Macedonia (9)


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

Appendix: the Macedonian question

In the nineteenth century, the power of the Ottoman empire on the Balkan peninsula was in decline and new kingdoms like Serbia, Greece, and Bulgaria, came into being. They all claimed the area that was known as Macedonia, which was usually described as inhabited by Bulgarians, although there were local nationalists who stressed that the Macedonians were an independent nation. After the Balkan Wars (1912-1914), the country was carved up between the three states and the Serbian and Greek authorities launched policies to change the ethnic composition of the land they had conquered. For example, the "Slavophone Greeks" of Thessaloniki were restricted in their cultural activities, sometimes forced to resettle, and replaced by Greeks who had been forced to leave their ancestral towns in the west of Turkey.

After the Second World War, Serbia was the most powerful state in the Yugoslav federation, and the Yugoslav leader Tito tried to counterbalance Serbia's hegemony by allowing the Serbian part of Macedonia some autonomy, arguing that the Macedonians were an ancient nation and were no Serbs. (In other words, Tito recognized that the earlier policy of forced Serbianization had failed.) Another motive was Tito's hope to incite a revolt in Greek Macedonia, which might result in the annexation of Thessaloniki as Yugoslavia's southern port. (The city itself, which had been an important center of Judaism, had suffered from mass deportations, and Tito may have thought that seizing an almost empty city would be easy.) Although Greece was divided by civil war, Tito soon discovered that the Greeks had thoroughly hellenized their part of Macedonia.

During the Cold War, Yugoslavia tried to remain out of the conflict between East and West. Bulgaria, however, was part of the Soviet Alliance, and every time the relations between Sofia and Belgrade deteriorated, anti-Yugoslav propaganda was directed at the Yugoslav republic of Macedonia by the Bulgarians. They also stressed that the inhabitants were no Serbs. As a result of all this, nationalist ideas that had existed among some early twentieth-century Slavs living in Macedonia, were kept alive.

Like all nationalists of all nations in the world, those in Macedonia had thought about the origin of their nation. Of course they had a Slavic heritage, which meant that they were related to the Bulgarians and Serbs, and had - according to most scholars - settled on the Balkan peninsula in the Early Middle Ages. However, the Macedonian nationalists claimed that the Slavs had always lived on the southern Balkans, and they sought arguments to prove that the language spoken by the ancient Macedonians was in fact an early form of Slavic. These ideas were - to put it mildly - highly controversial, and were disputed by historians from modern Greece, who claimed that the ancient Macedonians spoke Greek (cf. our discussion above).

After the end of the Cold War, Yugoslavia disintegrated and in 1991, its southernmost republic became independent. This would not have caused great problems, but the new state demanded an outlet to the sea and already printed banknotes with the White Tower of Thessaloniki. These territorial claims were not appreciated in Greece, and a major diplomatic crisis started, in which the Greeks claimed that Macedonia had been Greek for the past 3,000 years. As late as 2008, seventeen years later, Greece vetoed Macedonian membership of the NATO, but generally speaking, the conflict has lost much of its heat.

Summing up: there are nationalists in the former Yugoslav republic who claim that their ancient ancestors spoke some sort of Slavic, and conclude that therefore, modern Macedonia can lay territorial claims to all parts of ancient Macedonia; and there are Greeks who say that the ancient Macedonians spoke Greek. Greece has not made territorial claims.

Probably, both the Slavonic Macedonians and the Greeks claim too much. As we have already seen above, there is no evidence that the ancient Macedonians spoke a language related to Slavonic Macedonian, and there is no evidence that the Macedonians were regarded as Greeks before the reign of Alexander the Great.


... to professor Ruijgh, who discussed the Macedonian language with me but died before he could see this article, and to Gerard Boter, who offered many suggestions to improve this article.