Philip & Alexander

When Philip was born in 382 B.C., most Greeks thought of Macedonians -- if they thought of them at all -- as one of the rude northern tribes who lived in the back of beyond. Macedonians, after all, were not even allowed to participate in the Panhellenic Games at Delphi. Clearly, this irritated Philip. By 346 B.C., after conquering a number of Athenian colonies and allied cities, Philip had won a place on Delphi's governing board. A few years later, in 338 B.C., despite Demosthenes's best oratorical efforts to alert the Athenians to Philip's intentions, the Macedonian king had conquered all of Greece. Two years later, Philip was dead, cut down as he strolled to see a performance in the theater at his capital city of Vergina. Some said that his young son Alexander was behind the assassination, while others wondered how the unproven youth could rule Macedonia, let alone Greece.

No one, except perhaps Alexander himself, could have imagined that by the time he died at 33, he would have conquered much of the known world as far east as India. Alexander's early death makes it impossible to know what he would have done with the rest of his life, once he had no new worlds to conquer. Some scholars think that Alexander was a visionary bent not only on conquering but also on uniting the world into a "brotherhood of man." This, they suggest, is why Alexander contracted so many foreign marriages and accepted conquered princes into his retinue. Other scholars, more cynical, think that Alexander's marriages and his use of former enemies were simply shrewd political moves. The truth probably lies between the two theories.

In any event, after Alexander's death, his former comrades turned on one another and destroyed his empire. Within a few generations, Macedon was once more a northern kingdom in the back of beyond, living on memories of its brief period of international importance.

Philip's Tomb

Vergina's first excavator, the French archaeologist Leon Heuzey, prophesied in 1876 that when Vergina was fully excavated, "the importance of its ruins for Macedonia will be comparable to Pompeii." The Greek Archaeological Service began to work here in the 1930s and uncovered several tombs that looked like small temples. For years, the excavators nibbled away at the largest burial mound of all, the Great Tumulus, measuring 110m (361 ft.) across and 12m (39 ft.) high, containing a number of burials. One tomb they found was almost totally destroyed, another well preserved but robbed. Still, head excavator Manolis Andronikos remained convinced that he was excavating ancient Aigai, Philip's capital city, and might yet find Philip's own tomb.

Finally, in 1977 -- on the last day of the excavation season -- Andronikos and his workers opened the massive marble gates of the final remaining tomb. As Andronikos later wrote in Vergina: The Royal Tombs:

We saw a sight which it was not possible for me to have imagined, because until then such an ossuary (a container for bones) had never been found -- all-gold -- with an impressive relief star on its lid. We lifted it from the sarcophagus, placed it on the floor, and opened it. Our eyes nearly popped out of our sockets and our breathing stopped; there unmistakably were charred bones placed in a carefully formed pile and still retaining the color of the purple cloth in which they had once been wrapped. If those were royal remains, then, had I held the bones of Philip in my hands?

Andronikos -- and virtually all of Greece -- answered his question with a resounding yes, in large part because of the other objects found in the tomb. The gold wreaths, Andronikos felt, were too fine to belong to anyone but a king. And surely the little ivory portrait heads were the spitting images of Philip and Alexander themselves. And, most persuasive of all, what about the unequally sized bronze greaves (shin guards) found in the tomb? Philip was known to have legs of different length, due to an early injury.

It is difficult to overestimate the Philip fever that swept through Greece when Andronikos announced that he had found Philip's tomb and identified Vergina as ancient Aigai, Philip's capital city. Although some spoilsport scholars have questioned whether this is, in fact, Philip's tomb, those scholars are not Greek. Greeks regard with horror any suggestion that this splendid tomb may have belonged to Arrhidaeos, the son of Philip known only for his lack of distinction.

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