Makedonika II: The Ancient Macedonian Language (Testimonia)

A. Testimonia

(a) In a scene from the Attic comedy “Macedonians”, by the 5th-century writer Strattis, an Athenian asks ή σφύραινα δέστι τίς;(‘sled-fish, what do you mean?), and a Macedonian replies “κέστραν μεν ΰμμες ώττικοΐ κικλήσκετε (‘wha ye Attics ca’ a hammer-fush, ma freen’). In order to appreciate the value of the Macedonian’s reply for the problem under dis­cussion, we must not forget that, as is clear from many passages in Aristophanes, the Attic comedians made their non-Greeks speak broken Greek with an admixture of bar­barian words (some of them imaginary), while Lacedaemo­nians, Megarians, Boiotians and other Greeks spoke in their own dialects (albeit with a number of inaccuracies). The Macedonian’s reply is in good Greek with dialect (ΰμ­μες, σφύραινα) and archaizing (κικλήσκετε) elements.

(b) The ancient Geographer Strabo in his description of Macedonia writes:

Strabo 7.7.8: “But some go so far as to call the whole of the country Macedonia, as far as Corcyra, at the same time stating as their reason that in tonsure, language, short cloak, and other things of the kind, the usages of the inhabitants are similar”

Interestingly, we learn from the account of Strabo that Macedonians spoke similar language to the people “as far as Corcyra”. Today we know Epirotes spoke a North-West Greek so obviously the North-West Greek dialect was also spoken by Macedonians.

(c) Plutarch tells us the story of the infant Pyrrhus when his companions tried to save Pyrrhus from Molossians and while heading to the court Of Glaucias, they came across Megara, a Macedonian village in the other side of where they were standing. Apparently the Macedonian peasants were able to read the message of the Epirotes guards of Pyrrhus since they spoke the same language, thus they helped them.

Plutarch Pyrrhus II.1: “one recollecting himself, stripped off a piece of bark from an oak, and wrote on it with the tongue of a buckle, stating the necessities and the fortunes of the child, and then rolling it about a stone, which was made use of to give force to the motion, threw it over to the other side, or, as some say, fastened it to the end of a javelin, and darted it over. When the men on the other shore read what was on the bark, and saw how time pressed, without delay they cut down some trees, and lashing them together, came over to them. And it so fell out, that he who first got ashore, and took Pyrrhus in his arms, was named Achilles, the rest being helped over by others as they came to hand.”

(d) Another piece of evidence connecting the North-West Greek lnaguage of Epirotans with Macedonians comes from Pyrrhus life. Pyrrhus planted some of his Epirotes into Macedonian army, retending to be Macedonians while urging Macedonians to get rid of Demetrius. This could be done only if Epirotes spoke the same Greek dialect as Macedonians.

Plutarch Pyrrhus XI.4: “But while he lay encamped there near him, many who came out of Beroea infinitely praised Pyrrhus as invincible in arms, a glorious warrior, who treated those he had taken kindly and humanely. Several of these Pyrrhus himself sent privately, pretending to be Macedonians, and saying, now was the time to be delivered from the severe government of Demetrius, by coming over to Pyrrhus, a gracious prince, and a lover of soldiers.”

(e) In the Philotas affair, it becomes even clearer Macedonian is a Greek dialect, since Philotas explicitely states that using the Koine would make his speech “easier to understand“, indicating that Macedonian dialect was not incomprehensible to the non-Macedonians, but a bit more difficult to understand. In fact, the whole incident shows the Macedonian dialect was not that different from the Koine and could be understood eventhough it had some difficulty by other Greeks. This also explains the quick disappearance of the Macedonian dialect and the quick adoption of the Koine from Macedonians.

Curtius VII 9.25 – 11.7: “Alexander speaks: “The Macedonians are going to judge your case,” he said. “Please state whether you will use your native language before them.”Philotas: “Besides the Macedonians, there are many present who, I think, will find what I am going to say easier to understand if I use the language you yourself have been using, your purpose, I believe, being only to enable more people to understand you.”

(f) Alexander the Great, having selected thirty thousand Per­sian youths, gave an order that they were ‘to learn Greek language and be trained in the use of Macedonian weapons’ From this it may be deduced that the Macedonian soldiers spoke Greek: it would be pointless to teach the young Persians who were fighting along with Macedonians in a language that the Macedonians did not understand.

Plutarch’s Alexander, 47,6: he also ordered that the troop of Persians “should learn the Greek language and be trained to use Macedonian weapons” (εκέλευε γράμματά τε ελληνικά μανθάνειν καί μακεδονικοίς όπλοις εντρέφεσθαι)

(g) In fact, Alexander and the Macedonians disseminated the Greek language throughout the world they conquered; Alexander gave an order that the inscriptions which were in a foreign language were to be explained in Greek, so that they would be comprehensible to his troops.

Plutarch’s Alexander, 69,2: After reading the inscription, he ordered it to be repeated below in Greek language (τήν επιγραφήν αναγνούς εκέλευσεν ελληνικοίς υποχαράξαι γράμμασιν)

(h) An Ambassador of Macedonia, speaking to the Aitolians in 200 B.C. says the Macedonians, the Aitolians and the Akrnanians that they spoke the same language.

T. Livius XXXI,29, 15: Aetolians, Acarnanians, Macedonians, men of the same language.

(i) In another Instance we learn about the Branchidae, a Greek people, who, on the orders of Xerxes, when he was returning from Greece, had emigrated from Miletus and settled elsewhere. While the culture of their forebears had not yet disappeared though they were now bilingual, the foreign tongue (Persian) had gradually eroded their own. Long afterwards while Alexander came to their place, we find in literary sources that Macedonians spoke the same Greek Language like the Greek-Speaking Branchidae!!

Curtius VII.5.29: “So it was with great joy that they welcomed Alexander, to whom they surrendered themselves and their city. Alexander called a meeting of the Milesians in his force, for the Milesians bore a long-standing grudge against the Branchidae as a clan. Since they were the people betrayed by the Branchidae, Alexander let them decide freely on their case, asking if they preferred to remember their injury or their common origins. But when there was a difference of opinion over this, he declared that he would himself consider the best course of action.When the Branchidae met him the next day, he told them to accompany him. On reaching the city, he himself entered through the gate with a unit of light-armed troops. The phalanx had been ordered to surround the city walls and, when the signal was given, to sack this city which provided refuge for traitors, killing the inhabitants to a man. The Branchidae, who were unarmed, were butchered throughout the city, and neither community of language nor the olive-branches and entreaties of the suppliants could curb the savagery. Finally the Macedonians dug down to the foundations of the city walls in order to demolish them and leave not a single trace of the city.”

(j) Their Greek speech is indicated further by Pausanias who says that the inhabitants of Messene recognized the intruders as Makedones, from their weapons and speech, which at the time suggest that the Macedonian speech was understood by the populace of Messene.

Pausanias Messeniaka XXIX, 3: “When day dawned and the inhabitants had realized the danger that beset them, they were at first under the impression that the Lacedaemonians had forced an entry into the town, and attacked them more recklessly owing to their ancient hatred. But when they discovered from their equipment and speech that it was the Macedonians and Demetrius the son of Philip, they were filled with great fear, when they considered the Macedonian training in warfare and the good fortune which they saw that they enjoyed in all their ventures.”

(k) Laomedon was a billingual Macedonian and furthemore Arrian informs us that he was speaking Greek and Persian. Therefore we have another indirect evidence of Macedonian being Greek.

Arrian. Anab. 3.6.6: Erigyius the command of te allied cavalry and his brother Laomedon, who happened to be fluent in the Persian language as in Greek, was put in charge of prisoners of war. (Λαομέδοντα δ τν τούτου δελφόν, τι δίγλωσσος ν ς τ βαρβαρικ γράμματα, π τος αχμαλώτοις βαρβάροις)

(l) Moreover another strengthening evidence comes from the event where Macedonians in a man wearing a Greek chlamys, dressed in Greek and speaking Greek. These Macedonians are moved into emotion and jubilation when they heard Greek being spoken and learned from him that Alexander’s camp was not far away.

Arrian, “The Indica” XXXIII: There a man appeared to them, wearing a Greek cloak, and dressed otherwise in the Greek fashion, and speaking Greek also. Those [Macedonians] who first sighted him said that they burst into tears, so strange did it seem after all these miseries to see a Greek, and to hear Greek spoken. They asked whence he came, who he was; and he said that he had become separated from Alexander’s camp, and that the camp, and Alexander himself, were not very far distant. Shouting aloud and clapping their hands they brought this man to Nearchus.

(m) Last but not least, we find on Livius account a testimony where the Roman General Paulus makes an announcement and Gnaeus Octavius  to be translated it in Greek so that the Macedonian population comprehends it.

T. Livius, XLV: General Paulus of Rome surrounded by the ten Commissioners took his official seat surrounded by the whole crowds of Macedonians…Paulus announced in Latin the decisions of the Senate, as well as his own, made by the advice of his council. This announcement was translated into Greek and repeated by Gnaeus Octavius the Praetor-for he too was present.


Despite the lack of Macedonian texts written in the local language, the literary sources point out ancient Macedonian to be a Greek dialect and more specifically a North-West Greek dialect akin to the dialect spoken by Epirotes.




Mihael Sakellariou, “Macedonia – 4000 years of Greek history”,

Elias Kapetanopoulos, “Xennias Makedonizwn”

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Mike says:

Listen if the Macedonians were not ultimetly Greek, which most likely they were. They came to speak greek and be hellenized and totally mixed with other greeks. which is a fact. Point being… its Greek history either way