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.

No sooner was Tomb II opened in 1977 than it became another exhibit in the fractious disputes over who might claim the ancient Macedonians as part of their cultural heritage. The ‘star of Vergina’, a 16-pointed sunburst found on the cover of the Tomb II gold larnax thought to contain the bones of Philip II, was quickly appropriated as a national symbol both by the Greeks and by citizens of the Slavic state that would like to call itself Macedonia. After gaining independence in 1991, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), as international agreements insist that it be called, put the star of Vergina on its new flag, which drew virulent opposition from Greece and even an economic embargo. (The star has been removed, but nationalists continue to fly banners showing it at rallies and demonstrations.) In 1992, just before Andronikos’s death, the Greek government awarded him the Great Cross of the Order of the Phoenix, its highest non-military honour, and a government official praised him for ‘arming the quiver of Hellenism’ against those who sought to distort or falsify Greek history. The implication was clear. Since the tombs lay well within the boundaries of the modern Greek state, and since many objects recovered from them were done in a Greek style, Andronikos’s finds could be used to buttress claims by modern Greeks that they, and not the citizens of FYROM, were the heirs of the Argead kings. The Aegae tombs had become a battleground in the war for control of the Macedonian legacy. Though Alexander the Great is the war’s biggest prize – as FYROM demonstrated last spring by erecting a monumental statue of him, sparking more Greek protests – Philip II, the military genius who in the mid-fourth century BC raised Macedon to superpower status, comes a close second.

Alexander the Great’s remains have not and will never be found at Aegae. Several ancient sources relate that his mummified body, en route to Aegae for burial, was hijacked by Ptolemy, one of his generals, and taken to Egypt, where it was displayed for centuries as a symbol of power and authority. Ultimately it disappeared. This helps to explain the huge impact of Andronikos’s discovery of an unplundered tomb which, as he claimed, belonged to Alexander’s father. A 2300-year-old loss could be partly redeemed. Though the son – who according to the then president, Konstantinos Karamanlis, ‘has served, as no other man has done, the dreams of the nation as a symbol of indissoluble unity and continuity between ancient and modern Hellenism’ – had been snatched away, his father had been recovered, his bones reverently preserved and his magnificent grave goods, including awesome symbols of military might, still in place. And there was more. An ivory carving depicting a bearded man with a wise, confident expression, found on the tomb floor with 13 similar heads, was identified by Andronikos as a portrait of Philip II, done from life. The find seemed to recapitulate the moment, a century earlier, when Heinrich Schliemann, after unearthing a gold death mask from the shaft graves at Mycenae, declared in a telegram that he had gazed on the face of Agamemnon.

But then, a few years after the initial discovery, a rival candidate emerged as the occupant of Tomb II. Philip III, a half-brother of Alexander, who was first called Arrhidaeus but later renamed after his father, died in his forties, well within the age range given for the Tomb II male remains; his wife, Adea, later renamed Eurydice, died with him, at an age plausibly within the range of the female bones. The pair were interred in 316 BC, about two decades later than Philip II. In the 1980s a number of scholars suggested that the objects in the tomb more plausibly belonged to 316 than to 336, and that the tomb itself, with its barrel-vaulted roof (according to some, an architectural form imported from Asia after Alexander’s invasion of 334), must postdate Philip II’s burial.

None of the arguments used to support either Philip has proved decisive, however. The 20-year gap between the two candidates is simply too short, at a distance of more than two millennia, for the dating of objects in the tomb to distinguish incontrovertibly between them. There has been much analysis of the male occupant’s bones, but forensic experts differ as to whether the deformations in the skull, or indications of the manner of cremation, favour Philip II or Philip III. ‘For virtually every point, a counterpoint can be found,’ Peter Green lamented in 1981, and there the matter still stands today. The tone of the debate meanwhile has become more strident, as those with long-held positions find it increasingly important to defend them – especially the Greek archaeologists at Vergina, who have steadfastly kept to Andronikos’s attributions in the on-site museum built to house his finds. A number of factors make it hard for them to backtrack, not least of which is the income derived from tourism at the site.

Philip III is a far less compelling tourist attraction and national icon than Philip II. The son wasn’t a conqueror, warrior or empire-builder, but a developmentally disabled epileptic. He came to power – if it can be called that – under the most wretched circumstances. Alexander the Great had died unexpectedly in Babylon, leaving no heir to the world’s greatest empire except the unborn child in Rhoxane’s womb. Alexander’s officers wanted to anoint that child king, provided it turned out to be a boy, but the rank and file, wary of a monarch with half-Asian blood, mutinied and backed Arrhidaeus, renaming him Philip as they crowned him. That the man had only survived this long because his mental defects rendered him unfit for rule was less important than his lineage. Philip III managed to eke out six years on the throne, passed from one regent to another as Alexander’s empire disintegrated and his generals vied for leadership, with Alexander’s son (it was a son) his junior, and equally helpless, partner. Finally he ended up on the losing side of a Macedonian civil war and was executed by Olympias, Alexander’s mother. Even in death he cut a sorry figure, for Olympias withheld due rites from his corpse and that of his queen; only after Olympias was overthrown did the pair receive regal burial (a key argument in the Tomb II debate centres on whether the occupants’ bodies were cremated many months after death). Philip III’s legacy is in every way the opposite of his father’s, embodying weakness, disunity and collapse.

The theory that Philip III, not his father, was buried in Tomb II comes with a corollary, perhaps even more dispiriting to Greek hopes for the Aegae discoveries. If Philip II was not in Tomb II, where was he? Many believe that Philip II, his wife and infant daughter were the occupants of Tomb I – the looted and empty chamber which, when Andronikos opened it, contained only three skeletons scattered on the floor. Indeed, the difficulty of finding matches for these three, if they are not Philip II and family, is among the strongest points made by Andronikos’s critics. (Andronikos thought the man in Tomb I might be Amyntas III, the father of Philip II, but this was only a guess.) The idea that it might be Philip II himself who was found, dishonoured and mistreated, on the floor of the tomb, stripped of his precious grave goods, while his half-wit son lay in splendour in Tomb II, is deeply painful from the Greek perspective. It suggests that those who regard the Macedonian tombs as part of their heritage have been robbed twice: first of Alexander the Great’s corpse, then of his father’s magnificent burial suite.

The unwillingness of Greek archaeologists and government officials to entertain this idea was put on display last spring at the Ashmolean, in an exhibition featuring finds from Aegae. The show’s wall texts and catalogue dogmatically identified every object from Tomb II as belonging to Philip II and one of his wives, and so thoroughly ignored Philip III as to omit him even from a chronological chart of the Argead kings. Curators have a right to represent their own beliefs, but the Philip III attribution has gained enough scholarly support – indeed it is at least as widely held as its rival – that to ignore it seems wilful, even unfair.[*] Museumgoers had no chance to appreciate the ambiguity of these objects, which, depending on whether one assigns them to 336 or 316, can be seen either as emblems of an empire on the rise or relics of one that was coming apart.

The one-sidedness of the Ashmolean show wasn’t unexpected, given other recent Greek-sponsored exhibitions on the Macedonians. Alexander the Great, at New York’s Onassis Cultural Centre in 2004 and 2005, was subtitled ‘Treasures from an Epic Era of Hellenism’, making it clear that the objects displayed were to be seen unequivocally as Greek. The billing of the Ashmolean show went even further in this direction. The phrase ‘Heracles to Alexander the Great’ comes from a legend according to which the Argeads traced their descent from Heracles, by way of Temenos, a king of Greek Argos. The legend was adduced in antiquity as evidence that the Argeads were Hellenes, a proposition not widely accepted by the ancient Greek city-states and still debated by scholars today. An admirably balanced essay by Johannes Engels entitled ‘Macedonians and Greeks’ and published in Blackwell’s Companion to Ancient Macedonia, reaches only mixed and provisional conclusions on this question, while noting that it has become politically vexed. By contrast, an essay by Miltiades Hatzopoulos in a rival volume, Brill’s Companion to Ancient Macedon, broadcasts its conclusions with its title, ‘Macedonians and Other Greeks’. The use of the phrase ‘Hellenic Kingdom’ in the Ashmolean show’s subtitle was similarly programmatic, as were the statements in its wall texts and catalogue, and its juxtapositions of Athenian pottery with objects from the Macedonian tombs.

In general, Brill’s Companion to Ancient Macedon, published during the Ashmolean exhibition though not connected to it, shares the outlook of the show’s organisers. Most of the contributors are Greek archaeologists, many of whom defected from the Blackwell volume in protest over one of its essays (a discussion by the anthropologist Loring Danforth of ‘the Macedonian question’ in modern Balkan politics). Several of them also wrote for the Ashmolean catalogue, as did the editor of the Brill’s Companion, Robin Lane Fox.

Lane Fox opens the volume with a thorough and highly combative defence of the attribution of Tomb II to Philip II. Combativeness is perhaps a natural trait in a historian who has given much time to Alexander (especially one who has, as Lane Fox reminds us in the essay, ridden into battle holding a Macedonian cavalry spear while serving as historical consultant to Oliver Stone’s Alexander), but Lane Fox goes to extraordinary lengths to make his case. He argues, for example, that the woman buried in Tomb II, who is estimated to have been between 20 and 30 years old, cannot be Adea, wife of Philip III, who (by a chronology that is far from certain) was probably no older than ‘19 and some months’ when she died. To put so much weight on a difference of ‘some months’, in the analysis of cremated bones more than two millennia old, seems tendentious. As for Tomb I, Lane Fox argues that the male skeleton found there belongs to a tomb robber, and that the tomb was built for the female found in it, whom he identifies as Nicesipolis, a Thessalian woman who was one of Philip II’s wives. This highly speculative theory, which would uniquely assign a grand Macedonian tomb to a minor, foreign-born queen, was adopted by the organisers of the Ashmolean exhibition and was stated on the wall texts there as if it was an established fact.

In part because of the way it resolved the Tomb II question, the Ashmolean show made Philip II its star attraction, much as previous Greek-sponsored shows have done with Alexander. Its catalogue, picking up the line advanced in the wall texts, lionises and Hellenises the Macedonian monarch. Philip is said to have been ‘chosen’ or ‘elected’ leader of the Greek city-states, without mention of the fact that he first had to crush them at the Battle of Chaeronea. His court is depicted as an ‘enlightened’ place where artists and intellectuals gathered, though ancient sources often depict it as a site of drunken violence. The hereditary monarchy that gave Philip near absolute power is somehow assimilated to the pluralistic politics of the southern Greeks. Miltiades Hatzopoulos, in an essay entitled ‘Royalty and Democracy: The Case of Macedonia’, employs the bizarre phrase ‘democratic kingship’ to describe the system, and mentions Philip II’s ‘constitution’, though the Macedonians, as far as we know, had no written laws or charter at the time. The show’s curators seem to have wanted to reshape Philip using the mould of Athenian high culture, even though many in ancient Athens, especially Demosthenes in the scorching Philippics, considered him the greatest threat to that culture.

By far the most extreme retouching of Philip’s portrait comes from Angeliki Kottaridi, who heads the archaeological team at Vergina and had a large role in the Ashmolean show and its catalogue. She chose the exhibition as the occasion to reveal her new interpretation of Aegae’s royal palace, a structure that has so far received less attention than the tombs, but which is now being fully excavated and, thanks to EU funding, restored. Kottaridi, for reasons that she lays out in her essay for the Brill volume, would like to move back by several decades the date previously assumed for the palace’s construction, so that it belongs to the reign of Philip II. Her claims for the palace, and for the man she thinks built it, are rapturous. She compares it to the Parthenon in beauty and complexity, and calls it ‘the greatest building in classical Greece’ (a statement that doesn’t miss the opportunity to declare the Macedonians Greek). She regards it as ‘the intellectual manifesto of the “ideal state”, a tangible expression of enlightened leadership’. In the proportions of its elements, which sometimes conform to the golden ratio celebrated by Pythagoras and Plato, she discovers Philip’s interest – slenderly attested in ancient sources – in the writings and thought of those philosophers. It remains to be seen whether Kottaridi’s redating of the Aegae palace will stand up to scrutiny, but her determination to create a philosophic Philip as the building’s mastermind doesn’t inspire confidence in her objectivity.

Philip II was a master manipulator of opinion, especially when dealing with the Athenians whose endorsement he so coveted. He knew that small, highly visible displays of enlightenment, like hiring Aristotle to tutor his son, could win him support among sophisticated Greeks. It would be a strange irony indeed if, after all the ancient Athenians did to unmask and resist him, Philip succeeded in winning the hearts of their modern heirs. Yet it appears this is happening, in part because he is the closest thing the Greeks have to a pater patriae – a leader who, albeit by force of arms, unified the Balkan peninsula, making it into something resembling modern Hellas. If Kottaridi’s interpretation of the Aegae palace holds, and its reconstruction proceeds, the archaeological site at Vergina will become, even more insistently than it is already, a shrine to Philip II, and a bulwark against the claims of the neighbouring FYROM to his legacy. As the issue has become polarised and politicised, the protection of established positions has become a top priority. Consensus may be further off than ever on who was found inside the golden boxes in the structure that Andronikos, with all too prescient ambiguity, proclaimed ‘Philip’s Tomb’.

[*] 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.