Thessaloniki was founded by King Kassandros in 315 BC. Its name was given in honor of his wife, who was Alexander the Great’s half-sister.
Since prehistoric times many settlements such as Toumba, Karabournaki and other regions in the broader area of Gallikos river, existed in this area. Later, at the inlet of Thermaikos gulf, the settlement of Thermi was founded that was also used as Xerxes’ basic camp during his expedition. Kassandros gathered the population of 26 towns and villages around the Thermi area and settled together the town of Thessaloniki. During the Roman period, especially after the completion of Via Egnatia (146-120 BC), the strategic and economic role of the town developed. It was the capital of one of the four “districts” of Macedonia. Until the years of Christ, Thessaloniki was already the largest town in Macedonia.
The town was at the peak of its power during the times of the Roman Tetrarchy, in the beginning of the 4th century AD. It was then endowed with large buildings and became the center of very important activities. The large building program, which continued until the end of the 5th century AD, led to the town’s progress. Christianity had already prevailed and large temples were built (Acheiropiitos, Agios Dimitrios) while many of the older monuments (Oktagono, Rotonda) were converted into temples.
In 390 AD, soldiers of the garrison of the emperor Theodosios massacred thousands of inhabitants in the Hippodrome, an incident which caused the excommunication of the emperor by the bishop of Mediolana. Meanwhile, the worship of Saint Dimitrios, who had been martyred in the town during Galerius’ empire, prevailed. In those times, the town had a stadium, a theatre and a circus.
After the reign of Justinian and during the serious changes that took place in Illyricum (as the Balkan peninsula was called), Thessaloniki became the centre of the modification of the East Roman empire into Byzantium, and faced sieges by the Avars and the Slavs, while the countryside experienced great troubles. During the Iconoclastic times, it became the ecclesiastical capital of Illyricum and came under the jurisdiction of the Patriarchate of Constantinople.
Since the 9th century AD, the town recovered. It began to establish trade relations, especially to the North, while great personalities of Byzantium lived here. The progress halted on 31st July, 904 AD, when the Saracen fleet, after a brief siege, occupied Thessaloniki and captured twenty two thousand of its inhabitants.
The three centuries that followed were of great prosperity and led to the creation of many monuments and a remarkable intellectual life in the town. The annual celebration of Dimitria, which constituted a major economic event of the peninsula, is testified since the 12th century AD. During the dynasty of the Macedonians and the Komnenoi, there was a continuous restoring of the walls. However, in 1185 the Normans occupied and looted the town.
In the years that followed the fourth Crusade (1204) Thessaloniki became the capital of a feudal kingdom for 21 years.
What follows is the Late Byzantine period of the town which is characterized by the so-called “Renaissance of the Palaiologos’ times”. This is a period of great artistic prosperity (artists like Panselinos and Astrapas), of exceptional architectural achievements (Agioi Apostoloi), of intense theological developments (the Quietist’s movement) and of social processes (the Commune of the Zealots).
The settlement of the Ottomans in the region in the end of the 14th century and the decline of Byzantium led first to the control of Thessaloniki by the Venetians (1423) and later to the conquest of the town by Murat (1430). The population of Thessaloniki gradually diminished and substituted by Ottomans who lived in the area of Yannitsa (1430) and by Jews being expelled from Spain because of the Holy Inquisition (late 15th cent).
The multicultural town lived intensely for four centuries. Descriptions that have survived are vivid and indicative of the climate that prevailed. Thessaloniki emerged into an important port of great economic influence. During the 20th century, it was often drawn in the vortex of political and social changes. In the last years of the Ottoman times many steps towards the town’s modernization were taken. The demolition of the walls began and the region “Exohes”, which served as a suburb, was created. On 26th October 1912, during the First Balkan War, the town was freed from the Ottomans while during the First World War, it became the base of the allied army of the East. Thessaloniki received thousands of refugees from Thrace and Asia Minor, while 1936 was marked by the large workers’ strike. The town has been the nursery of many radical ideas as well as of an entire literary tradition. After the destructive Occupation during the Second World War and the Civil War, it received a new wave of inhabitants due to the urbanism and began to grow geographically.
Today, Thessaloniki has more than a million citizens, a great cultural heritage and an important historical centre.