27 January 2009
The real question is not whether Alexandre trhe Great was Greek or not. He has. The real question is whether the Slavic invaders to the Balkans during the 7th century AD, more than one thousand years after Alexandre, can claim today any other nationality than Slavic and have the right to hold any other passport than Bulgarian. And the answer is simply NO.
by Prof. Paul Cartledge, Cambridge University
Nation-state building in its most urgent form was a particularly prominent 19th-century phenomenon. Small proto-states then were seeking to get out from under the stifling embrace of the big empires of the day - whether British, Turkish, French or Russian. But that process of political emancipation was not confined by any means to the 19th century; indeed, it continues, in places very strongly or even violently, to this day. And new nation-states that choose to base their essential identity on ethnicity, in order to determine who ‘the people’ are, tend to need heroes. Not least, they feel the need for founding-father type heroes from the past who can be seamlessly re-appropriated (and of course made over) as the nation’s living ancestors.
The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia - or just plain ‘Macedonia’, as it is known officially to its inhabitants and, more surprisingly, to George Bush’s United States of America - is exactly one such emergent ethnic nation-state of today in search of retrospective founding-father ancestors. Unfortunately, one of its ‘ancestors’ of choice, Alexander the Great, is already very well spoken for - in fact, most vigorously claimed and appropriated - by the neighbouring state of Greece. Though Greece began the process of independent nation-state building as early as the 1820s, it did not achieve its present geopolitical configuration until the 1940s, well within the living memory of its oldest generations. Hence it too is still not a little sensitive about its founding-father ancestors; and though it has a far huger pool to choose from than does FYROM, it too chooses to make a song and dance about Alexander as a true-blue Hellene, because the area of northern Greece centred on Greek Macedonia with its capital at Thessaloniki is the most ethnically diverse and the most ethnically contested in all the present-day Greek state. Therein lie the source, and the cause of its intensity, of the conflict between Greece and FYROM over the question of Alexander’s true ethnicity - a fundamentally historical question, but one that has become twisted out of all recognition by politics: just how Greek or Hellenic was he, really?
It’s very difficult today to classify precisely the language of the ancient Macedonians, because so few examples of it have been preserved. But two things about it are reasonably certain, or at least agreed among the experts. It was basically a dialect of Greek, but so interlarded with words of non-Greek, mainly Thracian origin that not just because of accent but also because of vocabulary it could be incomprehensible to speakers of ’standard’ Greek dialects. For example, Alexander himself when under the stress of huge emotion is recorded as speaking ‘in Macedonian’. The issue of difference of customs is also complex, but two features may be salient. Unlike Greeks elsewhere, both in mainland Greece and in the diaspora, the Macedonians had not developed a civilisation based on cities (poleis), and correspondingly they had not developed a strong political notion of citizenship. To try to convey an idea of this difference, scholars speak - however misleadingly - of Macedonian tribalism, even feudalism. That traditional way of doing politics was not significantly altered until only a couple of generations before Alexander the Great, in the late 5th century BCE.
Apart from the lack of citification, what would have astonished all other Greeks - except the Spartans perhaps - was the practice of royal polygamy. King Philip II, Alexander the Great’s father, amassed a collection of seven wives in all, only two of whom were Macedonian Greeks. Alexander’s own mother Olympias was a Greek Greek, as it were, a royal princess from Epirus. Elsewhere, monogamy was not just required for all Greeks - but also regarded as a defining feature of Greek as opposed to barbarian culture.
These linguistic and cultural differences could be exploited politically, then as now. Demosthenes of Athens complained you used not even to be able to buy a decent slave from Macedonia (implying it was a barbarian territory) whereas now Macedonia under Philip II lorded it over the rest of mainland Greece including Athens as if its subjects were barbarian slaves themselves. At the battle of Issus in Asia Minor in 333, Alexander’s difficulties in fighting the forces of the Persian king Darius III were compounded by the fact that many Greeks had enlisted as mercenaries on the side of Darius precisely because they hated Macedonians so.
My point in reminding readers of these ancient contentions over the ethnicity and meaning of ‘Macedonian’ is to emphasise how far the disputes were manufactured and exploited for political reasons, rather than based on scientific historical knowledge and understanding of the facts (such as they are and were). The same seems to me true today. On October the 28th 2007 the United Macedonian Diaspora organised a protest outside Parliament House in Canberra against FYROM’s assertion that Alexander was a (non-Greek) Macedonian. It is vital, I believe, that the Greek-Australian community’s response is measured, well articulated and clear. It is my view that neo-nationalist perspectives on ancient history do little to generate cohesion or cross-cultural harmony - particularly in immigrant nations such as Australia. I am also of the view that it is somewhat irrelevant whether Alexander was Greek or Macedonian according to any modern, retrospective, reappropriating notion of those terms. What matters is that he was a hugely significant leader, imbued with Hellenic values, but blessed also with a global and no less importantly multicultural perspective on the world.
I say ‘Greek or Hellenic’, because in English the very term ‘Greek’ is itself the result of ethnocentrism, a very ancient ethnocentrism admittedly, since it goes back to the ancient Romans, the Americans of their day. The Graikoi were indeed Greek - or Hellenic, as the Greeks themselves would have put it. They lived in Thessaly, the region immediately adjoining Greek Macedonia on the south. But they were small fry, bit-part players in the major ancient dramas. The ancient Greeks as a whole, who called themselves collectively ‘Hellenes’, would no more have considered calling themselves all ‘Graikoi’ than all Australians would today consider calling themselves Darwinites. Perhaps that’s another, historically conditioned reason why Greeks today or people of Greek descent, when speaking Greek insist so strongly that Macedonia is, was and always has been Greek, I mean Hellenic.
Yet, thereby hangs another irony, and another ancient one. Because even in ancient times there was a debate in Greece over the ethnicity of the Macedonians, that is over whether they were - or all of them were, and had always been - Greek (Hellenic Greek). This debate surfaces in Herodotus, at a critical moment in his account of the Graeco-Persian Wars. Ancient Macedonia, including a part of what is today FYROM, was then a subject province of the Persian empire, that empire’s European toehold or bridgehead. That was embarrassing enough for patriotic Greeks - but perhaps their consciences could be salved by saying that the Macedonians weren’t ‘really’ Hellenes? Herodotus was on the case, though only in retrospect of course. His enquiries led him to confirm the report he was given by the Macedonians themselves - that they were indeed Greek.
However - and it is a big ‘however’ - honesty compelled Herodotus to add that, when the Macedonian king of the day, another Alexander (Alexander the First), had applied to compete in the all-Greek and only-Greek Olympic Games, his fellow- competitors had objected that he was a ‘barbarian’ (non-Greek). But the judges of the Games, who were known as Hellenodikai or ‘Judges of the Hellenes’, had decided in his favour - on grounds of descent, as follows. The royal family to which Alexander belonged called themselves Argeadai, descendants of Argeas, and their family tradition held that Argeas, the ultimate founding father of their family line, took his name from Argos in the Peloponnese - indeed that he had originally emigrated from Argos to Macedonia to found the line. The Olympic Judges accepted that tradition as true. But - and again, it is a big ‘but’ - they did not then go on to declare that henceforth all Macedonians were entitled, as Hellenes, to compete in the Olympics. Entitlement was extended only to the royal Aegead family, not to all other Macedonians as well ….
Why so? Put it another way, why was there such dispute and discord, even among ancient Greeks, over the Hellenic identity and authenticity of the Macedonians? Even though, it has to be added, this dispute and discord flew in the face of very ancient Hellenic mythic genealogy, according to which Makedon, the eponymous forefather of all Macedonians, occupied an exalted position high up in the family-tree agreed on by all Hellenes. There were I think two main reasons. First, language, and second, customs - remembering that Herodotus, when he placed a definition of Greekness in the mouths of the Athenians, singled out precisely those two factors as crucially definitional.
Paul Cartledge is a Professor of Greek History at Cambridge University, and a fellow of Clare College. A world expert on Athens and Sparta in the Classical Age he has been described as a Laconophile. He was chief historical consultant for the BBC TV series The Greeks and the Channel 4 series The Spartans, presented by Bettany Hughes.
He has published The Greeks: A Portrait of Self and Others (2nd ed, 2002), the product of research into Greek self-definition; Kosmos: essays in Order, Conflict and Community in Classical Athens (coauthor Millet, Paul.) (2002) Cambridge University Press; The Spartans: An Epic History (2nd ed, 2003); Alexander the Great: The Hunt for a New Past (2004) Helots and Their Masters in Laconia and Messenia: Histories, Ideologies, Structures (2004) Center for Hellenic Studies.; Thermopylae: The Battle That Changed the World (2006). The Overlook Press.