What’s in a name – Macedonia?

Macedonian Boules Masks

Macedonian Boules Masks, a longstanding cultural tradition with its roots in resistance, worn today in cultural festivities and I imagine during Apokries (Mardi Gras).

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.




When Hadjiavatis pulls his beard, will Menander reappear? – Part Two

The Byzantine Empire: God’s Kingdom on Earth. A world of mysticism, asceticism and philanthropy. A colourful world of pantomimes in the hippodrome, bride shows in the palace and liturgical processions through the polis. A byzantine court of intrigue and propaganda where the head of state and the heads of the Church toggled power and policy. A history peopled with philosopher-monks, pirate-archons, poet-nuns, emperor-saints, mercenary soldiers, eunuchs and slaves, marauding crusaders, cross-dressing clerics and fools for Christ. A people who lived their daily lives in, out and around awe-inspiring basilicas, thundering arenas, urban and remote monasteries, civic baths, hospitals and hostels for the poor. The Byzantines: a society that regarded itself as Roman but spoke Greek.

The Rise and Fall of the Byzantine Empire

The Rise and Fall of the Byzantine Empire

When Constantine I moved the capital of the Roman Empire to the site of the ancient town of Byzantium in 313 C.E.he named his New Rome, Constantinople. The language and culture of his new seat of power was Latin. Theatrical pastimes were those of the late Roman empire. Gone was the popularity of classical dramas and comedies. Carnival and spectacle entertained the masses. Animal fights, chariot races and gladiatorial bouts were enjoyed along with jugglers, dancers, mimes, pantomimes and dramatic recitals.

2009-04-13 ConstantineTheGreat York

Constantine I aka Constantine the Great aka St Constantine

By moving his capital to the East, Constantine may have given himself a fresh start however the Empire would suffer the tensions of a division of east and west for centuries.When eventually the rift saw the independence of the West in 6th century C.E., Greek was adopted as the administrative language of the remaining Empire. The people of the Empire however, still regarded themselves as Romans.

They also believed they were God’s legacy on Earth.  They ordered their world to mirror the organisation of Heaven. As God had His hierarchy of angels, the Byzantines had a hierarchy of priests and civil servants. As the Church gave them laws and admonished their behaviour, the state collected taxes and provided infrastructure.

It was the Church that made a rudimentary education available to all. Ecclesiastical learning was the norm. For the wealthy classes, pagan texts written by the Ancient Greeks  and Romans were available. Texts that complimented the teachings of the Christian Church were encouraged e.g., Plato. However, texts that couldn’t throw light on the understanding of Christian tenants and dogmas were discouraged e.g., Aristotle. Pagan theatre did not fare well.

From the earliest dates, Ancient Greek drama was inseparable from pagan ritual. Early dramatic texts commemorate the pagan gods. The ancient plays were presented at festivals in honour of the Olympian gods e.g., Dionysus and Apollo. The cult of Dionysus with its Bacchanalian  festivities; bawdy humour and the practice of wearing short tunics to show off long, detachable  phalluses  would not be accepted by the new Christian religion.

The Christian God was a jealous god. Worship of all or some of the pantheon of pagan gods was not acceptable. The Trullan Synod, a gathering of over two hundred clerics in c.692 C.E., tried to snuff out pagan practices including theatrical ones. Performers would be denied Christian rights if they did not repent of their sin – performing.

Greek terracotta statuette of a Mime made in Myrina about 100 BCE (1)

Terracotta Statuette of a Greek Mime c. 100 B.C.E.

A consequence of this was the loss of many ancient texts. Monks and nuns didn’t break taboo and transcribe these works freely. By this time the ancient classics were no longer in vogue neither with audiences nor performers. Now even God frowned upon them. The carnival style amusements replacing them were visual, satiric, had an immediate response and were not dependent on scripts. The desire to investigate ancient plays would interest few. And then there was the curse of good house keeping.

In the way of the pre-modern world, nothing was disposable. The papyri of the ancient sources were more precious than the plays written upon them, plays that espoused pagan virtues and excesses. It was a matter of good economy and good virtue to wash out the original text and reuse the papyrus in a higher Christian cause. In this practice many palimpsests were created. It was because of this practice that the work of Menander was lost in the middle ages and then rediscovered in Egypt in 1907.

A Menander Palimpsest on papyrus

A Menander Palimpsest on papyrus

Menander (341/2 B.C.E. – 270 B.C.E.), the greatest writer of New Comedy in Ancient Greece had a heavy-handed influence over the later Roman playwrights, Plautus and Terence. Through the adaption of his scripts by Plautus and Terence his inspiration and style would influence the Commedia Dell’arte and later playwrights such as Shakespeare and Moliere. His work took the subject matter of the Ancients away from the realm of the gods and into the domestic situation of citizens. In his most complete surviving play, O Dyskolos, he acknowledges Pan in the prologue by having him deliver it.

Menander’s comedy was one of character, situations and ribald innuendo. He took the satiric writings of the philosopher, Theophrastus (c.371-c.287 BCE) off the page and created live character types in masks for the stage. Thus he gave prototypes for the stock characters of the Commedia Dell’arte. Despite his dramas winning the Lenaia Festival 8 times and Plautus and Terence acknowledging his influence over their work, knowledge that his comedies existed was all we had for 900 years. The scripts were somehow lost in the Middle Ages.

Can more be recovered?  How many lie dormant, hidden within palimpsests?

In the next part of this article, I will look at Egypt’s unique place in the hopes of recovering ancient texts and the connection the Karagiozi and Karagöz puppet theatre have with late Roman comedies and Byzantine theatrical performances.

See images of Byzantine artefacts  on the Crafty Theatre, Byzantine, Pinterest board.

Map of the Rise and Fall of the Byzantine Empire

Photo credit: Foter / CC BY-SA

Emperor Constantine I

Photo credit: Foter / CC BY

Greek Mime Artist c. 100 B.C.E.

Photo credit: mharrsch / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

A Menander Palimpsest on Papyrus

Photo credit: The Egypt Exploration Fund / Foter / Public domain