For many centuries, the ancient Macedonians lived on the fringes of the Greek world far removed from the prominent city-states of the south. For this reason, many have called their status as Greeks into question. Famously, only the Greeks could participate in the ancient Olympic Games. So then, what was the status of this northern tribe in that regard? Did the Macedonians participate in the ancient Greek Olympic Games or not?
The early years of the Olympic Games
According to the earliest tradition, the Greek hero Heracles founded the Olympic Games. The ancient historians placed the founding of this athletic competition in 776 BCE. For the first two centuries, there is no evidence that the Olympic Games involved the Macedonians. Why is this?
Put simply, the Macedonians generally did not have much to do with the Greeks of the south due to the fact that they lived so far north. This applied to numerous aspects of the Greek world and not just to the Olympics. They were generally quite isolated in terms of socio-political developments even though they worshipped the same gods and had the same traditions and language as the rest of the Greeks.
For this reason, it is no surprise that the Macedonians apparently did not, initially, express any interest in participating in the Olympic Games. They took place in Olympia at Elis in the Peloponnese far to the south of Macedonia.
King Alexander I, the first Macedonian in the Olympics
This changed at the turn of the 5th century BCE. At this time, King Alexander I of Macedonia wanted to participate in the athletic competition of Olympia. When he attempted to enter, the Hellanodikai, the judges of the competition, denied his request. There was, naturally, prejudice against Alexander’s people since they lived so far away from the rest of the Greeks.
However, Alexander was able to convince the judges to allow him to participate. He pointed out that his dynasty was founded by Perdiccas, the son of Temenus, a descendant of Heracles (Hercules). After hearing this explanation, the judges accepted that Alexander was a true Greek.
After Alexander participated in the Olympic Games, various other Macedonians also began doing so. It seems that he initiated an interest in the competition in his homeland.
Macedonians in the Olympic Games
At first, participation in the Olympic Games among Macedonians was limited to the royal dynasty. After Alexander I, there is a record of King Archelaus I participating. He competed in a chariot race and was victorious. This occurred in 408 BCE, still long before the expansion of Macedonian hegemony to all the Greek city-states.
In the following century, King Philip II also competed in the Games. He was the father of Alexander the Great. Philip actually participated three times. All three times, two of which were chariot races, he was the winner. These three victories occurred in 356, 352, and 348 BCE.
Just after this era, we find records of non-royal Macedonians participating in the Olympic Games. Perhaps King Philip’s impressive series of victories had something to do with this. In 328 BCE, there is a record of a man named Cliton winning the important running race. Based on the available records, he was the first non-royal Macedonian to win in the Games.
After Cliton, we find records of various other Macedonians participating in and winning many of the events in the Olympic Games. In fact, we find an average of approximately one Macedonian winner per decade over the next six decades. Additionally, we need to consider the fact that we only have records of the winners. Likely, many other Macedonians participated in the Olympic Games during this period, and we certainly know that they continued to do so thereafter.