Southern Balkan Vlach peoples - the Aromani

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Vlach regions

Sarakatsani regions

Sax, Austria 1877

Kiepert, Germany 1878

Ishkirov, Sofia 1912
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Nomadic shepherds of the Balkans

In modern Greece, Macedonia, and Bulgaria there are nomadic peoples speaking a Latin language similar to Romanian, but separate to the Romanian of the northern Vlachs. These southern Balkan Vlachs call themselves Aromani (meaning Romans). Serbs and Albanians use the term Tsintsars from the sound of the Armani speech. The term Wallach, from the Germanic for stranger, occurs in many languages. This gives us Slavic term Vlach and the Greek Kutsovlakhi or just Vlakhi. But to add to the confusion the term Vlach can be used for any non Slav and Vlakhi can mean any shepherd. Without any substantiated evidence we could describe the Vlachs as slight build; white skin or Latin complexion as compared with Greeks or Slavs. Hair is usually dark brown, but sometimes fair, especially in youth.

Unlike other nations with shepherds the whole of the Vlach people are nomadic and have long been shepherds and muleteers. The Vlachs are not the only surviving nomadic people, the Sarakatsani are Greek speaking peoples living in northern Greece and southern Bulgaria. The Sarakatsani are either a native tribe that adopted the Greek language, in the same way the Vlachs adopted Latin, or they are an early Greek speaking tribe that entered the Balkans in the early Bronze age.

Vlachs in the Balkans

Greece has by far the largest Aromanian community which numbers over 100,000, although Greek census figures are much lower. Their existence has until recently been delicate as Greece did not acknowledge the existence of national minorities within its boundaries and pursued an active policy of "ethnic homogenazation". Generally the use of minority languages has been discouraged. The main areas are the Pindus mountains, Meglan, around lake Prespa, and around the mountains of Olympus and Vermion.

Albania has the second largest Aromanian community inhabiting mostly the southern region of the country, especially around Gjirokastër and Përmeti with around 100,000 people, around 2% of the Albanian population. (Albanian Vlach villages map under construction!)

In the modern country of Macedonia the Aromanians now have a far better situation compared to the other Aromanian communities. They are represented in the Parliament and the constitution stipulates the right of national minorities to study in their own language. The main areas are around Bitola and Štip.

In Bulgaria there are Romanian speaking populations in the north, close to the border with Romania, and the Aromanian speaking population in the south, but these are not generally distinguished by Bulgarians. Both are known by the general term of Vlassi.

Vlach history

The history of the southern Balkan Vlachs is impossible to detail from written records. Most of the written accounts during Byzantine and medieval times are from the towns, plains and coasts and it is likely the authors were not even aware of the peoples living in the hills and mountains. Throughout these times of the Byzantine Empire the court language of the southern Balkans was Greek, however the Albanians and Vlachs are proof that peoples with other languages existed.

During the Roman times it is possible that Latin penetrated the inland hills more than Greek as the Romans opened up roads and trade routes across these areas. The Via Egnatia was the military and trade land route from the Adriatic to the Aegean probably helped the continuation of a Latin presence and the surviving Vlach villages are in the vicinity of this route. Hence, even if by the 2nd century AD most inscriptions are in Greek this only indicates the official language of towns. The native peoples and the interior may have been Latin speaking.

Many have attempted to link the Vlachs to the Roman colonists. The distribution of the Vlachs does not correlate to the distribution of Romans. The Roman colonists were generally from other areas of the Empire and did not use Latin as their first language.  The transition to a nomadic life for a towns colonist is less easy than the transfer from nomadic to town life. Hence this seems less likely than adoption of Latin by native peoples.

Others suggest the Vlachs moved down to the Pindus in the 6th century AD as waves of Slavs moved into Illyria. The Aromani language is thought to have separated from the northern Vlach language around this time. To show the final extent of the Slav peoples in this region, I have shown three of the many ethnological maps available. With these maps it should be remembered that the definition of ethnicity can vary (blood line, language, religion, culture etc.), and national interests continue to distort reality, that these maps were created before the Slavic-Macedonian language and people were considered to be separate to the Bulgarians, and these maps take no account of population density

Form the 6th century AD written references to the Vlachs can be first inferred from lists of place names which are distinctly Latin. Bulgarian texts of the 10th century have many references to Vlachs and areas called Great Vlachia and Little Vlachia roughly corresponding to the current Vlach populations and the Vlachs may have fought on the side of the Bulgarians against the Byzantines. A description of the Vlachs of Thessaly's life in the 11th century is similar to their life in the early 20th century.

There may well have been short lived independent states of mainly Vlach populations in the 14th century,  In 1350 the Serbs took much of the area followed by the Turks and the history of the Vlachs through this time is sparse.


© Eliznik2005, First issue 2002, Last updated Dec-05