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A Roman Legacy in the Balkans: The Vlachs

© Southeast European Times
May 9, 2005

Believed by many to represent the descendants of the Roman population in the Balkans, Vlachs live in many parts of the Balkans and Eastern Europe. Though Vlach communities flourished in the past, the turbulent history of the Balkans has left them scattered and isolated and their identity as a distinct ethnic group has become increasingly tenuous.

By Marian Tutui for Southeast European Times in Bucharest – 09/05/05


This year marks the 100th anniversary of an imperial decree, issued by Ottoman Sultan Abdual Hamid II, which gave Vlachs their first collective rights. They were enabled to use their own language in churches and schools, as well as to choose their own local councilors. Thus they were able to found schools, churches and other national establishments. Between 1908 and 1913 they also had a deputy, a senator and a minister in the Ottoman Parliament. On 2 May, Vlachs all over Southeast European celebrated their International Day.

Traditionally a shepherd people, their search for better pastures has led them across the Balkans and Eastern Europe, and Vlachs can be found as far north as Poland. Their dedication to a pastoral way of life has often kept them away from the bitter ethnic fighting which has ravaged the Balkans over the centuries, and they co-exist peacefully with the majority populations wherever they live. At the same time, however, they have struggled to maintain their identity.

The origin of Vlachs, like that of the linguistically related Romanians, remains an unresolved puzzle. Both peoples are considered by some to represent descendants of Roman peoples in the Balkans, while others argue that they descended from Romanised colonists. Romanian culture was influenced by the Slavs, while Vlachs, originating south of the Danube, show Byzantine and Greek influences.

Vlach dancers c. 1905. [Courtesy of Marian Tutui

Historians call them Macedo-Romanians, and they themselves use the name Aromanians. The consensus among linguists is that Vlach and Romanian are variants of the same Latin-based language (another, Dalmatian, died out in 1898, while Istro-Romanian is spoken by a few thousand people in Croatia). Toponyms, such as Mount Durmitor in Montenegro, attest to the continued presence of Latin-speaking peoples in the Danube and mountain regions.

The name "Vlach" comes from Gothic, and originally meant "foreigner", and later "speaker of Latin idioms". German tribes used the name "Welsh" for the Roman population of what eventually became known as Wales, while the Romans of Southern Belgium were given the name Walloons. Hungarians to this day refer to Italy as "Olaszag," or "Land of Olachs" -- their version of the term. During the Byzantine Empire, several Vlach territories were recorded, but they seldom became powerful states. The Vlachs' greatest success occurred during the Assan dynasty (1185-1258), when they established the second Bulgarian Empire or the Bulgarian-Vlach state.

Towards the end of the 18th century, in Albania the Vlach town of Moscopole (Voskopoje) boasted 22 churches, an academy, a printing house, and a population of as many as 60,000. At this time, the first Vlach dictionaries, grammar books and primers were published. In 1788, however, Ali Pasha Tepelena destroyed the flourishing town of the Vlachs.

By the middle of the 19th century, Vlach communities had established schools and churches, and enjoyed the support of the authorities. The subsequent collapse of the Ottoman Empire led to the division of its territories into independent nations, which varied in their treatments of the Vlach population. Between 1925 and 1932, an organised Vlach mass migration to Romania took place, involving between 4,946 and 6,553 families. The communist regimes that later took power across the Balkans shut down all Vlach schools and establishments. Generally speaking, Vlachs were at a disadvantage during the era of rising nationalism.

Vlachs c. 1903. [Courtesy of Marian Tutui]

The newly-formed states often strove for cultural homogeneity, while scattered communities of Vlach shepherds and merchants were not cohesive enough as a group to maintain their identity. Moreover, redrawn borders split and isolated existing communities. Though once numerous in the Balkans, censuses show that today they represent less than 1 per cent of the population.

Nevertheless, Vlachs did play a significant role in some of the key events in the Balkans during the 20th century. In 1903, during the Saint Elias Uprising in Macedonia at Krushevo (where the 4,000 Vlachs represented two thirds of the population), a multinational government was established. Three of its ministers were Vlach, as was the local military leader, Pitu Guli (1845-1903), widely revered as a Macedonian national hero. To this day, Macedonians regard the Krushevo Republic as a model of ethnic co-operation.

Today, their position as a distinct group remains tenuous in many parts of the Balkans. In Greece, they are mostly regarded as Greeks -- who happen to speak a language related to Latin. Macedonia is the only state in which Vlachs have regular broadcasts on national TV. Attempts in both Macedonia and Albania to promote the Vlach language through college-level courses were met initially with enthusiasm, but the momentum has not been sustained. Romania has set aside a number of university scholarships for Vlachs, and since the fall of the Ceaucescu regime, local Vlachs have been able to organise and promote their language and traditions. However, many Vlachs increasingly do not know their dialect well, and are not in a position to exercise their collective rights.

Although international awareness of the Vlachs as an ethnic group may not be widespread, many individuals of Vlach origin have achieved worldwide fame. They include the Bulgari family of jewelers, soccer stars Gheorghe Hagi and Ilja Najdovski, film directors Dan Pita and Ljubisha Georgievski, dramatist Branislav Nushic, Balkan cinema pioneers Milton and Ienache Manakia, and Evanghelie Zappa, who helped found the modern Olympics.



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