History of Ancient Macedonia
It is always exciting to discuss and learn about the history of the ancient civilizations. Today I will tell you about the Macedonians, their origin and the rise of their empire.
When travelling through the Balkans you will encounter the ruins of some of the earliest human civilizations everywhere – settlements from the early neolithic period, Thracian temples, Roman theaters… The southern Balkans are home to some of the first developed civilizations in Europe – the lands of modern Macedonia have been inhabited as early as 7000 BC by a civilization which has left its material culture and agricultural heritage from the neolithic period.
These native local tribes who were of Thracian, Ilyrian and proto-Greek origin were later pushed out of their lands by the Macedonians. Since writing and historiography were introduced in 800 BC in the Greek world, few details are known with certainty for the earlier periods. The knowledge of the more distant past is a subject of legends and mythology.
Who were the Macedonians?
We have all heard of Alexander the Great, we have seen the movies about his glorious empire, but often we know little about the history of the Macedonians. I will start with a little background info: Macedonia as a geographical region consists not only of the territory of the modern-day Republic of Macedonia, but also of the Aegean Macedonia in Greece, and Pirin Macedonia in Bulgaria. The native people of the Balkans are the Thracians and before the coming of the Macedons to these lands, they were called Emathia, named after a Samothracian king.
History doesn’t give us a positive answer on the ethnicity and origin of the ancient Macedonians, but however, one thing is certain: the ancient Macedonians weren’t Greek – they were a distinct nation and proof of this the fact that they were considered Barbarians by the Greeks. The origin of the their name is from the way the Greeks referred to them – Macedons, (Μακεδόνες) which means Tall person or Highlander in ancient Greek. They called themselves Argeads – literally people from Argos, a city in Peloponnesus, south Greece.
A legend tells us that the ancient Macedonians migrated from Argos to the north and settled in Macedonia in 8th or 7th century BC. Just like their origin, the nature of the language they spoke remains a mystery. Only a few hundred words are preserved and not a single major text, because in the Macedonian state Greek was adopted as a Koiné language and in the ultimate years of the Macedonian empire, it was almost entirely replaced by Greek. Most scientists agree that that the Macedonians spoke either a peripheral Greek dialect or a language which is closely related to it – a distinct language of the Hellenic family. Therefore the Macedonians were not Greek, but related to them.
The Kingdom of the Temenidae
As I mentioned above, Karanos, the first king of Macedonia, lead his people north from their homeland to Emathia and conquered the territories of what later became Macedonia – these lands were inhabited by Thracian tribes. The royal family is initially referred to as Temenidae by the Greek scholars – which means successors of Temenus, the king of Argos. In the legend for the founding of Macedonia, Karanos was instructed by the Oracle of Delphi to establish a kingdom in the lands of Emathia: “You should find your kingdom there, where you will find plenty of game and domestic animals…”
All knowledge about the Macedonians from before the time of Alexander I of Macedon (498-454 BC) has a legendary nature. In the early years of the kingdom, it occupied the territories of the geographical region of Aegean Macedonia with Aigai, (today Vergina) as a capital. This is also where the Vergina sun, a symbol of ancient Macedonia, was found in a royal tomb. In the 6th century BC Macedonia had become a vassal state of the First Persian empire which had control over а large part of the Balkans and most Greek states. Macedonia regained its independence during the reign of Alexander I, after the Greko-Persian wars which repulsed the Persian army completely in 449 BC.
The Empire of Alexander the Great
During the reign of Philip II and his son Alexander III of Macedonia started to rapidly extend its territories – for just 25 years Macedonia evolved from a small kingdom to one of the largest empires in history. This success becomes possible thanks to the political strategies of Philip II, many improvements in the equipment of the army – including the use of larger pikes, the development of the Macedonian phalanx (a type of infantry formation) and, off course his diplomatic skills.
In a period of only 7 years (359 – 366 BC) he managed to put a large part of the Greek and Thracian states under the sovereignty of Macedonia. His first military campaigns are against the Iliryans, in the lands to the north up to the Ohrid lake. Once he had control over and established peace over the Greek states, he had started preparing for his largest military campaign – against Persia, but his plans are thwarted by betrayal. At the wedding of his daughter, Cleopatra, he is assassinated by his bodyguard (and rumors at the time said that this was by the order of the Persian emperor).
He is succeeded by Alexander III of Macedon who turned the small Balkan kingdom into an empire and became a legend with his achievements. He had received education by one of the most famous Greek scholars – Aristotle, but most importantly, starting from the age of 16, he was trained to be a military leader and was helping his father in the military campaigns and as a co-ruler. He inherited a strong Macedonian state with a well trained army by his father, but at the time of his father’s death many issues had to be solved – some of the Greek and Thracian states had tried to revolt against the Macedonian authority.
His first military campaign was towards the Balkans, to secure the Northern borders and consolidate his power. In the 13 years of his reign (336–323 BC) he was constantly at war. Once all domestic issues were solved he went on with his army, following the military campaigns of his father, to Asia minor, leaving his father’s trusted general, Antipater as regent to rule in Pellas. He conquered in a short period of time large territories of the Levant and Syria, Persia, Egypt, Assyria and Babylon, reaching Northern India.
He got as far as modern-day Bangladesh, where his army, exhausted by the long military campaigns, refused to go farther east. Unfortunately, in the palace of Babylon, his capital in Asia he suffered an illness, which historians suggest that it may have been malaria or a typhoid fever and in about two weeks he passed away at the age of 32. The legacy of his reign leaves a lasting impact on human history and the stories about his life and achievements are loved by all European nations throughout antiquity and the middle ages.
Decline of Macedonia
After the death of Alexander, the empire started suddenly entering into decline, his death was a shock to the fragile political system which ended in rivalry for between the successors for the throne and ultimately in division of the empire. The states which inherit Alexander’s empire are called Diadochi (meaning successors) and exist independently for a limited period of time. The Indo-Greek kingdoms which last for about 200 years in northwest India are among the interesting examples – they form a unique Hellenistic culture which is following Buddhism. On the Balkans, Macedonia gets limited to roughly to its territories from the time before Philip II.
The last battles of Macedonia are against the rising Roman empire in the 2nd and the 1st century BC in which they are defeated in several wars and lose their sovereignty. With the conquest by Rome the history of the glorious ancient Macedonia ends As the entire Balkans become part of the Roman empire, the population of Macedonia which is already highly hellenized and soon becomes completely assimilated. Just like the Thracians, the ancient Macedonians lose their national identity to become an integral part of the rising new empire.
Modern Macedonians are of South-Slavic origin and have little to do with the ancient inhabitants of these lands. Their history begins in the 6th century, when numerous Slavic tribes and the Bulgars invade and conquer large territories from the Eastern Roman empire.