Orthodox Outlet for Dogmatic Enquiries Historical themes





by Professor Donald Kagan

University of Yale
December 6, 2007.




So, as I say, it's going to be a very major change but it's something that they don't know they're in the middle of watching. Well, in 359 a man called Philip became King of Macedon. We know the Macedonians were fundamentally Greeks. That is to say, they were Greek speakers and ethnically, if there is such a thing, they were Greek. But they were so far out of the mainstream of the development of the Greek poleis that we have been examining this semester that many, many Greeks, perhaps most of them, didn't think of them as being Greek

When Greeks thought about what it was to be a Greek they thought about more than the fact that they spoke the Greek language, they thought fundamentally--if you get to Aristotle you see how thoroughly true this is, it had to do with a culture, a way of life and that way of life was based upon the independent polis.

Well, Macedon did not have such a structure. The Greeks called the Macedonians an ethnos, a tribal group is what that sort of means. We use the word "nation" somehow to translate ethnos and that's okay. The word "nation" itself, you remember, comes from the Latin word which means to be born; people who are born of the same stock.

But for the Greeks it had a different meaning; it was people who participated in the culture that they designated as Hellenic and they thought the Macedonians fell outside of that. There were no poleis in the Macedonian kingdom. It was something that we might call feudal. That is to say, yes there was a monarch, but there were powerful noblemen who were practically independent and who owed only a limited allegiance to the king and who were really the dominant figures in the state for most of the history prior to the appearance of Philip.

On the other hand, the king was an important and powerful character so that you have--this was true of European feudal states at certain periods in their development. On the one hand, the fundamental society was based upon great lords, great noblemen, barons, but there was a king and he was not inconsequential.

That's the situation that pertained in Macedon. In a certain sense, if a Greek had looked at Macedonian society prior to Philip, he might have described it as Homeric, and you'll be familiar with that. Sure, there were guys called basileus, but they were not really the rulers over the barons, these great noblemen in their kingdom. They thought of it as uncivilized in the technical sense.

If you don't live in a polis, a city, as they understood it, then you are not civilized; you are part of an ethnos and that's the term they used of the tribal societies all around them, Illyrians, Scythians, they were all from an ethnos. The Macedonians, on the other hand, claimed very proudly and powerfully, and insistently that they were Greeksthey were Hellenes, and they probably invented a myth of their descent. Indeed, not merely from Greeks but from the real Greeks, that is to say the Argives, who were the leading people in the time of Homer's poetry and they claimed direct descent from Agamemnon and the other Argive kings

We hear about various Macedonian monarchs of some importance prior to Philip, back at the time of the Persian War, Alexander the first played an interesting and shady role between the Greeks and the Persians. During the Peloponnesian War we hear of a King Perdiccas, who also played a role shifting between the Spartans and the Athenians.


Article published in English on: 3-3-2011.

Last update: 3-3-2011.