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The importance of historical truth and the Macedonian issue

By John Melville-Jones - posted Thursday, 10 February 2011

Last October I gave a talk in Melbourne in which I stated that the proposed erection of a large and expensive statue of Alexander the Great in Skopje was not only an inappropriate expenditure for a country that did not claim to be rich, but was also at attempt to justify an invented historical relationship.

Since that time I have received a number of messages, some of them thoughtful, others merely abusive. The thing that they have in common is that they do not address the question that I raised. Let us look at the facts.

The earliest history of the ancient Macedonians is not clearly understood, but the tribe called the Makedónes seem to have established themselves in an area which is sometimes called Pieria, around Aigai and Edessa, by the eighth century B.C. They pushed out or absorbed other groups who had settled around them. Over the next two centuries they expanded their territory, and although they still had a number of separate tribes, a firm succession of kings was established, and this made them stronger than other more divided groups. Some of the names of early kings that we have may be legendary, but with Perdikkas I (7th century) we seem to be on firmer ground. The territory under the control of the Makedónes continued to expand, and by the beginning of the 5th century one of their kings, Alexander I, had begun to issue coins with his own name written on them in Greek.


Several passages that survive in Greek authors of the fifth and fourth centuries suggest that the Macedonians were regarded by the southern Greeks as ‘different’. This is not surprising, since they had arrived on the scene later than the groups that had entered the peninsula during the Bronze Age and moved southward, but it is clear that they were, although perhaps grudgingly, accepted as being Hellenes. The situation is less clear with regard to their neighbours on the north, in an area that cannot be exactly defined, but is approximately equivalent to the territory of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. These were called the Paionians, and there were conflicts as they tried to expand into Macedonian territory. At the accession of Philip II to the throne of Macedonia the Paionians joined the Illyrians in an attempt to take advantage of the inexperience of the new king, but Philip drove them back, defeating them on more than one occasion.

The Paionians were defeated, but their territory did not become a part of Macedonia. This is shown by the fact that the Paionian kings began issuing coins bearing their own names (written in Greek of course) during the reign of Philip II, and when Alexander started making his conquests, they provided a separate contingent of cavalry in his army. They remained separate from Macedonia until the Roman conquest, as their issuing of coinage, first in the name of their kings, and finally in the name of the Paionians themselves in the early second century B.C., shows. Then, for administrative purposes, a large Roman province called ‘Macedonia’ was created, which included them, and large areas of land to the south and west, far beyond the borders of the original Macedonia.

So the area now controlled by Skopje was not in the fourth century B.C. or for many centuries after that a part of Macedonia (except perhaps for a very narrow strip along its southern border), and the erection of a statue of Alexander the Great in Skopje cannot be justified, because it is based on a distortion of history by a people who, I am sorry to say, are having a false identity created for them.

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About the Author

Professor John Melville-Jones is a Winthrop Professor in Classics & Ancient History at the University of Western Australia.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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