Episodes 38 and 39 (Herodotus)

HERODOTUS (V c. BC)

Herodotus was born around 484 BC in Halicarnassus (today’s Turkey). It is believed that in the year 457 he was perished because he participated in a conspiracy against Persia. He travelled through many countries and left valuable writings about the peoples and cultures there. His work “History” is considered the first authored extensive work in prose in the history of the world. Because of this, Herodotus is considered a founder of historiography. He passed away in 435 BC.

Herodotus dedicated a fair amount of his work “History” to Macedonia. The detailed description that he gives of some segments of the Macedonian life at the time, like the Macedonian homes, the toponymy and even mentioning some lake fish in Macedonia, indicate that Herodotus really did live in Macedonia for a certain time.

Speaking of Herodotus, some parts of his work “History” are being used by the Greek and pro-Greek authors as “proof” that the ancient Macedonians (or at least the rulers of the Argeades dynasty to which Philip and Alexander the Great belonged) were allegedly “Greek”. Herodotus writes that the Macedonians were of Dorian origin.

However, he contradicts himself later on, as he mentions the Macedonians and the Dorians as two separate nations. While writing about the ethnical origin of the soldiers that participated in the Greek fleet in the defense against Persia, he mentions the Macedonians and the Dorians separately. Here we read:

          “Now these were the nations who composed the Grecian fleet. From the Peloponnese, the following- the Lacedaemonians with six, teen ships; the Corinthians with the same number as at Artemisium; the Sicyonians with fifteen; the Epidaurians with ten; the Troezenians with five; and the Hermionians with three. These were Dorians and Macedonians all of them (except those from Hermione), and had emigrated last from Erineus, Pindus, and Dryopis.”

The Greek and pro-Greek historians use another episode of Herodotus to back up their claims. It is about a description of the situation before the final battle between the Persians and the Greeks in the V century BC, when the Macedonian king Alexander I of Macedon came to the Greek camp to notify the Greeks of the Persians location (even though he cooperated with them earlier). Here we read that Alexander told them that he came to help them because he was a Greek himself.

About the “Greek” origin of the Macedonian dynasty which Philip II and Alexander the Great belonged to, Herodotus also wrote that Alexander wished to contend in the Olympic games, but the Greeks told him that only Greeks, and not barbarians, can contend. After that Alexander proved himself to be a Greek and was entered at the lists for the foot-race.

          At first glance, it seems that everything is clear here as well. Alexander declared himself as “Greek” and that is why he was accepted to participate in the Greek Olympics which were strictly Greek-only.

But, if we make a deeper analysis on all these writings by Herodotus, we will see that things are not as simple as they first appear.

First of all, we will analyse the statement that Alexander made in the Greek camp, and analyse the historical context it was given in.

At that time, the Greek-Persian war was going on in which Persia battled against the powerful and united Greek forces. Macedonia was led by the previously-mentioned Alexander I of Macedon. At the time, Macedonia was militarily weak and economically undeveloped. Macedonia found itself in the middle of this fierce war between those two powerful forces, so Alexander was in a really tight situation. Both Persia and the Greeks could easily conquer the weak Macedonia if they even sensed that it was allying with the opposite side. That is why Alexander made huge efforts to preserve his country. He declared Macedonia as neutral, but secretly sent positive signals to the Persians and the Greeks, just so they can stay out of Macedonia. For example, he married his sister Gygea to the Persian commander Bubares, and at the same time gave confidential information to the Greeks. Still, on the night of the final battle at Plataea (479 BC), Alexander went to the Greek camp and informed them of the position of the Persians, allying himself with the Greeks. He probably estimated that the Greeks will win the battle (even the war), so that is why he went to their camp to gain their trust (especially for the after-war times). It is at that time that he declared himself as a supposed “Greek”.

This thesis about Alexander’s false declaration as a “Greek” just so he could gain over the Greeks after they defeat Persia is presented by many present-day historians. One of them is the well-known American historian Dr. Eugen Borza. In his book, Borza rightfully asks several questions. He asks, if Alexander was indeed “Greek”, wouldn’t the Greeks know that in advance? Didn’t they know that the Macedonian dynasty was “Greek”, so why did he had to prove himself? And he wasn’t just anyone; he was the king of a neighbouring country. The Greeks knew very well who their compatriots are, and who aren’t (especially in the time of the war with the Persians, which was actually an ethnical war). Why was there a need for him to point out his supposed “Greek” origin? And why didn’t any other Greek, Athenian or Spartan ever prove their Greek origin in front of the other Greeks?

Another question comes to mind. Why did the Greeks forbid Alexander I to participate in the Olympics and declared him as “barbarian”? If he was “Greek”, they would have recognized their “fellow citizen” and he would not have been declared as a “barbarian” (a man who doesn’t speak Greek).

Borza also writes that Herodotus’s story is full of incomprehensible data which does not make much sense. Such is a claim that Alexander I won the race in the Olympic games even though he was too old to do it.

After making an analysis of the illogical things inside Herodotus’s story about the alleged participation of Alexander in the Olympics, Borza concludes that this story can be ignored.

The historians Macan, How and Wells think the same.

Referring to Alexander’s self-declaration as “Greek” before the battle of Plataea, Borza says that he did this for political reasons (which we already explained), so he writes that insisting on Alexander’s Greek origin and Greek ancestors contradicts with Herodotus himself, who mentioned the Thesalians as the first Greeks who fell under Persian reign, confirming that the Macedonians were not a Greek nation.

Further on, Dr. Borza concludes that Herodotus and Thucydides both treated the Macedonians as foreigners, a distant nation that lived outside the Greek borders.

Borza concludes that Alexander declared himself as “Greek” simply to integrate himself in the Greek world after the Greeks would win over Persia. He says that the stories of his Greek declaration should be completely ignored because they represented a view of his propaganda and his final goal which was of course, to keep the freedom of his country.

The famous American historian Peter Green also shares the opinion about Herodotus’s story. Green writes that Alexander was acknowledged as a “Greek”, but it was strongly opposed by the Greeks who were organizing the Olympic Games (SOURCE: Peter Green, “Classical Bearings” p. 157).

The historian Ernst Badian gives a similar interpretation about Herodotus’s history for the alleged “Greek” origin of Argaedes.  He writes that the influential Greeks made a hard decision admitting Alexander as “Greek”, which caused harsh protests among the other competitors who rejected Alexander’s participation in the Olympics, calling him a “barbarian”. (SOURCE: Ernst Badian: “Stu­dies in the History of Art Vol. 10: Macedonia and Gre­ece in Late Classical Early Hellenistic Times“).

He concludes that the decision for Alexander’s participation in the Olympics was purely political and not factual, meaning Alexander only presented himself as a “Greek” to gain political points. He was forced to “prove” his Greek origin, so he would be recognized as Greek by the authorities. But the contestants still protested against his participation, calling him a “barbarian”.   The German historian Ulrich Wilcken writes a similar story. He states that Alexander I felt sympathy towards the Greeks and wanted to participate in the Olympics, but was rejected as a “barbarian” because the games were Greek-only. That is why he had to prove his origins, and was later accepted as a competitor. Since then, Macedonian kings were treated as Helens, but same as before, their people were treated as barbarians. (SOURCE: Ulrich Wilcken: „Alexander of Macedon“,1931., translated in Macedonian, Skopje, 1988 р. 54).

The historian Arthur Weighal rightfully thinks that it was convenient to the Greeks at the time to acknowledge Alexander I (but just him, not the Macedonians!) as “Greek”, because Macedonia would eventually be needed as an ally against the powerful Persia. (SOURCE: A. Weighal, “Alexander of Macedon”, Skopje, 1992, in Macedonian).

If these evidences are not enough, we will again quote Herodotus himself. On one hand he writes that Alexander I declared himself as “Greek”, but on the other he writes that the Spartans disqualified Alexander I as a “distrusting stranger“.

Another big evidence that Alexander falsely declared himself as “Greek” is the fact that he was declared a “Philhellen” (friend, sympathizer of the Greeks) by the Greeks when he helped them with information about Persia. They only gave out these titles to foreigners, i.e. non-Greeks who did good things for Greece.

We cannot really understand these things nowadays, but at that time he had to act like that in order to preserve his (at that time, weak) country. And he succeeded. He kept Macedonia, which just after several generations, conquered all of the Greek and Persian territories.

To conclude, even with all the controversial information, we can see even in Herodotus’s works clear evidences that the Macedonians were not Greeks. We can see this not only in his mentioning of the Thessalians (Greeks) as the first Greek nation conquered by the Persians (even though the Persian passed through Macedonia first, which means Herodotus didn’t consider them Greek), but also in the determination of Alexander I of Macedon as a “distrusting stranger” by the Spartans.