Thessaloniki is the second-largest city in Greece and the capital of Macedonia. It was founded in 315 BCE by King Cassander and named in honour of his wife, Thessalonike, half-sister of Alexander the Great.
Thessalonike was a Macedonian princess, the daughter of King Philip II of Macedon by his wife or mistress, Nicesipolis. To commemorate the birth of his daughter around 350 BCE, which took place on the same day that his armies won the significant battle of the Crocus Field in Thessaly over the Phocians, King Philip is said to have proclaimed, “Let her be called ‘Victory in Thessaly’.” In Greek her name is made up of the two words Thessaly and nike, the latter meaning victory.
Thessalonike’s mother did not live long after her birth. When she died, Thessalonike was brought up by Olympias, fourth wife of Philip II and mother of Alexander. As the youngest in the family, she saw very little of her step-brother, who was absent from court being tutored by Aristotle, and she was aged only six or seven when he set off on his Persian campaigns. Thessalonike was twenty-one when Alexander, king of the then known world, died at the palace of Nebuchadnezzar II in Babylon.
Thessalonike was with Olympias when Cassander, self-proclaimed Regent of Macedon, besiege the fortress of Pydna in 315 BCE. The fall of Pydna and the execution of her stepmother threw her on the mercy of Cassander, who seized the opportunity to marry her. Thessalonike became queen of Macedon and the mother of three sons, Philip, Antipater, and Alexander. When Cassander founded a new city on the site of ancient Therma, he named it after her. It quickly became one of the wealthiest cities of Macedonia.
After the death of Cassander, Thessalonike at first appears to have retained influence over her sons. Philip succeeded his father, but Antipater was the next in line to the throne. But Thessalonike demanded that it be shared between Philip and Alexander. Antipater, jealous of the favour his mother showed his younger brother Alexander, put his mother to death in 295 BC.
A Greek legend tells of a mermaid who lived in the Aegean and who was thought to be Thessalonike. The legend says that Alexander, during his quest for the Fountain of Youth, kept a flask of the water in which he washed Thessalonike’s hair. When Alexander died, his grief-stricken sister tried to end her life by jumping into the sea. But instead of drowning, she became a mermaid who passed judgment on mariners down the centuries.
Of the sailors who came across her she would ask: “Is Alexander the king alive?” to which the answer should be, “He lives and reigns and conquers the world.” If the sailors gave the right answer, she would allow the ship and its crew to sail away safely. Any other answer would transform her into a raging Gorgon, bent on sending the ship and every man on board to the bottom of the sea.
The city of Thessaloniki lived through attacks and successive occupations by Romans, Slavs, Saracen pirates, Normans, Ottomans, Venetians, Turks and even the German army during the Second World War. In 1917 a great fire destroyed the centre of the city, but it rose from the ashes. Among many statues in the city, there is none to Thessalonike. But there is one to Alexander the Great, astride his horse Bucephalus and facing eastward ready to ravage new lands.