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Without Anger or Bias

By Dr. Tom J. Winnifrith

"Sine ira ac studio." Without anger or bias. These are the words of the great Roman historian Tacitus, although his claim to have written impartially and without bitterness has been doubted by many who have read his dry but savage accounts of early imperial Rome. In writing the history of the Vlachs I did try to avoid grinding any axes, not indeed having any axe to grind. Born and educated in England, I went through a very old-fashioned education in the language, literature, and history of Greece and Rome. Such an education was supposed to promote objectivity and produce admirable, if slightly dull, administrators trained to see both sides of the question. Both my brother and my father had the same training and ended up as senior civil servants. In my case my classical studies led to a lifelong fascination with the Balkans, and though I have had to earn my living teaching other subjects, notably English literature, I have always wanted to write the history of the least known race of the Balkans, the Vlachs or Arumanians, a race largely living in Greece but speaking a language derived from Latin.

This was no easy task. It took me 15 years before I was able to complete that book, which I ended with the words of Tacitus, quoted above. For I discovered that among other writers on the Vlachs there was a great deal of anger and partisan zeal. Modern Balkan quarrels tend to spill into medieval and even ancient Balkan history. Each race and nation in the Balkans is anxious to promote itself at the expense of other nations. We can see this happening today in the quarrel between the Albanians and Serbs in Kossovo and the treatment of Hungarian minorities in Rumania. The Bulgars and the Serbs, the Greeks and the Turks have had wars in the recent past and a simmering bitterness remains, although minorities remaining in foreign countries have been much reduced by population exchanges.

Too small to count as a proper minority, the Vlachs have remained in scattered pockets throughout Greece, Albania, Bulgaria, and Yugoslavia, although many have emigrated to America, Australia, or Rumania. Rumanian claims that the Vlachs are really Rumanians exaggerate the similarities between the languages as well as the number and importance of the Vlach settlements further south. For the Greeks the Vlachs are Greeks who happen to speak a Latin language simply because there were once some Roman soldiers in the Pindus Mountains. Yugoslav, Albanian, and Bulgarian historians are not particularly interested in the Vlachs, although they go to elaborate lengths to promote the strength of their own race in ancient and medieval times. Thus Bulgarians are very reluctant to admit that the twelfth-century Asenid kings were anything but Bulgarians, although Byzantine sources all say that they were Vlachs. You can even find Bulgarians claiming that Aristotle and Alexander the Great were Bulgarians, although they lived nearly a thousand years before the first Bulgars entered the Balkans.

All this is very regrettable. It is easy to be patronizing to nations with such difficult histories when England saw its last foreign invasion in 1066. And yet the history of England, and America, too, is surely an example to people who are eager to make claims, false or true, to the effect that their nation comprised the original inhabitants, and everyone else came much later. This is what the Serbs say to the Albanians, the Rumanians to the Hungarians, and I have even heard wildly partisan Vlachs claiming that they are the original inhabitants of the Balkans and that everyone else is an intruder. But we don't really feel like handing back the whole of Britain to the Welsh, or the whole of the United States to the Indians. With an unprejudiced approach it is fairly easy to write the history of the Vlachs in ancient and medieval times. Modern history is more difficult. Recent wounds have not been healed, and my enquiries about the Vlachs have not always met with a friendly reception in certain Balkan quarters, although I have been treated with a great deal of generosity and hospitality by individual Vlachs. I think that Vlach emigrants to America and Australia are probably the best unbiased source for information about Vlachs in recent times, and I am hoping to visit such emigrants in the near future.

Editor's note: Dr. Winnifrith plans to visit the United States by March 1990. If you know of any knowledgable people whom he ought to interview, especially older persons who still have vivid recollection of their years in the Balkans, please drop us a line with the specifics and we will convey the information directly to Dr. Winnifrith. Please include your address and phone number. Thank you.

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