- Who Are the Macedonians?
Hugh Poulton does more to obfuscate than to answer the question posed in the title of his book. This brief tome attempts to merge history, ethnography, religion, economics, and state relations into a comprehensive study of Macedonia from antiquity to the present. The task of macrohistory is no easy one, and the result of Poulton’s effort is disappointing. The book’s nominal strengths justify all the effort, while its faults insure intense frustration and continued ignorance. Poulton may have much to teach the reader, but he so often misinforms that one soon doubts any net gain.
Establishing the general pattern for the remainder of the book, the author shapes his review of ancient Macedonia around a fatuous historical presupposition. Specifically, Poulton’s assertion that the ancient inhabitants of Macedonia were not Greeks might be treated seriously if it were supported by more than one outdated source and comically inventive observations such as: “The inhabitants of Macedonia at this time were of sturdier build than the southern Greeks and apparently more phlegmatic” (12–13). These introductory remarks are indicative of a central problem of this work. The author repeatedly demonstrates an alarming unfamiliarity with the field’s basic literature. For example, in addressing the ethnology of ancient Macedonians, Poulton relies on a single, thirty-year-old publication. He ignores all recent scholarship in the area, including the works of the leading authority, R. Malcolm Errington, who writes: “That the Macedonians and their kings did in fact speak a dialect of Greek may be regarded nowadays as certain . . . Ancient allegations that the Macedonians were non-Greeks all had their origin in Athens with the struggle of Philip II. Then as now, a political struggle created the prejudice” (A History of Macedonia [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990], 3–4). It would be troubling to suggest that Poulton intentionally ignored studies that do not conform to his errant views. This is likely not the case, however, for Poulton does not cite the recent and major revisionist works of Eugene N. Borza (In the Shadow of Olympus: The Emergence of Macedon [Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1990], and Makedonika [Claremont, California: Regina, 1995]), which would have at least given his position some resemblance to scholarship. All the same, the author’s obvious dearth of elemental research raises grave questions about his abilities to conduct comprehensive historical interpretation.
In discussing medieval Macedonia, the author misidentifies the region as a border area between the Greek and Latin cultural pales, instead of a land integral to the Greek world. Poulton takes the opportunity once more to negate the Greek character of Macedonia by arguing that any claims of Greek continuity through Byzantium are without foundation. The author ignores recent scholarship yet again while invoking the writing of the nineteenth-century German pamphleteer and racist Jacob P. Fallmerayer to promote the notion that at the point when Greeks were affected by the historical process they somehow stopped being a distinct group, thereby suggesting that any cultural evolution is tantamount to group dilution or disappearance. Although this [End Page 362] criticism may appear to be of ancillary relevance to the author’s main focus, it is, in fact, paramount. For when the author demonstrates a willingness to lend credence to such obtuse views about the nature of group identity and historical continuity, he reveals an inability to address these issues in any theoretically valid framework.
In chapters three and four, the author turns from the premodern period to the Ottoman Empire and the struggle for control over Macedonia among the Balkan successor states. While devoting considerable space to a review of the place of Islam and the millet system in the late Ottoman Balkans, he does not sufficiently explain the connections between these institutions and the emergence of national identity in Macedonia. It is in these sections, too, that most readers will find this effort at a historical-religious-institutional-cultural-ethnic account difficult and sometimes trying. The language is excessively descriptive, and the ideas are clearly intended to...