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
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
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
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
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
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
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