Macedonia before Alexander

Alexander the Great was not a man to accept limits to his ambition and curiosity. His audacious expedition against the Persians made him ruler of a vast empire. His armies controlled fertile plains, arid deserts, towering mountains, mighty rivers, legendary cities, and countless nations. Alexander, though, seemed unsatisfied. His inquiring mind wanted to know if he had reached the end of the world, so he captured two large white birds. He left them without food for three days, while he fashioned a large bag out of an ox skin.

When everything was ready, Alexander fixed the bag to a wooden yoke tied to the birds’ throats and climbed in. He had two spears in his hands, ten feet long and with a horse’s liver fixed to the point. When he raised the spears skywards, the birds rose into the air as they tried to grab a hold of the liver. Soon Alexander found himself at a great height; the beating wings of the birds caused the air around him to get extremely cold, but his discomfort was alleviated by the spectacular view of the earth beneath him; a tiny circle surrounded by a great snake. Suddenly, a flying man approached him and ordered him to return to earth, otherwise, the birds would devour him. Alexander pointed the spears towards the ground and managed to land exhausted but sated: there would be no more attempts at the impossible for him.

Ancient bestseller

This bizarre story appeared in a 3rd-century BCE collection of legends concerning the life and adventures of Alexander called The Romance of Alexander. The author remains unknown, but the Romance was translated in Latin, Arabic, Persian, Hebrew, Armenian, Syriac, Ethiopic, and various Slavonic and western European languages. It is a testament to the popularity of Alexander among later generations. The outlandish episodes of the Romance have little connection to his actual accomplishments but underscore the incredible transformation of Macedonia from a rural kingdom into a superpower. When Alexander died, the whole world knew about his homeland. But what was life in Macedonia like when nobody cared to look towards this corner of ancient Greece?

Follow the goat

The abundance of details surrounding Alexander’s ascendance to the heavens contrasts sharply with the paucity of specifics regarding the origin of the Macedonians. Herodotus claims that their first king was Perdiccas, a descendant of the first king of Argos in the Peloponnese. He migrated to the mountains of Pindus, where he entered into the service of a local king as a herdsman. According to legend, one of his goats guided him to the foothills of the Pieria Mountains, where he founded a city called Aigai (“place of goats”).

This story seems to confirm that the early Macedonians were transhumant pastoralists in the rich summer pastures of Mount Olympus and the Pierian Mountains. It was a hard life that forced them to defend their flocks against predatory animals and hostile tribes. Eventually, they gained control of the fertile plains of Emathia and Pieria, a land watered by three rivers (Haliacmon, Loudias, Axios) that stood on the crossroads between the Balkan peninsula to the north and the Mediterranean Sea and the Greek city-states to the south. It was a region rich in natural resources; dense forests, extensive plains for farming and grazing, mineral-rich mountain ridges, navigable rivers, and a coastline that facilitated communication and trade with distant peoples.

Wild Macedonia

What did the Macedonians do with their new capital and their control of the plains? Farming became an important occupation but they never really lost their penchant for spending time in the wilderness. Hunting boars and lions remained popular. Kings, in particular, were under pressure to prove their hunting prowess, with the right to recline at a banquet being the reward for spearing a wild boar without the aid of a hunting net. Heavy drinking was encouraged in court, with the Macedonians enjoying their wine undiluted, unlike southern Greeks who always mixed it with water. Weddings basically consisted of cutting a loaf of bread in two, with the groom and the bride each tasting one half.

All the king’s men

The fundamental institutions of the Macedonians recalled the political and social organization of an earlier period. The king oversaw military and religious affairs, while all men who could bear arms selected their ruler among the male offspring of the royal house. The king was surrounded by a select body of hetairoi (companions), who could be members of the aristocracy or commoners, provided they demonstrated their loyalty and friendship towards him. They formed the royal bodyguard in times of war and served the king according to his wishes in times of peace. In return, they received land and other gifts that established a reciprocal bond reminiscent of the Mycenaean period.

Unlike most southern Greeks, the Macedonians placed great value in martial skills and often went about their business armed. Their clothes were made from leather and they sported heavy jewelry. Slavery was relatively unknown among them, while the royal institution was entrenched, unlike the fiercely independent democratic or oligarchic city-states south of the Thermopylae.

Gods and language

The official language of the court was Greek, at least by the mid-fourth century BCE. Many soldiers, though, spoke a dialect that was largely unintelligible to southern Greeks, even though it was part of the ancient Greek language. Some Macedonians were bilingual since they were in constant contact with neighboring peoples such as Illyrians, Thracians, and Paeonians. The earlier local populations remained in their ancestral lands, so the communities of Macedonia were a hodgepodge of languages, traditions, and religions. The Macedonians worshipped the twelve gods of Olympus, but they also took care to appease Sabazios, the horseman and sky father god of the Thracians.

The neighbors

What did southern Greeks know about their northern neighbors? The Thessalians, immediate neighbors of the Macedonians south of Mount Olympus, engaged in trade with them, while rival factions often sought their assistance against their aristocratic enemies. Greeks further to the south were far less likely to take an interest in the happenings in Aigai. Homer is indifferent towards the inhabitants of the land between Mount Olympus and the River Axios. His Catalogue of Ships makes no reference to any warriors from Macedonia joining either the Greeks or the Trojans. Hesiod, on the other hand, claims that Macedon was the son of Zeus and delighted in horses. Hellanicus believes that Macedon was the son of Aeolus, the ancestor of the Aeolian Greeks (thus further reinforcing the argument that the Macedonians spoke a Greek dialect).

The three major classical Greek historians only deal with Macedonia in a perfunctory way. Their main concern seems to be events where the Macedonians find themselves involved in the struggles of the city-states. Herodotus presents King Alexander I as sympathetic to the Greeks but unable to resist the advance of the Persian army through his territories. There are stories about the Argive origin of the Macedonian royal house, as well as exotic tales about wild roses with 60 petals and the freezing cold of the Vermio Mountains that prevented birds from flying over them. Thucydides narrates various campaigns of King Perdiccas II and admires the military and administrative achievements of Archelaus I that laid the foundations for the rapid expansion of Macedonian power. Xenophon focuses on the struggle of King Amyntas III to secure his kingdom against internal and external enemies.

It was the accession of Philip II in 359 BCE that made the history of Macedonia an integral part of Greek history. As his power increased, the Macedonians burst forth from the confines of their land and became a power no city-state and no king could ignore. Macedonia had finally arrived on the world stage and its future kings would reach for the sky.

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The World of Alexander - Mentor - Study abroad in Greece
Link to The World of Alexander – Mentor – Study abroad in Greece

The World of Alexander – Mentor – Study abroad in Greece

Study abroad for a panoramic view of Alexander the Great’s life and legacy. Develop an understanding of the nexus between geography and imperialism in Alexander’s military accomplishments that resulted in the creation of a grand empire spanning Egypt, Asia Minor, Mesopotamia and India.


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