Great Tumulus of Aigai

Coordinates: 40°29′N 22°19′E / 40.483°N 22.317°E / 40.483; 22.317Coordinates: 40°29′N 22°19′E / 40.483°N 22.317°E / 40.483; 22.317
Country Greece
Administrative region Central Macedonia
Regional unit Imathia
Municipality Veroia
  Municipal unit 69.0 km2 (26.6 sq mi)
Lowest elevation 120 m (390 ft)
Population (2011)[1]
  Municipal unit 2,464
  Municipal unit density 36/km2 (92/sq mi)
  Population 1,242 (2011)
Time zone EET (UTC+2)
  Summer (DST) EEST (UTC+3)
UNESCO World Heritage Site
Archaeological Site of Aigai (mod. name Vergina)
Name as inscribed on the World Heritage List
Location Greece
Type Cultural
Criteria i, iii
Reference 780
UNESCO region Europe and North America
Inscription history
Inscription 1996 (20th Session)

Vergina (Greek: Βεργίνα [verˈʝina]) is a small town in northern Greece, located in the regional unit of Imathia, Central Macedonia. Since the 2011 local government reform it is part of the municipality Veroia, of which it is a municipal unit.[2] The municipal unit has an area of 69.047 km2.[3]

The town is better known for its remains of Aigai, the first capital of Macedon. It was here in 336 BC that Philip II was assassinated in the theatre and Alexander the Great was proclaimed king.

Aigai has been awarded UNESCO World Heritage Site status as "an exceptional testimony to a significant development in European civilization, at the transition from classical city-state to the imperial structure of the Hellenistic and Roman periods".

It became internationally famous in 1977, when the Greek archaeologist Manolis Andronikos unearthed the burial site of the kings of Macedon, including the tomb of Philip II, father of Alexander the Great which unlike so many other tombs had not been disturbed or looted. It is also the site of an extensive royal palace and of many rich ancient tombs. A museum now contains Philip's tomb and a new museum is being constructed for the palace and other finds. The objects and paintings found in the tombs at Vergina are also of extraordinarily high quality and historical importance.


During the 8th and 7th century BC the area around Vergina was ruled by Illyrian tribes. Most scholars now believe that the Macedonians expelled the Illyrians and then established their capital at Aigai.[4]

Ancient sources give conflicting accounts of the origins of the Macedonian dynasty.[5][6] Alexander I is the first truly historic figure and, based on the line of succession, the beginnings of the Macedonian dynasty have been traditionally dated to 750 BC.[7] Herodotus says[8] that the Argead dynasty was an ancient Greek royal house led by Perdiccas I who fled from Argos, in approximately 650 BC.[9]

Aigai is said to mean "city of goats" (αἴξ is the Greek word for goat), and Diodorus Siculus says it was named so by Perdiccas I who was advised by the Pythian priestess to build the capital city of his kingdom where goats led him.[10]

From archaeology it now seems certain that Aigai developed and remained until the end an organised collection of villages spatially representing the aristocratic structure of tribes centred on the power of the king.[11] Indeed, Aigai never became a large city and most of its inhabitants lived in surrounding villages.[12]

From Aigai the Macedonians spread to the central part of Macedonia and displaced the local population of Pierians.

From 513 to 480 BC Aigai was part of the Persian Empire, but Amyntas I managed to maintain its relative independence, avoid Satrapy and extend its possessions. The city wall was built in the 5th century probably by Perdiccas II. At the end of the 5th century Archelaus I brought to his court artists, poets, and philosophers from all over the Greek world: it was, for example, at Aigai that Euripides wrote and presented his last tragedies.

At the beginning of the 4th century BC, Archelaus transferred the Macedonian capital north-east to Pella on the central Macedonian plain .[13] Nevertheless, Aegae retained its role as the sacred city of the Macedonian kingdom, the site of the traditional cult centres, a royal palace and the royal tombs. For this reason it was here that Philip II was attending the wedding of his daughter Cleopatra to King Alexander of Epirus when he was murdered by his bodyguard in the theatre.[14] His was the most lavish funeral ceremony of historic times held in Greece. Laid on an elaborate gold and ivory deathbed wearing his precious golden oak wreath, the king was surrendered, like a new Hercules, to the funeral pyre.

The bitter struggles between the heirs of Alexander, the Diadochi, in the 3rd century adversely affected the city. In 276 BC the Gauls of Pyrrhus plundered many of the tombs.

After the overthrow of the Macedonian kingdom by the Romans in 168 BC both old and new capitals were destroyed, the walls pulled down and the palace, theatre and all other buildings burnt down.[11] In the 1st century AD a landslide completely destroyed the city. However excavations prove that parts were still inhabited in the 1st century AD.[15] Between the 2nd and 5th centuries AD the population progressively moved down from the foothills of the Pierian range to the plain, and all that remained was a small settlement whose name, Palatitsia (palace), alone indicated its former importance.


Archaeologists were interested in the burial mounds around Vergina as early as the 1850s, supposing that the site of Aigai was in the vicinity. Excavations began in 1861 under the French archaeologist Leon Heuzey, sponsored by Napoleon III. Parts of a large building that was considered to be one of the palaces of Antigonus III Doson (263–221 BC), partly destroyed by fire, were discovered near Palatitsa, which preserved the memory of a palace in its modern name. However, the excavations had to be abandoned because of the risk of malaria. The excavator suggested that this was the site of the ancient city Valla, a view that prevailed until 1976.[16]

In 1937, the University of Thessaloniki resumed the excavations. More ruins of the ancient palace were found, but the excavations were abandoned on the outbreak of war with Italy in 1940. After the war the excavations were resumed, and during the 1950s and 1960s the rest of the royal capital was uncoved including the theatre.

The Greek archaeologist Manolis Andronikos became convinced that a hill called the Great Tumulus (Greek: Μεγάλη Τούμπα) concealed the tombs of the Macedonian kings. In 1977, Andronikos undertook a six-week dig at the Great Tumulus and found four buried tombs, two of which had never been disturbed. Andronikos claimed that these were the burial sites of the kings of Macedon, including the tomb of Philip II, father of Alexander the Great (Tomb II) and also of Alexander IV of Macedon, son of Alexander the Great and Roxana (Tomb III).

This view was challenged by some archaeologists, but in 2010 research[17] based on detailed study of the skeletons, vindicated Andronikos and supports the evidence of facial asymmetry caused by a possible trauma of the cranium of the male, evidence that is consistent with the history of Philip II.[18] More recent research by a team of Greek researchers has confirmed that the bones indeed belong to the Macedonian King Philip II.[19]

From 1987 the burial cluster of the queens was discovered including the tomb of Queen Eurydice. In March 2014, five more royal tombs were discovered in Vergina, possibly belonging to Alexander I of Macedon and his family or to the family of Cassander of Macedon.

Some artifacts excavated at Vergina may be treated as influenced by Asian practices or even imported from Achaemenid Persia in late 6th and early 5th centuries BC,[20] which is during the time Macedon was under the Persian sway.

The Royal Burial Cluster of Philip II

Model of Philip II's tomb

The museum of the tumulus of Philip II, which was inaugurated in 1993, was built over the tombs leaving them in situ and showing the tumulus as it was before the excavations. Inside the museum there are four tombs and one small temple, the heroon built as the temple for the burial cluster of Philip II. The two most important tombs (II and III) were not sacked and contained the main treasures of the museum. Tomb II of Philip II, the father of Alexander was discovered in 1977 and was separated in two rooms. The main room included a marble chest, and in it was the larnax made of 24 carat gold and weighing 11 kilograms, embossed with the Vergina Sun symbol. Inside the golden larnax the bones of the dead were found and a golden wreath of 313 oak leaves and 68 acorns, weighing 717 grams. In the room were also found the golden and ivory panoply of the dead, the richly-carved burial bed on which he was laid and later burned and exquisite silver utensils for the funeral feast. Other magnificent items include several gold-adorned suits of armour, weapons and bronze funeral utensils.

The golden larnax and the golden grave crown of Philip.

In the antechamber was another chest with another golden larnax containing the bones of a woman wrapped in a golden-purple cloth with a golden diadem decorated with flowers and enamel, indicating a queen (probably Philip’s Thracian wife, Meda)[21] who by tradition sacrificed herself at the funeral. Also included was another burial bed partially destroyed by the fire and on it a golden wreath representing leaves and flowers of myrtle. Above the Doric order entrance of the tomb is a magnificent wall painting measuring 5.60 metres representing a hunting scene, believed to be the work of the celebrated Philoxenos of Eretria, and thought to show Philip and Alexander.

Remains from the Funerary Pyre of Philip II

Next to him in Tomb I a distinctive member of his family (probably Nikissipoli, another of his queens), was buried just a few years before in a cist grave, found unfortunately plundered. The only wall painting in the tomb pictures the Abduction of Persephone by the God of the Underworld, the silent Demeter and the three unprejudiced Fates with Hermes, the Guide of Souls, leading the way, and a scared nymph witnessing the horrifying event. This is a unique example of ancient painting, believed to be the work of the famous painter Nikomachos, as well as one of the few surviving depictions of the ancient mystic views of afterlife.

The Couch of Philip II ornamented with Ivory
The collapsed Heroon

In 1978 Tomb III was discovered, also near the tomb of Philip, which is thought to belong to Alexander IV of Macedon son of Alexander the Great, murdered 25 years after Philip’s assassination. It is slightly smaller than the tomb II and was also not sacked. It was also arranged in two parts, but only the main room contained a cremated body. On a stone pedestal was found a fine silver hydria, which contained the cremated bones, and on it a golden oak wreath. There were also exquisite silver utensils and weaponry indicating royal status. A narrow frieze with a chariot race by a great painter decorated the walls of the tomb. The remains of a wooden mortuary couch adorned with gold and ivory is notable for an exquisite representation of Dionysos with a flute-player and a satyr.

Tomb IV, discovered in 1980, had an impressive entrance with four Doric columns though is heavily damaged and may have contained valuable treasures. It was built in the 4th century BC and may have belonged to Antigonus II Gonatas.

The great tumulus was constructed at the beginning of the third century BC (by Antigonos Gonatas) perhaps over smaller individual tumuli to protect the royal tombs from further pillaging after marauding Galati had looted and destroyed the cemetery. The hill material contained many earlier funeral stele.

The Palace

The most important building discovered is the monumental palace; located on a plateau directly below the acropolis this building of two or perhaps three storeys is centred on a large open courtyard flanked by Doric colonnades. On the north side was a large gallery that commanded the stage of the neighbouring theatre and the whole Macedonian plain. It was sumptuously decorated, with mosaic floors, painted plastered walls, and fine relief tiles. Excavations have dated construction of the palace to the reign of Philip II,[21][22] even though he also had a palace in the capital, Pella. This huge building was visible from the whole Macedonian basin; a remarkable landmark, a symbol of power and beauty. This unique building, utterly revolutionary and avant-garde for its time, was designed for Philip by an ingenious architect (probably Pytheos, known for his contribution to the construction of the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus and to the development of urban planning and the theory of proportion) would become an archetype of all basileia (kingdoms), i.e. the palaces in the Hellenistic world and beyond. The masonry and architectural members, all artfully processed, were covered with lustrous high-quality marble stucco that resembles marble and reminds us of Vitruvius’s description of the plaster used in Mausolus’s palace that shined as if made of glass. The theatre, also from the second half of the 4th century BC, forms an integral part of the palace.

The palace is considered to be not only the biggest but, together with the Parthenon, the most significant building of classical Greece.[23]

Other Tombs

Scene from the throne of Queen Eurydice
Tomb of Thessalonike of Macedon found near the palace of Aigai by K. Romaios

The cemetery of the Tumuli extends for over 3 km and has the Cemetery of the Tumuli at its heart containing over 300 grave-mounds of significant wealth and density, some as early as the 11th century BC. To the north-west of the ancient city is the important group of tombs from the 6th and 5th centuries BC belonging to members of the Macedonian dynasty and their courts.

The Cluster of the Queens includes cist and pit tombs dating to the Greco-Persian Wars era, two of which probably belong to the mother and spouse of Alexander I: the all golden “Lady of Aigai” and her female relative, in whose funeral at least twenty-six (26) small terracotta statues. One from around 340 BC with an imposing marble throne is identified as that of Eurydice, mother of Philip II. The so-called "Ionian Tomb" or "Tomb of the Roman" is an elegant Macedonian tomb containing a throne, probably belonging to queen Thessalonike.


  1. 1 2 "Απογραφή Πληθυσμού - Κατοικιών 2011. ΜΟΝΙΜΟΣ Πληθυσμός" (in Greek). Hellenic Statistical Authority.
  2. Kallikratis law Greece Ministry of Interior (Greek)
  3. "Population & housing census 2001 (incl. area and average elevation)" (PDF) (in Greek). National Statistical Service of Greece.
  4. The Ancient Greeks: A Critical History; John V. A. Fine, Harvard University Press
  5. Justin: Historiarum Philippicarum
  6. Strabo. Geography, Book 7
  7. Hammond, Nicholas Geoffrey Lemprière; Griffith, Guy Thompson (1972). A History of Macedonia: Historical Geography and Prehistory I. Oxford, United Kingdom: Clarendon Press.
  8. Herodotus. Histories, 8.137.8
  9. Ring, Trudy (1996). International Dictionary of Historic Places: Southern Europe. Taylor & Francis. p. 753. ISBN 1-884964-02-8.
  10. Sikeliotis, Diodoros or Diodorus Siculus 80-20 B.C., Historical, 7.16: " and then/Where thou shalt see white-horned goats, with fleece/Like snow, resting at dawn, make sacrifice/Upon the blessed gods upon that spot/And raise the chief city of a state."
  11. 1 2
  13. Roisman, Joseph (December 2010). A Companion to Ancient Macedonia. Wiley-Blackwell. p. 156. ISBN 978-1-4051-7936-2.
  15. “Vergina 2012: The excavation at the ‘Tsakiridis’ Section”: Styliani Drougou, professor of History and Archaeology Department, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki.
  16. M. Andronikos,"Anaskafi sti Megali Toumpa tis Verginas" Archaiologica Analekta Athinon 9(1976), 127-129.
  17. Experts question claim that Alexander the Great's half-brother is buried at Vergina, University of Bristol (UK), Press release.
  18. Musgrave J , Prag A. J. N. W., Neave R., Lane Fox R., White H. (2010) The Occupants of Tomb II at Vergina. Why Arrhidaios and Eurydice must be excluded, Int J Med Sci 2010; 7:s1-s15
  19. Roisman & Worthington 2011, p. 345.
  20. 1 2
  21. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on March 29, 2013. Retrieved March 25, 2013.

See also


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