BMCR 2001.02.21

Before Alexander: constructing early Macedonia

, Before Alexander : constructing early Macedonia. Publications of the Association of Ancient Historians ; 6. Claremont, CA: Regina Books, 1999. 89 pages ; 23 cm.. $12.95 (pb).

In a lifetime of studying ancient Makedonia B(orza) has created a solid body of articles (15 of which are collected as Makedonika: essays by ENB, ed. C.G. Thomas (1995)) and the monograph In the shadow of Olympus: the emergence of Macedon (Princeton 1990; with revisions, 1992). The item under review comes nearly a decade after Shadow, during which much progress has been made, especially by Greek archaeologists. It builds on B.’s wide-ranging expertise, experience and professional connexions. It is a slim volume of a mere 75 pages of actual text but its weight is considerable. Although limited in scope — by the “outreach and service” goals of the PAAH series, its concentration on recent scholarship, and the period covered (a volume on Alexander III in the same series is allegedly being prepared by a different author) — it is a model of scholarship at its best. B. does not hesitate to modify earlier held views, and his goal is the advancement of human knowledge and nothing else. He is duly alarmed by certain circles’ misuse of history as a science for “political” purposes (we all know to what horrendous consequences the abuse of science, in that instance biology, led in the twentieth century).

“I. Sources and Interpretations” (5-26); “II. Origins, Ethnicity [27-43], and Institutions” (27-50); “III. Philip II” (51-75); “IV. Afterword” (75-79); “Bibliography” (85-89).

Let me quickly dispose of a couple of minor quibbles, and one major complaint. At 55 n. 13 read Eadem, at 71 n. 45 read Nicomachus (I noted only one other misprint; but B. himself pointed out to me that the production process created three different versions for the prehistoric tribe of the Jomon in Japan, in n. 7 on pp. 36f.). It goes against standard English usage to print Thucydides’s, Herodotus’s, etc.1 Much more serious, however: even if this series is meant to “reach out” and “serve”, it is difficult to understand why virtually no non-English literature is cited or passed in review (apart from a mere handful of articles in French).

One of the main features of B.’s views is his repeated and salutary warnings not to jump to conclusions about early Makedonia on the basis of the later evidence (one might be tempted to draw a comparison here with M.H. Hansen’s claim that the fourth-century Athenian democracy cannot be used to interpret pre-403 democracy, but I think B. is on far more solid ground in his example). Before the fourth century there is next to no literary evidence with the exception of Herodotos and Thukydides—for what it is worth—and what there is was not penned by Makedonians, who, “like the Carthaginians and Spartans, are among the silent peoples” (5). There is no epigraphical evidence, and we cannot expect to find any because it “never existed” (19). The archaeological finds also offer comparatively little for the earlier periods. Consequently B. suggests for instance that there is no proof of formal kingship before Philip. Alexander’s kingship cannot be used for reconstructing Makedonian institutions because it was an “aberration” (77). Antigonid Makedonia existed in a world that had changed completely from that of, say, Alexander I. The kingship of the Argeadai and its context are thus largely lost to us for study and reconstruction.

Another recurring theme is the Makedonians’ eclectic approach in their culture, borrowing widely and often perfecting (as in fashioning artefacts from metals): B. stresses the resulting non-canonical nature of their culture, material, political and otherwise, setting them apart in this way too as a distinct Balkan people. This eclecticism can be traced back even to the Late Bronze Age, with Mycenaean imports, imitations etc., with Makedonia all the while remaining outside the world of Mycenaean Greece.

This last point constitutes one of several of B.’s compelling arguments in favour of a distinct Makedonian identity and ethnicity, a conclusion which will no doubt incense those who practise “nationalistic” (34ff. — although “chauvinistic” is perhaps more appropriate a term) history. B. is “strongly opposed” also to attempts “to define the Macedonians in terms of some other people”: they were “a unique people in antiquity who gradually became Hellenized, and who are unrelated to any modern people” (39 n. 21). Then there is the obvious argument from language — which we do not know and which therefore lends itself to mischievous application by those who study the Makedonians not for scholarly but for political purposes.2 B. concludes his chapter on the Makedonians’ ethnicity by pointing out that, whatever we may believe, to the ancient authors “the Greeks and Macedonians were two different peoples” (43).

B. justly gives credit where credit is due by rightly emphasising the importance and success of the work of the Greek archaeologists in recent years in advancing our understanding of the Makedonians’ material culture. It is generally a strength of B.’s approach that he attempts fully to integrate archaeological evidence with the evaluation of the literary and epigraphical sources (what there are) to arrive at a multi-facetted view of the history of the Makedonians.

The chapter on Philip reviews recent studies of several complexes of problems and notes that Philip has as result “emerged from behind the screen of an Atheno-centric vision of events” (52). The authority of Demosthenes as a source is no longer accepted uncritically (and, we might add, historians have emancipated themselves from the oppressive yoke of traditional Classical Philology). Philip combined “diplomacy, guile and force, and the threat of force” (could this not also be said of one Mr Hitler, 1936-39?) to insert himself into Greek affairs. In the end, however, it was “not Philip but Alexander who changed everything”: not “Chaeroneia and the so-called League of Corinth, but the Lamian War” (59).

On the matter of the burial sites at ancient Aigai he has developed a “revisionist” position which he shares with even a few Greek scholars. He argues with considerable authority in favour of assigning the plundered Tomb I to Philip II, Kleopatra and their infant; the famous Tomb II to Philip III Arrhidaios and Eurydike; and the also unlooted Tomb III to Alexander IV (68ff.).

Every historian creates his own history and this is also true of B.’s Makedonian history. It is to the credit of B., however, that, whatever the limitations of his vision may be, he firmly resists the temptations of grandstanding and self-congratulation. He appears both a pragmatist and a scholar of high principle.

Borza has splendidly fulfilled the promise of the series. Despite — or perhaps because of — its brevity it ought to be on every historians’ “must read” list.


1. E.g., R. Quirk, S. Greenbaum, G. Leech, J. Svartvik, A grammar of contemporary English (London 1972), 195f.

2. In a book paradoxically entitled The falsification of Macedonian history, by one Nikolaos Martis (Athens 1983, trans. 1984, 201 pp.), published well before the break-up of Yugoslavia and the “FYROM” grotesque (B. places too much emphasis on the latter when he attempts to explain why the matter is becoming ever more virulent, because it has surely much deeper roots), even the Old Testament is invoked and it is claimed that “many other passages in [it] refer to ‘the Macedonian Greeks and descedants [sic] of Alexander the Great’.” No less a body than the august Akademía Athenôn awarded it a prize because it “clearly demonstrates” “with reliable proofs” the “Hellenic origin and national feeling of the Macedonians”. It might be noted that these Greek “nationalist” historians do not see any need to write of, e.g., the “Korinthian Greeks” or the “Theban Greeks”, thereby unwittingly placing the Makedonians in a class by themselves, set apart from those Greeks.