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 (
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
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
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
history. Moreover, it is claimed that there is no such thing as a distinct Slavic Macedonian identity and language separate
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
from the early twentieth century
provide evidence that emigres from
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.