Thrasymachus quote on Archelaos of Macedon Revisited

While speaking on behalf of Larisseans, Thrasymachos made use of the term “Barbarian” while refering to the king Archelaos of Macedon.

Shall we being Greeks, Be  slaves to Archelaos, a Barbarian?” (“Αρχελάω δουλεύσομεν Έλληνες όντες Βαρβάρω;”)

Here of course it would be of tremendous help, if we had Thrasymachos full text in the original, instead of having a quote out of context like we have now.

The above excerpt shows that Thrasymachus fashioned his line after Euripides for a dramatic impression.

“Shall we being Greeks, be slaves to the barbarians?” (“Έλληνες όντες Βαρβάροις δουλεύσομεν;”)

In a Period where Thessalians faced many difficulties with Macedonians, the use of a dramatical-rhetorical question may would have an appeal to some Larisseans.

Lets examine carefully the background of this quote. First observation is that Thracymachus called barbarian only King Archelaos and there is a reason behind that.

Archelaos II, king of Macedon from circa 413 to 399 BC, is famous, or rather infamous, for the unfavourable judgement passed on him by Plato in the Gorgias. Archelaos serves as Plato’s paradigm of an arch-criminal whose incurably corrupt soul dooms him to suffer unending punishment in Hades, an eternal object lesson for others ( 525b-d). He is doomed to such a fate in Plato’s view because of the way he cut his way to the throne.

As Plato tells his story, Archelaos was an illegitimate son of Perdiccas (king of Macedon from circa 452 to 413 BC) by a slave owned by Perdiccas’ brother Alcetas, which meant that in justice Archelaus was Alcetas’ slave (see Laws XI. 930d). Though it is not stated explicitly, it is implied that Alcetas had the first claim to succeed Perdiccas, and Alcetas’ son Alexander the next claim after Alcetas. Archelaus began his ascent to the throne by inviting his uncle and his cousin to his house and then murdering themmurders made more horrible in Greek eyes by two facts: they were murders of a master and his son by their slave and of two guests by their host, actions so contemptible in the eyes of other Greeks that only a Barbarian (in the cultural meaning) could have done. To these two victims Archelaus added a third, his 7-year-old half-brother, the legitimate son of Perdiccas, whom he pushed into a well and drowned. ( Gorg. 4 70d-4 71d.)

Another side of Archelaos complex personality is given by Aristoteles. The arch-criminal, dynamic warlord, Archelaos of Macedon now appears as a lecher. For this is what the complaints of Crataeas and Hellanocrates amount to. Hellanocrates complained that Archelaus engaged in sexual intercourse with him (”used his youth”) out of insolence (hubris) rather than erotic desire (erōtikē epithumia). He was irked, in other words, to discover that for Archelaus he was just another sexual conquest and not an object of passionate love.

The Royal House of Macedon, which Archelaos was a member, was widely accepted in the Greek world as Being Greek. The next obvious question raised is the following.  Therefore in which manner does Thrasymachus uses the term, if not in an ethnic one?

In order to trace relevant examples we will firstly dig among the Greek myths.  The first valid evidence comes from the story of King Tereus. Tereus initially was a Megarian king, thus being Greek.

His bloodthirsty story with Prokne and Philomela, including his Marriage with one of them, his rape of his wife’s sister, the cutting out of  Philomela’s tongue and his pursuit of the Athenian sisters, forced his redefinition as a vile barbarian. Hence in the time of Sophocles (late fifth century BC), Tereus who was initially a Greek, was depicted as a Barbarian Thracian, because his crimes were unthinkable for a Greek.

Similarly, in Euripides‘ war play Trojan Women, we can find Greeks who behave like barbarians and on the other hand noble barbarians who behave honorably, shaming Greeks. [2]

We are receivers of the same message in  Athenaios Deipnosophistes (VIII 350a), where Stratonicus the harp-player was asked “πότερα Βοιωτοί βαρβαρώτεροι…ή θετταλοί, Ηλείους έφησεν” meaning “who were the greatest Barbarians, the Boeotians or the Thessalians” and he replied “the Eleans“.

Beoatians, Thessalians and Eleans were undoubtedly Greeks. Hence the conclusion is inescepable. For all the above reasons – especially the cold blood murders of the Macedonian Royal members – Archelaos the king of Macedon, was presented in the eyes of rest of Greeks as a total immoral and culturally inferior person similar to a barbarian. Hence like the intriguing evidence suggests, namely the story of Tereus, Euripides and Stratonicus, the use of the term “Barbarian” is limited to Behavioral rather than Racial Concepts.


Elias Kapetanopoulos, “Xennias Μακεδονίζων τη φωνή”

Katerina Zacharia, “Hellenisms  Culture, Identity, and Ethnicity from Antiquity to Modernity”

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