The first appearance of the name Macedonia in ancient historical sources goes back to the first half of the 5th century BC and the writings of Herodotus28. By this time, Macedonia was an established kingdom and an important factor in regional politics. Though Herodotus makes only brief mentions and doesn’t say anything about the territorial extent of the kingdom of Alexander I,it is assumed that by the period of the Greco-Persian wars, it was firmly based in the mountainous region of present-day north-west Greece, or what was by later geographers known as Upper Macedonia. The backbone of this ancient kingdom was the Haliakmon or Bistritza River, and its tributaries. Also by this time, the Macedonian Kingdom was already openly demonstrating its territorial pretensions towards the fertile lands around the Thermaic Gulf, and along the valley of the Axios or Vardar river. These areas have been populated by a number of various tribes that were either being assimilated or simply expelled from their land, as was the case with the very ancient tribe of the Botiai. By the end of the fifth century, we hear from Thucydides that the Macedonian king Perdicas II was greatly involved in defending his northeastern lands from the Thracians, in the region of the lower Vardar Valley, in the southern parts of what is now the Republic of Macedonia. He was also active in the region of Bitola or Monastery, the last region of Upper Macedonia that resisted the hegemony of the Argive dynasty29. That the rule of the Macedonian kings was well established in the regions along the lower Axios and the Thermaic Gulf is made clear by the consecutive historical events. At the very beginning of the fourth century, king Archaelaos establishes his new capitol, Pella, far in the low countries, on a small tributary of the Axios.
The next phase in the expansion of the Macedonian Kingdom begins with the early years of Philip II reign. His aggressive military campaigns brought within the kingdoms borders the land of the fiercely independent Lynces, around modern Lerin and Bitola (Florina and Monastery), the mid and lower valley of the Strymon, and he finally, subdued the independent Hellenic cities in the coastal area of Chalkidice. Interestingly, up until this time period, the conquered lands became a constituent part of ancient Macedon. Philip’s later conquests in the territory of the Hellenic city-states, or the land of the Thracian tribes never came to be treated as parts of ancient Macedonia. The great conquests of Philip II and Alexander III had few positive effects for the kingdom’s old territory. To Philip and Alexander, the core of the ancient kingdom was but a springing ground, a temporary shell that was to be shed away once the moment for World domination has arrived. Perhaps the only significant, positive consequence was the grandiose promotion of the name Macedon on the World historical stage. If Alexander’s campaign in Asia were not successful, the name Macedon would have most probably fallen in a complete oblivion after a few centuries.
After the collapse of Alexander’s Empire and the end of the Argive dynasty, the new Antigonid rulers of the European part of the Empire found themselves in a radically different geo-political constellation. Not only the core of the kingdom, but also the neighboring regions and much of the Hellenic world were greatly impoverished and depopulated by the early decades of the 3rd century BC. There was further more a mighty new political factor in the northern Balkans; these were the Celts, who at least in one occasion managed to invade and plunder the kingdom on their way to and back from Delphi. This major event has stirred new population movement from the central and northern parts of the Balkan Peninsula to the depopulated south. Apart from their struggles with the leagues of the Hellenic city-states, the Antigonids were forced to pay more attention to their northern frontiers. In the time of Philip and Alexander, to the north of ancient Macedon, on what is now the Republic of Macedonia, there existed a powerful tribal league of the Paeonians, an ancient population known from the Iliad. This polity was powerful enough to act as a buffer against the Barbarian tribes to the north, without endangering the dominant position of Macedon. During the 3rd century BC, this people have become a minor political factor, and were slowly being replaced by other tribes of the central Balkans. The situation became especially precarious towards the end of the 3rd century BC, when Rome became involved in the region as Macedon’s arch-enemy. Through extensive diplomatic activity, the Romans were in position to turn against Macedon, its northern and western neighbors, the Dardanians and the kingdom of Illyria. The well informed historical sources of the time, in particular Polybius makes little mention of ancient Paionia, which suggests that this old polity has become almost completely irrelevant as a political factor. Nevertheless, it still existed until 217 BC, when finally Philip V conquered their capitol BylaZora30 , and annexed the Paionian territories. This is the last territorial expansion of ancient Macedon as an independent kingdom. It brought within the kingdom’s borders much of what is now the Republic of Macedonia, the entire mid-Axios Valley and the land along its western and eastern tributaries. The Antigonids, especially the last two members of the royal dynasty, Philip V and his son Perseus also had military ventures into Greece, Thrace, and the land of the Illyrian kings, but these were merely punitive expeditions or means of exerting political domination.
At the eve of the Roman conquest of the southern Balkans, except to the north, the borders of Macedon changed little from the time of Philip II and Alexander the Great. Roughly, the kingdom spread from the Pindus mountain range on the west, to the valley of the Nestos River on the east. To the south, the obvious border was the Aegean coastline, and the range of Mount Olympus. The most fluid and unclear was the northern frontier, but it is generally assumed that it run across the mid valleys of the Axios (the Vardar), the Strymon (the Struma) and the Nestos (the Mesta). These rivers run through series of narrow, impassible canyons, presenting natural, geographic and climatic frontier zones. Expectedly, the historical sources are not so well informed about the interior of the Balkan Peninsula as they were about the Hellenic World, but also the situation on the ground in this time period would have been much less clear than in Roman and later times, when political frontiers became well established phenomena.
It remains unclear how the name Macedon came to designate the kingdom ruled by the Argive and the Antigonid dynasties. Traditionally, historians and archaeologists have assumed that this was an ethnonym, though the original territory of this people is impossible to locate. After reading about the history and the territorial expansion of ancient Macedon, one is left with the impression that much of the kingdom’s core was taken over from other tribes. It is thus very possible that the name initially referred to a caste of warriors and noblemen who united under a king came to dominate the land on the north Aegean coast, and imposed their name over an originally very diverse, heterogeneous land.
28 F. Papazoglou, Les Villes Macedoniennes dans l’epoche Romain, 1988; very informative is the volume edited by J. Roisman and I. Worthington, A companion to ancient Macedonia, 2010; in particular the chapter on the literary evidence by P.J. Rhodes. Back
29 The Argead dynasty that ruled from 700 b.c. to 310 b.c. refers to the kings of the ancient Macedonians among who are Fillip II and Alexander III are counted. Back
30 The present city of Veles in the Republic of Macedonia. Back