Recently, and again and again during the twentieth century, the people of one of Greece’s northern neighbours have been claiming Macedonian heritage, history and ultimately Greek coastline (the prized port city of Thessaloniki), when they insist on being called Macedonian. They claim identity with Alexander the Great, the Greek speaking Macedonian King who worshipped the Ancient Greek Gods and spread his Greek language and religion throughout the lands that he conquered. The Greek people are infuriated by this and rightly, threatened. By making these claims they are laying the ground work for a “taking back” of ancient pride and territory to give to their modern day selves.
Over two thousand years have elapsed since Alexander the Great lived. In that time there have been many waves of people through his birthplace – Romans, Bulgars, Slavs, Turks. The region has shifted from being centred around Ancient Pella and within the boundaries of modern day Greece further north to include not only Greece’s second largest city, Thessaloniki but further afield, encroaching upon Albania, Bulgaria and the former Yugoslavia. Can any of these nations justify expansionary dreams by claiming ancient custodianship? The Greeks claim the Macedonian name and history as their own via their custodianship of the Greek language over the millennia and belief that there have always been Greeks living in Macedonia. Why wouldn’t Alexander be Greek?
Do the people of FYROM (the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonian) have a leg to stand on? Did all of the Ancient Greek speaking, Greek god worshipping peoples identify themselves as Greeks (Hellenes)? What of the ancient Macedonians themselves? Alexander’s tutor was the philosopher, Aristotle, who despite being born in Northern Greece (Stagira) and writing in Greek is never referred to as a Macedonian. Did Aristotle consider himself to be a Macedonian?
Could the Ancient peoples of Macedonia have spoken and written in Greek but identified themselves with a different culture? If they did, how is it that it has escaped our notice? There were Greek speakers who may not have identified as Greeks. Was Cleopatra Greek – her first language – or Macedonian, by descent from Ptolemy, or was she an Egyptian queen, as she is remembered today? How about the Seleucid’s of Syria, who like Cleopatra were descended from one of Alexander’s generals and spoke Greek? Were they Macedonians? or Greeks? When the Jews celebrate Hanukkah are they commemorating a victory over the Seleucid Greeks or the Macedonians?
What of the Greek speakers of city states outside of the Greek peninsula that Alexander didn’t conquer? What of Syracuse and its most heralded citizen, Archimedes? What of the Ancient Greek speaking explorer from what is now France, Pytheas of Massalia? Did they consider themselves Greek? Today, when we learn about them in school, we are told they were. Are we retrospectively giving them an identity they would find preposterous?
Can any group of people make claims on a modern nation by justifying ancient descent?
Even if the people of FYROM had a strong claim on ancient Macedonian culture, could having an Ancient Greek heritage give a foreign city or country or foreign group of people the right to make claims on the land and culture of the modern Greek nation? Alternatively, does this give the Greeks an excuse to claim Egypt, Syria, Israel or France as a part of Greece? The idea is ludicrous.
When it comes to language the people of FYROM need a strong argument (or more correctly apology) for they don’t speak Greek. But Alexander did. Their language is said to be related to Bulgarian. The coming of the Bulgarians into the Balkans is documented. It’s AD/CE. Greeks love to call them Slavs. The coming and settling of the Slavs in the area, down to Arcadia is also documented, its AD/CE. If only the Byzantine Empress Irene (752-803CE) could talk to us about the kids on her Athenian block when she was growing up. Or why and whether she incited her successor, Nikephoros I to re-Hellenise the Balkans in the 9th century CE as a consequence.
The problem with arguing for or against Macedonian descent is an ignorance on both sides of the history of the area and settlements and resettlements of ethnic groups in and out of it since ancient times. Early Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman and 20th Century political history should be taught in schools on either side of the debate. An ancient civilized race would have had to have existed in isolation to not have a blended heritage by now.
Today, the people of FYROM can express a much more modern culture that has similarities to their Greek Macedonian neighbours- their music (clarinet, gaeda-bagpipe and drum), dance (boosnitsa/sykathistos), wedding traditions, palette (burek/pita), religion (Orthodoxy) and resistance under the Ottoman regime. Relations could be incredibly warm if it weren’t for this obsessive fixation. But do they have any claim to the ancient name and the heritage, Macedonia?
Alternatively, if the Ancient Macedonians were Greeks, why did they call their nation Macedonia?
There is a problem with identity when applied to the Ancient Greeks. They were too fiercely independent to ever be regarded as a nation. They were always independent city states – no matter what part of Arcadia, the Aegean or Mediterranean coast they settled on. They were Athenians, Spartans, Corinthians, Delians, Ephesians, Thessalonians, Samians, Syracusans and Macedonians etc. They all revelled in the same kind of art, philosophy, science/mathematics, religion and language.
Ancient Greek culture has a parallel in modern cultural practice versus identity. If we were to consider the way an alien anthropologist would look at the world today and have to take back a clear understanding of Earthlings to her/his planet, how would s/he categorise who we call Australians, the British, Americans, New Zealanders etc? I mean the predominantly English speaking world? Could s/he call us all English and relate us back to the modern nation on the British Isles as her people? Do we not all share the same language? Yes, but … Language is not enough it seems to define a culture.
Could our alien anthropologist categorise us by looking at what we do with ourselves? Are we not majority consumerists? Does the majority not watch blockbuster American movies and video games? Do the majority receive our information on chiefly American designed/owned technology – phones, social media, news? Does the majority practice secularism over our stated religion – or lack thereof? Do American-styled-owned products dominate our households? Could our alien anthropologist then describe the English speaking world as American? We may baulk at this idea but the similarities are great.
Going back to the Ancient Greeks, after the death of Alexander and the dissection of his dominion, they would never see themselves as one Greek nation spread all over the known world. Their broad culture and language was Greek and they held this in common. They could easily trade, read Homer, worship and celebrate together. But their administration was different. And they would be able to tell each other apart. A Macedonian was as different from an Athenian as a Brit is from an American.
Moving forward in time a thousand or more years, wouldn’t an American feel threatened if Cuba changed its name to Florida? What if the Republic of Ireland changed its name to Cornwall, would the English object? And would what Aussies say if Papua New Guinea were to rename itself, Queensland or Kiwis’ if Australia decided to call itself New Zealand? I think they would all object as the Greeks do today over the attempts at stealing the name, Macedonia.