Miller’s Brief an Obama stößt auf Kritik

In diesem Brief an seine Kollegen nimmt Prof. Daniel Tompkins (Temple University) Stellung zum Brief von Prof. Miller, der in einem Brief an den US-amerikanischen Präsidenten fordert, die USA müsse die Anerkennung der Republik Mazedonien zurücknehmen. veröffentlicht den Brief zunächst auf englisch, demnächst auch auf deutsch. Ebenfalls hat auch Uwe Walter von der FAZ den Brief von Miller kritisiert.

Daniel Tompkins

Dept. of Greek & Roman Classics

Temple University

May 28, 2009

Responding to Professor Miller

To Colleagues:

[Note: in what follows, I follow the lead of 125 nations, including four of the five permanent UN Security Council members, and use “Macedonian” as the appropriate adjective for the Republic of Macedonia. Note that it was the usage of the Journal of Modern Greek Studies as early as 1996. Use of a “politically correct” term would have required, as Chase and Phillips put it, “laborious periphrasis.”]

Stephen Miller, an American archaeologist, has circulated a number of versions of a statement about Balkan politics, with the expressed intent of influencing the Obama administration. I append the version to which I respond below. It differs somewhat from the online versions posted May 20, 2009 at:

and updated to May 26 at:

Although the ostensive topic is Alexander the Great, the statement commits the author and the many scholars who’ve co-signed to two extreme positions: that President Bush’s 2004 recognition of the Republic of Macedonia by that name “was clearly the catalyst for the fantasies of a Slavic Alexander” or “unleashed a dangerous epidemic of historical revisionism,” and that the inhabitants of the Republic have no right to call themselves “Macedonians.” The first of these claims is easily disproved: the Republic of Macedonia had sought to appropriate, or share, Alexander long before 2004. As to the second, the Republic occupies land that has long been called “Macedonia,” and is, to boot, a sovereign state.

In other words, Prof. Miller takes extreme positions that are not required in a scholarly discussion of ancient ethnicity. Doing so, he converts the thicket of Balkan politics into a lawn. In particular, the challenge to the sovereignty and name of a neighboring state puts Prof. Miller and his co-signers in a position to the right of the Greek government. That’s quite an achievement.

The form of the letter -its seemingly dispassionate appeal to scholars, its assurance in one draft that “many of us would prefer to avoid politics” – should not blind readers to its tendentious and inaccurate historical claims, or to its extreme conclusions.

Let’s start at the beginning. This spring, Professor Miller circulated a draft ( dated January 22, 2009) of the letter we now have. He criticized an article in the January / February 2009 Archaeology Magazine by Matthew Brunwasser: “Letter from Macedonia. Modern Macedonia Lays its Claim to the Ancient Conqueror’s Legacy.” Professor Miller complains that the magazine would not print his response (which ran to 1500 words, almost as long as Brunwasser’s original). Professor Miller has not shared his correspondence with the magazine. In his short piece, Brunwasser interviews some archaeologists and visits some sites, and says, “Greece insists that Macedonia should change its name, claiming that it implies ambitions over Greek territory — the northern province of Greece is also called Macedonia — and opposes the name as an appropriation of Alexander III of Macedon (Alexander the Great), whom the country claims as Greek.” A bit later he adds: “But the subtle relations between the ancient Macedonians and Greeks are sometimes lost in today’s acrimonious debate over who has the exclusive claim to Alexander’s homeland.”

That’s it. If I, or I think most of the co-signers, were intent on ridiculing Greek claims, we’d be somewhat more assertive and vicious. Brunwasser does mention a Macedonian kitchen utility salesman who likes Alexander as a countryman, but then quotes workmen with the opposite opinion:

“If we had to choose between Alexander and joining the EU and NATO, we’d choose Europe,” says Goran Nikolovski. “History is in the past,” says his colleague Zlatko Petreski. “We want the name of the country to remain Macedonia because we are Macedonians,” says Nikolovski. “But we want to move forward.”

“Sick of Alexander”? “History is in the past”? That is not the way people talk when they’re out to undermine “the scientific basis for our professional lives,” as Prof. Miller puts it, perhaps a tad portentously.

In the body of his letter, Professor Miller comments problematically on both ancient and modern history:

a) The ancients: Professor Miller spends considerable space reciting literalist claims about early Macedonia that can be found on many Greek disapora websites, including a very selective presentation of Alexander I in Herodotus. The goal is to demonstrate a linear and unbroken sequence of Greekness from Alexander I to Alexander the Great and up to today.

Linearity, however, is the stuff of propaganda, not of history. Discussing the Macedonia issue a decade ago, some very prominent Greek social scientists mentioned “the strategic manipulation of nationalist ideology by the Greek government” in its presentation “of political and cultural myths.” They noted that “The historical trajectory of the nation has been traced in a linear form and without ruptures or discontinuities from antiquity to modernity…. Thus, any questioning of the ‘Hellenicity’ of Alexander the Great is perceived as a threat to the very essence of the nation because it casts doubt on the continuity of the national community through history. The nationalist feelings of the population have … been manipulated by political parties as a campaigning device….” (Triandafyllidou, Calloni & Mikrakis [1997])

Any country seeking to map itself onto ancient history confronts a host of problems. Herodotus illustrates these clearly in his portrayal of Alexander I, who is sometimes a satrap engaged in lucrative dynastic marriage-relations with Persian royalty, and sometimes a “Hellene.” He is one of only two people in Herodotus accused of athemista, “lawlessness.” Other Greeks challenge his standing as a “Hellene.” Much of this is well discussed by David Fearn, in a fine recent essay, “Narrating Ambiguity: Murder and Macedonian Allegiance (5.17-22).” Two months ago, when Prof. Miller floated his essay, I recommended the Fearn piece, but there is no sign that Prof. Miller has read Fearn or senses any scholarly obligation to do so. He remains undisturbed by the paradox of this single “Greek” satrap in all of Herodotus.

The claim to be a “Hellene” is one, but only one, of several cards this Alexander plays. He protects himself and his people by cannily playing the odds (and using the talent of silver his mines produced daily). That’s why Spartans and Athenians treat him with such contempt at the end of Book 8. Scholars of ethnicity and acculturation in antiquity won’t be surprised at his ambiguous status, especially given Jonathan Hall’s warning against a “transhistorically static definition of Greekness.” (Hall, p. 166) Prof. Miller’s letter shows no awareness of the anthropologically sophisticated work on ancient ethnicity now being produced in our field.

Now, it is true that both the Greek and Macedonian governments, as well as their diaspora supporters, have gone to absurd lengths to claim ancient ties. The list of examples is endless. Classicists seeking the ancient “Via Egnatia” may be surprised to observe that it now begins in Igoumenitsa not Durres, and lies wholly within Greek borders. The Greek-American Pan Macedonian Union urged not only denial of its northern neighbor’s right to name itself and the return of the Marbles, but US intervention on behalf of the “Kalash of the northern Himalayan region of the Hindu Kush Mountains of Pakistan [who] are Hellenic descendants of the armies of Alexander the Great.” Skopje claims its own Nepalese “relations” – an initiative the supposed propagandist Mathew Brunwasser has reported many Macedonians find “funny or pathetic.” (International Herald Tribune, October 2, 2008)

For an even-handed comment on the “name” issue, consider Roudometoff in the Journal of Modern Greek Studies:

In the case of the controversy between Greece and FYROM, two identifications have been developed with respect to one homeland (that of Macedonia). Consequently, two narratives have formed, each of which seeks to establish a genealogical tie between a people and the land which that people inhabits…. The affirmation of minorities is interpreted, according to the nineteenth-century Balkan mentality, as representing the first step toward irredentist activity.

Both sides operate with the assumption that nationhood provides the essential component for nation-building. Both view national narratives as providing an essential ingredient for their national identity. The two national narratives, however, encroach upon one another, tending to claim Macedonia … exclusively for their particular side. For Greeks, Macedonia is a name and a territory that is an indispensable part of the modern Greek identity. For Macedonians, it provides the single most important component that has historically differentiated them from Bulgarians.

Elsewhere, Roudometoff says, “Greeks rallied to defend their national narrative–in effect, denying the claim of the Macedonians to stand for an independent nation.” (1999: 459)

b) Turning to the modern world, what is noticeable is Prof. Miller’s insistence that the Republic of Macedonia has shown deplorable manners: “Why would a poor land-locked new state attempt such historical nonsense? Why would it brazenly mock and provoke its neighbor?”

Prof. Miller treats the question as a rhetorical one. But it’s not rhetorical. While I’ve no inside information, the current nationalist tendency of Macedonian history seems in part to be a response to seventeen years of interference and economic oppression by the large neighbor to the south. It’s not only Cavafy’s narrators who celebrate an oppressor’s frustration: “To ousiodes ine pou eskase” (“The important thing is, he blew up”). Monteagle Stearns and Susan Woodward both discussed the danger that Greek actions would have a negative outcome in 1997.

What do I mean by “oppression”? Most notably, the threats of Serbia and the Mitsotakis government in the early 90s to carve up the new Republic between them. Milosevic seems to have proposed the idea. See the discussion of this topic, of the “Samaras Pincer,” and of Virginia Tsouderou’s convenient 1992 discovery of Hellenized Vlachs in need of rescue in Macedonia, in Michas, pp. 53ff. Michas provides some testimony about initial Greek willingness to invade, though he has no documentary proof. Prof. Miller’s little joke (“Greece should annex Paionia”) may betray unawareness that annexation was seriously considered. Macedonians don’t see the humor.

Then came the blockades (I use the plural because Michas mentions several “unofficial” blockades as well as the official one). For 20 months in 1994-95, Greece imposed a crippling embargo that cut off two-thirds of the new state’s oil. One Greek official proclaimed, “We will choke Skopje into submission.” Export earnings for the Republic of Macedonia fell by 85%, imports of food by 40%, of crude oil by two thirds. Inflation soared. (As Michas points out, Foreign Minister Antonis Samaras was a major promoter of these and other destabilizing measures, in partnership with Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic. Coincidentally, Samaras is now Minister of Culture, in charge of Greek antiquities.)

How many classicists co-signed complaints about that?

Unembarrassed by such cruelty, Prof. Miller pours on the self-pity — even when he is blind to the irony: “The USA can effect just about anything it wants with smaller countries,” he complains. But it was Greece, not the USA, that tried to “choke” a far smaller and weaker neighbor into submission — and boasted about it. Blockades are the closest a state can come to an act of war without gunfire.

Officially sanctioned indignities have continued, on a smaller scale, up to the present day. And all Macedonians are conscious that by keeping Macedonia out of NATO and the European Union, Greece is keeping Macedonia poor. Macedonians I met in January marveled at the reports of Athenian youth rioting because they earned “only” 750 euros / month.

The brutal 1994-95 blockade backfired, cementing a sense of national unity in much of the Republic. As Mark Mazower, a real historian, remarked in the Journal of Modern Greek Studies:

[T]he development of modern Macedonian nationalism, and its extension from small groups of intellectuals to a more popular base, depended upon the combined idiocies of three nation-states–Greece, Bulgaria, and Yugoslavia / Serbia….

Mazower, p. 233

That’s why Macedonians call their neighbors “the wolves.”

The serious problems to be settled in this region trump the name-calling about Alexander. These include the personal and property rights of those who were forced out of the country in the civil war of the ’40s (some former fighters were allowed to return in 1982 — but only those who were “Greeks by genos” or who renounced a more complex ethnic identity). Cases are pending in the European Court of Human Rights and The Hague about both the blockade and property rights. Greece also faces a blizzard of negative human rights reports, including one from the US State Department; Athenian human rights expert Alexis Heraclides has been quoted as warning that current court cases may blow up in Greece’s face.

The area the Republic occupies has been called “Macedonia” on maps for many years, though the borders have long been disputed or “unrectified.” Livanios, while showing that the Great Powers and surrounding nations have been more opportunistic than dispassionate in defining Macedonian ethnicity, says that it is “widely accepted” that Macedonia comprised the Ottoman vilayets of Salonica, Monastir and Kosovo. (4, 46, 67, 77) Note his reference to the “monumental paternalism” of the British. (113) Greek sources sometimes claim that the name of the Republic will spark “irredentism,” but irredentism requires not pictures on t-shirts but military or political action. Greece has a military budget 50x that of the Republic, and a per capita GDP of $8,000 versus Greece’s $29,000. This may explain why Greek sources never specify exactly what danger really looms: the behavior they brand “irredentist” barely merits mention in Myron Weiner’s scholarly analysis of irredentism in the Balkans and elsewhere.

In short, it is hard not to be dismayed at this letter, which rejects modern scholarship on ethnic formation, reads the text of Herodotus as if it was a newspaper, complains about imagined verbal slights in a bland magazine article – and ignores the immense material damage Greece has done to its neighbor – though we must acknowledge that despite the rhetorical noise, Greece and Macedonia now have important trade relations.

There remains ample room to argue about Alexander the Great, and about the supposed “linear trajectory … without ruptures or discontinuities from Alexander to the present.” We ought to be able to do this without endorsing violation of sovereignty or applauding or ignoring efforts to impoverish others.

Prof. Miller hopes to influence the Obama administration, which has acted with cool realism in the Balkans. He says he prefers the goal of right-wing Greek nationalism: a blanket prohibition on use of “the name Macedonia.” But he acknowledges that that is unachievable. (Two Greek diplomats have publicly recommended dropping the name issue. They lost their positions.) He doesn’t mention NATO or the European Union, though they are an important part of the picture. Should Obama, then, force Macedonia to drop its claims to “Alexander”? It is hard to see why, and even harder to see how this issue can be separated from other matters, including NATO, the EU, and the rights of ethnic Macedonians in Greece. (It is Greek policy not to acknowledge the existence of ethnic minorities within Greece.)

Interestingly, many of the sources I’ve cited above are Greek. There are plenty of fine academics, human rights attorneys, and others in Greece who do not follow the company line (one Athenian friend who does not found a swastika painted on his house). I’ve not consulted with anyone I’ve quoted, but hope I’ve represented them fairly. I also recognize that I’ve passed over some issues, including Macedonian sentimentality toward land they recently inhabited. This is just as profound as Greek feelings about Constantinople, “I Poli,” or about lands in Turkey or homes in Alexandria they themselves have lost. My Macedonian friends would love to go to Greece – but to get much-needed work, not to “reclaim” the White Tower.

I’ve worked on Greek causes since 1969, sometimes actively, sometimes dangerously. But I happen to believe that the current nationalist policy toward Macedonia is disastrous and has brought no gain.

Dan Tompkins

Department of Greek and Roman Classics

Temple University


Graham T. Allison, editor. The Greek Paradox. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press 1997.

Mathew Brunwasser, “Macedonia Dispute has Asia Flavor; Claiming Alexander’s Heritage, Pakistanis Enter the Fray.” International Herald Tribune (October 2, 2008).

David Fearn. “Narrating Ambiguity: Murder and Macedonian Allegiance (5.17-22).” In Elizabeth Irwin and Emily Greenwood, editors, Reading Herodotus. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2007.

Jonathan Hall. “Contested Ethnicities: Perceptions of Macedonia within Evolving Definitions of Greek Identity.” In Irad Malkin, ed., Ancient Perceptions of Ethnicity, Washington DC: Center for Hellenic Studies, 2001.

Dimitris Livanios. The Macedonian Question: Britain and the Southern Balkans 1939-1949. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Mark Mazower, “Introduction to the Study of Macedonia.” Journal of Modern Greek Studies 14.2 (1996), 229-235.

Takis Michas. Unholy Alliance: Greece and Milosevic’s Serbia in the Nineties. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2002.

Victor Roudometof. “Nationalism and Identity Politics in the Balkans: Greece and the Macedonian Question.” Journal of Modern Greek Studies 14.2 (1996) 253-301.

Victor Roudometof. “Invented Traditions, Symbolic Boundaries, and National Identity in Southeastern Europe: Greece and Serbia in Comparative Historical Perspective (1830-1880).” East European Quarterly 32.4 (1999) 429 – 468.

Stearns, Monteagle, “Greek Security Issues,” in Allison, 61-72

Anna Triandafyllidou and Andonis Mikrakis, “Greece. ‘A Ghost Wanders Through the Capital.’ In The New Xenophobia in Europe edited by Bernd Baumgartl and Adrian Favell (Leiden: Brill, 1995)

Anna Triandafyllidou, Marina Calloni & Andonis Mikrakis. 
”New Greek Nationalism.” Sociological Research Online 2.1 (1997)

Anna Triandafyllidou. “National identity and the `other.'” Ethnic and Racial Studies 21.4 (1998) 593 – 612.

Anna Triandafyllidou and Anna Paraskevopoulou. “When is the Greek Nation? The Role of Enemies and Minorities.” Geopolitics 7.2 (2002) 75 – 98.

Myron Weiner. “The Macedonian Syndrome: An Historical model of International Relations and Political development” World Politics 23.4 (1971) 665-683.

Woodward, Susan L. “Rethinking Security in the Post-Yugoslav Era.” In Allison, 113-122.

Dan Tompkins



Just as Jonathan Hall and others have opened up the study of race in antiquity, scholars like Anna Triandafyllidou have enriched our understanding of ethnicity in modern Greece. This is particularly urgent since the government continues to insist that there are no ethnic minorities there. Though her current scholarship concerns immigration — a pressing problem in Greece — she’s written well on ethnicity too. Her overall perspective is one that classicists would do well to consider when they try to discuss modern ethnicity.

Triandafyllidou has shown, for instance, the problems of the current policy of treating “Turks” not as an ethnic but as a religious minority, noting “the changing character of civic, ethnic and religious identities of the Muslim minority in relation to the Christian Greek Orthodox majority.” This concept of “change” permeates her discourse: history is dynamic not static, Greece has changed and is changing. The “dynamic nature of national identity” led to a moment (around 1922) in which “Greek national identity abandoned its irredentist character and shifted towards an ethnic but also territorial and civic definition of the nation in the early twentieth century, through interaction and conflict with neighbouring countries as well as internal social and political changes.” Many of these “conflict dynamics … developed between the nation and the … other,” and the other, too, must constantly be reinvented.

I would recommend any of the essays listed below, especially the most recent. As long ago as 1998, Triandafyllidou was noting that “the claim of FYROM over the ‘Macedonian’ cultural heritage has led Greeks to incorporate Alexander the Great into the classical Greek tradition and emphasize his centrality to the Greeks.'” This was, she says, a shift from nineteenth-century resistance toward all “foreign (including Macedonian) domination.” It began long before President Bush became president and supposedly “catalyzed” the Alexander craze in Macedonia, as Prof. Miller claims. After the disappointments of Andreas Papandreou’s final term, she notes, it was convenient to restore “national pride … in a political discourse which concentrated on the ‘injustice’ caused by ‘foreigners.'”

Triandafyllidou is bolder than many of her colleagues in asserting that “the Greek government and most Greek intellectuals … tacitly ignored the fact that the indigenous Slavic speaking population of the Greek region of Macedonia was subjected to forceful Hellenization during the first half of this century.” She adds that “National consciousness makes sense only in contrast to some other nation,” and that Macedonia’s displacement of Turkey in the demonization derby has given new prominence to the perceived or imagined virtues of Alexander and Philip.


Note: Many other good Greek social scientists write about related issues. The Journal of Modern Greek Studies is one worthwhile source.

Anna Triandafyllidou and Andonis Mikrakis. “Greece. ‘A Ghost Wanders Through the Capital.’ In The New Xenophobia in Europe edited by Bernd Baumgartl and Adrian Favell (Leiden: Brill, 1995)

Anna Triandafyllidou, Marina Calloni & Andonis Mikrakis. “New Greek Nationalism.” Sociological Research Online 2.1 (1997)

Anna Triandafyllidou. “National identity and the `other.'” Ethnic and Racial Studies 21.4 (1998) 593 – 612.

Anna Triandafyllidou and Mariangela Veikou. “Greek immigration policy. The Hierarchy of Greekness: Ethnic and national identity considerations in Greek immigration policy.” Ethnicities 2 (2002); 189-208

Anna Triandafyllidou and Anna Paraskevopoulou. “When is the Greek Nation? The Role of Enemies and Minorities.” Geopolitics 7.2 (2002) 75 – 98.