Ancient history

Archelaus and the forging of the Macedonian state

Last updated:2022-07-25

The disaster in Sicily shook the battered foundations that supported the Athenian hegemony, whose splendor languished as the Peloponnesian War progressed. The debacle of Alcibiades and his companions It was not one more defeat in this exhausting armed conflict, but a definitive turning point in the framework of relations in the Hellenic world. Under the waters of the Mediterranean island, the lives of thousands of Athenians died out and along with them, a good part of their fleet succumbed, the great strategic asset on which the power of the polis was sustained in its heyday. The coup left Athens so stunned that her influence in other territories immediately waned [1]. No one better than Thucydides to ponder the consequences of the Sicilian catastrophe:

The aftershock of the earthquake of 413 a.C. it was noted many kilometers to the northeast, in the region of Macedonia. The cold traces of both inscriptions offer us a historical window to look out to understand the paradigm shift. These are two decrees promulgated by Athens. The first, dated around 415 BC, is addressed to Perdiccas II, who governed the destinies of the kingdom at that time. With a haughty tone, typical of the years of greatest pride of the Delian League, the monarch is required not to export oars to any other city than the capital of Attica. The second, which we can place in 407/6 BC, qualifies Archelaus as proxenos and evergetes for providing the Athenians with the timber and shipyards necessary to recover their battered fleet. The change in attitude of the former Greek power clearly shows that its situation prevented it from demanding anything from anyone, rather the opposite[2].

The opportunity

The great benefactor of the Athenians on Macedonian soil undoubtedly had his own agenda. Far from appearing as a mere comparsa, Arquelao had set out to fill the power vacuum that the withdrawal of his current allies had produced in the area. For this reason, he undertook a series of political, social and cultural reforms that forged the nucleus on which Philip II would build the great kingdom that dominated Greece and allowed Alexander the Great to conquer much of the known world. It is again Thucydides who puts us in context:

Until the accession of Archelaus to the throne the Macedonian army was indistinguishable from other armies of the Balkans , made up of men who fought in the service of a notable, poorly equipped and, possibly, less well trained[3]. Military power, therefore, was concentrated in the mobilization capacity of the hetairoi , the aristocrats closest to the king who were often the only counterweight to the figure of the monarch[4].

Researchers such as William Greenwalt have inferred from the words of Thucydides that Archelaus promoted structural changes to favor the formation of a large body of hoplites in his kingdom. The heavy infantry, so successful on the battlefields of Hellas, would have been an exceptional complement to the expert local cavalry, but the transformation went beyond the military field[5]. The proliferation of these soldiers implied a profound social and economic transformation, since the condition of hoplite was linked to urban development, the proliferation of small agricultural properties and the appearance of a thriving commercial activity[6]. These measures went against the large estates that were in the hands of the hetairoi , from whom it is possible, according to Greenwalt, that territories were confiscated. The cunning move of Archelaus not only strengthened his kingdom militarily, but also weakened the influence of the aristocracy and increased the coffers of the crown. One of the material indications that we preserve of the prosperity of the reign of this king is, precisely, his minting policy, in which he was concerned to make clear his hegemony in Macedonia and his relationship with Athens [7 ].

Archelaus's military successes are an indisputable indicator of the effectiveness of his reforms . Amphipolis, an old object of desire of the Athenians, maintained its hard-won independence, while in Chalkidiki and the Thracian coast the interests of different poleis continued to clash. greeks. The audacious Macedonian king, aware that these disputes were not a priority for his interests, decided to look towards the western border, whose instability had cost the lives of his predecessor, Perdiccas, and thousands of compatriots. He faced the lyncesto-Illyrian coalition led by Arrabeus II and Sirras and tried to neutralize the Elymeans by marrying his eldest daughter to Derdas. On the eastern frontier, Archelaus took Pydna after a heavy siege in 410 BC. and he recovered Bisaltia, a key location for its silver mines, which brought him significant income to consolidate his policy. At the end of his reign he intervened in Thessaly, neighboring to the south, in aid of the allies of Larissa, one of the main cities of the region. He helped consolidate the power of the oligarchs, took hostages from dissident families and received control of Perrebia in exchange for his contribution, a strategic step of great importance. Archelaus, aware of his limitations, withdrew when opponents turned to Lycophron of Pheras and Sparta for help. His intention was not to trigger a conflict of greater repercussion [8].

Archelaus' primary purpose was to ensure the integrity of Macedonian territory, but he did not demonstrate a determined will to extend his domain beyond the aforementioned border moves. In this line, it is possible to interpret the improvement of communications and the construction of defense fortifications, as the quote from Thucydides referred to. Remains of a tower and wall canvases excavated at Demir Kapija, dated to the 5th century BC, may be part of this campaign. Researchers have attributed the transfer of the capital of the kingdom of Egas to Pela, but an important nuance should be noted. In the Balkan area and in almost the entire ancient world, there was no hegemonic city, the official center of the state, as we know it today[9]. The capital was where the king was at all times. In this sense, our attention takes us to the royal palace of Pela , whose existence we have historical and archaeological evidence. The location of this city was much more important for the purpose of Archelaus than the old city of Egas, which, although it maintained its importance as the funerary seat of the Argéada dynasty, was far from the main communication routes of the kingdom. Pella's proximity to the Vardar River was key to ensuring control of the river timber trade, which fed needy Athens[10].

The issue of Hellenization

The debate on the capital status of Pella leads us to another controversial issue:the supposed Hellenizing tendency of Macedonia under the reign of this monarch. The sources inform us of the arrival of illustrious representatives of Greek culture at the court of Archelaus . The most famous of all of them was the playwright Euripides, who died precisely in Pella shortly before the king. There he composed two works: Bacchantes and Archelaus . Fortune did not want this second one to be preserved to this day, but we do know that it tried to reinforce the myth of the Argive origin of the Argéada dynasty. Euripides presents his host as a descendant of Heracles and founder of Aegas by indication of Apollo (13). The list of Greek artists who arrived in Macedonia is extended with the epic poet Cherilo of Samos, the musician Timothy of Miletus, the painter Zeuxis of Heracleia, the tragic author Agathon and it is even possible that Thucydides himself responded to the call of Archelaus . However, one of the most important characters in Athenian culture, Socrates, seemed to refuse the kind –and lucrative– invitation[11].

One ​​might think that such intellectual display was due to the Archelaus's intention was to curry favor with the Athenians, his valued allies, whom he supplied with wood and housed in his shipyards, as we have seen. However, the precarious situation of Athens does not invite us to think that the Macedonian king needed to lavish himself with such gestures. On the other hand, if his intention was to improve his image among the Greeks, we cannot say that he was very successful. Aristophanes censured Euripides in his play The Frogs for having accepted the offer of Archelaus, while Thrasymachus wondered if the Athenians, being Greeks, should be slaves of Archelaus, “a barbarian”[12]. These are not the only voices against the Macedonian king . Plato presents it in the Gorgias as a usurper who did not hesitate to kill all his opponents to the throne (4710c) and in the Second Alcibiades he describes him as a “tyrant” (141d), Aeliano points out that he was the son of the slave Simique (XII, 43) and Athenaeus tells us about the extravagance that took place in his court (VIII, 345e). In order to contextualize these testimonies, we must not forget that we are reading from Greek sources –or those with a clear Hellenic influence–, some contemporary to our protagonist, such as Plato, others later, such as Aeliano and Athenaeus, but all of them foreign to the Macedonian world, whose customs do not they were well seen by a good part of their neighbors to the south.

A final decision, which Diodorus informs us of, places Archelaus's intentions back in the Greek cultural orbit:the institution of a contest in honor of the Muses and from Zeus to Dion (XVII, 16, 3). This contest, so important for the Macedonians that even Alexander himself entrusted himself to its celebration before his departure for Asia, included dramatic festivals and sports games, in the purest style of the Panhellenic games of Olympia, Nemea, Corinth or Delphi. Once again we find ourselves engaged in an intense historiographical debate. Borza affirms that it is very likely that no Macedonian king, except Philip, participated in the Panhellenic games, although historical sources tell us that both Alexander I Philohellenes and Archelaus himself did[13]. If someone wanted to claim to be a Greek, he would pride himself on participating in the already existing games, but not organizing ones in parallel. It is possible, as Borza points out, that as a Macedonian king he was not authorized to participate, so he decided to create his own competition for all those who felt excluded from the Panhellenics. If so, this "Hellenization" of the Macedonian court should be interpreted as an attempt to gain internal respect, as Hammond did at the time or Borza himself maintains, rather than venturing into a supposed hypothesis that would present Archelaus as the guarantor of a campaign to introduce the Macedonian world into the Greek cultural orbit[14].

An unexpected death

We have three historical testimonies about the death of Archelaus. One in the Moralia by Plutarch, another in the Library of Diodorus and a last, and perhaps more reliable, of the Politics of Aristotle (1311b). The Stagira philosopher, familiar since he was a child with the Macedonian royal house, delves into the ultimate causes of regicide. While for Diodorus it was an accident during a hunting party (22), the thinker reveals a plot of dark intentions in which some jilted boys – Crateo, Helanócrates de Larisa and Decámnico – participated in the death of the king. The former was disillusioned that Archelaus had reneged on his promise to give him one of his daughters in marriage, a fact that would have greatly improved his standing among the hetairoi . His matchmaking attempt frustrated, the young man felt used by the king. Something similar to the feeling that Aristotle attributes to Helanócrates, possibly one of the hostages that the Macedonians took after their intervention in Larissa. The boy hoped to return to his home, but in the face of Archelaus' evasiveness, he concluded that it was his attractiveness that kept him in the foreign court. Finally, Decamnicus, one of the early instigators of the regicide, apparently burned with resentment that the monarch had handed him over to Euripides to flog him for messing with his foul breath.

The data provided by Aristotle coincide, to a large extent , with the scheme of Philip's death and even with the conspiracy of Alexander's pages . Elizabeth Carney, in a study on regicide in Macedonia, pointed out as causes of these plots the absence of a defined system of succession, the completely personal nature of the Macedonian monarchy and the amorous snares resulting from institutionalized pederasty[15]. If we add to this, in the specific case of Archelaus, Crateo's marital frustration, pointed out as the material author of death, we obtain a lethal cocktail. A late source, Claudius Eliano, a professor of rhetoric who lived between the 2nd and 3rd centuries A.D., details in his Historias curiosas that his executioner came to reign "three or four days" until he fell victim to another conspiracy (II, 9). A news that we must put in quarantine, given other inaccuracies in his story.

The moment chosen to end Archelaus's life is not accidental:all sources agree that the king died in a hunting party. The hunting activity was much more than entertainment. For the Macedonians it was a ritual that symbolized the very structure of the kingdom, with the king as the maximum expression of strength and triumph, accompanied by the hetairoi . The hunting ritual is a legitimization of the monarch's power. Hence, attempting against his figure in such a scenario was, as Greenwalt has shown, a challenge to royal authority [16].

The legacy of Archelaus is uncertain . Most researchers point to Philip II as the true creator of the Macedonian state [17], but some of the reforms undertaken by Alexander's father are reminiscent of the agenda followed by his predecessor. It is difficult to understand the policy of fortification of the limits of the kingdom that Archelaus carried out without imagining that his plans were to consolidate all those territories under his mandate, which can be considered as the embryo of the future Macedonian state. It is true that his death at the hands of the conspirators put an end to his project, but that set of reforms, which we know today in a fragmented way from the meager testimony of the sources and scarce material remains, could constitute the seed from the that the great Macedonian kingdom was born that would end up expanding to the ends of the known world.

Historical sources

  • Aristotle. Politics . Translation by Manuel García Valdés for Gredos. Madrid, 1988.
  • Athenaeum. The Banquet of Scholars . Translation by Lucía Rodríguez-Noriega Guillén for Gredos. Madrid, 2006.
  • Claudio Eliano. Curious stories . Translation of Juan Manuel Cortés Copete for Gredos. Madrid, 2006.
  • Diodorus of Sicily. Historical Library . Translation by Juan José Torres Esbarranch and Juan Manuel Guzmán for Gredos. Madrid, 2006.
  • Elio Aristides. Speeches. Translation by Fernando Gascó and Antonio Ramírez de Verger for Gredos. Madrid, 1987.
  • Herodotus. Story . Translation of Manuel Balasch for Chair. Madrid, 2011.
  • Xenophon. Hellenic . Translation by Orlando Guntiñas Tuñón for Gredos. Madrid, 1982.
  • Justin. Epitome of the Philippian stories of Pompey Trogus . Translation by José Castro Sánchez for Gredos. Madrid, 1995.
  • Plato. Gorgias . Translation by J. Calonge Ruíz, E. Acosta Méndez, F.J. Oliveri and J.L. Bald for Gredos. Madrid. 1987.
  • Plato. Second Alcibiades . Translation by Juan Zaragoza and Pilar Gómez Cardó for Gredos. Madrid, 1992.
  • Solino. Collection of memorable events. Translation of Francisco J. Fernández Nieto for Gredos. Madrid, 2001.
  • Thucydides. History of the Peloponnesian War . Book VIII, chap. 1. Translation by Luis M. Macía Aparicio for Akal Clásica. Madrid, 1989.


  • Agudo Villanueva, M. (2016):Macedonia. The birthplace of Alexander the Great . Story.
  • Agudo Villanueva, M. (2018):Atenas. The distant echo of the stones . Confluences.
  • Akamatis, I. M. (2009):The Pela archaeological Site Development Project and the latest archaeological Findings in “Zurück Zum Gegenstand. Festschrift Für Andreas E. Furtwängler”. Beer &Beran. Pp. 521-529.
  • Anson, E. (2020):Philip II. The Father of Alexander the Great . Bloomsbury.
  • Antela, B. (2009):Succession and victory:an approach to Hellenistic warfare in “Gerión”, 27, nº 1. 161-177.
  • Antela, B. (2011):Simply the Best. Alexander's lasts Words, and the Macedonian Kingship' in "Eirene" XLVII. P.P. 118-126.
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  • Carney, E.D. (1983):Regicide in Macedonia in “La Parola del Passato”, vol. 38. Pp. 262-263.
  • Chrysostomou, P. (2011):The palace of Pella In “The Archaeological Museum of Pella”. Latsis Foundation. Pp. 58-65.
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  • Graekos, I. (2011):War and hunting:the world of the Macedonian King and his companions in “Heracles to Alexander the Great. Ashmolean Museum. Pp. 75-92.
  • Greenwalt, W. (1999):Why Pella? in “History:Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte”. XL VIII/2. Pp. 158-183.
  • Greenwalt, W.S. (2003):Archelaus the Philhellene in “The Ancient World” 34.2. Pp. 131-153.
  • Greenwalt, W. (2019):The Assassination of Archelaus and the Significance of the Macedonian Royal Hunt in “Karanos. Bulletin of Ancient Macedonian Studies”. Vol, 2. Pp. 11-17.
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  • Molina Marín, A.I. (2020):Center and Periphery in the Macedonian Empire:Alexander of Babylon in Non Svfficit Orbis. Historical and mythical geography in Antiquity. Dykinson. Pp. 273-283.
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[1] On the Sicilian disaster:AGUDO (2018, 215-223), POMEROY et alii (2012, 333-339) and FIELDS (2009).

[2] The inscriptions are IG I2. 77 (415 BC) and IG I2. 105 (407/6 BC). On his interpretation:GREENWALT (2003, 139) and BORZA (1990, 162-163).

[3] BORZA (1990, 166), HECKEL and JONES (2009, 12).

[4] ANSON (2020, 55-56).

[5] GREENWALT (2019, 11). On the power of the Macedonian kings BORZA (1990, 231-248), ANSON (2020, 15-35), HATZOPOULOS (2020, 103-121) and AGUDO (216, 77-87).

[6] VAN WEES (2017, 251-290) and KAGAN and VIGGIANO (2017, 1-72). In general, about hoplites SEKUNDA (2009).

[7] GREENWALT (2003, 136-137 and 150). A repository of coins from the time of Archelaus can be found at

[8] BORZA (1990, 164).

[9] BORZA (1990, 167-168) and MOLINA MARIN (2020, 277-279).

[10] GREENWALT (1999, 158-183). The sources have left indirect testimonies of the location of the court in Pela. Xenophon tells us that it was the most important city in Macedonia (V, 2, 13), the Athenian speakers who referred to Philip II spoke of the court of Pella and Alexander the Great himself was born there. Archaeology, for the moment, has shed some light on the foundation of the city, but the level of the 5th century B.C. it is in an almost devastated state. For the most recent excavations in the city, see Akamatis, I. M. (2009):The Pela archaeological Site Development Project and the latest archaeological Findings in “Zurück Zum Gegenstand. Festschrift Für Andreas E. Furtwängler”. Beer &Beran. pp. 521-529. Regarding the palace grounds, see Chrysostomou, P. (2011):The palace of Pella In “The Archaeological Museum of Pella”. Latsis Foundation. Pp. 58-65.

[11] We know the invitation to Socrates, among others, by Elio Arístides (Against Plato , 242).

[12] GREENWALT (2003, 138-141) and BORZA (1990, 165).

[13] On the participation of Alexander I Philohelenus in the Panhellenic games, see Herodotus (VIII, 121) and Justin (VII, 2-14). A very late source, Gaius Julius Solinus, who wrote a compilation of historical anecdotes in his Collection of Memorable Facts does not speak about the triumph of Archelaus in two chariot races in the Pythian and Olympic games. around the fourth century (9, 15-16).

[14] BORZA (1990, 171-175).

[15] CARNEY (1983, 262-263).

[16] GREENWALT (2019, 16). On hunting as a Macedonian institution AGUDO (2016, 56-58) and GRAEKOS (2011, 75-92).

[17] ANSON (2020, 73-92).