Who was in Tomb II?

James Romm

  • Heracles to Alexander the Great: Treasures from the Royal Capital of Macedon, a Hellenic Kingdom in the Age of Democracy by Angeliki Kottaridi et al
    Ashmolean, 264 pp, £25.00, April 2011, ISBN 978 1 85444 254 3
  • A Companion to Ancient Macedonia edited by Joseph Roisman and Ian Worthington
    Wiley-Blackwell, 668 pp, £110.00, November 2010, ISBN 978 1 4051 7936 2
  • Brill’s Companion to Ancient Macedon: Studies in the Archaeology and History of Macedon, 650 BC–300 AD edited by Robin Lane Fox
    Brill, 642 pp, €184.00, June 2011, ISBN 978 90 04 20650 2

Almost 35 years ago, the Greek archaeologist Manolis Andronikos opened a large, unplundered chamber tomb in the northern Greek village of Vergina, and a great controversy began. The tomb housed the cremated remains of a man aged between 35 and 55 and of a younger woman, a pair Andronikos soon identified as the Macedonian king Philip II – father of Alexander the Great, builder of the army and the European empire that gave his son the means to conquer the world – and one of his seven wives. But it was not long before different candidates were proposed, as experts started to examine the evidence. Today the debate over Tomb II, one of three large chamber tombs excavated by Andronikos at Vergina, is more contentious than ever. The tomb is now the focal point for a Greek nationalist mythology built around the figure of Philip II, as revealed by the efforts of Vergina’s current excavators to turn the Macedonian military chief into a Hellenic philosopher-king.

Among those who have studied Andronikos’s finds there is widespread agreement on only two points. One is that the site at Vergina represents the ancient city of Aegae, the original capital and ceremonial centre of the Macedonian state, making the huge earthen mound at the bottom of which Andronikos found the three chamber tombs the burial ground of the Argeads, the royal dynasty of Macedonia from its earliest days until the late fourth century BC. The second point on which most agree is that the third of Andronikos’s tombs, discovered undisturbed under the mound in 1979, housed the last member of that dynasty, Alexander IV, son of Alexander the Great, who was interred around 308 BC. This identification is based on a rough dating of objects in the tomb and analysis of the cremated bones, which belonged to a male in early adolescence (Alexander IV is known to have been murdered by his political enemies at around the age of 13). Such evidence is the best that can be gleaned, for none of the tombs has writings or inscriptions securely identifying its occupants, unlike, say, the royal burials of the Egyptians (a few experts in Macedonian studies continue to doubt that any of Andronikos’s tombs belonged to the Argead kings).

The near certainty of the attribution of Tomb III to Alexander IV helps to establish that the nearby Tombs I and II were also Argead royal burials. The sober, reverent designs of all three tombs imitate contemporary Greek temples. Tomb I had been plundered in antiquity and its only contents were scattered bones belonging to a man, a woman and an infant, but the gorgeous frescoes on its walls – scenes from the rape of Persephone by Hades – attest to the high status of its occupants. Tomb II also revealed a masterpiece of ancient painting, a spectacular hunting scene showing ten men – just who they are is debated, but the central figure seemed to Andronikos to be the young Alexander – spearing various kinds of game, displayed on a panel fitted into the pediment. The objects found inside Tombs II and III were precious and beautiful: exquisite silver vessels for mixing and drinking wine, parade-quality armour and weaponry, ivory carvings and elaborately adorned wooden furniture, most of it long decayed. The bones of both tombs’ occupants had been washed in wine and covered with purple cloth before interment, as befitting monarchs; those in Tomb II were then enclosed in chests (larnaxes) made of pure gold, while those in Tomb III were sealed inside a silver drinking vessel. Gold wreaths of astonishing workmanship, imitating garlands of myrtle and oak, were placed on all three sets of remains, and above two of the sealed tombs shrines were established, so that the occupants of the tombs could in effect be worshipped.

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[*] As editor of The Landmark Arrian: The Campaigns of Alexander, I included an appendix on the Vergina tombs by Eugene Borza that inclines strongly towards the Philip III attribution. Jonathan Hall, in a thorough and balanced review of the evidence in his forthcoming Artifact and Artifice: Classical Archaeology and the Ancient Historian, thinks Philip III is the more likely of the two candidates. Hall also advances the intriguing idea that Tomb II was originally intended for Alexander the Great, which would explain some of its anomalous features.