*This article was first published in Mediterranean Quarterly, Vol. 15, No. 4, and is reprinted here by kind permission of the author and Duke University Press.
They have many names: Rumani, Arumani, Vlach, Koutsovlachos (Greek), Choban (Albanian), Tsintsar or Vlasi (Slavic), Karagouni (Turkish), and more. They inhabit at least six Southeastern European countries: Greece, Albania, Bulgaria, Macedonia, 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 2,000 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.”
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, until about 550 AD. Vlachs are generally assumed to be the Romanized descendants of autochthonous tribes, the Illyrians, Thracians, Dacians and Greeks. 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 (Arumani).”
Vlach toponyms are found all over Southeastern Europe. In Bosnia-Herzegovina there are towns named Vlaski Potok and Vlasenica, and the prominent mountain Romanija. In neighboring Montenegro there are the mountains named Durmitor and Visitor.
During the 11th-12th 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 “Romanised” territory south of the Sava which 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.
Yet with the Vlachs, huge historical mysteries 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 40,000 or so Roman colonists in Greek lands gravitated later to the mountains. But when? The same question applies to many other locales. For that matter, the first time Vlachs are mentioned in a historical text is in 976 in a reference to the village of Kalai Drues near Prespa Lake in western Macedonia. Probably these Vlachs migrated from northwestern Greece.
In the latter half of the 20th 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 the multiple powers of the Internet (there are more than 60,000 “Vlach” websites) and partly through requirements of the European Union that Vlach culture be respected and cultivated.
Strikingly, the most active organization promoting Vlach culture is American, the Society Farsarotul, based in Trumbull, Connecticut, which recently marked the one hundredth anniversary of its founding. Farsarotul, named for a tribe of Aromanians from the Epirus region now straddling northern Greece and southern Albania, states its purpose thus: “We acknowledge that the Aromanians are being assimilated by their various neighbors, be they Albanian or American, Greek or Rumanian. Yet cultures do not often disappear completely, but rather they are transformed; we retain some of our past in ways which we do not always understand. It is the Society’s role to help us understand that side of us.” The group also publishes a very informative “Society Farsarotul Newsletter”, which is available online.
We are considering in the neighborhood of 100,000 people of the Balkans who speak Vlach and identify themselves as Vlach (some sources boldly estimate much higher numbers, including a total number of 1.5 million Vlachs in the world).
Official census data list 38,000 in Serbia, 35,000 in Albania, 10,000 in Bulgaria, 8,000 in Macedonia and 22 in Croatia. According to the 1951 Greek census, the last recording ethnicities, there were 22,736 Vlachs in Greece (Greece, it should be noted, has had a reputation of being averse to taking account of ethnic minorities, be they Slavic, Albanian, Turkish or Vlach.) There is possibly a scattering of Vlach-speakers in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Montenegro.
At various moments in their long history, Vlachs ascended the summits of power – supplying two brothers, John and Peter Asen, who helped establish a shadowy Vlach-Bulgarian kingdom in the first half of the 13th century. Notably, the brothers led a revolt in the Haemus mountains (also called the Balkan range) against a stiff tax on sheep and goats imposed by the Byzantine Empire. After their violent deaths, a third brother, Kalojannes, and his nephew, John Asen II ruled a large territory from 1197 to 1241.
In more recent times, Albania’s prime minister in 1924, Fan Noli (Theophan Stylian Noli) was reputedly of Vlach origin and in the early years after World War II a number of Albanian Vlachs were elected to the ruling Communist Party’s central committee. Tito’s Yugoslavia also had a foreign minister, Koca Popovic, of Vlach ancestry, but he distanced himself from his wealthy origins and, indeed, the Yugoslav League of Communists did all it could to expropriate and marginalize previously prominent Vlach families.
Perhaps the friendliest environment for Vlachs in the Balkans has been Greece. One of the early premiers of modern Greece was John (Ioannis) Kolettis. Of Vlach ancestry, he distinguished himself in 1844 in a speech to parliament that was a clarion call for little Greece to expand its territory to include western Anatolia, the Black Sea coast and Thrace, all Turkish lands.
A contemporary of Kolettis was Georgios Stavrou, a successful entrepreneur in Western Europe, who heeded a call to the diaspora to return to the ancestral homeland. He became the treasurer of the provisional government in 1824, founded the National Bank of Greece in 1841 and continued as its director until his death in 1869. Another Stavrou, Zisis, led a revolt against Salibey the Turkish ruler of Delvino and his Albanian troops during the Russo-Turkish war of 1877-78. The Stavrous, passionate about their Hellenic identity, also had a Vlach branch, according to various histories. 
Modern Greece has had several political leaders proud of their Vlach origins, among them, Evangelos Averoff-Tossitsa, who served as minister of foreign affairs and later, minister of defense.
Generally, however, it appears that Vlachs rarely if ever sought political power or prominence as Vlachs. Their focus, if one can speak of a common ethnic trait, has been on close family and community ties. Historians of Vlach life dwell on their endogamy – marriage within the tribe. One of the problems with Vlachs is that the Aromanian language strongly resembles Romanian. Some Romanian scholars have ventured to assert that the Vlachs of Greece, Macedonia, Serbia and Bulgaria derive from the Romanized Dacians of Emperor Trajan’s time who migrated south and westward, but this has remained impossible to prove on the basis of historical evidence.
In the latter half of the 19th century the Kingdom of Romania sent teachers to southern Macedonia and northern Greece essentially to co-opt the Aromanian speakers there as potential adjuncts of a “greater Romania,” albeit with no notable success (one such school lasted until 1945 in the village of Ano Grammatikon, some 50 miles west of Thessaloniki).For more than a century the consensus of Romanian thinking and scholarship on the subject is that “Vlachs are Romanians, but Romanians are not Vlachs.” As recently as Oct. 29, 2002 Prime Minister Adrian Nastase of Romania declared somewhat provocatively in Sofia on an official visit that Bulgaria’s Romanian minority needed “material and logistical support” without specifying whether he meant only Romanians or included Vlachs in his definition of the minority. Official statistics showed that 1,088 Bulgarian citizens had declared themselves Romanians while 10,566 called themselves Vlachs.
Some of Romania’s greatest writers and thinkers are considered at least part-Vlach in origin. Among them are Lucian Blaga (1895-1961), the poet-philosopher whose mother was Aromanian, and Ion Luca Caragiale (1852-1912), the playwright, of an Aromanian family originally from Macedonia. Vlachs turn up it seems in the most unlikely places. Vlachophiles list the famed 20th century Austrian conductor, Herbert von Karajan, as one of theirs, descended from a Macedonian Vlach family. Lately there have been reports that Mother Teresa, the nun beatified as an Albanian Catholic, had a Vlach father, Nikola Bojaxhiu.
Throughout the centuries, Vlachs appear to have practiced bilingualism, using their own tongue mainly in their families and communities while employing Greek, Serbian, Macedonian, Bulgarian or Albanian for dealings with others, Greek, especially, in commerce. Their bilingualism goes hand in hand with the nomadic quality of Vlachs, both as shepherds and as merchants. T.J. Winnifrith, the indefatigable historian of the Vlachs, remarked that in Albania it was “difficult to find many traces of permanent settlement lasting more than three hundred years.” In the early 18th century, for instance, the city of Moscopolis in present-day southeastern Albania, was estimated to have 40,000 inhabitants, the second-largest city in the Balkans, most of them Vlachs and many of them merchants. Today, as Voskopoje, it is a tiny town with no Vlachs although some may reside in the vicinity.
By the same token, Vlach was and remains basically a spoken language, with considerable variations and divergences of dialect between north and south, and east and west. According to Winnifrith it has a limited vocabulary, limited syntax, and “no literature worth speaking of.” There is also a notable amount of Greek in Vlach speech in southerly Balkan regions. As far as can be determined, Vlach was until quite recently neither formally written or taught (in Albania’s Communist era, Vlach was taught in primary schools in some southern villages).
But Vlachs, unlike other Balkan peoples, apparently had no church center all their own, despite or because of their closeness to the Greek Orthodox rite. In short, Vlachs lacked, or shunned, the traditional instruments for constructing something resembling a national identity. The advantage of this condition is that they apparently never became a major target of any of the myriad and often fierce ethnic groups vying for power and control in the Balkans. Only when they grew too wealthy in Moscopolis or later in Belgrade, did Vlachs stir jealousy among their neighbors and the urge to loot and plunder.
Over many years I encountered Vlachs in various parts of the Balkans, but only after seeking them out. The first were in the village of Duboka in the Homolja region of eastern Serbia. In 1963 one could still find “rusalje” there – women who fell into a trance and conversed with the dead. It was early June near the time of Pentecost (although the trance phenomenon long predated Christianity and may have descended from Dionysian rites).
The villagers were parading in their annual “Pomona” festival, singing softly and moving with a sedate two-step and carrying candles, mirrors, cakes and wine. Young men wore cloves of garlic as charms. “The deceased are hungry.” it was explained. I met the mayor of Duboka. “Are you a Communist?” I inquired. He nodded. “As a Marxist, do you believe that women can fall into trances and talk to the dead?” I asked. “It is better not to disbelieve,” he responded, somewhat sheepishly, it seemed. “One of them is my mother.” The parade halted. A group of girls formed a circle and began a slow dance. In the middle an elderly woman threw back her head. Her arms stiffened. She fell prostrate and began murmuring. I was told she was talking with long-deceased people, probably relatives. Although they lived less than 50 miles from the Danube – and the Romanian border – the Duboka people insisted they were “Vlachs,” not “Romanians”.
In early summer 1976 my family visited Samarina, at an altitude of 5,413 feet the “highest village in Greece,” which is sometimes called “the capital of the Vlachs.” Reaching this town of some 400 souls and a large number of dogs involved a hike of some miles from where our car could no longer proceed because of a swollen stream.
In the center of the village square was a large willow. Grouped around it were seven taverns and a general store. While snacking on tomatoes and sheep cheese on the porch of a tavern a group of men approached. What was I doing in Samarina, one asked. I replied that I was an American. “Henry Kissinger is bad,” he said. “Why?” I asked, expecting to hear something about the Cyprus crisis, “He has blue eyes,” the man of Samarina explained. I asked whether they were Vlachs. “We are Vlachs,” said the man of Samarina, “but Vlachs are Greeks.” We purchased a wooden glitsa – a unique shepherd’s crook – as a souvenir.
In 1984 we visited Cetinje, capital of the former kingdom of Montenegro. There I discovered its “Vlach Church” dating from 1450, making it the oldest building in the town. Purportedly constructed by “Vlach shepherds,” the church was surrounded by a fence made of rifle barrels. A Montenegrin explained to me that this commemorated the doughty Vlach warriors who had helped defend Montenegrins from the depredations of Turkish attacks, and attested to the good relations between Vlachs and Slavs. But I was unable to learn more about this sequence of events then or later.
Late in life, I became acquainted with the rise and fall of the Vlachs called Tsintsars, sadly not in person. It was too late. Fortunately the Tsintsars are richly recorded in literature, especially in Serbia. In the south-central Balkans, Vlachs settled permanently in towns during the late Middle Ages. Their largest city was Moskopol, with a population of over 40,000 by the mid-eighteenth century. Vlach merchants sent agents thence as far away as Venice and Vienna. Then disaster struck. Albanian bands sacked Moskopol in 1769 and returned to loot in 1788. Then, Ali Pasha Tepelena (1740-1822), the powerful Albanian ruler who had started out life as a bandit chieftain, destroyed what was left of Moskopol.
The fleeing Moskopol Vlachs moved to Veles and Bitola in Macedonia and onward to the north. As many as 6,000 settled in Belgrade and across the Sava River in the Hapsburg town of of Zemun. They soon were trading in tobacco and grain and prospering. Belgrade was at the time a fortress town with a Turkish garrison and farmers’ markets, anything but a metropolis. Somewhere along the way, living amid Slavs, these Vlachs acquired the nickname “Tsintsar” – most probably as a onomatopoetic way of replicating the sibilant sounds of Vlach speech (fatsa-face, fatsi-make, tsi-what).
By dint of their success in commerce and banking they also contributed mightily to making Belgrade into a real city with a real bourgeoisie. In the initial period among the Slavs (and elsewhere), Tsintsars used their Vlach language among themselves, but were accustomed to employ Greek in commerce, that being a more broadly understood tongue in Turkish-ruled Balkan countries. Gradually, they adopted the local language. (Even today, in Macedonia, where some Vlachs have become rich, again, “Tsintsar” is a joking synonym for “tightwad.”)
By the 19th century, Tsintsars were entering Serbian intellectual life. An outstanding figure among them was Jovan Sterija Popovic (1806-1856), born in the Vojvodina region. He became a much loved and still performed playwright known as “the father of Serbian drama.” Among his best-known works were “The Miser, or Kir Janja,” “The Liar and the Consummate Liar,” and “The Wicked Woman.” Some of his comic characters, like The Miser, were Tsintsars, and spoke fragments of Vlach in his plays. In his short life and despite frequent illnesses, Sterija Popovic also served as a professor at the University of Kragujevac, and was instrumental in the building of Serbia’s educational system, National Museum, National Library, and the first theater in Belgrade.
A second renowned and much loved Serbian dramatist, Branislav Nusic (1864-1938) was also of Tsintsar origin, although this did not appear in any of his works. This could be explained by the fact that in his time, Tsintsars had been largely absorbed into Serbian society. His plays, among them, “A Member of Parliament,” and “A Suspicious Person,” poked fun at all levels of Serbian society, especially the bourgeoisie, from which he sprang. Nusic was very popular during the Communist regime of Josip Broz Tito because his plays caricaturized common enemies in a capitalist society. Borislav Pekic, another Serbian writer of partial Tsintsar origin (a grandmother was half-Vlach), seized on that ancestry as a central element in his epic vision not only of Balkan history but of the history of mankind back to the edge of mythological times.
A polymath, Pekic (1930-1992) grew up not knowing a word of Vlach. But he absorbed as much as he could of Tsintsar lore from his father and grandfather and then picked up what he could of the language from recordings, or from the works of Sterija Popovic.
Then he made Arsenie Njegovan, an aged Belgrade Tsintsar, the protagonist of his 1970 novel, Houses of Belgrade (Hodocasce Arsenija Njegovana in the original). The tale of this wealthy landlord who has become a recluse has both comic and tragic elements reflecting the frequent absurdities of Serbian history in his time. Its central theme is “the will to possess”, which Pekic saw as a basic human instinct and one particularly prominent among the Tsintsars. He also records the fact that the formerly powerful caste of Tsintsars were “finally destroyed and dispossessed” by The Yugoslav Communist regime.
He picked up this theme of acquisitiveness again in The Golden Fleece (Zlatno Runo, published 1978-1986), a monumental, seven-volume work. It begins in 1941 as Hitler’s armies are threatening the Balkans and circles back to the beginning of time at the moment the semi-mythological Argonauts set off after the Golden Fleece. The archetype of the modern Njegovans – Neomis – joins the crew of Jason’s Argos. He wants to acquire gold. When the crew, which sees the fleece as a means to attain eternal life, learns this they throw him off their ship. Thus the worldly saga of the family commences. The Tsintsar portion of the Nago-Njegovan family story is taken up in the late 18th century with the fall of Moscopolis.
If nothing else, Pekic preserved and immortalized the Vlachs in this epic.
– Tom J. Winnifrith, The Vlachs of Macedonia, Society Farsarotul Newsletter (SFN), Vol. XI, N. 1, 1997)
– H. Gelzer, “Ungedruckte und wenig bekannte Bistumverzeichnisse der orientalischen Kirche”, Byzantinische Zeitschrift, 1892, vol. 4:24, pp 256-257.
– Document 7728, the Council of Europe, Jan. 17, 1997. The Parliamentary Assembly noting “the critical situation of the Aromanian Language and culture,” asserted: “Whereas there were 500,000 Aromanian speakers at the beginning of the 20th century, there are now only about half that number, dispersed through Albania, Bulgaria, Greece, Macedonia and Serbia.”
– Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, 2003, lists: Aromanians (speaking Macedo-romanian language) are living as a minority in Northern Greece – between 700,000 and 1,200,000; mainly in the Pindus Mountains. N.B: the Greek government does not recognise any ethnic divisions, so there are no exact statistics. (See Demographics of Greece.) Serbia – between 100,000 and 600,000; mostly in the Timoc Valley. Republic of Macedonia – between 150,000 and 180,000. Albania – between 100,000 and 400,000. Romania – about 50,000; mostly in Dobruja. Megleno-Romanians (speaking Megleno-Romanian language) are living in the Greek province of Meglen, with a population of 12,000. Istro-Romanians (speaking Istro-Romanian language) are living in Croatia, with a population of less than 1,000.
– For that matter, Nikolaos A. Stavrou, the editor of Mediterranean Qaurterly, is from a family originating in the Pindus range that also had a Vlach branch, along with other well known families like the Averoffs, and the Tossitsas. See “Our Diaspora in Transition,” George Moran, SFN. Vol. II. No. 1, 1988.
– T. J. Winnifrith, The Vlachs, History of a Balkan People, London, Duckworth, 1987 p.36
– A.J.B. Wace and M.S. Thompson, Nomads of the Balkans, London, Metheun, 1911.
– Bogdan Rakic, “Borislav Pekic,” Dictionary of Literary Biography, South Slavic Writers Since World War II, Gale Research, Detroit, 1997, Vol. 181, pp 238-239.
– Nick Balamaci, review of Houses of Belgrade, SFN, 1998, Vol. II No. 1