By Alan Brown
In August 2019, while on holiday in northern Greece, my wife and I took a day trip to the two archaeological sites of Pella and Vergina, once the ancient capitals of Macedonia.
Pella is around 24 miles (38 km) north-west of Thessaloniki in northern Greece. The future Alexander the Great was born here in 356 BC, and he acceded to the throne in 336 BC after the murder of his father, Philip II. Tour guides inform visitors that the name of the city reflects the ancient word ‘pélla’, meaning ‘stone’. Whether this is entirely accurate is a matter of dispute, but there is certainly a great deal of natural stone in the area, most of it grey. In fact, a notable feature of many of Pella’s beautiful floor mosaics (pictured below) is that they are constructed of coloured pebbles and not tesserae or coloured tiles.
Pella became capital of Macedonia under Archelaus I in the late 5th century BC. Its proximity to the Aegean Sea was of greater importance to Archelaus than the malarial swamps nearby and the flat terrain which increased its vulnerability to attack. Archelaus turned this latter weakness into an advantage. The level plains made city planning easier, and high defensive walls were erected that, according to ancient commentators, made Pella the strongest city in Macedonia.
Archelaus was also a great patron of the arts. He hired the finest painters to decorate the walls of official buildings, and a lovely story survives which attests to a nature scene painted by Zeuxis whereby a flock of birds attempted to peck at a bunch of grapes he had depicted, though it would seem that he was outclassed by his rival Parrhasius. Pella also had a magnificent theatre, and this too attracted the greatest playwrights and performers of the age.
Pella’s prestige remained long after the death of Alexander and the dissolution of his empire, but the decline began after the Romans sacked the city in 168 BC. An earthquake then severely damaged the site in 90 BC, and although significant rebuilding took place, the long decline was gathering pace.
However, it is fair to say that Pella today is a rather uninspiring place. Regular visitors to ancient sites have grown accustomed to using their imaginations because most of the domestic ruins rarely exceed a metre in height, but much of Pella’s remains have been reduced to their foundations. Apart from a few Ionic columns flanking the old agora (pictured below), there is very little to catch the eye. It is true that some of the stunning mosaics are still in place, but even these do not really assault the eye with colour despite their elegant construction.
What really makes Pella worthwhile on the tourist’s itinerary is the museum located nearby. The collection here is jaw-dropping. Gallery after gallery is stuffed full of the most exquisite finds excavated in or near Pella in the last 100 years. There is gold almost everywhere. The grave goods of powerful men and women, ordinary household objects, the contents of entire rooms – some still with items of furniture – the weapons and armour of warriors long dead and, of course, a beautiful bust of the man himself, all provide a feast for the eyes.
But if the treasures on display at Pella are breath-taking, they pale when compared to the artefacts in the royal tombs at Vergina 36 miles (58 km) to the south. Vergina (pronounced with a hard ‘g’) was the original capital Aigai of the Macedonians before Archelaus moved it to Pella. Much of the ancient site is now long gone or buried under modern construction, but what makes this place truly spectacular are the phenomenal objects under the nondescript tumulus.
Entrance is made through a short tunnel leading underground, and while our eyes adjust to the reduced lighting we are informed about this unique place and its excavation in 1977 by the Greek archaeologist Manolis Andronikos, a discovery rightly ranked alongside Howard Carter’s spectacular revelation of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922.
If there is gold to be seen at Pella, Vergina eclipses that ten times over. Andronikos found four tombs, two of which were intact. One of these was the burial cluster of Philip II, Alexander’s father, containing the funerary remains of himself and at least two of his queens (probably Meda and Nikissipoli). The other undisturbed tomb was that of Alexander IV, son of Alexander and Roxana, who was murdered aged 14 in the battle for succession.
Photography is officially forbidden in the royal tombs without a research permit, but some images are in the public domain. However, beautiful though these objects are, they cannot convey the atmosphere of this very special place and the sense of wonder when we see them with our own eyes. The craftsmanship is matchless. One can almost sense the reverence with which these people, who died more than three centuries before the birth of Christ, were laid to rest in the darkness for supposed eternity. When we see Philip’s armour, we can easily visualise him wearing it to some great state occasion or into battle. When we see the gorgeous jewellery and even the ceremonial robes of the queens (which have survived almost intact) we can almost touch the era in which they were made and worn. The royal tombs are the nearest we will probably come to a time machine, and in the hour or so it takes to drink in these wonders, we are all standing in the crowd as the great warrior parades his infant son who would one day be known for all time as Megos Alexandros, Alexander the Great.
Featured image (top): Grave goods of a Macedonian warrior complete with weapons and his silver coin hoard.
Above: Gold diadem of Phillip II (left) and gold leaf diadem and larnax (bone ossuary), most probably of one of Phillip’s queens.
Below: Phillip II’s battle armour complete with sword and shield.
Below: Two marble busts of father and son; Phillip to the left, Alexander on the right:
And finally, a curiosity…
Unearthed at Pella was this engraved sheet made of lead. It was found near the right hand of the deceased in a 4th-century BC tomb. It is in the form of a curse and a prayer:
The text reads: Of Thetima and Dionysophon’s marriage I bind by a ritual spell, as well as the marriage of all other women to him. And if I were ever to unfold these words again and read them, Dionysophon may marry again, not before. May he indeed not take another woman other than myself, but let me alone grow old by his side and no one else. I implore you, dear daimones (a person’s guiding spirits) have pity for [Phila?] for I am indeed bereft of all my dear ones and abandoned. But please keep this piece of writing for my sake and wretched Thetima perishes miserably but let me become happy and blessed.
We can only wonder if Phila’s wishes were granted.