The expansion of the Macedonian kingdom has been described as a three-stage process. As a frontier kingdom on the border of the Greek world with Barbarian Europe, the Macedonians first subjugated their immediate northern neighbours—various Illyrian and Thracian tribes—before turning against the states of southern and central Greece. Macedonia then led a pan-Hellenic military force against their primary objective—the conquest of Persia—which they achieved with remarkable ease.
In Greek mythology, Makedon is the eponymous hero of Macedonia and is mentioned in Hesiod's Catalogue of Women. The first historical attestation of the Macedonians occurs in the works of Herodotus during the mid-5th century BC. The Macedonians are absent in Homer's Catalogue of Ships and the term "Macedonia" itself appears late. The Iliad states that upon leaving Olympus, Hera journeyed via Pieria and Emathia before reaching Athos. This is re-iterated by Strabo in his Geography. Nevertheless, archaeological evidence indicates that Mycenaean contact with or penetration into the Macedonian interior possibly started from the early 14th century BC.
In his A History of Macedonia, Nicholas Hammond reconstructed the earliest phases of Macedonian history based on his interpretation of later literary accounts and archaeological excavations in the region of Macedonia. According to Hammond, the Macedonians are missing from early Macedonian historical accounts because they had been living in the Orestian highlands since before the Dark Ages, possibly having originated from the same (proto-Greek) population pool that produced other Greek peoples. The Macedonian tribes subsequently moved down from Orestis in the upper Haliacmon to the Pierian highlands in the lower Haliacmon because of pressure from the Molossians, a related tribe who had migrated to Orestis from Pelagonia. In their new Pierian home north of Olympus, the Macedonian tribes mingled with the "Dorians-to-be". This might account for traditions which placed the eponymous founder, Makedon, "round Pieria and Olympus". Some traditions placed the Dorian homeland in the Pindus mountain range in western Thessaly, whilst Herodotus pushed this further north to the Macedonian Pindus and "were called, as an ethnos, Mακεδνόν".
A different, southern homeland theory also exists in traditional historiography. Arnold J. Toynbee said that the Makedones migrated north to Macedonia from central Greece, placing the Dorian homeland in Phthiotis and citing the traditions of fraternity between Makedon and Magnes.
The Macedonian expansion is said to have been led by the ruling Temenid dynasty, known as "Argeads" or "Argives". Herodotus said that Perdiccas, the dynasty's founder, was descended from the Heraclid Temenus. He left Argos with his two older brothers Aeropus and Gayanes, and travelled via Illyria to Lebaea, a city in Upper Macedonia which certain scholars have tried to connect with the villages Alebea or Velvedos. Here, the brothers served as shepherds for a local ruler. After a vision, the brothers fled to another region in Macedonia near the Midas Gardens by the foot of the Vermio Mountains, and then set about subjugating the rest of Macedonia. Thucydides's account is similar to that of Herodotus, making it probable that the story was disseminated by the Macedonian court, i.e. it accounts for the belief the Macedonians had about the origin of their kingdom, if not an actual memory of this beginning. Later historians modified the dynastic traditions by introducing variously Caranus or Archelaus, the son of Temenus, as the founding Temenid kings—although there is no doubt that Euripides transformed Caranus to Archelaus meaning "leader of the people" in his play Archelaus, in an attempt to please Archelaus I of Macedon.
The earliest sources, Herodotus and Thucydides, called the royal family "Temenidae". In later sources (Strabo, Appian, Pausanias) the term "Argeadae" was introduced. However, Appian said that the term Argeadae referred to a leading Macedonian tribe rather than the name of the ruling dynasty. The connection of the name "Argeads" to the royal family is uncertain. The words "Argead" and "Argive" derive via Latin Argīvus from Ancient Greek: Ἀργεῖος (Argeios), meaning "of or from Argos", and is first attested in Homer, where it was also used as a collective designation for the Greeks ("Ἀργείων Δαναῶν", Argive Danaans). The most common connection to the royal family, as written by Herodotus, is with Peloponnesian Argos. Appian connects it with Orestian Argos. According to another tradition, the name was adopted after Caranus moved Macedonia's capital from Edessa to Agea, thus appropriating the name of the city for its citizens. A figure, Argeas, is mentioned in the Iliad (16.417), therefore it is possible that there may have been an even earlier tradition deriving the genealogy of the Macedonian kings from the heroes of the Trojan Cycle, which was popular in neighbouring Epirus.
Taking Herodotus's lineage account as the most trustworthy, Appian said that after Perdiccas, six successive heirs ruled: Argeus, Philip, Aeropus, Alcetas, Amyntas and Alexander. Amyntas I ruled at the time of the Persian invasion of Paeonia and when Macedon became a vassal state of the former. However, Alexander I is the first truly historic figure. Based on this line of succession and an estimated average rule of 25 to 30 years, the beginnings of the Macedonian dynasty have thus been traditionally dated to 750 BC. Hammond supports the traditional view that the Temenidae did arrive from the Peloponnese and took charge of Macedonian leadership, possibly usurping rule from a native "Argead" dynasty with Illyrian help. However, other scholars doubt the veracity of their Peloponnesian origins. For example, Hatzopoulos takes Appian's testimony to mean that the royal lineage imposed itself onto the tribes of the Middle Heliacmon from Argos Orestikon, whilst Borza said that the Argeads were a family of notables hailing from Vergina.
Both Strabo and Thucydides said that Emathia and Pieria were mostly occupied by Thracians (Pieres, Paeonians) and Bottiaeans, as well as some Illyrian and Epirote tribes. Herodotus states that the Bryges were cohabitants with the Macedonians before the latter's mass migrating to Anatolia. If a group of ethnically definable Macedonian tribes were living in the Pierian highlands prior to their expansion, the first conquest was of the Pierian piedmont and coastal plain, including Vergina. The tribes may have launched their expansion from a base near Mount Bermion, according to Herodotus. Thucydides describes the Macedonian expansion specifically as a process of conquest led by the Argeads:
But the country along the sea which is now called Macedonia, was first acquired and made a kingdom by Alexander [I], father of Perdiccas [II] and his forefathers, who were originally Temenidae from Argos. They defeated and expelled from Pieria the Pierians ... and also expelled the Bottiaeans from Bottiaea ... they acquired as well a narrow strip of Paeonia extending along the Axios river from the interior to Pella and the sea. Beyond the Axios they possess the territory as far as the Strymon called Mygdonia, having driven out the Edoni. Moreover, they expelled from the district now called Eordaea the Eordi ... The Macedonians also made themselves rulers of certain places ... namely Anthemus, Grestonia, and a large part of Macedonia proper.
Thucydides's account gives a geographical overview of Macedonian possessions at the time of Alexander I's rule. To reconstruct a chronology of the expansion by Alexander I's predecessors is more difficult, but generally, three stages have been proposed from Thucydides' reading. The initial and most important conquest was of Pieria and Bottiaea, including the locations of Pydna and Dium. The second stage consolidated rule in Pieria and Bottiaea, captured Methone and Pella, and extended rule over Eordaea and Almopia. According to Hammond, the third stage occurred after 550 BC, when the Macedonians gained control over Mygdonia, Edonis, lower Paeonia, Bisaltia and Crestonia. However, the second stage might have occurred as late as 520 BC; and the third stage probably did not occur until after 479 BC, when the Macedonians capitalized on the weakened Paeonian state after the Achaemenid Empire withdrawal from Macedon and the rest of their mainland European territories. Whatever the case, Thucydides' account of the Macedonian state describes its accumulated territorial extent by the rule of Perdiccas II, Alexander I's son. Hammond has said that the early stages of Macedonian expansion were militaristic, subduing or expunging populations from a large and varied area. It has been hypothesized that the cause of Macedonian expansion was demographic pressure. Because pastoralism and highland living could not support a very concentrated settlement density, pastoralist tribes often searched for more arable lowlands suitable for agriculture.
Present-day scholars have highlighted several inconsistencies in the traditionalist perspective first set in place by Hammond. An alternative model of state and ethnos formation, promulgated by an alliance of regional elites, which redates the creation of the Macedonian kingdom to the 6th century BC was proposed in 2010. According to these scholars, direct literary, archaeological, and linguistic evidence to support Hammond's contention that a distinct Macedonian ethnos had existed in the Haliacmon valley since the Aegean civilizations is lacking. Hammond's interpretation has been criticized as a "conjectural reconstruction" from what appears during later, historical times.
Similarly, the historicity of migration, conquest and population expulsion have also been questioned. Thucydides's account of the forced expulsion of the Pierians and Bottiaeans could have been formed on the basis of his perceived similarity of names of the Pierians and Bottiaeans living in the Struma valley with the names of regions in Macedonia; whereas his account of Eordean extermination was formulated because such toponymic correspondences are absent. Likewise, the Argead conquest of Macedonia may be viewed as a commonly used literary topos in classical Macedonian rhetoric. Tales of migration served to create complex genealogical connections between trans-regional ruling elites, while at the same time were used by the ruling dynasty to legitimize their rule, heroicize mythical ancestors and distance themselves from their subjects.
Conflict was a historical reality in the early Macedonian kingdom and pastoralist traditions allowed the potential for population mobility. Greek archaeologists have found that some of the passes linking the Macedonian highlands with the valley regions have been used for thousands of years. However, the archaeological evidence does not point to any significant disruptions between the Iron Age and Hellenistic periods in Macedonia. The general continuity of material culture, settlement sites, and pre-Greek onomasticon contradict the traditional "ethnic cleansing" account of early Macedonian expansion.
The process of state formation in Macedonia was similar to that of its neighbours in Epirus, Illyria, Thrace and Thessaly, whereby regional elites could mobilize disparate communities for the purpose of organizing land and resources. Local notables were often based in urban-like settlements, although contemporaneous historians often did not recognize them as poleis because they were not self-ruled but under the rule of a "king". From the mid-6th century, there appears a series of exceptionally rich burials throughout the region—in Trebeništa, Vergina, Sindos, Agia Paraskevi, Pella-Archontiko, Aiani, Gevgelija, Amphipolis—sharing a similar burial rite and grave accompaniments, interpreted to represent the rise of a new regional ruling class sharing a common ideology, customs and religious beliefs. A common geography, mode of existence, and defensive interests might have necessitated the creation of a political confederacy among otherwise ethno-linguistically diverse communities, which led to the consolidation of a new Macedonian ethnic identity.
The traditional view that Macedonia was populated by rural ethnic groups in constant conflict is slowly changing, bridging the cultural gap between southern Epirus and the north Aegean region. Hatzopoulos's studies on Macedonian institutions have lent support to the hypothesis that Macedonian state formation occurred via an integration of regional elites, which were based in city-like centres, including the Argeadae at Vergina, the Paeonian/Edonian peoples in Sindos, Ichnae and Pella, and the mixed Macedonian-Barbarian colonies in the Thermaic Gulf and western Chalkidiki. The Temenidae became overall leaders of a new Macedonian state because of the diplomatic proficiency of Alexander I and the logistic centrality of Vergina itself. It has been suggested that a breakdown in traditional Balkan tribal traditions associated with adaptation of Aegean socio-political institutions created a climate of institutional flexibility in a vast, resource-rich land. Non-Argead centres increasingly became dependent allies, allowing the Argeads to gradually assert and secure their control over the lower and eastern territories of Macedonia. This control was fully consolidated by Phillip II.
Macedonia had a distinct material culture by the Early Iron Age. Typically Balkan burial, ornamental, and ceramic forms were used for most of the Iron Age. These features suggest broad cultural affinities and organizational structures analogous with Thracian, Epirote, and Illyrian regions. This did not necessarily symbolize a sharing of identity or political allegiance between these regions. In the late sixth century BC, Macedonia became open to Greek influences from the south, although a small but detectable amount of interaction with the south had been present since late Mycenaean times. By the fifth century BC, Macedonia was a part of the "Greek cultural milieu", possessing many cultural traits typical of the southern Greek city-states. Classical Greek objects and customs were appropriated selectively and used in peculiarly Macedonian ways. In addition, influences from Achaemenid Persia in culture and economy are evident in the fifth to mid-fourth centuries BC.
The way of life of the inhabitants of Upper Macedonia differed little from that of their neighbours in Epirus and Illyria, engaging in seasonal transhumance supplemented by agriculture. In these mountainous regions, upland sites were important focal points for local communities. In these difficult terrains, competition for resources often precipitated intertribal conflict and raiding forays into the comparatively richer lowland settlements of coastal Macedonia and Thessaly. Despite the remoteness of the upper Macedonian highlands, excavations at Aiani since 1983 have discovered finds attesting to the presence of social organization since the 2nd millennium BC. The finds include the oldest pieces of black-and-white pottery, which is characteristic of the tribes of northwest Greece, discovered so far. Found with Μycenaean sherds, they can be dated with certainty to the 14th century BC. The finds also include some of the oldest samples of writing in Macedonia, among them inscriptions bearing Greek names like Θέμιδα (Themida). The inscriptions demonstrate that Hellenism in Upper Macedonia was at a high economic, artistic, and cultural level by the sixth century BC—overturning the notion that Upper Macedonia was culturally and socially isolated from the rest of ancient Greece.
By contrast, the alluvial plains of Lower Macedonia and Pelagonia, which had a comparative abundance of natural resources such as timber and minerals, favored the development of a native aristocracy with a wealth, which at times surpassed the classical Greek poleis. Exploitation of minerals helped expedite the introduction of coinage in Macedonia from the 5th century BC, developing under southern Greek, Thracian and Persian influences. In contrast with classical Greek poleis, the Macedonians generally possessed very few slaves.
During the Late Bronze Age (circa 15th-century BC), the ancient Macedonians developed distinct, matt-painted wares that evolved from Middle Helladic pottery traditions originating in central and southern Greece. The Macedonians continued to use an individualized form of material culture—albeit showing analogies in ceramic, ornamental and burial forms with the so-called Lausitz culture between 1200 and 900 BC—and that of the Glasinac culture after circa 900 BC. While some of these influences persisted beyond the sixth century BC, a more ubiquitous presence of items of an Aegean-Mediterranean character is seen from the latter sixth century BC, as Greece recovered from its Dark Ages. Southern Greek impulses penetrated Macedonia via trade with north Aegean colonies such as Methone and those in the Chalcidice, neighbouring Thessaly, and from the Ionic colonies of Asia Minor. Ionic influences were later supplanted by those of Athenian provenance. Thus, by the latter sixth century, local elites could acquire exotic Aegean items such as Athenian red figure pottery, fine tablewares, olive oil and wine amphorae, fine ceramic perfume flasks, glass, marble and precious metal ornaments—all of which would serve as status symbols. By the fifth century BC, these items became widespread in Macedonia and in much of the central Balkans.
Macedonian settlements have a strong continuity dating from the Bronze Age, keeping traditionally used house construction techniques. While settlement numbers appeared to drop in central and southern Greece after 1000 BC, there is a dramatic increase in Macedonia. These settlements seemed to have developed on raised promontories near river flood plains called tells (Greek: τύμβοι). These are particularly focussed in western Macedonia between Florina and Lake Vergoritis, the upper and middle Heliacmon River, and Bottiaea. The other focus is on either side of the Axius and in the Chalcidice in eastern Macedonia. Urbanization was encouraged and controlled by Macedonian kings. A comparatively meager number of Macedonians lived in the few native Macedonian cities such as Aegeae, Pella and Dion, but urbanization increased by the fourth century BC as Greek colonies were conquered and integrated into Macedonia or new towns such as Philippi, Thessalonike and Alexandropolis were founded. These towns had typical Greek urban infrastructural features, such as gymnasia, temples and theaters.
Macedonian society was dominated by aristocratic families whose main source of wealth and prestige was their herds of horses and cattle. In this respect, Macedonia was similar to Thessaly and Thrace. However, unlike Thessaly, Macedonia was ruled by a monarchy from its earliest history until the Roman conquest in 167 BC. The nature of the kingship, however, remains debated. One viewpoint sees it as an autocracy, whereby the king held absolute power. Any other position of authority, including the army, was appointed at the whim of the king himself. The other, "constitutionalist", position argues that there was an evolution from a society of many minor "kings" — each of equal authority — to a sovereign military state whereby an army of citizen soldiers supported a central king against a rival class of nobility. Kingship was hereditary along the main male line, however, whether this was of a primogeniture nature remains to be established. The situation was further complicated by the fact that Macedonian kings were notoriously polygamist, sometimes resulting in sibling rivalry and even fratricide.
An important aspect of Macedonian social life were court symposia, which were characterized by heavy drinking (of apparently unmixed wine), feasting, and general debauchery. Symposia had several functions, amongst which was providing relief from the hardship of battle and marching. Symposia were Greek traditions since Homeric times, providing a venue for interaction amongst Macedonian elites. An ethos of egalitarianism surrounded symposia, allowing all male elites to express ideas and concerns, although built-up rivalries and excessive drinking often led to quarrels, fighting and even murder. The degree of extravagance and propensity for violence set Macedonian symposia apart from classical Greek symposia. Like symposia, hunting was another focus of elite activity, and it remained popular throughout Macedonia's history. Young men participating in symposia were only allowed to recline after having killed their first wild boar. Although the Macedonians created their own athletic games and, after the late fourth century, non-royal Macedonians competed and became victors in the Olympic Games and other athletic events such as the Argive Heraean Games, athletics were a less favored pastime compared to hunting.
Nevertheless, Alexander the Great sponsored athletic contests for his men; along with other facets of cultural life, such as philosophy and theatre, which increasingly incorporated Macedonia into the Greek world. Atticization was seen as early as King Archelaus' reign, who welcomed southern Greek intellectuals into the kingdom. Athenian playwrights such as Euripides and Agathon and the famous painter Zeuxis, all were influential in the early kingdom. Euripides wrote his last two tragedies at Archelaus's court.
The ancient Macedonians worshipped the Twelve Olympians, especially Zeus, Artemis, Heracles, and Dionysus. Ancient Greeks regarded it as an essential element of Hellenic identity to share common religious beliefs and to come together at regular intervals at Panhellenic sanctuaries (Olympia, Delphi, Nemea/Argos, etc.) in order to celebrate Panhellenic festivals. Most of the gods who were worshipped in southern Greece can also be found in the Macedonian pantheon and the names of the most important Macedonian religious festivals are also typically Greek. Evidence of this worship exists from the beginning of the fourth century BC onwards, but little evidence of Macedonian religious practices from earlier times exists. From an early period, Zeus was the single most important deity in the Macedonian pantheon. Makedon, the mythical ancestor of the Macedonians, was held to be a son of Zeus, and Zeus features prominently in Macedonian coinage. The most important centre of worship of Zeus was at Dion in Pieria, the spiritual centre of the Macedonians, where beginning in 400 BC King Archelaus established an annual festival, which in honour of Zeus featured lavish sacrifices and athletic contests. Worship of Zeus's son Heracles was also prominent; coins featuring Heracles appear from the fifth century BC onwards. This was in large part because the Argead kings of Macedon traced their lineage to Heracles, making sacrifices to him in the Macedonian capitals of Vergina and Pella. Numerous votive reliefs and dedications also attest to the importance of the worship of Artemis. Artemis was often depicted as a huntress and served as a tutelary goddess for young girls entering the coming-of-age process, much as Heracles Kynagidas (Hunter) did for young men who had completed it. By contrast, some deities popular elsewhere in the Greek world—notably Poseidon and Hephaestus—were largely ignored by the Macedonians.
Other deities worshipped by the ancient Macedonians were part of a local pantheon which included Thaulos (god of war equated with Ares), Gyga (later equated with Athena), Gozoria (goddess of hunting equated with Artemis), Zeirene (goddess of love equated with Aphrodite) and Xandos (god of light). A notable influence on Macedonian religious life and worship was neighbouring Thessaly; the two regions shared many similar cultural institutions. The Macedonians also worshiped non-Greek gods, such as the "Thracian horseman", Orpheus and Bendis, and other figures from Paleo-Balkan mythology. They were tolerant of, and open to, incorporating foreign religious influences such as the sun worship of the Paeonians. By the fourth century BC, there had been a significant fusion of Macedonian and common Greek religious identity, but Macedonia was nevertheless characterized by an unusually diverse religious life. This diversity extended to the belief in magic, as evidenced by curse tablets. It was a significant but secret aspect of Greek cultural practice.
A notable feature of Macedonian culture was the ostentatious burials reserved for its rulers. The Macedonian elite built lavish tombs at the time of death rather than constructing temples during life. Such traditions had been practiced throughout Greece and the central-west Balkans since the Bronze Age. Macedonian burials contain items similar to those at Mycenae, such as burial with weapons, gold death masks etc. From the sixth century, Macedonian burials became particularly lavish, displaying a rich variety of Greek imports reflecting the incorporation of Macedonia into a wider economic and political network centred on the Aegean city-states. Burials contained jewellery and ornaments of unprecedented wealth and artistic style. This zenith of Macedonian "warrior burial" style closely parallels those of sites in south-central Illyria and western Thrace, creating a koinon of elite burials. Lavish warrior burials had been discontinued in southern and central Greece from the seventh century onwards, where offerings at sanctuaries and the erection of temples became the norm. From the sixth century BC, cremation replaced the traditional inhumation rite for elite Macedonians. One of the most lavish tombs dating from the fourth century, believed to be that of Phillip II, is at Vergina. It contains extravagant grave goods, highly sophisticated artwork depicting hunting scenes and Greek cultic figures, and a vast array of weaponry. This demonstrates a continuing tradition of the warrior society rather than a focus on religious piety and technology of the intellect, which had become paramount facets of central Greek society in the Classical Period. The largest and most lavish tomb discovered in Macedonia, and in fact all of Greece, is the Amphipolis Tomb, first entered in 2014. The identity of the tomb's occupant is unknown, but archaeologists have speculated that it may be Alexander's close friend Hephaestion.
For administrative and political purposes, Attic Greek seems to have operated as a lingua franca among the ethno-linguistically diverse communities of Macedonia and the north Aegean region, creating a diglossic linguistic area. Attic Greek was standardized as the language of the court, formal discourse and diplomacy from as early as the time of Archelaus at the end of the 5th century BC. Attic was further spread by Macedonia's conquests. Although Macedonian continued to be spoken well into Antigonid times, It became the prevalent oral dialect in Macedonia and throughout the Macedonian-ruled Hellenistic world.
Attempts to classify Ancient Macedonian are hindered by the lack of surviving Ancient Macedonian texts; it was a mainly oral language and most archaeological inscriptions indicate that in Macedonia there was no dominant written language besides Attic and later Koine Greek. All surviving epigraphical evidence from grave markers and public inscriptions is in Greek. Classification attempts are based on a vocabulary of 150–200 words and 200 personal names assembled mainly from the 5th century lexicon of Hesychius of Alexandria and a few surviving fragmentary inscriptions, coins and occasional passages in ancient sources. Most of the vocabulary is regular Greek, with tendencies toward Doric Greek and Aeolic Greek. There can be found some Illyrian and Thracian elements. The Pella curse tablet, which was found in 1986 at Pella and dates to the mid-4th century BC or slightly earlier, is believed to be the only substantial attested text in Macedonian. The language of the tablet is a harsh but a distinctly recognizable form of Northwest Greek. The tablet has been used to support the argument that ancient Macedonian was a Northwest Greek dialect and mainly a Doric dialect. Hatzopoulos's analysis revealed some tendencies toward the Aeolic Greek dialect.
In Macedonian onomastics, most personal names are recognizably Greek (e.g. Alexandros, Philippos, Dionysios, Apollonios, Demetrios), with some dating back to Homeric (e.g. Ptolemaeos) or Mycenean times, though non-Greek names (e.g. "Bithys") are occasionally found here. Macedonian toponyms and hydronyms are mostly of Greek origin (e.g. Aegae, Dion, Pieria, Haliacmon), as are the names of the months of the Macedonian calendar and the names of most of the deities the Macedonians worshiped; according to Hammond, these are not late borrowings. Nevertheless, the linguistic community has not reached a definitive conclusion.
Macedonian has a close structural and lexical affinity with other Greek dialects, especially Northwest Greek and Thessalian. Most of the words are Greek, although some of these could represent loans or cognate forms. Alternatively, a number of phonological, lexical and onomastic features set Macedonian apart. These latter features, possibly representing traces of a substrate language, occur in what are considered to be particularly conservative systems of the language.
Several hypotheses have consequently been proposed as to the position of Macedonian, all of which broadly regard it as either a peripheral Greek dialect, a closely related but separate language (see Hellenic languages), or a hybridized idiom. Drawing on the similarities between Macedonian, Greek and Brygian, several scholars wrote that they formed an Indo-European macro-dialectical group, which split before circa 14th–13th century BC before the appearance of the main Greek dialects. The same data has been analyzed in an alternative manner, which regards the formation of the main Greek dialects as a later convergence of related but distinct groups. Macedonian did not fully participate in this process, making its ultimate position—other than being a contiguous, related 'minor' language—difficult to define.
Another source of evidence is metalinguistics and the question of mutual intelligibility. The available literary evidence has no details about the exact nature of Macedonian; however it suggests that Macedonian and Greek were sufficiently different that there were communication difficulties between Greek and Macedonian contingents, necessitating the use of interpreters as late as the time of Alexander the Great. Based on this evidence, Papazoglou has written that Macedonian could not have been a Greek dialect, however, evidence for non-intelligibility exists for other ancient Greek dialects such as Aetolian and Aeolic Greek. Moreover, according to the Athenian orator Aeschines, Macedonian ambassadors appeared before the Athenian Assembly, attended by all male citizens over the age of 18, without interpreters and Livy wrote that when Aemilius Paulus called together representatives of the defeated Macedonian communities, his Latin pronouncements were translated for the benefit of the assembled Macedonians into Greek.
Most ancient sources on the Macedonians come from outside Macedonia. According to Eugene N. Borza, most of these sources are either ill-informed, hostile or both, making the Macedonians one of the "silent" peoples of the ancient Mediterranean. Most of the literary evidence comes from later sources focusing on the campaigns of Alexander the Great rather than on Macedonia itself. Most contemporaneous evidence on Philip is Athenian and hostile. Moreover, most ancient sources focus on the deeds of Macedonian kings in connection with political and military events such as the Peloponnesian War. Evidence about the ethnic identity of Macedonians of lower social status from the Archaic to the Hellenistic period is highly fragmentary and unsatisfactory. For information about Macedonia before Philip, historians must rely on archaeological inscriptions and material remains, a few fragments from historians whose work is now lost, occasional passing mentions in Herodotus and Thucydides, and universal histories from the Roman era.
In Homer, the term Argead was used as a collective designation for the Greeks ("Ἀργείων Δαναῶν", Argive Danaans). Herodotus provides the mythical story about the Greek roots of the Argead royal house and with the list of the seven earliest Macedonian kings (8.137–138), which is our essential guideline in any attempt to reconstruct early Macedonian history. The earliest version of the Temenid foundation myth was circulated by Alexander I via Herodotus during his apparent appearance at the Olympic Games. Despite protests from some competitors, the Hellanodikai ("Judges of the Greeks") accepted Alexander's Greek genealogy, as did Herodotus and later Thucydides. In accepting his Greek credentials, the judges were either moved by the evidence or did so out of political considerations—as a reward for services to Hellas. The historicity of Alexander I's participation in the Olympics has been doubted by some scholars, who see the story as a piece of propaganda engineered by the Argeads and spread by Herodotus. Alexander's name does not appear in any list of Olympic victors. That there were protests from other competitors suggests that the supposed Argive genealogy of the Argeads "was far from mainstream knowledge". According to some, the appellation "Philhellene" was "surely not an appellation that could be given to an actual Greek", however, the term "philhellene" (fond of the Greeks) has been used as a title for Greek patriots. Whatever the case, according to Hall, "what mattered was that Alexander had played the genealogical game à la grecque and played it well, perhaps even excessively".
The emphasis on the Heraclean ancestry of the Argeads served to heroicize the royal family and to provide a sacred genealogy which established a "divine right to rule" over their subjects. The Macedonian royal family, like those of Epirus, emphasized "blood and kinship in order to construct for themselves a heroic genealogy that sometimes also functioned as a Hellenic genealogy".
Pre-Hellenistic Greek writers expressed an ambiguity about the Greekness of Macedonians —specifically their monarchic institutions and their background of Persian alliance—often portraying them as a potential barbarian threat to Greece. For example, the late 5th century sophist Thrasymachus of Chalcedon wrote, "we Greeks are enslaved to the barbarian Archelaus" (Fragment 2), however, the term barbarian was also used by Greeks, especially Athenians, to deride other Greeks. The issue of Macedonian Hellenicity and that of their royal house was particularly pertinent in the 4th century BC regarding the politics of invading Persia. Demosthenes regarded Macedonia's monarchy to be incongruous with an Athenian-led Pan-Hellenic alliance. He castigated Philip II for being "neither Greek nor a remote relative of the Greeks, nor even a respectable barbarian, but one of those cursed Macedonians ..."
This was obvious political slander and is regarded as "an insulting speech", but "the orator clearly could not do this, if his audience was likely to regard his claim as nonsense: it could not be said of a Theban, or even a Thessalian". Demosthenes's allegations were lent an appearance of credibility by the fact that the life-style of the Macedonians, being determined by specific geographical and historical conditions, was different from that of a Greek city-state but was common to western Greeks of Epirus, Acarnania and Aetolia, as well as to the Macedonians, and their fundamental Greek nationality was never doubted. Demosthenes regarded only those who had reached the cultural standards of southern Greece as Greek and he did not take ethnological criteria into consideration, and his corpus is considered an "oratory designed to sway public opinion at Athens and thereby to formulate public policy." Isocrates believed that only Macedonia was capable of leading a war against Persia; he felt compelled to say that Phillip was a "bona fide" Hellene by discussing his Argead and Heraclean heritage.
The earliest reference about Greek attitudes towards the Macedonian ethnos as a whole comes from Hesiod's Catalogue of Women. The eponymous Makedon and his brother Magnes are made sons of Zeus and Thyia, daughter of Deucalion. The Magnetes, descendants of Magnes, were an Aeolian tribe; according to Hammond this places the Macedonians among the Greeks. Engels also wrote that Hesiod counted the Macedonians as Greeks, while Hall said that "according to strict genealogical logic, [this] excludes the population that bears [Macedon's] name from the ranks of the Hellenes". Two later writers deny Macedon a Hellenic lineage: Apollodorus (3.8.1) makes him a son of Lycaon, son of earth-born Pelasgus, whilst Pseudo–Scymnos (6.22) makes him born directly from the earth; Apollodorus (3.8.1), however, is technically identifying Macedon with the Greek royalty of Arcadia, thus placing Macedonia within the orbit of the most archaic of Greek myths. Hellanicus modified Hesiod's genealogy by making Makedon the son of Aeolus, firmly placing the Macedonians in the Aeolic Greek-speaking family.
These early writers and their formulation of genealogical relationships demonstrate that before the 5th century, Greekness was defined on an ethnic basis and was legitimized by tracing descent from eponymous Hellen. Subsequently, cultural considerations assumed greater importance.
Thucydides and Herodotus regarded the Macedonians as either northern Greeks, barbarians or an intermediate group between "pure" Greeks and barbarians; however, ancient allegations that the Macedonians were non-Greek all had their origin in Athens during the city-state's struggle with Philip II. In the Histories (5.20.4) Herodotus calls king Alexander I an anēr Hellēn Makedonōn huparchos, or "a Greek who ruled over Macedonians", which may also indicate that the country was included in the Persian Empire's administrative structure. The term hyparchos ("subordinate governor") could indicate that Alexander submitted to the Persian king, in return keeping his reign over the Macedonians, or could have been used to describe province governors appointed to the Persian king but also to describe officials of lower rank. In 7.130.3, he says that the Thessalians were the "first of the Greeks" to submit to Xerxes, implying that Thessalians medised as soon as Persians reached their borders. In the first book of the Histories, Herodotus recalls a reliable tradition according to which the Greek ethnos, in its wandering, was called "Macedonian" when it settled around Pindus and "Dorian" when it came to the Peloponnese, and in the eighth book he groups several Greek tribes under "Macedonians" and "Dorians", implying that the Macedonians were Greeks.
Although Thucydides's views on the Macedonians are inconsistent, it is unlikely that he considered the Macedonians as "barbarians" or even as "intermediates" since the Macedonian royal dynasty had already been recognized as Greek in Herodotus's account, which Thucydides also accepted. In parts of his work, Thucydides placed the Macedonians on his cultural continuum closer to barbarians than Hellenes, or an intermediate category between Greeks and non–Greeks. In other parts, he distinguishes between three groups fighting in the Peloponnesian War: The Greeks (including Peloponnesians), the barbarian Illyrians and the Macedonians. Recounting Brasidas's expedition to Lyncus, Thucydides considers Macedonians separate from the barbarians; he says, "In all there were about three thousand Hellenic heavy infantry, accompanied by all the Macedonian cavalry with the Chalcidians, near one thousand strong, besides an immense crowd of barbarians", and "night coming on, the Macedonians and the barbarian crowd took fright in a moment in one of those mysterious panics to which great armies are liable". More explicit is his recounting of Brasidas's speech where he tells his Peloponnesian troops to dispel fear of fighting against "barbarians: because they had already fought against Macedonians".
Ancient geographers differed in their views on the size of Macedonia and on the ethnicity of the Macedonians. Most ancient geographers did not include the core territories of the Macedonian kingdom in their definition of Greece, the reasons for which are unknown. For example, Strabo says that while "Macedonia is of course part of Greece, yet now, since I am following the nature and shape of the places geographically, I have chosen to classify it apart from the rest of Greece". Strabo supports the Greek ethnicity of the Macedonian people and wrote of the "Macedonians and the other Greeks", as does Pausanias, the latter of which did not include Macedonia in Hellas as indicated in Book 10 of his Description of Greece. Pausanias said that the Macedonians took part in the Amphictyonic League and that Caranus of Macedon—the mythical founder of the Argead dynasty—set up a trophy after the Argive fashion for a victory against Cisseus.
Isocrates defended Philip's Greek origins but did not think the same of his people. He wrote, "He (Perdiccas I) left the Greek world alone completely, but he desired to hold the kingship in Macedonia; for he understood that Greeks are not accustomed to submit themselves to monarchy whereas others are incapable of living their lives without domination of this sort ... for he alone of the Greeks deemed it fit to rule over an ethnically unrelated population". Nevertheless, Philip named the federation of Greek states he created with Macedon at its head—nowadays referred to as the League of Corinth—as simply "The Hellenes" (i.e. Greeks), and the Macedonians were granted two seats in the exclusively Greek Great Amphictyonic League in 346 BC when the Phocians were expelled. Badian sees it as a personal honour awarded to Phillip and not to the Macedonian people as a whole. Aeschines said that Phillip's father Amyntas III joined other Greeks in the Panhellenic congress of the Lacedaemonian allies, also known as the "Congress of Sparta", in a vote to help Athens recover possession of Amphipolis.
With Philip's conquest of Greece, Greeks and Macedonians enjoyed privileges at the royal court, and there was no social distinction among his court hetairoi, although Philip's armies were only ever led by Macedonians. The process of Greek and Macedonian syncretism culminated during the reign of Alexander the Great, and he allowed Greeks to command his armies. There was also some persisting antagonism between Macedonians and Greeks lasting into Antigonid times. Some Greeks continued to rebel against their Macedonian overlords throughout the Hellenistic era. They rejoiced on the death of Phillip II and they revolted against Alexander's Antigonid successors. The Greeks called this conflict the Hellenic War. However, Pan-Hellenic sloganeering was used by Greeks against Antigonid dominance; it was also used by Macedonians to corral popular support throughout Greece.
After the 3rd century BC, and especially in Roman times, the Macedonians were consistently regarded as Greeks. For example, Polybius's Acarnanian character Lyciscus tells the Spartans that they are "of the same tribe" as the Achaeans and the Macedonians, who should be honoured because "throughout nearly their whole lives are ceaselessly engaged in a struggle with the barbarians for the safety of the Greeks". Polybius also used the phrase "Macedonia and the rest of Greece", and says that Philip V of Macedon associates himself with "the rest of the Greeks". In his text History of Rome, Livy states that the Macedonians, Aetolians and Acarnanians were "all men of the same language". Similar opinions are shared by Arrian, Strabo and Plutarch, who wrote of Aristotle advising Alexander "to have regard for the Greeks as for friends and kindred".
The Persians referred to both Greeks and Macedonians as Yauna ("Ionians", their term for "Greeks"), though they distinguished the "Yauna by the sea and across the sea" from the Yaunã Takabara or "Greeks with hats that look like shields", possibly referring to the Macedonian kausia hat. According to another interpretation, the Persians used such terms in a geographical rather than an ethnic sense. Yauna and its various attributes possibly referred to regions to the north and west of Asia Minor, which could have included Phrygians, Mysians, Aeolians, Thracians, and Paionians in addition to Greeks. In Hellenistic times, most Egyptians and Syrians included the Macedonians among the larger category of Greeks, as the Persians had done earlier.
Modern scholarly discourse has produced several hypotheses about the Macedonians' place within the Greek world. Considering material remains of Greek-style monuments, buildings, inscriptions dating from the 5th century and the predominance of Greek personal names, one school of thought says that the Macedonians were "truly Greeks" who had retained a more archaic lifestyle than those living in southern Greece. This cultural discrepancy was used during the political struggles in Athens and Macedonia in the 4th century. Engels said the Greekness of the Epirotes, who led a similarly "archaic" life as the Macedonians, never drew as sharp a discussion than that of the Macedonians—perhaps because the Epirotes, unlike the Macedonians, never tried to achieve hegemony over all of Greece. This has been the predominant viewpoint since the 20th century. Worthington wrote, "... not much need to be said about the Greekness of ancient Macedonia: it is undeniable".
Another perspective interprets the literary evidence and the archaeological-cultural differences between Macedonia and central-southern Greece before the 6th century and beyond as evidence that the Macedonians were originally non-Greek tribes who underwent a process of Hellenization. Accepting that political factors played a part, they highlight the degree of antipathy between Macedonians and Greeks, which was of a different quality to that seen among other Greek states—even those with a long-term history of mutual animosity (e.g. Sparta and Athens). According to these scholars, the Macedonians came to be regarded as "northern Greeks" only with the ongoing Hellenization of Macedonia and the emergence of Rome as a common enemy in the west. This coincides with the period during which ancient authors such as Polybius and Strabo called the ancient Macedonians "Greeks". By this point, as described by Isocrates, to have been a Greek could have defined a quality of culture and intelligence rather than a racial or ethnic affinity.
Others have adopted both views; according to Sansone, "there is no question that, in the fifth and fourth centuries, there were noticeable difference between the Greeks and the Macedonians"; yet the issue of Macedonian Hellenicity was ultimately a "political one". Hall adds, "to ask whether the Macedonians 'really were' Greek or not in antiquity is ultimately a redundant question given the shifting semantics of Greekness between the 6th and 4th centuries BC. What cannot be denied, however, is that the cultural commodification of Hellenic identity that emerged in the 4th century might have remained a provincial artifact, confined to the Balkan peninsula, had it not been for the Macedonians." Eugene Borza emphasized the Macedonians "made their mark in antiquity as Macedonians, not as a tribe of some other people" but argued that "the 'highlanders' or 'Makedones' of the mountainous regions of western Macedonia are derived from northwest Greek stock." Worthington concludes that "there is still more than enough evidence and reasoned theory to suggest that the Macedonians were racially Greek."