The Aromanians are one of the most fascinating of the various transnational minority groups in the Balkans. In the context of the region known as Macedonia and now subdivided between the nation states of Bulgaria, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Greece, this people tends to be called the Vlachs or Koutsovlachs but they are known by, and call themselves by, a number of different names, many geographically determined.
One reason for this is the nature of their traditional way of life, which was transhumance. Transhumant shepherds would migrate seasonally between summer and winter grazing lands, often significant distances apart, following the same droving routes between highland and lowland each year. They paid little regard to political boundaries, unless forced, and therefore the geographical space they occupied was greater than their numerical population might suggest (even though it is thought that there could well have been 500,000 Aromanians across the Balkans on the eve of the First World War).
Individual branches of Aromanians tended to be known by the names of the mountain ranges where they grazed their flocks in summer. For example, on the territory of modern Greece, those Aromanians frequenting the pastures of the Gramos mountain range in summer were known as the Gramostani and those on the Pindus Mountains as the Pindusteani.
By no means all Aromanians in this region practised transhumance. Many in fact were merchants and, indeed, part of the local elite in towns and larger villages, for example in what is now Florina prefecture in northern Greece abutting the border with the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. The whole geographical region of Macedonia was ethnically mixed and polyglot and therefore the Aromanians, whether shepherds or merchants, were likely to speak one or more of the local Slavic vernaculars and/or Greek and Turkish as well as Aromanian. Certainly, the urban Aromanians were or became Greek-speaking and of the Orthodox religion and increasingly identified themselves with the Greek nation state, although those who did not – and there were not a few of these – emigrated to Romania (particularly to Dobruja) and beyond to Australia and North America.
With the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire and the construction of nation states with enforced international borders, Vlachs have largely had to give up their transhumant lifestyle. Most remain bilingual or trilingual, speaking their own Vlach or Aromanian language plus the official state language and often a minority language – for example, the Vlachs in SE Albania may speak Albanian and Greek or Macedonian as well as their Vlach mother tongue.
Despite the processes of assimilation, there are still 20,000 or more Aromanians in Greece, with typical Vlach villages including Nymfaio (known as Nevesca in Aromanian) and Pisoderi in Florina prefecture, and Perivoli in Grevena prefecture.
Researching Aromanian family history is likely to be challenging, at least back beyond 1913 (when Epirus and Macedonia were incorporated into Greece). Many families were mobile across what are now international frontiers and many adjusted their surnames to suit the prevailing winds of politics (for instance, commonly changing the suffix at the end of their name from -ović to -ov to –ovski).
Our Google Map shows just a selection of the main Vlach settlements in SE Europe – especially those where Albania, Greece and Macedonia meet. It also shows the settlements in Dobruja, Romania, which mostly date from 1925 onwards, when the Romanian state offered land there to Albanian Vlachs.
There are many more settlements not shown on this map – the map does not purport to show the potentially hundreds of Vlach communities across Albania and Greece in particular.
A version of this blog and accompanying map were originally published on the bluebirdresearch website in 2010 and 2014.