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Pella House atrium.jpg
Atrium with a pebble-mosaic paving in Pella
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Location Macedonia, Greece
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Type Settlement
Cultures Ancient Greece

Pella (Greek: Πέλλα), is best known as the ancient and wealthy capital of the kingdom of Macedon in the time of Alexander the Great. On the site of the ancient city is the Archaeological Museum of Pella.


House of Dionysos (325-300 BC).
Map showing the geographic location of Pella in a valley, west of river Axios.
Lion hunt mosaic
Stag Hunt Mosaic from the House of the Abduction of Helen.
Shops right along the eastern edge of the agora.

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.[1] It was probably built as the capital of the kingdom by Archelaus I, replacing the older palace-city of Aigai[2] although there appears to be some possibility that it may have been created by Amyntas. In antiquity, Pella was a strategic port connected to the Thermaic Gulf by a navigable inlet, but the harbour and gulf have since silted up, leaving the site landlocked.

Archelaus invited the painter Zeuxis, the greatest painter of the time, to decorate his palace. He also later hosted the poet Timotheus of Miletus and the Athenian playwright Euripides who finished his days there writing and producing Archelaus. Euripides Bacchae was first staged here, about 408 BC. Pella was the birthplace and seats of Philip II and of Alexander the Great, his son.

It became the largest and richest city in Macedonia and flourished particularly under Cassander's rule. The reign of Antigonus most likely represented the height of the city's prosperity, as this is the period which has left us most archaeological remains. The famous poet Aratus died in Pella ca. 240 BC.

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 168 BC, it was sacked by the Romans, and its treasury transported to Rome, and Livy reported 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.[3]

Pella was declared capital of the 3rd administrative division of the Roman province of Macedonia, and was possibly the seat of the Roman governor. Activity continued to be vigorous until the early 1st century BC and, crossed by the Via Egnatia,[4] Pella remained a significant point on the route between Dyrrachium and Thessalonika.

In about 90 BC the city was destroyed by an earthquake; shops and workshops dating from the catastrophe have been found with remains of their merchandise, though the city was eventually rebuilt over its ruins. Cicero stayed there in 58 BC, though by then the provincial seat had already transferred to Thessalonika.

Pella was promoted to a Roman Colony sometime between 45 and 30 BC and its 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 (duumvirs quinquennales) are known for this period.

The decline of the city was rapid, in spite of being a Colonia: 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. Despite its decline, archaeology has shown that the southern part of the city near the lagoon continued to be occupied until the 4th century AD.[5]

(This is not to be confused with Pella, Jordan to which ancient sources report Christians fled from Jerusalem in 66 AD. [6]).

In about 180 AD, Lucian of Samosata could describe it in passing as "now insignificant, with very few inhabitants".[7]

In the Byzantine period, the Roman site was occupied by a fortified village.

In modern times it finds itself as the starting point of the Alexander The Great Marathon, in honour of the city's ancient heritage.[8]


The site was explored by 19th-century voyagers including Holand, Pouqueville, Beaujour, Cousinéry, Delacoulonche, Hahn, Glotz and Struck, based on the descriptions provided by Titus Livius,. The first excavation was begun by G. Oikonomos in 1914–15. The modern systematic exploration of the site began in 1953 and work has continued since then uncovering significant parts of the extensive city.

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.[9] Overall, archaeologists have uncovered 1,000 tombs since the year 2000, but these only represent an estimated 5% of the site. In 2009 43 graves last year containing rich and elaborate grave goods were found and in 2010 37 tombs dating from 650 to 280 B.C were discovered containing rich ancient Macedonian artifacts ranging from ceramics to precious metals. One of the tombs was the final resting place of a warrior from the 6th century B.C. with a bronze helmet with a gold mouthplate, weapons and jewellery[10] (see picture).

Many artefacts are displayed in the Archaeological Museum of Pella.

Schematic plan of Pella

Hippodamian plan

The city proper was located south of and below the palace. Designed on a grid plan as envisaged by Hippodamus, it consists of parallel streets which intersect at right angles and form a grid of eight rows of rectangular blocks. The blocks are of a consistent width — each approximately 45 m — and of 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. 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.

Urban area

The city is built on the former island of Phacos, a promontory which dominated the sea to the south 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.

In pride of place in the centre of the city is the Agora, built in the last quarter of the 4th century B.C and an architectural gem, unique in conception and size; it covered aprox. 7 hectares or 10 city blocks. Pella is one of the first known cities to have had an extensive piped water supply to individual house and waste water disposal from most of the city.

The agora 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 were temples to Aphrodite, Demeter and Cybele. Pella's pebble-mosaic floors 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, often named after their representations,[11] particularly the Houses of Helen and Dionysus.

Aerial photograph and plan of the House of Dionysos
Bathtubs in the public baths


The palace is situated on a place of honour on the central hill. Partly excavated, 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 significant portion of the administrative apparatus of the kingdom.


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]


A common folk etymology is traditionally given for the name Pella, deriving it from the Ancient Macedonian word pélla (πέλλα), "stone"[15][16][17] and forming with the prefix a- the Doric apella, meaning in this case fence, enclosure of stone.[18] The word apella originally meant fold, fence for animals, and then assembly of people.[19] 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][20]


  1. Xenophon: Hellenica, 5.2.13
  2. J. Roisman, I. Worthington. A Companion to Ancient Macedonia. John Wiley and Sons, 2010. p. 92
  3. Titus Livius History of Rome Vol. VI
  4. Strabo VII, 323
  6. "The Story of the Church, Second and enlarged edition", A.M. Renwick and A.M. Harman, 1985, p18
  7. Lucian of Samosata: Alexander the false prophet, The Tertullian Project.
  8. Presentation. Alexander the Great Marathon. Retrieved on 2010-04-28.
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  11. 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.
  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. Πέλλα / Pella, Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek–English Lexicon
  16. Hesych.: Schol.U.Demosth.: Martin Nilsson, Die Geschichte der Griechische Religion, vol. I (C. H. Beck), 1955, p. 558
  17. R. S. P. Beekes has suggested a Pre-Greek proto-form *πελσα (Etymological Dictionary of Greek, Brill, 2009, p. 1168).
  18. Nilsson, Vol. I, p. 558
  19. Heshych. ἀπέλλαι (apellai), σηκοί "folds", εκκλησίαι "assemblies", ἀρχαιρεσίαι "elections": Nilsson Vol. I, p. 556
  20. Mallory, J.P. and D.Q. Adams. Encyclopedia of Indo-European Culture. London: Fitzroy and Dearborn, 1997: 432


  • 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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