By: Aaron Kaufmann
Occasionally when I fly to Lesbos, I travel through Thessaloniki. The airport there is not a particularly interesting place. Thessaloniki International Airport is situated outside of town with not much to see other than the somewhat barren landscape. One time, as I wandered around the small terminal in search of an outlet to revitalize my dying phone, I came across what could be called a shrine to a famous Greek (or Macedonian, depending on who you ask). Right inside the front door was a bust of the head of Alexander the Great—most likely just a replica—and the text of an oath he made to his armies and commanders after his conquest into Egypt, Mesopotamia, and the rest of the known world of his day.
“Now that the wars are coming to an end, I wish you all to prosper in peace. From now on, may all mortals live as one people, in fellowship, for the good of all. See the whole world as your homeland, with laws common to all, where the best will govern regardless of their race. Unlike the narrow-minded, I make no distinction between Greeks and Barbarians. I am not interested in the origin of the citizens, or the race into which they were born. I have only one criterion by which to distinguish them: their virtue. For me, any good foreigner is a Greek and any bad Greek is worse than a Barbarian. If disputes ever arise among you, do not resort to weapons, but solve them peacefully. If needed, I will arbitrate between you. See God, not as an autocratic despot, but as the common father of all so that your conduct will be like the life of siblings of the same family. I, on my part, see you all as equal, whether you are white or dark-skinned. And I wish you all to be not only subjects of the Commonwealth, but members of it, partners of it. To the best of my ability, I will strive to do what I have promised. Let us hold onto the oath we have taken tonight with our libations as a Contract of Love.”
The language is different from what I would have used, but the message it tries to convey is timeless. The ideas of unity, of universal rights, of people being judged not by how they look or which god they worship, but rather the character of the person are clearly not new ideals, but obviously they are some that we as a species are still struggling with.
The problem is not with these ideals, but with the fact that we only want to embrace them when it is beneficial for us personally. Before his conquests Alex made no claims about “seeing you all as equal,” or making “no distinction between Greeks and Barbarians”—in stating it this way however, he clearly indicates which of these, Greek and Barbarians, he sees as the lesser of the two. Making such a speech that promotes unity and brotherly love was only a means of keeping a massive empire from turning onto itself. We only want unity when we get to decide when and who it excludes.
It sounds like he wants a prosperous and peaceful land with justice for everyone who lives there, but how can there be a just and true peace when the absence of violence is only predicated on conquest? This is not a land of equality. This is a land where, to quote George Orwell, everyone is equal, but Greeks (and not Barbarians) are more equal than others.
In our day and age, not much has changed. The European Union claims to be a progressive place with security and freedom. Those opportunities however are not granted to those who are perceived politically as uncivilized, radicalized, or dangerous. The EU is not alone in this. My own country, the United States is just as bad, if not worse. It has now become “Everyone is equal, but those in the West are more equal than others.”
It is clear that even these words in the guise of unity have been forgotten by the powers that placed them on that pedestal in the entrance to the airport. In a way it is empty honor to a man long dead in an attempt to drum up patriotism and feelings of nationalistic pride. The irony is not lost to the few who not only stop to read what is there, but also think critically about it. It is not only a Greek problem. It is a problem that stems from the policy of the EU as a whole; it is a problem growing from the festering wound of willful ignorance in the US. It is selective recollection of Alexander and his desire to hold on to what he saw as his.
We need to strive toward a desire for unity before the conquest; we need to work toward a world where there is no need to distinguish between groups of people in our attempt to prove we don’t play favorites; and we need to push toward a world where there is no caveat after the phrase: “Everyone is equal.”