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May 2004

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The Participation of Ancient Macedonians in the Olympiads and  their Contribution to the Greek Cultural Heritage




Nicholas Martis


Former Minister of Macedonia-Thrace

President of “Makedoniki Estia”


A summary of the Macedonian participation in the Olympics

and in the Hellenic and Hellenistic cultural development.


(Translated in English by Nina Gatzoulis – Secretary of the Pan-Macedonian Association)


Macedonia, with its precipitous and abrupt mountains, forming natural barriers and making communication with the rest of Greece difficult, could not participate very actively in the political, cultural and social life of the other Greeks. For this reason the Greeks in the south, did not very well mix with the Greeks in the north, i.e. with those in Macedonia. Up until King Philip II’s era, there were no significant contacts and conflicts between Macedonian Greeks and the rest of the Greek City-States in the south. The endeavor of King Alexander I to protect the Greek City-States from the eminent Persian danger, obtained him the title of “Philhellene” by the southern Greeks. “Philhellene” at that time had the connotation of “Philopatris” (he who loves his fatherland) and was bestowed to those Greeks, who were not just concerned with their own City-State’s welfare, but they displayed Pan-Hellenic anxieties. It should be remembered that, in spite geographic accessibility problems, which restrained intermingling of Macedonians and the rest of the Greeks in the south:

·               Macedonians had the same language, as all other Greeks

·               Macedonians had the same religion, as all other Greeks

·               Macedonians used the same architecture, as all other Greeks

·               Macedonians served the same arts, as all other Greeks

·               Macedonians used the same names, as all other Greeks  

·               Macedonians had the same traditions, as all other Greeks

·               Macedonians had the same myths, as all other Greeks

·               Macedonians had the same heroes, as all other Greeks

·               Macedonians had the same rituals, as all other Greeks

·               Macedonians had the same customs, as all other Greeks

·               Macedonians were Greeks.


Macedonians, through their agrarian and bucolic lives, their mountainous terrain, their continuous struggles to keep at bay barbarians from raiding the Greek peninsula and their intermittent internal struggles for succession to the Throne of Macedonia, ended up being rather isolated from the rest of the Greeks. They held on to their traditions, but their cultural development was not very significant. The cultural distance between the southern Greek City-States and Macedonia was quite substantial, because Athens did not have to play the protecting role of keeping the northern raiders off the Greek land. Macedonians bore that responsibility. Dr. Apostolos Daskalakis in his book The Greeks of Ancient Macedonia states: “If the Macedonians had not become the shield, protecting the lands beyond Mount Olympus by the continuous barbarian attacks, the Greek element would not be preserved uninterrupted for so many centuries. Had the Greek City-States in the south not remained for centuries undisturbed by invaders, Hellenism could had never reached the elevated thought about freedom, arts, philosophy and sciences, which were universally inherited by humanity.


The without doubt culturally more advanced academic and artistic world of southern Greece, did not stay indifferent to this new venue towards the land of Macedonian.  Thus a multitude of men of letters, arts and sciences found fertile ground amongst Macedonians.  By the 4th century BCE this assimilation was complete. The enormous economic prosperity of the Macedonian State and able leadership of its Kings, became contributing factors towards collective changes, with innovative creations in all aspects of artistic endeavors; especially in metallurgy, painting and architecture. Such Arts became the archetype later on for the Romans, as it is evident even today in the city of Pompey, Italy.


This wide move of the center of Hellenism from the southern to the northern part of the Greek peninsula, began with the emergence of the Macedonian King Philip II. His conquests and at the same time the decline of the Greek City-States in the south, caused a sensation of envy and dissatisfaction to the other Greeks, especially to the citizens of Athens, which formed the hub of public opinion at the time, against the, in some ways, “uncultivated” Greeks of Macedonia. All the insults about “barbarian” Macedonians did not originate by philosophers, poets or other authors, but by political Athenian orators.


The Athenian politician-orator Demosthenes, King Philip’s main opponent, speaking to the Athenians, said: “…aren’t all our powerful locations placed in the hands of this man? Will we not suffer the most awful humiliation? Are we not already at war with him? Isn’t he our enemy? Isn’t he in possession of our lands? Isn’t he a barbarian? Doesn’t he deserve all this name-calling?” Demosthenes, in his speech, spoke with human anger against an opponent.  When he called King Philip “barbarian”, he did not mean that Philip was “not Greek”. This was taken for granted, since in his Olympic II oration, Demosthenes praises the State of Macedonia. At the same time Demosthenes could not call anyone a “barbarian”, given that his own origin was “barbarian”. Aeschinus, in his oration against Ktisiphon, calls Demosthenes “libelous”, because he is “barbarian” by his Scythe mother and only a “Greek” by language.


Macedonian King Alexander I, lover of Arts and friend of poet Pindar, participated in the 80th Olympiad of 460 BCE.  He competed in the “Stadion” field event and was placed close second to the first runner. His participation marked not only the beginning of the involvement of Macedonians in the Olympics, but it also constituted the foundation of future Macedonian interaction with the other Greeks and, furthermore, had very far reaching effects on the future of Hellenism.


Macedonians, who participated in the Olympics at Olympia, were as follows:

·              King Alexander I, in the 80th Olympics, in 460 BCE. He run the “Stadion” and was placed very close second.

·              King Arhelaos Perdikas, competed in the 93rd Olympics, in 408 BCE and won at Delphi the race of the four-horse chariot.

·              King Philip II was an Olympic champion three times. In the 106th Olympics, in 356 BCE, he won the race, riding his horse. In the 107th Olympics, in 352 BCE, he won the four-horse chariot race. In the 108th Olympics, in 348 BCE, he was the winner of the two colt chariot.

·              Cliton run the Stadion in the 113rd  Olympics, in 328 BCE.

·              Damasias from Amphipolis won in the Stadion in the 115th Olympics, in 320 BCE.

·              Lampos from Philippi, was proclaimed a winner in the four-horse chariot race in the 119th Olympics, in 304 BCE.

·              Antigonos won in the Stadion race, in the 122nd Olympics, in 292 BCE and in the 123rd Olympics in 288 BCE.

·              Seleucos won in the field-sports competition in the 128th Olympics in 268 BCE.

·              During the 128th Olympics, in 268 BCE and in the 129th Olympics, in 264 BCE, a woman from Macedonia won the competition. Pausanias mentions that: “…it is said that the race of the two-colt chariot was won by a woman, named Velestihi from the seashores of Macedonia”.


Pausanias mentions the Philippeion in Olympia: “In the grove there is the Records Building and an edifice called Phippeion…Philip built it after the battle at Chaeroneia…there are statues of Philip, of Alexander and Amyntas…there are pieces that were made of ivory and gold carved by Leoharus, just like the statues of Olympia and Euridice”.  Also Pausanias points out that various statues were made by order as oblations and he mentions that: “representing the Macedonians, the inhabitants of Dion, a city by the Macedonian Pieria mountain range, had a statue made, which portrays Apollo holding a deer”.


During the Vergina excavation a tripod was found, which is kept at the Museum of Thessaloniki, and carries the inscription: “I come from the Argos athletic competitions, the Heraia”. According to Archeology Professor Andronikos, the tripod belonged to the Macedonian King Alexander I and it was a family heirloom.


King Arhelaos I (413-399 BC) established in Dion magnificent athletic competitions every two years “the Olympian Dion”, which lasted nine days, as it corresponded to the nine Pierian Muses, originating from the Macedonian mountain range Pieria.  During these events ancient tragedies were presented. Arhelaos I organized the Macedonian Army, structured a transportation system and transferred the Capital from Aiges to Pella. In his court lived the tragic poet Agathon, the epic poet Horilos, the dithyramb writer Timotheos, the tragic poet Melanipidis and the doctor and son of Hippocrates Thessalos. Tragedian Euripides composed his tragedies Arhelaos and Bachae right in Arhelaos’s court.  Euripides died and was buried in Macedonia. 


Three ancient Theaters were discovered in Macedonia; one is at Dion, dating back to the 5th century BCE; the second is at Vergina (Aegai) – 4th century BCE and the third at Philippi. Ancient plays used to be performed in these Theaters. At the Dion Theater, Euripides’ Bachae and Arhelaos were introduced for the first time. Some experts believe that Iphigeneia in Aulis was presented there. The theme of the play Arhelaos is associated with the migration of the Argive Timenidis, Prince of Macedonia and founder of the Royal House of Aegai.  These tragedies, played in these Theaters, were written in the Greek language, since they were intended for Greek audience, the Macedonians.


Dion, the sacred place of Macedonians, is one of the largest (about 4 acres) and most archeologically significant districts of Greece, featuring multifarious bath areas, taking up about 1 acre, with tiled floors, marble bathtubs, complete plumbing system (led and clay pipes) and lavish colonnaded tiled halls. A fact that has been overlooked is that Dion was also the center of intellectual competitions and therefore the birth place of the cultural Olympics.


The “Hellenistic Era” is an enormous issue and it could be appropriately illuminated, only if Universities create chairs and research it fully. We could also become more knowledgeable of the influence King Alexander the Great had on Islam, which according to Dr. Constantine Romanos, is the missing link in the History of Civilization. All ancient authors refer to the impact of the Hellenistic cultural and intellectual thinking that was passed on by the Macedonians to the peoples of the Far East.


Plutarch mentions that: “All of Asia, civilized by Alexander the Great, was reading Homer and Euripides’ as well as Sophocles’ tragedies”. It is not by coincidence that the Koran refers to Alexander the Great as Prophet.  Jews have adopted his name.  Buddhists worshipped him as equal to God. Saint Vasileios the Great and Saint Nectarios promote Alexander and his deeds.  Diodoros points out: “…the enemies were compelled by the victor to thrive”.