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The Vergina Sun, a symbol associated with the Macedonian kingdom

Macedon (or Macedonia from Greek Μακεδονία) in Classical Antiquity was the ancient Greek state of Macedonia, bordering with the Greek state of Epirus on the west and with Thrace on the East. Alexander the Great launched his conquest of Persia and his subsequent conquests of the majority of the then civilized western world from Macedon, resulting in the the Hellenistic period of Greek history.

Early kingdom

Out of the mythical kingdom of Midas a historical Macedonian state under the Argead Dynasty emerged around the late 8th or early 7th century BC. After a brief period of Persian overlordship under Darius Hystaspes, the state regained its independence under King Alexander I (495-450 BC). Prior to the 4th century BC, the kingdom covered a region approximately corresponding to the province of Macedonia of modern Greece.


Under King Philip II of Macedon (359-–336 BC), Macedon expanded into lands formerly belonging to Paionians, Thracians, and Illyrians to incorporate an area including what is currently the Monastir (now Bitola) and Gevgelija districts of what is now the Republic of Macedonia. In Philip's time strong contrasts remained between the cattle-rich coastal plain of Macedon and the fierce isolated tribal mountain clans, allied to the king by marriage ties. They controlled the passes through which barbarian invasions came from Illyria to the north and northwest.

In this time, Macedon became more politically involved with the south-central city-states of Ancient Greece, but it also retained more archaic features like the palace-culture, first at Aegae (modern Vergina) then at Pella, resembling Mycenaean culture more than classic Hellenic city-states, and other archaic customs, like Philip's multiple wives in addition to his Epirote queen Olympias, mother of Alexander.

Another archaic remnant was the very persistence of a de jure hereditary monarchy wielding formidable power, which was at times absolute, although variously checked by the landed aristocracy, and often disturbed by power struggles within the royal family itself. This contrasts with: the ubiquitous city-states with their more-or-less democratic institutions; the de facto monarchy of tyrants, in which heredity was usually more of an ambition rather than the accepted rule; and the limited, predominantly military and sacerdotal, power of the twin hereditary Spartan kings. The same might have held true of feudal institutions like serfdom, which may have persisted in Macedon well into historical time, whereas they had been abolished by city-states several centuries ago (most notably by the Athenian legislator Solon's famous seisachtheia laws).

Philip's son Alexander III (the Great) (336-–323 BC) managed to briefly extend Macedon power not only over the central Greek city-states, but also to the Persian empire, including Egypt and lands as far east as the fringes of India.

Alexander's adoption of the styles of government of the conquered territories was counterbalanced by the spread of Greek culture and learning through his vast empire: although the empire fell apart shortly after his death, his conquests left a lasting legacy, not least in the new cities founded across Persia's western territories, heralding in the Hellenistic period.


In 215 BC Macedon became involved in the first of three wars with the rising power of Rome: defeat in the second (197 BC) and third (168 BC) led to the deposition of the Macedonian dynasty and the establishment of Roman client republics. Andriscuses brief success at reestablishing the monachy in 149 BC was quickly followed by his defeat the next year and the establishment of direct Roman rule and the organization of Macedon as a Roman province.

At the beginning of the Migrations Period the country was devastated and "depopulated" (Hermannus Contractus, ad. a. 263) by Goths and Avars. In the 5th century, when Hesychius of Alexandria collected his Macedonian glosses, there was likely only a small remnant of speakers left. The waves of Slavonic immigration (6th – 7th centuries) resulted in permanent Slavic settlements. In the 9th and 10th centuries the Byzantine Greeks contested for Macedonia with the Bulgars, whose chief Krum (802-–814) controlled central Macedonia, and were pushed back to the coastal region under the brief empire of Simeon I of Bulgaria (893–-927). Byzantine rule revived in western Macedonia under Emperor Basil II; from 1014 Byzantine domination was established for a century and a half.

After the taking of Constantinople in the Fourth Crusade (1204), Latins and Bulgars fought over Macedonia, until it was absorbed in the empire of Nicaea in 1234.


The political organization of the Macedonian kingdom was a three-level pyramid: on the top, the King and the nation, at the foot, the civic organizations (cities and éthnē), and among the two, the districts. The study of these different institutions has been considerably renewed thanks to epigraphy, which has given us the possibility to reread the indications given us by ancient literary sources such as Livy and Polybius. They show that the Macedonian institutions were near to those of the Greek federal states, like the Aetolian and Achaean leagues, whose unity was reinforced by the presence of the king.

The King

The king (Βασιλεύς, Basileús) headed the central administration: he led the kingdom from its capital, Pella, and in his royal palace was conserved the state's archive. He was helped in carrying out his work by the Royal Secretary (βασιλικὸς γραμματεύς, basilikós grammateús), whose work was of primary importance, and by the Council.

The king was commander of the army, head of the Macedonian religion, he directed the diplomacy, only he could conlude treatises, and, till Philip V, mint coins.

The number of civil servants was limited: the king directed his kingdom mostly in an indirect way, supporting himself principally through the local magistrates, the epistates, with whom he constantly kept in touch.


Royal succession in Macedon was hereditary, male, patrilineal and generally respected the principle of primogeniture. There was also an elective element: when the king died, his designed heir, generally but not always the eldest son, had first to be accepted by the council and then presented to the general Assembly to be acclaimed king and obtain the oath of fidelity.

As can be seen, the succession was far from being automatic, more so considering that many Macedonian kings died violently, without having made dispositions for the succession, or having assurred themselves that these would be respected. This can be seen with Perdiccas III, slain by the Illyrians, Philip II assassinated by Pausanias, Alexander the Great, suddenly died of malady, etc. Succession crises are frequent, especially up to the 4th century BC, when the magnate families of Upper Macedonia still cultivated the ambition of overthrowing thae Argaead dynasty and to ascend to the throne.


The king is the simple guardian and administrator of the treasure of Macedon and of the king's incomes (βασιλικά, basiliká), which belong to the Macedonians: and the tributes that come to the kingdom thanks to the treatises with the defeated people also go to the Macedonian people, and not to the king. Even if the king is not accountable for his management of the kingdom's entries, he may feel himself morally resposible so to defend his administration in certain occasions: for example Arrian tells us that during the mutiny of Alexander's soldiers at Opis in 324 BC, Alexander detailed the possessions of his father at his death so to prove he had not abused of his charge.

From Livy and Polybius we are told that the basiliká include the following sources of income:

  • The mines of gold and silver (for example those of the Pangaeus), which are exclusive possession of the king, and which permit him to strike currency, as already said his sole privilege till Philip V, who conceded to cities and districts the right of coinage for the lesser denominations, like bronze.
  • The forests, whose timber is very appreciated by the Greek cities to build their ships: in particular, it is known that Athens made commercial treatises with Macedon in the 5th century BC so to import the timber necessary for the construction and the maintenance of its fleet of war.
  • The royal landed properties, lands that have been annexed to the royal demain trough conquest, and that he exploits either directly, in particular through servile workforce made up of prisoners of war, or indirectly through a leasing system.
  • The port duties on commerce (importation and exportation taxes).

The most common way to exploit these different sources of income is by leasing: the Pseudo-Aristotle reports in the Oeconomica that Amyntas III (or maybe Philip II) doubled the kingdom's port revenues with the help of Callistratus, who had taken refuge in Macedon, bringing them from 20 to 40 talents for year. To do this, the exploitaition of the harbour taxes was given every year at the private offering the highest bidding. We also know from Livy that the mines and the forests were leased for a fixed sum under Philip V, and it appears that the same happened under the Argaead dynasty: from here possibly come the leasing system that was used in Ptolemaic Egypt.

Except for the king's properties, land in Macedon was free: Macedonians were free men and did not pay land taxes on private grounds. Even extraordinary taxes like those payed by the Athenians in times of war did not exist. Even in conditions of ecomic peril, like what happened to Alexander in 334 BC and Perseus in 168 BC, the monarchy did not tax its subjects but raised funds through loans, first of all by his Companions, or rised the cost of the leases.

The king could grant the atelíē (ἀτελίη), a privilege of tax exemption, as Alexander did with those Macedonian familes which had losses in the battle of the Granicus in May 334: they were exempted from paying tribute for leasing royal grounds and commercial taxes.

Extraordinary incomes came from the spoils of war, which were divided between the king and his men. At the time of Philip II and Alexander, this was a considerable source of income. A considerable part of the gold and silver objects taken at the time of the European and Asian campaigns were melted in ingots and then sent to the monetary foundries of Pella and Amphipolis, most active of the kingdom at that time: an estimate judges that during the reign of Alexander only the fundry of Amphipolis struck about 13 million silver tetradrachms.

The Assembly

All the kingdom's citizen-soldiers gather in a popular assembly, which is held at least twice a year, in spring and in autumn, with the opening and the closing of the campaigning season.

This assembly (koinê ekklesia or koinon makedonôn), of the army in times of war, of the people in times of peace, is called by the king and plays a significant role through the acclamation of the kings and capital trials; it can be consulted (without obligation) for the foreign politics (declarations of war, treaties) and for the appointment of high state officials. In the majority of these occasions, the Assembly does nothing but ratify the proposals of a smaller body, the Council. It is also the Assembly which votes the honors, sends embassies, during its two annual meetings. It was abolished by the Romans at the time of their reorganization of Macedonia in 167 BC, to prevent, according to Livy, that a demagogue could make use of it as a mean to revolt against their authority.


The Ancient Macedonian calendar year consisted of 12 synodic Lunar months (i.e. 354 days per year), which necessitated that 7 total embolimoi (intercalary) months be added into each 19-year Metonic cycle.

  • Δίος (Dios, moon of October)
  • Απελλαίος (Apellaios, moon of November, also a Dorian month - Apellaiōn was a Tenian month)
  • Αυδναίος or Αυδηναίος (Audnaios or Audēnaios, moon of December)
  • Περίτιος (Peritios, moon of January)
  • Δύστρος (Dystros, moon of February)
  • Ξανδικός or Ξανθικός (Xandikos or Xanthikos, moon of March)
    • Ξανδικός Εμβόλιμος (Xandikos Embolimos, intercalated 6 times over a 19-year cycle)
  • Αρτεμίσιος or Αρταμίτιος (Artemisios or Artamitios, moon of April, also a Spartan, Rhodian and Epidaurian month - Artemisiōn was an Ionic month)
  • Δαίσιος (Daisios, moon of May)
  • Πάνημος or Πάναμος (Panēmos or Panamos, moon of June, also an Epidaurian, Miletian, Samian and Corinthian month)
  • Λώιος (Lōios, moon of July - Ομολώιος, Homolōios, was an Aetolian, Beotian and Thessalian month)
  • Γορπιαίος (Gorpiaios, moon of August)
  • Υπερβερεταίος (Hyperberetaios, moon of September - Hyperberetos was a Cretan month)
    • Υπερβερεταίος Εμβόλιμος (Hyperberetaios Embolimos, intercalated once over a 19-year cycle)


See main article: Ancient Macedonian language.

The language spoken by the area's inhabitants prior to the 5th century BC, and continued into the early centuries of the Common Era by the rural population, is attested in some hundred words from coin inscriptions and glosses from Hesychius of Alexandria (5th century), as well as some placenames and personal names. The majority of these words can be confidently identified as Greek, and the language was either closely related to Greek, or perhaps even a dialect of Greek. There are words, however, that are not easily identifiable as Greek, a number of which for example show voiced stops where Greek has voicleless aspirates.

There was probably linguistic contact with speakers of Doric Greek (whom Herodotus considered akin to Macedonians, see also Pella katadesmos), and from the 5th century BC Macedonia was closely associated with Southern Greek cultural and political development, resulting in the adaption of the Attic dialect.

Hellenic controversy

The controversy whether or not ancient Macedonia should be considered a Hellenic state is addressed variously: based on ancient sources, and on linguistic evidence. Neither approach is conclusive, Herodotus seems to assert that the Macedonian aristocracy was of Achaean origin while Macedonian people were of Dorian stock. Linguistics seems to point inconclusively to either Macedonian as an archaic form of Greek, Macedonian as part of a Graeco-Macedonian subfamily of Indo-European, or Macedonian as an independent member of the Paleo-Balkan Sprachbund.

Note that the controversy concerns the early kingdom before the time of Philip II exclusively. It is undisputed that Macedon was heavily Atticized from the time of Alexander the Great (see Hellenism).


Herodotus considers the Macedonians a Hellenic tribe left behind during the Dorian invasion:

for during the reign of Deucalion, Phthiotis was the country in which the Hellenes dwelt, but under Dorus, the son of Hellen, they moved to the tract at the base of Ossa and Olympus, which is called Histiaeotis; forced to retire from that region by the Cadmeians, they settled, under the name of Macedonians, in the chain of Pindus. Hence they once more removed and came to Dryopis; and from Dryopis having entered the Peloponnese in this way, they became known as Dorians. (Histories, 1.53.1)

On the other hand, a series of passages in book five of Herodotus' Histories (5:22) indicate to many classical scholars that the Macedonians were customarily excluded from panhellenic events such as the Olympic Games, entry to which apparently was confined to Greeks. The Macedonian aristocracy, however, clearly saw itself as Greek and Macedonian kings were permitted to participate on that basis. This was evidently somewhat controversial: when Alexander I attempted to compete at Olympia, Herodotus relates:

Now that the men of this family [of Alexander I] are Greeks, sprung from Perdiccas, as they themselves affirm, is a thing which I can declare of my own knowledge, and which I will hereafter make plainly evident. That they are so has been already adjudged by those who manage the Pan-Hellenic contest at Olympia. For when Alexander wished to contend in the games, and had come to Olympia with no other view, the Greeks who were about to run against him would have excluded him from the contest- saying that Greeks only were allowed to contend, and not barbarians. But Alexander proved himself to be an Argive, and was distinctly adjudged a Greek; after which he entered the lists for the foot-race, and was drawn to run in the first pair. Thus was this matter settled. (Histories, 5:22)

In book eight, Herodotus counts the allied Macedonians as part of the Greek fleet. Some view this as proof that the Macedonians were considered Hellenes before Philip's conquests and Macedon's rise to power.

Titus Livius (lived 59BC-14AD) in his Ab urbe condita (31.29) is quoting a Macedonian ambassador from the late 3rd century BC, implying that Macedonians had been a Greek-speaking tribe:

The Aetolians, the Acarnanians, the Macedonians, men of the same language, are united or disunited by trivial causes that arise from time to time; with aliens, with barbarians, all Greeks wage and will wage eternal war; for they are enemies by the will of nature, which is eternal, and not from reasons that change from day to day.---


The classification of the ancient Macedonian language is disputed, but it appears that Macedonian has not participated in at least one sound change common to every other known Greek dialect (the unvoicing of voiced aspirates, leading to *Pherenikē as opposed to Macedonian Berenikē). Eugene Borza (1999) concludes that the Macedonians were "a unique people in antiquity who gradually became Hellenized, and who are unrelated to any modern people".

On the other hand, Olivier Masson in the Oxford Classical Dictionary (1996) saw the phonological peculiarities mentioned above as "local pronunciations" due to Macedon's "marginal position" and concluded that Macedonian is "a dialect related to North-West Greek"[1].

The late Nicholas G. L. Hammond, a classicist, also suggested that Macedonian was a Greek dialect:

"What language did these `Macedones' speak? The name itself is Greek in root and in ethnic termination. It probably means `highlanders', and it is comparable to Greek tribal names such as `Orestai' and `Oreitai', mean­ing 'mountain-men'. A reputedly earlier variant, `Maketai', has the same root, which means `high', as in the Greek adjective makednos or the noun mekos... At the turn of the sixth century the Persians described the tribute-paying peoples of their province in Europe, and one of them was the `yauna takabara', which meant `Greeks wearing the hat'. There were Greeks in Greek city-states here and there in the province, but they were of various origins and not distinguished by a common hat. However, the Macedonians wore a dis­tinctive hat, the kausia. We conclude that the Persians believed the Macedonians to be speakers of Greek. Finally, in the latter part of the fifth century a Greek historian, Hellanicus, visited Macedonia and modified Hesiod's genealogy by making Macedon not a cousin, but a son of Aeolus, thus bringing Macedon and his descendants firmly into the Aeolic branch of the Greek-speaking family. Hesiod, Persia, and Hellanicus had no motive for making a false statement about the language of the Macedonians, who were then an obscure and not a powerful people. Their independent testimonies should be accepted as conclusive."

See also


  • Eugene N. Borza: Before Alexander: constructing early Macedonia. Claremont, CA: Regina Books, 1999. Pp. 89. ISBN 0-941690-96-0 (pb)
  • Review by Konrad H. Kinzl (Trent University)
  • Robin Lane Fox, Alexander the Great, 1973
  • Nicholas G. L. Hammond, The Macedonian State, Oxford University Press, 1989, ISBN 0198148836. Pg. 12-13.

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