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Alexander the Great – “FYROM’s” failed attempt to steal a Greek hero

The historical record is not on the side of Greece’s northern neighbor in its attempts to appropriate ancient Macedonian history as its own

1850 drawing by Athansios Iatridis depicting Alexander, Homer, Achilles, Constantine and Pyrrhus of Epirus.

Alexander the Great is not only the most famous figure in Greek history, but he is undoubtedly one of the most influential people who ever lived. His magnificent achievements have left behind a legacy so inspiring that even men such as Julius Caesar and Napoleon Bonaparte have sought to emulate the Macedonian king.

Of course, Alexander’s image has not only inspired imitation from some of history’s greatest figures, it has also been powerful enough to provoke the Bulgarians who lived in Ottoman Macedonia to build their entire nation upon the myth that they are his descendants. In this article we will therefore be reviewing the legacy of Alexander the Great and confirming a historical certainty: Alexander is a hero of the Greek nation and has been throughout the millennia, he has no historical relevance to the people of “The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia,” and he was only recently incorporated into their ethnic identity.

Alexander’s Pan-Hellenic Conquests

The greatest obstacle to “FYROM” establishing a historical connection with Alexander the Great is that his campaign against the Persians was not a personal one. Instead, it was waged on behalf of Greece itself. When Alexander left Europe and entered into Asia Minor in 334 BC, he had two official reasons for launching a campaign against the Persians. His primary intention was to punish the Persians for their invasion of Greece in 480 BC, though he also had the side objective of freeing the Greeks of Asia Minor from Persian rule. Alexander’s campaign was therefore presented as one for the benefit of all the Greeks and not solely for the glory of Macedon, for this reason it has traditionally been called a “Pan-Hellenic Crusade.”

There are a number of plausible factors that may have prompted Alexander to present his campaign in this manner and we can only speculate as to what was the deciding motivation. One possible reason is that Alexander’s tutor, Aristotle, was a Pan-Hellenist himself and believed that Greeks should stop fighting amongst themselves and instead unite in order to rule over the “inferior barbarians.” To quote Plutarch, Aristotle advised Alexander to “have regard for the Greeks as friends and kindred” but to treat non-Greeks “as though they were plants and animals.”

This quote exposes the laughable historical revisionism of “FYROM” which claims both “Aristotel” and “Aleksandar” as “ethnic Macedonians.” If these two were non-Greeks then Aristotle would effectively be informing Alexander that the two of them and their Macedonian countrymen were sub-human. Did Alexander share the Pan-Hellenic spirit of his mentor or were his reasons more personal?

Hercules in a lionskin. Alexander’s coinage shows the Macedonian king’s imitation of his ancestor.

Alexander’s desire to emulate the glory of his Greek ancestors Achilles and Hercules is well documented and he may have wanted to follow in their footsteps by serving as a champion of all the Greeks. Whatever his motivations, Alexander adopted his father’s plan to invade the Persians and framed it as a campaign that was for the benefit of all of Greece, not just his native Macedonia.
This is evident as Alexander treated every victory as a triumph for all of the Hellenes. For example, after Alexander’s first victory over the Persians, Plutarch writes that “he was anxious to give other Greek states a share in the victory.” He therefore sent 300 Persian shields back to Athens with the inscription that the spoils had been won by “Alexander and the Greeks..from the barbarians who dwell in Asia.”

Alexander the Great in lionskin. Alexander’s coinage shows the Macedonian king’s imitation of his ancestor.

The wording holds significance as “other Greek states” would imply that Macedon itself was a Greek state and not a separate nation as is claimed in “FYROM.” This is also supported by the fact that Alexander called his army “the Greeks” and used the term “barbarian” (a non-Greek) which would be a strange label for him to employ if he was not a Hellene himself. Later, Alexander fulfilled his intention of freeing the Greeks of Asia Minor, to quote Diodorus, “He was particularly generous to the Greek cities, granting them exemption from taxation, adding the assurance that the freedom of the Greeks was the object for which he had taken upon himself the war against the Persians.” Alexander therefore established himself as a benefactor to all of the Hellenes and his commitment to avenging the Persians on behalf of Greece was not breakable.

The Persian King Darius eventually made a generous proposal of peace to Alexander, offering him his daughter’s hand in marriage and half of his empire to rule as his own, Alexander refused and his response speaks volumes about his commitment to the Pan-Hellenic crusade. He informed Darius that “Your ancestors came to Macedonia and the rest of Greece and did us great harm, though we had done them no prior injury. I have been appointed leader of the Greeks, and wanting to punish the Persians I have come to Asia.” Alexander would not even consider Darius’ offer for peace as this would allow the Persians to escape from Greek vengeance that he had sworn to enact. The wording “Macedonia and the rest of Greece” clearly demonstrates that Alexander considered Macedonia to be part of Greece. Nobody would ever use the term “FYROM and the rest of Greece” as these are two separate nations. Alexander also called himself the “leader of the Greeks” and he would obviously need to be one of the Greeks himself if he was their representative.

Alexander was therefore certain that his campaign was a Greek one, and it is also worth noting that his Macedonian troops held the same belief. Before the Battle of Issus, Arrian reveals that Alexander rallied his Macedonians and their Greek allies by proclaiming that “There are Greek troops, to be sure, in Persian service — but how different is their cause from ours! They will be fighting for pay — and not much of at that; we, on the contrary, shall fight for Greece, and our hearts will be in it.” If the Macedonians were not Greek as “FYROM” revisionism claims, then calling on the Macedonians to fight for a foreign nation would be an appalling way of inspiring them before a decisive battle. Alexander is one of the greatest military leaders who has ever lived, so we can assume that he knew exactly how to motive his troops. He was clearly aware that the Macedonians were proud to be fighting on behalf of their fellow Greeks and even believed that this would give them an advantage over the Greek mercenaries in the Persian army who were fighting for pay as opposed to their homeland.

The Persians also recognized that they were being invaded by Greece. Before The Battle of Guagamela, Darius commented on the irony that “a short time ago we were actually invading the Greeks; now in our home we are trying to repel an invasion.” To quote Robin Lane Fox, the Persians called the Macedonians “Yona Takabara, the Greeks who wear shields on their heads,” this was a reference to the Macedonian kausia. The Persians had previously conquered the Macedonians and evidently knew of their nationality. Unfortunately for Skopje, modern Persians are also aware that their ancestors were conquered by Greece and not “FYROMians.”

Ian Worthington states that “The Zoroastrians in Iran are the descendants of the Persian’s from Alexander’s time…Michael Wood traveled to Yazd in the Great Salt Desert to meet them. When he asked about Alexander, one told him: “He may be the Great to the Greeks and to you Europeans, nut we call him a devil…he forcibly made our children marry Greeks to make them lost their identity.”

Alexander confronts Darius.

Alexander eventually sat on the Persian throne and in a passage from Plutarch, we learn that non-Macedonian Greeks also recognized him as the champion of all of the Hellenes. Demaratus, who was a Corinthian, “began to weep…and exclaimed that any Greek who had died before that day had missed one of the greatest pleasures in life by not seeing Alexander seated on the throne of Darius.” Alexander proceeded to fulfill his promise of avenging the Persians, he burned their capital of Persepolis to the ground as informed his Macedonian generals that “no city was more hateful to the Greeks than Persepolis, to appease the spirits of their forefathers they should wipe it out.” This demonstrates that, contrary to “FYROM” revisionism, Alexander considered his forefathers to be Greeks.

Overall, Alexander stands out as a Pan-Hellenist, more passionate and patriotic about Greece than many of his contemporaries. He conquered Asia in the name of all of Greece at a time when other Greek rulers showed little regard for affairs outside of their kingdom or poleis. For example, rather than fight for Greece alongside Alexander, the Spartan King Agis III refused to offer any support and rebelled against the Macedonians almost as soon as Alexander left for Asia. Alexander consequently endures as a resonant example of the unification of the Greek people and their achievements when united, it is absurd to say the least that a man whose achievements were made in the name of Greece could possibly be claimed by the non-Greek population of “FYROM.”

Alexander’s Legacy

In the centuries following his death, Alexander’s legacy began to emerge and this was obviously an inheritance that belonged to Greece. For example, the Roman historian Pliny the Elder wrote “in the reign of Alexander the Great, at a time when Greece was at the height of her glory, and the most powerful country in the world.” If the Macedonians were not Greek, then this quote would make no sense; Greece would have actually been one of the weakest nations in the world as it had been subdued by foreign Macedon. Pliny the Elder evidently considered Greece as the most powerful country in the world as Alexander the Great was a Greek and his empire was a Greek Empire.

The Bible even refers to Alexander’s Empire by this name, as Maccabees states that “Alexander enlarged the Greek Empire by defeating Darius and seizing his throne.” It is no surprise that Jewish scholars would have recognized Alexander as a Greek. After all, the Book of Daniel in the Old Testament predicted that a Greek king would destroy the Persian Empire. According to the Romano-Jewish scholar Flavius Josephus, “[a]nd when the book of Daniel was shewed him (Alexander), wherein Daniel declared that one of the Greeks would destroy the empire of the Persians, he supposed that himself was the person intended.” Here is irrefutable evidence not only that the Jews knew that the Macedonians were Greek but also that Alexander himself identified as a Greek.

“FYROMians” are clearly unable to reconcile their identity with Alexander as they would never see a prophecy about a Greek and believe that it related to one of them. We also find references in antiquity of the Greeks recognizing Alexander’s Empire as their own, Polubius wrote that Alexander “subjected Asia to the Greeks.”

Alexander’s position as a Greek hero continued all the way from antiquity into the early modern period. He was undeniably part of Greek identity during Ottoman rule, more so than any other figure from antiquity. To quote Hugh Bowden, my former professor at King’s College London, “O Megalexanderos continued to be known in Greece through centuries when knowledge of classical history and mythology was lost.”

Saint Sisois at the grave of Alexander.

Visual evidence of Alexander’s position as a Greek hero in Ottoman Greece is an icon from 1566 at the Varlaam monastery in Meteora. This depicts Saint Sisois at the grave of Alexander and reads “[τ]he great ascetic Sisois before the grave of the Greek king Alexander”. Even more interesting is a 1568 painting of Alexander at Mount Athos, which reads “βασιλεύς των Ελλήνων Αλέξανδρος” (Alexander King of the Greeks). “FYROM” irredentism claims that neither Alexander nor Mount Athos are Greek and instead historically belong to their nation, but this would clearly prove otherwise.

Icon depicting Alexander the Great, located at Mount Athos.

Alexander also appears as a Greek hero in numerous literary references. He notably appears in Francois Baron de Tott’s memoirs from 1785 reveal that he traveled with “Twenty-Two Macedonian” soldiers who “met in a tavern, where they sang the Victories of Alexander.” Unsurprisingly, this quote is promoted by “FYROM” revisionist who anachronistically assume that all historical references to “Macedonians” are a reference to their people. Such quotations conveniently ignore the fact that de Tott later refers to these Macedonians as “the Greeks.”

Alexander the Great depicted on the revolutionary pamphlets of Rigas Feraios.

Moving into the Greek Revolutionary period, Rigas Feraios’ revolutionary pamphlets from 1779 depicted Alexander the Great. These pamphlets were designed to inspire Greek patriotism for the revolution and there was obviously no better representation of Hellenism and its achievements than the Macedonian king. Alexander continued to be a source of inspiration for the Greeks well into the revolutionary period, an 1850 drawing by Athansios Iatridis depicts Alexander, Homer, Achilles, Constantine and Pyrrhus of Epirus with the words “Ζήτω η ελληνική αυτοκρατορία” (Hail to the Greek Empire).

1850 drawing by Athansios Iatridis depicting Alexander, Homer, Achilles, Constantine and Pyrrhus of Epirus.

Alexander’s descendants, the Greek Macedonians, were understandably reminded of the achievements of their famous ancestor when called upon to fight for Greek independence. A speech from “Odysseus, Commander of the Macedonians” appears in the British “Public Ledger and Daily Advertiser” on September 21, 1821. Titled as a “Greek Proclamation,” it calls on the “Macedonians! Greeks!…Children of Alexander…Greeks of every country, the eyes of the world are upon you.”

IMRO revolutionary pamphlet stating that membership is open to “any Bulgarian.”

Understandably, Alexander the Great did not play any role in the Slavic revolution for independence in Macedonia. This would be expected as the “FYROMians” were still identifying as ethnic Bulgarians at the time of their revolution. Far from depicting Alexander the Great, an IMRO revolutionary pamphlet reads that the association is open to “any Bulgarian, regardless of sex.” According to Klaus Roth, during their famous Illiden Rising “Bulgarian flags flew from house tops and the Bulgarian song “Makedonija, stara Bulgaria (Macedonia, old Bulgaria) was sung.” This is a far cry from today’s “FYROM” revisionism which would have us believe that they flew the Vergina Sun and sang to Aleksandar Makedonski.

Nikola Karev who is one of their most famous revolutionaries did briefly mention Alexander though this was merely to inform the Greek newspaper “The Acropolis” that “History says that he (Alexander) was Greek.” Ljubco Georgievski, who is the former Prime Minister of “FYROM,” summarized Alexander’s absence in the mind of their revolutionaries when he stated that “if we read the Macedonian (“FYROMian”) authors from the end of the 19th century until the start of the 20th century, the thesis of Alexander the Great is a thesis of the Greek propaganda in Macedonia…Doce Gelchev and Dame Gruev gave death sentences to those who “claimed that the blood of Alexander runs in us.”

Alexander in Ottoman Macedonia

Ljubco Georgievski, former prime minister of “FYROM” and a critic of “FYROM’s” appropriation of Alexander the Great.

Georgievski calls Alexander a piece of Greek propaganda, as he was used by the Macedonian Greeks as a reason for why Macedonia should be partitioned to Greece. Greece gained its independence in the 19th century, though Macedonia remained under Ottoman rule until 1913. Many nationalities lived in Ottoman Macedonia and on October 10, 1901, the “Morning Post” provided an exhaustive list of the Macedonian races. These were “Arnauts, Turks, Servians, Bulgarians, Armenians, Greeks, Spanish Jews, Wallachians and so forth.” No “ethnic Macedonians” existed and “FYROM” revisionists obviously have an impossible task in explaining how travelers to Ottoman Macedonia noted Armenians and Wallachians but somehow did not even bother to mention the supposed descendants of Alexander the Great.

The truth is that there were no “ethnic Macedonian,”, the Greeks were recognized as the original inhabitants of Macedonia and the descendants of Alexander whereas the “FYROMians” identified as Bulgarians. For example, the “Daily Telegraph” wrote on January 30, 1899 that “the term Macedonia is merely a conventional geographical name…there are no Macedonians properly so-called…By far the most numerous body of Christians are the Bulgarians. At least, they call themselves by this name….A third and most influential element of the population are the Greeks, who have managed to keep themselves afloat despite all the difficulties and dangers ever since the days of Phillip of Macedon.”

There was a recognition that the Ottoman Empire was on the verge collapse and therefore the Greeks, Serbians and Bulgarians of Macedonia were all campaigning for the region to become part of their respective fatherlands. The justifications given by the Greeks and Bulgarians are very revealing as the Greeks stated that Macedonia should belong to Greece because the original Macedonians, including Alexander, were Greek. The Bulgarians did not invoke Alexander at all and instead relied on different arguments, clearly confirming that Alexander is a Greek hero and has no place in FYROMian history.

Evidence to this point would be “The Daily Telegraph” wrote on January 3, 1896 that “The Serbs maintain that all Macedonian Slavs are Serbs and are dying to be annexed to the little kingdom of King Alexander: the Bulgarians aver that they are one and all good Bulgars and will never be happy till they are annexed to the Principality. The Greeks invoke the memory of Phillip of Macedon and Alexander the Great, and declare that common justice demands the restitution of Macedonia to Greece.”

The “Pall Mall Gazzette” on January 26, 1907 makes similar justifications when discussing who is the “master of Macedonia.” The Bulgarian justification is that “his Bulgarian forefathers have been slaves there for centuries” and the Greek justification is that “Alexander the Great was a Macedonian.”

One final example comes from a Texas-based newspaper, “The Wichita Daily Times” on October 25, 1912. This states that “The Macedonians are not a distinct nationality…The Bulgarians and Macedonians of Bulgarian stock are practically slaves and speak a sort of Russian…[t]he Greek Macedonians are troubled by having too much history. They will tell you that Macedonia ought to belong to Greece because Alexander the Great was a Macedonian. But the Bulgarians answer that all this is ancient history and that the graveyards do not vote”. Evidently, Greek Macedonians were identifying with Alexander whilst the ancestors of today’s “FYROMians” were calling him “ancient history” identifying as “Bulgarians” and being observed to speak a “sort of Russian.”

Miladinov collection of folklore clearing reading “Bulgarski” at the top.

“FYROMian” Folklore

Further evidence that Alexander has no place in FYROM’s history is a collection of their 19th century folklore. This was assembled by Dimitar and Konstantin Miladinov in 1861, men who are today labelled as “ethnic Macedonians.” Whilst it references various Serbian and Bulgarian rulers, it makes no mention whatsoever of Alexander the Great. It also contains a list of the 200 most popular male names and “Aleksandar” is not one of them. We should not be surprised at complete absence of Alexander as the Miladinov brothers, like all of their contemporary compatriots, identified as Bulgarians. The original name of their collection was “Bulgarski Narodni Pensi” (Bulgarian Folk Songs) though as part of the re-branding of their nation, name was altered when their work was re-published in Skopje in 1983.

To quote Chris Kostov, it was renamed as “The Collection of the Miladinov Brothers. The references to Macedonia in the original foreword as Western Bulgaria by Dimitar Miladinov were removed and other references to Bulgaria and Bulgarian language were replaced with Macedonia and Macedonian language.” In fact, Konstantin Miladinov explained that he called his country “West Bulgaria” and not “Macedonia” as being Macedonian was associated with being Greek: “I called Macedonia West Bulgaria because in Vienna the Greeks treat us like sheep. They consider Macedonia Greek land and cannot understand that Macedonia is not Greek.”

It is remarkable that Alexander identified as a Greek and the Miladinovs as Bulgarian yet somehow in “FYROM” all three of them are reconciled as “ethnic Macedonians”. Educated FYROMians obviously recognize the absurdity of the narrative being driven in their nation and to their credit, they speak out against it. For example, the Mayor of Skopje Petre Shilegov states that “Alexander the Great was never a part of our proper history. He was incorporated in our history in the past 10 years,” while former PM Kiro Gligorov states that “We are Macedonians but we are Slav Macedonians…We have no connection to Alexander the Great and his Macedonia.” Most recently, Professor Toni Deskoski accused revisionists of a “crazy attempt” to transform “the memory of a Slavic nation…into ancient Macedonia which was Greek.” If Alexander the Great was truly part of their inheritance then the older generation in “FYROM” who escaped the brainwashing would not be speaking out, no British person would ever claim that William Shakespeare or Henry VIII were not part of their history.

Greek Macedonian Folklore

Whilst Alexander is completely absent in “FYROMian” folklore, his position as a Greek hero is reinforced by a collection of Greek Macedonian folklore which dedicates an entire chapter to talks of Alexander and his father Phillip. This collection is simply known as “Macedonian Folklore” and was written by G.F Abbott in 1903. Abbott reveals that Alexander and Phillip are so ingrained in Greek Macedonian culture that random historical structures are assumed to belong to the Macedonian kings.

For example, Abbott writes that “On the way from Drama to Cavalla, and a little back from the road, stand the massive relics of an ancient gate, facing the ruins of Phillippi. This pile is known to the people by the name of “Alexander the Great’s Palace” (To Palati tou Megalou Alexandrou)” and that on“the Salonica-Serres railway line, there are some remnants of an old citadel, or fortress (Kastro), overlooking the ravine between the flanks of which the town is wedged. These ruins are assigned to King Phillip”. Abbot concludes that “under the popular designation of “Chap-book of Alexander the Great (Fyllada tou Megalou Alexandrou” Alexander “has long been, and still is, a favorite reading among the lower classes all over the Greek world.”

It is worth noting that Abbott states that a group besides the Greeks are also interested in the history of Alexander, these are not the Bulgarian ancestors of today’s “FYROMians” but rather the Turks. He states that “Both Turks and Greeks, and even the poorest peasants, are full of the history of Alexander.”

A Failed Attempt at Historical Theft

When the Bulgarians did eventually start claiming Alexander the Great and calling themselves Macedonians, the absurdity of these claims were noted. For example, on April 13, 1901, the “Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser” stated that “the Macedonian patriotic movement. It is really not Macedonian at all…[t]he men engaged in it are Bulgarians…[t]he Macedonians of ancient times were Greeks…the Greeks will have plenty of time in the meanwhile to recover the patrimony of Alexander the Great.”

Another example would be “The Huddersfield Daily Examiner,” which stated on October 5, 1915 that “[t]he Bulgarians have what may be called a Macedonian theory of their origin” and are claiming “the honor of being the descendants of Alexander the Great. To say there is no historical evidence of any such descent is to put it mildly, but it is deep-rooted in Bulgarian belief…Another legend has it that the great conqueror commanded his men in a dialect which was not Greek and was therefore undoubtedly Bulgarian.”

Colin Farrell as Alexander the Great, in the 2004 movie “Alexander.”

Fortunately for Greece and more importantly for historical justice, people were not fooled in the early 20th century and they still are not today. “FYROMians” may call themselves Macedonians, fly the Vergina Sun and build expensive statues, but international perception has not changed. Alexander remains a Greek hero. 376 international scholars from the world’s top universities have signed a letter to Barack Obama denouncing “FYROM” and stating that Alexander the Great, and the perception of Alexander as a Greek also continues to manifest at a mainstream level. Wikipedia lists Alexander as a “king of the ancient Greek kingdom of Macedon,” the 2004 film “Alexander” clearly portrays the Macedonians as Greeks, and the Iron Maiden song “Alexander the Great” has the lyrics “near to the East, in a part of ancient Greece, in an ancient land, called Macedonia.”

Recent news articles about the name dispute between Greece and “FYROM” also side with Greece in relation to Alexander. Fox News has an article stating that “Macedonia removes ancient Greek king’s statue from airport”, the “Chicago Tribune” states that Greek Macedonia is the “home of Alexander the Great, one of the most famous ancient Greek rulers”, the BBC states that “[a]irports, motorways and sports stadiums were renamed in honour of Alexander the Great and his father Phillip – Greek heroes recast as Macedonian,” and “The Guardian” reads that “[t]he protests organised by the “We are Macedonia” movement gathered under a statue of the Hellenic ruler Alexander the Great in Skopje’s main square.”

These examples demonstrate that whilst “FYROM” may have taken the Macedonian name, they have absolutely no claim to Alexander, he is internationally recognized as belonging to Greece.

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