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This question has been confusing me for a while. Was Alexander the Great Greek or Macedonian?

He was born in Pella, Macedonia, but is he considered Greek? Did nationality and ethnicity mean different things at the time of the Greeks as they do now or were they regarded the same?

This link says Macedonians were ethnic Greek, while this one contradicts the former.

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Maybe the question should be re-expressed as were ancient Macedonians Hellens? I'd say that in that time and place, there was no concept of nationality as understood today, rather 2-level affiliation: first of the local state or tribe, and the second - of Hellen cultural circle. It makes no sense to even talk about Greek nationality in 4 century BC. There was no such thing as Greek nation at the time. Short answer would be that Alexander was an ethnic Macedonian, which Macedonians belonged to Hellen cultural circle (though being somehow of its edge). –  soliloquyy Jan 14 '13 at 0:23
Note that this is a politically loaded question. Many Greeks today are upset (for reasons that aren't totally clear to me) about the existence, independence, and/or name of the Republic of Macedonia (part of the former Yugoslavia). –  Ben Crowell Aug 30 '14 at 17:41
Basically, being "Macedonian" today (slavic) means a completely different thing than being "Macedinian" back then, and this upsets the greeks because they feel like the slavs are stealing their history. (Macedonian back then was a remote dialect of Greek, Macedonian today is a remote dialect of Bulgarian) –  Bregalad Apr 19 at 8:51

4 Answers 4

up vote 19 down vote accepted

Prior to Phillip's time, the ancient Greek world was fragmented in (often warring) city states and kingdoms, and citizenship was considered far more important than nationality or ancestry. Pericles' reforms (451 BC) exemplify the distinction: From that point on Athenian citizens would lose their citizenship if they married non Athenians, regardless of their Hellenic ancestry. Similar laws, more or less, existed in Sparta, Athen's cultural and political counterweight, and all around the Ancient Greek world. In a comparably similar manner, both Philip and Alexander favoured the citizens and soldiers of Macedon over the rest of the Greeks.

The first time the Greeks became a single political entity, with the notable exception of Sparta, was the League of Corinth (337 BC). Thus the concept of Greek nationality was just one year old when Philip was assassinated and the 20 year old Alexander assumed power. However his ancestry had been considered Hellenic since the times of Hesiod and Homer and his dynasty had been recognized as ethnically Greek since at least the Graeco-Persian wars.

Simply put, ancient Macedonians were one of the many Hellenic tribes. What bonded them with the other Hellenic tribes - the Minoans, Achaeans, Ionians, Mycenaeans, Dorians, and Epirots to name a few - was a cultural and historical bond, not a national or ethnic one. The Macedonias spoke in a Greek dialect, worshipped the gods of Olympus and followed all major traditions of their fellow Hellenes. If we approach the question strictly from a cultural perspective, the answer is obvious: ancient Macedonians were decisively Greek.

There's an abudance of archaeological evidence for the above in Dion, the Macedonian sacred city. Dion was build in the feet of mount Olympus and early in the 5th century it became the cultural and religious centre of the kingdom of Macedon. Archelaus I of Macedon created a sanctuary in honour of Zeus and re-organized and brought to prominence a nine days festival (the Olympia) in honour of Zeus and the Muses. Every major city state of the era build their own sanctuaries in Dion - some still visible - and participated in the festivities.

The Greeks weren't particularly xenophobic, but they never participated in barbarians' religious festivities or allowed barbarians to participate in their own. It only takes a short walk through the ruins of Dion to quickly realize the Macedonians were widely accepted as Greeks by the other Hellenic tribes.

Hesiod on the origin of Macedonians

Hesiod (750 - 650 BC) gives us a beautiful story of the origins of Macedonians, in Catalogue of Women. According to his mythology, Macedon was Hellen's nephew. Hellen was the mythological progenitor of the Hellenes and where the words Hellas and Hellene come from. This mythological relationship binds Macedonians with the other major tribes of the era:

The Hesiodic mythology is our basis for which tribes of the era can be considered Hellenic. If we doubt the Macedonians' belief that they were Hellen's descendants, I don't see why we don't doubt the similar beliefs of the rest of the Hellenic tribes.

Herodotus on the origin of Macedonians

The royal house of Macedon claimed an Argive1 descent, tracing their origin to the legendary Hercules2. Herodotus presents the claim in his Histories, by describing an event that took place prior to the naval battle of Salamis (492 BC). Alexander I of Macedon, while visiting the Greek camp as an envoy for the Persian general Mardonius2, proclaims his Greek ancestry:

[Hdt. 9.45.1] Hearing that, the generals straightway went with the men to the outposts. When they had come, Alexander said to them: “Men of Athens, I give you this message in trust as a secret which you must reveal to no one but Pausanias, or else you will be responsible for my undoing. In truth I would not tell it to you if I did not care so much for all Hellas;
[Hdt. 9.45.2] I myself am by ancient descent a Greek, and I would not willingly see Hellas change her freedom for slavery. I tell you, then, that Mardonius and his army cannot get omens to his liking from the sacrifices. Otherwise you would have fought long before this. Now, however, it is his purpose to pay no heed to the sacrifices, and to attack at the first glimmer of dawn, for he fears, as I surmise, that your numbers will become still greater. Therefore, I urge you to prepare, and if (as may be) Mardonius should delay and not attack, wait patiently where you are; for he has but a few days' provisions left.
[Hdt. 9.45.3] If, however, this war ends as you wish, then must you take thought how to save me too from slavery, who have done so desperate a deed as this for the sake of Hellas in my desire to declare to you Mardonius' intent so that the barbarians may not attack you suddenly before you yet expect them. I who speak am Alexander the Macedonian.” With that he rode away back to the camp and his own station there.

The Greco-Persian Wars and Herodotus' account are significant because this is the first time in Greek history the Greeks united, even if only to face a common enemy. The Argeads claim of Greek ancestry was successfully put to the test 20 years after the battle of Salamis, when Alexander attempted to participate in the Olympic Games (500 or 504 BC):

[Hdt. 5.22.1] Now that these descendants of Perdiccas are Greeks, as they themselves say, I myself chance to know and will prove it in the later part of my history. Furthermore, the Hellenodicae who manage the contest at Olympia determined that it is so,
[Hdt. 5.22.2] for when Alexander chose to contend and entered the lists for that purpose, the Greeks who were to run against him wanted to bar him from the race, saying that the contest should be for Greeks and not for foreigners. Alexander, however, proving himself to be an Argive, was judged to be a Greek. He accordingly competed in the furlong race and tied step for first place. This, then, is approximately what happened.

The Greeks contesting Alexander's ancestry was most probably politically motivated. Macedonia was a Persian puppet state during the Graeco-Persian wars, and it's not unreasonable that the Greek world was uncomfortable with a Macedonian competing in the Games. Still, the Hellenodicae ruled in favour of Alexander and it should be noted that Archelaus I had also competed in the Games prior to the Persian invasion.


In recent years, starting from the late 19th century and onwards, there have been various efforts to question Alexander's ancestry and essentially rewrite history. Most of these efforts are related to the often bitter Macedonia naming dispute. This complicated political issue has produced tons of documentation, from both sides, and the politically charged rhetoric is where the historically false dichotomy of Greek or Macedonian comes from.

1 From the Peloponnesian city of Argos.
2 The inscription "ΗΡΑΚΛΗΙ ΠΑΤΡΩΙΩΙ" (Father/Ancestor Heracles) was found in one of the rooms of the palace in Aegae, the Macedonian capital.
3 Mardonius had quickly subjugated the kingdom on Macedon, during the Persian invasion of Greece.

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This is a very good answer and I've learnt a lot from it. However, I kinda lost you in the final paragraph. Does Aristotle really count as a Macedonian? He was born in Stagira which apparently wasn't part of the kingdom of Macedon but related to it by all kinds of ties. Wikipedia says that "Aristotle was trained and educated as a member of the aristocracy." but the claim is suspicious because no citation is given. Can you expound more on this issue? –  Felix Goldberg Jan 14 '13 at 11:58
@FelixGoldberg It depends on your definition of Macedonian. Stagira was at the outskirts of the kingdom of Macedon prior to Philip, and it (officially) became part of the kingdom when Philip razed (and later rebuild) the city. Aristotle's father was a royal physician, and his foster parents were probably Macedonian nobles (but I need to a bit of research here). More notably, Aristotle was ousted from Athens after Alexander's death, for being "pro Macedonian". In any case, you're right, that last paragraph is a bit rushed but I'll have to leave now, I'll revisit it later today –  Yannis Rizos Jan 14 '13 at 12:21
@FelixGoldberg Paragraph removed until I get a chance to revisit it and support it with sources. –  Yannis Rizos Jan 14 '13 at 12:22
@YannisRizos I'm from Republic of Macedonia, and I have to say that this was a beautifully written and researched article. It's sad that 2500 years later our countries are still plagued by politically charged false dichotomies . –  SWeko Jan 14 '13 at 16:35
Maybe it is important to say that Alexander was from his fathers side an Argaeades and from his mother's side an Aeacides. Both of them are known Greek families (it obvious even from the names), regardless the opinion one has about the ethnic background of the inhabitants of the Kingdom. So, the answer is definetely "YES he was Greek", without needing to enter that politically loaded field. –  Midas Jun 30 '14 at 11:34

As one more piece of evidence, Philip Freeman in his biography Alexander the Great judges thus:

The question of Macedonian language and ethnic identity is one of the most contentious topics in classical scholarship, the debate often driven more by modern Balkan nationalism than the small amount of ancient evidence we actually possess. I incline to the argument that Macedonian was a distant dialect of Greek rather than a separate language. In any case, the practical result in the age of Alexander was that the Macedonians considered themselves and were considered by others as non-Greeks ...

Though their kings bore ancient Greek names, the Macedonian people called Philip Bilippos instead of the normal Greek Philippos. This only served to make them an object of further scorn to their pretentious critics in the Athenian assembly. Language as well as politics, culture, and so much else, reinforced the opinion of the Greeks that the Macedonians were are separate people, barbarians from beyond Olympus, no matter how hard their kings may try to behave like Greeks. As to most Macedonians, this was just fine. They saw the Greeks as feeble, effeminate, self-important snobs who had long since squandered whatever manliness and courage they had possessed when they had driven back the Persian invaders more than a century earlier. The Macedonian nobility might study Greek philosophy and recite their poetry of Homer, but the common Macedonian soldier was proud not to be Greek.

The quote's greatest value (relative to the other answers) is perhaps in reminding us that this question is still linked to political circumstances of today. (As to its limitations, I wonder how Freeman can possibly anchor the claimed sentiments of most Macedonians in primary historic sources.)

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I don't quite get it: he says that Macedonian was, ihho, a dialect of Greek and somehow deduces that Macedonians were considered non-Greeks. How does this square together? –  Felix Goldberg Jan 14 '13 at 22:03
@FelixGoldberg Well, "language is a dialect with an army and navy" :) –  kubanczyk Jan 14 '13 at 22:07
@FelixGoldberg I'll add a bit more to the quotation to (perhaps) clarify the point. –  Drux Jan 14 '13 at 22:19
Heh, believe it or not the quote is a fairly accurate description of how Greeks in the North perceive Greeks in the South (and vice versa)... today! We Thessalonians take pride in being manlier than the Athenians, and Athenians often make fun of our local dialects and our generally much heavy pronunciation. –  Yannis Rizos Jan 14 '13 at 23:38
@YannisRizos And I think that Freeman mapped that current North/South situation to the ancient times, which might, but might not be correct. –  SWeko Jan 15 '13 at 8:33

He was Greek. He was from Greek parents Olympias came from a Molossian royal family that traced its origins to Neoptolemus, the son of the greatest hero of the Trojan War, Achilles. Philip came from a Macedonian family that traced its origins to the Peloponnesian Greek city of Argos and Hercules/Heracles.

His name is also Greek; Alexander - Alexandros = Alexo in ancient Greek means Defend-help and andros is anir (andras-men).

He had Aristotle as his teacher, his main language was Greek he admired Achilles and Hercules, he was believed in 12 gods of Olympus he also did what all Greek generals did before battles and campaigns, i.e. sacrifices to the Gods and Macedonian flag (star of Virgina) symbolizes the 4 elements Fire-water-earth-light and the 12th god of Olympus (start counting :P) so I beg those who say he's not Greek to start reading history (also someone answer me how many ancient monuments that FYROM has? The truth is obvious!

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Macedon was ancient-Greek Kingdom - Alexander the Great was Greek King of Macedon.

Macedonians form Northen branch of Dorians - Spartans form Southern branch of Dorians.

Nobody disputes Greekness of Sparta or Spartans!

The Greekness of ancient-Macedon and the peoples that inhabited the Kingdom is on equilibrium with Spartan example.

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Welcome to the site. You are wading into a controversial area without citing references, which may attract down-votes. This can be avoided by providing references to evidence that supports your statements. –  Pieter Geerkens Jul 20 '14 at 14:35
Macedonians were not exactly Dorians, but quite close. Based on the 3 longer Macedonian texts we have (Pella curse tablet, Arethousa and the oracular lamellae of Dodona), it looks like their speech was similar to Doric, yet must be classified as a separate dialect. The issue is not just phonological, but also morphological. On the other hand, it can depend on the region as well. People in upper Macedonia might have been closer to the Epirotan dialect, than the one being spoken around Pella and Aigai. –  Midas Jul 23 '14 at 6:58

protected by Yannis Rizos Jul 20 '14 at 10:33

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