Although life in Macedonia goes back 700,000 years, it’s best known for the powerful Macedonian civilisation that peaked with Alexander the Great (d 323 BC), who conquered as far as India. Deemed barbarians by cultivated Athenians, the Macedonians subjugated Greece under Alexander’s father, Philip II, yet adopted Greek mores. Alexander spread the Greek culture and language widely, creating a Hellenistic society that would be absorbed by the Romans. Later, after their empire split into eastern and western halves in the 4th century AD, the Greek-speaking Byzantine Empire emerged.
Thessaloniki became Byzantium’s second city, a vital commercial, cultural and strategic centre on the Balkan trade routes. However, 6th- and 7th-century-AD Slavic migrations brought new populations and challenges. The empire frequently battled with the medieval Bulgarian kingdom from the 9th century to the 11th century. In 1018 Emperor Basil II finally defeated Bulgarian Tsar Samuel, who had ruled much of the southern Balkans from Macedonia’s Mikri Prespa Lake.
After Serbian rule in the 14th century, Macedonia and the Balkans were overrun by the Ottoman Turks. The Ottoman system distinguished subjects by religion, not race, causing strife in the late 19th century, when guerrilla movements arose to fight the Turks, pledging to annex Macedonia for Greece, Bulgaria or even an independent ‘Macedonia for the Macedonians’; in the very early 20th century, great powers such as Britain favoured the latter.
Ottoman atrocities against Macedonia’s Christian populations presaged the First Balkan War of 1912, in which Greece, Bulgaria and Serbia drove the Turks from Macedonia; however, the Bulgarians were unhappy with their share, and declared war on their former allies in 1913, starting the Second Balkan War. Bulgaria’s quick defeat lost it allotted portions of eastern Macedonia and Thrace, and Greece was the big winner, taking half of geographical Macedonia, with Serbia taking 38%. Bulgaria was left with 13%. Newly created Albania received a sliver around Ohrid and the Prespa Lakes.
In 1923, with the massive Greek–Turkish population exchanges, the government resettled many Anatolian Greek refugees in Macedonia, displacing the indigenous (non-Greek) populations. A vigorous program for assimilating non-Greeks was already under way, primarily through education and the Church. During WWII Greece was occupied by the Nazis, who deported and killed most of Macedonia’s significant Sephardic Jewish population. Afterwards, during the Greek Civil War (1944–49), authorities targeted ‘communist supporters’ – often a label for ethnic minorities – causing the expulsion of thousands of (Slavic) Macedonians, many of them children, as well as Bulgarians and others. Greek Macedonia today is thus different from what it was even 60 years ago.