Journey through Ancient Greece

Veryína (ancient Aigai)

Photography is not allowed in the tumulus.

It was only in 1976 that the dramatic discovery of tombs by Manolis Andonikos, later confirmed to include that of Philip II of Macedon, was made, followed in 1981 by the excavation of the royal palace and theatre, confirming that this was indeed ancient Aigai. This was the most exciting archaeological discovery in Greece since Mycenae, just 100 years earlier. Until three or four years ago the fabulous finds from the tombs were exhibited in the archaeological museum in Thessaloniki (as many guide books still say) but they are now displayed magnificently in the reconstructed tumulus here at Veryína. The light inside is very subdued (don't wear dark glasses) and care is needed especially going down the ramps to the tombs. (It's probably not worth taking these notes in as it is too dark to read them!)

Aigai was the capital of Macedon from the time of Perdikas I until the reign of Arkelaos in the late 5th century BC when the capital was moved to Pella. After the move Aigai continued to be the royal burial ground and the venue for important ceremonial events and so it was here that Philip and all the royal family came in 336 BC for the wedding of his daughter Cleopatra to her mother's brother, Alexander, King of Epiros.

The Great Tumulus This is a real treat.

There are three Macedonian tombs in the tumulus which is 100 metres diameter and was constructed after the excavations to resemble the ancient tumulus within which the tombs were found. You are directed round clockwise coming first to a tomb plundered in antiquity known as the 'Doric Tomb' or the 'tomb of the free standing columns'.

Next is the tomb known as the tomb of Persephone after the painting of the Abduction of Persephone by Hades which decorates one of the walls; on another wall is the goddess Demeter grieving for her daughter. The paintings in the tomb are all of high quality (although now very faint) and are attributed to the painter Nikomakos.

The tomb of Philip II is one the largest Macedonian tombs so far excavated, about 10 metres long and 6 metres wide, it is made of poros stone and has two chambers, an ante chamber and the burial chamber. Marble double doors are surrounded by a Doric facade with an exceptionally large and very fine frieze above; this is now quite damaged but we can just make out the hunting scene (the rider in the centre may be Alexander). In the ante chamber a gold ossuary 'larnax' was found containing a gold wreath of myrtle leaves and flowers and the bones of a young woman, thought to be Philip's last wife, Cleopatra, wrapped in gold embroidered purple cloth.

In the burial chamber itself was a marble sarcophagus with another gold larnax inside, made of nearly 8 kilos of pure gold and decorated with the royal sixteen pointed star and lion paw feet, this contained the bones of the king. The skull in the larnax showed signs of a facial wound matching the description of the one Philip is said to have had. (The bones used to be on display in the museum at Thessaloniki, but have now been reburied with due ceremony at Veryina.) Inside also was a splendid oak leaf gold wreath, weighing over 700 grammes it has 313 leaves and 68 acorns. On the floor were many objects including about twenty silver vessels, an iron and gold cuirass, and a gold and ivory shield. In both chambers were chryselephantine (ivory and gold) biers which have been carefully restored; the one in Philip's burial chamber was decorated with exquisite tiny ivory carvings including several portraits thought to be of the royal family including Philip, Alexander's mother Olympias, and Alexander himself.

All these finds from the tomb are now superbly displayed in the tumulus.

The final tomb is known as the Prince's Tomb as it is thought to be the burial place of Alexander IV, son of Alexander and his wife Roxana, born after Alexander's death. Together with his mother he was murdered in 311 BC at the age of about 14, by Kassander, husband of Alexander's sister, Thessaloníki. This is a smaller tomb, very elegant with painted shields either side of the marble doors. Above the tryglyph were painted panels on leather or wood which has perished. Inside, on a poros stone table, stood a silver funerary urn with a gold wreath around it. In the antechamber (hidden from our view behind the doors) is a well preserved wall painting of a chariot race.

The Royal Palace of Palatítsia, a short drive from the tombs, is very ruined, there is no information in English and it is difficult to make sense of. (Last year it was also very muddy.) But I think it is worth a short visit, and there is a fine oak tree! Closed 2008

Built of brick in the second half of the 4th century BC it stands on a large terrace overlooking the plain; a large veranda on the north side enabled the king to survey his kingdom below as far as the eye could see. The design was essentially that of the conventional Greek house plan with rooms around a central courtyard with porticoes and colonnades.

We come first to the monumental entrance in the centre of the east wing which was two storeys high. To the left of the entrance, before entering the courtyard, is the most sacred part of the palace, the tholos, dedicated to Herakles Patroos. This was a circular room with a mosaic floor. On the south side were large rooms with marble thresholds and fine pebble mosaic floors, where the 'symposia', drinking parties, were held. (One mosaic remains but it is covered up to protect it from the elements.) On the west side were three even larger and more luxurious rooms, probably banqueting halls. with marble inlay pavements (opus sectile), and walls decorated in stucco painted red, yellow, white and black. Above these were the king's apartments. The palace was home not only to the royal family but also friends, warriors and 'hetairoi' (companions). It appears to have been a luxurious place and the architectural features, many of which are now in the Louvre, are of very high quality.

The Theatre There is very little to see here but just imagine - this is where the assassination of Philip II of Macedon took place! Closed 2008

It is set just below the palace and was built at the same time. So little remains that it is hard to believe that this was one of the biggest theatres in ancient Greece. It was one of the first where stone was used. The eight passageways which divided the cavea into nine cunei were paved with stone, and the seats of the first row were stone; the rest were wooden and have not survived. The stone drainage channel around the edge of the orchestra remains pretty well intact. The parodoi, entrances to the theatre, were 15 metres long, with the one at the east leading to the Palace, so it would have been down here that Philip came, proudly acknowledging the cheers of the crowd that filled the theatre.

  'Straight he set in motion plans for gorgeous sacrifices to the gods joined with the wedding of his daughter Cleopatra, whose mother was Olympías...

So great numbers of people flocked together from all directions to the festival, and the games and the marriage were celebrated in Aigai in Macedonia....

Every seat in the theatre was taken when Philip appeared wearing a white cloak, and by his express orders his bodyguard held away from him and followed only at a distance, since he wanted to show publicly that he was protected by the goodwill of all the Greeks, and he had no need of a guard of spearmen. Such was the pinnacle of success that he had attained, but as the praises and congratulations of all rang in his ears, suddenly without warning the plot against the king was revealed as death struck..'

Diodoros XVI


Alexander, Philip's son and Cleopatra's brother (as opposed to Alexander the new husband of Cleopatra!) was here for the wedding and witnessed the death of his father. Immediately after the assassination the twenty year old prince was proclaimed king, here in the theatre, and Philip was buried in the royal burial ground nearby.

  '....In this year Alexander, succeeding to the throne, first inflicted punishment on his father's murderers, and then devoted himself to the funeral of his father. He established his authority far more firmly than any did in fact suppose possible...'
Diodoros XVII

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