A message in my mailbox: an invitation to sign a petition against a statue of Alexander the Great that is to be erected in the Former Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia. I read it, notice that it’s also sent to some scholars I admire, and feel honored to be named in their company. I also read the message that the sender, an American colleague I sincerely appreciate, has added. He introduces the petition with the words that ‘of course’ he is against the monopolizing of the Macedonian past by Greece, but, he adds, he is ‘even more against the policy of the FYROM’.
He has a point. It is outrageous that the FYROM claims Alexander as one of its sons; and we have seen more acts like these. After all, when the former Yugoslavian republic gained its independence, it also claimed the Sun of Vergina and the White Tower of Thessalonica as its national symbols. More recently, an airport was called after Alexander. It is tactless – no: stupid – for a young state to create a conflict with its neighbors.
At the same time, my colleague is completely wrong. To start with, it is unlikely that my signature will be appreciated. Every week, I receive hate mail from Greece because in my book on Alexander, I distinguish Macedonia from Greece. It would surprise me if the Greek nationalists behind the petition will be happy with my support.
But there’s a more serious problem, which I expected my American friend to understand: whatever the ethnic affiliations of ancient Macedonia (Greek or non-Greek; certainly not Slavonic), ethnicity should be irrelevant to modern politics.
In the first place, because ethnicity is extremely fluid. My American friend must know this: his ancestors were German, but they were accepted as American, and ever since the family has been proud to be American. His wife descends from an Italian family, and Italy was nothing but a geographical concept when her greatgrandparents left Sicily. In Antiquity, ethnicity was even more complex and fluid. The Frisians are a case in point (more…). It is unscientific to found modern political claims on ancient history, and it is even worse to found them on something that was so much in flux.
But there is a more important point to be made. Even if it were possible to claim that Macedonia has been Greek for centuries, what does that mean? The answer is: nothing. Antiquity is past, and can not be used for whichever type of political claim in the present. Women have had less political rights than men for at least forty-eight centuries. No one will argue that this justifies denying them voting rights today.
I’ve written to my American friend that I will not sign the petition and have called on him to ignore it. In fact, I think we should write another petition, directed against academicians who dignify the stupidity of politicians by playing along with them. Studying the past should not be tainted with politics. Academicians ought to understand that.