Greekistic Western Authors and Macedonian History

By Victor Bivell

This is an edited version of the speech to launch the book, Ancient History of Macedonia and the Balkans According to Western Authors, by Janko Tomov, in Sydney on 24 September, 2006.

In recent weeks I've watched an excellent BBC documentary about Carthage and how it was completely destroyed by Rome. The rivalry between these two dominant powers in the western Mediterranean eventually led to a comprehensive victory by Rome where the Roman army totally dismantled Carthage brick and stone by brick and stone and even ploughed salt into the fields so the city would never rise again. As well as the human and cultural genocide, Rome mounted a propaganda campaign to discredit the Carthaginians which influenced the way Carthage has been presented in history. Even today, much of what we know about Carthage comes through its enemy and conqueror.

Watching the program, I was struck by the many similarities between Carthage and Macedonia. Carthage and Macedonia for a while were allies against Rome and both were defeated by it. Although it may seem that Rome was perhaps not quite as merciless with Macedonia, Macedonia was completely changed after its defeat: its territory was divided, great numbers of Macedonians sent to other parts of the empire, and great looting saw enormous booty brought to Rome. Little survived of the original kingdom.

Carthage and Macedonia were not literary cultures, and did not leave a body of writing about themselves. Or if they did it has not survived. Their history has been written by other cultures, and much of what we know about them comes from their enemies. In Macedonia's case, much of our knowledge comes from the ancient Romans, who defeated it, and the ancient Greeks, who were rivals with the ancient Macedonians for power in the eastern Mediterranean until Macedonia conquered Greece and ruled it for almost 200 years. Neither the Romans nor the Greeks were what modern historians would call ideal or objective observers. Nor at the time did history as an objective academic discipline exist in the way that modern people understand it.

This lack of an ancient Macedonian perspective on ancient Macedonia is a huge impediment to understanding the country and people.

However, there is one crucial difference between the Macedonians and Carthaginians. There are modern Macedonians. Not only do they exist but they are able to write their own history, take a Macedonian perspective on history, and critique other people's history of Macedonia from a Macedonian point of view.

Such is the role of Janko Tomov's book, Ancient History of Macedonia and the Balkans According to Western Authors.

The book takes a detailed look at how ancient Macedonia and the ancient Macedonians are presented by some Western historians and authors. Unfortunately, the view is not pretty. The book outlines a host of propositions and descriptions of ancient Macedonia and the ancient Macedonians that are highly debatable and often contentious and controversial; that are presented as fact when they are far from it; that ignore alternative evidence and points of view and lack academic rigour; and are self serving on the part of those who write them so that they resemble wishful thinking or propaganda more than academic theories, hypotheses and speculations.

Most of the contentious and controversial assertions are based around the idea that the ancient Macedonians were not a separate people but were a part of the ancient Greeks, and that the heritage of Macedonia is not separate but should be classified under ancient Greece.

Let's look at some examples. And let's start where there is the greatest concentration of contentious Western history - the period of Alexander the Great.

In the book History of Ancient Greece, the author Nathaniel Harris describes Alexander's expedition to Asia as a ‘Greco-Macedonian expedition'. Janko points out that it is not correct to give the Greeks such prominence with the Macedonians as the Greeks were a minority in the army compared to the Macedonians, and the expedition also had many Thracians, Illyrians and even some Jews. And on the other side, tens of thousands of Greeks fought for the Persian army against the Macedonians but Harris does not call this a Greco-Persian army.

Janko asks how can it be that a supposedly Greek army was fighting against thousands of Greeks in the Persian army? He quotes the classical scholar Aubrey de Selincourt translating Arrian about the battle of Issus: "When Darius heard that Alexander was coming to attack, he sent another thirty thousand mountain-brigade soldiers and twenty thousand light foot soldiers over the river Pindarus... The distribution of his army was like this: The best of his very heavy foot soldier brigades were his thirty thousand Greek professional soldiers, who were immediately opposite the Macedonian foot soldier brigade, and sixty thousand soldiers of the Persian heavy foot soldiers brigade, known as ‘Cadaki', who were distributed to the side and who were there to give them help..."

Janko also points out the absurdity of calling it a Greco-Macedonian army when there was well-known enormous hatred between Greeks and Macedonians. Arrian wrote "Very heavy fighting started. Darius' Greeks were fighting purposefully to push the Macedonians back to the river and to take the position of their own left wing who had started to retreat...The clash was much more bitter thanks to the old classical rivalry between Greeks and Macedonians."

Thousands of Greeks fought with the Persians and against Alexander in all three of the major battles between Alexander and the Persians: the Battle of the Granicus, the Battle of Issus, and the Battle of Gaugamela.

The sloppy thinking around the hypothesis that Alexander spread Hellenism is also challenged. Janko writes ‘Alexander the Great of Macedon was specially credited with the spreading of Macedonian culture. It is understood that in his army he had Greeks, Thracians and those belonging to other nations, and in that way he was spreading part of their culture into Asia, but it is very wrong to write that he was spreading only ‘Greek' culture." He was spreading Balkan culture - Macedonian, Greek and Thracian. Yet an author such as Bernard Randall in Alexander the Great can write "Alexander had spread Hellenistic culture to every corner of his empire." As Hellenistic is a mixture of Macedonian and Greek influences, this ignores the influences that were purely Macedonian and the influences that were neither Macedonian nor Greek.

Another example of bias is the use of the term ‘Hellenistic Period'. In The British Museum Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Ancient Greece, when Sean Sheehan writes about the ‘Hellenistic Period' "he says that later Macedonia under Roman occupation became ‘Greece' even though that state as such did not exist in that time", and many Greek city-states had been under Macedonian occupation.

Sheehan is also criticized for writing "The Hellenistic age came to an end with the death of a famous queen in 30 BC. She was Cleopatra VII, the last Ptolemaic (that is Greek) ruler of Egypt." Janko calls this a fabrication, saying it is well known that Cleopatra was Macedonian, and that more serious Western writers clearly highlight the Macedonian ethnic ancestry of Ptolemy and Cleopatra.

Janko's book also takes issue with the hypothesis that King Philip ‘united the Greeks'. He refers to the author Wilcken who, quoting an older German author Drysden, claimed that Philip II was a ‘uniter of Greece'. Janko says "It is well known that Philip II was at war with Greeks, but not that they came to agreement and willingly accepted ‘unification'." To all intents and purposes, he imposed slavery on them and took the Greek city-states under his control. To say that he united them is like saying that in 1941 Hitler united a large part of Europe.

Janko's book also makes the excellent point how the terms Greek, Greeks and Greece are used retrospectively and therefore incorrectly. "This is the same as when someone writes that for example King Justinian was born in ‘Yugoslavia' (a state which was made much later on the land where he was born) or that the leader of the Roman slave uprising Spartak was born in ‘Bulgaria' (only because he was born in Thrace, on which territory the state of Bulgaria was later established) etc. Retroactively using the term ‘Greek' for the period in which it didn't exist, suggests to the reader the existence of very old Greek culture etc and this is absolutely incorrect. ‘Yugoslavia' and ‘Bulgaria' do not merit being called the birthplaces of Justinian and Spartak, and Greece and Greeks do not merit ownership of civilization that existed on today's territory of Greece. But we are noticing that for a lot of authors this basic logic and laws of nature are not being followed."

Similarly, Janko criticizes Sheehan for saying that "In the 4th century BC, Macedon in Northern Greece..." when "it is not clear why this state is located in ‘northern Greece'? In that time there was no northern or southern or any ‘Greece', only Macedonia. Macedonia was the first centralised unified state in Europe and really it is not right when it is presented ‘as part of Greece'."

Another example is David Nasmyth who, in the book Who was Alexander the Great? writes "Alexander the Great became King of Macedonia, the most powerful state in Greece, in 336 BC." Janko says Nasmyth is ‘ill-informed" and makes fun of this statement by saying Nasmyth could have written that "Alexander the Great became King of Macedonia - the most powerful state in Yugoslavia, in 336 BC" or "Alexander the Great became King of Macedonia - the most powerful state in the Ottoman Empire, in 336 BC." Yugoslavia and Bulgaria both ruled Macedonia but much later, and the same happened with Greece, which became a state in the nineteenth century.

The retrospective use of the terms Greece and Greek are even used to describe times and places that predate the Greek era. Janko quotes the 1990 book History of the World: Prehistoric and Ancient Europe, which has a section on The Bronze Age Civilization of the Greek Inland. Janko questions the use of the term ‘Greek Inland' in the Bronze Age, saying the author could be right in that it is about the Bronze Age on today's territory of Greece, but instead it suggests to the reader that ‘Greek land' existed in the Bronze Age even though the Greek state was established only in the nineteenth century. This impression extends to the use of a map of the Bronze Age with the word Greece on it, giving an incorrect view of what the Bronze Age looked like as Greece did not exist in that time.

Another example is the 2001 book The Oxford Illustrated History of Prehistoric Europe, which talks about the "Neolithic way of life in Greece", even though Greece did not exist in the Neolithic era. Nor does the book mention Macedonia. Evidence of bias is also on page 139 where the author mentions all of the current countries in the Balkans except Macedonia, which is mentioned as "Skopje". Janko asks "How can an author give recognition to a modern country's capital city and not write its name?" He says this is a very serious omission and very clear evidence that "this subjective author" is under the influence of Greek propaganda.

The language of the ancient Macedonians is also misrepresented by some western authors. Janko quotes the book Leaders of Ancient Greece, Alexander the Great - Macedonian King and Conqueror, where the author Bernard Randall makes the nonsensical statement that "The Macedonian language was related to Greek, but Macedonian southern neighbours would not have understood it."

Nor do the names of the ancients escape misrepresentation. Janko writes that in ancient times the names of "persons like Philip II (today called by the Greeks, Philipos), Ptolemy (Ptolemais), Aristotle (Aristoteles), Kasandar (Kasandros) and many other famous historical figures" from Macedonia are found in original spellings, made from Macedonian or in the Koine language, and are not Graecized. They can't be reduced. An example is a coin from the time of King Philip II which shows above the horse and head in Koine ‘Filip' and not Philipos.

So too, sometimes, Alexander or Aleksandar is incorrectly presented in the Greek version as Alexandros. An example is Mary Renault in Fire From Heaven.

Janko says the western public, and primary, secondary and university students are being poisoned "by unthinking, ill-informed and irresponsible individual authors writing in connection with Macedonian history."

The problem grew with the establishment of the modern Greek state in the 1820s when "foreign authors started to adopt the ‘Greek' slant on history, and started to use indistinct terms like ‘Ancient Greece' (even though that state never existed); the ‘Greek Peninsula' (instead of the Balkan Peninsula); ‘Greek letters' (even though the letters were known to be Phoenician); ‘Greek mythology' (even though this mythology belonged to all Balkan nations and other more distant counties) etc."

But not all of the errors and bias are deliberate. Authors have often worked from previously published materials with long-existing errors and failed to consult the latest work in areas such as archaeology, historiography and linguistics before writing.

There is also some positive change. "Some modern scholars and historians are being liberated step by step from the delusion or the error of their own colleagues with the help of new discoveries and new interpretations of today's well-known facts, and they tell that there were other nations from whom the Greeks adopted cultural components which later appeared to be and were presented as ‘Greek'."

Many western academics are well-informed and thoughtful, are aware of the dangers around a Greek-centric view, and write objectively and in a way that is balanced and fair to Macedonia. So it would have been useful for the book to provide more quotes from these authors as examples of good writing and scholarship.

The Ancient History of Macedonia and the Balkans According to Western Authors is a very interesting and thought provoking read. We need more authors like Janko who are not afraid to challenge the sloppy thinking or deliberate bias of many Western authors including those from established institutions such as Oxford and Cambridge Universities.

Along with the many western academics who write objectively, academics in the Republic of Macedonia are also awake to the issues and some of their works are in English. There are also a growing number of Macedonians in the diaspora who are writing books in English that challenge the Greek and Greek-centric view of history. But it's a big job, and meeting the challenge needs more authors and more books.


© Copyright 2006