Saturday, May 18, 2013

Alexander the Great - Richard Stoneman

Excerpt from the book "Alexander the Great" by Richard Stoneman, explaining the different opinions of modern scholars about the ethnic origin of ancient Macedonians:

"It has often been considered that Alexander – if the detail of the speech is authentic – overstates the case. There were cities in Macedon before Philip, and there was culture, too, as we shall see. But these sentences reflect the perception of the Greeks further south, that the Macedonians were a rustic, backward – even ‘barbarian’ – people. The charge of ‘barbarism’ requires explanation. The term was used by Greeks to describe any people who did not speak Greek – whose language sounded (to them) like ‘bar-bar’. Were the Macedonians Greeks?

Scholarly opinion remains divided over the issue, and there is little enough direct evidence to draw on. Against the Greek identity of Macedonians is the Greek prejudice described above, and best-evinced by Demosthenes’ invectives against Philip in the course of the latter’s conquests; but Demosthenes, seeing himself as a defender of Athenian liberty, had an axe to grind. The other piece of evidence is the complaint made by Alexander against Philotas in the course of his trial for conspiracy: that he did not deign to address the court ‘in Macedonian’ but insisted on showing off in Greek. And Alexander is at least once said to have addressed his troops ‘in Macedonian’.

Those who favour the view that the Macedonians were Greeks regard this as evidence, not for a separate Macedonian language, but for the use of dialect in certain circumstances, comparable to the use of Scots in a British regiment consisting largely of Scots.

In favour of the Greek identity of the Macedonians is what we know of their language: the place-names, names of the months and personal names, which are without exception Greek in roots and form. This suggests that they did not merely use Greek as a lingua franca, but spoke it as natives (though with a local accent which turned Philip into Bilip, for example). The Macedonians’ own traditions derived their royal house from one Argeas, son of Macedon, son of Zeus, and asserted that a new dynasty, the Temenids, had its origin in the sixth century from emigrants from Argos in Greece, the first of these kings being Perdiccas. This tradition became a most important part of the cultural identity of Macedon. It enabled Alexander I (d.452) to compete at the Olympic Games (which only true Hellenes were allowed to do); and it was embedded in the policy of Archelaus (d.399) who invited Euripides from Athens to his court, where Euripides wrote not only the Bacchae but also a lost play called Archelaus.(Socrates was also invited, but declined.) It was in keeping with this background that Philip employed Aristotle – who had until then been helping Hermias of Atarneus in the Troad to rule as a Platonic ‘philosopher-king’ – as tutor to his son, and that Alexander grew up with a devotion to Homer and the Homeric world which his own kingship so much recalled, and slept every night with the Iliad under his pillow.

The Macedonians, then, were racially Greek. The relation might be not so much that of British and Scots as of Germans and Austrians; but in the case of Macedon it was the smaller partner which effected the Anschluss, as Philip’s reign was devoted to gaining control not only of the northern Aegean but of the city-states of mainland Greece, too."

Richard Stoneman, Alexander the Great, London 1997, p. 11-12.


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