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What's in a name?

By Peter Hill - posted Wednesday, 2 February 2011

On 28 November 2010 Professor John Melville-Jones, Winthrop Professor in the Department of Classics and Ancient History at the University of Western Australia, gave an address in Melbourne to a Greek organization called the “Australian-Macedonian Advisory Council”. Professor Melville-Jones’ address was entitled “The Importance of Historical Truth and the Macedonian Issue”. In this address Professor Melville-Jones beats the drum for the Greek Government in its dispute with the “Former Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia”.

Professor Melville-Jones, while a specialist in classics and ancient history, cannot claim the same expertise in the modern history of South-Eastern Europe or the South-Slavonic languages. It is rash for a scholar to suggest that a particular ethnic group in Australia, in this case the Australian Macedonians, while good citizens of this country, are not intelligent enough to understand who they are, or who they are not. Nationality is a matter of self-ascription and the Slavonic-speaking inhabitants of Macedonia have been calling themselves Makedonci for at least 150 years. The Greeks have not been calling themselves Ellines for much longer than that.

The people that today call themselves Ellines “Hellenes” or “Greeks” did not adopt this name until the 19th century. Before that they had called themselves Romii “Romans” - because they had been citizens of the (Eastern-)Roman Empire. Even today, the indigenous term for “Greekness” is Romiosini, not the artificial pseudo-classical term Elinikotita.


Nations are, by definition, products of the modern era. It is often said that Australia became a nation at Gallipoli. Most scholars believe that the French became a nation during the French Revolution and the subsequent Napoleonic wars, when soldiers were asked for the first time to fight for la nation. Others, however, believe that the French did not become a nation until the end of the 19th century, when, with the advent of compulsory universal schooling, pupils could be taught who they were or at least who they were supposed to be.

Some European nations probably did not come into existence until national television reached every household in the second half of the 20th century. Certainly, even in the 1950s, peasants in some parts of Europe seemed to have no clear idea what the name of their supposed nation actually meant.

The Macedonians became a nation during the 20th century, the Greeks during the 19th. Some of the details of the modern Greek ethnogenesis can be read in Roger Just’s celebrated 1989 article “Triumph of the Ethnos”. But Greek national identity seems to be so fragile that it is threatened even by a dispute over who "owns" Alexander the Great.

The Hellenic Republic claims that the mere use of the name Macedonia by the neighbouring republic is in itself irredentist, because there is an area of Northern Greece called Macedonia. But there are probably dozens of similar situations around the world: Luxemburg is a Grand Duchy and also a province of neighbouring Belgium, Azerbaijan is an independent republic and also a province in northern Iran. The name France means “land of the Franks” (in German Frankreich) - but there is a province in Germany called Franken, in English Franconia, meaning “land of the Franks”.

The Hellenic Republic claims that it feels threatened by its small neighbour. This is hardly convincing, since the Hellenic Republic has one of the most powerful armies in NATO, while its small neighbour has only symbolic military forces, but in order to accommodate Greek sensibilities, the Republic of Macedonia changed its flag to avoid using symbols found on the territory of the present-day Hellenic Republic and changed its constitution to state explicitly that the Republic has no territorial claims against neighbouring states.

The perceived threat may actually be quite different. Does the Government of the Hellenic Republic need the dispute with its small neighbour in order to bolster national unity?

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About the Author

Professor Peter Hill is a Visiting Fellow at the School of Language Studies and School of Social Sciences at Australian National University.

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