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Ancient models, modern identity
Alexander in the Skopje airport waiting room (Wikimedia Commons)
In 1926, a newly independent Albania issued equally new banknotes called “lek,” after the Albanian version of Alexander the Great’s name. In so doing, the nation essentially linked itself to one of the most durable heroes of classical antiquity, one who still enjoys broader name recognition than any other ancient commander. At more or less the same time, across the Adriatic, Mussolini was arranging the 2,000th anniversary of the birthday of the Roman emperor Augustus, on whose government many components of his new regime were modeled.
This negotiation of antiquity within a political context was hardly innovative: the Greek general Cimon retrieved a set of bones allegedly belonging to the legendary hero Theseus and enshrined them in Athens during the fifth century B.C., while Roman Imperial coinage regularly included images of the Trojan Aeneas.
We witnessed a similar phenomenon following the collapse of the Soviet Union, which prompted the rearrangement of a multitude of geographical boundaries and national identities, many of which are still in formation. Armenia now features the third-millennium B.C. hero Hayk on its coins; Tamerlane graces the post-Soviet currency of Uzbekistan; and Mongolia’s tugrik has Genghis Khan. The most prominent example of an appeal to a past hero involves Alexander: the airport in Skopje, capital of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), now bears the name of Alexander, and plans are underway to erect a bronze statue more than 70 feet high of him and his horse Bucephalus in the city center (“Owning Alexander,” January/February 2009). As a consequence, emotions have been running high: a group of more than 300 classicists have recently sent a letter to President Obama requesting that he press the FYROM to forego its hero-based focus, since they believe that the inhabitants, who are primarily Slavic-speaking, have no legitimate claim to the heritage of Alexander. In the midst of so much spirited rhetoric, it is easy to miss the broader historical framework to which these arguments belong: during periods of fundamental economic and political change, nations have continually repackaged antiquity, assigning to heroes parts that they may not have originally played, but which foster a shared identity and sense of stability in an otherwise unstable world.
Despite the rapid pace of globalization today, there may never come a time when the heroes of the past are not pressed into the service of the present.
C. Brian Rose is the president of the Archaeological Institute of America.
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