Aegae: Capital of Macedonian Kings

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In 1855, the young French archaeologist Léon Heuzey found the remains of a magnificent palace, concealed under a ruined chapel. The village nearby was called Palatitsia, a name that hints at its former glory. Could this be the palace of the ancient Macedonian kings? In issue #50 Andrew Selkirk told the story of how the tomb of Philip II of Macedon – father to Alexander the Great- was discovered here. Now, he returns to examine the rest of the site.

Ancient Macedonia had two major centres that could be called capitals. The older was Aegae: the burial place of the kings of Macedonia, the site of the palace – the world’s first peristyle building – and of the theatre where Philip II was assassinated, and where his son Alexander took over. However, in the 5th century a new capital was founded at Pella, 40 miles to the east, halfway between Aegae and modern Thessalonika.

The site of Pella has long been well known, but where was Aegae? In 1861, Léon Heuzey excavated his find outside Palatitsia but, unfortunately, misidentified the site’s location in his notes. For a century archaeologists and historians were led astray. It was supposed that Aegae was at Edessa, a charming town on the edge of the hills and centred round a spectacular waterfall. The only trouble was that at Edessa remains from the Macedonian period are conspicuous by their absence.

Meanwhile, Vergina itself was changing – or rather, coming into existence. In 1923, Greece wanted to bring the Greek cities of Asia Minor into its expanding state, provoking Turkey, under Kemal Atatürk, to intervene. Turkish forces roundly defeated the Greek army, the coast of Asia Minor became part of Turkey, and a massive exchange of populations followed. Many Greeks marooned in Turkey were resettled in Greece. A group from the Caucuses and Pontus area arrived in a new town – the amalgamation of two small villages – which was named Vergina. Sadly, the ruined palace was an attractive quarry for cut stone to build their new houses.

It was only in the 1960s that archaeologists began to realise that Vergina must be Aegae. The first to make the identification was the British historian N G L Hammond, a Cambridge classicist, former wartime secret operator and later headmaster of Clifton School. The young Robin Lane Fox, in his pioneering biography of Alexander the Great, agreed with him; as did Manolis Andronikos, the Greek archaeologist who was professor at the Aristotle University at Thessalonika. It was Andronikos who began exploring the great mound which, he argued, must surely be a royal burial place.

The site at Vergina is extensive, but can be divided into two parts.

Glorious dead

A huge burial necropolis has been uncovered here containing over 700 barrows (burial mounds), with more, no doubt, remaining to be discovered.

Cemeteries often tell us interesting stories about the social structure of the town, and how it worked. In particular, we can see Macedonia diverging from the rest of Greece. In the rest of Greece, as democracy took hold, the citizens came to be seen as equals, which led to less spending on funerals and a simplification of the funeral rituals. Macedonia, however, went in the opposite direction with funerals that were ever more elaborate.

This led to the development of the ‘Macedonian’ form of tomb, where the dead after cremation were buried in a splendid vaulted chamber approached down a long passageway that resembled in many ways the Homeric burials of the Mycenaean kings. Over 30 such tombs are now known, many of them in Vergina; and it is at Vergina that the oldest Macedonian tomb so far has been discovered.

The tombs were all arranged in clusters, but three clusters in particular were important enough to be called royal. One, under the great mound containing the tomb of Philip II, has already been discussed (CWA 50). The next most important cluster was the cluster of theQueens, high up by the walls of the town. It contained the richest single burial so far discovered, known as the Lady of Aegae. The burial was reconstructed for the first time at theAshmoleanMuseum, where she was outlined by her gold ornaments and the gold braids that formed part of an elaborate dress, dated to about 500 BC.

Adjacent to it was the Macedonian tomb of Queen Eurydice, 344/343 BC, the mother of Philip II and grandmother of Alexander the Great. The tomb, sadly, had been robbed but it is the earliest known tomb of the Macedonian type: was this whole style yet another invention of Philip II, designed to honour his mother? Next to it was one of the earliest of these Macedonian tombs to be excavated, the tomb of Rhomaios, excavated in 1937, which may have belonged to the granddaughter of Eurydice, Thessalonice, who died in 298 BC.

The third royal cluster is known as the Teminids cluster where 12 tombs, with dates ranging from 570 to 300 BC, have come to light: five pits, six monumental cists, and a Macedonian tomb. Next to and around two of the earliest tombs were the remains of two of the earliest funeral pyres at Aegae, half-melted helmets, swords that had been bent and ritually ‘killed’, and fragments of horses’ bridles – all objects that had been purified by the fire. They offer evidence for continuity of burial customs from Homer’s time.

The graves range in date from the 10th century BC onwards – though most belong from the 7th century onwards. According to history, this is an age before the Greek kings – the Temenids – arrived fromArgos, and the remains are very much of a local style. The geometric and proto-geometric styles that flourished inAthensand centralGreecein the 9th and 8th centuries BC did not penetrate so far north. The cemetery reached its height in 5th and 4th centuries BC whenMacedoniaenjoyed a long succession of royal rulers.

Land of the living

The centre of the extensive town or palace complex lies on higher ground. Three major buildings have been located; of these, the most important is the palace originally located by Heuzey in 1855 and now recognised to be essentially the work of Phillip II. It clearly was intended to demonstrate his magnificence and his claim to be the leader of the Greeks. It is now being extensively restored – largely funded by the EU – ready for a grand opening later in 2012. The palace is huge: indeed it is said to be the second largest building in classical Greece, after the Parthenon inAthens. The importance of the palace is that it is the world’s first peristyle building. Peristyle buildings are the characteristic feature of first Greek and then Roman architecture, where a colonnaded court – often occupied by a garden – forms the main feature of a fine town or country house. The Vergina palace was a peristyle on a grand scale.

At the front, was an elaborate portico – two rooms deep and two stories high, a truly impressive entrance. Passing through, one comes to the huge open courtyard where, it is said, 3,500 people could be seated. On the far side, there are three huge rooms, larger than any other room with an unsupported roof in Classical Greece – or, indeed, in the Ancient World until the Romans invented concrete. The centre is fronted by a row of five pillars opening onto the central courtyard, and was surely the throne room. On either side, there were banqueting halls. There were other banqueting complexes throughout the palace: it has been calculated that there would be room for 224 couches, or more than 400 guests to recline at a meal at any one time. The service rooms were situated in a smaller peristyle behind the palace. Adjacent to the palace was the theatre, famous above all because this was where Philip was actually assassinated. It has been discovered and partly excavated, but now lies overgrown with grass, awaiting restoration when funds become available.

Lap of the gods

A third major site is the rather strange temple complex dedicated to Eukleia. Eukleia, which means ‘of good repute’, is an interesting early example of an ‘abstract noun’ god of the type that later became very fashionable in the Roman period.  The complex at Aegae consists of a rather small temple with a rather large outhouse or stoa attached and a peristyle court to the rear. A large altar and three statue bases stand at the front. Two of these bases have a dedication to Eukleia from Eurydice, the wife of Amyntas III and mother of Philip II.

A fascinating discovery was made recently: a burial in the ditch that surrounds the sanctuary. This was a very rich burial made in a gold box enclosing a magnificent gold wreath of oak leaves and acorns and the bones of a teenage  boy. Who was it? A search in the literature provides a possible answer: Justin’s Epitome of the Philippic History of Pompeius Trogus tells of Heracles, the son of – and possible successor to – Alexander the Great. The teenager was murdered – it is believed in 312 – by the ambitious Cassander, who, according to the text, gave instructions that the corpse should be covered in soil and that no marked grave be left to betray the murder. Cassander, an outsider, eventually did succeed Alexander, but only by murdering all possible rivals. Could it be, then, that this burial is that of Heracles, the last of the Teminid line? Were the remains of Heracles, the last of the Temenid kings, gathered up and buried secretly? The date is right, though Justin says the boy was 14 years old, while these bones belong to a 17-year-old youth. How satisfying it would be to solve this ancient murder mystery!

Aegae continued to flourish throughout the 4th century and into 3rd century BC.  But in 168 BC, the city was conquered by the Romans. It was destroyed by fire and eventually forgotten. The centre was transferred toPella, which thrived throughout the Roman period. Only now is Aegae/Vergina beginning to regain its ancient splendour, once again to become an important centre in the history of the world.

This article can be found in issue 51 of Current World Archaeology.

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