The Balkan Vlachs (I)

 “To talk of the pure origins…of any ethnic populating the Balkan Peninsula is neither justified nor serious nor scientific”

(E. Ivanova, “’The Ethnic’ Conflict”, Iztok-Iztok, № 2, 1991, p. 64)

This text has set itself the tasks to present the historical development and current economic, cultural and political position in the Balkan societies of one specific ethnolinguistic group of the Orthodox religion – the Vlachs[1], who speak some form of Romanian language and is called by their neighbors by different names Koutsovlahs,[2] Aromanians, Armanians,[3] Grammostens,[4] Karakachans, Cincars,[5] Arnauts, Uruks, Macedo-Romanians, Chobans,[6] etc. This pastoral ethnolinguistic group is a good example of successful peaceful minority assimilation into the majority ethnic and linguistic groups of the region. Traditionally they were nomadic cattle-breeders who were living in an extended family under a dominant headman, summering in the mountains and wintering in the plains. However, after 1918 an impact of the new economic forms created a significant shift from nomadic flocks to the area of farming.

This process, nonetheless, became drastically changed after 1945 as a new economic system forbade possession of the big herds of sheep or horses in the post-war Balkan societies. Therefore, many Vlachs abandoned their nomadic style of life and settled themselves in the villages, or moved to the towns and cities, being gradually assimilated by the co-dwellers. During the last decades, this process escalated by the mass migration of the young Vlachs into the growing industrial centers. This ethnolinguistic group is threatened by biological vanishing because of the negative birth rate[7] and by assimilation as well. In some of the Balkan states, they are not recognized as a separate national minority. In many Balkan regional societies, the Vlachs willingly chose the national identity of the ethnolinguistic majority in order to legally improve their status within the local society. Their easier assimilation is due to the fact that this extinguishing ethnolinguistic minority is dispersed throughout the region of South-East Europe[8]–from the Pindus Mts. in the south to the Transylvanian Alps in the north and from the Istrian Peninsula in the west to Dobruja (Dobrodgea) region in the east.

History and Language

South-East Europe is a relatively small region, which is populated by many of different peoples in the matter of culture, religion, and language and is being at this point the unique part of the European continent. In this region, we found the members of the Christian, Islamic and Judaic denominations. The communities use different alphabets as the Latin, Cyrillic, Hebrew, Arabic, and Greek. Outstandingly, in every Balkan state, there are more people who are speaking some of the European main languages than the language(s) of their neighbor(s).[9]


The majority of the regional peoples belong to the migrant tribes who came from the north between the 6th century (the South Slavic “Second” migration) via the 9th century (Magyar/Hungarian settlement) to the Albanian migration from Sicily in 1043.[10] From the 14th century onward there was an influx of the Ottoman Turks and other Muslim pastoral tribes from Asia (who came with them) including and the Gypsies who followed the Ottoman armies in their successful military campaigns in Asia Minor and later in South-East Europe. In this region, however, there are today three autochthonous (aboriginal) ethnicities who survived all of those invasions and number of migrations, preserving their language, customs, and culture: 1) the Vlachs (most probably descendants from the Thracians who have been living in the time of the Antique in the eastern areas of the Balkans–from the Morava River to the Black Sea), 2) the Greeks (who came in two migration waves–around 2000 and c. 1200 B.C.), and 3) the Slavs known in ancient documents as the Illyrians.[11] In the current ethnic situation of the Balkans, there are three stateless ethnolinguistic groups: the Vlachs, the Gypsies/Roma/Romani, and the Pomaks. Each of them has a longstanding experience of coexistence with the macro-communities. Among three of them, the Vlachs are the most vanishing community.


These traditionally rustic people, who spoke a language, which is mostly closed to the modern Romanian, but not purely understandable by the speakers of standardized Romanian, are concentrated in mountainous terrains of Greece, Albania, Macedonia, Serbia, and Bulgaria. The Vlachs undoubtedly belong to the ancient Balkan people who, because of different historical reasons (mostly migrations), are dispersed in the region creating non-territorially connected diaspora communities. The anthropological research upon the Vlach matters proves that they are one of the earliest populations not only in the Balkans but in Europe too. However, due to the lack of historical sources, there are several various theories upon the Vlach origin. The language of the Vlachs is one of the crucial points of the currently leading theory about their ethnolinguistic genesis: they descend from the cis-Danubian Thracians who have been relatives of the trans-Danubian Dacians. The same ethnolinguistic ancient community of Daco-Thracians became the progenitor of the modern Romanians (northward from the River of Danube) and the Vlachs (southward from the River of Danube) who are speaking similar languages. Nevertheless, while the scholars agree that the Vlach language belongs to the Romance family of languages, they disagree upon the more precise origin of the Vlachs. Some scholars are kin to conclude that the progenitors of the Vlachs are the Roman colonists (soldiers, merchants, craftsmen, etc.), while the other group of researchers claims that the Vlachs are descendants of the Romanized autochthonous Balkan inhabitants who by intermarriages mixed with the Roman colonists.

The Vlach self-notions in regard to their origin, based on earlier knowledge and the folk interpretations of literary versions, are essentially different. Firstly, some of them think that the Vlachs/Aromanians came to the Balkans from the Italian city of Rome. For this group of community members, the Vlach language is Roman which is the same language spoken in Italy and France (with dialectical differences). However, other Vlachs believe that they belong to the indigenous Balkan population (i.e., they are not migrants to the region) and that their language is derived from the ancient Illyrian-Thracian language with strong elements of the Latin. Nevertheless, the Vlach folk mind preserved the notion that the Vlachs are people who live in the diaspora, which started with the fall of the Roman Empire. According to the first hypothesis, the pivotal outcome of the Vlach migration from Italy is that they adopted a nomadic pastoral style of live and economic activity of the cattle-breeding.[12]

The new stage of Vlach diaspora started at the beginning of the 19th century with the declination of the Ottoman power in South-East Europe. There are some scholars who believe that those Vlachs who today live on the southern flanks of Danube river (North Bulgaria and East Serbia) came there in the Ottoman time (particularly in the second half of the 18th century and the first half of the 19th century) from the territories north from Danube river. The reason for their resettlement was three-folded: 1) the feudal tyranny and exploitation north from Danube river; 2) the conscription introduced in the Principality of Wallachia in 1831; and 3) the policy of the Ottoman authorities, which encouraged the Vlach settlement in depopulated agricultural areas after devastating Austrian-Ottoman wars.

The Balkan Vlachs have historically been divided into two socio-economic groups. First, a majority of them were nomadic (transhumant) sheep/horse-breeders who have been living in the countryside. The nomadic Vlachs, as a result of the nature of their profession, lived in isolation within their own community, subjugated to their traditional laws and speaking the mother language. They have been organized in special shepherd-transhumant clans, which were led by the richest member who possessed the most authorities. He was at the same time a Vlach representative in community’s relations with the Ottoman authorities (especially in regard to the paying taxes) and with the local populace (in particular in regard to the trade business). The Vlach nomads did not belong to the social class of the serfs since they were movable people: in the summertime they lived in the mountains, but the wintertime they spent in lowland areas. The distance between the summer mountain pasture to the winter residence could be several hundred km.[13] Second, minority dealt with trade, crafts or being employed in the woodworking industry and inn-keeping business and thus living in the urban environments. This socio-economic group of the Vlachs tended to obtain as better as education and knowledge of the local ethnic majority and the foreign languages.

Some of the Balkan macro-communities call the persons from the first group (pastoral Vlachs) as the Vlachs, while the members of the second group (urban Vlachs) are called as the Aromanians. However, the urban Vlachs accepted from the end of the 19th century the ethnonym Armanians for their own self-identification due to both the academic research and studies upon the Vlach matters and Romanian propaganda concerning the ethnogenesis of Romanian nation and political unification of all “Romanians”.[14] It is interesting that some of the urban Vlach communities call themselves as Cincars (Tsintsars), but they call the Vlach-shepherds as the Vlachs. This distinction is of socioeconomic, but not of ethnolinguistic nature. Today all Vlachs are members of the Eastern Orthodox Christian Church.[15]


Most probably, the Vlachs were formed as a distinctive ethnolinguistic group from the 14th century to the 16th century. Their original homeland was the mountainous regions of North Greece (Epirus and Thessaly), South-West Macedonia, and South-East Albania.[16] During the Ottoman rule over the region (till 1913) the Vlachs migrated from the Epirus, Pindus Mt. and the Grammos Range to the north and the east. The reasons for their migrations have been of multiply economic nature: the need of new pastures, the increased number of livestock, the prosperous trade with Austria, the declining trade activities with Venice, the afforestation of the mountains (after 1918) that limited opportunities for the free nomadic cattle-breeding, etc., but as well as of multiply political nature: the administrative disorder in the Ottoman Empire, the pressure by the Muslim Albanians, the autocratic rule of Ali-Pasha of Ioanina, a Romanian propaganda (after 1918) for the purpose to colonize South Dobruja, etc. The Vlach emigrants resettled themselves either in the hilly areas of Bulgaria, Thrace, and Macedonia[17] or found the new homeland in the towns in Austria, Serbia, Greece, Bulgaria, and Macedonia. Some of the urban Vlach residents became economically well-to-do citizens and even very wealthy entrepreneurs who played a significant role in municipal cultural and political life.[18]

As many Vlach migrants who became resettled in the towns and the cities had a Greek education it became a base for potential conflicts with the local majority-community members but in the majority of cases the Vlach newcomers have been accepted by tolerance[19] primarily because they shared a common (the Eastern Orthodox) denomination and similar customs with the old dwellers. The urban Vlachs became faster assimilated by the macro-community than those who continued nomadic lifestyle due to getting an education in majority-community languages and mixed marriages.

The medieval historical sources mention the Vlachs, but in two different respects: 1) from the linguistic point of view as the Balkan neo-Latin-speakers; and 2) from the socio-professional point of view as nomadic (not sedentary) cattle-breeders. One province of the peninsula (Thessaly) was in the late Middle Ages known as Megalovlachia (Great Wallachia). Some of the regional authorities (as the Austrian and Venetian governments) accepted the leading medieval meaning of the term of the Vlachs that referred to all Balkan nomads irrespective of their ethnic identity.

After the dissolution of the Ottoman power in the Balkans (in 1913), when occurred a crucial change in the political map of the modern history of the Balkans as a result of the national liberation movements and national liberation wars, important changes took place in the life of the Vlachs since the free migration (for the purpose of finding pastures and do a seasonal work in the time of the harvest) across the peninsula was now impossible because of the new state borders and cross-border restrictions. The physical obstacles posed by the new arrangement of the borders significantly restricted a free movement between seasonal pastures and extremely complicated administrative customs procedures. A limitation of the nomadic way of life showed the way to the sedentary type of life and establishment of permanent places of residence. The purchase of pastures resulted in the establishment of permanent summer hut villages. A significant number of the Vlachs became the urban settlers and automatically the structure of their livelihood was changed. Today there are urban Vlachs who are involved in medicine, architecture, engineering, etc. After 1913, but especially after 1918, the state policy of agricultural reform involved redistribution of the pastures, meadows, forests, fields, which forced the Vlachs to reorient their economic activities. However, although the Vlachs bought the land they in many cases did not cultivate it but leased it out.

The public stereotype of appreciating the ethnocultural characteristics of the Vlachs is ambivalent. On the one hand, the urban Vlachs are labeled with quick wit, diligence, ingenuity, enterprise, kindness, persistence, willingness to learn foreign languages and to get as better as education, honesty, love for the family,[20] hard-working, and as non-drinkers. Especially the Vlach women are well known as tidy persons and thus welcomed as potential spouses. However, the nomadic Vlachs, whom the local macro-ethnic populaces hardly knew, are on “bad reputation” as lewd, vulgar, Vlach woman are “loose” with a tendency to often divorce and remarry, wilder, pinchers, and as non-educated people.

The process of speed modernization, which was associated with urbanization and industrialization after the Second World War, had a crucial impact on the integration of the Vlachs into the everyday life, customs and holidays of the macro-community(s). The Vlachs finally rejected the tradition of endogamy and consequently there were much more inter-ethnically mixed marriages (exogamy). But, on the other hand, urbanization, education and mixed marriages irreversibly accelerated the process of linguistic-cultural assimilation of the Vlachs.[21] Sedentary life and urbanization of the Vlachs unavoidably changed their traditional culture since they adopted the models of everyday life of the local population from the new environment. As a nomadic community did not exist anymore, the family became the only reproducer of the ethnocultural traditions of the Vlachs and the main preserver of the language. The change of life brought the Vlachs to the difficult situation since it caused danger to their very existence as a separate and distinctive ethnicity.


[1] It is believed that the Vlach means either “free people”, “shepherds” or former worshipers of the pagan god of herders – Volos.

[2] In Greek language, Koutsos means “lame”. The Vlach is considered as a synonym for the shepherds.

[3] This ethnonym is used by the community itself in most cases. According to the Vlach tradition, the Armanian means “a free man”, “a person who has remained in one place” and “a non-Romanian”.

[4] It means those who have been living at the Grammos Mt. that is on the border between Albania and Greece.

[5] The ethnonym Cincars or Tsintsars is given to the Vlachs probably because the specific pronunciation of the phoneme “c” which sounds in Vlach language as “ts”. Nevertheless, the Cincar means a man who is “miser” or “skinflint”. According to one of the hypotheses, the Tsintsars is derived from the Roman Fifth Legion (tsintsi, means five) since it is believed that the Vlachs are descendants of the Roman soldiers from this military unit, which operated in the Balkans during the time of the Late Roman Empire.

[6] The Choban means a “herder” in Albanian and South Slavic languages. This term is of Oriental origin.

[7] During the last half of the century, the natural increase (birth-rate) of the Vlachs is negative since the parents (remarkably from the urban environments) opted to have a single-child family.

[8] Besides the Vlach geographical dispersion across the Balkan Peninsula, the fact that they traditionally migrated in summer and winter time makes one of the pivotal difficulties to fix their real number.

[9] Traditionally, the attitudes and policies of regional majority groups towards their own minorities have been more emotional than rational. Participation of the members of minority communities in the state institutions was all the time limited and restricted especially in the periods of political troubles. In general, the idea of widespread and broad minority rights is not very popular among the majority-communities in the Balkans. One of the crucial reasons for such attitude (especially toward those minorities who live territorially in compact masses) is a fear of the “Cyprus syndrome”.

[10] Ј. И. Деретић, Д. П. Антић, С. М. Јарчевић, Измишљено досељавање Срба, Београд, 2009.

[11] Б. В. Земљанички, Срби староседеоци Балкана и Паноније у војним и цивилним догађајима са Римљанима и Хеленима од I до  X века, Београд, 1999.

[12] They were breeding the horses and sheep on natural pastures in the two main seasons (summer and winter). The food, clothes, furnishing, and transportation were provided primarily from the horses and sheep. One of the main characteristics of the Vlach livelihood and lifestyle was that they had in most cases a permanent summer and winter camps, which have been the only territorial communities (independent and isolated from both one another and settlements of the other ethnic groups).

[13] For instance, they were summering on the Osogovske Mts. (2084 m.) in the Eastern Macedonia but wintering as far as an area of the city of Salonika (Thessaloniki).

[14] As a result of the Romanian-language and the school curricula education and propaganda, a huge number of educated Vlachs received at the beginning of the 20th century a Romanian ethnocultural feeling. It produced the Vlach (Aromanian) national revival movement that was based on the self-awareness of the Romance origin. This trend brought the Vlachs closer to the Romanians who formed in the mid-19th century a national state. Consequently, there was a deep distinction concerning the Vlach self-determination since some of them identified themselves as the Aromanians while the others did it as the Romanians. In the course of time a trial self-identity was present in many of the Vlach families: Aromanian in the private sphere, Romanian in the intra-community sphere, and as a member of a majority-community in the public sphere.

[15] The Christianity was always one of the crucial ethnic determinations of the Vlach self-identity. Consequently, there were some cases that the Vlach women from nomadic communities had been tattooing crosses on the foreheads and hands. The most important collective celebrations of the Vlachs are Christmas, Easter, St George’s Day and St Peter’s Day. The cults of the Mother of God and St Petka are also very much celebrated in the majority of the Vlach nomadic communities. However, it should be stressed that coming to the churches and having regular contacts with the priests for the Vlachs was rather complicated because their communes have been living far away from the population settlements. Permanent contacts with the church had only urban Vlachs.

[16] In this region the Vlachs developed very profitable trade that was mainly based on flourishing sheep/horse-breeding, but as well on crafts and cartage.

[17] Many of Grammos’ Vlachs migrated to the region of Ovche Polje in East Macedonia for the reason to escape a tyrannical rule of the Ottoman governor of Ioanina, Ali-Pasha (ethnic Albanian).

[18] One of the negative results of these migrations was that many Vlach families became divided: elders stayed in the old environment while the young men emigrated. This break-up of kinship network dealt both psychological and economic blows to the Vlach community, which felt a great sense of personal insecurity either in an old or new environment.

[19] Hostility to the urban Vlachs was primarily directed towards those pro-Greek members of the Vlach micro-community who did not drop their cultural and political loyalty to Hellenism. It is true particularly at the turn of the 20th century when the Serbs, Bulgarians, and Greeks struggled over a territorial division of geographic Macedonia, Albania, and Thrace. In this respect, the Vlachs have been pejoratively called as the “Greco-Tsintsars” who betrayed national interests of the macro-community.

[20] Traditionally, the family was the main protector of the Vlach language, customs, and ethnic features.

[21] For instance, a majority of young Vlachs prefer to speak the language of a majority-community instead of the Vlach one.

To be continued

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    1. Albanians are of Thracian origin. The story about Sicily is false. Also Vlachs are the heirs of Eastern Roman Empire. Do not confuse transhumance with migration. All Slavs are migrators and Aromanians practice only transhumance. Being heirs of Roman Empire they dwell in all countries of Balkans. Migration was connected only with Slavs.

    2. Balkans


      Albanians are of Caucasus origin
      The story of Sicily is right and founded on 9 historical sources
      Balkan Slavs are authentic and autochtonous people of the region
      Romanians are self-constracted artificial nation
      Albanians left to be the only uncivilized people in the Balkans

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