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Herodotus
Ancient Greek Writer

The modern Greek position relies on Herodotus' support for their quest to make the ancient Macedonians Greek. Herodotus, being one of the foremost biographer in antiquity who lived in Greece at the time when the Macedonian king Alexander I was in power, is said to have visited the Macedonian Kingdom and supposedly, profited from this excursion, wrote several short passages about the Macedonians. What did he say, and to what extent can these passages be taken as evidence for the alleged 'greekness' of the ancient Macedonians, will be briefly presented for your adjudication.

Herodotus describes the episode with the Persian envoys, who apparently visited Macedon when Alexander I's father Amyntas was in power, and how Alexander I succeeded in 'taking care of the Persians' by murdering all of them and removing their luggage and carriages. When the Persians attempted to trace the lost envoys, Alexander I cleverly succeeded in manipulating the Persians by giving his own sister Gygaea as a wife to the Persian commander Bubares. Here Herodotus writes:

"I happen to know, and I will demonstrate in a subsequent chapter of this history, that these descendants of Perdiccas are, as they themselves claim, of Greek nationality. This was, moreover, recognized by the managers of the Olympic games, on the occasion when Alexander wished to compete and his Greek competitors tried to exclude him on the ground that foreigners were not allowed to take part. Alexander, however, proved his Argive descent, and so was accepted as a Greek and allowed to enter for the foot-race. He came in equal first." book 5. 22.

First, notice that it is not Herodotus that says that the Macedonian kings were of Greek nationality, but the Macedonian kings as they themselves claim. Now, let us peruse the modern literature and see if we can shed some light on this particular passage from Herodotus which is so 'dear' to all Greek presenters, and one that occupies the central position of their otherwise feeble defense.

[1] Eugene Borza In The Shadow of Olympus p. 112 writes:

"Herodotus' story is fraught with too many difficulties to make sense of it. For example, either (1) Alexander lost the run-off for his dead heat, which is why his name doez not appear in the victor lists; or (2) he won the run-off, although Herodotus does not tell us this; or (3) it remained a dead heat, which is impossible in light Olympic practice; or (4) it was a special race, in which case it is unlikely that his fellow competitors would have protested Alexander's presence; or (5) Alexander never competed at Olympia. It is best to abandon this story, which belongs in the category of the tale of Alexander at Plataea. In their commentaries on these passages Macan and How and Wells long ago recognized that the Olympic Games story was based on family legend (Hdt. 5.22: "as the descendants of Perdiccas themselves say [autoi legousi]"), weak proofs of their Hellenic descent. Moreover, the Olympic Games tale is twice removed: Herodotus heard from the Argeadea (perhaps from Alexander himself) that the king had told something to the judges, but we do not know what those proofs were."

"The theme of the Olympic and Plataea incidents are the same: "I am Alexander, a Greek" which seems to be the main point. The more credible accounts of Alexander at Tempe and at Athens do not pursue this theme; they state Alexander's activities without embellishment or appeal to prohellenism. Moreover, the insistence that Alexander is a Greek, and descendant from Greeks, rubs against the spirit of Herodotus 7.130, who speaks of the Thessalians as the first Greeks to come under Persian submission--a perfect opportunity for Herodotus to point out that the Macedonians were a non Greek race ruled over by Greek kings, something he nowhere mentions."

"In sum, it would appear that Olympia and Plataea incidents---when taken together with the tale of the ill--fated Persian embassy to Amyntas' court in which Alexander proclaims the Greek descent of the royal house--are part of Alexander's own attempts to integrate himself into the Greek community during the postwar period. They should be discarded both because they are propaganda and because they invite suspicion on the general grounds outlined above."

In support of his position Borza brings forward many interesting questions. He asks:

"Why is it that no Spartan or Athenian or Argive felt constrained to prove to the others that he and his family were Helenes? But Macedonian kings seem hard put to argue in behalf of their Hellenic ancestry in the fifth century B.C., and that circumstance is telling. Even if one were to accept that all the Herodotian stories about Alexander were true, why did the Greeks, who normally were knowledgeable about matters of ethnic kinship, not already know that the Macedonian monarchy was Greek? But--following Herodotus--the stade- race competitors at Olympia thought the Macedonian was a foreigner (Hdt. 5.22: barbaros) Second, for his effort on behalf of the Greek cause against the Persians Alexander is known as "Philhellene". Now this is kind of odd to call a Greek a "friend of the Greeks". "This title", writes Borza, "is normally reserved for non-Greeks".

Borza concludes: "It is prudent to reject the stories of the ill--fated Persian embassy to Amyntas's court, Alexander's midnight ride at Plataea, and his participation in the Olympic Games as tales derived from Alexander himself (or from some official court version of things)."

[2] Peter Green - Classical Bearings p.157

"All Herodotus in fact says is that Alexander himself demonstrated his Argive ancestry (in itself a highly dubious genealogical claim), and was thus adjudged a Greek---against angry opposition, be it noted, from the stewards of the Games Even if, with professor N.G.L. Hammond, we accept this ethnic certification at face value, it tells us, as he makes plain, nothing whatsoever about Macedonians generally. Alexander's dynasty, if Greek, he writes, regarded itself as Macedonian only by right of rule, as a branch of the Hanoverian house has come to 'regard itself as English'. On top of which, Philip II's son Alexander had an Epirote mother, which compounds the problem from yet another ethnic angle."

[3] Ernst Badian - Studies in the History of Art Vol 10: Macedonia and Greece in Late Classical Early Hellenistic Times:

"We have no way of judging the authenticity of either the claim or the evidence that went with it, but it is clear that at the time the decision was not easy. There were outraged protests from the other competitors, who rejected Alexander I as a barbarian--which proves, at least, that the Temenid descent and the royal genealogy had hitherto been an isoteric item of knowledge. However, the Hellanodikai decided to accept it--whether moved by the evidence or by political considerations, we again cannot tell. In view of the time and circumstances in which the claim first appears and the objections it encountered, modern scholars have often suspected that it was largely spun out of fortuitous resemblance of the name of the Argead clan to city of Argos; with this given, the descent (of course) could not be less than royal, i.e., Temenid."

Badian, like Borza, believes that Alexander I "invented the story (in its details a common type of myth) of how he had fought against his father's Persian connection by having the Persian ambassadors murdered, and that it was only in order to hush this up and save the royal family's lives that the marriage of his sister to a Persian had been arranged."

Badian sums it up:"As a matter of fact, there is reason to think that at least some even among Alexander I's friends and supporters had regarded the Olympic decision as political rather than factual--as a reward for services to the Hellenic cause rather than as prompted by genuine belief in the evidence he had adduced. We find him described in the lexicographers, who go back to fourth-century sources, as "Philhellene",--surely not an appellation that could be given to an actual Greek."

I would like to offer another episode, reported by Herodotus, which clearly indicates that ancient Greeks did not regard the ancient Macedonians as brethren. Episodes like this stand in sharp contrast to today's claims propagated by modern Greeks. The Persian armies were ready and poised to strike Greece. Greek allies were assembled and prepared to defend their nation. Mardonius, the Persian commander, sends Alexander I to Athens with a message. On his arrival to Athens as Mardonius' ambassador Alexander spoke to the Athenians urging them to accept the terms offered by Mardonius. In Sparta, the news that Alexander brought message from the Great King, caused great consternation. Sparta feared that an alliance between Athens and Persia was in the making. She, then, quickly rushed an envoy to Athens herself. As it happened, Alexander I and the Spartan envoy had their audience at the same time.When Alexander I was done the Spartan envoy s spoke in their turn: "Do not let Alexander's smooth-sounding version of Mardonius' proposals seduce you; he does only what one might expect of him--a despot himself, of course he collaborates with a despot. But such conduct is not for you - at least, not if you are wise; for surely you know that in foreigners there is neither truth nor trust." (Hdt. 8.142) [Please note the reference to Alexander I as a foreigner who is neither truthful nor trustworthy.]

Then, the Athenians gave answer to Alexander I. Among the other things, they told Alexander that they, the Athenians, will never make peace with Mardonius, and will oppose him 'unremittingly'. As to Alexander I' advice and urgings that they accept the terms offered by Mardonius they said:

"Never come to us again with a proposal like this, and never think you are doing us good service when you urge us to a course which is outrageous - for it would be a pity if you were to suffer some hurt at the hands of the Athenians, when you are our friend and benefector." (Hdt. 8.143)

To the Spartan envoys they said the following: "No doubt it was natural that the Lacedaemonians should dread the of our making terms with Persia; none the less it shows a poor estimate of the spirit of Athens. There is not so much gold nor land so fair that we would take for pay to join the common enemy and bring Greece into subjection. There are many compelling reasons against our doing so, even if we wished: the first and greatest is the burning of the temples and images of our gods - now ashes and rubble. It is our bounded duty to avenge this desecration with all our might - not to clasp the hand that wrought it. Again there is the Greek nation - the community of blood and language, temples and rituals, and our common customs; if Athens were to betray all this, it would not be well done. We, would have you know, if you did not know it already, that so long as a single Athenians remains alive we will make no peace with Xerxes." (Hdt. 8.144)

Conclusion

Among the Greeks there exist a common bond, a community of blood and language, temples and rituals and common customs. This expressed kinship between the Greek allies is evident and it stands in stark contrast against the references used towards the Macedonians who were addressed as foreigners. We have seen that Herodotus (7.130) speaks of the Thessalians as the first Greeks to come under Persian submission (although the Persians entered Macedonia first), and here using his own words, he clearly exclude the Macedonians from the Greeks. We are therefore, left with the conclusion that Herodotus did not consider the Macedonians as Greeks. "Both Herodotus and Thucydides describe the Macedonians as foreigners, a distinct people living outside of the frontiers of the Greek city-states" Eugene Borza, In the Shadow of Olympus p. 96.

 

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