The renowned conqueror, Alexander the Great, and his brilliant father, King Philip II, are the two best-known members of the Macedonian Argead Dynasty. Yet, Alexander the Great (r. 336-323 BCE) was probably the twenty-first successive king of Macedonia from the Argead line. As far as historians can tell, the very first Argead king of Macedonia was a man known as Perdiccas I, who led his people eastward from somewhere along the Haliacmon River (modern Aliákmon) around 700 BCE, and set up a Macedonian kingdom centered around the city of Aegae, located near modern Edessa, Greece. The Macedonia of Perdiccas I was far from the powerhouse of potential that Alexander the Great later inherited, and masterfully exploited, in the 4th-century BCE—it would take strengthening and expansion from other Argead kings like Alexander I (r. 498-454/450), Archelaus (r. 413-399 BCE) and Philip II (r. 359-336) for Macedonia to become a dominant power in Greece. Yet, Perdiccas I in the 8th and 7th century BCE was the founder of this long chain of Macedonian kings.
In The Histories, Herodotus (490-425/420 BCE) provided an interesting origin myth for Perdiccas I and the ancient Macedonian royal line. This story, or one similar to it, was used by King Alexander I of Macedonia to gain admittance to the Olympic Games. According to Herodotus, many of the ancient Greeks believed that Alexander I and his Macedonian people were non-Greek barbarians. With the help of the following legend, Alexander I convinced the ancient Olympic Committee that his own Argead line was Greek enough to participate in the Olympics—yet, there is no mention if he improved the average perception that Greeks had of his Macedonian subjects.
In the origin myth provided by Herodotus, Perdiccas I (the first Macedonian king) was the youngest of three brothers fathered by Temenus of Argos. The brothers (oldest to youngest: Gauanes, Aeropus and Perdiccas) were forced to flee Argos and found shelter and work under a king in a city called Lebaea, located somewhere in what would become Macedonia. The king and his city were both fairly poor—the queen had to do all the cooking, even for the workers. Consequentially, she observed something odd about the food that she prepared for her husband and the estate. Every time she made food for the brothers, Perdiccas’ meal would miraculously grow twice the size of any other person’s portion. The queen eventually told the king about the strange omen, and he feared the sign—to him, it was obvious that the gods were signaling Perdiccas for greatness.
Fearful of Perdiccas’ potential, the king of Lebaea met with the brothers and asked them to kindly leave his lands. The brothers took this second exile surprisingly well. They consented to leave and their only condition was to be paid their fair wages. The king, however, scoffed at the request and gestured at the sun, saying that it was where their wages could be found. At this outburst from the king, Perdiccas calmly took out his knife and outlined a patch of sunlight with the point of his blade. According to Herodotus, he then “three times gathered the sunlight into the folds of his tunic” and departed Lebaea with his brothers (The Histories, Book VIII).
Soon after the incident, the king of Lebaea realized that Perdiccas had won that verbal and symbolic exchange. Still fearing the brothers, the king decided to chase them down and kill Peridiccas to save face and to secure his throne from any possibly threat. The forces of the king may have succeeded in reaching the brothers, but nature (or divine intervention) protected Perdiccas and his kin. After the brothers safely crossed a river, the water then drastically raised, cutting off access for the persuing troops. With the brothers no longer being followed, Perdiccas led his brothers to Mt. Bermium and the Gardens of Midas, where they would settle and found their Kingdom of Macedonia, with Perdiccas I as their first king.
So ends Herodotus’ origin myth of the Argead Dynasty in Macedonia. Other than a few true facts—i.e. Perdiccas I being the first Macedonian king, and that he moved to take over Macedonia from elsewhere—most of Herodotus’ story is fictional. Remarkably, the story is incredibly similar to (and possibly inspired by) the creation myths of the Scythian people. They both feature three brothers, where divine signs or miracles visibly mark the youngest brother as the rightful ruler. Nevertheless, this multi-thousand-year-old piece of folklore remains entertaining today, as it was to the ancients.
Top picture attribution: (2nd century CE bust of Alexander the Great, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
- The Histories by Herodotus, translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt and revised by John Marincola. New York: Penguin Classics, 2002.
- Alexander the Great by Philip Freeman. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2011.