Alexandria's founded by Alexander

Alexandria's founded by Alexander the Great (by year BC): 334 Alexandria in Troia (Turkey) - 333 Alexandria at Issus/Alexandrette (Iskenderun, Turkey) - 332 Alexandria of Caria/by the Latmos (Alinda, Turkey) - 331 Alexandria Mygdoniae - 331 Alexandria (Egypt) - 330 Alexandria in Areia (Herat, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria of the Prophthasia/in Drangiana/Phrada (Farah, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria in Arachosia (Kandahar, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria in Caucasus (Begram, Afghanistan) - 329 Alexandria of the Paropanisades (Ghazni, Afghanistan) - 329 Alexandria Eschate or Ultima (Khodjend, Tajikistan) - 329 Alexandria on the Oxus (Ai-Khanoum, Afghanistan) - 329 Alexandria in Margiana (Merv, Turkmenistan) - 326 Alexandria Nicaea (on the Hydaspes, India) - 326 Alexandria Bucephala (on the Hydaspes, India) - 325 Alexandria Sogdia - 325 Alexandria Rambacia (Bela, Pakistan) - 325 Alexandria Oreitide - 325 Alexandria in Opiene (confluence of Indus & Acesines, India) - 325 Alexandria on the Indus - 325 Alexandria Xylinepolis (Patala, India) - 325 Alexandria in Carminia (Gulashkird, Iran) - 324 Alexandria-on-the-Tigris/Antiochia-in-Susiana/Charax (Spasinou Charax on the Tigris, Iraq) - ?Alexandria of Carmahle? (Kahnu)

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Olynthus and its houses

Several months ago in the frame of the exhibition on Alexander the Great at the Hermitage in Amsterdam, I attended a lecture about Macedonia where one of the subjects treated was the city of Olynthus.

To me, Olynthus was a city repeatedly besieged by King Philip, Alexander’s father, in his attempt to create a united Macedonia and in the end he razed it from the map, flattening the entire place in a final crush. So, it would be interesting to learn more about this part of history. As it turned out, this was not to be the main focus of the lecture, it were to be the houses of Olynthus and I was in for several surprises!

The town is located in southwestern Chalcidice, covering two flat-topped hills in the middle of a fertile plain, about ten kilometers north of Potideia. The origin of Olynthus goes back to its mythological founder, Olynthus, son of Heracles, but the oldest remains date from Neolithic times in the third millennium BC, which were destroyed by the Persians in 479 BC.

We owe it to King Perdiccas II of Macedonia to order local tribes and settlements to move to Olynthus. This increase in population led to the true organization of the city which soon covered the entire north hill. It is here that the new city was built according to a grid plan, better known as the Hippodamian plan. Hippodamus of Milete (498-403 BC), although an eccentric figure in his time, was the father of urban planning. He conceived the city layout with wide straight streets crossing each other at square angles, inevitably leading to an ample space in its very center where the Agora would emerge so the citizens could meet and greet in one central location. The first city to be build according to this principle was, of course, Miletus in Asia Minor, but the idea took on rather quickly, and Olynthus as well as Pella were to be built this way (eventually lavishly implemented by Alexander the Great when he founded his many cities in the east and generously copied by the practical Romans).

From 432 BC onward Olynthus’ power rose substantially to become the leader of the Chalcidian League, a confederation of 32 cities on the Chalcidice peninsula. Both Athens and Macedonia would love to have Olynthus as an ally rather than as their enemy, but an alliance with Olynthus never lasted long as they kept changing camp according to their own whims.

In 357 BC, King Philip II managed to conclude a peace treaty with Olynthus and its allies, i.e. against Athens (part of this text is being kept at the nearby Museum of Polygyros). But a couple of years later, Olynthus changed its mind again and sought alliance with Athens, who in return did nothing or close to nothing to help them. At first, Philip maneuvered in such a way as to isolate Olynthus by taking one neighboring city after the other, and thus seriously cutting down its power. In 348 BC he besieged Olynthus and razed it to the ground. Useless to point out that the speaker in Amsterdam had my undivided attention, and it was obvious I had to see Olynthus for myself on my next trip to Macedonia – which I did.

Because Olynthus has been (nearly) completely flattened, it is easy get a good overview of its layout. Although hardly 1/10th of the total area has been excavated, two large avenues, 7 meters wide, clearly stand out with smaller streets dividing the city in blocks (a familiar sight in major American cities today!). Each block counted ten houses, each with one upper floor and a paved yard. Amazingly, some of the earliest floor mosaics in Greek art have been discovered here!

It is surprising to learn that most of the houses have a similar ground plan which is commonly referred to as “pastas houses”, i.e. roughly squares of 17 x 17 meters, divided in two almost equal parts, while the northern half is again divided in two. This means that the walls and supporting columns are all placed according to a common rule which is required by the fact that one single roof covers all the northern halves in the entire row of houses. Life evolved around a central courtyard situated in the southern half which opened onto the long northern portico, i.e. the “pastas”. This portico was the focal point in each house, a convenient and comfortable working area. Nearly all the rooms opened directly to the court or to the pastas. It so turns out that the houses in Olynthus were non-hierarchical, meaning that there were no main or dominant rooms, nor was there any backroom. This is what differentiates them from the “prostas” type of houses which the Romans built in later years.


All Olynthian houses had a room dedicated as a kitchen area, sometimes with a built in hearth, and another small room assigned to bathing as several bathtubs have been found in situ with their pertaining drainage system. But what stroke me most during this lecture was the illustration of the rooms used as “andron”. Now the “andron” is a kind of formal dining room, only for men of course, which was mainly used for the Greek “symposiums”. These were dinner parties in which the host took care of entertaining his guests, deciding on the subject to be debated during the long eating and drinking séances, and making sure the appropriate amount of water was mixed with the wine. There were music players, but also young boys and hetaerae to be at the entire service of the guests. After a few hours, it is obvious that things ran out of hand and the mosaic floors were useful assets when it came to cleaning up the mess the guests made of food, wine and vomit. In Olynthus these “androns” usually were square rooms of approximately 5 x 5 meters, with plastered and painted walls around which a raised border of about one meter high indicates the place for the couches (klinè). Because of their setting against the walls, the “androns” in Olynthus could hold seven “klinè”, which meant that the room entrance was off center. The floor was drained by a pipe running through the walls straight into the street, an efficient way to clean up after a messy revelry.

Now there seem also to be considerable variations in these house plans, where some have larger “androns”, others larger kitchens or general rooms. A number of houses had special workrooms and shops, with an opening to the street. Beside that, the houses on one block could be very distinctive from those on another block, perhaps because of a different social status or people exercising a different trade.

Armed with all this background information, I’m off to see Olynthus for myself! The city is located within easy reach from Thessaloniki, driving south till the freeway turns into a local road and making sure to turn left in Nea Moudania instead of driving on to the peninsula of Kassandra. The antique city now referred to as Megale Toumba lies on the eastern side of the river Olynthios, as the modern town has relocated on the opposite side. The place is fenced and the access path equals a walk in the park, which in spring bursts with a wide range of flowers and blossoming bushes of all kinds where the busy bees are having a party.

Soon the road runs uphill and I am treated to the first overall view over the remains of this once so proud city. The walls are about knee-high and that is mainly thanks to the reconstruction works carried out by the archeologists. They have done an excellent job here, inserting a pinkish layer of cement where the original stones end and the newly restored ones have been added. It is a clear example of what is meant by “razed to the ground” as historians tell us, for that would have offered us very little to see. I stare immediately into one of the main streets running slightly uphill giving the impression of an aerial view. Modern excavators have named these avenues while the smaller cross roads are labeled as streets. At more or less regular intervals the excavators have placed boards with pertaining information about the streets and the houses, so that even the unprepared visitor will find the answers he is looking for.

I follow one of the side streets to its dead end against the city wall, where the sewage conduct that runs underneath this street nicely continues through the wall out of the city. I now remember how during the lecture I was told that the walls of the city and the houses might have had only stone basis whereas the top part was built in brick or mud. That would partially explain how Olynthus was destroyed to the ground, although it was located in a strategic and well defendable position. The Olynthians put up a fierce fight! It took Philip nearly two years to conquer the city with a short interruption for a campaign in Thessaly. At any rate, his army found the time to engrave their spearheads with a personal message “ΦΙΛΙΠΠO”, from Philip. The king and his army must have had quite a sense of humor! Some of these spearheads can be admired at the nearby Museum of Polygyros, exciting stuff!

In most of the houses, the wells have been located and nicely preserved – covered with a grid to keep the absent-minded visitor from falling into the pit. I come across one well with the restored wooden frame around it, very interesting. And then there are the floor mosaics that were left in their original location. As I mentioned above, these are till now the oldest examples found and show very well preserved geometrical motives framed within typical Greek bands. They are definitely comparable to the better known mosaics at Pella, although not as “royal” maybe. I recognize the Macedonian sun in one of them while the corners are filled with volutes supporting the wave pattern around the sun. Another one shows a hunter on horseback, wearing the typical Macedonian hat as he rides in full gallop like in the images we have seen of Alexander the Great. One entrance exposes a deer being attacked by two griffons, delicately worked out in small pebbles. Breathtaking to watch!


The Bouleterion that has been discovered is in rather poor state with no seats left, only the socles of the columns that once supported the roof. And in the corner next to it are the remains of a fountain or Nympheon, also partially reconstructed above the ever-present pinkish cement line.

Now, one of the reasons why Philip so thoroughly flattened Olynthus may have been the fact that the city had given asylum to two of his half-brothers, possible pretenders to the throne of Macedonia. This, however, we may never know for sure, but the brothers were killed – problem solved.

At the foot of this hill is a small museum, offering an exhibition of pictures taken before, during and after the restoration of the site but it also includes some aerial views that can be very helpful for those who want some extra orientation.

To conclude, I would like to mention that Callisthenes (ca. 370-327 BC), the biographer of Alexander the Great who accompanied him on all his campaigns, was born here in Olynthus. All this proves that Olynthus was not just any city, but a city with lots of history to tell.

[Click here to see all the pictures of Olynthos}

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Philip vs. Demosthenes, an ongoing business - Macedonia forged by Philip II - 7

Philip vs. Demosthenes, an ongoing business (351 BC)
In an attempt to simplify things, I generally am skipping the names of kings, generals or other people involved in all these skirmishes, negotiations, and battles but I would like to make one exception for Demosthenes. Athens, as it turned out, was Philip’s bitterest enemy and Demosthenes was the politician who put it into words. Athens was a democracy where people had the final say in all matters through the Assembly which would address the issues and vote by a show of hands. Another important component was the Boulé or Council that would set up the agenda of the Assembly and serve as its advisor while meeting on a daily basis. A number of men took advantage of their rhetorical skills to address the people and one of them was Demosthenes, who earned the reputation as the greatest Greek writer of speeches, but if he did so out of patriotism or simply to attack Philip’s credibility remains to be proven. In any case, he was highly influential in Athens’ decision to support Olynthus against Philip as he wrote an extensive speech for each call for help, known as the three Olynthiacs.

The fact is that Demosthenes did not realize that the days of Athens’ polis system were counted and that he could have given Philip at least a chance to rally on an equal basis when he made this overture. It was clear that Philip could make a decision and act upon it immediately while the Athenian system was slow and by the time they reached a decision it was often too late. Philip had raised a vast number of soldiers and could draw forces from Thessaly or other allies if needed. Because of the Third Sacred War at their doorstep, the Greeks had allowed this to happen and by the time this war was over some ten years later they had no way to stop Philip anymore. But we are not there yet.

With his power growing, Philip felt the time was right to seek a personal revenge by attacking Thebes. He had not forgotten his years there as a hostage; relations between Macedonia and Thebes had never been easy and now that he was more involved in the matters of Central Greece he was not going to miss the opportunity to teach them a lesson. He could not, of course, turn openly against Thebes but used Athens and Phocis, working behind the scenes. His manipulation would ultimately lead to ending the Third Sacred War and the war with Athens over Amphipolis. Everybody in Athens, including Demosthenes, believed this and thought it wise to make peace with Philip before he would set off to make more conquests. What Philip really wanted was a treaty of peace and alliance where he and the Athenians were equals, something that probably did not sink in with the Athenians.

Click here to read the full story about Philip II from the beginning

Friday, September 9, 2011

Philip is bouncing back - Macedonia forged by Philip II - 6

Philip is bouncing back (352 BC)
Philip was not going to sit idle on his hands, of course. He had learned his lesson (one that even Alexander was aware of as we witness later on in history) and his first step was to restore the troops’ morale and their confidence in him as a king. He had to keep his army busy and victorious. Keeping Macedonia’s borders safe was not enough, he needed to expand in Greece or even in Asia.


With his head high, Philip marched his new inspired army into Thessaly in 352 BC and ordered his men to wear crowns of laurel as they went into battle – a highly symbolic sign to show that he was fighting for a religious cause, on behalf op Apollo “as though the god were going before” (cfr. Justin, Diodorus) and not merely for revenge or on behalf of his Thessalian allies. In a well orchestrated attack of cavalry and infantry together with the Thessalians, Philip soon annihilated the Phocians on what is called the Crocus Field. As the story goes, a large number of them simply fled out of guilt when they saw the crowned Macedonians attacking on behalf of their god. Over 6,000 Phocians and mercenaries were killed in battle; 3,000 were captured and drowned as to punish them for the sacrilege of seizing Delphi. No mercy, that is clear. This battle restored Philip’s leadership and the confidence of his army, which he never lost again.

Philip immediately saw his opportunity to secure Macedonia’s southern border by stabilizing the situation in Thessaly. An agreement was signed at Pherae, consolidated by his marriage with a local woman named Nicesipolis (she died 20 days after giving birth to their daughter Thessalonice, meaning ‘Thessalian Victory’). It hereby became clear that whoever defected from the Thessalian League of city-states also defected from Philip. His position was so strong now that he was elected archon (leader) for life, a highly exceptional nomination as he was not a Thessalian. The Third Sacred War was at a stalemate.

I am really amazed to see how often the Macedonian army is marching up and down northern Greece, crossing it time and again from east to west or vice versa.

By now, the Athenians had regained their influence over the Chersonese, and eastern Thrace, fickle as ever, had abandoned Philip once again. On top of that Olynthus had sued for peace with Athens. High time for Philip to reassert his presence and chance worked in his favor. Late 352 BC he was asked to assist a coalition of Central Thrace, Byzantium and Perinthus (two cities inside the territory of eastern Thrace) in besieging the fortress town of Heraion Teichos, close to Perinthus. He marched his army east, took the town and returned it to Perinthus, presumably its original owner. This may sound a trivial intervention but it meant another blow for the Athenians who jealously wanted to keep the corn route from the Black Sea in their hands. We should not forget that each spring Athenian ships loaded with wheat from the Danube and Maritza basins, sailed down via Byzantium, the Hellespont and further across the Aegean to Athens. On this route they badly needed safe-havens for their precious cargo and now Philip was threatening their supply line.

Philip now turned to Olynthus where it did not come to open war, a stern warning seemed to have done the trick - for now at least. After a short intervention in Epirus where Philip extended his power by taking his nephew Alexander, i.e. Olympias younger brother, with him to court at Pella, he turned his full attention again to the peninsula of Chalcidice. The Olynthians still made trouble in spite of their treaty of 357 BC and Philip’s earlier warning.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Philip’s involvement in the Sacred Wars - Macedonia forged by Philip II - 5

Philip’s involvement in the Sacred Wars (355 BC)
But soon thereafter another situation called for Philip’s full attention when in 356 BC the state of Phocis seized Delphi, the home of Apollo’s oracle. His involvement in this Sacred War could and would boost Macedonia’s power dramatically.

Now the very name of Sacred War raises some questions with most of us and we tend to associate or compare it with our Crusaders heading for the Holy Land in the Middle-Ages. Yet, nothing is less true. Here it is all about the oracle site of Delphi, which the Greeks considered to be far too important for a single state or city to control. As a result they created an association of states called the Amphictyonic League to protect them - the word “amphictyony” meaning as much as “those that dwell around or near”. This Amphictyonic League was very powerful and at some point even counted as much as 24 states. This League was led by a Council functioning as its executive arm. So, whenever the oracle was violated, the Amphictyonic Council  would meet and could declare a Sacred War against the offending state, calling to the other league members to defend the rights of the Delphian Apollo.

The Third Sacred War that lasted from 355 till 346 BC was the one in which Philip got involved, fighting over the occupation of Delphi by Phocis, roughly the territory locked between Thessaly and Attica, because the Phocians cultivated land on which the sacrificial animals of Delphi were kept. But there was also a matter of unpaid fines, not only by Phocis but by other states as well, which made matters worse.

This situation escalated when Phocis tried to take advantage of the hostile feelings between Thebes - then a formidable military power - on one side, and Athens and Sparta on the other; while taking sides with Athens, Phocis arrogantly invaded Delphi with a nice promise to protect its treasuries. A sensitive matter since this is the place where beside the famous oracle, precious offerings and money from all over Greece were kept. All the states got involved one way or another and in 355 BC the Amphictyonic Council  declared the Sacred War against Phocis.


Phocis stubbornly went on the warpath, bluntly seizing part of the temple’s treasury in order to hire mercenaries, some ten thousand of them. It is interesting to learn from Ian Worthington that a mercenary in those days was nothing like what we understand it to be today. And I quote: “Mercenaries formed a distinct group that was an accepted part of Greek society; they had their own identity as a group regardless of where they came from, and they played a political and economic role in relations between states. States and generals who provided or led mercenary armies for rulers and the like made political and trading contacts with them. The Greeks had no word for ‘mercenary’ as such, but instead used terms like epikouros, ‘fighter-alongside’, misthophoros, ‘ wage-earner’ and xenos misthophoros, ‘foreign wage-earner’ (cfr Philip of Macedonia, Ian Worthington).” This army defeated the states of eastern Thessaly, splitting the territory in two. Facing this threatening situation, Larissa in eastern Thessaly turned to Philip for help. But Philip was busy laying siege on Methone, and when that was taken care of the next summer (354 BC) he went on to take four towns in eastern Thrace which were key ports on Athens’ corn route from the Black Sea.


Yet Larissa’s call for help was something that Philip could not ignore as Macedonia’s southern border could not be compromised. Besides, it was a convenient stepping stone for him to get more closely involved in the politics of Central Greece. Surprisingly and unexpectedly, Philips’ army was defeated by the Phocians – or should I say by the mercenaries they had hired. Antique sources tell us that Philip’s army had fallen into a trap set by Phocis, and that the king had to leave behind a large number of dead and injured soldiers. Of the men still alive, many deserted him and it was only with great difficulty that he instilled them enough courage and discipline to obey his orders in the retreat.

The outcome of this battle rattled like a thunderbolt through the streets of Eastern Thrace and Athens, followed by Illyria, Paeonia and even Epirus who all welcomed a potential disintegration in Philip’s power. Eastern Thracia was the first to renew its alliance with Athens which meant a serious blow to Philip’s arduous diplomatic maneuvers. Then Olynthus, in spite of its treaty of 357 BC with Philip, sought an alliance with Athens. The blow must have hit Philip very hard, making him realize how vulnerable Macedonia still was and how easily it could fall back in the chaos he found when he became king.