Excerpt from "The Hellenism of the Ancient Macedonians"
Apostolos Dascalakis, Professor, University of Athens
(Institute for Balkan Studies, Thessalonike, 1965)

(Ed. M.D.Stratis)

The founding of the Macedonian kingdom and the ancestor of its royal house are both veiled in the mists of prehistoric Greek antiquity. Greeks belonging to the 5th century B.C. city-states first came into direct contact with their brethren who were isolated among the barbarians north of Olympus and Pindus, mainly after the Persian Wars (499-479 B.C.) and more so during their subsequent quarrels during the Peloponnesian War (431-404 B.C.), many events of which took place on Macedonian soil among the Chalcidice colonies.

But this was some centuries distant from the foundation of the state of Macedonia. During the centuries, poetic legends and traditions had arisen and given the classical Greeks a basis on which to account for and interpret Macedonia's historical past. Herodotus and Thucydides, the foremost historians of the 5th century, limit themselves to these traditions whenever they happen to speak of the Macedonians' past and the foundations of their realm, while Euripides makes of the Macedonian legend, as he does of others belonging to Greek prehistory, a subject for dramatic poetry. Historians, chroniclers and biographers from the middle of the 4th century on, caught up in the dazzle of events almost beyond human ken, which occurred during the reigns of Philip II and Alexander the Great, destined to change the fate of Greece and the whole course of her history, had but to collect, or on occasion to link in a more fascinating way, the legends and traditions concerning the founder of the glorious, and by then renowned Argaed dynasty, to the beginning of the state, for which so splendid a destiny has been reserved.

As was natural, modern historical research has been devoted since the last century to studying this question of the founding of the Macedonian kingdom and the origin of its royal house with the keenest interest, the more so for its close affinity with the whole ethnological subject of ancient Macedonia and its people.

Greek popular legends of antiquity, which reflect beliefs and in many cases facts whose historical root is lost in centuries past, attributed divine origins to the most prominent royal houses of the prehistoric and early historical period. Traditions developed from these myths placed the kingly house of Aegae (Vergina) in Macedonia among the Heracleid Temenids, thus linking it "warp and woof" with the full cycle of archaic Hellenism's sagas.

It can be considered certain that the kings of Macedonia did not shape these traditions of their descent from the Heracleids of Argos, drawing them from Greek literature of classical times, nor made them up to imitate the myths current in Greek cities about the divine descent of their most illustrious regal families, but had cherished them, handed down from one generation to another since time immemorial, as the Lares and Penates of their hearths and folk. In fact, when shortly before the Persian Wars the kings of Macedonia appeared on the Greek historical scene, they themselves announced their origin, proudly proclaiming the Argaead legends as their very own, unquestionably so on the ground of a family tradition centuries old.

Ancient Traditions about the First Argaead King

As the first written record of the Greek legend about the Macedonian Argaeads we may regard Aeschylus' lines in the play "The Suppliants," where the poet introduces Pelasgus, king of Argos, common ancestor of the Doric branch of Greeks, boasting that his race rules as far as the pure waters of the Strymon (end note 1). On the basis of the age-long legend handed down by the Greeks from prehistorical times, Aeschylus indirectly proclaims the descent of the Macedonians from the Doric branch and directly tells us about their origin from the Argive Heracleids, as those who ruled "the land of the Perrhaibians," "beyond Pindus," "near the Paeonians," "in the Dodona mountains" and "all the territory through which the pure Strymon flows."

Because of the generally believed descent of these people from the Dorians, who claimed Pelasgus as their common ancestor and revered Heracles as their nonpareil national hero, Aeschylus with poetic elation somewhat broadens the legend about the Argaeads, to include the peoples of Thessaly and Epirus, whose royal families had their own traditions of descent from the gods. But it is clear that it chiefly concerns those living between Pindus, the Dodona mountains and the Strymon, in other words the Macedonians whose royal house traced its descent to the Argive Temenids. Thus, the poet who is the bearer par excellence of pan-Hellenic traditions and ideals, the fighter at Salamis and singer of the all-Greek surge against the invader from Asia, believes Macedonia to be a Greek land, and broadcasts its royal house's descent, according to Greek legend, from the Hellenic pantheon.

But Herodotus, the father of history, himself hands on to us the legend of Macedonia's Argaeo-Temenids in no uncertain way. What is more, he does not confine himself to one graphic vivid account, but repeats or alludes to this saga at many points of his work, in order to interpret historical facts or support the thread of his own narrative.

According to his version of the story, three brothers descended from the Heracleid Temenos, who founded the Heracleid dynasty of Argos, namely Gauanes, Aeropus and Perdiccas, left Argos and went to Illyria, whence they reached Upper Macedonia and were employed as shepherds by the king of the small city of Lebaea. This monarch, warned by divine portents of the future glory destined for the youngest brother Perdiccas - the bread baked for him by the queen swelled to double its size - sent them away, giving them in mockery the sun which came through the chimney hole as their wages. Young Perdiccas circumscribed the space occupied by the sun with a knife and with symbolic gestures put it three times in his pockets, clearly meaning that he was taking possession of the region. The king, realizing rather late what the youth had implied, sent horsemen after the fugitives to slay them. But the three brothers succeeded in crossing a river, which immediately after miraculously flooded, so that it became impassable to the horsemen. In this fashion the Temenids of Argos were saved and settled near the so-called "Gardens of Midas" beside Mount Bermion, where Perdiccas, the youngest, became founder of the Macedonian kingdom's dynasty, with Aegae for its capital (2).

Unlike later authors who have preserved traditions about the first Argaeads, Herodotus does not speak of warlike operations or other exploits of the first Argaead king of Macedonia. He says nothing of Aegae, the capital of the newly founded kingdom, as having been captured by assault, but rather leaves it implied that they themselves built it in that flowery region of the "gardens of Midas." The three Argaead brothers were being led to their lofty destiny by the gods and the foundation of the Macedonian state by Perdiccas, the youngest of them, appears not as a military achievement but as the work of divine providence. Thus the tradition kept for us by Herodotus, a local Macedonian one in all respects (Herodotus himself interposes "as the Macedonians say" in his story; this shows it was a local tradition), does not try to give a down to earth interpretation of the realm's origins and of its Argaead dynasty, but cloaks the whole matter with the glamour of supernatural power, as an act of the gods' will.

Even though Herodotus does not precisely mention Aegae, or that the region which the Argaeads either captured or settled was in Emathia, the admirable description of the gardens - where sixty-petal roses of rare fragrance grew wild - leaves us in no doubt that he referred to that area, which to this day the abundant waters pouring in headlong torrents turn into a park abloom with flowers and fruit-trees, an earthly paradise. In addition, Herodotus' statement that "a mountain called Bermion overhangs the gardens and is impassable during the winter," tallies with this region which does indeed lie under snow-covered Vermion (its name now).

No stranger to Greek tradition is Midas of Gordion, the figure found in Herodotus either as lord of the region or former occupant of the wondrous gardens which bore his name, also mentioned by the historian Justin as having been evicted by the Argaeads (3). He is a personage half way between legend and reality, and evoked the admiration of the Greeks who included him in their national mythology though he was a Phrygian. Herodotus sets the legend of Silenus' capture by Midas in these gardens of Emathia, while Xenophon and Pausanias refer to Thymbrium in Asia Minor as the scene of the event (4). Herodotus also tells us that Midas had presented to Delphi the famous royal throne on which he sat to dispense justice (5).

Thus preserved by Herodotus out of local tradition, the name of that mythical Phrygian king, who won the admiration of the Greeks for his wealth and wisdom, is tied up with that of the founder of the Macedonian dynasty, as is that of the equally revered king Pheidon of Argos through other legends.

Herodotus affirms in the same account that even in his day the members of the Argaead royal family went to sacrifice beside the river which had saved their ancestors the Heracleids, founders of their dynasty, when they came from Argos. This means that the tradition had long been deep-rooted in Macedonia, interwoven with the whole national growth of the Macedonians for centuries already. It must not be forgotten that in Herodotus' time and even more so during that of Alexander I the Philhellene, and of the Persian Wars, when this tradition concerning the kings of Macedonia was first officially brought to the fore, there was no close cultural contact between Athens and that country, nor had the Macedonian court yet become a center for men of letters and artists, as it did in the time of Archelaus later on.

Consequently we must reject the theory that this legend was invented by the "hellenizing" kings of Macedonia who worshipped Greek letters and legends. It is unquestionably a local tradition, comparable to that existing in Greece, perhaps some folk-ballad garnished with the miraculous saving of the three brothers. Herodotus, while including the legend of the royal Macedonian house's origin, culled as is his wont from local sources, at the same time believes in its historical ground and cites it in many parts of his history as proof that the Macedonian kings were Hellenes (6). Thucydides, limiting himself as usual to recognized historical data, when speaking of the Macedonian kings, simply records their descent from the Argive Temenids as something historically accepted in his day (7).

The tradition concerning the migration of the Temenids from Argos to Macedonia first recorded by Herodotus appears often in the works of later authors, particularly those of the Alexandrine and later periods, i.e. since the illustrious house of Aegae had become the pride of the whole Hellenic nation through the exploits of its last scion, Alexander the Great.

Nevertheless, the legends concerning the origin of the Macedonian kings recorded by later writers merit special attention , since they themselves did not invent them, but based them on earlier historical, poetical or chronicle sources, which in most instances have not come down to us. Considering that each of these authors could draw on data or rely on legends immortalized in poetry, and that each writer could draw on different ones to those used by another author of the same or some later period, it stands to reason that we have a great variety of accounts, all of which however stem from the same root - the migration of the Temenids or of a Temenid from Argos, to found the Macedonian state and the Macedonian dynasty of Aegae.

Unlike the tradition drawn from local Macedonian legends by Herodotus, later Greek authors relied on stories which had already become common property to the whole of Greece, recording another Temenid as migrating to Macedonia and telling other stories of his adventures, before he founded the state of Macedonia. Thus Theopompus of Chios, a pupil of Isocrates, recounts how Caranus the Temenid, the brother of Pheidon the king of Argos, emigrated to Macedonia and settled at Aegae which he had conquered (8). This tradition, also to be found in its basic lines in Diodorus, was adopted by George Syncellus, the Byzantine chronicler, with a wealth of added detail (9). He represents Caranus as being the seventh in descent from Temenos and the eleventh from Heracles. In this author's view (he is regarded as reliable since he took his facts from a large number of ancient sources), this Caranus did not arrive in Macedonia as a humble and much traveled refugee, but sallied forth from the Peloponnese at the head of a paid army with the object of conquest and to found a kingdom of his own, just like the medieval knights who went out to the East during the Crusades. Following favorable prognostications from the Delphic Oracle, he reached the mountain chain of Pindus, thus arriving at the Macedonian kingdoms of Lyncestis and Orestis. He came there at a fortunate moment since the king of Orestis was making war on the king of Eordaea and Caranus agreed to aid him in return for half his enemy's kingdom, in order to found his own. In fact, according to this tale, after Caranus and the king of Orestis defeated the king of Eordaea, the former received the lands on which he built the kingdom of the Temenids, making Aegae his capital (10).

In its general lines this story is repeated by the Roman historian Justin, whose work is mainly an epitome of the lost Macedonian history written by Pompeius Trogus on the basis of earlier versions and on facts diligently collected. The tradition saved by Justin is embellished with great detail. He tells us that after Apollo's oracle had told him to settle in Macedonia, Caranus, coming to Emathia with a great mass of Greeks, followed a flock of goats hastening to seek shelter in the town of Edessa from a violent rainstorm and mist. The inhabitants of Edessa resisted him, but Caranus, evidently aided by the rain and mist, and led by the goats as the oracle had predicted, succeeded in entering with his army and taking the town, which he made capital of his newly founded kingdom. In memory of the godsent sign of the goats, which from then on he was in the habit of putting at the head of his army to lead it in the field, he gave Edessa the name of Aegae (goats).

Afterwards Justin says that Caranus, evicting Midas, who owned part of Macedonia, and dethroning some other kings, united the kingdoms of Macedonia into a single realm and laid firm foundations for his expanding power (11). Though Justin makes Caranus founder of the dynasty, not Perdiccas as Herodotus claims, he is the only later writer who brings in the name of Midas. The difference between them is that whereas Herodotus simply tells us that the Macedonian kingdom was founded in the district of the mythically beautiful Gardens of Midas. Justin either drawing on another tradition, or else very freely adopting what Pompeius Trogus had taken more accurately from Herodotus, speaks of Midas as the ruler of the district, who was driven out by the Temenid founder of the Macedonian dynasty.

This tradition, doubtless closely knit with the legends (later subjected to much literary elaboration), concerning a movement of Greek tribes from the Peloponnese does not differ substantially from the local Macedonian tradition preserved by Herodotus. The essentials which interest us here are to be found in both, namely that it was believed both in Macedonia and by the Greeks in general that the royal house of Aegae was Greek and traced its descent from the Heracleid Temenids of Argos. In the main, independent of the poetic adornments about an expedition from the south, distribution or conquest of Macedonian territory, assault on Edessa and so on, in which as we shall show later some historical significance can be found, the difference lies in the fact that Caranus instead of Perdiccas, whom Herodotus records, emigrated from Argos and founded the Macedonian dynasty.

The name Perdiccas is purely Macedonian. This alone would provide the historical clue that here we have a local tradition so deeply rooted in the country, that many later kings of Macedonia, to say nothing of princes and generals, were given this name in honor of their mythical ancestor and founder of the dynasty.

It is a name which does not occur in the works of Greek poets who drew on tradition or adopted the Greek legends, nor does it appear to have been used in the Greek city-states during classical times. On the contrary, the name Caranus is derived from very ancient Greek traditions; Spartans are mentioned as called either Caranus or Carenus (12). It is doubtless of Doric origin and the Heracleids among whom the kings of Macedonia were included by tradition were regarded as the chief representatives of the Doric branch of the Greek race. It was therefore natural that the poets, instead of using the name Perdiccas, which was unusual to them, when adapting ancient tradition should provide the Heracleid Temenids of Argos, ancestors of the Macedonian dynasty, with the genuine Doric name of Caranus (13).

Besides, the name Caranus is obviously very closely related to the most archaic Greek word "koiranos" or in the Doric dialect "karanos" (ruler) (14).

It is certainly possible to identify these two words, as they both stem from the same root "kara" meaning head, hence leader, royal master. The word "koiranos" already had the meaning of ruler or king in Homer (15). Thus in the Doric dialect the word "karanos," from its meaning as an epithet (leader, ruler) and as a substantive (king), came to be used as the proper name of a person with, at least in the first period, the same attributes.

According to this, we can regard the two traditions of Perdiccas and Caranus as one, given the fact that according to Macedonian local legends the Heracleid coming from Argos migrated to Macedonia and founded the royal house of Aegae, while at the same time he was "koiranos" in the Homeric sense of the word, which became Caranus, king of the Doric branch to which the Macedonians also belonged. Perhaps it will not be too hazardous if we reason that the mention of the two names in Justin's account of the tradition, first Caranus and then Perdiccas, leads us to the solution of the problem (16). In other words, they were one and the same person and the Perdiccas of Herodotus' story, at the time when the ancient Doric word "karanos" was still in use with its Homeric meaning of lord, would have been known as "Lord Perdiccas" or "Lord," if the first king had been called something other than Perdiccas. In later times, when the ancient Doric word :karanos" lost its original meaning, the remembrance of it may have survived with reference to the first king and have been isolated into being used as a proper name. In other words, the first Heracleid king and "karanos" of Macedonia might have been divided by tradition into two personalities. This is only an attempt at the logical solution of the question arising from the differences in traditions known to us from much later sources. The lack of clear historical data requires critical study leading to sure facts.

The legend of Caranus' goats contributed to the belief that the name of the Macedonian capital Aegae was thus derived. Nowadays it is generally admitted that the name Aegae is due to its situation with abundant water pouring headlong down to the plain in scenic waterfalls. Actually the root "aig-" in ancient Greek meant a spring of water or simply water.

All the same, it may be regarded as very probable that the myth of Caranus' goats, having a basic start in later misunderstanding as to the name of the capital of Macedonia's first kings, is supported by the most ancient Doric traditions which Greek Dorians brought with them where they settled.

Actually Pausanias records a tradition surviving at Sparta in his day, according to which the Lacedaimonians alone among the Greeks were allowed to sacrifice goats to Hera, who on that account was called "aigosphagos" (the goat-eater). The Lacedaimonians attributed this to the legend that Heracles founded the temple of Hera in Sparta and first sacrificed goats in it to the goddess, grateful because she had not opposed his fight against Hippocoon and his children. He sacrificed goats then, because he had nothing else to slaughter for the sacrifice (17). The Lacedaimonians were the main representatives of the Dorian world and the Macedonians adhered reverently to the same religious traditions which they had adopted before they departed to their centuries of isolation beyond Olympus and Pindus. Besides, Heracles who first sacrificed goats and was worshipped by the Dorian branch of Greeks, was the principal national hero of the Macedonians, claimed as the ancestor of their Argaeo-Temenid kings. A different tradition is to be found in the surviving fragments of Euphorion, a writer of the 3rd century B.C. Here Caranus, led by the oracle, came into Macedonia neither as an unknown shepherd boy nor as leader of a conquering army, but at the head of Greek colonists with whom he built a city and was proclaimed king of Macedonia (18). The city is not named but at all events it was not Aegae, as he later states that the town of Edessa, which he says was formerly inhabited by Phrygians and Lydians brought into Europe by Midas, was then renamed Aegae by Caranus (19). Evidently by giving first place in the foundation of Macedonia to the prophecy of the oracle, Euphorion follows the legend which Euripides used in his drama, although the latter names the ancestor of the dynasty Archelaus, while the former remains faithful to the tradition of Caranus handed down in the Greek world.

Pausanias mentions a tradition that takes in many of the mixed details found in the stories we have enumerated. According to him, Caranus the first king defeated Cisseus, ruler of a neighboring country, in battle. In honor of his victory he erected a trophy in accordance with the laws of Argos, but this was overthrown and destroyed by a lion which came down from Olympus. Caranus was then convinced that it was not right to perpetuate his enmity with the surrounding tribes by erecting a trophy. From then on neither he nor the later Macedonian kings ever erected trophies. The tradition was also respected by Alexander the Great, who did not do so in Asia (20). It is noteworthy that while Pausanias calls the first Macedonian king Caranus, with Syncellus and Justin following him, he gives the name of Cisseus to the ruler of a neighboring country in Macedonia. This name occurs only in poetic legend known from Euripides' work.

Long after this, the Byzantine emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus, also a writer who undoubtedly took his material from older sources, stated that the kingdom of Macedonia began with Caranus (Karanos), regarded as the third son of Heracles. He adds that the kings of Macedonia called themselves descendants of Heracles and that instead of a crown and royal purple they wore the pelt of a lion's head, regarding this a crown and adornment better than any precious stone or pearl (21).

End notes:

  1. Aesch. Suppl. 250 ff.
  2. Herod. Hist. VIII, 137-139.
  3. The well-known tradition from Euphorion [fr. 15] says simply that Edessa - the Phrygian predecessor of Aegae - "was inhabited in the old days" by the Phrygians who were brought into Europe by Midas, without saying whether Midas was a contemporary of the first Argaead, who expelled him.
  4. Herod. VIII, 138; also, Xen. Anab. I, 2, 13, and Paus. I, 4, 5.
  5. Herod. I, 14.
  6. Herod. V, 22.
  7. Thuc. Pelop. II, 99.
  8. Theop. in F.H.G. fr. 30, 1, 283.
  9. See Jacoby, F. Gr. Hist. vol. II, 2, p. 615 [Geo. Syncell. p. 499, 5] and Diod. VII. frag. 15.
  10. Geo. Syncell. p. 373 [198]; this tradition is found as taken from Diodorus, in the surviving section translated into Latin in Eusebius' Chronicle [Euseb. Chron. I, p. 227, ed. Schoene. See also Diod. fr., bk. VII, No. 15-17, ed. Vogel, vol. II, p. 144 etc.
  11. Justini, Historiae Philippicae, VII, 1, 7-12.
  12. This very ancient Doric name is also met with in Sparta during the 6th cent. B.C. It is mentioned by Herodotus (VII, 173) as Karenos (Ionic form of Karanos) father of Euanetus, the Lacedaemonian general on the Tempe expedition during the Persian Wars).
  13. The name Caranus is not met with in the royal house of Aegae until the time of Philip II, who having already been made commander-in-chief of the Greeks and evidently influenced by the tradition that the Temenid Caranus had founded the royal house, gave it to his newly born son shortly before his death.
  14. The Doric forms Caranus, "karenon" (or "karanon") and "karano," are often met with and always with the same meaning of ruler, commander. The exact meaning of the word "kara" is head and thus highest point, summit of a mountain, etc. and "karano" means take to the top. Hence metaphorically the word comes to mean the man at the head, ruler, etc. [Xen. Hell. I, 4, 3]. It is true that according to Hesychius the Cretans called the goat "karano" and the word "karnos" meant a sheep or horn or horned beast. But the attempt to identify the meaning of the words with the name of the first king Caranus as coming from the age of animal worship when Caranus was adored as a goat god is not convincing. The zoolatric tradition had long ceased to influence the Hellenes when Macedonia was founded and the words "karanos" and "koiranos" had definitely taken on the meaning given them in our text. Besides, there is no record of an ancient Macedonian tradition or later reference to words in the Macedonian dialect to support this theory. Thraco-Phrygian animal worship traditions cannot in any circumstance be identified with basic notions in the beginnings of Macedonian history. The tradition about the goats which according to the oracle's prophecy led the first king may be correlated with Aegae and perhaps with primeval Dorian tradition, but not with Caranus.
  15. Hom. Od. I, 247; the verb "koirano" means I am the leader, I rule.
  16. Note the tradition handed down by the Roman historian Solinus, according to which Perdiccas was the son and heir of Caranus, but was also the first to be styled king of Macedonia (C. Julii Solini, Polyistor. IX, 10).
  17. Paus. III, 15, 9.
  18. See article by E. Pandermali-Poulaki "Olympus and the Macedonians" for substantiation of the theory that Mycenaean colonists settled on Olympus and blended with the Macedonians - listed on Pan-Macedonian Network History selections.
  19. Euphor. frag. 30.
  20. Paus. IX, 40, 8. Pausanias' interpolation "It is said by the Macedonians" indicates that he did not take this tradition from the earlier writers on whom he drew but collected it on the spot during his travels in Macedonia. According to Pausanias, the sacred rule against erecting trophies existed in pre-classical times among the Peloponnesian Dorians, coupling this common law with Herodotus' information about a Doric and "Makednon" race which lived north of Pindus before emigrating to the Peloponnese.
  21. Const. Porphyr. Peri Thematon [ed. Bonn], p. 48.