Episode 35 (Plutarch, Part I)



Plutarch is another ancient Greek historian whose works concern the present day Greek propaganda. He too wrote in several places that the ancient Macedonians were in no way Greek, but a separate nation with a separate language. We will make a short summary of some of these testemonies.

Plutarch was born around the year 46 AD, and passed away in the year 120. He was born in Chaeronea in Beotia, and educated in Athens where he was a minister in the famous temple in Delphi. He was close with the Roman goverment. His works can generally be devided into two groups. The first group contains essays and dialogues andthese works are contained in the joint work, “Moralia”. The second part is dedicated to history and it contains biographies of famous people from the ancient times. These works are an irreplaceable source in history today. Plutarch wrote many of his works around the year 75.

We will begin with the biography of Alexander the Great of Macedon. We will give a reminder of the proof of the distinctiveness of the Macedonian language. Describing an argument between Alexander the Great and one of his friends, Plutarch wrote:

“For breaking from them, he called out aloud to his guards in the Macedonian language, which was a certain sign of some great disturbance in him…”(SOURCE: Plutarch, “Parallel Lives”, “Alexander”).

This testimony actually refers to the event when Alexander thought that his life was endangered by his friend Cleitus while they were arguing in a drunken state. At one moment, Alexander thought that Cleitus wanted to attack him, so he called his bodyguards to protect him. Plutarch clearly wrote that he called them in Macedonian language.

To explain the significance of this testimony we will need to point out a few things. It is known that the official language in the Macedonian empire (and even in the military) during the Macedonian domination was the language called koine. It was a mixed language, created from elements of a certain number of languages, from the peoples who lived in the Macedonian empire. Besides words from the Greek dialects, the language koine also had words from the Macedonian, and from other languages as well. Alexander implemented this language because of practical reasons. He was probably aware that he would run into big problems and resistances if he tried to force the not well-known Macedonian language to the different nations in his empire.

So, koine was a kind of mixed (joint) language that was forced by the later Macedonian dynasties as a universal language in the countries that they ruled, mainly because of the easier communication between the different nations.

Today’s scientists think that the language koine was actually a kind of an Esperanto at the time. So, Alexander with his generals and army (that was dominated by Macedonians, but also had a lot of Greeks, Trachians, Jews and other nationalities), officially communicated on the koine language.

However, when at one point he thought his life was in danger, he instinctively spoke in his mother tongue, in the language he first learned in his life and the language he best knew – the Macedonian language. This kind of reaction goes completely according to human psychology, and surely a great number of people would react like that if they were in a similar situation. His instinctive reaction, during which he had no time to think about how to form a sentence to call for help in a different language, and knowing that his bodyguards were also Macedonians, is undoubtedly a proof that the Macedonian was his mother tongue.

Plutarch mentioned the distinctive Macedonian language in his Biography of Marc Antony as well. It is known that after Alexander the Great’s death, his empire fell apart and his most trusted generals remained to rule with the parts. For example, his general and childhood friend (and by some sources, half-brother) Ptolemy ruled Egypt and some surrounding countries. He founded the Ptolemaic dynasty, which ruled Egypt even after his death. The best-known descendant of this Macedonian dynasty is the famous Egyptian queen Cleopatra VII. In the Biography of Marc Antony, Plutarch dedicates many lines to Cleopatra. In addition, he indirectly mentions that her mother tongue was the Macedonian language. Plutarch writes:

          ”It was a pleasure merely to hear the sound of her voice, with which, like an instrument of many strings, she could pass from one language to another; so that there were few of the barbarian nations that she answered by an interpreter; to most of them she spoke herself, as to the Ethiopians, Troglodytes, Hebrews, Arabians, Syrians, Medes, Parthians, and many others, whose language she had learnt; which was all the more surprising, because most of the kings her predecessors scarcely gave themselves the trouble to acquire the Egyptian tongue, and several of them quite abandoned the Macedonian.”(SOURCE :“Antony“ by Plutarch, translated to English by John Dryden, 1631- 1700.).

This very significant testimony by Plutarch tells us that the mother tongue of the members of the Ptolemaic dynasty was the Macedonian language itself. We can see that according to Plutarch, some of them (probably because of political reasons) neglected the Macedonian language on account of the common language koine. But, Plutarch did not write such thing about Cleopatra, which means she kept her mother tongue Macedonian.

Plutarch writes about the special Macedonian language in his Biography of Eumenes as well. Describing the appearance of Eumenes before the Macedonian soldiers, Plutarch writes:

“…On the first sight of the general of their heart, the troops saluted him in the Macedonian language, clanked their arms, and with loud shouts challenged the enemy to advance, thinking themselves invincible while he was at their head.” (SOURCE :”Eumenes” by Plutarch 14,10, translated by John and Willi­am Langhorne).