Macedonia in Antiquity – the Greek ethnicity of ancient Macedonians

Macedonia in Antiquity

Historical evidence and archaeological finds point to the existence of Greek-speaking inhabitants of the North Pindus mountains in the period 2200-2100 B.C. These Protohellenic tribes are thought to have broken away from the main bulk of the family of Indo-European peoples in the course of the 5th millennium B.C. and to have spread throughout the area known today as Northern Greece.

In the early centuries of the second millennium B.C. three basic groups of Greek-speaking peoples can be distinguished: a) the South-Eastern group (in the NW part of Thessaly), whose principal representatives were the lonians; b) the Eastern group (W Macedonia),with two dialect sub­ groups, the Arcadian and the Aeolian; and c) the Western group, of which the tribe of the Makednoi was the most populous.

At about this time, these Protohellenic tribes, led by the lonians, began a slow advance southwards. Here they came into contact with the Pre-hellenic populations of Crete and the islands, who had reached a high cultural level. The lonians were followed south by the Eastern group of peoples, those who used the Aeolian dialect. It was from these populations, which included the Achaeans, the Lapiths, the Minyans and others, that Mycenaean civilisation was to spring.

The Western group, and the Makednoi first and foremost, split. One group pushed into Central Greece and the Peloponnese. Another established itself in Doris, where it mixed with the local populations and eventually acquired the name “Dorians”. A third group made its way to Thessaly, while a fourth — the Macedonians — spread out through the regions which today are called Western, Southern and Central Macedonia. This group, Greek-speaking like the others, did not move south, and for some contact with the highly-developed Creto-insular populations of the south.

This brief description of the migrations of the Greek-speaking peoples from the north southwards also explains the relationship between Macedonians and Dorians, which ancient sources often refer to. The Macedonians, that is, were not Dorians, since, as we have seen, the latter people acquired its name at a later date. However, the Dorians and the Macedonians belong to the ethnolinguistic group of the Makednoi, from which the Dorians split away to seek their fortunes in the south.

In historical times — the 8th century B.C. — the Macedonians, hitherto aloof from the enormously important cultural developments taking place in the south, began gradually to occupy a place in the limelight of history. All the ancient writers classify the Macedonians among the Greek-speaking family of peoples.

In the 7th century B.C., Orestis (the area around what is today Kastoria) is mentioned as the birthplace of the Macedonian dynasty of the Argeads and the Temenids. The name “Argeads” has created the impression that the Macedonian kings traced their descent back to Argos in the Peloponnese, but today most scholars believe that this impression is the result of confusion between Argos in the Peloponnese and Argos Orestikon just south of Kastoria. However, the fact that the same placename was used by both the Macedonians and the Greek peoples of the south does prove their common ethnolinguistic ancestry. In both cases, “Argos” is an indigenous placename, not a loan-word.

In the course of the 7th and 6th centuries B.C. the Macedonians moved east from Orestis and settled, in succession, in the areas of Pieria, Bottiaea (Mount Vermion), Eordaea (the modern city of Ptolema’ida) and Almopia (today Aridaia). They then crossed the river Axios and approached the borders of Chalkidiki. The tribes which had previously dwelt in these areas — Pelasgians and others — were driven out or, in some cases, assimilated.

By this time the Macedonians were beginning to break out of their isolation, as the influence of the developed south penetrated into Macedonia through the colonies founded in Chalkidiki and through increasing land and sea communication. Thus the Macedonian world was the scene of rapid cultural development, reaching its peak in the reigns of Kings Amyn tas, Philip II and Alexander the Great.

It would be difficult today to advance the claim that the Macedonians were not part of the ancient Greek world. Recent archaeological finds in conjunction with linguistic analysis and the discovery of large numbers of new inscriptions — all in Greek — with a vast range of Greek names prove that there was never any break (either cultural or linguistic) in the unity of the Macedonians with the other Greeks. Indeed the dissemination of the Greek language and Greek culture throughout the known world by Ale­ xander the Great and his Macedonians provides the most irrefutable confirmation of this. The unity of the Macedonians and the rest of the Greeks is proved once more every year, with the finds brought to light at the major archaeological sites of Pella, Vergina, Dion, Aiani and Sindos, and scores of less well-known sites (such as those in the Voio, Kozani, Kastoria, Fiorina, Edessa, Aridaia and Kilkis areas) and, of course, in Thessaloniki itself and in Chalkidiki.