Friday, July 03, 2009

Was Alexander the Great a Slav?


This is a row I really don't get. Over the last few years FYROM (the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia) has been investing heavily in Alexander the Great. FYROM's main airport is now called "Alexander the Great Airport" (better than "John Lennon" or "Bob Hope" airports, you might think). A vast statue of Alexander (eight storeys high, apparently) is planned for the centre of Skopje. And the word on the street is that Alexander was a Slav.

This seems to me to be at best rather touching. It's nice to think that there is still enough symbolic life in this drunken juvenile thug that someone wants him for their nation. At worst, it is faintly silly. The antecedents of Alexander are a bit murky, but in truth there isn't a cat in hell's chance that he was a Slav. I can see also that it could be a bit annoying to some Greeks who might want to try to claim Alexander for themselves (this is a better claim than the Slavic one, but not exactly cast iron).

But what on earth has persuaded over 300 classical scholars (several of whom are good friends of mine) to sign a letter to President Obama (copy to Mrs Clinton et al.) asking him to intervene personally to clear up this FYROM historical travesty.

I hope Obama has got some more important wrongs to right. But supposing that he has had a minute to look at this missive, I trust that he won't be won over by the outraged arguments.

Alexander_the_great_biography The territory of FYROM, they point out, is more strictly that of ancient Paionia, not Macedonia (fair enough, but so what -- we dont stop Northern Ireland calling itself part of Great Britain, even though it wasn't part of ancient Britannia). The other arguments in the letter are decidedly dodgier, and not the kid of thing that the learned signatories would (I hope) give high marks to in an undergraduate essay.

There is the usual stuff about how Alexander's ancestors must have been Greek as they competed in the Olympic Games (in fact there was originally some dispute at the time about whether they were, or were not, Greek enough to qualify). But the worst argument is the claim that 'the Macedonians traced their ancestry to Argos", and so were bona fide, not FYROM-style, Greeks. Well of course the Macedonians said that. It was a convenient and self-serving MYTH, no truer than the Athenians' claim that they were born from the soil of Athens.

By putting their names to this rubbish, I cant help feeling that my friends are stooping to exactly the kind of nationalsm that they are trying to oppose. If you really wanted to undermine the Macedonian claims, wouldn't it be better (and academically more credible) simply to laugh at them and just refuse to take them seriously?

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