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.