Macedonian Questions

The Sun of Vergina

The Sun of Vergina

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.

4 Responses to Macedonian Questions

  1. barcid says:

    I tend to side with the Greeks on this only because I’m disturbed by the footage of schoolteachers in FYROM telling children that the land around Thessaloniki is being occupied illegitimately by the Greeks. That’s a dangerous and irresponsible thing to teach young children.

    But that said, I am equally frustrated by those Greeks who refuse to acknowledge any differences between the ancient Greeks and Macedonians. It is wrong to re-write history for the sake of some petty modern dispute about semantics.

    I tip my hat to you for putting history before everything else in this dispute. The fact that some ancient Greeks viewed Macedonians as a different ethnic group is irrelevant. And to pick a side in this conflict is to acknowledge it as a conflict worth having.

  2. bertie007 says:

    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.

    I’d like to have written that. And this is just as cogent:

    …whatever the ethnic affiliations of ancient Macedonia (Greek or non-Greek; certainly not Slavonic), ethnicity should be irrelevant to modern politics…

    There’s little I can add to those statements (and the rest of the above) other than that I find the foisting of modern Christian values (or concepts) upon ancient societies utterly rediculous.

  3. Bill Thayer says:

    “And to pick a side in this conflict is to acknowledge it as a conflict worth having.”

    Yes, especially that (1) Alexander’s genius was firmly personal, and had very little to do with being of any particular ethnicity; (2) neither modern Greeks nor modern Macedonians have much to do with ancient Greeks and ancient Macedonians — being very largely admixed with Turks, Slavs, Italians, Albanians, and Levantines of every sort and description (just as we all are: Italians for example are a mix of native stock with Greeks and Germans and Arabs and Spaniards and French, and so on down the line); (3) and neither modern Greeks nor modern Macedonians gain anything by claiming Alexander as one of theirs; neither Greece nor Macedonia shows the faintest sign of either the desire or the ability to conquer Iran and Egypt, thank heavens. I remain perpetually amazed that adults get so frazzed up about this non-question.

  4. sitbisba says:

    …and for the “completely non-racist” reason that mixing with neighboring peoples has occurred like it does in any society (which at least you happily admit). It certainly brings 19th century intellectuals to mind.

    Anyhow, I agree with the OP about the dispute. As a Greek, I don’t particularly mind that a neighboring country uses an “unhyphenated” Macedonia as its name or even that it constructs its own national myths, like all nations do, even though they are expressed in an ugly fashion at times.

    On the other hand, a little disagreement isn’t always bad, eh? I can’t agree with views that, for example, consider the possibility that the Babylonians heard the “Macedonian” form of Alexandros as “Alexandar” while they surprisingly heard every other Macedonian name with its Greek termination. Kidding, Livius, I like your work – most of the time.

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