Ancient Macedonia: Facts & History

Instructor: Erin Carroll

Erin has taught English and History. She has a bachelor's degree in History, and a master's degree in International Relations

In this lesson you will learn about Ancient Macedonia. First, we will look at some of the basics like its political, economic, and social characteristics. Then, we will go into some detail on the rule of Philip II, and see how he transformed Macedonia.

Where and When

Located just north of Ancient Greece and its city-states, Ancient Macedonia existed from about 808 BC until 146 BC when Macedonia was officially conquered and absorbed by Romans. For a long time, Greece considered Macedonia a backwater, but the kingdom of Macedonia was eventually able to rise up and conquer Greece, and then much of the known world!

Ancient Macedonia is a bit tricky to point it out on a modern map. Today, there is a region in Northern Greece called Macedonia, where you'll find the great city of Thessaloniki. Just over the northern Greek border, you'll find a country called the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. Both claim some Ancient Macedonian heritage.

Red Border Showing Ancient Macedonia Location
Red Border Showing Ancient Macedonia Location

Political Structure

Unlike Greek city-states that had a kind of democratic government, Macedonia was a hereditary monarchy. That means that the kingship was handed down to another member of the family. Kings were often polygamous, meaning they had many wives, and succession was sometimes controversial, with various children from various mothers all rivals to be the heir.

The king was the head of state, the commander of the armed forces, and also the head of the religion. He also had the power to mint coins and circulate money. Even though the king had ultimate power, he did convene a council called the synedrion. The synedrion was made up of high-ranking Macedonian men, and they would meet to discuss issues and give the king advice. The king didn't get to choose the members of the synedrion because some of them had been guaranteed a spot by birthright.

The first known Macedonian king is Caranus, and King Amyntas III was the first to really unify all of the regions of Macedonia. The major ruling dynasty of Macedonia was the Argeads, who gave us King Philip II and Alexander the Great, who expanded and strengthened Macedonia.

The Economy

Early on, the Macedonian economy relied on its timber resources. Then, they began to acquire some gold and silver mines, and charge port duties.

There was a big gap between the rich elites and the poor, but as Philip II expanded Macedonian lands, the economy grew. Under Philip II and Alexander the economy became monetary, which means that coins were issued and used everywhere as money. That's a sign of a much more prosperous economy because coins make business transactions go much faster than negotiating and bartering a stack of timber for some sheep.

Social Life

Most of the information we have about Macedonian society is focused on the elites and upper classes. The Macedonian elite were called hetairoi, or companions. The hetairoi met at symposia, or big meetings, where they would come together and compete for influence and the king's favor. These symposia were notorious for drunken brawls, orgies, and other debauchery. A murder or two may have happened at a symposium!

Macedonian women had limited rights. But they were a little better off than women in Greek city-states like Athens, who were almost always secluded at home. Macedonians also tended to own fewer slaves than the Greeks.

Rule of Philip II

Bust of Philip II
Bust of Philip II

Philip II ruled from 360 until 336 BC, and his reign was a major turning point for Macedonia. He was the third son of King Amyntas III and grew up as a captive in Thebes where he actually got a great education. When his two older brothers died, he became the heir, and eventually took the throne.

Army reform

One of Philip's most important achievements was reforming the Macedonian army. He introduced lighter weaponry and an extra long pike or spear called a sarissa.

Philip took the soldiers on forced marches carrying their gear to get them in battle shape. He improved some tactics he learned in Greece like the phalanx, in which soldiers marched together in a tight formation like a finger. He improved siege warfare with better catapults and used cavalry forces together with ground troops in a revolutionary way.

Macedonian Phalanx with Sarissas
Macedonian Phalanx with Sarissas

Diplomacy and war

King Philip II had grand visions of taking over all of Greece and parts of Asia, but he knew that he would have to be clever and patient. He used all sorts of diplomatic strategies, and even bribes, to placate and conquer Greek city-states. You may have heard the expression divide and conquer--this comes from our man, Philip! He was brilliant at playing city-states against one another, inflaming their rivalries so that they would not unite against him. When the time was right, he would strike with his elite military.

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