Macedonia: What’s in a Name?


It’s been a long time since I last wrote an article on Macedonia. Like most of the Greeks abroad, we carry Macedonia in our hearts, and back in my student days I campaigned on the issue. It was a constant feature of the Greek magazine we produced. However, I drifted from the campaign. It wasn’t until a recent visit to Thessaloniki from London in 2008 that the historian in me awoke from its slumber – like a great bear after a long sleep.

Should I be writing on Macedonia? It’s an emotive issue and I would merely be another Greek providing his thoughts on the matter. BUT I’m also a historian……and my job over the years has been to produce fact and ignore fiction, to produce a real account and consign myth to the storytellers. I do not want to offend the people to the north of Greece, however if I was a lawyer arguing a case to the Court, the following would be my closing statement.

Sitting at the airport in Thessaloniki, I thought about the beauty of this truly amazing city – a place of Byzantine and Ottoman monuments, the buzzing nightlife, the charm of the people and its proximity to the spectacular interior of Macedonia. This is the state and home of arguably the most famous Greek of all, the self-proclaimed ancient God and King, Megas Alexandros whose name seemingly creates controversy in the Balkans. So why is that, I ask?

Let us journey back to a time before border disputes and the invention of frappe. To a time of the Macedonians.

The Monarchy

The first King of Macedon was Perdicas. To the naked eye, your typical Greek sounding name. His dynasty was to be called the Argead, translating to the people from Argos (the Greek town and nemesis of Sparta in the Peloponnese). Perdicas’ reign was during the middle of the 8th century BC. According to tradition, Hercules was the forefather of the dynasty. The name Macedon means ‘tall people’ in the Doric Greek.

King Perdicas, just like this writer, had an affinity with the sun. The 16 pointed star of Vergina can be traced back to his reign and was a result of his settling in the region – appropriating land that was lit by the sun. The star of Vergina, is not only a Greek symbol from antiquity but it appears to have been used by FYROM in recent decades. It is always flattering to see the use of Greek symbols across the world. Usually it’s the ‘meandro’ however it is rare that Greek symbols are used on national flags (perhaps the ultimate tribute), thankfully the flag of FYROM has officially changed in recent years.

The early Macedonians settled around the rivers of Axius and Haliacmon, before expanding to the north. Macedonia and its immediate neighbour Epiros differed to most of the Greek speaking territories to the far south. It was an absolute monarchy and its dialect of the Greek language was different to that of the Athenians who viewed them as ‘uncouth.’ They also tended to veer from the politics of the Greek city-states.
This isolationist policy reaped its rewards, with the state gradually expanding under various kings until it held roughly the equivalent of today’s Macedonia in Greece. By the 4th Century BC it was an emerging power in the Greek world, and under Amyntas who died circa 370 BC, the state was unified and ready to conquer its neighbours to the north, the Paionians.

The Paionians are an interesting group. ‘Settled’ barbarians would have been an appropriate term and they occupied most of the territory of what is known as FYROM. Yes that is correct, the ancient name of FYROM was Paionia. This region, along with large areas in Illyria to the east and Thrace in the west, was conquered by one of the greatest generals in history. Philipos – otherwise known to us as Philip II of Macedon.

4th Century

Philip, was a genius in every sense. Not only did he conquer the neighbouring territories but he spread the Greek culture and language to the ‘barbarians,’ earned the wrath of Demosthenes in Athens, defeated the Athenians in diplomacy and battle, created the first ever professional military force based around the phalanx, indulged in bisexual activities (just to show what a true Greek he was) and unified most of Greece by 338BC after the battle of Chaeronea. He also devised the plans to invade Persia. This was his revenge for their invasion decades earlier and to free the Greek cities of Asia Minor.

Philip would most likely have gained the same pantheon in history as Alexander, his son, had he not been murdered in 336BC. The story of his murder is of no concern to us here, suffice to say it paved the way for Alexander, a Greek man claimed by FYROM as one of its own. In fact Alexander was to be revered by so many cultures and people at his death, however they were people and cultures that he had contact with during his lifetime.

There is no need to go into his achievements here except to say Megas Alexandros was born to an Epirote Princess and Macedonian father. Like all the monarchs before him, Alexandros spoke Greek, worshipped the Greek Gods, before deifying himself, claimed to be a descendent of Achilles and significantly spread Greek culture all over the known world. This last point is crucial. He did not spread Phoenician, Slavic, Latin or Icelandic culture. He spread the Greek culture – his own. He created 33 Hellenic cities with Greek sounding names.

The teacher of Alexandros was a man who can arguably be known as one of 10 greatest Greeks of all time. Aristotle. His philosophy that there are Greeks and then there are barbarians is true to his time. When people try to claim Alexandros as being Slavic, they should consider this point. Aristotle would never have taught a ‘barbarian.’ A barbarian to the Greeks was anyone not Greek. Interestingly, Aristotle was born in a town not far from Alexandros’ Pella. Aristotle was born and died a Macedonian (he only spent about 20 years in Athens). A poignant reminder of the Greek identity of Alexandros came when he sent a message to Athens after liberating the Greek cities of Asia Minor – that he was the King of and friend to his fellow Greeks, except of course the Spartans!

And on the subject of Gods, did you know that Mount Olympus is in Macedonia? My recollection of mythology points to the Greek Gods sitting on Mount Olympus – in Macedonia!

Hellenistic Age
The death of Alexandros in 323 BC ushered in a brilliant period known as the Hellenistic Age. By the nature of the term it is easy to work out that the epoch was Greek. How could this be? Alexandros’ empire was divided up by his generals. Ptolemy took Egypt founding the Ptolemaic dynasty ruling from Alexandria (305BC), Antigonus established the Antogonid dynasty in Greece ruling from Macedonia (306BC), Seleucus established the Seleucid dynasty in Syria and Mesopotamia (305BC), Philetaerus established the Attalid dynasty in Pergamon in Asia Minor (282BC). Each of these kingdoms was ruled by a Macedonian general, and they perpetuated the Greek culture and language. Had the ancient Macedonians not been Greek they would not have done this.
So back to Macedonia proper, it was conquered by the Romans in 146BC after extensive provacation by Philip IV, bringing an end to free Greece. Under the Roman hegemony, northern Greece was known as the province of Macedonia.
Byzantine Rule
With the transformation of the Roman empire to the Greek medieval empire of Byzantium in the east, Macedonia did not shine as brightly as it had done in antiquity. However, there were times that it produced a number of exceptional individuals who transformed the course of history. These names include Cyril (Constantine) and Methodius, the Greek brothers who were born in Thessaloniki. The brothers would become saints and are revered across the Balkans for spreading christianity to the new arrivals in the Balkans, the Slavs. Cyril and Methdodius dedicated their lives during the middle decades of the 800’s AD to spreading christianity and devising a new language based on Greek characters.
Byzantium’s greatest period was that known as the Macedonian Dynasty from 843 AD under emperor Michael until the late 11th Century AD. Whilst the ancient state of Macedonia had little correlation with the medieval Byzantine theme (province), it is poignant that the renaissance of the empire and certainly its final Greek re-awakening was named after Macedonia. Empress Irene had created the Macedonian ‘theme’ and some of its great emperors include Basil I and Basil the Bulgar slayer. Other notable Byzantines to have been born in Macedonia include Justinian and Belisarius.
Slavic Migration
During the 500’s AD the Slavs began the process of migration, continuing until the 700’s AD, settling in areas such as the former republics of Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Albania and even Greece. None of these people have any direct connection to Greece and it  important that they have their own identities. The people of FYROM were invariably linked to Bulgaria and Serbia. It wasn’t until early last century that they began agitating for the name Macedonia as a means to creating their own country. Before the coming of the Ottoman Turks, modern FYROM was a theme called Bulgaria and was at various times from the late 1200’s AD ruled by the growing power of Bulgaria and Serbia.
Tito, that so called benevolent ‘socialist’ of Yugoslavia, officially renamed southern Serbia, ‘Macedonia’ after World War II. The Greek government was either too busy drinking ouzo, or more realistically burdened by a civil war and the need to pander to Tito (the US wanted to placate Tito during the late 1940’s to neutralise him against Russia, so Greece would not have been ‘allowed’ to stir up diplomatic tensions). The majority of the territory of FYROM is on the site of ancient Paionia. Perhaps a change to this name should be considered, but hey its not as sexy as being connected to a handsome Greek king such as Alexandros!
Modern Times
Many who know me will realise that I do not vote for conservative governments. However, I have to acknowledge a proud moment in Greek politics (well before the recent riots), when conservative Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis told the world that he is a Macedonian, born in that state. He promised that a ‘false solution’ to the modern owenership of the name will never happen. Greece has given up so much over the years to placate its ‘Allies,’ but I know that they will stay true to history and protect the cultural heritage of Greece and that includes Macedonia, the premier state of Greece.
There are 2.7 million Greeks in Macedonia and a further 1.4 million worldwide. There are 2.04 million people in FYROM (a further 200 000 worldwide), however approximately 35% of the population is made up of Albanians, Serbians, Hungarians, Bulgarians, Vlachs, Greeks. It is estimated that within 2 generations the Albanians will be the dominant group of that country due to their high birth rates.
I stress that Greece must be a leader in the region and a friend to FYROM, no matter what the circumstances. Let’s hope there is a solution based on history, rather than name dropping – the Skopjian international airport is named after Megas Alexandros who has no Slavic connection whatsoever, hence causing offence to Greeks and historians alike. Surely they could have named it after one of their own!
So flying out from Macedonia Airport from the city that Casander had established in 316BC in honour of his wife, I realised that I had to present a case. I have chosen not to highlight the Greek ruins and churches, the fact that the people of ancient and medieval Macedon spoke Greek, were Greek, felt Greek and adhered to the Greek religion. I haven’t told you about the myriad of Greek artists, poets, leaders, visionaries from the past until the present. I have simply provided you with the a timeline of the Greek presence in the region and some of its most accomplished names. There is more to say, alas time restricts this activity. Your Honour, I remind you that Athens shone brightly for 2 centuries but it was the Macedonians who took the Greek culture and civilisation to a new level. Cultural preservation is what my ancestors want and that is what they will receive!


4 Comments Add yours

  1. Slavko says:

    Eugene Borza

    Who Were (and Are) the Macedonians?

    (Abstract from a paper presented at the 1996 Annual meeting of the American Philological

    This paper seeks to illuminate the problems associated with determining the ethnicity of the ancient Macedonians (were

    they Greek?), and to discuss the “reverberations” (to use the organizers’ term) of that issue in modem times. While the

    1971 OED may regard the use of the word “ethnicity” as obsolete, no adequate substitute for the word exists. Indeed,

    part of the discussion in my paper will, following the lead of Loring Danforth in his recent The Macedonian Conflict.-

    Ethnic Nationalism in a Transnational World (Princeton 1995), attempt to illustrate some principles by which the “ethnicity”

    of the ancient Macedonians–and, perhaps, other ancient peoples–can be discussed in a coherent manner.

    Among the questions asked as appropriate to a methodological model of determining ethnicity are:

    I. What were a people’s origins and what language did they speak? From the surviving literary sources

    (Hesiod, Herodotus, and Thucydides) there is little information about Macedonian origins, and the

    archaeological data from the early period is sparse and inconclusive. On the matter of language, and despite

    attempts to make Macedonian a dialect of Greek, one must accept the conclusion of the linguist R. A.

    Crossland in the recent CAH, that an insufficient amount of Macedonian has survived to know what language

    it was. But it is clear from later sources that Macedonian and Greek were mutually unintelligible in the court

    of Alexander the Great. Moreover, the presence in Macedonia of inscriptions written in Greek is no more

    proof that the Macedonians were Greek than, e.g., the existence of Greek inscriptions on Thracian vessels

    and coins proves that the Thracians were Greeks.

    II. Self-identity: what did the Macedonians say or think about themselves? Virtually nothing has survived

    from the Macedonians themselves (they are among the silent peoples of antiquity), and very little remains in

    the Classical and Hellenistic non-Macedonian sources about Macedonian attitudes.

    III. What did others say about the Macedonians? Here there is a relative abundance of information from

    Arrian, Plutarch (Alexander, Eumenes), Diodorus 17-20, Justin, Curtius Rufus, and Nepos (Eumenes),

    based upon Greek and Greek-derived Latin sources. It is clear that over a five-century span of writing in two

    languages representing a variety of historiographical and philosophical positions the ancient writers regarded

    the Greeks and Macedonians as two separate and distinct peoples whose relationship was marked by

    considerable antipathy, if not outright hostility.

    IV. What is the nature of cultural expressions as revealed by archaeology? As above we are blessed with an

    increasing amount of physical evidence revealing information about Macedonian tastes in art and decoration,

    religion, political and economic institutions, architecture and settlement patterns. Clearly the Macedonians

    were in many respects Hellenized, especially on the upper levels of their society, as demonstrated by the

    excavations of Greek archaeologists over the past two decades. Yet there is much that is different, e. g., their

    political institutions, burial practices, and religious monuments.

    I will argue that, whoever the Macedonians were, they emerged as a people distinct from the Greeks who lived to the

    south and east. In time their royal court–which probably did not have Greek origins (the tradition in Herodotus that the

    Macedonian kings were descended from Argos is probably a piece of Macedonian royal propaganda)–became

    Hellenized in many respects, and I shall review the influence of mainstream Greek culture on architecture, art, and literary


    Finally, a took at contemporary Balkan politics. The Greek government firmly maintains that the ancient Macedonians

    were ethnic Greeks, and that any claim by the new Republic of Macedonia (The Former Yugoslav Republic of

    Macedonia) to the name “Macedonia” and the symbols of ancient Macedonia is tantamount to an expropriation of Greek

    history. Moreover, it is claimed that there is no such thing as a distinct Slavic Macedonian identity and language separate

    from Bulgaria and Serbia.

    I shall review the evidence for the existence of a modern Macedonian ethnicity with reference to my recent work in a

    Macedonian ethnic community in Steelton, Pennsylvania. Both the gravestones in a local cemetery and U.S. census reports

    from the early twentieth century provide evidence that emigres from Macedonia who lived and died in Steelton in the early

    twentieth century considered themselves to be distinct from their Serbian and Bulgarian neighbors.

    I shall conclude with a summary showing how the present conflict between Greeks and Macedonians in the Balkans is

    characterized by both sides reaching back to antiquity to provide an often false historical basis to justify their respective

    modem positions: the theme of “reverberations” as mentioned by the organizers of the panel.

  2. Billy Cotsis says:

    Dear Eugene,

    I thank you for providing your input on the issue, however, please take into consideration the following quotes from some of the historians you mentioned followed by a few points:

    “For I (Alexander ) myself am by ancient descent a Greek, and I would not willingly see Hellas change her freedom for slavery.” (Herod. IX, 45, 2 [Loeb])

    “Tell your king (Xerxes), who sent you, how his Greek viceroy (Alexander I) of Macedonia has received you hospitably.” (Herod. V, 20, 4 [Loeb])

    The country by the sea which is now called Macedonia… Alexander, the father of Perdiccas, and his forefathers, who were originally Temenidae from Argos” (Thucydides 99,3 (Loeb, C F Smith)

    “The Macedonian people and their kings were of Greek stock, as their traditions and the scanty remains of their language combine to testify.”
    ` {John Bagnell Bury, “A History of Greece to the Death of Alexander the Great”, 2nd edition.(1913)

    “Clearly, the language of the ancient Macedonians was Greek” {Professor John C. Roumans Professor Emeritus of Classics Wisconsin University}

    The speech of Alexander I, when he was admitted to the Olympic games: “I am myself Hellene by descent, and I would not willingly see Hellas exchange freedom for slavery…. If you prosper in this war, forget not to do something for my freedom; consider the risk I have run, out of zeal for the Hellenic cause, to acquaint you with what Mardonius intends, and to save you from being surprised by the barbarians. I am Alexander of Macedon.” (Herodotus, The Histories, 9.45)

    Ancient writers considered Greek people to be Hellenes, that includes the Macedonians. I can not find any that does not believe that. Medieval writers shared the same opinion, but hey when a Macedonian tells you that they are Greek that is good enough for me. They also competed at the Olympic Games – open only to the Hellenes!!!!!!!!!!

    It is always difficult to debate an experienced academic but on the subject of Macedonia and as a person who has examined the facts for years, it becomes easy to do this.

    Consider also the following: a. there has been a continuation of (Macedonia) Greek presence since the 800’s BC, b. the finds and artefacts in the region clearly demonstrate the Greek civilisation, all archeologists use this type of evidence, c. the dialect of Macedonia was different to the dialect spoken in say the Cyrene, d. when I go to Crete the dialect is different to the Greek spoken in Cyprus, e. ancient Greece is not just about Sparta and Athens, the medieval Greek world is not just about Constantinople and Trebizond, f. If it can be proven that Aristotle of Macedonia was not Greek then the rest of them – Alexander, Cyril, Methodius, Basil the Bulgar Slayer to name a few were also not of Greek heritage.

    There are any number of flaws in the comment above mine but another that requires attention is the’constant state of hostilities’ between the Greece and Macedonia in antiquity. Please note that no unified Greece existed until Philip took control and the Greek regions were always fighting each other. So there is no such thing as Greece and Macedonia, its simply the Greek world and then the rest are barbarians.

    I could go on all day but the evidence clearly suggests the Greek heritage of Macedonia. Its almost like denying the Greek towns of Magna Gracia or Asia Minor – that to me would imply CULTURAL GENOCIDE.

    Thus, I do not intend any offence and enjoy the nature of the debate, however at the end of the day Macedonia was and is what history suggests – it was a Hellenic state. If Macedonia is not Greece then neither is Corinth, Thebes, Crete, Delphi and so on.

    Kind regards.

  3. Kleandros says:

    Why do you feel like responding to morons that copy paste their propaganda text?
    You don’t have to be a historian to know that Macedons are Greek.
    The best ways for a new king to advertise himself at his people was statues with his face or more importantly coins. The coins used in every day life had his face in the one side and his written name on the other. All Macedonian coins found till today have the name written in Greek which means that they spoke AND more importantly read Greek.

  4. Brendan says:

    I am a Scot, born and bred. Apart from during my military service, I have never lived anywhere other than Scotland. I am not English though, due to the vicissitudes of history, much of the world appears incapable of distinguishing between England and Britain and therefore has a habit of calling the Scots ‘English’. In like manner, during the existence of the Soviet Union, many different peoples (such as the Georgians, Latvians, Lithuanians, Estonians etc) were often called by the ill-informed ‘Russians’. That large numbers of people regularly make such mistakes does not make them true. That people who lack the historical and geographical knowledge to know better will believe any rubbish that governments might choose to tell them is not news to me. Why? Because my mother taught me to read before I was old enough to go to school. My earliest interests in reading were, and have continued to be for over fifty years, in history – both Scottish and Greek.

    Scotland is not, and never was, English.
    Macedon is, and always has been, Greek.

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