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 | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Macedonia and Greece: What is the basis for a reconciliation ?

VerginaA Greek blogger called Omadeon has written a critique of me, entitled ‘Dr Hoare’s Balkan excesses need… anti-nationalist critics’. Well, I don’t admit to any excesses, but I do welcome anti-nationalist critics. Omadeon deserves credit for writing against Srebrenica-genocide denial and for his statement that ‘I think Greece owes an apology to Bosnia, for the one-sided support of Serbia by most Greeks’. He deserves credit too for his rejection of some of the excesses of Greek nationalism.

Unfortunately, Omadeon nevertheless shares the Greek-nationalist blind-spot with regard to Macedonia. He refers to the Republic of Macedonia in a derogatory manner, as ‘Slavo-Albanian Macedonia’, and puts the words ‘Macedonia’ and ‘Macedonian’ in inverted commas when referring to the Republic of Macedonia and the Macedonian nation. He describes the Macedonian identity as a ‘fiction’. He wrote a letter to the New York Times in April 2008 in which he condemned the newspaper for its criticism of Greek policy with regard to Macedonia, asserted the alleged Greekness of Alexander the Great and the ancient Macedonians, and demanded that the contemporary Macedonians change their name to ‘Slav Macedonians’. Above all, he seems absolutely obsessed with telling the Macedonians that they should abandon the identity that they want to have and adopt the identity that he wants them to have, which is a ‘Slavic’ identity’ (‘A SANE attitude, on behalf of Slav-Macedonia, would be the simple RECOGNITION of their ESSENTIALLY SLAVIC national identity; something they have EVERY RIGHT to be PROUD of….’). But a given identity is something that people either feel for themselves, or they don’t. It is not up to Omadeon and the Greeks to decide what sort of identity Macedonians should have.

Consequently, I am afraid that Omadeon, although he appears to be an honest and decent individual in most respects, is very far from being an ‘anti-nationalist’. In fact, his writings on Macedonia highlight the erroneous way in which ethno-nationalists interpret modern national politics. This includes:

1) A belief that modern nations can be traced back, in unbroken continuity, to ancient or medieval peoples: the modern Greeks to ancient Greeks; the modern Macedonians to medieval Slavs; etc.

2) A consequent belief that one has, on the basis of one’s own ethno-nationalist interpretation of ancient and medieval history, the right to accuse other nations of being ‘invented’ or having ‘fictional’ identities.

3) An inability to understand the difference between language and nationality.

In this case, Greek nationalists – on the basis of their erroneous understanding of ancient and medieval history, and of the meaning of modern nationhood – believe that they have the right to decide what the ‘true’ identity of Greece’s northern neighbour should be. Since they erroneously believe that the majority population of the Republic of Macedonia is descended from Slavs who arrived in the area during the Middle Ages, and since they equally erroneously believe that modern Greeks are descended in unbroken continuity from ancient Greeks (among whom they include the ancient Macedonians), they believe they have the right to pronounce that the Macedonians are ‘not really’ Macedonians, that the Macedonian identity is a ‘fiction’, and that they – the Greek nationalists – on the basis of their ‘objective’ reading of ancient and medieval history have the right to pronounce what the Macedonians’ true name and identity should be.

From this, it follows – according to the Greek nationalist logic – that since their own interpretations of history and of the meaning of modern nationhood are the correct ones, then Macedonians who dispute this are ‘nationalists’, and those who support them in this rejection – such as myself – are supporting ‘ultra-nationalism’, which is what Omadeon accuses me of.

In this way, the Greek nationalists turn reality on its head. Macedonia is not threatening Greece or its national identity; the Macedonians are not saying that the Greek language and nation do not exist; or that Greece has to change its name. They are not trying to impose their own version of Greek identity on the Greeks. They are not even denying the right of the Greek inhabitants of Greek Macedonia to call themselves ‘Macedonian’. Yet for the crime of rejecting the Greek-nationalist interpretation of history, and of asserting their own identity, then it is they who become the bad guys in Greek-nationalist eyes. And before you know it, the whole of NATO and the EU have to shape their policies around the Greek-nationalist misinterpretation of history. Such is the world we live in.

Nationalists do not appreciate the fact that, in a democratic world, everyone has to be free to define their identity as they wish; no nation or individual has the right to decide what the identity of another nation or individual should be. Nationalists do not appreciate that there is no one, single, ‘objective’ interpretation of history; historians, archaeologists and others must be free to put forward different interpretations about Antiquity, the Midde Ages and so forth. No group or nation can impose its own version of history on the rest of the world.

Nationalists also do not appreciate the fact that all modern European nations – all of them – have very mixed ethnic origins. The modern Macedonians – the majority population of the Republic of Macedonia – are descended from a mixture of ancient Macedonians, Slavs and others. And modern Greeks are likewise descended from a mixture of ancient Macedonians, ancient Greeks, Slavs, Turkish-speaking Anatolians and others. Something similar applies for all European nations: English, Scots, French, Germans, Italians, Serbs, Croats, Albanians, Turks, etc.

There is no such modern ethnic group as the ‘Slavs’ – ‘Slavs’ do not exist as an ethnic group in the modern world, any more than do Angles, Saxons, Franks, Gauls, Visigoths or Vikings. ‘Slavic’ is a linguistic, not an ethnic category. The Macedonians speak a Slavic language, and in that sense they are ‘Slavic’, just as the English and Dutch are ‘Germanic’ and the Italians and French are ‘Latin’. Greek nationalists demanding that the Macedonians call themselves ‘Slavs’ is like someone demanding that the English and Dutch call themselves ‘Germanics’ or that the Italians and French call themselves ‘Latins’. It is up to the Macedonians alone whether they feel their identity to be ‘Slavic’ or not – nobody else has the right to impose such an identity on them.

Ironically, in terms of their genetic origins, non-Slavic-speaking Greece and Albania are more Slavic in their origins than the modern Macedonians and Bulgarians; spoken language is a very poor guide to ethnic origins. But does this mean that the Greeks and Albanians are not really Greeks and Albanians ? Of course not ! Modern nationhood does not derive from ancient or medieval ethnicity, but from a shared sense of identity in the present. Omadeon’s describing of the Republic of Macedonia as ‘Slavo-Albanian Macedonia’ is equivalent to describing Greece as ‘Slavo-Albanian-Turkish-Greek Greece’, or England as ‘Celtic-Anglo-Saxon-Viking-Norman England’. If the people of Greece feel themselves to be Greek; if the people of Macedonia feel themselves to be Macedonian – that is all that matters. Trying to deny the existence of a modern nation by pointing out its ethnically diverse roots, or by reducing it to a number of ethnic components, is the action of a chauvinist. We all have ethnically diverse roots. We should be proud of them.

In an age of globalisation and mass immigration, nations will become more, rather than less ethnically diverse. This, too, should be viewed positively. There are English people today whose grandparents were all born in Pakistan, or in Jamaica. They are no less ‘English’ than English people who claim ‘pure’ Anglo-Saxon descent. Black or brown Englishmen and women have as much right as white Anglo-Saxon Englishmen to lay claim to the heritage of English or British historical figures: the Celtic Boadicea; the Norman-French William the Conqueror; the Dutch William of Orange; the Irish Duke of Wellington; the half-American Winston Churchill. In the same way, Alexander the Great is part of the heritage of Greeks, Macedonians, Bulgarians and Albanians alike, and of all those nations which have arisen on the territory that he once ruled. Alexander the Great belongs to Iranians, Afghans and Pakistanis, too.

Omadeon accuses me of opposing reconciliation between Macedonia and Greece, and of not being even-handed in my treatment of Macedonian and Greek nationalism. I make no pretence at being even-handed: I am on the side of the victim (Macedonia) and against the aggressor (Greece), and will always encourage the national resistance of a victim against an aggressor. Siding with a victim against an aggressor is the only honourable position to take: it means siding with Cyprus against Turkey in 1974; with Croatia against Serbia in 1991; with Bosnia against both Serbia and Croatia in 1992-95; with Chechnya against Russia in 1994 and 1999; and with Georgia against Russia in 2008. There can be no ‘even-handedness’ in treating an aggressor and a victim, or in treating their respective nationalisms. Greek nationalism is threatening Macedonia. Macedonian nationalism is not threatening Greece. The two are not equivalent.

As for the question of ‘reconciliation’, this can only rightfully be based on justice, not on the capitulation of the weaker side to the stronger. The only just compromise between Greece and Macedonia would be along the following lines:

1) The Macedonian nation and language, and the Greek nation and language, exist. Anyone who says they do not is an anti-Macedonian or anti-Greek chauvinist.

2) Macedonia and Greece both have the right to call themselves what they want, and to define their national identities as they wish.

3) The people of the Republic of Macedonia, Greek Macedonia and Bulgarian Macedonia have an equal right to call themselves ‘Macedonian’ and to lay claim to the heritage of Ancient Macedonia and of Alexander the Great, if that is what they wish.

4) Greeks and Macedonians alike are descended from a mixture of ancient Macedonians, Slavs and others. The common ethnic heritage of the two nations should be stressed, not denied, by those seeking reconciliation.

5) The symbol at the start of this post – the Star of Vergina – is dear to both Greeks and Macedonians and belongs to them both. Two nations that love the same symbols and revere the same ancient historical figures should naturally be friends. 

Anyone who calls themselves an ‘anti-nationalist’, irrespective of whether they are Greek or Macedonian, should have no difficulty subscribing to these principles.

Saturday, 29 August 2009 Posted by | Balkans, Greece, Macedonia | , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments