A brave new Greek world

Main photo: The statue of Alexander the Great on his famous horse Bucephalus, located on the waterfront of Thessaloniki. (© Mentor in Greece)

Ancient Macedonia was endowed with abundant natural resources. There were fertile plains with navigable rivers extending far to the interior. The alluvial soil was perfectly suited to the cultivation of grain and fruit trees, or the raising of horses and cattle. Dense forests produced quality timber for naval vessels (silver fir was light and highly prized). The hills were covered with vineyards, the coastal regions with olive trees. Gold and silver mines were soon brought under Macedonian control too. It was a blessed region, but for the longest time, it remained in relative obscurity, while Athens, Sparta, and Thebes ruled the city-states of southern Greece.

And then, suddenly, it all changed. Under the inspired leadership of Philip II and his son Alexander, Macedonia became a powerful kingdom that defeated the Persian Empire and brought Greek culture to the borders of India. “Alexander the Great and the Hellenistic Age” is a 14-day Study Abroad program that invites students to explore the most important centers of ancient Macedonia as they walk on the footsteps of Alexander the Great, his energetic father, his ambitious (and mysterious) mother, and Aristotle, his tutor. We will visit Mount Olympus, home to the Twelve Gods, where we will discover the essential Greek character of the ancient Macedonians and their contribution to the creation of the Hellenistic world. Finally, we will study the rise of Roman influence in Greece and the long process that culminated in the disastrous defeat of the last Macedonian king by the Roman legions.

Map of Alexander the Great’s empire and his route (© Mentor in Greece)

The first city of Macedonia

Aegae (Αἰγαί) is the old Macedonian capital. The name is derived from a Greek word meaning “the place with many herds”. From its humble origins, based on the possession and use of land, Aegae evolved into the royal seat of power, where kings enjoyed unprecedented levels of luxury and comfort. All traditional ceremonies and great political events took place here. Philip II built a magnificent palace that became an archetype for subsequent Hellenistic royal residences. And when he was murdered, he was buried in the royal necropolis inside a golden coffin. The discovery of his tomb by Manolis Andronikos transformed our understanding of Macedonian history and art.

The royal burial cluster of Philip II (© Museum of the Royal Tombs of Aigae)

The birthplace of kings

King Archelaus I selected Pella, an old port, to become the new capital of Macedonia. He invited the greatest painter of his time to decorate the palace, while famous poets and playwrights entertained the king and his guests. Philip and Alexander the Great were born here. During the Hellenistic period, Pella became the wealthiest and most populous city in Macedonia. Unlike most other Greek cities at the time, houses in Pella had individual piped water supply and wastewater disposal systems. The wealthiest residents could decorate their mansions with spectacular mosaic floors.

The new Archaeological Museum of Pella (© AUDO architects)

The tomb of Amphipolis

Amphipolis was a port with great strategic and economic importance. The army and fleet of Alexander the Great assembled here in preparation for the invasion of the Persian Empire. Three of his most famous admirals were born in Amphipolis, while his wife and his young son were murdered here. The town was famous for the Lion of Amphipolis, a large tomb sculpture in honor of an important general of Alexander. In 2012, though, archaeologists unearthed a large tomb within the biggest burial mound in Greece. The tomb was protected by two sphinxes, the roof is supported by Caryatids, and the floor is adorned with a magnificent pebble mosaic depicting the abduction of Persephone by Hades.

The Abduction of Persephone by Pluto (© Greek Ministry of Culture)

Gold for all

Philip II aspired to become the leader of the Greek world but wars and influence cost money. The major sources of silver and gold at the time were outside the borders of Macedonia, but he embarked on an ambitious expansionist policy that soon brought him to Krenides, a town established by colonists from the island of Thasos. Philip conquered the city and renamed it after him. Philippi allowed him to control the neighboring gold mines and significantly increased his revenue. His gold coins soon became the backbone of the international market in goods. The town rose to prominence once more in 42 BCE, when Octavian and Mark Antony defeated the assassins of Julius Caesar on the plain west of Philippi.

The UNESCO World Heritage site of Philippi (© Mentor in Greece)

Stagira

Stagira is the birthplace of Aristotle, the famous ancient Greek philosopher. The city had a tumultuous past that included occupation by the Persians, and a siege by the Athenians under the leadership of the notorious rabble-rouser Cleon. Philip II destroyed the city and sold the survivors into slavery. When the time came for Philip to select a tutor for his son, Alexander, he sent for the famous philosopher. Aristotle agreed when he discovered the fee he would receive; Philip brought back all the survivors from the siege of Stageira and resettled the city.

Victory celebrations

The natural beauty of the archaeological park of Dion is almost beyond belief. The ancient city is built in a landscape full of soaring trees and babbling brooks. Meandering paths allow you to explore the sanctuaries of Isis (where water is used to replicate the river Nile) and Demeter, theaters, and public baths with elaborate mosaic floors. Dion was the most sacred site of the ancient Macedonians, the place where the kings celebrated the beginning of the New Year at the end of September and held victory celebrations. To this day we can see the shields dedicated by Alexander the Great on his first major victory against the Persians at the Granicus River.

The Archaeological Park of Dion (© Constantine Emmanouilidi)

The home of the gods

Mount Olympus is the highest mountain in Greece. According to Greek mythology, it was home of the twelve gods, among whom Zeus ruled supreme. Its name is considered of pre-Greek origin, but Greeks were so fond of this mountain that they chose the name for the loftiest local elevation wherever they settled. The original Mount Olympus became the first Greek national park in 1938 and is noted for its rich flora. Surprisingly, it was only in 1913 that climbers managed to reach the summit.

Mount Olympus (© Mentor in Greece)

When two worlds combine

Thessaloniki was founded by the King Cassander of Macedonia, who named it after his wife, a half-sister of Alexander the Great. The Romans realized the town’s strategic importance and made it the capital of the province of Macedonia. It grew to become the second city of the Byzantine Empire in terms of population and wealth. The city is richly endowed with monuments from the Roman and Byzantine periods, including splendid palaces and churches with mosaics of imperial beauty. The Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki is full of gold diadems and wreaths, as well as silver vases, testaments to the glory, power, and wealth of ancient Macedonia.

The Derveni Krater, late 4th century BCE, at the Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki (© AMTH)

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Alexander the Great & the Hellenistic period - Mentor
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Alexander the Great & the Hellenistic period – Mentor

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