Ancient Macedon and Thessalia – Case of Jason of Pherai

One of the usual arguments of Fyrom’s propagandists is that ancient Macedon was entirely different from the greek city-states. Therefore for them this is an alledged ‘evidence’ of the non-greekness of Macedon. Lets check out the differences and similarities between ancient Macedon and ancient Thessalia.

In the first half of the 4th century Macedonia remained a tribal territory ruled by a hereditary monarchy and dominated by a landed aristocracy. There was Utile urbanisation. Pella was the largest town, turned into the capital by king Archelaos towards the end of the 5th century, but it was small compared to Athens, Korinthos, or Argos. Other towns existed—Aigai (the old capital), Beroia, Edessa, Dion—but archaeological exploration to date does not suggest that any of them were much more than large villages before the time of Philip.

Communications were poor, even though in the late 5th century king Archelaos had, according to Thucydides 2.100-2, built fortifications and straight roads. These were specifically with a view to warfare, and the chaos that succeeded Archelaos’ death did much to undo his work. Trade was very lim¬ited, though not unimportant. A major problem was that Macedonia’s ports—Pydna, Methone, Therme, possibly Pella—were rather poor harbors, and in the cases of Pydna, Methone, and Therme were not always under Macedonian control- Though there was clearly a substantial population living in the countryside, many if not most of them seem to have been dependent “serfs” or tenants on the lands of the aristocracy. With the low level of economic development and added problems of general insecurity, even any independent small farmers, share-croppers and pastoralists do not seem to have risen beyond a basic subsistence level.

The situation in Macedonia in the 5th and early 4th centuries was thus akin to that in Thessaly, concerning which we are slightly bettter informed, A landed, horse-breeding aristocracy dominated Thessaly, Towns were small and relatively unimportant: only Pharsalos, Larissa, and the port city of Pherai were of any great significance. Pherai controlled the only worthwhile port via which exports and imports could pass out of and into Thessaly. The region had a tradition of being a single political unit, but was in fact usually extremely disunited. The rich agricultural lands of the Thessalian plain supported a large population and generated considerable wealth—Thessaly was about the only part of mainland Greece that was a significant exporter of grain—but the majority of the population were kept in dependence by the aristocracy as ‘pemstai’, a kind of “serfs”, and the region was hence militarily weak except, as in the case of Macedonia, for an excellent cavalry force provided by the aristocrats.

There were thus in northern Greece two large, populous regions, rich in natural resources and hence potentially powerful, but plagued by the same problems of disunity, lack of political and economic organization and infrastructure, and an archaic social system that kept the majority of the populace too poor and dependent to play a significant civic and military role.

In Thessaly a strong leader arose in the 4th century who attempted to address these problems and raise Thessaly to its potential position of power: Jason of Pherai. As ruler of Pherai he had a strong power base due to Pherai’s control of Thessalian trade. Jason used the wealth accruing there from to raise and train a substantial force of mercenary infantry*—over 6,000 at its peak, we are told (Xenophon Hell. 6.1.5; cf. HeiL 6.1.4-19 and 6.4.21-32 for the fullest ancient account of Jason’s career and aims).

With this force added to the Pheraian cavalry, Jason was able to bring all Thessaly under his control and set about unifying it. He is said to have had very ambitious imperialist plans, but they do not seem to have included mobilizing Thessaly’s manpower except in his somewhat doubtful scheme to use the penestm as rowers in a great Thessalian fleet. When Jason was assassinated in 370 his power quickly fell apart, though at least one of his successors, Alexandros of Pherai, was by no means lacking in ability.

Jason’s mistake, one feels, was to rely on mercenaries, however devoted they may have been to him personally, rather than raising and organizing a national Thessalian infantry army. Ten years after Jason’s death a strong leader arose in Macedonia who attempted to do in Macedonia more or less what Jason had aimed to do in Thessaly, and succeeded: Philip II.

The major difference between them—apart from the by no means negligible fact that Philip was the hereditary tribal monarch of the Macedonians, which greatly strengthened his position—was that Philip did create a Macedonian infantry force, mobilizing the manpower resources of Macedonia, and thereby transforming Macedonia itself as we have seen above, Philip came to the throne at a moment of deep and disastrous crisis for Macedonia, in the aftermath of a crushing military defeat. He faced a host of difficulties besides, but the most pressing problems he faced were undoubtedly those requiring military action, and in fact virtually all of his major problems were susceptible to being alleviated by military power. Consequently, Philip’s first actions on becoming king focused on improving the Macedonian army.

 “Kings and Colonists: Aspects of Macedonian Imperialism” by Richard Billows