all told a little less than one thousand, and there was besides a great multitude of barbarians".


This passage is sometimes misinterpreted so that Macedonians and Chalcidians for that matter appear to be considered barbarians by Thucydides. That this is not so can follow from an analysis of this passage. First, no one ever considered the Chalcidians, whose number is added to that of Macedonians, barbarians. Second, Thucydides distinguishes Macedonians and Chalcidians on the one hand and barbarians on the other by using the adjective few (Gk: OLIGVN) for the former and many for the latter (Gk:POLY). These two adjective clearly indicate a contradistinction.

Euripides lived many years and died in Macedonia. Many of his tragedies were written and played while he was in Macedonia. This would have been impossible, had the Macedonians been 'barbarians' (non-Greek). This is because in one of these tragedies, 'Iphigeneia in Aulis', the Greek superiority over the barbarians is emphasized. The following epigram in memory of Euripides which is attributed by some authors to Thucydides may give us more light to the actual beliefs of the people of that time (and possibly Thucydides)


In brief, Macedonia, the land that holds the bones of Euripides is considered part of Greece.

Polyvios (VII 11,4, V 103,9, XVIII, XXXiV 7,13 , VII 9,1 IX 37,7) clearly stated his belief that Macedonia was greek, part of Greece, and considered Achaeans and Macedonians of the same race. The same beliefs were shared by Strabo as well as Titus Livius, to name a few other writers. It is also interesting to note that Polyvios describing the Balkan Peninsula he says that it includes Greece, Illyria and Thrace. One can thus deduce that he includes Macedonia in Greece. Had he not done so, he could have listed her separately.

Plutarchos(Flam. XI) describes Titus Contus Flamininus during the Isthmia celebrations claimed that Macedonia prevented barbarian barbarian attacks against Southern Greece.

Arrhianos' work is full of references to "Macedonia and the other Greece".

Frequently Asked Questions on Macedonia compiled by Alexandros Gerbessiotis

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