Pella and its Region: A Historical Review

by Ioannis Touratsoglou

(Extracted from: Macedonia. History-Monuments-Museums (Athens, 1995), pp. 137–149.)

At the center of a series of satellite settlements, with a "territory" that extended as far as the quarries of Kyrrhos, the former lake Loudias, Platanopotamos and the gulley of Yanitsa, Pella was fortified from the time of Philip II, the ruler who transformed it into a city of international (for the period) influence, and was the most important city in south-eastern Bottiaia, a region enclosed by the Axios and the Haliakmon and bounded by the mountain ranges of Bermion and Paikon.

The surrounding area was inhabited from as early as the Neolithic Period (about 16 settlements have been located) and had a large number of sites in the Bronze Age. The local inhabitants-colonists form Crete, according to tradition-were displaced by the Makedones when the latter crossed from Pieria to the vast pasturages in the modern counties of Emathia and Pella.

Pella was already known to Hekataios, Herodotus and Thucydides (5th century B.C.); at the beginning of the fourth century, having become the capital of the Macedonian kingdom at the wish of Archelaos I, it was known as "the greatest of the cities in Macedonia". Figures like Euripides and Agathon were invited here. Here, too, men like Timotheos and Choirilos were entertained in the royal residence, and Zeuxis, one of the greatest painters of antiquity, worked here. The birthplace of Philip II, it increased in size under his reign and was adorned with a large palace. Attracted by the new regime, artists, poets and philosophers found at the royal court a warm supporter of the arts and a generous Maecenas. At the time of Cassander, the city was extended according to the "Hippodameian" system and acquired splendid public buildings and spacious private houses with mosaic floors and fine wallpaintings. It now occupied an area of about 2,500,000 sq.m. and was defended by a fortification wall, with a circuit of around 8,000 m. Initially a coastal site, it was already by the Classical period at the innermost recess of a lake formed by the alluvial deposits carried by the river Loudias, though it continued to be an important harbour, since the latter waterway was navigable. A small island in the swamp, called Phakos, communicated with the city by a wooden bridge, and was used at one and the same time as a gaol and the treasury of the Macedonian state (gaza).

Having experienced its last decades of glory with Philip V and Perseus, Pella surrendered to the Roman general Aemilius Paulus, who encamped beneath its walls-its stout fortification walls-after his triumph at Pied in 168 BC Headquarters of the third of the four maids (administrative districts) into which Macedonian was divided between 167 and 147 BC, it continued, thanks to the Via Agnate, to be, like Bore, one of the "most illustrious" cities of Macedonian even after the dissolution of the Macedonian kingdom. It quickly lost its position to Thessalonike, however, which was chosen as the capital of the Roman province in the East. Earthquakes, the occupation of the city by the armies of Mithridates VI, the major economic crisis of this period, and above all the foundation (probably in 150 B.C.) of the Colonia Pellensis- that is, the Roman colony of Pella-to the west, on the site of the modern community of Nea Pella, all brought an end to the city that had seen the armies of Alexander the Great pass before it on their way to the conquest of Asia: Dio Chrysostom was to write, indicatively, at the turn of the 1st to the 2nd century A.D. that in his time all that remained of (Hellenistic) Pella was a great quantity of broken roof tiles scattered over the site. Under Diocletian, the colony was probably named Diocletianopolis, though the old name Pella soon came back into vogue. In A.D. 473, Theoderic the Goth settled with his armies in the fertile area to the west of the Axios, and the Drougoubitai, a Slav tribe, dwelt for a time in the area around Pella (7th century). A settlement seems to have survived until the end of the Byzantine period. In the Ottoman occupation, the ruins of the Hellenistic city and the Roman colony formed an ideal source of building material for the holy city of the conquerors, Yanitsa; clearly the East taking revenge for its conquest by Alexander. Though it may also be the fate of all ancient cities as they are transformed by time into the past.

The first excavation of the site, by Professor G. Oikonomou in the summer of 1914, directly after the liberation of Macedonia from the Turks, was followed four decades later by the systematic investigation of it by the Archaeological Service, which still continues to uncover the rich secrets of the city that once controlled the fortunes of the then known world. At the edge of the former lake of Yanitsa, the poor settlement of Ayioi Apostoloi will acquire a new name, and the place will rediscover its former glory.


Little is known of the pre-Cassandreian city. The larger part of the inhabited area, as well as the cemetery dating from the first half of the 4th century B.C., appear to have been razed during the laying-out of Cassander's ambitious urban design. To the time of Philip II, however, belong a number of cist graves to the east, and possibly also the main part of the palace on the so-called acropolis. The grid used in post-Alexandrian Pella consists of two sets of straight, parallel streets, intersecting at right angles to form rectangular blocks of buildings. In this system, known as the "Hippodameian" plan, the short side of the rectangle is invariably 47 m. The long side (north-south), in contrast, varies in a set pattern (125, 111, 125, 150, 125 m. etc.). The width of the streets running through the city from east to west is about 9 m., that of those oriented north-south about 6 m.

The Agora

This area, of great importance in every ancient city, is integrated harmoniously into the urban tissue, covering five building blocks in an east-west direction. It is narrower on the south, to allow the creation of five small blocks of buildings that were given over to commercial establishments and workshops. With dimensions of roughly 200 m. x 182 m., the main area of the Agora, together with the stoas encircling it, and the shops on the sides, formed a building complex of imposing scale. A broad avenue, 15 m. wide, started in the centre of it and ran to east and west through the entire width of the city, connecting it with Edessa in one direction and Thessalonike in the other. The construction of the Agora in the form known today is probably not much earlier than the last quarter of the 3rd century B.C., and may well date from the early years of the reign of Philip V. The complex was destroyed, either by an earthquake or by the raids of barbarian Thracian tribes, probably in the first twenty years of the 1st century B.C.

The houses

Following the articulation typical of the ancient Greek house, the private residence at Pella in the late Classical period has a distinctly introverted character. The plain, undecorated exterior stands in contrast to the interior of the rooms, arranged around a square courtyard, with their richly decorated walls and multi-coloured mosaic floors. Two types of house have been identified in the Macedonian capital: one with an interior peristyle, and one with a pastas (a kind of portico). The rooms in daily use, and the rooms for the reception of guests were on the northen side, which was usually two-storeyed, while the store-rooms and the ancillary areas in general were grouped on the south side.

One of the wealthier houses with a peristyle, the House of Dionysos, with its brilliant mosaic floors depicting Dionysos riding on a panther, and a Lion Hunt, has two internal peristyle courtyards. An equally spacious house is that with mosaic floors depicting a Deer Hunt, the Abduction of Helen by Theseus, and the fragmentary scene of an Amazonomachy. Breaking new ground in their conception, the mosaics of Pella, with their subtle use of foreshortening and chiaroscuro, successfully convey a feeling of three-dimensional space. Their technique is more advanced than that of the mosaic floors of Olynthos, and their main features are the use of alternating colours, and of fine strips of clay or lead to pick out detail; the representational scenes, whether used as the main motifs-as "paintings' adorning the andrones (banquet rooms)- or as decoration for the thresholds of the anterooms, are brilliant examples of painting from antiquity.

The residences of post-Alexandrian Pella were costly structures, reflecting the wealth that flowed into Mecedonia on the morrow of the campaign in Asia, and form points of reference for urban architecture in later centuries.


Occupying the entire extent of the hill dominating ancient Pella on the north side of the city, the palace complex of the Mecedonian kingdom has an area of 60,000 sq. m. Articulated into three independent though interconnected units set side by side, the overall complex of buildings is integrated harmoniously into an urban grid that consists of vertical and horizontal zones. Each one of these building units is articulated around a central courtyard, around whiche are set roofed residential areas. The central unit is an exception, since it includes two open peristyle areas. Along the entire south side, the complex takes the form of a veranda (belvedere) of impressive size, from which the residents on high gazed upon the boundless plain and even the Thermaic Gulf, with the city spreading immediately in front of them. Fragments of doric and ionic columns of various diameters suggest that there was an upper storey on some of the wings of the building complex, which also had a swimming pool.

The successive building phases detected during the excavation of the area undoubtedly make it difficult to define precisely the chronological sequence of the structures. However, on the basis of certain data, it seems fairly sure that the central part of the complex belonged to the end of the first half of the 4th century B.C. Modifications, additions and repairs were carried out mainly during the second half of this same century and throughout the 3rd.


The earliest tombs in the area that is now the site of the ancient Agora were individual graves cut into the soft limestone of the region, dating from the last quarter of the 5th to the third quarter of the 4th centuries. They gave way to built cist graves in an area to the east of Pella (middle to end of the 4th century B.C.) and to family vaulted rock-cut chamber tombs that survived the Roman conquest. The rich grave offerings-vases, jewellery, decorative attachments for wooden funerary furniture, metal objects, etc. - adorn the display cases of the local Museum and attest both to the piety of the inhabitants of the Macedonian kingdom towards their dead, and to the prosperity of the city.


To the gods, heroes and daemons known from the literary and epigraphic traditions (Great Gods, Herakles Phylakos and Asklepios), excavation has added the sanctuaries of Demeter (Thesmophorion), Cybele, Aphrodite and Darron, and has indicated the existence of cults of Poseidon, Dionysos, Athena, with the epithet Alkidemos, and Pan.

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