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Thessalonica In 51 AD

A reconstruction of the Greek city in its New Testament days.

Therme: 650 to 315 BC

Chapter 1: Therme

The original site of Thessalonica
c. 600 – 315 BC


In 315 BC, in the part of Northern Greece known as Macedonia, a man named Cassander came to a town called Therme and built it up into a city – which he called Thessalonica, after his wife. Cassander was one of the successors of Alexander the Great, and his wife was the great one’s half-sister, a daughter of Philip II. The town of Therme (whose name means “hot”) was a small trading village that gave its name to the “Thermaic Gulf”, since it stood at the northernmost tip of those waters. The founding of Thessalonica by Cassander is well known, but the city before him, called Therme, has a history all of its own. Much of this “early” history offers great insight into the timing and increase of Thessalonica’s later importance.

Early History

Therme was probably founded by Thracians from North of the Agean (though some say it could have been the ancient Makedones, or possibly even Southern Greeks from Corinth!) In any event, whoever those first “Thermians” were, their purposes certainly included a good deal of trade, and the worship of the popular god, Dionysus. An average sized Temple[1] to this ancient god of wine and fertility was the only distinguishing feature of Therme’s location, apart from the gulf, and the view of the nearby Mount Kissos.

Kissos itself was one reason Therme became a popular, if humble port of trade. The mountain peak was visible from farther away in the Gulf, and sailors coming around the bend, up to Therme from the southwest could spy Kissos, and know they were sailing to Therme. But there were other reasons for the modest success of Thermaic trading, as well.

Just west of Therme, down the coastline, there were four rivers whose mouths emptied into the gulf near one another. The yearly flooding and silting left the plains area exceptionally fertile, but it also made it impossible to build any cities along the coast for about thirty miles worth of shoreline. That meant anyone in the eastern plains area who wanted to export their goods had to use Therme, and many other cities in the gulf that relied on the produce of those plains for food – the ones in the east also had to send ships to Therme.

Finally, regarding the harbor, Therme sat solidly on the foot of Mt. Kissos itself, and its shoreline drops-off almost straight down, for a 30 to 50 foot anchorage. Large and small boats could easily dock there, without special riggings. Boats could load and unload, and then anchor at most any place in the harbor. It was the nearby mountains and the outlying cape that provided enough shelter for at least a hundred ships, providing “safe harbor” in the truest sense of the term.

The village and community arrangement

On the land, Therme was an open village, not a city. It had no city-walls, no theater, no gymnasium or stadium. There was no aqueduct or underground pipe bringing mountain spring-water into a central fountain house, and no public bath-house. The central trading area was a market only, not a fully-developed agora[2]. There were no special buildings for the city council or assembly to meet in, because there was no real political organization – merely a simple association of people who lived together in plain, square houses that butted against one another, a stone’s throw away from the shore of a prime trading spot.

Therme did have one community building, a common hall with a large fireplace in the center of the room. Dedicated to the goddess Hestia, the meeting hall and its every-ready flame showed that Therme was an indeed an independent community. The leading men of the village could gather there when necessary, or use the hall and flame for special occasions, and this basic arrangement was more than sufficient for all their political needs.[3]

Overall, the people of Therme were simple people who lived in one place from early times. Living together as various family units and as a village, depending on each other for survival, they worshiped their gods and managed a humble living by serving the traders in their constant comings and goings.

Caught In-between Thrace and Chalkidiki

Now in 315, when Cassander came, Therme was already part of the Macedonian lands he controlled. It had not always been so.

Way back, around 650 BC, as the legend goes, a man named Makedon “son of Zeus” founded the nation of Macedonia. His people, the Makedone Tribe, came down from the Pindus Mountains north of Olympus and moved into the western plains, between the Haliakmon and Axios rivers. These people became strong and warlike, fighting off Thracians, Illyrians, Chalkidians, and other tribes. Eventually, they themselves were called Macedonians.

Now, Therme was part of the lands east of the Axios river – a region traditionally known, up to that point, as Thrace. The Thracians were also a strong race of people, hostile to invaders, but otherwise primitive. Their towns at that time were similar to Therme – undeveloped, and politically simple. Unified only by race, the Thracians had never (to that point) united themselves under a strong King, and so, in 516 BC, the Persian King Darius I took all Thracian lands east to the Axios river, made Thrace part of Persia, and made Macedonia Persia’s new neighbor.

Darius formed an alliance with the Macedonian King Amyntas, and turned his attention to conquering the rest of Greece. Defeated at Marathon, he went home to Persia and died there. King Xerxes, his son, then returned to Thrace. Amyntas’ son, Alexander I[4], kept the alliance with Persia, and Xerxes prepared to attack Southern Greece, in his father’s footsteps.

The first time that Therme steps onto the pages of History is with Xerxes of Persia.

In 481, Xerxes used the harbor of Therme to join up his fleet with his army. It was the large, natural harbor of Therme – and its location at the far western end of Thracian lands – that made Therme a suitable site. After the winter, in 480, King Alexander allowed the Persian-Thracian army to march peacefully around the Thermaic Gulf, past Mount Olympus, and down into Southern Greece. After his defeat, Xerxes led all the Persians out of Thrace[5]. The next year, in 479, King Alexander I took Thracian lands east of the Axios, up to the Strymon River. Therme was now Macedonian territory… though just barely.

Attacked by Athenians

The next eventful era for Therme came in Spring of 432 BC, when the Athenian League[6] sent 30 ships into the harbor, and took the village with 1000 men. A portion of those forces then moved on to besiege Pydna (on the other side of the four rivers.) During the siege, and despite receiving reinforcements, Athens was forced to abandon the siege of Pydna, because one of their member-cities, Potidea in Chalkidiki, was revolting. The Athenian forces returned to Therme, and used it to service and winter their fleet, during the two-year siege of Potidea.

The Macedonian King Perdikkas had failed to prevent any of this against the superior strength of Athens, and so, in the Summer of 431, he agreed to ally himself with Athens and assist in the siege on Chalkidiki. (They agreed merely to release Therme, which – without walls – was not a defensible position anyway.) With the help of Perdikkas, Potidea fell in the winter of 430/429. Athens left Therme, but secretly encouraged the Thracian King Sitalkes[7] to attack Macedonia.

Athens, led by Pericles, was hoping to use Thrace to take Therme and Pydna after all. Sitalkes raised a huge army of 150,000 men, partly by promising many of them plunder. The gigantic force invaded from the north, destroying lands and cities in eastern Macedonia. The force was so large, the Macedonian army simply retreated to Piera, near Mt. Olympus. The Thracian hordes continued to plunder, and waited along the Axios for the Athenian fleet to arrive – as they had promised. When it did not, Sitalkes sent his hordes on one last rampage, and took them back home to Thrace. Therme, it seems, escaped being touched, and Perdikkas switched his allegiance to Sparta[8].

The people of Therme resumed normal activities, though under the new threat of Chalkidiki. The cities of Chalkidiki had joined the Athenian League after Xerxes’ defeat… but now, since the (failed) rebellion of Potidea, those cities decided to unite in a league called the Chalkidian Confederacy. Made stronger through unification, the new Chalkidiki controlled the entire eastern half of the Thermaic Gulf… nearly up to the harbor of Therme itself.

About fifty years after the siege of Potidea (almost a hundred years after the retreat of Xerxes), Chalkidiki pushed their control northwest into Macedonian lands… and probably claimed control of Therme around 383. The Confederacy even took the Macedonian capital, Pella – but King Amyntas III[9] called on Macedonia’s old ally, Sparta, whose army marched all the way up and around Therme to the Chalkidian capital of Olynthos. Sparta forced Olynthos to give in (380), so that Amyntas was able to reclaim Pella and the Macedonian lands down to Therme… but only a small bit of land beyond that.

Finally Secured by Kings Philip II and Alexander the Great

Once again, Therme was in Macedonian territory, but too near the border of a hostile, enemy region. After 380, the cities of Chalkidiki joined Athens in the Second Athenian League – founded, essentially, to combat Spartan and Macedonian strength. By the time Philip II became King of Macedonia in 360, the Chalkidians and Athenians were turning against one another, again. Philip took full advantage of the situation to strengthen Macedonia and end the threat of Chalkidiki once and for all.

In fact, Philip II, the father of Great Alexander, did much to safeguard Macedonia’s position – and Therme’s too. His first success was to train a new army in the tactics of the Phalanx-formation, using the twelve-cubit pike in tight formation with overlapping shield-bearers. He so soundly defeated the Illyrians in the north, that it unified the regions of “Upper Macedonia” with the rest of the country. With new lands and resources, Philip quickly won Amphipolis, Pydna, and Potidea away from Athens, and offered Potidea back to the Chalkidians, in exchange for a peaceful alliance.

Philip continued to strengthen his rule, and his country. Conquering Thrace to the town of Crenides at Mt. Pangaeus (356), he renamed it after himself – Philippi – and discovered the rich gold mines there in the area. With an additional 1000 talents a year, he bought new mercenaries for his army; and he recruited new nobles (from other Greek states) to govern his new cities, giving them large shares of his new lands in return for their loyalty.

In 352, Philip conquered Thessaly, lands south and west of Olympus. When one of his wives had a daughter that year, he named the girl, “Thessaly Victory”, or “Thesssalonike.” No one could have guessed she would eventually outlast all the males in her own royal bloodline.

With Thrace and Thessaly now part of Macedonia, the Chalkidians were terrified. From Olynthos, they contacted Athens again, and harbored and plotted with Philip’s half-brothers, his rivals. When Philip demanded their turnover, Olynthos refused, and Philip marched on the city, took it, enslaved all the people, and burned it to the ground (348). Macedonia had finally conquered Thrace and Chalkidiki – Therme was now safe from every side.

The city in the most prime location of all Norhtern Greece was finally safe, free to go about its business, and maybe, to prosper at last. In 338, Philip finally defeated Athens and Thebes, and his hold on the Greek world was complete. He died two years later. In 334, his son, Alexander the Great, crossed into Asia[10] and never returned.

The Future of Therme, in 323 BC

The small town of Therme was safe, thanks to regional stability, since 348… but the whole nation of Macedonia plunged into political instability the moment Alexander died in Babylon. Therme would have to keep waiting until the timing was ripe for its village to be expanded into a fully-grown city, with defensible walls… because all those with the resources to do it were otherwise occupied… mostly with fighting each other.

In 315 BC, after nine years of struggle and intrigue, the general Cassander restored Macedonia’s political stability. His final battle for control was a siege of Pydna, and during that whole year, the nearby convenience of Therme’s great harbor certainly caught his attention; as did the last royal daughter of Philip, herself trapped in Pydna that year. That same year, Cassander acquired the hand of the princess, Thessalonike.


[1] The ruins of this Ionic temple date to around 500 BC.

[2] The commercial and political center of a full grown city.

[3] “Pyrataneion” – the symbol of community in most ancient towns of the Greek world since 1000 BC. The name “Prytaneion” seems to come from the early Athenians, and from the way their Council chose their rotating leaders – for they met in such a hall, at the time. Whatever it was called in other places, this house for “the common hearth” was nearly universal, especially in primitive settings.

[4] Alexander “the First” – King of Macedonia 159 years before his world-famous great-great-great-grandson, Alexander, “the Great”.

[5] Xerxes had famously defeated 300 Spartans at the pass of Thermopylae, but at a cost. After Salamis, in 480, Xerxes went home to Babylon, in Persia, and comforted himself – partly by taking a new wife named Esther, a Hebrew. Many of her people had returned to Palestine when Xerxes’ grandfather Cyrus conquered Babylon, and allowed them to go home and rebuild Jerusalem. The complete restoration took over 100 years, and Xerxes was 20 years dead when they finished, in 445! On that day, Alexander the Great was only 112 years away from their gates.

[6] Also known as the “Delian League” – formed after 480 to prevent future Persian invasions, in effect it became the “empire” of Athens.

[7] Sitalkes was actually the first man to claim Kingship of Thrace.

[8] All the events having to do with Athens and Sparta take place during the beginning of the “Peloponessian War”.

[9] Amyntas III – ruled from 394 to 370. Between Archaelos and Amyntas there were eight years of contests between rival contenders, and Illyrian invasions, which weakened the country.

[10] Alexander left to take back the Greek cities of Asia from Persian control, but he famously keep right on conquering – Palestine, Egypt, all Persia and India. The King then met death in 323, in the same Royal Palace in Babylon where Xerxes knew Esther… where Nehemiah held the cup of Artaxerxes… where Nebuchadnezzar had dreamed of Alexander’s arrival: as a leopard, as a goat, as a kingdom of bronze that would rule the whole world, and be scattered.

1 Comments:

Input from Anonymous Anonymous :

Thanks Bill. Great job, loved the read and research. Love your stuff.

Friday, September 19, 2014  

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