Friday, January 09, 2009

The Hellenicity of the “barbarian” Macedonians

Parts of the Phillip ivory shield that found in Vergina Tomb. You can see clearly the two Pan-Hellenic symbols in ancient Greece: The 16th Sun/Star(Vergina Sun) and the Meander(Greek key). The shield itself can be found in the museum of Vergina in Central Macedonia of Greece


The invention of a barbarian antitype provided a completely new mechanism for defining the Hellenic identity. During the Archaic period, Hellenic self-definition was ”aggregative”. That is to say, it was constructed by evok­ing similarities with peer groups which were then cast in terms of ficticious kin relationships within the 'Hellenic Genealogy'. Hellenicity was defined contrary through differential comparison with a barbarian out-group. At this point, however, some qualification is necessary. By oppositional self-definition, Jonathan Hall means simply that perceived differences served as a basis for the construction of a specifically Hellenic identity. [1]

Hall argues at greater length in his books and articles in the 5th century, mainly as a consequence of the Persian Wars, the definition of Greek identity evolved from an “aggregative” no inclusive conception based on fictitious descent from the eponymous Hellen and expressed in forged genealogies (which may leave outside not only Macedonians and Magnetes, but also other goups such as Arcadians or Aitolians) into an “oppositional” one, turned against out-groups, relegating thus (fictitious) community of blood to the same level –if not to an inferior one (vide infra)– as linguistic, religious and cultural criteria. (In this perspective there is not much sense in opposing a putative compact, homo­geneous and immutable “Greekness” to the contested identities of groups such as the Aitolians, Locrians, Acarnanians, Thesprotians, Molossians, Chaones, Atintanias, Parauaians Orestians, Macedonians)

The Greek tribes quickly noticed that they did not speak the same tongue as their neighbours, and used the term "βάρβαρος" ("barbarian") for them, with the meanings "uncultured", "uncivilized" or "speaker of a foreign language". The term βάρβαρος is thought to be onomatopoeic in origin: "bar-bar"—i.e. stammering—may have been how the speech of foreign peoples sounded to Greek speakers. [2]


According to several ancient writers named as barbarians all those who spoke a different tongue [Polybius, "History", 9-38-5; Strabo, "Geographica", 7-7-4; Herodotus, "Histories", book I, 56 and II, 158]

Discrimination between Hellenes and barbarians lasted until the 4th century BC. Euripides thought it plausible that Hellenes should rule over barbarians, because the first were destined for freedom and the other for slavery.[ Iphigeneia at Aulis, 1400 ]

Aristotle came to the conclusion that "the nature of a barbarian and a slave is one and the same".[Republic,I,5]

Aristophanes calls the illiterate supervisor a "barbarian" who nevertheless taught the birds how to talk.["The Birds", 199] The term eventually picked up a derogatory use and was extended to indicate the entire lifestyle of foreigners, and finally coming to mean "illiterate" or "uncivilized" in general. Thus "an illiterate man is also a barbarian".[The Clouds, 492 ]

According to Dionysius of Halicarnassus (1st cent BC), a Hellene differed from a barbarian in four ways: refined language, education, religion, and the rule of law. In more detailing defined Hellenicity yas speaking the Greek language, having a Greek way of life, acknowledging the same gods and having fitting, reasonable laws. [Roman Antiquities, 1, 89, 4]

Isocrates declared in his speech Panegyricus: "So far has Athens left the rest of mankind behind in thought and expression that her pupils have become the teachers of the world, and she has made the name of Hellas distinctive no longer of race but of intellect, and the title of Hellene a badge of education rather than of common descent."[Panegyricus, 50]

Racial differentiation faded away through the teachings of Stoics, who distinguished between nature and convention and taught that all men have equal claim before God and thus by nature cannot be unequal to each other. In time, Hellene, to use the words of Isocrates, became a trait of intellect, not race.

Alexander the Great's conquests consolidated Greek influence in the East by exporting Greek culture into Asia and permanently transformed education and society in the region.

Greek education became identified with noble upbringing. Paul of Tarsus (a non Greek) considered it his obligation to preach the Gospel to all men, "Hellenes and barbarians, both wise and foolish".[Epistle to the Romans, 1, 14 ]


The beginnings of Macedonian history are shrouded in complete darkness. There is keen controversy on the ethno­logical problem, whether the Macedonians were Greeks [3] or not [4]. Linguistic science has at its disposal a very limited quantity of Macedonian words, and the archaeological ex­ploration of Macedonia has hardly begun. And yet when we take into account the political conditions, religion and morals of the Macedonians, our conviction is strengthened that they were a Greek race and akin to the Dorians. Having stayed behind in the extreme north, they were unable to participate in the progressive civilization of the tribes which went further south, and so, when in the time of the Persian Wars they emerged on the horizon of the other Greeks, they appeared to them as non-Greeks, as barbarians.

When Alexander I of Macedon, who, though a vassal of Xerxes, had in the Persian War given many proofs of his sympathy with the Greek cause, desired to take part in the Olympic Games, to which only Hellenes had access, he was at first refused as a barbarian, and it was only when by a bold fiction he traced back the pedigree of his house, the Argeadae, to the Heraclid Temenus of Argos, that he was admitted as a competitor. Since then the kings of Mace­donia passed with the Greeks as Hellenes, and as descend­ants of Heracles; but, as before, so afterwards, the people were regarded as barbarianseven by Isocrates in his 'Philip'though in the meantime many kings had done much for the introduction of Greek culture into their country. Even in Philip's day the Greeks saw in the Macedonians a non-Greek foreign people, and we must remem­ber this if we are to understand the history of Philip and Alexander, and especially the resistance and obstacles which met them from the Greeks. The point is much more important than our modern conviction that Greeks and Macedonians were brethren; this was equally unknown to both, and therefore could have no political effect. [5]

Quite apart from the local separation of the two peoples, the barbaric impression which the Macedonians made on the Greeks is explained by the close relationship in which the Macedonians lived for centuries with their barbarian neighbours, the Illyrians in the West, and the Thracians in the East. A strong Illyrian and Thracian influence can thus be recognized in Macedonian speech and manners. These however are only trifles compared with the Greek character of the Macedonian nationality; for example, the names of the true full-blooded Macedonians, especially of the princes and nobles, are purely Greek in their formation and sounds. [6]

Above all, the fundamental features of Macedonian poli­tical institutions are not only Greek but primitive Greek, a Homeric Greek. The old patriarchal monarchy over people and army lasted here down to the days of Philip and Alexander, a monarchy such as had once existed in all Greek tribes, until it had to give way to aristocratic forms of government under the dissolving influence of the Polis. One of the factors which explain the tenacious retention of the old monarchy is that the progressive idea of the Polis had not entered Macedonia. Another point is that the power of the king, who was supreme general, judge and priest, was tem­pered by the fact that the old Greek community in arms, in whose eyes the king was primus inter pareswhich had once existed in primitive times among the Greeksmain­tained itself down to Alexander's day, and beyond, in the assembly of the army, which was possessed of definite privi­leges. But the Argeads were not at first lords of the whole Mace­donian nation. Originally the tribes of Upper Macedonia, the Lyncestae, Orestae and Elimiotae had their own princes or kings. Tedious struggles were necessary to incor­porate them into the Macedonian state, and it is likely that the mediatisation of these princely houses was only com­pleted under Philip, by whose hand the unified Mace­donian state was thus constituted. [7]


Jonathan Hall proceeds to a penetrating analysis of the shifting definitions of Hellenicity in Herodotus, Thucydides and Isocrates, our main sources for the evolution of the concept in the Classical period. About Thucydides in particular he writes that, contrary to Herodotus, he did not view Greeks and barbarians “as mutually exclusive categories” but as “opposite poles of a single, linear continuum”. Thus, the inhabitants of north-western Greece “are ‘barbarian’ not in the sense that their cultures, customs, or behavior are in direct, diametrical opposition to Greek norms but rather in the sense that their seemingly more primitive way of life makes them “Hellènes manqués”. [8] [9]

Hall challenges the view that Macedonia was marginal or peripheral in respect to a Greek centre or core, for the simple reason that such a Greek hard core never existed, since “‘Greekness’ is constituted by the totality of multifocal, situationally bound, and self-conscious negotiations of identity not only between poleis and ethne but also within them”, and because a view such as this “assumes a transhistorically static definition of Greekness” [10]

Jonathan Hall in his conclusions affirm the doubts about the possibility of answering the question concerning the “nationality” of the ancient Mace­donians. “To ask whether the Macedonians ‘really were’ Greek or not in anti­quity“, he writes, “is ultimately a redundant question given the shifting semantics of Greekness between the sixth and fourth centuries B.C. What cannot be denied, however, is that the cultural commodification of Hellenic identity that emerged in the fourth century might have remained a provincial artifact, confined to the Balkan peninsula, had it not been for the Mace­donians” [11]

There is also one more element which confirms the Hellenicity of the Macedonians. The epigraphic evidence of recent decades has also yielded a vast number of personal names. These are not only purely Greek from the very start, but also have a distinct local character which precludes the possibility of their being borrowed from the colonies on the coast. Epigraphic data of capital linguistic interest which have become available only after the Center of Hellenic Studies Colloquium of 1997 from Professor Miltiadis Hatzopoulos and important recent monographs and articles which seem not to have been accessible in the United States, if known, would have provided additional arguments and prevented some minor inaccuracies. [12]

Other epigraphic unique evidence are the “theorodokoi” catalogues which precisely list the Greek states (among them and Macedonia) visited by the theoroi, the sacred envoys, of the Pan-Hellenic sanctuaries and invited to participate through official delegations in sacrifices and contests celebrated in those sanctuaries. [13]


The question “Had the Macedonians an Hellenic consciousness ?” or "Were the Macedonians Greeks ?" perhaps needs to be chopped up further. The Macedonian kings emerge as Greeks by namely shared blood, and personal names indicate that Macedonians generally moved north from Greece. The kings, the elite, and the generality of the Macedonians were Greeks by criteria of religion and language. Macedonian customs were in certain respects unlike those of a normal polis, but they were compatible with Greekness, apart, perhaps, from the institutions which I have characterized as feudal. The crude one-word answer to the question has to be "yes."

[1]- Jonathan Hall, Hellenicity, 2002, page 179
[2]- Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition, 1989, "barbarous"
[3]- Ulrich Wilcken in “ Ancient Greek History” and in “Alexander The Great” - N.G.L. Hammond, Wallbank and Errington in three volumes “History of Macedonia”- Ian Worthington in his last book “Philip of Macedonia” e.t.c.
[4]- E. Badian, “Greeks and Macedonians”, in Beryl Bar-Sharrar – E. N. Borza (eds.), Macedonia and Greece in Late Classical and Early Hellenistic Times and in “Herodotus on Alexander I of Macedon: A Study in some Subtle Silences”, in S. Hornblower (ed.), Greek Historiography,-E. N. Borza, in “the Shadow of Olympus” and in “The Emergence of Macedon”.
[5]- Volume “Macedonia: 4000 years of Greek History”, article from Sakellariou
[6]- Jean Kalleris, Les Anciens Macedoniens. Etude linguistique et historique
[7]- Ulrich Wilcken in “Ancient Greek History”, Greek edition, page 213
[8]- Irad Malkin (editor), Ancient Perceptions of Greek Ethnicity, Harvard Univeristy 2001, Contested Ethnicities: Perceptions of Macedonia within Evolving Definitions of Greek Ethnicity, page 169-172
[9]- Miltiadis Hatzopoulos, Macedonian Identities, Patakis publishing, 2008, Contested Ethnicities: Perception of the self and the other: the case of Macedon, page 51
[10]- Irad Malkin (editor), Ancient Perceptions of Greek Ethnicity, Cambridge, Mass. and London 2001, Contested Ethnicities: Perceptions of Macedonia within Evolving Definitions of Greek Ethnicity, page 166
[11]- Irad Malkin (editor), Ancient Perceptions of Greek Ethnicity, Cambridge, Mass. and London 2001, Contested Ethnicities: Perceptions of Macedonia within Evolving Definitions of Greek Ethnicity, page 172
[12]- Miltiadis Hatzopoulos in “Macedonian institutions under the kings,1996” and Giannis Xydopoulos “ Social and cultural relations of Macedonians and the other Greeks, 2006”
[13]- Miltiadis Hatzopoulos, Macedonian Identities, Patakis publishing, 2008, Contested Ethnicities: Perception of the self and the other: the case of Macedon, page 55

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