On Tuesday (10-3), I traveled to Aegae (modern Vergina), the original capital of Macedon and the famous site of the Macedonian royal tombs.
Since there was no bus route from Thessaloniki to Vergina, I took a bus to Veroia (pronounced “ver-ee-a”), and from Veroia to Vergina.
When I reached Vergina in the early afternoon, I began my visit at the theater and palace, both located in the upper part of the ancient city. While I knew that both would be closed, as they had been on each of my previous visits, I also knew that it would be nice to admire them even if only from a distance.
Despite its humble appearance, the theater of Aegae ranks as one of the most significant Alexander-related sites in the world.
Here, in 336 B.C., Philip II, Alexander’s father, was assassinated by a royal bodyguard named Pausanias during the wedding celebration of Cleopatra, Philip’s daughter and Alexander’s sister.
The Greek historian Diodorus gives the fullest account of this event to survive from antiquity:
While it was still dark, the multitude of spectators hastened into the theater, and at sunrise the parade formed. Along with lavish display of every sort, Philip included in the procession statues of the twelve gods wrought with great artistry and adorned with a dazzling show of wealth to strike awe in the beholder, and along with these was conducted a thirteenth statue, that of Philip himself, so that the king exhibited himself enthroned among the twelve gods. Every seat in the theater was taken when Philip appeared wearing a white cloak, and by his express orders his bodyguard held away from him and followed only at a distance, since he wanted to show publicly that he was protected by the goodwill of all the Greeks, and had no need of a guard of spearmen … When Philip directed his attending friends to proceed him into the theater, while the guards kept their distance, [Pausanias] saw that the king was left alone, rushed at him, pierced him through his ribs, and stretched him out dead … Such was the end of Philip, who had made himself the greatest of the kings in Europe of his time, and because of the extent of his kingdom had made himself a throned companion of the twelve gods.
(Diodorus 16.92.5-93.1, 94.3, 95.1)
By combining Diodorus’ account with the picture of the theater given above, we can partially visualize what happened on that fateful day in 336 B.C.: in the early morning, a crowd of spectators, both Macedonians and Greeks, took their seats in the theater’s multi-tiered seating area (the area between the low fence and the trees in the upper part of the picture); subsequently, thirteen statues–twelve of the Olympian gods and one of Philip–were carried into the theater and placed in the orchestra (the area between the low fence and the stone wall running through the center of the picture); shortly thereafter, Philip’s entourage, including Alexander, entered the theater ahead of the king, with some perhaps standing in the orchestra and others perhaps taking their seats in the front row; and finally, Philip himself began making his way through the theater’s east entrance (the stone wall surmounted by the gold-colored bush on the left side of the picture), and, somewhere between there and the orchestra, was struck down by Pausanias.
Like the assassination of JFK, the assassination of Philip II has become a major topic of scholarly debate. While some have argued that Pausanias acted alone, his motive being revenge for Philip’s lenient treatment of a Macedonian nobleman who had sexually assaulted him, others have suggested that Olympias, Philip’s wife and Alexander’s mother, and possibly even Alexander himself may have been involved as well. My personal view is that Olympias and Alexander certainly had a motive (i.e, a desire to see Alexander made king and a fear, almost certainly irrational, that the prince was no longer his father’s heir-apparent), but I am less certain that Alexander, at least, would have countenanced such an act given the religious pollution associated with parricide in the ancient world. Whether he was involved or not, though, Alexander proved to be the major beneficiary of his father’s murder: within hours, Alexander was proclaimed king of Macedon, and, within less than two years, was in a position to begin the campaign from which he would go from being Alexander III to being Alexander the Great.
From the theater, I made my way around to the entrance to the palace of Aegae. Here, I had an inspired idea. Noticing that there seemed to be people working at the palace site, I decided to try talking to someone there in the hopes that, given my present Alexander quest and, no less importantly, my ability to explain said quest in Greek, they might make an exception to their strict no-visitor policy. Remarkably, the idea worked. No sooner had I explained to a group of Greek archaeologists and craftsmen who I was and what I was doing in Greece than Charis, one of the leaders of the team, began taking me on a private tour of the palace.
Here is a sample of the photos I took in the course of this tour.
-Courtyard: Located in the center of the palace, the courtyard would originally have been an open-roof area surrounded by a giant colonnade.
-Banqueting Rooms: The palace at Vergina boasts no less than three banqueting rooms (the Macedonians were famous for their heavy drinking, after all!), two of which contain impressive mosaics: one depicting a giant floral pattern and the other the mythological rape of Europa.
-Royal Bedrooms: While I have seen differing opinions about the nature of these rooms, Charis believes that they were the royal bedrooms. If so, then Alexander must have slept here whenever he visited Aegae–a rather mind-boggling thought (!).
Of all the things I learned during this tour, perhaps the most surprising was that the Greek government has spent more money on the palace at Vergina than any other ancient building besides the Parthenon. Though I would never have guessed this, even the quickest glance around the palace made it clear that this was not a cheap endeavor. All over the site, workers were busy not just preserving the ancient ruins, but reconstructing them (e.g., columns, walls, mosaics)–all with the aim of reopening the palace to visitors within a few years.
When the tour ended, I thanked Charis and his co-workers profusely. I could hardly believe my good fortune, not only in being allowed access to the site, but in being given this private tour. While my Alexander adventure is still in its early stages, I can say for certain that this experience was–and will remain–one of its true highlights.
To catch my breath from the high of visiting the palace, I took a break to have a late lunch back in the town of Vergina, a simple picnic of bread, almonds, and bananas. When I felt sufficiently refortified, I continued on to my final stop for the day: the Vergina museum, home of the Macedonian royal tombs.
Discovered in the late 1970’s by the Greek archaeologist Manolis Andronikos, the Macedonian royal tombs provide the most vivid window into Alexander’s world of any surviving source, literary or archaeological. While debate continues to rage over who, exactly, is buried in each of Andronikos’ three main tombs, it is generally believed that two of Alexander’s closest kin are among them: Philip II and Alexander IV, Alexander the Great’s son by his Bactrian (modern Afghani) wife Roxane.
Here is a brief overview of the three tombs (with photos from the Internet, as the museum does not allow visitors to take their own).
Tomb I: The earliest of the three tombs discovered by Andronikos (mid 4th century B.C.), Tomb I has been attributed to several figures, including Philip II and Amyntas III, Philip’s father. The tomb is most famous for its stunning, if severely faded, painting of Hades’ abduction of Persephone.
Tomb II: This is the most famous–and controversial–of the tombs discovered by Andronikos. While some, most notably Andronikos himself, believe that this tomb belongs to Philip II, others hold that it belongs instead to Philip III, Philip II’s son and Alexander’s half-brother. What scholars all agree on, however, is the tomb’s spectacular nature, both in terms of its artistic program and its material remains.
-The Frieze: Depending on the main occupant of Tomb II, the frieze may either depict Alexander the Great (central mounted figure) and Philip II (mounted figure to the right) at a hunt, or Alexander IV (central mounted figure) and Philip III (mounted figure to the right) engaged in the same activity.
-The Larnax and Wreath: The gold vessel that contained the remains of the main occupant of Tomb II, and the gold wreath that crowned his head during the cremation ceremony.
-The Arms and Shield: The marvelous panoply of a king, almost certainly used only for ceremonial purposes. The shield is particularly stunning, containing, as it does, a chryselephantine (gold + ivory) central boss that seems to depict Achilles’ slaying of the Amazon Penthesileia.
-The Ivory Heads: Fragments of a frieze from a ceremonial couch discovered in Tomb II, these two ivory heads may depict Philip II and Alexander the Great. If so, this Alexander head is, I believe, the earliest surviving contemporary portrait of the future world conqueror.
Tomb III: The latest of the tombs discovered by Andronikos (late 4th century B.C.), Tomb III is widely agreed to belong to Alexander IV, Alexander the Great’s son who was murdered by Cassander ca. 310 B.C. Though somewhat less spectacular than Tomb II, Tomb III is still a remarkable discovery, with several stunning features.
-The Painting: The antechamber of the tomb contains a chariot race painting, perhaps an activity that Alexander IV was particularly fond of.
-The Hydria: The silver vessel that contained the remains of the main occupant of Tomb III, most likely Alexander IV, and the gold wreath that crowned his head during the cremation ceremony.
Since I realize I have strained the blogging format to the breaking point with this post, let me conclude with a simple recommendation: if you find yourself feeling even the slightest interest in the Macedonian royal tombs, make sure to visit them in person at some point in your life. Should you do so, you might just have a magical moment like I did this time–sitting completely alone before Tomb II, possible resting place of Philip II, and hearing nothing but the eerily beautiful silence of the intervening millennia.