Clarifying Plutarch’s Parallel Lives on Alexander and the Macedonians – Part 1

Miltiades Elia Bolaris

The following article is being published simultaneously by the

Following a brief elegy to the greatness of Plutarch, an ancient Greek writer best known for his “Moralia” and the “Parallel lives”, the Slavomacedonian propagandist going by the Italian sounding pseudonym Gandeto proceeded to develop his main theme:

“…to revisit some of (Plutarch’s) references about the Ancient Greeks and the Ancient Macedonians…”, whereby “…from Plutarch´s phrases we can deduce that he neither saw the Ancient Macedonians as Greeks nor did he, even remotely, ever suggest that the Ancient Macedonians were connected to the Hellenes”.

Gandeto, in fact, assures us, that Plutarch’s “…phrases abound with frank distinction between Macedonians and Greeks and, at no time, do we find ambiguous references used in distinguishing or in describing these two ancient peoples. The ethnic separation is not an issue; the roles are quite divergent and the clarity of purpose is evident. The boundary lines are precise and the positions taken are straightforward and meaningful. In other words, Plutarch makes it abundantly clear that ancient Macedonians were not Greeks.
Furthermore, it must be stressed that neither from Plutarch´s passages nor from any of the other ancient chroniclers can one find references where the ancient Macedonians were regarded as Greeks. While this notion of “greekness” for the ancient Macedonians is a newly hatched political idea with ominous designs and frightening connotations, for the ancients, the ethnic separation of these two peoples was a non factor; there were no urgent needs, there were no specific reasons nor were there heartfelt desires by anyone to see these two peoples as one and the same.”

We have, in other words, “a newly hatched political idea with ominous designs and frightening connotations”, the notion, namely of ancient Macedonians being regarded as Greeks.

Waldemar Heckel and J.C. Jardley are unwillingly then drafted to the pseudo-Makedonist cause, and an isolated quote is lifted off their book “Alexander the Great – Historical Sources in Translation”. “It was from this passage,” Gandeto reveals to us “that I knew my position on this issue was, once again, validated anew:
It is clear from the extant Alexander historians that the lost sources made a clear distinction between Greeks and Macedonians – ethnically, culturally and linguistically – and this must be an accurate reflection of contemporary attitudes.” (p.7).

I also happen to have another book by Waldemar Heckel, in which we read a similar passage, which will help us understand what professor Heckel had in mind, when he spoke of the “…perceived differences between Macedonians and Greeks”:

“Certainly there were cultural and linguistic similarities, and Macedonian society and the names of the aristocracy conjure up the world of Homer. But the differences were sufficient to cause the Greeks to view them as foreign well into the Hellenistic age”.

In other words, far from “validating anew” anybody’s misconceptions on the ethnic, cultural and linguistic nature of the Macedonians, what professor Waldemar Hechel is telling us is that while the ancient Greeks made a clear distinction between themselves and the Macedonians, this was on perceived differences. Perception is as different from reality as poetry is from history, as Aristotle tells us, a Greek Macedonian, himself.

Culturally and linguistically, the Macedonians were Greek, despite marked differences in dialect, their pastoral way of life (versus the city-state dwelling Greeks of elsewhere) and antiquated (Homeric age) institutions when compared to their brethren in southern Greece (Hellas), Asia Minor (Aeolia and Ionia) or southern Italy (Magna Graecia).

These differences were sufficient to cause the Greeks to view them as foreign well into the Hellenistic age“, tells us Waldemar Heckel, in “The conquests of Alexander the Great”, Cambridge University Press, 2008, on page14.

In other words, the PERCEPTION of some of the other Greeks especially the ones politically inclined against them, not all of them, as we shall see, was that the Macedonians were some sort of brutes, dressed in animal hides, tending goats and sheep on the mountains, who spoke a dialect that was as incompressible to Attic ears, as that dialects spoken in Aetolia and Acarnania, or Epirus, for that matter. This view, lasted well into the Hellenistic age, as we are told, or until the dialectical differences of the Greeks, The Doric spoken in the Peloponnese and Southern Italy, the Aeolian spoken in Thessaly and Aeolia, the Ionian spoken in Asia Minor, Attica and the islands, mixed with the NW Greek spoken by the Macedonians (also Epirotes and Aetolians), to form the glorious Coene Greek, the common Greek speech of the Hellenistic and Roman eras, the language in which the Christian Bible was written. By then, of course, nobody was speaking any longer of the Macedonians as anything but Greeks, obviously.

As it is obvious from anybody reading the sources, from Herodotus and Plutarch to Diodorus of Sicily, the Macedonians themselves never doubted their own Hellenism, a Hellenism that was loudly declared by Alexander A’, and was accepted henceforth by all. To Gandeto’s great disappointment, Waldemar Heckel informs us also that those Macedonians who could afford an education “were educated in Greek” and that Philip II “…acquired offices, such as the archonship of Thessaly, and exercised power by controlling the votes of the Amphictyonic League…” both of which he could not do unless he was a Greek by ethnicity and religion.

In the book “Alexander the Great” by Ulrich Wilcken (heralded by professor Eugene Borza in his preface to the text as “the best balanced, most sensible modern biography of Alexander“) we read that:

The beginnings of Macedonian history are shrouded in complete darkness. There is keen controversy on the ethnological problem, whether the Macedonians were Greeks or not. Linguistic science has at its disposal a very limited quantity of Macedonian words, and the archaeological exploration of Macedonia has hardly begun (this book was published in English in 1967, fully 10 years before the 1977 magnificent discoveries of the royal tumulus by professor Andronikos at Aegai). And yet, when we take into account the political conditions, religion and morals of the Macedonians, our conviction is strengthened that they were a Greek race and akin to the Dorians. Having stayed behind in the extreme north, they were unable to participate in the progressive civilization of the tribes which went further south, and so, when in the time of the Persian Wars they emerged on the horizon of the other Greeks, they appeared to them as non-Greeks, as barbarians.

“It was from this passage, that I knew my position on this issue was, once again, thrashed in the garbage bin anew”, someone of Gandeto’s convictions could exclaim, had that someone had the intellectual courage and honesty to face historical truth.

Since we encountered some inexcusable confusion on such an elementary philosophical concept as perception and its relation to reality, it is better to dig a little deeper.

We urgently need to seek the help of our great Macedonian, Aristotle. A discussion cannot simply be the lining up of quotations, so that whomever brings forth the finest quotation may win the argument. The validity of an argument, Aristotle taught us, can be determined by its internal structure even more than by the strength of its content. Let us then follow his classic syllogism:
All men are mortal; Socrates is a man; therefore, Socrates is mortal. There is a set structure to this argument, which predetermines that the conclusion is guaranteed to be true as long as the premises are true.
We start with Gandeto’s “first point”, taken from Plutarch´s Alexander 53, where Alexander springs a trap for Callisthenes: “Why don´t you prove your eloquence”, Alexander asked him, “by giving a speech criticizing the Macedonians, to teach them their faults so that they can improve?”

“And so the man set about his palinode and turned to outspoken and detailed criticism of the Macedonians. After showing that Greek feuding was the cause of Philip´s rise to power, he said:

“But in times of civil strife even criminals become respectable.”
In the original:
“ἐν δὲ διχοστασίῃ καὶ ὁ πάγκακος ἔλλαχε τιμῆς”,
which, translated word by word would give us:
“and in time of sedition, even the worst man won honor”

“a clear gibe (or so his hearers assumed) at Philip.”, tells us Professor Peter Green. “The old-guard barons, who could not distinguish between an exercise in eristics and a speech from the heart, were mortally offended, while Alexander (who could) made matters worse by saying that what Callisthenes had demonstrated was not eloquence so much but personal malice”
“Alexander of Macedon, 356-323 B.C., a historical biography”, Peter Green, U. of California, 1991

“This, Plutarch tells us, “made the Macedonians hate him with a deep and bitter hatred, and Alexander said that Callisthenes had not proven his ingenuity so much as his ill will towards the Macedonians.”

Enter Gandeto now:
What does this passage reveal? What can we infer from it? Does it make a clear distinction between ancient Macedonians and the ancient Greeks?”

The answer to this is a conditional yes, it does. The ancients were very much aware of certain distinctions between Ionians and Dorians, Athenians and Spartans, Macedonians and southern Greeks, i.e. those living in Hellas proper. Geographic Hellas, for the less informed, was originally Phthia, the land of Achilles, in southern Thessaly, and then over the centuries most of southern Greece was named so, but not Macedonia, Epirus or Ionia. These had to wait for the Hellenistic and Roman age to be included in geographic Hellas. (see Strabo, and his famous quote on Hellas being Macedonia). Anyone can describe the distinctive characteristics between a German Shepard and a Bulldog…they are distinct, but they are still dogs, their distinctions do not make one of them a cat.

“Callisthenes, Gandeto continues, “…criticized the Macedonians to such a degree that he, inadvertently, revealed his own inner feelings, how he, as a Greek, perceived and felt about the supposed “greatness” of the Macedonians. His line:
“But in time of civil strife even scoundrels/criminals become respectable”, is as frank an admission as they come.
(d) He equates and measures Philip´s and thus Macedonians´ power, strength and success not on his merits but on the Greek feuding which Callisthenes claims was the cause of Philip´s rise to power.

Thus, so far (Gandeto continues) we have the following precipitate in clear: the Macedonians on one side, who are not as great as their position reflects and the Greeks on the other, who make the Macedonians look powerful because of the Greek feuding. The description rests on the cusps of two contrastingly derived attributes of two different entities – Greeks and Macedonians.”

Here we see words being put into Calisthenes’ mouth, and liberty is taken with the text. Calisthenes “turned to outspoken and detailed criticism of the Macedonians”
πολλὰ παρρησιάσασθαι κατὰ τῶν Μακεδόνων,

but we are not told by Plutarch the details of his criticism . What we hear in the text is Calisthenes’ last two points:

“and after showing that faction among the Greeks was the cause of the increase of Philip’s power, “καὶ τὴν Ἑλληνικὴν στάσιν αἰτίαν ἀποφήναντα τῆς γενομένης περὶ Φίλιππον αὐξήσεως καὶ δυνάμεως”

and immediately after:

“But in times of civil strife even criminals become respectable”
“ἐν δὲ διχοστασίῃ καὶ ὁ πάγκακος ἔλλαχε τιμῆς”, or, in my translation:
“and during sedition, even the worst man won honor”

Both of these, if I am to understand either English or the Greek original, make one thing clear: That Calisthenes makes a personal attack on Philip II, essentially calling him basically lucky for having had his enemies divided, thus winning easy victories, and also for being the worst person ever, whom luck blessed to be king of Macedonia at a time when the other Greeks were at each others throats, i.e. in dissension. This, is after all what infuriated the old guard and gave Alexander the chance to generalize Calisthenes’ hatred for Philip II to an obviously false accusation for hatred towards the Macedonians.

Alexander…made matters worse by saying that what Callisthenes had demonstrated was not eloquence so much but personal malice“, says Peter Green, or in the words Plutarch puts in Alexander: “Callisthenes had not proven his ingenuity so much as his ill will towards the Macedonians.

I repeat: the text does not mention anything of Calisthenes’ criticism of the Macedonians, which after all was meant “to make them better”, but first he makes a personal attack on Philip, the aggressive king of the Macedonians, the man who ordered destroyed his own home city, Olynthos, the man who sold his fellow citizens of Olynthos to slavery. Calisthenes had axes to grind against Philip the person, not the Macedonians, otherwise why should he stay in Macedonia and not go, for example to Athens, once his home was destroyed? Alexander, on the other hand, has axes to grind against Calisthenes personally, too, for he was the leading man in the palace revolt against the “proskynysis” and the deification. Hence, Alexander took Calisthenes’s personal attack on Philip and presented it to the already infuriated Philip’s old guard as an attack, generally on Macedonians.
I understand Alexander’s motives, as I also understand Calisthenes’ motives to belittle the destroyer of his home. I even understand Gandeto and his fellow propagandists when they try to desperately turn what was basically an intra-Hellenic ancient feud into proof , somehow, that the ancient Macedonians were Bulgarian-speaking Slavs.

the rest of the article can be found in the Macedonian Issues

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