Anonymous asks:

You do old stuff, do you know the civilization games? Why is Alexander the leader of the Greeks?! He wasn’t even Greek, right?

Ohhhhhhhhhh boy; you have no idea of the can of worms you just opened.

As luck would have it I actually gave a presentation on this yesterday so buckle the f#$% up, kids.

So… Alexander the Great was Macedonian – that is to say, he was from the ancient kingdom of Macedonia, which had its capital in what is now northern Greece.  The modern Greek province is also called Macedonia.  Now, this is not the same thing as the modern Republic of Macedonia, which is a small country to the north of Greece whose language and culture are predominantly Slavic, descending from peoples who migrated into the area at the beginning of the Mediaeval period.  They have been in a really heated argument with Greece, ever since they became independent from Yugoslavia in 1991, over whether or not they are ‘allowed’ to call their country ‘Macedonia’ and themselves ‘Macedonians,’ because many Greeks today are of the opinion that that word, and more importantly that history, belong exclusively to them.  Greece has actually vetoed Macedonia’s entry into both the EU and NATO, on the grounds that they are usurping Greek history and culture, and that calling themselves ‘Macedonia’ implies they want to take over the Greek province of Macedonia (which contains Greece’s second-largest city, Thessaloniki).  Now, in fact, the Republic of Macedonia has also made a pretty major effort to adopt Alexander the Great as a national hero of sorts – there’s a great big bronze statue of him in downtown Skopje; they named their main international airport “Alexander the Great Airport”; their original flag (which they had to change after nearly two years of a devastating trade embargo imposed by Greece) featured the sixteen-pointed Star of Vergina, which was supposedly the symbol of Alexander’s family, the Argead dynasty… etc.  And the opinion of the Greeks would be that Macedonia has absolutely no right to do this, because they are Slavic and do not have the same ethnic, cultural and linguistic continuity with classical antiquity that the Greeks do.  All this means that saying Alexander the Great “wasn’t even Greek” is a hugely politically charged thing to say and will make a lot of people very angry at you.

So as for the history of it… well, Alexander certainly wasn’t Slavic; the Greeks are right about that much, but was he Greek?  Well, the people of the ancient kingdom of Macedonia probably spoke a dialect of Greek – one that was heavily influenced by the languages of neighbouring peoples like the Thracians and Paeonians, but still recognisably and understandably Greek.  They seem to have worshipped most of the Greek gods, although they also worshipped a number of other Balkan gods like Bendis.  Their political system, with an absolute monarch at the top, supported by a warrior aristocracy, feels like a bizarre holdover from what the Greeks had been doing four hundred years before Alexander’s time.  They were, at one point, tributary allies of the Persian Empire, and fought against the Greeks during Xerxes’ invasion.  And it kinda seems like the other Greeks were uncertain about whether they were Greek or not.  The key thing to remember here is that ‘Greece’ is not a unified nation in antiquity; it’s a whole bunch of city-states that spend most of their time fighting each other, although they agree that they are all linked by a shared culture… so whether or not someone is ‘Greek’ depends on their participation in that shared culture, and other people acknowledging that participation.  As a result, lots of ancient Greek authors seem to imply that the Macedonians are not Greek, or at least that it’s not self-evident that they’re Greek.  On the other hand, the Macedonian royal family, because they claimed to be descended from a mythical line of kings from the Greek city of Argos, were usually considered Greek, unless there was some transparent political reason to call them ‘barbarians’ instead (I’m looking at you, Demosthenes).  And then of course Alexander himself makes everything so much more complicated on so many levels by splattering Greek culture all over the Middle East and mixing it with aspects of Persian culture, changing what it even means to be Greek forever.

So actually the Civilisation games, when they choose Alexander as the Greek leader, are at the end of a very complicated problem.  But really, who else would they choose?  Someone like Pericles, who was most famous for making Athens powerful at the expense of other Greek cities?  Someone like Leonidas, who ruled a city that was, in many important respects, nothing like the other Greek states?  Someone like Achilles, who may or may not have even existed?  Their problem is that they need to represent ancient Greece as a single unified nation with homogeneous culture, politics and language, when in reality it was anything but (which, funnily enough, is exactly the same problem as the modern Greek state faced in the late 19th and early 20th centuries), and as it turns out, Alexander is probably the best person to do that, purely because he changes Greece and the Greeks so dramatically.

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