Amphipolis (– Amphípolis) was an ancient Greek city in the region once inhabited by the Edoni people in the present-day periphery of East Macedonia and Thrace. It was built on a raised plateau overlooking the east bank of the river Strymon where it emerged from Lake Cercinitis, about 3 m. from the Aegean Sea. Founded in 437 BC, the city was finally abandoned in the 8th century AD. The present municipality Amfipoli (Αμφίπολη), named after the ancient city, occupies the site. Currently, it is a municipality in the Serres Prefecture, Macedonia with a population of 3 623 (2001 census).
Archaeology has uncovered remains at the site dating to approximately 3000 BC. Due to the strategic location of the site it was fortified from very early. Xerxes I of Persia passed during his invasion of Greece of 480 BC and buried alive nine young men and nine maidens as a sacrifice to the river god. Near the later site of Amphipolis Alexander I of Macedon defeated the remains of Xerxes' army in 479 BC.
Throughout the 5th century BC, Athens sought to consolidate its control over Thrace, which was strategically important because of its primary materials (the gold and silver of the Pangaion hills and the dense forests essential for naval construction), and the sea routes vital for Athens' supply of grain from Scythia. After a first unsuccessful attempt at colonisation in 497 BC by the Miletian Tyrant Histiaeus, the Athenians founded a first colony at Ennea-Hodoi (‘Nine Ways’) in 465, but these first ten thousand colonists were massacred by the Thracians. A second attempt took place in 437 BC on the same site under the guidance of Hagnon, son of Nicias.
The new settlement took the name of Amphipolis (literally, "around the city"), a name which is the subject of much debates about lexicography. Thucydides claims the name comes from the fact that the Strymon flows "around the city" on two sides; however a note in the Suda (also given in the lexicon of Photius) offers a different explanation apparently given by Marsyas, son of Periander: that a large proportion of the population lived "around the city". However, a more probable explanation is the one given by Julius Pollux: that the name indicates the vicinity of an isthmus. Furthermore, the Etymologicum Genuinum gives the following definition: a city of the Athenians or of Thrace, which was once called Nine Routes, (so named) because it is encircled and surrounded by the Strymon river. This description corresponds to the actual site of the city (see adjacent map), and to the description of Thucydides. Amphipolis subsequently became the main power base of the Athenians in Thrace and, consequently, a target of choice for their Spartans adversaries. The Athenian population remained very much in the minority within the city. A Athenian rescue expedition led by strategist (and later historian) Thucydides had to settle for securing Eion and could not retake Amphipolis, a failure for which Thucydides was sentenced to exile. A new Athenian force under the command of Cleon failed once more in 422 BC during a battle at which both Cleon and Brasidas lost their lives. Brasidas survived long enough to hear of the defeat of the Athenians and was buried at Amphipolis with impressive pomp. From then on he was regarded as the founder of the city and honoured with yearly games and sacrifices. The city itself kept its independence until the reign of the king Philip II despite several other Athenian attacks, notably because of the government of Callistratus of Aphidnae.
In 357 BC, Philip removed the block which Amphipolis presented on the road to Macedonian control over Thrace by conquering the town, which Athens had tried in vain to recover during the previous years. According the historian Theopompus, this conquest came to be the object of a secret accord between Athens and Philip II, who would return the city in exchange for the fortified town of Pydna, but the Macedonian king betrayed the accord, refusing to cede Amphipolis and laying siege to Pydna. After the conquest by Philip II, the city was not immediately incorporated into the kingdom, and for some time preserved its institutions and a certain degree of autonomy. The border of Macedonia was not moved further east; however, Philip sent a number of Macedonians governors to Amphipolis, and in many respects the city was effectively ‘Macedonianized’. Nomenclature, the calendar and the currency (the gold stater, installed by Philip to capitalise on the gold reserves of the Pangaion hills, replaced the Amphipolitan drachma) were all replaced by Macedonian equivalents. In the reign of Alexander, Amphipolis was an important naval base, and the birthplace of three of the most famous Macedonian Admirals: Nearchus, Androsthenes and Laomedon whose burial place is most likely marked by the famous lion of Amphipolis.
Amphipolis became one of the main stops on the Macedonian royal road (as testified by a border stone found between Philippos and Amphipolis giving the distance to the latter), and later on the ‘Via Egnatia’, the principal Roman Road which crossed the southern Balkans. Apart from the ramparts of the low town (see photograph), the gymnasium and a set well-preserved frescoes from a wealthy villa are the only artefacts from this period that remain visible. Though little is known of the layout of the town, modern knowledge of its institutions is in considerably better shape thanks to a rich epigraphic documentation, including a military ordinance of Philip V and an ephebarchic (?) law from the gymnasium. After the final victory of Rome over Macedonia in a battle in 168 BC, Amphipolis became the capital one of the four mini-republics, or ‘merides’, which were created by the Romans out of the kingdom of the Antigonids which succeeded Alexander’s Empire in Macedon. These 'merides' were gradually incorporated into the Roman client state, and later province, of Thracia.
Nevertheless, the number, size and quality of the churches constructed between the fifth and sixth centuries are impressive. Four basilicas adorned with rich [mosaic] floors and elaborate architectural sculptures (such as the ram-headed column capitals - see picture) have been excavated, as well as a church with a hexagonal central plan which evokes that of the basilica of St. Vitalis in Ravenna. It is difficult to find reasons for such municipal extravagance in such a small town. One possible explanation provided by the historian André Boulanger is that an increasing ‘willingness’ on the part of the wealthy upper classes in the late Roman period to spend money on local gentrification projects (which he terms ‘'évergétisme’', from the Greek verb εύεργετέω, meaning ‘I am doing well’) was exploited by the local church to its advantage, which led to a mass gentrification of the urban centre and of the agricultural riches of the city’s territory. Amphipolis was also a diocese under the suffragan of Thessaloniki - the Bishop of Amphipolis is first mentioned in 533 AD.
The Slavic invasions of the late 6th century gradually encroached on the back-country Amphipolitan lifestyle and led to the decline of the town, during which period its inhabitants retreated to the area around the acropolis. The ramparts were maintained to a certain extent, thanks to materials plundered from the monuments of the lower city, and the large unused cisterns of the upper city were occupied by small houses and the workshops of artisans. Around the middle of the 7th century AD, a further reduction of the inhabited area of the city was followed by an increase in the fortification of the town, with the construction of a new rampart with pentagonal towers cutting through the middle of the remaining monuments. The acropolis, the Roman baths, and especially the Episcopal basilica were crossed by this wall.
The city was probably abandoned in the eighth century, as the last bishop was attested in 787. Its inhabitants probably moved to the neighbouring site of ancient Eion, port of Amphipolis, which had been rebuilt and refortified in the Byzantine period under the name “Chrysopolis”. This small port continued to enjoy some prosperity, before being abandoned during the Ottoman period. The last recorded sign of activity in the region of Amphipolis was the construction of a fortified tower to the north in 1367 by Grand Primicier Jean and the Stratopedarque Alexis to protect the land that they had given to the monastery of Pantokrator on Mount Athos.
The site was rediscovered and described by many travellers and archaeologists during the 19th century, including E. Cousinéry (1831) (engraver), L. Heuzey (1861), and P. Perdrizet (1894–1899). In 1934, M. Feyel, of the École française d'Athènes, led an epigraphical mission to the site and uncovered the remains of a funeral lion (a reconstruction was given in the, a publication of the EfA which is available on line). However, excavations did not truly begin until after the Second World War. The Greek Archaeological Society under D. Lazaridis excavated in 1972 and 1985, uncovering a necropolis, the rampart of the old town (see photograph), the basilicas, and the acropolis.
In the popular TV series Xena: Warrior Princess, the fictional character Xena – the main character of the show – was born at the city of Amphipolis. Xena and her comrade in arms, Gabrielle of Poteidaia, made frequent trips to Amphipolis. The city became a breeding ground for demons when the duo came back after twenty five years of being trapped in ice. Mephistopheles, the king of hell, had captured the soul of Cyrene of Amphipolis, Xena's mother, and tortured her. Xena was able to defeat Mephistopheles and rescue the trapped souls, releasing them to rest in the Elysian Fields.