The Vlachs of Greece
by Prof. Tom J. Winnifrith
In writing about the small but interesting groups of Vlachs or Arumanians1 in Greece it is almost impossible to avoid discussing similar communities in other parts of the Balkans. Their past history is almost identical, their present situation very different. Under the Byzantine and Ottoman empires there were obviously large numbers of Vlachs living in what is now Greece, Albania, Bulgaria, Romania and what was once Yugoslavia, but there would have been no point in distinguishing different groups, especially since many Vlachs either as merchants or transhumant shepherds moved from one country to another. The growth of nationalism and the erection of national frontiers made such movement less free, although it must be remembered that the Central Balkans, where most Vlachs lived and still live today, were under nominal Ottoman control until the First Balkan War of 1912.
The Balkan Wars and the First World War were fought over Vlach territory and did much damage to their prosperity, as did the strongly nationalist policies of Balkan states after these wars. The Second World War and the Greek Civil War did more damage, and the erection of the Iron Curtain was even worse news for the Vlachs. It prevented communication between one country and another. Communist regimes, while theoretically promoting the brotherhood of man, in fact, especially in Albania, encouraged a fiercely nationalist ideology. They also favored a movement from remote villages to housing estates in large towns, where it was harder to preserve a minority culture. The dismantling of this iron curtain has revealed the different ways in which the Vlachs have survived in each country and the different ways in which they are now being treated.
It is clear that the number of Vlachs in all countries has decreased. Counting Vlachs is an unprofitable exercise, as it is hard to know who counts as a Vlach. Census figures are unreliable, and Greece has long since ceased to include linguistic minorities in its census. In contrast, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, both in its past and present state, has conducted such censuses with surprising regularity, and with equally surprising regularity the Vlachs have been numbered at some figure between 6,000 and 10,0002. The last Greek figure for 1951 was 39,885; it was probably not very respectable to count oneself as a Vlach then, but assimilation has proceeded apace since that time. In the 1970s I visited many Vlach villages with my children, and found old people talking Vlach, people of my generation understanding it, and the children prattling Greek or practicing their English. My children are now adults, and gently point out that I and the middle aged understanders of Vlach are not getting any younger.
In Nomads of the Balkans, written just before the First World War, Wace and Thompson calculated that there were half a million Vlachs. They based this number on a smaller figure, which they had actually miscalculated, given by the great German scholar, Gustav Weigand, some thirty years before. They correctly increased Weigand's figure to make allowances for large Vlach families and an improvement in the mortality rates. Both Weigand and Wace and Thompson missed out some groups of Vlachs in Albania and Southern Yugoslavia, and after allowing for the miscalculation half a million seems a reasonable figure for 1914.
In reducing this figure to fifty thousand (in my writings) with thirty thousand in Greece, I undoubtedly erred on the side of caution. I had not visited the surviving communities in Albania, where harsh conditions and isolation had oddly helped to preserve Vlach, or Romania, to which many Vlachs from other parts of the Balkans had emigrated, or Australia, America, and Canada, where there has been similar emigration, although these perhaps hardly count as Balkan Vlachs. I would now at least double the number of Vlachs in the Balkans to a hundred thousand, although reducing those in Greece to twenty thousand. Numbers are at the moment made more complicated by the presence in Greece of large numbers of Vlachs from Albania on temporary work permits3.
Almost any Vlach will pour scorn on the calculations above. This scorn springs partly from pride, partly from confusion as to what constitutes a Vlach. It seems fairest to accept the regular use of the language at home as the best criterion. Many Greeks have one or two phrases of Vlach, others have one or more Vlach ancestors. The Vlachs are a philoprogenitive race, and Wace and Thompson's half a million Vlachs must have had more than a million descendants. Some of these million must have a vague feeling of Vlach identity in the same way as many Americans and even some English people feel vaguely and sentimentally attached to Ireland. But we cannot really use a feeling of identity or ancestry in a precise way. The Vlachs are a fairly endogamous people, but we all have many ancestors, and, if we carried to its logical conclusion the theory that an ancestor of a particular ethnic group qualified us for membership of that group, we would all be members of a great many groups. In the case of qualifications through a feeling of identity we are handicapped by the fact that most Greek Vlachs think of themselves as Greeks first and Vlachs in the second place.
There is a similar confusion with Vlachs in other countries, although to a lesser extent. Vlachs in Romania tend to be assimilated. The closeness in language helps blur any distinction. There has been a tendency in the past to regard Vlachs a Romanian country cousins, although the present regime does allow Vlach newspapers and radio programmes. There are few Vlachs left in Bulgaria. Hoxha's regime in Albania, though fiercely nationalist, allowed some Greek rights, but none to Vlachs. On its collapse many Vlachs saw the adoption of a Greek identity or a Romanian identity as a means of escaping the country, but there was and is little feeling of being specifically Vlach. In the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), in spite of their small numbers, the Vlachs are doing very well with their own television and educational programmes.
They have been helped by the presence of other potentially more dangerous minorities and by the fact that a so-called Macedonian identity is a recent and somewhat fragile growth. In Shattered Eagles I recount the story of a family I met originally in Australia and then in Nizepolje near Bitola. Three brothers had emigrated to Australia, all rather oddly bearing different names. One was called Babovic, since he had left before the Second World War when the official language was Serbian. The next was called Babov as he had escaped during the war when this part of Yugoslavia was briefly under Bulgarian control. The third was known as Babovski because by the time of his departure the official language of Nizepolje was Macedonian, although just to confuse the picture some of the villagers speak Albanian. I visited their old mother who had been born under the Ottoman Empire and spoke to me in Greek4.
This last fact draws attention to the fact that the Vlach identity in Greece is rather different from that in other countries. Indeed it might seem to lend support to the view, commonly held in Greece, that all Vlachs are Greek, though all Greeks are not Vlach. To answer this view we must look at Vlach history, although this is shrouded in mystery and clouded by modern politics. Greek scholars like to think of Vlachs as descendants of Roman legionnaires sent to guard mountain passes, who married Greek girls and sired the ancestors of the present bilingual Vlachs. Romanian historians and philologists suggest that at some time between the sixth and tenth centuries the ancestors of the Vlachs left their homes north of the Danube and migrated southwards. There is no evidence for either theory and an inherent improbability about both of them. Children learn languages from their mother, not their father, and, though it would make sense for people north of the Danube to seek richer pastures further south, and indeed countless invaders did so, the rugged Pindus mountains hardly count as rich pasture. Both theories seem (like many other theories over disputed lands in the Balkans, Kosovo and Transylvania being obvious examples) to be dictated by a wish to prove that one nation or other has a claim to a piece of land because it got there first. Thus, it is argued, there must always have been Greeks in Northern Greece, always Romanians in Romania and Romanians for a fairly long time in the Central Balkans.
What little evidence there is shows that the original home of the Vlachs was the Northern Balkans. Inscriptions in Latin as opposed to Greek predominate in this area, and, so long as the Danube frontier held, quite a few Latin speakers (like the emperor Justinian) could have been found there. The so called Jirecek line demarcating the spheres of Latin and Greek influence lies to the north of most of the areas of Vlach speech today, but when the Danube frontier broke at the beginning of the seventh century Latin speakers would be pushed or would push with the invading Slavs further to the South. In the year 586 AD the famous 'torna torna' episode seems to point to Latin speakers in the Byzantine army. The Vlachs then disappear from history for nearly four hundred years.
There is an obvious reason for this disappearance. Byzantium lost control of most of the Balkan peninsula, and Byzantine historians were not interested in events in that area, concentrating instead on the capital and Asia Minor. With the loss of their Latin speaking possessions, knowledge of Latin in the Byzantine Empire vanished, and it is doubtful whether Latin or Vlach would have been recognized if it had been spoken. On the somewhat dubious evidence of the sixth century writer Johannes Lydus, Greek historians like to think that there remained people in the Empire who were able to speak both Latin and Greek and thus administer the law as magistrates, but the first mentions of Vlachs suggest that they tended to be outside the Empire and outside the law.
In the year 976 David, the brother of the future Bulgarian Emperor Samuel, was killed by some Vlach hoditai at a place between Kastoria and Prespa called Kalai Drues or Fair Oak Trees. The country between Kastoria and Prespa on the borders of Yugoslavia, Albania and Greece is today still inhabited by a mixture of Greeks, Albanians, Slavs, and Vlachs with none of the different ethnic groups being confined to their respective borders any more than the abundant fair oak trees are. The Vlachs are called hoditai, suggesting that they had something to do with traveling or guarding the roads, as they have done through the centuries. 'Highwaymen' is an alternative translation and on this occasion, as later with armatoles and klephts, the different roles may have been blurred. As Samuel was later to be a thorn in the Byzantine side it might seem that in 976 the Vlachs were fighting for the Empire, but we must be careful about making too much of this, especially as there is some doubt about Samuel's origin. It would seem possible that though claimed by Bulgarians as a Bulgarian and Macedonians as a Macedonian, Samuel and his family began life in the Byzantine service, and, most paradoxically of all, might even have been a Vlach.
Samuel after a titanic struggle was eventually defeated by the even more formidable Basil II, known as Basil the Bulgarslayer, although again it is a mistake to see his victory as a victory of Greeks against Bulgars. Almost certainly there were Vlachs among the slayers and the slain. With Basil's victory once again Byzantium ruled the whole of the Balkans up to the Danube, and remained in control apart from a few rebellions for almost two hundred years until just before the Fourth Crusade of 1204. In the next two hundred and fifty years before the final fall of Constantinople the political map of the Balkans changed with bewildering variety. In both periods Vlachs are mentioned by Greek and Western historians. We cannot be absolutely sure that all references to Vlachs are to Latin speakers. This is especially true when we are dealing with the so-called Second Bulgarian Empire of the Asenids, regularly described as Vlachs in Byzantine sources. Almost certainly the Asenids ruled over a mixture of Slavs, Vlachs and even Greeks, while among the Vlachs some were more like Romanians and other more like our Vlachs. Our confidence in the ethnic purity of any particular race is not increased by the reference of a Byzantine historian to one Boncoes a "Serbalbanitobulgarovlachos." As a general rule, however, Vlachs get a bad press from contemporary historians, and there seems no reason to support any identification of Vlachs with Greeks.
The Ottoman conquest once again meant that the Balkans were under the rule of a single power. On the whole, Ottoman sources are not very interested in distinguishing one kind of subject role from another, although there are interesting early records expressly distinguishing Vlachs from Greeks. It is to the seventeenth century that many mountain Vlach settlements date their origin. Though we tend to think of the Ottomans as suppressing liberty and creating cultural stagnation, they did initially bring order and stability and even some degree of prosperity, especially to those Vlachs engaged in trade. It is, however, at this point that confusion between Vlachs and Greeks begins. In the eighteenth century quite a large number of citizens of the Ottoman Empire spoke Vlach at home, wrote, if they wrote at all, in Greek, and worshiped, as they certainly all did, in Greek as well. If asked the rather fatuous questions, "Who are you?" or "Where are you from?" they might have given the name of their village or area (e.g. Grammosteani if they came from Mount Grammos), and some Vlachs still do this. They might have called themselves Turkish citizens or Greeks or Orthodox Christians, as again some Vlachs do to this day5.
They would have been unlikely to have called themselves Vlachs, and there are few records of them calling themselves Aroumanians.
The nineteenth century saw the gradual dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire and the rise of nationalism. Other races in the Balkan peninsula (e.g., the Bulgarians and the Serbs) who had originally been in the same position as the Vlachs with Greek as the language of the church and education were fairly quick to throw off this yoke. Separate church organizations were established or reestablished, schools were organized, and independent states were set up, although a number of Serbs and Bulgars remained under Ottoman rule, and the Greeks had a head start in schools set up in what remained of Ottoman territory.
Late starters in the independence stakes were the Albanians and the Vlachs. The former lived in a fairly compact area, but were slow to start schools and even to acquire an alphabet. They were also divided between two fairly distinct kinds of language and three religions. Most Albanians were Muslims, and quite keen to remain under Ottoman rule. A backward feudal structure did not encourage unity or independence. Some revolts against the Turks arose as a protest against being handed over to some other state. Nevertheless Albania did gain independence, although many Albanians remained outside Albania, and a few Greeks, Vlachs and Slavs were included in the new state. The Vlachs faced some of these disadvantages and some others. They were almost all Orthodox Christians, but lived in mostly scattered pockets6. They were more progressive, but fewer in number.
A joint Vlach-Albanian state was mooted, but not very seriously7. The Vlachs were clearly too far from distant Romania to aspire to unity with that state, although the Romanian state did start Romanian schools. These were never very well-attended and they taught Romanian, not Vlach. The nationalist Apostol Margarit tried to establish a Vlach church, but this was hardly a success, and its failure was a handicap in education. It was something of an achievement for the Vlachs to be recognized as a separate millet by the Porte in 1905, although this recognition was probably intended mainly as a divisive tactic to sow dissension between Vlach and Greek. For there can be little doubt that the principal reason why any move for Vlach independence never really got off the ground was that most Vlachs had already cast their lot in with the Greeks.
Two years before the Vlachs gained this recognition there had been the Ilinden uprising (1903). It is difficult to find an unbiased account of what happened in this revolt. Krusevo is the largest Vlach center in FYROM. It is also a shrine to Macedonian nationalism, because it is where the revolt started. Two other places seized by the rebels were Neveska or Nymphaion and Pisoderi, both Vlach villages in Greece, but occupied not for this reason, but because as mountain villages they commanded strategic points. One of the leaders of the revolt was Pitu Guli, a pure-bred Vlach. Another was Goce Delcev, after whom streets in Skopje and a town in Bulgaria are named. He had a Turkish mother and appears to have been a genuine Robin Hood figure, keen to aid the oppressed of any race against the oppressor. Slav sources suggest that the Greeks played an insignificant if not treacherous part in this revolt. It seems clear that the Vlachs were the chief losers, as it was their houses which were destroyed both by the rebels and the vengeful Turks. Some Vlachs like Pitu Guli were clearly on the side of the rebels, some were on the side of the Turks, and some were neutral.
Before and after Ilinden there were a number of different Balkan struggles going on. There were revolts against Ottoman authority in which Vlachs sometimes joined their co-religionists, usually aiding Greeks. On the other hand Vlachs as merchants and herdsmen profited from law and order, and found the boundaries of the newly created independent state irksome for their travel and trade; we therefore find them sometimes on the Turkish side. Then there was the struggle between the Bulgarians and the Greeks, usually seen in ecclesiastical terms as a contest between Exarchists and Patriarchists. Here again the Vlachs generally supported the Greeks, although there are instances of Vlachs joining Exarchist bands. Then around Skopje there was rivalry between Serbs and Bulgars, but there were few Vlachs involved in this struggle. Then there was Albania's struggle for independence; Vlachs and Albanians were generally in agreement sharing the same ambiguous attitude to Turkish civil authority but differently disposed to Greek ecclesiastical control. Orthodox Albanian speakers were in much the same position as Vlachs with many in the early nineteenth century playing a prominent part in the struggle for Greek independence, but Albania's Muslim majority made a difference. Finally, and least importantly there was a struggle in most Vlach villages between a pro-Romanian and pro-Greek party with the latter being almost universally and inevitably the larger and more powerful.
The Balkan Wars, the First World War and the Greco-Turkish War solved some problems, but created others. There were minor rectifications of frontiers and major exchanges of populations. The disaster in Asia Minor meant that Greece lost its long established enclaves of Greek speakers in Turkey, but gained a much higher proportion of Greeks in Macedonia and Thrace. Greek settlements in Bulgaria near Burgas on the coast and in old fashioned centers of Hellenism like Nevrokop, now Goce Delcev, were exchanged for some of the Slav speakers with Bulgarian sympathies in Northern Greece, thus ensuring that the proportion of Greeks in Macedonia and Thrace rose from under 50% to over 90%. Some Slavs remained in Macedonia and Thrace, some Turks and Pomaks in Western Thrace, some Albanians in Epirus. The Greeks and Vlachs remained in Albania, and the largely pro-Greek Vlachs near Bitola remained in Yugoslavia. When they did move (or were moved), Vlachs moved in a less regulated way than other ethnic groups. Between the wars, there was some migration of Vlachs to Romania from Albania, Greece, Yugoslavia and even Bulgaria. Romania also extracted from the governments of Greece and Yugoslavia a promise to keep Romanian-financed schools in their countries. Yugoslavia did not honor this promise, but amazingly such schools survived, albeit with limited success, in some Greek Vlach villages up to the beginning of the Second World War and even beyond the German invasion of Greece. It is still possible to find in the village of Ano Grammaticon a few elderly people speaking pure Romanian8.
The Second World War was not, however, a boon to the Vlachs. Harsh conditions in it and the Greek Civil War which followed it played havoc with the vast herds which had once been the staple source of Vlach wealth. Romania joined the Axis, and there were Italian attempts to court the Vlachs as their Latin cousins. Few Vlachs actually collaborated with the invaders, but to speak a form of Latin did not seem very patriotic. Pro-Romanian Vlachs continued to emigrate. In Romania it was unfortunate that many Vlachs were settled in the Dobrudja, and in particular along its southern frontier. This area was returned to Bulgaria in the Second World War and remained in Bulgarian hands after it, with the result that many Vlachs were forced to move either to Romania or to other parts of Europe or the United States, the destination of previous generations of Vlachs from Romania and also of pro-Romanian Vlachs in Greece. Albania settled a number of wandering Vlachs in settled homes along its southern border at a time of some confusion with the Vlachs being caught up in the Civil War and in the expulsion of Muslim Albanians, the so called Tsams, from Greece.
After the Second World War Greece faced many political and economic problems, but it might have thought that it had solved the Vlach problems. Disaffected Vlachs had left the country, the iron curtain had cut off Vlachs in other Balkan countries, and with little encouragement for the language it could fairly be left to die of its own accord9. There were of course villages where Vlachs conspicuously loyal to the Greek state still spoke the language among themselves and allowed their children to speak it, but economic forces either rendered these villages virtually uninhabitable or brought roads and Greek speakers to them. It did not seem unreasonable to stop recording minority language speakers after 1951 if these languages were so obviously declining. Working in Vlach villages in the '70s and '80s I recorded this decline.
But in the late '80s two things started happening. A number of Vlachs of the pro-Romanian faction had worked their way either directly or indirectly via Romania to Western Europe or to the United States, a country famous for its interest in roots and rights. A number of Vlach societies sprang up, Vlach congresses were held, and Vlach periodicals were printed. What was said and written by these societies was sometimes silly and sometimes fairly sinister, although of course they were in their way doing their bit to preserve Vlach culture and did provide interesting information about Vlach folklore and recent history. Some speculations about the remote past were more fanciful, and claims that the Vlachs of Greece were an oppressed nation with few rights suffering as badly as the colored population of South Africa were clearly absurd. The authors of such claims had little recent knowledge of Greece.
Simultaneously with this renewed interest the Iron Curtain collapsed. This was not an unmixed blessing. Inter-ethnic tension suppressed by strong state control and even perhaps by Communist ideology reared its head all over the Balkans. Yugoslavs tended quickly to divide themselves into Slovenes, Serbs, Croats, Muslims, Albanians and others, while the Hungarian minority in Romania and the Turkish minority in Bulgaria grew restive. Greeks could and probably did congratulate themselves on solving their minority problems, but such congratulations were premature. Minorities became popular, and scholars and journalists began probing Vlach issues, not always very tactfully. The theory that all Vlachs were Greeks took a knock with the arrival of hordes of Vlachs from Albania speaking little or no Greek. The privileges awarded to Vlachs in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia struck a sensitive nerve, made more sensitive by Greek hostility to the use of the term "Macedonia."
The Greek response to this issue was a defiant one. Greek Vlach associations were formed. They too held congresses. I have attended such a congress, and, although treated with great courtesy, could not help noticing the phalanx of bishops and generals sitting in the front row and the way in which speaker after speaker used dubious arguments from history, folklore and philology to forge links between Greeks and Vlachs. Historical and linguistic scholarship in Greek universities follows the same lines. All Greek Vlachs and some non Greek Vlachs use a great many Greek words, the former because they are using Greek and Vlach interchangeably, the latter because Greek has been the language of education for three hundred years or more. Thus there are no philological grounds for linking Greeks with Vlachs from the earliest times any more than in parallel cases with Greek in Southern Italy and Cypriot in London, where a mixed language merely reflects a long period of contact10.
Towards their Greekless brethren in other Balkan countries Greek Vlachs have adopted a missionary attitude of trying to convert them to the idea that Vlachs are Greeks. In the case of some Albanians they seem to have succeeded, but this is hardly surprising as it is not only Albanian Vlachs who want to find work in Greece. At a meeting of Vlach associations from all over the world in Freiburg during September 1996 the Vlach Greeks were listened to with respect, although their arguments were not greeted with such applause as those from FYROM. There had been less respect at former congresses. It is possible that with time and more contacts Vlachs in Greece and Vlachs in other countries might come to terms with each other, the former accepting that all Vlachs are not Greeks, the latter that Greek Vlachs are not an oppressed minority yearning for some independent Ruritanian Vlachistan. Such cooperation might lead to more impartial historical and linguistic scholarship, and help the preservation of the Vlach culture and language.
In the United Kingdom after centuries of oppression we are now at great pains to foster minority languages like Welsh and Gaelic. An independent Wales and an independent Scotland are of course a possibility, but the Hebrides are unlikely to emerge as a sovereign Gaelic state any more than the inhabitants of the Pindus are likely to create a Vlach nation. And yet throughout the Hebrides and a considerable part of Western Scotland there are Gaelic road signs and an impressive educational and cultural programme in Gaelic. There is also a well established tradition of Gaelic scholarship in Scotland, not designed to prove that the Gaels are really Anglo-Saxons.
The satirical analogy is not of course an exact one. Greece has a long tradition of fearing an enemy invasion from the North, whether the enemy be Turk, Slav, German, or Communist. There is no threat to the United Kingdom from St. Kilda or Rockall. Encouraging Vlach cultural identity by means of road signs and education in Vlach might seem to be encouraging a Trojan horse in a sensitive area, although it would be more truthful and in the long run more expedient to act in this conciliatory way than offering Greek gifts in the shape of a false view of Vlach history as identical with Greek history. In appealing for a middle road between those who hope for Vlachistan and those who think Vlachs are somehow Greeker than Greeks, I am aware that while I may offend both parties, I will at least not offend common sense or the truth.
"The Greek mind was fueled by an overwhelming curiosity, avid for truth rather than for gain, and superstitious to the core...The Greeks were headlong about things, whether in exploration or adventure.They did not fear the injudicious, for they allowed themselves to be carried away by curiosity. And they were brave to the point of foolhardiness: navigators and explorers, indulging a thirst for novelty.... In contrast to the Greeks, the Roman believed in history, in permanence, and this assurance became part of his affective life, his confidence in land and water, in husbandry, and in time. The Romans character was a lazy one, his language a grave lapidary one, his temperament less that of a poet than of grammarian, jurist, lawgiver, moralist." --Lawrence Durrell, Caesars Vast Ghost: Aspects of Provence.