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Tue, 14 Jul 2009 17:02:01 -0500
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CJ Forum Online 2009.07.02 (forthcoming CJ 105.1)

CJ invites you to access this article in PDF format at 


On 18 May 2009, 200 Classical scholars from around the world sent an open 
letter to the President of the United States of America, Barack Obama. This 
unusual action, and the contents of the letter, raise issues which may not 
have been considered by all those who have endorsed it, but which deserve 
consideration. In order to put the discussion that follows into context, it 
may be useful first to quote the body of the letter itself. [[1]]


Dear President Obama,

We, the undersigned scholars of Graeco-Roman antiquity, respectfully 
request that you intervene to clean up some of the historical debris left 
in southeast Europe by the previous U.S. administration.

On November 4, 2004, two days after the re-election of President George W. 
Bush, his administration unilaterally recognized the “Republic of 
Macedonia.” This action not only abrogated geographic and historic fact, 
but it also has unleashed a dangerous epidemic of historical revisionism, 
of which the most obvious symptom is the misappropriation by the government 
in Skopje of the most famous of Macedonians, Alexander the Great.

We believe that this silliness has gone too far, and that the U.S.A. has no 
business in supporting the subversion of history. Let us review facts. (The 
documentation for these facts can be found attached and at: 

The land in question, with its modern capital at Skopje, was called Paionia 
in antiquity. Mts. Barnous and Orbelos (which form today the northern 
limits of Greece) provide a natural barrier that separated, and separates, 
Macedonia from its northern neighbor. The only real connection is along the 
Axios/Vardar River and even this valley “does not form a line of 
communication because it is divided by gorges.”

While it is true that the Paionians were subdued by Philip II, father of 
Alexander, in 358 B.C. they were not Macedonians and did not live in 
Macedonia. Likewise, for example, the Egyptians, who were subdued by 
Alexander, may have been ruled by Macedonians, including the famous 
Cleopatra, but they were never Macedonians themselves, and Egypt was never 
called Macedonia.

Rather, Macedonia and Macedonian Greeks have been located for at least 
2,500 years just where the modern Greek province of Macedonia is. Exactly 
this same relationship is true for Attica and Athenian Greeks, Argos and 
Argive Greeks, Corinth and Corinthian Greeks, etc.

We do not understand how the modern inhabitants of ancient Paionia, who 
speak Slavic—a language introduced into the Balkans about a millennium 
after the death of Alexander—can claim him as their national hero. 
Alexander the Great was thoroughly and indisputably Greek. His 
great-great-great grandfather, Alexander I, competed in the Olympic Games 
where participation was limited to Greeks.

Even before Alexander I, the Macedonians traced their ancestry to Argos, 
and many of their kings used the head of Herakles—the quintessential 
Greek hero—on their coins.

Euripides—who died and was buried in Macedonia—wrote his play Archelaos 
in honor of the great-uncle of Alexander, and in Greek. While in Macedonia, 
Euripides also wrote the Bacchai, again in Greek. Presumably the Macedonian 
audience could understand what he wrote and what they heard.

Alexander’s father, Philip, won several equestrian victories at Olympia 
and Delphi, the two most Hellenic of all the sanctuaries in ancient Greece 
where non-Greeks were not allowed to compete. Even more significantly, 
Philip was appointed to conduct the Pythian Games at Delphi in 346 B.C. In 
other words, Alexander the Great’s father and his ancestors were 
thoroughly Greek. Greek was the language used by Demosthenes and his 
delegation from Athens when they paid visits to Philip, also in 346 B.C.

Another northern Greek, Aristotle, went off to study for nearly 20 years in 
the Academy of Plato. Aristotle subsequently returned to Macedonia and 
became the tutor of Alexander III. They used Greek in their classroom which 
can still be seen near Naoussa in Macedonia.

Alexander carried with him throughout his conquests Aristotle’s edition 
of Homer’s Iliad. Alexander also spread Greek language and culture 
throughout his empire, founding cities and establishing centers of 
learning. Hence inscriptions concerning such typical Greek institutions as 
the gymnasium are found as far away as Afghanistan. They are all written in 

The questions follow: Why was Greek the lingua franca all over 
Alexander’s empire if he was a “Macedonian”? Why was the New 
Testament, for example, written in Greek?

The answers are clear: Alexander the Great was Greek, not Slavic, and Slavs 
and their language were nowhere near Alexander or his homeland until 1000 
years later. This brings us back to the geographic area known in antiquity 
as Paionia. Why would the people who live there now call themselves 
Macedonians and their land Macedonia? Why would they abduct a completely 
Greek figure and make him their national hero?

The ancient Paionians may or may not have been Greek, but they certainly 
became Greekish, and they were never Slavs. They were also not Macedonians. 
Ancient Paionia was a part of the Macedonian Empire. So were Ionia and 
Syria and Palestine and Egypt and Mesopotamia and Babylonia and Bactria and 
many more. They may thus have become “Macedonian” temporarily, but none 
was ever “Macedonia.” The theft of Philip and Alexander by a land that 
was never Macedonia cannot be justified.

The traditions of ancient Paionia could be adopted by the current residents 
of that geographical area with considerable justification. But the 
extension of the geographic term “Macedonia” to cover southern 
Yugoslavia cannot. Even in the late 19th century, this misuse implied 
unhealthy territorial aspirations.

The same motivation is to be seen in school maps that show the 
pseudo-greater Macedonia, stretching from Skopje to Mt. Olympus and labeled 
in Slavic. The same map and its claims are in calendars, bumper stickers, 
bank notes, etc., that have been circulating in the new state ever since it 
declared its independence from Yugoslavia in 1991. Why would a poor 
land-locked new state attempt such historical nonsense? Why would it 
brazenly mock and provoke its neighbor?

However one might like to characterize such behavior, it is clearly not a 
force for historical accuracy, nor for stability in the Balkans. It is sad 
that the United States of America has abetted and encouraged such behavior.
We call upon you, Mr. President, to help—in whatever ways you deem 
appropriate—the government in Skopje to understand that it cannot build a 
national identity at the expense of historic truth. Our common 
international society cannot survive when history is ignored, much less 
when history is fabricated.


Some readers may be amused, as I was myself, when they first read what 
looks like a—somewhat naïve—undergraduate essay. But the amusement 
disappears when one realizes that the letter has been signed by countless 
leading scholars, many of whom teach Classics or Ancient History at 
renowned institutions such as Harvard, Princeton, Berkeley, Cambridge or 
Oxford, to name but a few. The political impact will no doubt be limited 
despite this fact. But since the opinion of people of this caliber has 
considerable authority within the academic community, and since their sheer 
number may make it look to the outside world as if they represent our 
disciplines in their entirety, a reply is in order; for what is presented 
as a summary of “historic truth”—a notoriously slippery term—is in 
reality a crude statement that betrays some fundamental principles of 
historical scholarship. What follows is thus not to be understood as an 
endorsement of any real or imaginary expansionist ambitions of the modern 
Republic of Macedonia, but as a call for greater methodological and factual 
levelheadedness and caution when attempts are made to instrumentalize the 
classical world in modern-day politics.

It is true that most of the factual observations in the letter are correct. 
But it is equally true that (a) the text is one-sided and (b) its 
argumentative logic is often weak. As for (a), it would have been only fair 
to state more clearly how much of our knowledge about the ancient 
Macedonian kings’ “Greekness” we owe to the fact that, at least for 
propagandistic reasons, it could be subject to doubts in a way that would 
have been unthinkable in the case of, say, a Spartan king. The internet 
documentation which is referred to in the letter may be right when it sees 
nothing but “a personal grudge” behind Demosthenes’ calling Philip II 
a “barbarian,” but to cite Herodotus 5.22 as conclusive evidence that 
Alexander the Great was “thoroughly and indisputably Greek” is 
seriously misleading, since Herodotus’ statement “I happen to know that 
[the forefathers of Alexander] are Greek” is triggered precisely by the 
existence of a dispute over the matter, long before the age of Demosthenes. 
As for (b), the question “Why was Greek the lingua franca all over 
Alexander’s empire if he was a ‘Macedonian’?” cannot be adequately 
answered with the words “[Because] Alexander the Great was Greek,” 
given that we have numerous examples of ancient empires in which the lingua 
franca was not the language of the ruler. Nor can the presence of 
Heracles’ head on Macedonian coins or Euripides’ stay at the Macedonian 
court prove anything more than that the Macedonian kings were ready to 
embrace Greek traditions and Greek culture.

But all of this is not the real issue at stake. What is at the core of the 
letter is a mistaken and unhealthy notion of historical identity. “While 
it is true that the Paionians were subdued by Philip II, father of 
Alexander, in 358 B.C. they were not Macedonians and did not live in 
Macedonia”—but is that really so? How many Paionians did we ask about 
it, and at what point in history? The comparison with Egypt is awkward, for 
at least after the incorporation of “Paionia” under Antigonos Gonatas 
(249 BCE) a territorially continuous political unity had come into being 
which survived as such in the Roman provincial administration. That the 
case of Egypt is rather different in this respect need hardly be stressed. 
And even if it could be ascertained that a distinct Paionian identity 
continued to exist, that alone could never prove that there was not also an 
overarching Macedonian one; after all, it is perfectly possible to have a 
Californian and an American identity at the same time. Moreover, to use an 
ancient but immediately relevant analogy, are we really to think that 
Thucydides got it all wrong when he wrote that, decades before the conquest 
of Paionia, the term “Macedonia” also applied to lands not inhabited by 
“ethnic” Macedonians (Thuc. 2.99)?

Identities are thus shifting, not static, and they can be multiplied if 
need be. Few signatories of the letter would probably deny this fact when 
dealing with other areas of the ancient world. But to call Cleopatra a 
“Macedonian” gives away what constitutes true identity in the eyes of 
the letter’s authors: to them, identity seems defined by ancestry and 
blood-lines, by the past more than the present. Are we then to conclude 
that, for example, John F. Kennedy—or George W. Bush or Barack Obama, for 
that matter—were never real Americans? And if John F. Kennedy’s 
ancestors spoke Irish at one point, is it preposterous for all 
English-speaking Americans to use him today in their construction of a 
national identity because of that?

One might object that this is different. By coming to America John F. 
Kennedy’s ancestors chose to become Americans (with Irish roots); but why 
could the Slavs coming to Macedonia then not become Macedonians (with 
Slavic roots)? Yet different it remains, for no political body ever 
encompassed both the entire territory of the modern United States and 
Ireland at the same time. Hence, a different analogy must be sought. The 
internet documentation offers one suggestion:


An apt analogy is at hand if we imagine a certain large island off the 
southeast coast of the United States re-naming itself Florida, emblazoning 
its currency with images of Disney World and distributing maps showing the 
“Greater Florida.”


But this will not do, and here we begin to perceive a categorial error even 
if we do not wish to subscribe to the “postmodern” possibility of 
choosing one’s identity freely. By focusing almost exclusively on 
Alexander the Great, the letter conveniently forgets everything that 
happened later in the area. Let us leave it open how the Paionians or their 
descendants thought of themselves by the time Macedonia lost its 
independence, and whether or not they would have objected to seeing their 
own region referred to as part of “Macedonia” at that stage. One point 
is crystal-clear: the territory of the modern Republic of Macedonia does 
have a shared past with the modern Greek province of Macedonia—and a 
past, at that, during which the entire area was unquestionably thought of 
as “Macedonia” by many, if not most, of its inhabitants. [[2]] For 
“Macedonia” was not only the name of the relevant Roman 
province—later divided into Macedonia Prima and Macedonia Salutaris (not: 
*Paionia), both of which became part of the Byzantine Empire—as well as 
the heartland of Tsar Samuil’s so-called “Bulgarian” Empire in the 
10th and 11th centuries CE. It was also, more importantly for the recent 
history and nomenclature in the Balkans, a distinctly perceived territorial 
unit within the Ottoman Empire. Essentially this is the “pseudo-greater 
Macedonia” depicted in the modern Macedonian maps which the letter 
decries, rightly or wrongly, as politically inflammatory. When this land 
was divided in 1912/13, ten years after the unsuccessful Ilinden Uprising 
of 1903, between Greece, Bulgaria and Serbia as a consequence of the Balkan 
Wars, a “Macedonian” identity of sorts had been in the making for 
centuries and was now forcefully broken up. To be sure, this early modern 
“Macedonia” was never politically independent or ethnically homogeneous 
in any sense, and certainly not exclusively Slavic. But neither must we 
erroneously believe that those parts of it which form the modern Greek 
province of Macedonia were ethnically as distinctly Greek as they have 
become, for better or worse, in recent times. So the “apt analogy” of a 
“Greater Florida” is in reality a politically biased image that 
misconstructs the “historic truth” it claims to promote. No matter what 
its ethnic mix was—and what serious scholar would nowadays want to argue 
that the only “good” states are ethnically “pure” states, in which 
everyone must speak the same language?—the tendentiously-labeled 
“pseudo-greater Macedo¬nia,” far from being a recent invention, did 
exist as a real identitarian concept well before the 20th century. And in a 
sense its roots can be traced back to the conquests of Philip II, Alexander 
the Great and their successors in “Paionia”; for if those conquests had 
never taken place, the history of the region would have looked different 
and the territory of “Paionia” might not have shared the fate and 
fortune of “Aegean” Macedonia for long stretches of its history. Thus, 
unless one subscribes to a dangerous “blood-and-soil ideology,” there 
is no reason why the modern Slavic Macedonians should not be allowed to 
continue to call their country “Macedonia” and to pride themselves in 
Alexander the Great just as much as the modern Hellenic Greeks do. What 
does it matter if Alexander “was Greek, not Slavic,” as long as no one 
claims the opposite?

One final analogy may help us look at the entire issue more soberly. The 
West Germanic Franks originally lived near the Lower Rhine, in the 
territory of modern-day Belgium and the Netherlands. During the Migration 
Period they began to move southwards and eventually established hegemony 
over most of Roman Gaul. That did not mean that the Romans living in Gaul 
at the time immediately had to think of themselves as Franks or start to 
speak the Germanic language of their kings, including Charlemagne. 
Nevertheless the name of the Franks ultimately imposed itself on the entire 
territory they ruled, and it survives to this day in the modern name of 
France. Clearly this does not imply that France “brazenly mocks and 
provokes its neighbor[s]” Belgium and the Netherlands—where the “real 
France” must be located according to the ancient sources—by 
appropriating the name of a people that did not speak the ancestor language 
of modern French, or by calling schools or streets after Charlemagne. Nor 
would anyone think of writing a letter to President Obama to protest 
against this state of affairs. But why should such a letter then be written 
in the case of modern Macedonia? If one of our foremost academic duties as 
Classicists and Ancient Historians is to think about the ancient world sine 
ira et studio, we must do the same when invited to express our views on a 
contemporary political issue, however much those who invite us try to make 
it look as if they shared our love for historical understanding. By putting 
our academic authority behind tendentious political statements like the 
letter quoted above, we risk not only bringing into disrepute our 
disciplines and the institutions at which we are allowed to work and teach, 
but betraying the past whose guardians we ought to be.

University of Oxford


Rossos, Andrew. 2008. Macedonia and the Macedonians: A History. Stanford.

[[1]] The letter (accessed 10 July 2009), together with some additional 
documentation and a full list of signatories (which at the time this 
article was accepted for publication included well over 300 names) is 
freely accessible at http://macedonia-evidence.org/obama-letter.html.
[[2]] For a balanced and accessible survey of Macedonian history and the 
“Macedonian question” (written by a Greek Macedonian) see now Rossos 

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