Exposing FYROM’s Fashionable Nonsense #1: “Greek was the lingua franca before Alexander the Great’s era like English is today”

Erroneous Claim: “Greek was the lingua franca before Alexander the Great’s era, like English is today”

The above  is a widely-used false claim promoted mainly by FYROM’s propaganda. The status of lingua franca, especially during the Achaemenid period (539-333) through the vast Persian empire[1] and the Mediteranean world had the Aramaic language. [2]

Greek was not the lingua franca during the reign of Philip II. In fact, it acquired this status later, solely because of the conquests of Alexander and through the numerous colonies he founded that dispersed the Greek culture and language, around the world of Eastern Mediterranean. In fact, after Alexander, despite the wide adoption of Greek, native languages survived and thrived and Hellenistic kingdoms erected multiple multilingual inscriptions.

Interpreters were undoubtedly used in numerous instances without being mentioned by ancient sources. We have to percieve the notion that as a rule, an historian is concerned with events, their possible causes and effects, while they tend to overlook certain details being usually perceived as minor. Therefore for an historian, the ideas expressed in a speech are more important than the language(s) they are being uttered and certainly the means by which differences of language have to overcome [3]

A careful examination of the available ancient sources drives us to conclude that the Greek language was unknown to most of the places, Alexander the Great conquered through his Pan-hellenic expedition in Asia.


Xenophon in his works refers frequently to the use of interpreters between Greeks and Persians. When Epyaxa visited Cyrus the younger, the Persian leader wished to show her his Greek mercenaries. The order of Cyrus to his Greek mercenaries since as a Persian did not speak Greek, was given  through an interpreter (Anab. 1.2.17):

[..]and sending his interpreter Pigres to the generals of the Greeks, gave orders that the troops should advance arms and the phalanx move forward in a body.

A little later, another interpreter is used by Cyrus (Anab. 1.4.16) to give a message to the Greek troops:

 When Cyrus learned that they had crossed, he was delighted and sent Glus to the troops with this message: “Soldiers, to-day I commend you; but I shall see to it that you also shall have cause to commend me, else count me no longer Cyrus.”

In (Anab. 1.8.12), before the battle of Cunaxa, the Persian Cyrus is accompanied by his Interpreter Pigres

“[…]Cyrus rode along the line, attended only by Pigres, his interpreter,[..]”

The problem of communication between Persians and Greeks is highlighted once again in (Anab. 2.3.17) where the Persian Satrap Tissaphernis meets the Greek generals:

When the Greek generals met them, Tissaphernes, through an interpreter, began the speaking with the following words[..]

Later we find Xenophon wishing to request from the Carduchians to give back the bodies of the Greek dead. Although Carduchians spoke Persian, there was no way to communicate with eachother without an interpreter. (Anab. 4.218)

this achievement the barbarians came to a hill opposite the round hill, and Xenophon, through an interpreter, held a colloquy with them in regard to a truce and asked them to give back the bodies of the Greek dead.

We are becoming witnesses of the same story when the Greek army passes Western Armenia. Tribazus, the governor of the area, is forced to send an interpreter to the Greeks:

He rode up to the Greeks with a body of horsemen, and sending forward an interpreter, said that he wished to confer with their commanders.

During Alexander’s Pan-Hellenic expedition in Asia, we find more instances where it becomes explicit Persians could not understand the Greek language.

Quintus Curtius Rufus (5.11.1) describes the incident with Patron, the commander of the Greeks in Darius’ Service. Patron draw near the Persian king in order to talk and the Persian Bessus was afraid that his plan of assassinating Darius was going to be exposed by Patron. Since Bessus, as a Persian, knew no Greek, hence he used an interpreter to learn what was being said in the conversation of Patron with the King. Note here that Darius appears to be from the rare cases of  Persian noblemen, being able to converse in Greek.

Alexander also had Persian troops in his service and had to address them by means of an interpreter (Curtius 10.3.5-6). The man spoke Persian to the soldiers, as they couldnt speak Greek.



Mardians spoke a Persian dialect and they were the ones who had stolen Alexander’s horse, Bukephalas, during his invasion in their lands. Alexander angered by this incident, had an interpreter  (Curtius 6.5.19; Diodorus 17.76) that if the Mardians did not restore the charger, not one of them would remain alive.


Ancient sources mention Alexander’s use of interpreters in Sogdiana, since Sogdians could not understand the Greek language. When 30 Sogdians nobles were captured by Macedonians and led before the king, they were informed in their own language (Curt. 7.10.ff) that they were condemned to death.

In the aftermath of the news that Spitamenes was besieging the Macedonians in Maracanda, in Sogdiana, we are informed that Alexander used Pharnuches, a Lycian, as an interpreter. (Arrian Anab. 4.3)


Mossynoecians could not communicate in Greek either. (Anab. 5.4.5)

and Xenophon spoke as follows, Timesitheus acting as interpreter: “Mossynoecians, we desire to make our way to Greece in safety by land, for we have no ships;


Indians could not communicate in Greek as it is confirmed by ancient sources. A revealing incident is recorded (Curt. 8.12.9) between the Indian Hephaestion and Alexander. The Indian wished to surrender his forces but Alexander thought he came as an enemy and ordered his troops to be ready for battle. An interpreter between the Indian Ruler and Alexander was needed to setle thingsout.

Interpreters were used in Alexander’s dealings with the Hindu Philosophers. At the sight of Alexander and hisGreek army, they stamp their feet on the earth. They were asked through an interpreter (Arrian Anab. 7.1) what their actions meant.

Interpreters are recorded also by Strabo (15.1.64) to translate the speeches of those speaking among the wise men of India.

Nearchus Macedonian soldiers, after a tiring expedition and hard labours, burst into tears at the sight of a man  dressed in Greek clothes and speaking Greek like them (Arrian Indica, 33), in a place where the Greek language was unknown.


In Armenia we get more examples of the Greek language being unintelligible to the natives. A conversation between the Greek Cheirisophos and the native Armenian girls who were drawing water outside the city walls, could not take place in Greek as the Armenians could not understand Greek, but in Persian only through an interpreter.

They asked the Greeks who they were, and the interpreter replied in Persian that they were on their way from the King to the satrap.

A little later we are recipients of the same message (Anab. 4.5.33)

“they found his troops also feasting in their quarters, crowned with wreaths of hay and served by Armenian boys in their strange, foreign dress; and they were showing the boys what to do by signs, as if they were deaf and dumb.”

The problem of communication  is also displayed in the following: (Anab.  4.5.34)

As soon as Cheirisophus and Xenophon had exchanged warm greetings, they together asked the village chief, through their Persian-speaking interpreter, what this land was. He replied that it was Armenia.

In the incident with Macrones, the conversation could take place only in Persian through an interpreter. (Anab. 4.8.4)

At this moment one of the peltasts came up to Xenophon, a man who said that he had been a slave at Athens, with word that he knew the language of these people; “I think,” he went on, “that this is my native country, and if there is nothing to hinder, I should like to have a talk with them.”


The Greek language was unintelligible to Illyrians hence intermediates were used in their exchanges with Greeks. Even much later than Alexander’s era, interpreters are used ie in the negotiations between the Greek-speaking Macedonians of Perseas and Illyrians (Polybius 28.8)


Neither Thracians could communicate in Greek language hence the their conversations with Greeks were fulfilled through interpreters. Xenophon needed an interpreter to communicate with the Thracian chieftain Seuthes: (Anab. 7.2.19)

When he did see pickets, he sent forward the interpreter he chanced to have and bade them tell Seuthes that Xenophon had come and desired to meet with him.

The Thracian Seuthes could not understand what Arystas said in Greek and needed someone who knew Greek  to translate: (Anab. 7.3.24)

but Arystas, when the cupbearer came and brought him his horn, said to the man, after observing that Xenophon had finished his dinner, “Give it to him; for he’s already at leisure, but I’m not as yet.” When Seuthes heard the sound of his voice, he asked the cupbearer what he was saying. And the cupbearer, who understood Greek, told him. So then there was an outburst of laughter.

A little later: (Anab. 7.6.43)

And after that Seuthes sent Abrozelmes, his interpreter, to Xenophon and urged him to stay behind with him with a force of a thousand hoplites.

[1] The Ancient Languages of Syria-Palestine and Arabia ,  Roger D. Woodard, p. 108

[2] A history of ancient Greek: from the beginnings to late antiquity,  Anastasios-Phoivos Christidēs, Maria Arapopoulou, Maria Chritē, p. 724

[3]  The Classical World Vol. 7-8, Henry Gehman,


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