• amylholguin

Alexander the Great in Skopje: an “up yours” to Greece?


The statue in Skopje

In 2011, a bronze statue was erected in the main square of Skopje, the capital of North Macedonia. At 22 metres tall, made from dazzling bronze and depicting a rearing horse with its rider brandishing a sword, the only thing understated about this statue is its name.[1] Simply referred to as ‘Warrior on a horse’ (at least initially) by the Gruevski government, the statue heightened animosity between North Macedonia and Greece.


Since Macedonian independence in 1991, following the breakup of Yugoslavia, Greece has contested the country’s use of the name Macedonia, fearing territorial desires towards Greece’s region of the same name. Further, they disputed the depiction of the Vergina Sun on the Macedonian flag, claiming appropriation of ancient Greek culture.[2] ‘Warrior on a horse’ is the latest episode in this decades-long dispute, as observers quickly recognised the figure as Alexander the Great, a historical figure to whom both Greece and Macedonia lay claim. North Macedonia’s former foreign minister, Antonio Milososki, frankly described the statue as “our way of saying [up yours] to them [Greece]” in an interview with the Guardian in 2010.[3]


Macedonia dispute - source: Wikimedia Commons; author: Future Perfect at Sunrise,

Alexander the Great was the ruler of the ancient kingdom of Macedon from 356 to 323 BC.[4] While this kingdom lay in the modern region of Macedonia in Greece, the similarity of names and geographic proximity between ancient Macedonia and North Macedonia has led the latter to claim Alexander the Great as their own. The adoption of Alexander by North Macedonia as a national hero received global attention, even prior to the statue in Skopje. In 2009, over 300 “scholars of Graeco-Roman antiquity” signed a letter to the then President of the United States, Barack Obama, appealing to him to intervene in this “dangerous epidemic of historical revisionism.”[5]


By connecting North Macedonia with an infamous classical ruler, the government are casting the nation as the descendants of one of the largest empires of the ancient world. Reportedly, during the statue’s erection, hundreds of Macedonians sang the national anthem, ‘Denes and Makedonijia’ (Today Over Macedonia), while waving flags.[6] The debate surrounding the statue of Alexander the Great is clearly a question of the ownership of history and the association of a nation with a chosen past. The image of Alexander ready for battle is patriotically adopted to empower and heighten the comparatively young nation’s idea of heritage, authority and prestige.


A Map of the Empire of Alexander the Great from 1893 - Wikimedia Commons

As one of the earliest empire builders, Alexander embarked on a series of military campaigns. He expanded his empire from Greece into northeast Africa and as far as northwest India. Apparently undefeated in battle, Alexander’s empire grew, like many others, through a combination of bloodshed and political alliance.[7] The statue of Alexander the Great in Skopje faces east, apparently looking towards Persia, symbolically recalling Alexander’s success at overthrowing the Persian Empire in 334 BCE.[8] The expansion of the Greek empire resulted in increased contact and exchange between eastern and western Eurasia as well as sparking new forms of cultural and religious syncretism such as the emergence of Greco-Buddhism.[9]

"The debate surrounding the statue of Alexander the Great is clearly a question of the ownership of history and the association of a nation with a chosen past."

The history of Alexander the Great not only provides insight into early forms of empire building, but also ancient xenophobic ideas about cultures. The presentation of ‘the other’ as barbaric and uncivilised is apparent in the earliest examples of empire, motivating and excusing rulers and elites to expand their kingdom and dominate their enemy. Alexander likely played on these fears and prejudices to mobilise his army. However, Alexander himself faced criticism from Macedonian and Greek elites due to actions that at best were considered tactical tolerance and at worst were seen as embracing of ‘the other.’ [10]


Detail of a mosaic depicting Alexander the Great in the House of the Faun, Pompeii

Alexander married Roxanna, a noblewoman from ancient Bactria, modern-day northern Afghanistan, following the suppression of a rebellion in her citadel. Whether Alexander’s marriage to Roxanna was a result of love at first sight, as reported by one historian, or a marriage of political alliance, it was nonetheless generally disapproved of by his court due to Roxanna’s origins.[11] Disapproval turned to more active opposition when Alexander also chose to adopt certain Persian customs and dress. While some suggest this was an astute political decision to gain Persian loyalty, it still caused suspicion and fear among Greeks and Macedonians and apparently even sparked a troop mutiny.[12] Alexander’s adoption of the culture of ‘the other’ is an early example of ‘Orientalism’, the representation and imitation of the imagined ‘East’ by the ‘West’. According to Professor Edward Said, Orientalism "enables the political, economic, cultural and social domination of the West.”[13] Despite its varying success, Alexander’s presentation of the ‘East’ shows how cultural performance and appropriation was used during periods of imperialist conquest as far back as the ancient world.


Both Alexander the Great and the North Macedonian government carefully crafted their idea of self, by adopting symbols from culturally distant lands or the distant past to increase their perceived power. Both did this at a time of shaky nation building. Alexander appropriated Persian clothing and customs while he was attempting to maintain control of his new empire. For the Macedonian government, the adoption of Alexander the Great as a national icon is part of a continued struggle to assert North Macedonian authority and power as a relatively new country, in the face of Greek opposition.


Written by Amy Holguin



References:


[1] Smith, H., 2011. Macedonia Statue: Alexander the Great or a Warrior on a Horse? [online] The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2011/aug/14/alexander-great-macedonia-warrior-horse [Accessed 13 September 2020]. [2] Carpenter, M., 2018. It’s Time for Macedonia to Accept Compromise. [online]. Foreign Policy. Available at: https://foreignpolicy.com/2018/09/25/its-time-for-macedonia-to-accept-compromise/ [Accessed 13 September 2020]. [3] Smith, H., 2011. Macedonia Statue: Alexander the Great or a Warrior on a Horse? [online] The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2011/aug/14/alexander-great-macedonia-warrior-horse [Accessed 13 September 2020]. [4] BBC, 2014. Alexander the Great (356-323 BC). [online] BBC. Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/alexander_the_great.shtml [Accessed 13 September 2020]. [5] Macedonia Evidence, 2009. Letter of President Barack Obama. [online] Available at: http://macedonia-evidence.org/obama-letter.html [Accessed 13 September 2020]. [6] The Alexander the Great Fountain, 2015. Alexander the Great Statue in Skopje, Macedonia. [online] Alexander the Great Fountain. Available at: http://www.alexanderthegreatfountain.com/AlexandertheGreatStatue.htm [Accessed 13 September 2020]. [7] BBC, 2014. Alexander the Great (356-323 BC). [online] BBC. Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/alexander_the_great.shtml [Accessed 13 September 2020]. [8] The Alexander the Great Fountain, 2015. Alexander the Great Statue in Skopje, Macedonia. [online] Alexander the Great Fountain. Available at: http://www.alexanderthegreatfountain.com/AlexandertheGreatStatue.htm [Accessed 13 September 2020]. [9] History Disclosure Team, 2016. Greco-Buddhism: The Unknown Influence of the Greeks. [online] https://www.historydisclosure.com/greco-buddhism-unknown-influence-greeks/ [Accessed 13 September 2020]. [10] Reyes, J.M., 1996. The ‘Orientalism of Alexander the Great: His Persian Clothes’. Master of Arts in History Thesis. California State University. [11] Wasson, D.L., 2012. Roxanne. Ancient History Encyclopaedia. [online] https://www.ancient.eu/Roxanne/ [Accessed 13 September 2020]. [12] Reyes, J.M., 1996. The ‘Orientalism of Alexander the Great: His Persian Clothes’. Master of Arts in History Thesis. California State University. [13] Said, E.W., 1979. Orientalism. New York: Pantheon Books.

77 views0 comments
  • Black Instagram Icon
  • Black TripAdvisor Icon

©2020 by Uncomfortable Oxford.

Read our Privacy Policy

Uncomfortable Oxford is an independent organisation.