Alexander The Great's Family Tombs: An Archaeological Debate

Wikimedia Commons, Colin W.

Entrance to the Royal tombs within the Great Tumulus at Aigai (Vergina), Greece, 2008. License

Upon opening the monumental tombs at the ancient city of Aegae, capital of the ancient Kingdom of Macedonia, archaeologists were quick to realize that they had found the final resting place of a royal family— Alexander the Great’s, to be specific. 

Based on the location and the sumptuousness of the three tombs and the materials within, it was thought that the individuals interred were: Alexander’s father, Philip II; his wife, Cleopatra; Alexander’s half-brother, Arrhideaeus Philip III; and his son and short-lived successor, Alexander IV. 

The tombs, however, bore no inscriptions or names and gave no definitive signs as to who was actually laid to rest there, despite the fact that they had mostly been left undisturbed for over two millennia. 

Instead, these initial conclusions relied solely on the material evidence. As such, the theories about the buried individuals and their identities have faced no shortage of scrutiny and doubt from scholars across the field, with much debate centered around who was in which tomb specifically... That is until today. 

Wikimedia Commons

An exquisitely crafted golden larnax box (4th century BCE), with the Macedonian royal star on the lid. Traditionally noted as belonging to Philip II from Tomb II, new research published would attribute this instead as belonging to Arrhideaeus. License

Recent work published by an international team of researchers from Greece, Spain, and the United States has corroborated the original theories from 1977 about who the deceased were, but now presents new arguments about who exactly was where

The Great Tumulus, one of many monumental man-made burial mounds at Aegae, contains four burial chambers all dated to the 4th century BCE. Tombs II and III consisted of two monumental vaulted chambers and were unlooted, well-preserved, and contained an incredibly rich collection of objects. 

Tomb I was a smaller cist tomb and had been looted sometime in antiquity. Tomb IV, another monumental tomb, was also disturbed in antiquity. Manolis Andronikos, director of the 1977-78 excavations, initially concluded that Tomb II must have belonged to Philip II, Alexander the Great’s father; Tomb I to Alexander’s less famous half-brother, Arrhideaeus; Tomb III to Alexander IV; and Tomb IV to Cassander (King of Macedonia after Alexander IV’s death). 

Wikimedia Commons, Mary Harrsch

Golden funeral wreath from Tomb II at Vergina. The piece is of exceptional quality and one of the best preserved from the ancient world. License

These tomb assignments remained the prevailing theory for decades, though the debate between Tomb I and II’s inhabitants has always been present. Tombs III and IV are less contested due to sureties in the historical record and the chronology of the tombs. 

The debate is not without its significance and new conclusions about who exactly is buried where stands to shift not only how we understand the materials within the tombs and how they represented the deceased individuals, but even how we think about the relationship between the historical and archaeological records

In order to draw their new conclusions, the research team combined osteological analyses of the human remains with historical records detailing the appearance of and known facts about the individuals in question. They then compared what they could conclude to the chronology of the tombs themselves and their objects.

While it might make more sense to assume that the father of the great conqueror Alexander would have a sumptuous and decked out tomb, the new research urges us to consider the historical circumstances of Philip’s death more closely in relation to the tombs at hand. 

Tomb I, although disturbed in antiquity, is of generally inferior quality with regards to its construction and aesthetics when compared to the elegant vaulting of Tombs II and III. 

Considering that upon Philip’s death Alexander was not yet “The Great” but rather the new, young, and ambitious king of a growing kingdom, it makes sense that a certain amount of frugality was exercised in constructing a royal tomb. This is especially so, considering Alexander would soon thereafter embark on his lengthy and expensive invasion of Asia. 

Wikimedia Commons, Sarah Murray

The entrance to Tomb II within the Great Tumulus at Vergina, previously thought to house Philip II, now believed to have housed his son, Arrhideaeus. License

What is more, the male skeletal remains of Tomb I, though incomplete, coincide more closely with Philip’s age at death (ca. 45 years old) and show significant signs of injuries during life that match quite remarkably to what we know about his physical appearance. 

For instance, we know that around 339 BCE Philip II was nearly fatally injured when he was struck by a lance through his leg, and he retained a limp until his death. The surviving left leg in Tomb I shows a significant fusion and granuloma at the knee from an injury by a penetrating object that likely split the joint in two and then left fragments of the foreign object within the bone. 

Tomb I also contained the remains of a younger female, likely around 18 years old at death, and a newborn infant. We know from ancient authors that Cleopatra, Philip’s seventh and last wife, died very young (Plutarch notes that she was in her late teens) and did not survive long after Philip’s assassination.

Wikimedia Commons, Richard Mortel

Bust of Philip II,  now on display at the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen. License

The male remains of Tomb II, on the other hand, are more or less perfectly preserved and show no signs of traumatic injury during life. We know for certain that Arrhidaeus did not partake in military campaigns. There is historical evidence to suggest this was due to the fact that he had some mental disabilities and that Alexander kept him from any such engagements. 

The female remains also seem more indicative of an older woman, possibly in her mid to late 20s, and show a certain level of physical wear consistent with frequent horse riding. This would not match what we know of the young Cleopatra, but tracks quite well to Arrhidaeus’ wife, Eurydice II of Macedon, who was known to have been a skilled equestrian and took active roles in military campaigns in her own bids for power. 

In this way, the new research that suggests these altered tomb assignments demands that we also shift how we view the material culture of the burials. In the past, it was quite common for archaeologists to assume gendered identities based on material culture, so it was unsurprising that a rich tomb with weapons within would have been assigned to a renowned warrior king. 

Knowing what we do now, however, about both the skeletal remains and Arrhidaeus and Eurydice’s lives, the fine weaponry inside Tomb II was most likely deposited on Eurydice’s behalf, neither for Arrhidaeus nor Philip II. The sparsity of Philip II’s tomb also sheds light on the financial circumstances of Alexander’s early reign, showcasing the need for tighter purse strings, even for the burial of his father. 

Photo by Danielle Vander Horst

Bust of Alexander the Great

Though these new conclusions are compelling and utilize strong evidence to make their arguments, it must always be noted that we can never say with 100% certainty that these are definitive identifications without surefire evidence such as DNA testing or named inscriptions. However, the arguments presented by this research present an exciting reexamination of a pivotal group of individuals in the history of the ancient world

About the Author

Danielle Vander Horst

Dani is a freelance artist, writer, and archaeologist. Her research specialty focuses on religion in the Roman Northwest, but she has formal training more broadly in Roman art, architecture, materiality, and history. Her other interests lie in archaeological theory and public education/reception of the ancient world. She holds multiple degrees in Classical Archaeology from the University of Rochester, Cornell University, and Duke University.

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