The Importance of Historical Truth and The Macedonian Issue


By Professor John Melville-Jones

Following the publication of the edited version of the after-dinner talk that I gave in October, a formal complaint was made to my employer (to which a polite reply was made, stressing the importance of academic freedom), and I received an e-mailed message from the United Macedonian Diaspora (which I thought, because of its name, must be a Greek organisation until I read what it had to say), together with a number of other e-mails. Many of these were merely abusive, but this didn´t surprise me, because I know from experience that when people hold strong beliefs that are based on faith not fact, and they are shown that these beliefs cannot be true, this is distressing to them, and they will very often become agitated, as they cling to their beliefs even more vigorously. None of the messages that I received addressed the issue that I raised in my talk in Melbourne, the proposed erection of the statue of Alexander the Great in Skopje. Two of them were, however, more thoughtful, and I have had some mild and civilised exchanges with their authors, as we define our positions.

Some of the points that were made were what I would call ‘diversionary’, such as the statement that the present population of the Greek province of Macedonia has nothing in common with its population in ancient times, being ‘colonisers’, referring to the fact that many of them were brought there from Turkey in the 1920s during the exchange of populations which led to Muslims being removed from some areas of the Balkans, and Christians from some parts of Asia Minor. I have pointed out to the persons who made this point that this is not an accurate way to describe what happened; and it is certainly not relevant to the issue that brought me into this debate (see below). Similarly, I know that in northern Greece some of the things that have been done to the Slav minority who live there, such as discouraging them from using their own language, cannot be defended (and I wonder what has happened to any Greek speakers who still live in the FYROM, but no one has told me anything about them). But I am a specialist in the ancient world, not in modern history, and again this is not relevant to the point that I am trying to make.

Anyway, I composed a reply, and sent it to everyone who had contacted me, answering some of the points that had been made, and emphasising that I was not well informed on the details of what had happened in the period of Ottoman domination or the twentieth century, although I am in fact learning more. For example, I have been looking at a book called The Contest for Macedonian Identity 1870-1912 by Nick Anastasovski, which is very scholarly and better documented, particularly in relation to Ottoman sources, than anything else that I have previously read. But it fails in its promise to show how a ‘Macedonian Identity’ began to be constructed in the 19th century. And one of the problems is that the word ´Macedonian´ can be interpreted in different ways (I am reminded of the character Humpty Dumpty in Lewis Carroll´s Alice through the Looking Glass, who said ´When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean …´).

One delightful experience was my being directed, apparently seriously, to a web site produced by two scientists in Skopje, who claimed to have shown that the middle section of the Rosetta Stone (196 B.C.), the section occupying the space between the text that was presented in hieroglyphics and the text that was presented in Greek, was not, as has been generally supposed, written in Middle or Ptolemaic Demotic Egyptian (close to Coptic), but in the original ‘Macedonian’ language, which the Ptolemies, being Macedonians, were supposed to have used. This was combined with the suggestion that these original ‘Macedonians’ had been driven out of Macedonia by the Romans, but returned some seven centuries later to their homeland. Thus we would have a connection between the Macedonians of antiquity and the present inhabitants of the FYROM.

It is amazing that this world-shattering theory has not made the front pages of the international newspapers, even though, to judge from the comments that I have found on the web, some people in the FYROM are convinced by it. There are, however, obvious weaknesses that anyone, not necessarily a specialist in linguistics, can spot easily. In the first place, the web site dismisses the perfectly credible translation from Demotic which is provided by the British Museum. Also, the number of ‘Macedonian’ words that have been ‘identified’ by this ‘scholarly’ study is small (the authors do not offer a translation of the complete text, just a selection of supposed ‘Macedonian’ words). I discussed this with a linguist of my acquaintance, who said that if he studied the text in the same way, he would be able before too long to prove that some words in it were Finnish, Chinese or (Heaven forbid!) Bulgarian.

The nature of the language spoken by the ancient Makedónes is hard to evaluate, because so little of it remains (I will ignore the claim concerning the Rosetta Stone, and the suggestion that there are inscriptions of an early date in one or more non-Greek languages which have been discovered, but are locked up in Greek museums and kept secret). We have about a hundred and fifty words that are specifically described as ´Macedonian´, most of them from the Lexicon of Hesychius (5th century A.D., but incorporating earlier work). The material is insufficient for a firm judgement to be made (and it should be remembered that Hesychius and his predecessors were collecting rare or unusual words, rather than listing ones that were the same everywhere), but it is clear even from this limited sample that the Macedonian language was no further from Attic Greek (which became the standard form) than the Cretan or Spartan languages, which would certainly be called Greek.

Having said this, I can restate my position and develop it a bit. The origin of the Makedónes is unclear, but they seem to have arrived in the area around Aigai (Edessa & Vergina) by the eighth century B.C. They pushed out or absorbed the Bottiaioi who lived in that region or to the south of it, and other groups such as the Pierians and Mygdonians. Over the next two centuries they settled there and 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 much later than the groups that had entered the peninsula during the Bronze Age and moved southward, but it is clear from the evidence 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 frequent conflicts as they tried to expand into Macedonian territory. At the accession of Philip II to the throne of Macedonia the Paionians joined with 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.

When I spoke of this in my after-dinner speech, I described this event as a ´conquest´, which was completed by Philip´s son Alexander III. This was an overstatement. 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 certainly remained separate from Macedonia until the Roman conquest, as their continued 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. And in the immediate aftermath of that conquest they were still regarded as separate, if we can believe the Roman historian Livy, who tells us (XLV, 29) that the Dardanians were not allowed by the Romans to take control of Paionia, although, as they claimed, it had once been theirs, because it had belonged to the last Macedonian king Perseus (sub regno Persei), and all Perseus´s subjects had now been granted political freedom (libertas).

In later years the name ‘Macedonia’ was applied to a much larger area. It included some land to the north (Paionia), to the west and to the south (even including southern Greece for a while until a separate Roman province of Achaia was created). And in the centuries before the Ottoman conquest the geographical extent of ´Macedonia´ (by now a purely administrative district, with no separate ethnic identity), varied considerably at different times. But now we are moving away from the issue that brought me into this naming dispute. This is that the territory of the FYROM was not, either 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 that the erection of a statue of Alexander the Great in Skopje can never be justified, because it is based on a distortion of history by a people who, I am sorry to say, are trying to create a false identity for themselves.

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

9 thoughts on “The Importance of Historical Truth and The Macedonian Issue

  • February 4, 2011 at 4:37 pm

    Professor John Melville-Jones claims that he is an expert in ancient history.He is dissmising what ancient historians were saying about the differance between the Hellens and the Macedonians.My question is;are we to believe 19th and 20th century historians or historians who wrote history in ancient times?I would like to remind the professor about Pericles letter to Phillip II,and the composition of the epitaph for the fallen Hellens in 338 Demosthenes.Professor John Melville-Jones is dissmising Alexanders question put to Philotas trial for treason as to what language will he address the people. The professor would serve his students better if he would have researched if there are any similarities between the ancient Hellenic and ancient Macedonian languages.Also the similarities of ancient Macedonian language spoken in the Pakistani province of Unzu and Kalash with the one that is spoken in the Republic of Macedonia,occupied Greek Macedonia and that of south west Bulgaria as well with the one in Albania.I find it very one sided professors article,because it supports Greeces fabricated history.There is one thing I agree with the professor,and that is;”academic freedom”,but it should be used on real historical truth.Since the professor mentiones the 1920s population exchange between Greece and Turkey,I will make a short comment.The majority of so-called Greeks from Asia Minor were christian Turks.Their re-setlement was in the Macedonian territories for the purpose of the expulsion of the indigenouse Macedonians,mostly to Bulgaria and Yugoslavia. Greece re-distributed the expropriated land amogs the newcomers from Asia Minor.These people did not even speak the Greek language,but forced all the population to learn the Greek language,and the Macedonian language outlawed,changed the names of persons,toponims ect.Greece is playing double standard,in 1925 at the League of Nations Greece defended the Macedonian ethnicity,language and culture by declairing;the “Macedonians and their language is not Bulgarian nor Serbian,but a distinct Macedonian identity and language”.My last question for the professor is;why Greece has locked some artifacts that have been discovered in the Macedonian territories?.

  • February 5, 2011 at 1:55 am

    To Peter,

    Your attack upon upon Professor Melville-Jones is pathetic. What exactly are your credentials? What is your full name? Where did you get a Degree in Ancient Greek-Macedonian History ? Where do you teach? You Claim the Greeks from Asia Mnior are actually Christian Turks. This Peter (if thats is your name) is in the realm of the absurd and should stay on the FYROM Propaganda Web sites that you subscribe too.
    A Christian Turk ? HUH ! Did you forget to take your meds?

    If you want to be a macedonian, pick up a Greek Flag and march in the greeks parades held all over the world on Greek national holidays.


  • February 5, 2011 at 6:36 pm

    An interesting lessor known fact about historical claims like Peters is the current extremist government also seems to be fabricating Bulgarian history as well. Presumably in an attempt to forge a path to antiquity nationalist extremists rename middle ages self-identifying Bulgarians into “ethnic Macedonians” (much like they do ancient self-identifying Greeks)

    “Around 20 Bulgarian intellectuals, including three Macedonian Bulgarians, have sent a petition to UNESCO, asking the organisation to stop the misappropriation of the Bulgarian language, history and culture by Macedonia, Skopje-based Kanal 5 TV reports.
    “The petition, addressed to UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova, who is a Bulgarian, calls for actions and to stop considering the Bulgarian language in Macedonia as Macedonian language,” the television states.
    “For 65 years now a lie is being spread throughout the world and it is that there is separate Macedonian language, history and culture. We will not hesitate to show the truth to the world. Vardar Macedonia (which is nowadays occupied by Macedonia) has always been a geographic term – indivisible from the Bulgarian culture and history. There are many historical facts, which confirm it,” the letter reads.”

    Its somewhat ironic that former self-identifying Bulgarians are now in the process of trying to erase the history of Bulgarians.(and a testimate to the power of communist era propaganda)

    “The creation of the Macedonian nation, for almost half of a century, was done in a condition of single-party dictatorship. In those times, there was no difference between science and ideology, so the “Macedonian” historiography, unopposed by anybody, comfortably performed a selection of the historic material from which the “Macedonian” identity was created. There is nothing atypical here for the process of the creation of any modern nation, except when falsification from the type of substitution of the word “Bulgarian” with the word “Macedonian” were made.” – Denko Maleski, former Minister of foreign affairs

  • February 5, 2011 at 11:03 pm

    A reply to the above Greek commentators in regards to John Melville-Jones.To answere your question on history,I am no historian,but at the same time I do know Greek history as well as Macedonian.I learned,how and from where did the Hellens came to the mediteraenian peninsula,as well as their mix of different people that makes up this nation.I also know,the Macedonians who occupie the mediterean peninsula and present Republic of Macedonia have lived in this area before the Hellens arrival to this area.You may argue the point,but the truth is the truth,unlike the Greek lies since 1913.Look,I understand your stance,Greece cannot live without occupied Macedonia,but does not mean it is Greeces property.This part of Macedonia was given to Greece in 1913 under the Bucharest Agreement by the Big Powers.Crete was not Greek,but at the same year Greece invaded Crete with the Big Powers objection.You people are forgeting what the Greek inteligentia are saying on the question of Macedonia and its people.Let me remind you what ambassador to Macedonia Grossomanidou said to Athens;”Athens must recognise the Republic of Macedonia,after all,Macedonia existed before Greece did”.What Mitsotakis said,”I have no problem with the name Macedonia,my problem is the recognition of second minority after the muslim one”.I mentioned before,what did Alexander said to Philotas durring his treason trial.Why did Alexander asked Philotas,in what language will you address the people”.Why did Alexander scorned Philotas on his answere when he Alexander accused him of not uding his own fathereland language-Macedonian.The letter of Pericles to Philip II,and the composition of the epitaph by Demosthenes for the fallen Hellens.Are you trying to dismiss history of 338-337 BC,by accepting the politisized history?.Because,that is exacly what you are trying to potray on your comments.This is why I disagree with professor Melville views,as well as with yours.My last question is;why geographical Macedonia at the Berlin Conference was left under the Ottoman Empire?.

  • February 6, 2011 at 3:30 am

    And what do ancient Macedonians have to do with you Peter? You are (literally) even less related to ancient Macedonians then you are to Turks. (different language, different culture, different religion, different time, different people)

    “We are Bulgarian more than the Bulgarians in Bulgaria. The population of Skopje is pure Bulgarian. “Our fathers, grandfathers, and great grandfathers have always been called Bulgarians” – Misirkov Krste

    Why do you hide your Bulgarian past Peter?

  • February 6, 2011 at 5:29 am

    John Melville-Jones does not state that modern Macedonians once formed the majority population in present day Greek (Aegean) Macedonia. The forceful Hellenization, torture and murder of Macedonians occurred in Greek (Aegean) Macedonia, while Greeks from Turkey took the lands and homes of those Macedonians exiled and removed from the territory.

    What one has to understand is, if the people migrate to new areas then they are still allowed to cherish their heroes in those new areas. This is clearly ignored by Mr Jones, who claims Republic of Macedonia should instead be called Republic of Paionia because the recent 1000+ years have been ignored. Also, Paionia was absorbed into Macedonia and Macedonians intermixed with them. Before the conquest of Phillip II, modern Republic of Macedonia composed of Paionia in the North and Macedonia in the South. Much is ignored by the author to make his case, which I believe has been shown to be biased

  • February 6, 2011 at 6:23 pm

    Why don’t ultra nationalists ever argue they “mixed” with Turks? With Darwinians? With Serbs? With Albanians? With Greeks? With Venetians? With Jews? Or say even with Bulgarians?

    I think Ljubco Georgievski, who’s bravely trying to hold on his ethnic Bulgarian heritage, summed up quite reasonably how irrationally some extremist chauvinists are behaving. (Pulled from A1 TV-that was “coincidentally” shut down by that anti-democratic thug Gruevski recently)

    “To everyone of us it is clear that this entire thesis, this entire thesis for ethnogenesis from Macedonians, it isn’t so. Ancient Macedonians until today is founded on a series of mystifications and semi-historical truths which are emitted from Republic of Macedonia”

    “Why do Skopjans not ask how much Dardanian blood there is in them?”

    “How much Thracian blood there is in them?”

    “How much Illyrian blood there is in them?

    “How much Paeonian blood there is in them?”

    “I do not see anyone of us get into a fight over the amount of Paeonian blood in us, or God forbid, Dardinian one?”

    Is he being unreasonable by pointing this out? Or is it nationalist extremists that are being unreasonable by constantly evading very unambiguous evidence of their Bulgarian past? Are they ashamed of their ethnic Bulgarian heritage?

    “We are Bulgarians, more Bulgarians than the Bulgarians in Bulgaria themselves.”[…]’And, anyway, what sort of new Macedonian nation can this be when we and our fathers and grandfathers and great-grandfathers have always been called Bulgarians?” – Krste Misirkov

  • February 7, 2011 at 4:01 am

    Reply To Johnny D/Peter:

    You claim the Greece forced out the Macedonians. During the Greek Civil War, a portion, not all of the Macedonians took up arms against the Greek state in order to create their own state, with the Greek Communists. They lost. They ended up in Yugoslavia and other countries. When they got there, they had their names changed to Slavic sounding ones, with ‘ovski” added to every surname. They also abducted thousands of Greek children that ended up in foreign lands. It is true that the Greeks from Asia were transplanted into todays Macedonia, Northern Greece. However, there were other non Asia Minor people living in Macedonia and they were Greek, Turkish, Albanian, and Makedonski also. You also claim that the people of FYROM are simply cherishing the heroes of Macedonia. I am not sure where you get this from but it is obvious that the Government of FYROM has long term plans that incorporate Hellenic soil.

    As far as the Christian Turks from Asia Minor comments – Greece was Asia Minor, as well as other parts including todays Greece. The temple of Artemis, temple of Poseidon, Troy, all in Asia minor. Greek history and people were erradicated by the Turks after the fall of constantinople in 1453. Ephesus, Smyrna, Constantinople, All Greek names. Need I say more.

    You comments always mention Greek Historians and Greek Names – Pericles, Domesthenes, Alexander, Phillipos. How come you cant find any names like the Slavic sounding names of Fyrom. How about Historian “Borche” wrote this…How about Ancient Macedonian “Dragi” did this….

    I guess Professor Melville-Jones and all the other 370 Academics (most non greek) at, and The newly created Institute for Hellenic Studies at the University of Waterloo in Canada – (where Alexander is defined as being Greek) are all wrong and you are right. You are free to believe what you like. Your faith is strong but your facts are wrong.

  • February 11, 2011 at 7:06 pm

    For those that still insist the Macedonians were NOT Greek and had their own separate Language and Culture, I have posted these three simple questions on many discussion boards and I am STILL waiting for convincing answers:


    “If you believe that the Ancient Macedonians were NOT GREEK and came from a different Nation, had a different Language and Culture and ‘invaded’ the Greeks, where are the so-called Macedonian words in the Greek Language”???

    It is an incontrovertible FACT that peoples that are INVADED assimilate words from the Language of their INVADERS over time.
    (There are Latin and Turkish words in the Greek language because of the Roman and Turkish conquests).

    I am waiting for you to provide some credible proof of this ‘Language’ you say the Macedonians spoke in ancient times.


    “If the Ancient Macedonians were NOT GREEK and came from a great separate nation and had their own Language and Culture, WHY DIDN’T THEY SPREAD THAT AROUND THE WORLD, instead of the Language and Culture of their despised ‘enemies’ and ‘slaves’- the Greeks???”

    Be careful how you answer, because for ALL Great Nations there is NOTHING MORE PRECIOUS than these things!


    “Are you in favor of asking an Independent International Group of Academics and Historians to look at the FACTS about the History and Origin of the Macedonians and come up with a BINDING result that would have to be accepted by ALL sides???”


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *