Some 12km east of Véria, past the Aliákmonas River dam, the road rises into the gentle foothills of Mount Piería to a village created by 1922 Greek refugees from the Pontus and Caucuses. But people have lived here since the cows came home, or at least since the 11th century bc, the date of the oldest of the area’s 500 tumuli. One of these mounds had some old stones that the locals called the ‘little palace’ of a certain queen Vergína (Βεργίνα) who gave her name to the village. Decades earlier, in the 1860s, the French had begun excavations and found a Macedonian tomb, but war and troubles prevented further investigations until 1937, when it became a project of the archaeology department of the University of Thessaloníki, under Manólis Andrónikos.
War stopped work again until 1959 when Andrónikos returned to lead the dig. British classicist N G L Hammond, who knew Macedonia so well that he was recruited as an SOE officer in the region during World War II, had theorised that Vergína (not Édessa, as many believed) occupied the site of Ancient Aigai, the first capital of the kings of Macedon. Convinced that Hammond was right, Andrónikos set to work on the Great Tumulus, 110m in diameter (once believed to be the largest in Greece, although it is dwarfed by the Kásta tomb at Amphipolis, which is so large that people just presumed it was a hill).
Excavations showed that the clay and gravel of the tumulus had fragments of damaged funerary steles from 300–250bc – which slotted in with the historical fact that Gaulish mercenaries of King Pyrrhus, left to guard Aigai in 274bc, had plundered its cemetery. And in 1977–78 Andrónikos found, under all the rubble, what he had sought: the royal tombs. What he hadn’t expected was to find one unplundered, with the fabulous treasure and ashes of Philip II – confirmed by the forensic reconstruction of the skull showing the horrific eye wound he suffered at the battle of Methóni.
History and murder
Greek historians wrote that Karanos (or some say Perdiccas), the son of the king of Argos – a descendant of Hercules – was the forefather of Macedonia’s Argead (‘Argive’) dynasty. The myth has it that in the late 9th century bc before the first Olympiad (776bc), when his brother became king of Argos, Karanos wanted a kingdom of his own and was told by the Oracle at Delphi to head north and follow a herd of goats, which he duly did and named his foundation Aigai (‘Many goats’). For a country on the fringes of the Hellenic world, this essential Greek ancestry, duly confirmed in 500bc by the Hellanodikai (official Olympic judges) was important, as non-Greeks couldn’t compete in the games.
Even after the Macedonian court moved to Pella, Aigai retained its importance, especially as a royal burial ground: a prophesy warned that if a king were buried anywhere else, the Argead dynasty would end, which was proved correct when Alexander the Great was buried in Egypt. In 336bc, at the height of his power, Philip II rebuilt the royal palace at Aigai in a grand style never before seen in Europe, then invited his nobles and representatives of the Greek city-states to attend the wedding of his daughter Cleopatra to her maternal uncle Alexander of Epirus. It was a magnificent show of bling, designed to impress the Greeks, and after the wedding Philip invited everyone to a ceremony at Aigai’s theatre, which he planned as a send-off to his conquest of Persia.
Signs for the latter were auspicious: there had been double poisonings in the Persian royal family, the Greeks in Asia Minor were ripe to revolt and the Delphic oracle had told him: ‘Wreathed is the bull; the end is near, the sacrificer is at hand.’ Philip, of course, interpreted the ‘bull’ as the king of Persia. Only one row of seats survives in the theatre today, but try to imagine the bowl filled with perfumed dignitaries. First, in solemn procession, come splendid statues of the Olympian gods, followed by a surprise: a statue of Philip himself, enthroned as a 13th god (a conceit later adopted by the Roman emperors). Then his 20-yearold son Alexander III and new son-in-law, Alexander, enter the theatre, just ahead of Philip, who is about to enter, alone. Instead – a horrible shout, as Philip’s bodyguard Pausanias stabs him to death.
In the confusion Pausanias almost gets away to waiting horses before he is killed. Conspiracy theories began immediately, many pointing to Alexander’s mother, Philip’s estranged wife Olympias, although the only contemporary account to survive, by Aristotle, says a tawdry sexual humiliation was the motive. After the murder, Alexander the Lyncestian stood beside Alexander in the theatre to nominate him as successor, and the assembled Macedonians raised their shields and beat them with their spears, to signify their accord.