Mediterranean Quarterly 15.4 (2004) 115-124
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a Peaceful Balkan People
In our time millions on all continents have abandoned their homes and homelands in search of physical safety and respect for human dignity. As in the past, movements of people have social, economic, and elemental survival reasons. Vlachs, too, have migrated, and fled. But this unique people of the Balkans have also demonstrated over many centuries how to hold on to their identity and contribute to national cultures in a region repeatedly swept by savage conflicts through the ages.
They have many names: Rumani, Arumani, Vlach, Koutsovlachos (Greek), Choban (Albanian), Tsintsar or Vlasi (Slavic), Karagouni (Turkish), and more. They inhabit at least seven southeastern European countries: Greece, Albania, Bulgaria, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), Serbia-Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Croatia. Yet those Vlachs of the Balkans not fully assimilated by their host nations have one thing in common—they speak a language apparently deriving from the Latin spoken by the Roman conquerors who arrived in the region more than two thousand years ago. Other ancestral traits are that many Vlachs practiced herding of sheep, while others were urbanized merchants.
According to a (non-Vlach) specialist, "In a word, the Vlachs are the perfect Balkan citizens, able to preserve their culture without resorting to war or politics, violence, or dishonesty."1
The Roman Empire gradually expanded in what is now called the Balkan Peninsula from 146 BC, with the first colonies around Preveza in the Epirus region of Greece, to about 550 AD. Vlachs are sometimes assumed [End Page 115] to be the Romanized descendants of autochthonous ethnic groups, the Illyrians, Thracians, Dacians and Greeks, though the Greek connection is undoubtedly the strongest. Oddly perhaps, the denomination Vlach, by which they are most widely known, is plainly not of Vlach origin, coming, as far as scholars of linguistics can determine, either from Celtic or Germanic roots (variously Welsh or Welsch). Vlachs generally refer to themselves among themselves as Aromani (or Arumani). Vlach toponyms are found all over southeastern Europe. In Bosnia-Herzegovina there are towns named Vlaski Potok and Vlasenica and the prominent mountain named Romanija. In neighboring Montenegro there are the mountains named Durmitor and Visitor, both plainly of Vlach origin.
During the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the reconquest of Macedonia extended the Byzantine Empire's domination across much of the territory of the southern Slavs. In that period there was already a "Romanized" territory south of the Sava that had many Vlach toponyms. According to a German historian, there apparently was a "bishopric of the Vlachs" with its residence at "Vreanoti" (Vranje) on the upper reaches of the Morava River.2
Still, huge historical mysteries concerning the Vlachs remain unsolved. For instance, one of the contemporary Vlach homelands is located in the Pindus Mountains of northern Greece. But there is no evidence that this was a primary area of Roman conquest or occupation—no tombstones, monuments, or inscriptions. Presumably the Vlachs, as descendants of the forty thousand or so Roman colonists in Greek lands, gravitated later to the mountains. But when? The same question applies to their movement in many other locales. For that matter, the first time Vlachs are mentioned in a historical text is in 976 AD in a reference to the village of Kalai Drues near Prespa Lake in western FYROM. Probably these Vlachs migrated from northwestern Greece.
In the latter half of the twentieth century the numbers of Vlachs were widely considered to be declining sharply, either as a result of stringent nationality policies in various countries or through the dynamics of urbanization, emigration, and education. Recently, however, there has been a modest revival of Vlach fortunes, partly through radio and television, partly through [End Page 116] the multiple powers of the Internet (there are more than sixty thousand Vlach web listings and more than two dozen Vlach websites in English, Greek, and Serbian) and partly through requirements of the European Union that Vlach culture be respected and cultivated.3
Strikingly, one of the most active organizations promoting Vlach culture is American, the Society...