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The Sun of Vergina, found in a tomb near Pydna. Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki (Greece). Photo Jona Lendering.

Ancient Macedonia

Macedonia: ancient landscape and state, situated in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and northern Greece, best known because its king Alexander the Great (336-323) conquered the Persian Empire and inaugurated a new period in Greek history. 




The study of ancient Macedonia is bedeviled by the Macedonian question. Scholars from modern Greece and the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia have made bold statements on the nature of ancient Macedonia, which in their more extreme variants can be summarized as "the ancient Macedonians spoke a Slavic language" and "Macedonia has been Greek for at least 3,000 years". Unfortunately, politicians in both nations argue (with a textbook example of a non sequitur) that the borders of the past should also be those of the present.

Of course, modern politics can not be based on ancient history. Scholars who allow themselves to be used for political purposes, overestimate the importance of their field of study. They also force others to digress longer and more often than they like on the relation between ancient Macedonia, the Slavs, and Greece, which must therefore be the leitmotiv of this article too. Those interested in the origin of the debate, can read the appendix.

Country

Macedonia as a whole consists of two parts:
  1. The fertile alluvial plain, watered by the rivers Haliacmon and the Axius, simply called Macedonia (or Lower Macedonia, to prevent confusion). It is situated immediately north of the holy mountain Olympus. In Antiquity, the plain produced sufficient cereals to permit export, but it was also rich in cattle, sheep, and remarkably strong horses. The coast is flat and there are only a few natural harbors, which helps to explain why the Macedonians never became a sea-faring nation.
  2. The mountains, usually called Upper Macedonia. There were arable tracts but the country was predominantly pastoral. Its forests produced pitch and especially timber, there was some iron and gold mining, and hunters made sure that Macedonia could also export furs.
Today, Lower Macedonia is completely within the borders of modern Greece; the northern part of Upper Macedonia constitutes the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia.

Although the two landscapes are different, they share a continental climate with cold winters. This climate makes the Macedonian vegetation different from the rest of the Aegean region.

Language

At first sight, it appears that the inhabitants of the Macedonian alluvial plain spoke Greek. A fourth-century curse tablet from Pella, published in 1994, is written in Northwest Greek, and later inscriptions are in Attic Greek. Many personal names (like Philippos and Alexandros, Zeus and Herakles) are Greek as well. That the Macedonians spoke Greek, looks like an inevitable conclusion.

However, there is some room for doubt. To start with, there are also Macedonian names that have no Greek parallel (Arridaeus or Sabattaras). In the second place, in many semi-literate societies, there is a difference between the spoken and the written language. It would not be without parallel if a Macedonian, when he wanted to make an official statement, preferred decent Greek instead of his native tongue. (Cf. the altars of the goddess Nehalennia, which were all written in Latin, a language that was almost certainly not spoken by the people who erected them.)

Thirdly, many historical sources are written in Greek, and it was a common practice among Greek historians to hellenize foreign names. For example, the name of the powerful first king of the Persian empire, Kuruš, ought to be transcribed as Kourous or Kouroux in Greek, but became Kyros, because this looks like a Greek word ("Mr. Almighty"). The name that is rendered as Alexandros, which has a perfect Greek etymology, may in fact represent something like Alaxandus, which is not Greek. A related argument that forces us to hesitate is that the Greeks nearly always converted the names of foreign deities. Supreme gods like Jupiter and Marduk are called "Zeus". So, the fact that Greek authors use Greek names for Macedonian people and deities does not prove very much about the Macedonian language.

None of this forces us to say that the Macedonians did not speak Greek, but it leaves the possibility that things were not what they seem. There is room for skepticism.

This is why linguists take several remarks by the authors of ancient dictionaries, which otherwise might have been interpreted as indications for a mere difference in dialect, very seriously. For example, there is evidence that Greeks were unable to understand people who were makedonizein, "speaking Macedonian". The Macedonian king Alexander the Great was not understood by the Greeks when he shouted an order in his native tongue and the Greek commander Eumenes needed a translator to address the soldiers of the Macedonian phalanx. The Greek orators Thrasymachus of Chalcedon and Demosthenes of Athens called Macedonian kings like Archelaus and Philip II barbarians, which prima facie means that they did not speak Greek. Now this happens in polemical contexts and is certainly exaggerated, but the statements need to refer to some kind of linguistic reality.

We know frustratingly little about the Macedonian language/dialect. For instance, we don't know anything about its grammar or syntaxis. We do not even know whether the Macedonians spoke one language at all; many societies, now and then, have more than one language. All we have is a set of about 150 words that were recognized as Macedonian in Antiquity, many of which are derived from a Macedonian-to-Greek dictionary by a man named Amerias. These 150 words can be divided into two groups:

  1. Words that have a counterpart in Greek. For example, the Macedonian title Nikatr ("victor") is obviously the equivalent of Greek Niktr. Usually, the Macedonian words are voiced and lack aspiration whereas Greek words are voiceless and aspirated: for example, Greek aithr is the equivalent of Macedonian ad ("sky").
  2. Words that do not resemble a Greek word: sarissa ("lance"), abagna ("rose"), peliganes ("senate"). It is certain that these words are Indo-European.
Linguists have attempted to establish connections between the non-Greek words with other Indo-European languages, but this is difficult. For example, abroutes ("eyebrows"), looks like the Avestan word bruuat.biiam, which suggests an eastern origin of the Macedonian language; but if the /T/ in abroutes is a writing error and should be read as a /F/ (digamma; pronounced as /w/), there is nothing special about it, because *abrouwes corresponds to the Greek ophrues. It is not easy to find parallels for a vocabulary if even a simple writing error can have grave consequences. Things are even more complicated because the languages of the neighboring Thracians and Illyrians, where we would seek for parallels first, are equally poorly understood.

Much is still uncertain, but two conclusions appear to be irrefutable:

  1. The Macedonians did not speak a Slavic language, which belongs to an altogether different branch of Indo-European, called Balto-Slavo-Germanic;
  2. Macedonian and Greek were related but different, but it is not certain whether they were different languages (which means that they have a different grammar and syntaxis) or dialects.
It is also certain that the Macedonian language became increasingly hellenized. Evidence for the pronunciation of Macedonian in the second half of the fourth century can be found in the cuneiform texts from Babylon. If Macedonian was still unaspirated and voiced when Alexander the Great conquered the Persian Empire, the Babylonian scribes would have spelled the name of the king's brother, called Philippos in Greek sources, something like Bi-lp+ending. However, the first syllable is always Pi, which also represents a sound like /vi/. This suggests that the Macedonians had began  to aspire their consonants and were losing voice. The name Berenike (the Macedonian equivalent of Greek Pherenike) may also have been pronounced according to the Greek fashion, because it is rendered in Latin as Veronica.

Finally, it must be stressed that, despite what modern politicians and some modern scholars argue, language says not much about ethnicity. (People can speak Frisian and have a Dutch passport, whereas people speaking Dutch can live in Belgium and Surinam and feel offended when they are called Dutch.) The identification of "one language, one nation, one state", is nineteenth-century and says nothing about Antiquity. Still, language is one of the factors that is used to classify people, just like religion and a shared past, so it is not altogether irrelevant either.

Ancient-Warfare.com, the online home of Ancient Warfare magazine

Country
Language
Ethnogenesis
Early history
Philip
Alexander
After Alexander
The Roman Age
Appendix

to part two
Jona Lendering 2005
Revised: 17 July 2006


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