Macedonia is a historic region that spans parts of northern Greece and the Balkan Peninsula. The ancient kingdom of Macedonia (sometimes called Macedon) was a crossroads between Mediterranean and Balkan civilizations. Macedonia briefly became the largest empire in the world under the reign of Alexander the Great in the fourth century B.C. Since the formation of the Republic of Macedonia in 1991, Macedonians and Greeks have sparred over which country gets to claim the history of ancient Macedonia as its own. As of February 2019, the country is officially known as the Republic of North Macedonia.
Where Is Macedonia?
Macedonia was a small kingdom centered along the Aegean Sea on the northeastern part of the Greek Peninsula.
Greek political power was concentrated in southern city-states such as Athens, Sparta and Thebes, until the Macedonian king Phillip II conquered these areas during the first half of the fourth century B.C.
Phillip II created a federation of Greek states called the League of Corinth or Hellenic League to strengthen his military forces. It was the first time in history that most of the Greek states had joined together as a single political entity.
Ancient Macedon was renowned for its military might. Phillip II introduced a new kind of infantry known as the Macedonian phalanx, in which each soldier carried a long spear (called a sarissa) that was approximately 13 to 20 feet long. The tight formation of the Macedonian phalanx formed a wall of spears, which was considered nearly impenetrable.
Phillip II dreamed of conquering the Persian Empire—the world’s largest at the time. He was assassinated in 336 B.C., in Aigai, the capital city of Macedon, before he could realize his vision. His son, Alexander the Great, one of history’s greatest military minds, came to power and finished the job his father had started.
Alexander The Great
Alexander the Great was known as charismatic, ruthless, brilliant and bloodthirsty. His thirteen-year reign as king of Macedonia changed the course of both European and Asian history.
The Greek philosopher Aristotle tutored the teenage Alexander during Phillip II’s reign. Scholars have attributed Alexander’s diplomatic skills and habit of carrying books with him on his military campaigns to Aristotle’s influence.
Alexander took the throne at age 20 after his father’s assassination. He quickly harnessed the military forces of the Hellenic League, assembling an army of more than 43,000 infantry and 5,500 cavalry.
In 334 B.C., he led the Macedonian army across the narrow straights of the Hellespont (today called the Dardanelles) into northwest Turkey. In one long military campaign that lasted 11 years, he conquered the Persian Empire, making Macedonia the largest, most powerful empire in the world.
Alexander the Great’s Macedonian Empire spanned from Greece to India. He died of unknown causes in 323 B.C. in the ancient city of Babylon, in modern-day Iraq. He was just 32 years old.
Alexander the Great had no direct heirs, and the Macedonian Empire quickly crumbled after his death. Military generals divided up the Macedonian territory in a series of civil wars.
Ancient Greek biographers at the time, including Plutarch, surmised that Alexander had been poisoned, though modern medical historians suggest he may have died of natural causes, which could have included malaria or an abdominal infection (brought on by heavy drinking).
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Macedonian Arts and Sciences
Ancient Macedonia was a culture rich in artistic achievements and scientific advances. Aristotle, considered by some the father of western philosophy, may have composed some of his most important works during the reign of Alexander the Great, including treatises on physics and metaphysics (a branch of philosophy dealing with the nature of reality).
The period after Alexander’s death, known as the Hellenistic Period, was one of extravagance and wealth throughout much of the Greek world. Places of entertainment and leisure, such as parks and theaters, proliferated.
A style of Greek drama called New Comedy became popular. Unlike earlier Greek comedies, which parodied public figures and events, New Comedy focused on the fictional trials of average citizens.
Alexandria, an ancient Egyptian town thought to be founded by Alexander the Great, became a major hub of science during this period as well. Greek mathematician Euclid, who taught in Alexandria, founded the study of geometry with his mathematical treatise The Elements.
In one of the tombs at Aigai, the so-called tomb of Persephone, archaeologists uncovered a wall painting showing Hades’ abduction of Persephone to the underworld. It’s one of few existing depictions of mystic views of the afterlife from this period of Greek history.
Archaeologists began to explore the ancient kingdom of Macedonia in the late 19th century while the region was under the rule of the Ottoman Empire.
Soldiers fighting on the Macedonian Front along the Greek border during World War I uncovered ancient Macedonian artifacts while digging trenches. British and French forces on the Macedonian Front employed archaeologists to work alongside troops in the trenches, occasionally using Bulgarian prisoners of war as workmen for their excavations. They unearthed dozens of prehistoric, Bronze Age burial mounds.
The city of Vergina, in northern Greece, is home to the most important ancient Macedonian archaeological site: the ruins of Aigai. The monumental palace uncovered there is considered one of the biggest, most lavish buildings of ancient Greece with colorful mosaics and elaborate stucco ornamentation.
The site contains more than 500 burial mounds dating from the eleventh to second century B.C.
In 1977, researchers discovered the tombs of four Macedonian kings, including Phillip II, under a burial mound called the Great Tumulus. Scientists matched a massive hole in one of the leg bones uncovered there to a crippling lance wound Phillip had suffered during one of his early military campaigns.
The Republic of Macedonia—a small country on the Balkan Peninsula northwest of Greece—formed in 1991 after declaring independence from Yugoslavia. Macedonians and Greeks have since sparred over who gets to claim the history of ancient Macedonia as its own. In 2019, it changed its name to the Republic of North Macedonia.
Greece considers the dynasties of Phillip II and Alexander the Great to be part of Greek history and has for decades contested the use of a Greek name by the Republic of North Macedonia, a nation whose ethnic majority is Slavic.
Some Greeks feel the use of the name “Macedonia” by its northern neighbor amounts to a territorial claim over Greece’s northern region (also called Macedonia.)
As a result, some international organizations, including the European Union and NATO, prefer to recognize the country as the “Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.”
The Rise of Macedonia and the Conquests of Alexander the Great; The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Achaeological site of Aigai; UNESCO.
Imagining Macedonia in prehistory, ca. 1900 – 1930; Journal of Mediterranean Archaeology.
The Death of Alexander the Great—a spinal twist of fate; Journal of the History of the Neurosciences.
Why Macedonia still has a second name; The Economist.