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Physical Description

Macedonia is part of a large region which received its name in Classical times. In antiquity Macedonia proper consisted of the coastal plain of the Thermaic Gulf, which has been formed by the rivers Axius, Lydias, and Haliacmon. The modern Greek province, much reduced since antiquity, is in the shape of the capital letter L lying on its side. The short arm extends south to Mount Olympos (2917 m) on the Thessalian border with Thrace. Geographically Macedonia forms the connecting link between the Balkans and the Greek Peninsula. The frontiers of northern Macedonia with Yugoslavia and Bulgaria are formed by high mountain ranges, and its extensive plateaus are divided by lower ranges which drain into the lakes or one of rivers of the region, the Axius, the Lydias or the Haliacmon. All of these rivers flow through Macedonia to the Aegean Sea.

The climate of Macedonia is continental, marked by cold winters with bitter north winds, and hot summers. Both in climate and terrain Macedonia resembles the Eastern Europe more than the Greek peninsula. Rich in timber, cattle, sheep, horses, cereals and vines, Macedonia has always been able to support a larger population than any other region in Greece. In climate, the Chalcidice peninsula has a Mediterranean climate and produces olives, fruits, and timber suitable for ship-construction.

Chalcidice, with all its promontories, has the best harbors, but the principal harbor has been at Thessaloniki since antiquity. Three important routes converge on the Macedonian plain: from the Danube via the Morava and Axius valleys; from the Adriatic via Lake Ochrida; and from Thrace via Mygdonia. Contact with points south is made through the narrow vale of Tempe into Thessaly.


Occupied continuously since early Neolithic times, Macedonia possessed a distinctive culture in the Bronze Age, which was affected by Mycenaean civilization. After c. 1150 B.C. Macedonia entered a dark age. The nucleus of the Classical Macedonians was perhaps formed by the peoples called Macedoni who came from southwestern Macedonia. The tribes of upper Macedonia, however, were most likely composed of Greek, Illyrian and Thracian people who began moving into the region in the centuries following the Dorian invasion. Until the fourth century B.C. when Philip II incorporated Northern Macedonia, and annexed the Strymon valley and Chalcidice, Macedonia was divided and there was a constant struggle between the semi-independent principalities. After Philip's unification, Macedonia became a state with great economic and military strength ruled by Phillip's son, Alexander the Great, and a succession of monarchs until the Roman conquest.


Kavalla, located just west of Thrace and north of the island of Thasos, is the principal port of eastern Macedonia. The town boasts a spacious harbor which sits on the slopes of Mount Mandra Kari. Upon a rocky citadel jutting into the sea was the acropolis. Sixth century settlers from the island of Paros founded Kavalla and named it Neapolis. It rose to prosperity after discovery of gold in the nearby Panagaion hills and on the Island of Thasos. In antiquity Kavalla was the principal port of Philippi, a town lying 15 km to the northwest.

Philippi was settled by people from Thasos who came to mine the gold in the Panagaion hills. They called it Krenides because of the springs in the area. In 361 B.C. new settlers established themselves in Krenides, and five years later, Philip II took the town and named it after himself. Philippi is best known as the location of the battle in which, in 42 B.C., Octavian defeated Brutus. Built into the hillside of the town is a fourth century B.C. theater, later altered by the Romans. The acropolis, now adorned with remains from Macedonian, Roman and Byzantine times, sat on a hill above the town.

Continuing to the west, near the mouth of the river Strymon, lies the town of Amphipolis. Amphipolis was a major Greek stronghold and in Roman times an important station on the Via Egnatia, the main road from Byzantium to the Adriatic. The most striking monument of the town is a stone lion which stands just outside of Amphipolis west of the Strymon. Originally the lion may have honored Laomedon, a sailor from Lesbos who later became governor of Syria.

Just 6 km off the coast of Kavalla sits Thasos, the most northerly of the Aegean islands. The island is almost circular in shape with an area of 379 sq. km. Being of volcanic origin, Thasos is fertile and hilly, its highest point being Mount Hysaprion at 1135 m in the center of the island. The mountainsides are covered with a variety of trees: pine, plane, and chestnut, which have always been in demand for ship building. The island has been important since the Phoenicians first occupied the island and mined the minerals, particularly gold. The harbor city of Thasos has an agora dating from the time of the original Greek settlement with Hellenistic additions and embellishments. Within the agora there are three stoas, a precinct of Zeus Agoraios, and several altars around which were arranged statues. Opening off the harbor are the Chariot gate and the gate of Hermes in the circuit of the fifth century B.C. wall. In the walls along the southwest side of the town are the gate of Zeus, the gate of Herakles, and the gate of Silenos (all named after reliefs found on the uprights of each gate). Within the walls are Sanctuaries to both Poseidon and Dionysos and a fourth century B.C. theater.

Between 710 and 680 B.C. Thasos was occupied by settlers from the island of Paros, and it was here that the Archaic Parian poet Archilochos wrote his verse. Despite the protection of the solid walls of the city of Thasos, the islanders surrendered to the Persians in the fifth century B.C. The island was seized by Philip II in the fourth century B.C. and remained Macedonian until the Romans arrived in 196 B.C.

Thessaloniki is the only important city of western Macedonia today. It rises on a protected bay on the Thermaic Gulf on the slopes of Mount Khortiatis 1201 m, and has developed into an important port and center of communication between between Greece and the Balkan states. The town was founded by Kassandros in c. 315 B.C. near the settlement of Thermai and named after his wife Thessalonike, sister to Alexander the Great. During the Middle Ages it was the second city of the Byzantine Empire.

Vergina is a village 75 km southwest of Thessaloniki on the southern edge of the Haliacmon plain, and is known for both the palace of Palatitsa and for the tomb of Vergina, dated to the Hellenistic period. Vergina is thought to be the ancient Macedonian capital of Aigai. The so-called palace of Palatitsa sits on a low hill marked by a large oak tree and dates to the reign of Antigonus Gonatas (c. 320-239 B.C.). Although the palace was destroyed by fire, it is clear that a triple propylaia leads through the east wing to a central peristyle of pilasters with 16 by 16 double engaged columns. Between the palace and the village of Palatitsa extends a large tumulus cemetery from the Early Iron Age (tenth to the seventh centuries B.C.). In the vicinity of this cemetery is the tomb of Vergina, a Macedonian temple tomb of the 4th century B.C. with an Ionic facade closed by two pairs of marble doors. Discovered in 1977 by Manolis Andronikos, this tomb with its splendid paintings, golden treasure, and cremated remains of an old warrior, is thought to be the burial of the Great Phillip, Alexander's father.

Northwest of Thessaloniki is the city of Pella, thought by some archaeologists to be an ancient capital of the Macedonians. It has been excavated since 1957 by Greek archaeologists. The site is noted for blocks of well-built houses of the 4th century B.C. and earlier, many with mosaic floors of outstanding artistic quality.

Curtis Runnels

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