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The classical eye

Largest ancient tomb found in Greece shows how unique Macedonia was

The (smaller) tombs at Vergina. Damian Entwistle, CC BY-NC

Archaeologists have just discovered Greece’s largest ancient tomb. As well as attracting international media attention, the find has also had high-level political interest within Greece – the country’s prime minister, Antonis Samaras, has already visited the dig.

The tomb is located near the ancient city of Amphipolis, and archaeologists have been excavating it for the last two years. While there are still plenty of questions unanswered (who it was made for for example), enough has been uncovered to show that this will be a spectacular site. It’s built on an enormous scale, with marble decoration and frescoed walls.

The tomb dates to the period 325-300 BC, and so is roughly contemporaneous with the end of the reign of Alexander the Great (who died in Babylon in 323 BC). But as the archaeologists have been stressing, romantics shouldn’t get their hopes up that this is the tomb of Alexander himself, the location of which is unknown, but was probably in Egypt. However, given the size and decor, the Macedonian tomb’s owner must have been high ranking and incredibly wealthy.

Anyone who has visited the marvellous royal tombs at Vergina (ancient Aigai, the original capital of Macedonia) will already know that this region of Greece stands out for its impressive burial monuments. But in southern Greece, the famous sites that draw tourists tend to be public and religious buildings such as temples. This discrepancy points to what’s so interesting about Macedonia, and what sets it apart from other parts of Greece.

Between two worlds

The region known in ancient times as Macedonia is located in what is now north-eastern Greece. It’s located in one of the few points where the mountains that divide northern from southern Europe could be crossed in ancient times with relative ease. So Macedonia was always a bridging point between the world of independent city-states to the south, and the world of northern European chiefdoms. Its culture reflects elements of both.

The Macedonian elite were keen to integrate into southern Greek culture. The Macedonian kings competed at the Olympic Games, built theatres, and became patrons of literature and the arts. The famous tragedian Euripides ended his life in Macedon, while Alexander himself was tutored by the brilliant philosopher Aristotle, who left Athens to take up a position at the royal court. But in other respects, Macedonian culture was quite different from that of the south, and this comes to the fore in its material remains.

Until the fourth century BC, southern Greece was made up of small independent city-states (Athens, Corinth, Sparta, and so on). The Macedonians, on the other hand, were always ruled by kings. The world of the city-state relied on power being shared across the ruling group (whether that consisted of all male citizens, as in a democracy like Athens, or only the wealthier ones, as in other cities). This ethos of co-operation made lavish tomb burials problematic, because aristocratic families tended to use them to display their wealth and power in a way that could be socially destabilising and often fuelled factional fighting.

Not too much pomp

We know of various legal reforms in different cities that aimed to deal with this problem by putting restrictions on the type of tomb that could be built. For example, the politician Solon introduced a series of legal reforms designed to save Athens from imminent civil war at the start of the sixth century BC. A central part of this was to clamp down on extravagant and showy burial practises such as expensive sacrifices, lavish grave-goods, and dramatic displays of mourning.

We know of similar legislation from other southern Greek cities, including Sparta, Delphi, and Ceos, which suggests that excessive expenditure on funerals was considered a problem in many communities. Since the honouring of private citizens was politically difficult, southern Greek cities tended to spend their money on public buildings such as temples and theatres, and it’s sites like these that we still visit in the centre and the south today.

But the Macedonians of northern Greece had no political or cultural problem with tomb-burials, and extravagant tombs were the preferred way for aristocrats to display their wealth. Adult males were buried with their armour, and Macedonian tombs also contain precious objects such as metal drinking-cups or beautiful gold death-masks. These are practices that used to be common across the Greek world, but had died out in the south several hundred years previously.

In this regard, Macedonian tombs are not only similar to those of the Celtic north, but also those of Mycenean Greece. By the fourth century BC, Alexander the Great’s father, Philip, had made Macedon a leading power. With the Macedonians’ increasing wealth and influence, the extravagance of elite burials increased, both in terms of the size and structure of the tomb itself and the luxury goods stored in it. Philip’s own tomb can be seen at the site of Vergina, and was already considered spectacular. The splendours of the new tomb remain to be unveiled.

So as well as being an exciting discovery in its own right, the new Macedonian tomb reminds us of the cultural diversity that existed within what is now modern Greece. When we think of sites like Athens, Delphi, and Epidauros, we should remember that they’re only one part of the story.

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