Greater Surbiton

The perfect is the enemy of the good

The nationality of the ancient Macedonians

I attended yesterday a reception at Portcullis House, Westminster, hosted by Her Excellency Marija Efremova, Ambassador of the Republic of Macedonia, and by the Henry Jackson Society, to celebrate Macedonian Independence Day. Following this happy occasion, I should like to take the opportunity to tackle an old canard, which the nationalist regime in Athens uses to justify its policy of trying to force Macedonia to change its name: the myth that the ancient Macedonians, whose ruler Alexander the Great conquered an empire stretching from Macedonia to India, were ‘Greek’; that the modern Greek state therefore has sole legitimate right to use the name ‘Macedonia’; and that the Republic of Macedonia today therefore has no right to call itself ‘Republic of Macedonia’.

This is a case of writing something for the record, rather than because it should actually make any difference to contemporary debates. As every undergraduate studying Modern History knows, modern national identities cannot be projected back onto ancient peoples. Even if the ancient Macedonians had been ‘Greek’ in the ancient Greek sense, this would not mean that they belonged to the same national category as modern Greeks – any more than the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ population of modern-day Britain, the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere is of the same national category as the medieval Angles and Saxons. Still, there is always a certain pleasure in pointing out the baselessness of a nationalist claim, even if the claim itself is meaningless.

The late N.G.L. Hammond, Emeritus Professor of Greek at the University of Bristol, Honorary Fellow of Clare College, University of Cambridge, and Officer of the Royal Hellenic Order of the Phoenix, was perhaps the Western world’s leading authority on ancient Macedonia, and author of a three-volume history of ancient Macedonia. From early on, he was quite categorical about the nationality of the ancient Macedonians: ‘The Macedonians in general did not consider themselves Greeks, nor were they considered Greeks by their neighbours.’ This conclusion was based on a study of Herodotus, Thucycidides and other ancient Greek writers (N.G.L. Hammond, A History of Greece to 322 BC, 2nd ed., Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1967, p. 535).

This conclusion was reaffirmed in the works on ancient Macedonian history he subsequently published. In his ‘History of Macedonia’, he wrote the following:

The Macedonians had no reason and presumably no wish to align themselves with the Greek states either as promoters of Greek culture or as speakers of a common language. Each people had its own culture, and each people was destined to develop on its own lines in accordance with its own genius and its own situation. Hostility between the two was to be expected. A slender bridge between them was represented by the Greek language, spoken as contemporary Doric by the royal house and in the form of an ancient patois by the Macedones, but a means of communication is very far from assuring peaceful relations between two peoples, as we know from our experience of the modern world. (N.G.L. Hammond, A History of Macedonia, vol. 1, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1972, p. 441).

In his ‘The Macedonian State: Origins, Institutions and History’, Hammond wrote the following:

We have already inferred from the incident at the Olympic Games c. 500 that the Macedonians themselves, as opposed to their kings, were considered not to be Greeks. Herodotus said this clearly in four words, introducing Amyntas, who was king c. 500, as ‘a Greek ruling over Macedonians’, and Thucydides described the Macedonians and other northern tribes as ‘barbarians’ in the sense of ‘non-Greeks’, despite the fact that they were Greek-speaking. When it came to political controversy, it was naturally good invective to call the king a barbarian too. Thus a Greek speech-writer called the Thessalians ‘Greeks’ and Archelaus, the contemporary Macedonian king, ‘a barbarian’. Demosthenes spoke of Philip II as ‘the barbarian from Pella’. Writing in 346 and eager to win Philip’s approval, Isocrates paid tribute to Philip as a blue-blooded Greek and made it clear at the same time that the Macedonians were not Greeks. Aristotle, born at Stageira on the Macedonian border and the son of a Greek doctor at the Macedonian court, classed the Macedonians and their institution of monarchy as not Greek, as we shall see shortly. It is thus not surprising that the Macedonians considered themselves to be, and were treated by Alexander the Great as being, separate from the Greeks. They were proud to be so. (N.G.L. Hammond, The Macedonian State: Origins, Institutions and History, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1989, p. 19).

Other classical scholars support Hammond’s thesis on the non-Greek character of the ancient Macedonia. The late Chester G. Starr, Bentley Professor of History Emeritus at the University of Michigan, has this to say:

The Acarnanians, Aetolians, and other Greeks dwelling in the forests and fertile plains of northwest Greece remained backward tribal peoples. To their east lay the large but weak kingdom of Macedonia. This was not counted as Greek, though its stock was closely related. (Chester G. Starr, ‘A History of the Ancient World’, Oxford University Press, New York and Oxford, 1991, p. 260).

Macedonia was essentially a tribal kingdom, far larger than any Greek state but so loosely organised and beset by even more barbarian neighbours that it had never been important. Its kings had fostered Greek culture at their courts and been accepted as Greek by the officials of the Olympic games; but the peasantry and nobles, though akin to the Greeks, were considered distinct. (Ibid., p. 367).

As the above quotations indicate, a case could be made that, if not the Macedonian people, then the Macedonian kings could be considered to have been Greek, insofar as they claimed Greek descent and promoted Greek culture at their court. Paul Cartledge, Professor of Greek History in the Faculty of Classics at the University of Cambridge and a biographer of Alexander, mentions that ‘it is noteworthy that only the reigning king of Macedon, and no other Macedonians, was considered sufficiently Greek to be permitted to enter the sacred Olympic Games as a competitor.’ (Paul Cartledge, Alexander the Great: The Hunt for a New Past, MacMillan, London, 2004, p. 33).

Yet to describe Alexander the Great and his father Philip II as ‘Greek kings’, as their respective Wikipedia entries, presumably bombarded by edits from Greek nationalists, rather pointedly do, is somewhat akin to calling the British monarchs since the 1710s ‘German kings and queens’. The late Moses I. Finley, Lecturer in Classics at the University of Cambridge, wrote that, from the point of view of the Greeks, Philip II was ‘a despot and outsider, at best an “honorary Hellene,” whose own motives and interests, it need scarcely be said, were fundamentally not those of the Greeks he was to lead.’ (M.I. Finlay, The Ancient Greeks, Chatto and Windus, London, 1963, p. 83). As for Philip’s son, Alexander the Great, ‘It seems that he relied almost entirely on his own Macedonian generals and soldiers and had little trust in the Greeks, and that he was prepared to make a place for the Persian nobility.’ (ibid., p. 173).

Cartledge goes into some depth about Alexander’s unwillingness to rely on Greek troops, and on the fact that many more Greeks fought for Persia against him than vice versa:

To sum up: the most plausible explanation of the composition of Alexander’s forces, as it seems to me, is that he mistrusted the Greeks’ loyalty, with good reason after all, and that an awful lot more Greeks disliked or feared Alexander’s Macedonian rule than positively favoured or embraced it. This impression seems confirmed by none other than Arrian, retailer of the pro-Alexander Official version of events for the most part. At the Battle of Issus, he reports, there was among Alexander’s troops ‘even a degree of emulous antagonism between members of the Greek and Macedonian peoples’ – that is, between troops who were supposed to be fighting on the same side in a common cause. This was because for many Greeks, the Macedonians too – not just the Persians – were ‘barbarians’. Furthermore, it was Macedon, not the [Persian] Great King, which they thought was the real, or at any rate the more immediately present, danger and enemy. For many Macedonians, conversely, Greeks were members of a recently defeated and so despised people who did not know how to conduct their political and military life sensibly. (Cartledge, Alexander the Great, pp. 94-95).

There remains the question of why certain classical scholars whose own works have shattered the myth that the ancient Macedonians were Greek should have ended up endorsing the Greek-nationalist cause vis-a-vis the Republic of Macedonia, even at the price of eating their own words. As we noted above, Hammond, in his ‘History of Macedonia’, wrote the following of the ancient Greeks and Macedonians:

‘A slender bridge between them was represented by the Greek language, spoken as contemporary Doric by the royal house and in the form of an ancient patois by the Macedones, but a means of communication is very far from assuring peaceful relations between two peoples, as we know from our experience of the modern world.’

Yet in an interview with the Greek-nationalist publication Macedonian Echo in February 1993, he said the following, in response to the suggestion that Demosthenes of Athens viewed the Macedonians as ‘barbarians’:

‘Personally, I believe that it is the common language, which gives one the opportunity to share a common civilization. Thus the language is the main factor that forms a national identity.’

Cartledge devotes a considerable part of his biography of Alexander to discussing the ambiguous nature of Alexander’s relationship with, and identification with, the Greek world, noting:

‘We have already seen that it was a live issue whether Alexander was truly “Greek”.’ (Cartledge, Alexander the Great, p. 15).

Yet five years later, Cartledge added his name to an open letter to President Obama signed by 200 classical scholars in support of the Greek-nationalist stance on Macedonia, which claimed:

‘Alexander the Great was thoroughly and indisputably Greek.’

I am not going to speculate here as to why such scholars might contradict themselves in this way, though I believe it is not difficult to work out. Suffice it to say that I take more seriously what scholars say in their major works, than what they say when making political statements.

PS This is one for Omadeon to consider…

Wednesday, 15 September 2010 - Posted by | Balkans, Former Yugoslavia, Greece, Macedonia, Marko Attila Hoare | , , , , , , , , ,

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