Philip II’s Palace at Vergina: new discoveries
When I first visited the ancient palace at Aegae (modern Vergina) many years ago all guide books and literature referred to it as the ‘Hellenistic palace’. During that, and many subsequent visits, as I wandered through the rooms and admired the view from the terrace, I wished that it were the palace of Philip. I imagined the king, his golden son and heir, and the rest of the court as they sacrificed and feasted. I imagined the cups and ewers I had seen in the museum being held aloft to toast the gods and the god-like exploits of the Argeads, and sighed to think that they had not actually been there, in this, one of the most evocative of sites.
It is not very often that a wish comes true, but on this occasion one has. The recent excavations, started in 2007 by the 17th Ephorate of Prehistoric and Classical Antiquities, have revealed that this was indeed the palace of Philip II. Imagine that: Philip, Alexander, Olympias, Antipater, Parmenion met and slept, dined and argued, plotted and planned here. And one fateful morning the royal party set off from this very palace, down the hill to the theatre below to celebrate the wedding of Philip’s daughter Cleopatra to King Alexander of Epirus, to the death of Philip at an assassin’s hand and 21 year old Alexander became king.
Aerial view showing palace and theatre
The excavations have continued apace, and the latest discoveries were announced by Dr Angeliki Kottaridi in November 2012 at the Congress Hall of the Aristotle’s School, Naoussa.
The monumental nature of the palace complex is significant: it covers a total area of 12,500 square metres (three times as big as the Parthenon) and is adorned with 500 square metres of floor mosaics. This is even more impressive when one learns that the entire complex was designed and built as a whole, its construction being completed sometime between 350 and 336 BC.
But it is not only the floor plan that is impressive. One of the features of the palace is its use of vast two storey porticos, and a number of architectural innovations that break with the traditions and canons of classical Greek architecture. Philip is making a statement, leaving a legacy.
The monumental portico, adorned with paintings, offered dozens of suppliants and petitioners a place to rest and prepare for their audience or business. The open area could accommodate at least 3,500 people seated. Inside there were spaces for feasts, symposia, archives and a throne room.
The number of the architectural fragments already conserved and studied mean that it will be possible to restore parts of both the propylon’s upper floor with the pseudo-windows in stone and the façade porticos around the atrium of the central building in the new museum of Aegae.
Imagined reconstruction of palace
Research has also shed light on the function of the Aegae palace. This was a ceremonial palace, celebrating the seat of the dynasty and near to the ancestral necropolis. It was not simply a royal residence but a public space embodying the royal authority.
Dr Kottaridi’s own research shows that the building’s design follows the mathematical and philosophical prototype based on the golden section. This embodies both the golden Pythagorean triangle and Plato’s idea on the construction of the “Soul of the World” as formulated in Timaeus. Philip saw his royal power as a union between the transcendental and the secular – as befits someone descended from Zeus via Heracles.
The palace was the seat of political, religious, legislative, judicial and intellectual power, a building both private and public: the archetype of the Hellenistic palace.
Excavations showing ‘andron’ or men’s dining room
On my last two visits the site has been inaccessible due to the ongoing works, so I have yet to wander around the palace knowing that I truly am walking in the footsteps of Philip and Alexander, but I am looking forward to the day when I can do so, and to perhaps imagining that famous scene from Plutarch’s Life of Alexander:
“At the wedding of Cleopatra, whom Philip fell in love with and married, she being much too young for him, her uncle Attalus in his drink desired the Macedonians would implore the gods to give them a lawful successor to the kingdom by his niece. This so irritated Alexander, that throwing one of the cups at his head, ‘You villain,’ said he, ‘what, am I then a bastard?’ Then Philip, taking Attalus’s part, rose up and would have run his son through; but by good fortune for them both, either his over-hasty rage, or the wine he had drunk, made his foot slip, so that he fell down on the floor. At which Alexander reproachfully insulted over him: ‘See there,’ said he, ‘the man who makes preparations to pass out of Europe into Asia, overturned in passing from one seat to another.’ After this debauch, he and his mother Olympias withdrew from Philip’s company, and when he had placed her in Epirus, he himself retired into Illyria.”