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For the modern town, see Pella (municipality).
For other uses, see Pella (disambiguation).
Ancient Pella
Αρχαία Πέλλα
The big antechamber paved with white and black pebbles forming lozenges from the House of Dionysos, built in 325-300 BC, Ancient Pella (7060158217).jpg
Ancient Pella is located in Greece
Ancient Pella
Ancient Pella
Coordinates: 40°48′N 22°31′E / 40.800°N 22.517°E / 40.800; 22.517Coordinates: 40°48′N 22°31′E / 40.800°N 22.517°E / 40.800; 22.517
Country Greece
Administrative region Central Macedonia
Regional unit Pella
Elevation 36 m (118 ft)
Time zone EET (UTC+2)
 • Summer (DST) EEST (UTC+3)
Postal code 580 05
Area code(s) 23820
Vehicle registration ΕΕ

Pella (Greek: Πέλλα), is an ancient city located in the current Pella regional unit of Central Macedonia in Greece and was the capital of the ancient kingdom of Macedon. On the site of the ancient city of Pella is the Archaeological Museum of Pella.


A common folk etymology is traditionally given for the name Pella, deriving it from the Ancient Macedonian word pélla (πέλλα), "stone"[1][2][3] and forming with the prefix a- the Doric apella, meaning in this case fence, enclosure of stone.[4] The word apella originally meant fold, fence for animals, and then assembly of people.[5] However, the local form of Greek was not Doric, and the word exactly matches standard Greek pélla "stone", possibly referring to a famous landmark from the time of its foundation. [clarification needed][6] Another proposed etymology is that Pella originally meant "defensible citadel on a cliff", and this etymology is backed by the numerous ancient cities throughout Greece with similar name i.e. Pellana, Pallene, Palle, Pelle, Pelion, Palamede, Pellene, etc.[citation needed]


House of Dionysos (325-300 BC).
Lion hunt mosaic
Atrium with a pebble-mosaic paving.
Stag Hunt Mosaic from the House of the Abduction of Helen.
Shops right along the eastern edge of the agora.

The city was founded in 399 BC by King Archelaus (413–399 BC) as the capital of his kingdom, replacing the older palace-city of Aigai.[7] After this, it was the seat of the king Philip II and of Alexander, his son. In 168 BC, it was sacked by the Romans, and its treasury transported to Rome. Later, the city was destroyed by an earthquake and eventually was rebuilt over its ruins. By 180 AD, Lucian could describe it in passing as "now insignificant, with very few inhabitants".

Pella is first mentioned by Herodotus of Halicarnassus (VII, 123) in relation to Xerxes' campaign and by Thucydides (II, 99,4 and 100,4) in relation to Macedonian expansion and the war against Sitalces, the king of the Thracians. According to Xenophon, in the beginning of the 4th century BC, it was the largest Macedonian city. It was probably built as the capital of the kingdom by Archelaus, although there appears to be some possibility that it may have been Amyntas. It attracted Greek artists such the painter Zeuxis, the poet Timotheus of Miletus and the tragic author Euripides who finished his days there writing and producing Archelaus.

Archelaus invited the painter Zeuxis, the greatest painter of the time, to decorate it. He was later the host of the Athenian playwright Euripides in his retirement. Euripides Bacchae premiered here, about 408 BC. Pella was the birthplace of Philip II and of Alexander, his son. The hilltop palace of Philip, where Aristotle tutored young Alexander, is being excavated.

In antiquity, Pella was a port connected to the Thermaic Gulf by a navigable inlet, but the harbor has silted, leaving the site landlocked. The reign of Antigonus likely represented the height of the city, as this is the period which has left us the most archaeological remains.

Map showing the geographic location of Pella in a valley, west of river Axios.

Pella is further mentioned by Polybius and Livy as the capital of Philip V and of Perseus during the Macedonian Wars, fought against the Roman Republic. In the writings of Livy, we find the only description of how the city looked in 167 BC to Lucius Aemilius Paulus Macedonicus, the Roman who defeated Perseus at the battle of Pydna:

…[Paulus] observed that it was not without good reason that it had been chosen as the royal residence. It is situated on the south-west slope of a hill and surrounded by a marsh too deep to be crossed on foot either in summer or winter. The citadel the "Phacus," which is close to the city, stands in the marsh itself, projecting like an island, and is built on a huge substructure which is strong enough to carry a wall and prevent any damage from the infiltration from the water of the lagoon. At a distance it appears to be continuous with the city wall, but it is really separated by a channel which flows between the two walls and is connected with the city by a bridge. Thus it cuts off all means of access from an external foe, and if the king shut anyone up there, there could be no possibility of escape except by the bridge, which could be very easily guarded.[8]

The famous poet Aratus died in Pella ca. 240 BC. Pella was sacked by the Romans in 168 BC, when its treasury was transported to Rome.

In the Roman province of Macedonia, Pella was the capital of the third district, and was possibly the seat of the Roman governor. Crossed by the Via Egnatia,[9] Pella remained a significant point on the route between Dyrrachium and Thessalonika.

Cicero stayed there in 58 BC, but by then the provincial seat had already transferred to Thessalonika. It was then destroyed by earthquake in the 1st century BC; shops and workshops dating from the catastrophe have been found with remains of their merchandise. The city was eventually rebuilt over its ruins, which preserved them, but, c. 180 AD, Lucian of Samosata could describe it in passing as "now insignificant, with very few inhabitants" [10]

The city went into decline for reasons unknown (possibly an earthquake) by the end of the 1st century BC. It was the object of a colonial deduction sometime between 45 and 30 BC; in any case currency was marked Colonia Iulia Augusta Pella. Augustus settled peasants there whose land he had usurped to give to his veterans (Dio Cassius LI, 4). But unlike other Macedonian colonies such as Philippi, Dion, and Cassandreia it never came under the jurisdiction of ius Italicum or Roman law. Four pairs of colonial magistrates (IIvirs quinquennales) are known for this period.

The decline of the city was rapid, in spite of colonization: Dio Chrysostom (Or. 33.27) and Lucian both attest to the ruin of the ancient capital of Philip II and Alexander; though their accounts may be exaggerated. In fact, the Roman city was somewhat to the west of and distinct from the original capital; which explains some contradictions between coinage, epigraphs, and testimonial accounts. In the Byzantine period, the Roman site was occupied by a fortified village.

In modern times it now finds itself as the start point of the Alexander The Great Marathon, in honour of the city's ancient heritage.[11]


The question of what language was spoken in ancient Macedonia has been debated by Greek, Slav, and other scholars. The discovery of the Pella curse tablet in 1986, found in Pella, the ancient capital of Macedon, has given us a text written in a distinct Doric Greek idiom.[12] Ιt contains a curse or magic spell (Greek: κατάδεσμος, katadesmos) inscribed on a lead scroll, dated to the first half of the 4th century BC (circa 375–350 BC). It was published in the Hellenic Dialectology Journal in 1993. It is one of four texts[13] found until today that might represent a local dialectal form of ancient Greek in Macedonia, all of them identifiable as Doric. These confirm that a Doric Greek dialect was spoken in Macedonia, as was previously expected from the West Greek forms of names found in Macedonia. As a result, the Pella curse tablet has been forwarded as a strong argument that the Ancient Macedonian language was a dialect of North-Western Greek, part of the Doric dialects.[14]

The site[edit]

Urban area[edit]

Schematic plan of Pella

The city is built on the island of Phacos, a promontory which dominates the wetlands which encircle Pella to the south, and a lake which opened to the sea in the Hellenistic period.


The city wall mentioned by Livy is only partly known. It consists of a rampart of crude bricks (about 50 cm square) raised on a stone foundation; some of which has been located North of the palace, and some in the South next to the lake. Inside the ramparts, three hills occupy the North, and the palace is situated on a place of honour on the central hill. Partly searched, it occupied a considerable area of perhaps 60,000 square metres). The plan is still not well known, but has been related to that of the city plan (see diagram).

The Pella palace consisted of several — possibly seven — large architectural groupings juxtaposed in two rows, each including a series of rooms arranged around a central square courtyard, generally with porticos. Archaeologists have thus far identified a palaestra and baths. The south facade of the palace, towards the city, consisted of one large (at least 153 metres long) portico, constructed on a two metres high foundation. The relationship between the four principal complexes is defined by an interruption in the portico occupied by a triple propylaeum, 15 m high, which gave the palace an imposing monumental air when seen from the city below.

Dating of the palace has posed some problems: the large buildings could date the reign of Philip II, but other buildings appear to be earlier. The baths date from the reign of Cassander.

The size of the complex indicates that, unlike the palace at Vergina, this was not only a royal residence or a grandiose monument but also a place of government which was required to accommodate a portion of the administrative apparatus of the kingdom.

Hippodamian plan[edit]

The city proper was located south of and below the palace. Designed on a grid plan as envisaged by Hippodamus, it consists of two series of parallel streets which intersect at right angles and form a grid of eight rows of rectangular blocks. These blocks are of a consistent width — each approximately 45 m — and a length which varies from 111 m to 152 m, 125 metres being the most common. The streets are from 9 to 10 metres wide, except for the middle East–West arterial, which is up to 15 metres wide. This street is the primary access to the central public agora, which occupied a space of ten blocks. Two North-South streets are also a bit wider than the rest, and serve to connect the city to the port further South. The streets had sewers and were equipped to convey water to individual residences.

This type of plan dates to the first half of the 4th century BC, and is very close to the ideal in design, though it distinguishes itself by large block size; Olynthus in Chalcidice for example had blocks of 86.3×35 metres. On the other hand, later Hellenistic urban foundations have blocks comparable to those of Pella: 112×58 m in Laodicea ad Mare, or 120×46 m in Aleppo.

The agora holds pride of place in the centre of the city, occupying an imposing 200 by 181 metres; 262×238 metres if one counts the potrticos which surround it on all sides.


Based on the descriptions provided by Titus Livius, the site was explored by 19th-century voyagers including Holand, Pouqueville, Beaujour, Cousinéry, Delacoulonche, Hahn, Glotz and Struck. The first excavation was begun by G. Oikonomos in 1914–15. The modern systematic exploration of the site began in 1953 and full excavation was being done in 1957. The first series of campaigns were completed in 1963, more excavations following in 1980. These digs continue in the section identified as the agora.

In February 2006, a farmer accidentally uncovered the largest tomb ever found in Greece. The names of the noble ancient Macedonian family are still on inscriptions and painted sculptures and walls have survived. The tomb dates to the 2nd or 3rd century BC, following the rule of Alexander the Great.[15]

Archaeological digs in progress since 1957 have uncovered a small part of the city, which was made rich by Alexander and his heirs. The large agora or market was surrounded by the shaded colonnades of stoae, and streets of enclosed houses with frescoed walls round inner courtyards. The first trompe-l'oeil wall murals imitating perspective views ever seen were on walls at Pella. There are temples to Aphrodite, Demeter and Cybele, and Pella's pebble-mosaic floors, dating after the lifetime of Alexander, are famous: some reproduce Greek paintings; one shows a lion-griffin attacking a stag, a familiar motif also of Scythian art, another depicts Dionysus riding a leopard. These mosaics adorned the floors of rich houses, ofthen named after their representations.[16]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Πέλλα / Pella, Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek–English Lexicon
  2. ^ Hesych.: Schol.U.Demosth.: Martin Nilsson, Die Geschichte der Griechische Religion, vol. I (C. H. Beck), 1955, p. 558
  3. ^ R. S. P. Beekes has suggested a Pre-Greek proto-form *πελσα (Etymological Dictionary of Greek, Brill, 2009, p. 1168).
  4. ^ Nilsson, Vol. I, p. 558
  5. ^ Heshych. ἀπέλλαι (apellai), σηκοί "folds", εκκλησίαι "assemblies", ἀρχαιρεσίαι "elections": Nilsson Vol. I, p. 556
  6. ^ Mallory, J.P. and D.Q. Adams. Encyclopedia of Indo-European Culture. London: Fitzroy and Dearborn, 1997: 432
  7. ^ J. Roisman, I. Worthington. A Companion to Ancient Macedonia. John Wiley and Sons, 2010. p. 92
  8. ^ Titus Livius The History of Rome, Vol. VI, translated by Rev. Canon Roberts, 1912 (XLIV, 46) online at U Virginia; accessed 15 July 2006.
  9. ^ Strabo VII, 323
  10. ^ Lucian of Samosata: Alexander the false prophet, The Tertullian Project.
  11. ^ Presentation. Alexander the Great Marathon. Retrieved on 2010-04-28.
  12. ^ Fantuzzi & Hunter 2004, p. 376; Voutiras 1998, p. 25; Fortson 2010, p. 464; Bloomer 2005, p. 195.
  13. ^ O’Neil, James. 26th Conference of the Australasian Society for Classical Studies, 2005.
  14. ^ Masson & Dubois 2000, p. 292: "...<<Macedonian Language>> de l'Oxford Classical Dictionary, 1996, p. 906: <<Macedonian may be seen as a Greek dialect, characterized by its marginal position and by local pronunciation (like Βερενίκα for Φερενίκα etc.)>>."
  15. ^ "Greek tomb find excites experts". BBC News Online. 2006-02-12. Retrieved 2006-06-12. 
  16. ^ Sideris A., "La représentation en réalité virtuelle de la Maison de Dionysos à Pella, créée par la Fondation du Monde Hellénique", in Descamps-Lequime S., Charatzopoulou K. (éds.), Au royaume d’Alexandre le Grand. La Macédoine antique. Catalogue of the exhibition in the Louvre museum, Paris 2011, pp. 682-683.


  • Ch. J. Makaronas, Pella: Capital of Ancient Macedonia, pp59–65, in Scientific American, Special Issue, "Ancient Cities", c 1994.
  • Ph. Petsas, Pella. Alexander the Great's Capital, Thessaloniki, 1977.
  • D. Papakonstandinou-Diamandourou, Πέλλα, ιστορική επισκόπησις και μαρτυρίαι (Pella, istoriki episkopisis kai martyriai), Thessaloniki, 1971. (Greek)
  • (French) R. Ginouvès, et al., La Macédoine, CNRS Éditions, Paris, 1993, pp90–98.
  • (French) F. Papazoglou, Les villes de Macédoine romaine, BCH Suppl. 16, 1988, pp135–139.

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