Among the typical reactions I receive when stating that ancient history should be studied is “Why would you study ancient history?” and “Isn’t all about long-dead people and civilisations? What has that got to do with today?”. Well ancient history, besides being a boundlessly fascinating subject, has implications for what we do today and how we understand modern politics. Perhaps Australians do not appreciate ancient history because our own (white) history is only around two hundred years old. However, ancient history still has explosive consequences for today. Let me illustrate by using one example.
In the city of Skopje, the capital of Macedonia, the government has erected a statue to Alexander the Great, the ancient Macedonian conquistador who is still celebrated today on both sides of the Greece-Macedonia border. This statue has reignited a long-simmering dispute between the Greek and Macedonian governments – was Alexander the Great (more correctly, Alexander III of Macedon) Macedonian or Greek? While this dispute may seem antiquated to us in Australia, it is the latest in a series of counterpunches between the two cultural antagonists. The current Macedonian government of Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski is leading the campaign to celebrate Macedonia’s classical heritage through a series of cultural and architectural projects throughout Skopje, commemorating Macedonia’s antiquity. The statue of Alexander the Great has been criticised by the Greek government, who claim that Alexander was rightly Hellenic, and any attempt by Macedonia to claim his mantle as part of their heritage is unjust, and masks Macedonia’s territorial ambitions to claim Greece’s historic province of Macedonia.
I am not going to take a ‘position’ on this debate; I think that Hajrudin Somun, Bosnia’s former ambassador to Turkey and lecturer at the International University in Sarajevo, has hit the nail on the head by stating that while Alexander belongs to the Hellenic tradition, modern Greece has no monopoly over everything Hellenic. There are numerous Hellenic historical sites located in Anatolia (modern-day Greece) and the Middle East, even going as far as Afghanistan. Do all these territories have to pay homage to Greece before commemorating their heritage? I think they have the perfect right to memorialise the Hellenic input into their history. As Somun states, Alexander belongs to both modern Greece and Macedonia. The establishment of Alexander the Great as a credential of nationhood began in the late nineteenth century, with the fight by Macedonia and Greece for independence from Ottoman Turkish rule.
Prime Minister Gruevski has ordered the construction of museums, scores of sculptures, philharmonic orchestra and the preservation of hundreds of archaeological sites to commemorate the period of Macedonia’s classical antiquity. This is a way of saying a big “up yours” to Greece, as the former foreign minister of Macedonia stated in an interview last year. An intended statue of Alexander’s father, Phillip of Macedon, is expected to be even bigger than the current sculpture. The classical period of Macedonia’s history (and Hellenic history) should be studied and remembered for its importance to our lives. Much of our political structures, scientific questions, cultural debates and social mores trace back to classical antiquity.
The title of Gruevski’s part is the Democratic party for Macedonian National Unity – Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation (VMRO-DPMNE). Why such a long name? That name harks back to the time of Macedonia’s own struggle for independence from Ottoman Turkish rule. Gruevski hopes to acquire the historical legitimacy conferred by tracing the origins of his party’s political program to the Macedonian independence struggle. The VMRO-DPMNE is today a rightist, Christian Democrat party. Gruevski’s party is claiming that the fight for independence by the original VMRO-DPMNE should be respected and is the reason why Macedonia is still standing today. That is certainly the case, but then Gruevski’s government has a serious problem.
The monuments, museums and buildings commemorating the struggle by the Communist partisans to liberate Macedonia (and indeed Yugoslavia) from the tyranny of Nazi rule have been deliberately neglected since the VMRO-DPMNE assumed power in 2006. While Gruevski’s government is spending enormous sums of money to celebrate classical antiquity, the heroic struggle of those Macedonians who fought as partisans during World War Two is being studiously ignored, and the monuments to that struggle are victims of neglect. Macedonia is still standing today, and is named (somewhat clumsily) as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia because of the courage of the partisans and their vision of a united Yugoslavia. The main opposition party in Macedonia, the Social Democrats, state that they should be proud of their modern history and not neglect it like the VMRO-DPMNE government.
There are many Macedonians who are outraged that their capital is beginning to resemble a ‘mini-Las Vegas’, as one critic put it. It is interesting to note that in the same article, the academic Professor Blaze Ristovski, while hailing the campaign to celebrate Alexander the Great as a method of nation-building, admitted that during the communist era, churches and mosques were built in the republic. He was speaking from the communist-built Macedonian Academy of Arts and Sciences, which still operates until today.
The current Macedonian government, facing a bleak economic situation and rising anger over the deterioration in living standards, is using a populist reading of history to whip up nationalist sentiment and divert people’s attention from the worsening economic situation. This month marks ten years since the Ohrid agreement, which ended the country’s civil war and held out a promise of a better future. Ten years on, Macedonia has not made any progress towards joining the European Union (EU) and the peace deal remains fragile. Athens blocks Macedonia’s entry into the EU as long as the latter continues to use its current name. The financial problems of Greece and the wider EU have assumed centre stage for now.
Ancient history frequently intersects with modern politics and economics. It is foolhardy to ignore or dismiss it.