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Alexander: The Great Who Wasn’t (Quite) Greek
By Ben Thomas Posted in History on May 17, 2016 0 Comments
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Ayesha Talib Wissanji asked this excellent question the other day:

“I always get confused about the Greeks and Macedonians in this time era. It has not become clear to me. Alexander was Macedonian, but was not he schooled by the great Greek philosophers? Did Alexander become Greek?”

Heres your answer, Ayesha.


The term “Greek” can be confusing when applied to people of the Classical era, because there really wasn’t any such thing as “Greek” identity — in terms we’d recognize as a modern nation-state — at that time.

The “Greeks” who fought against the Trojans around the 1100s B.C., for example, would probably have called themselves Ahhiyawa (Achaeans), and would have dressed and spoken something like the way we’d picture Philistines or Hittites.

Achaeans (ancestors of the Greeks) as they looked at the time of the Trojan War
Achaeans (ancestors of the Greeks) as they looked at the time of the Trojan War

Another 600-odd years later — after a prolonged Mediterranean Dark Age — a culture we’d recognize as classically “Greek” started to emerge. The people of this new age organized themselves into city-states — the Athenians called themselves “Athenians,” the Macedonians “Macedonians,” and so on. There was no such thing as a “Greek person” or “Greek culture” yet.

These people — who referred to themselves as “Hellenes” — spoke different dialects of a common language, and worshipped many of the same gods. In fact, they even formed military coalitions on several occasions; for instance, when Athens and Sparta banded together to fight the armies of Darius and then Xerxes in the Greco-Persian wars.

However, each of the Hellenic city-states considered itself independent from the others. They each minted their own currency, had their own forms of government — from democracy to monarchy to tyranny — and maintained their own armies; and they were just as prone to declaring war on one another as they were to fighting outside enemies.

Athenian citizens debating in the 500s BCE
Athenian citizens debating in the 500s BCE

In fact, an ancient Athenian and an ancient Spartan would both gladly tell you that the people of their city-state were the “best” sort of Hellenes. In other words, there was no strong sense of a unified “Greece” in the Classical period, as there would be in later ages.

The Macedonians are an unusual case, because a) their state was to the northeast of the Hellenic heartland, up in the wild hill country, and b) they siezed power during a Hellenic power vacuum, when Athens and Sparta (and a lot of other city-states) had exhausted themselves in a long and expensive war.

Ancient Hellenes, in general, did not have a particularly high opinion of Macedonians. If you’d asked an ancient Athenian, he or she probably would’ve told you that, while Macedonians were indeed Hellenes, they were also a bunch of illiterate hicks who spoke an ugly dialect of Greek, and who did nothing but get drunk and fight.

A Macedonian banquet
A Macedonian banquet

The drinking and fighting parts were true enough, actually. The Macedonians were famous for guzzling huge buckets of unmixed wine. Wine in this period was stronger than today — probably more like what we’d call a “fortified wine,” like port or sherry — and most Hellenes watered it down. But not the Macedonians — they were famous for drinking it straight, and in enormous quantities, until they puked and blacked out. Apparently they liked to do this on a regular basis, and Alexander was known for doing it every day.

Anyway, during that Hellenic power vacuum, a Macedonian king named Philip II put an end to his people’s reputation as outsiders.

King Philip of Macedon
Alexander’s father, King Philip II of Macedon

Philip armed his soldiers with a super-long spear called the sarissa, which gave them an edge in battles with neighboring kingdoms — and it wasn’t long before his hard-drinking, rough-talking army was attacking and capturing border cities that the strung-out Athenians just couldn’t hold on to.

A formidable Macedonian phalanx, with sarissas at the ready
A formidable Macedonian phalanx, with sarissas at the ready

Philip played the warring Hellenic city-states off each other with impressive cunning — and after a few years, he talked all the major ones (with the notable exception of Sparta) into joining with him in a league to go to war against the Achaemenid Persian empire. Take a look at the map of the league, and you’ll see hints of a real “Greece” starting to take shape. Kind of ironic that it was engineered by a Macedonian king (who may quite possibly have been drunk the entire time — see also, Winston Churchill, Ögedei Khan, Joseph Stalin, and many, many others).

Philip was assassinated at the height of his power, leaving his wealth, armies and ambitions to his son Alexander — who Philip had raised to fight and drink like a Macedonian, and to read and debate philosophy like an Athenian. (The philosopher Aristotle was Alexander’s childhood tutor — which gives you some idea of Philip’s wealth and influence. It’d be like a modern billionaire hiring Stephen Hawking to tutor his kid in math.)

Alexander himself was unpopular in his time, both among Hellenes and (obviously) among Persians and other peoples he conquered — even as he and his armies rode out and conquered the Achaemenid Persian empire, and brought Hellenic culture and the Greek language to the entire known world, from Egypt to Afghanistan.

So depending on who you ask, maybe Alexander never really did become “Greek,” in the Classical Athenian sense — but thanks to him, a huge portion of the earth did.

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