Was Alexander the Great a Greek?

What Nationality Was Alexander the Great?

Map of Macedonia, Moesia, Dacia, and Thracia
Map of Macedonia, Moesia, Dacia, and Thracia, from The Atlas of Ancient and Classical Geography, by Samuel Butler and Edited by Ernest Rhys. The Atlas of Ancient and Classical Geography, by Samuel Butler and Edited by Ernest Rhys. 1907.

A major figure in Greek history, Alexander the Great conquered much of the world, spreading Greek culture from India to Egypt, but the question of whether Alexander the Great was actually Greek continues to spark debate.

This is what modern historians know and say:
  • Historian E. Borza: "It is clear that over a five-century span of writing in two languages representing a variety of historiographical and philosophical positions the ancient writers regarded the Greeks and Macedonians as two separate and distinct peoples…"
  • Historian NGL Hammond: "Macedonians considered themselves to be, and were treated by Alexander the Great as being, separate from the Greeks. They were proud to be so."
  • Greek Historian M.B. Sakellariou: "Isokrates [father of 'Hellenism'] places Macedonia outside the boundaries of Greece and describes the Macedonians as 'an unrelated race'…"
  • Historian E. Badian: "As regards the Macedonian nation as a whole, (there was as we can see) no division. They were regarded as clearly barbarian, despite the various myths."

The question of whether Alexander the Great was actually Greek resonates among modern Greeks and Macedonians who are extremely proud of Alexander and want him for one of their own. Times have certainly changed. As you can see from the quotes above, when Alexander and his father conquered Greece, many Greeks weren't so eager to welcome the Macedonians as their fellows.

The political borders and ethnic composition of Alexander's homeland, Macedonia, are not now the same as they were at the time of Alexander's Empire. Slavic peoples (a group to which Alexander the Great did not belong) migrated to Macedonia centuries later (7th century A.D.), making the genetic composition of the modern Macedonians (citizens of the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia or FYROM) different from those of the 4th century B.C.

Determining Alexander's Nationality

Alexander the Great may be considered (ancient) Macedonian or Greek or both, depending. For us, parentage is paramount. In the 5th century Athens, this issue was important enough for a law determining that no longer was one parent (the father) enough: both parents had to be from Athens for their child to bear Athenian citizenship. In mythical times, Orestes was freed from punishment for killing his mother because the goddess Athena didn't consider the mother crucial to reproduction. In the time of Aristotle, Alexander's teacher, the importance of women in reproduction continued to be argued. We understand these things better, but even the ancients recognized that women were important since, if nothing else, they were the ones who did the birthing.

In the case of Alexander, whose parents were not of the same nationality, arguments can be made for each parent separately.

Alexander the Great had one mother, who was known, but four possible fathers. The likeliest scenario is that the Molossian Olympias of Epirus was his mother and the Macedonian King Philip II was his father. For what it's worth, the other contenders are the gods Zeus and Ammon, and the Egyptian mortal Nectanebo.

Were Alexander's Parents Greek?

Olympias was an Epirote and Philip was Macedonian, but they may also have been considered Greek. The appropriate term isn't really "Greek," but "Hellenic," as in Olympias and Philip may have been considered Hellenes (or barbarians). Olympias came from a Molossian royal family that traced its origins to Neoptolemus, the son of the greatest hero of the Trojan War, Achilles. Philip came from a Macedonian family that traced its origins to the Peloponnesian Greek city of Argos and Hercules/Heracles, whose descendant Temenus received Argos when the Heracleidae invaded the Peloponnese in the Dorian invasion. Mary Beard points out that this was a self-serving legend.

Evidence From Herodotus

According to Cartledge, the royal families may have been considered Hellenic even if the common people of Epirus and Macedonia were not. Evidence that the Macedonian royal family was considered Greek-enough comes from the Olympic Games (Herodotus.5). The Olympic Games were open to pretty much all free, Greek males, but were closed to barbarians. An early Macedonian king, Alexander I wanted to enter the Olympics. Since he was not clearly a Greek, his admission was debated. It was decided that the Argive dynasty from which the Macedonian royal family came gave credence to his claim to be Greek. He was allowed to enter. It had not been a foregone conclusion. Some considered this predecessor of Alexander the Great, like his countrymen, barbarian.

"[5.22] Now that the men of this family are Greeks, sprung from Perdiccas, as they themselves affirm, is a thing which I can declare of my own knowledge, and which I will hereafter make plainly evident. That they are so has been already adjudged by those who manage the Pan-Hellenic contest at Olympia. For when Alexander wished to contend in the games, and had come to Olympia with no other view, the Greeks who were about to run against him would have excluded him from the contest - saying that Greeks only were allowed to contend, and not barbarians. But Alexander proved himself to be an Argive, and was distinctly adjudged a Greek; after which he entered the lists for the foot-race, and was drawn to run in the first pair. Thus was this matter settled."

Olympias was not a Macedonian but was considered an outsider at the Macedonian court. That did not make her a Hellene. What could make her Greek is accepting the following statements as evidence:

The issue remains debatable.