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Palaiovlachoi - Stari Vlah.

Medieval Balkan History and Toponymy

Stelian Brezeanu,
University of Bucharest

Among the numerous Balkan toponyms attesting the presence of the Romanic element in the
region, there are two that maintain a totally particular respect: Palaioblacoi and Stari Vlah.
The first one is attested in Thessaly and could be detected in a patriarchal document in 1393. The
Patriarch Anthony IVs sigillon mentions this toponym (Palaioblacou ) in connection with the village of
Voivonda, around whom there exists the analysed toponym. Referenced on more ancient maps as
Voivoda - Voevoza and nowadays-called Basilike, the village of Voivonda was settled in the middle of
Thessaly, between Trikkala and Kalampaka, not far of Meteron . Max Vasmer, who firstly mentioned
its existence, connected it with the Slavs presence in the region and with their voyvodal institution .
3[3] 4[4]
However, J. Koder and Fr. Hild , followed by P. t. Nsturel , were inclined to connect them with the
Vlachs presence in Thessaly. They relied upon the mentioning of the Palaiovlachs in the neighbourhood.
Nsturel considered that it could be an influence from the North, from Serbia, since the Vlachs exclusively
knew the voyvodal institution in the state of the Nemanids and by the Romanians from the Northern of the
Danube . At the same time, the Romanian historian accorded a depreciative connotation to the
expression of Palaioblacoi (the Ancient Vlachs) .
The second toponym, Stari Vlah, was to be found out at hundreds kilometres on the North than
the Palaioblacoi, somewhere in the Medieval Serbia. It represented an entire region inside of the
Kingdom of the Nemanids that attached the Kopaonik Mountains to the Romanija Mountains, around the
city of Sarajevo. That region had as centre the Drina and the Lim rivers valley . For the first time, the
toponym appeared in a Serbian document dated in 1443 . Constantine Jireek believed that it would
perpetuate over the centuries the memory of an ancient Vlach in the Balkan toponymy . A totally
different opinion was embraced by J. Cviji, who considered that the toponym expressed the ancient
Vlachs region , where the term of Vlach had an ethnical meaning. Novakovi translated the toponym
similarly, although he regarded that the notion of Vlach from the medieval Serbian acts did not represent
an ethnical category, but a social-professional one, respectively the sense of shepherds . Ultimately,
S. Dragomir took the option to follow the interpretation given by Cviji, associating the toponym with the
presence of the Southern Danubian Vlachs in the area . For the Romanian historian, the only difficulty
in connection with this last consideration was to be the absence of a Romanic toponymy in the Stari Vlah
region .

J. KODER and Fr. HILD, Tabula Imperii Byzantini, Hellas und Thessalia, Vienna, 1976: 136.
Max VASMER, Die Slawen in Griechenland, Berlin, 1941: 87.
J. KODER and Fr. HILD, op. cit.: 136.
P. S. NSTUREL, Les Valaques de lespace byzantin et bulgare jusqu la conqute ottomane,
in the vol. Les Aroumains, Paris, 1989: 63.
Silviu DRAGOMIR, Vlahii din nordul Peninsulei Balcanice n evul mediu, Bucharest, 1959: 33.
Constantin JIREEK, Staat und Gesellschaft im mittelalterlichen Serbien, vol. 1, Vienna, 1912:
J. CVIJI, Le Pninsule Balcanique, Paris, 1918: 313.
Stojan NOVAKOVI, Les problmes serbes, Archiv fr slavische Philologie, 33 (1914): 453-
S. DRAGOMIR, op. cit.: 33 and passim.
Ibidem: 33.

* * *

It is to be noticed that the expression of the ancient Vlachs appeared in the both cases, the
Greek and the Serbian ones. By now, there has not been established any connection between the two
toponyms. It has neither been attempted an explanation for this expression in the historical context and
especially in the background of the medieval Balkan society mentality. Before insisting upon the meaning
of the two toponyms, there are necessary some observations regarding them.
The first of them is thus settled in Thessaly, an area with a large Vlach settlement during the
Middle Ages. The Byzantine and Latin sources have offered ample and various testimonies for this.
Among them, we remark the ones considered as being more significant for our question. In the 11
century, Kekaumenos settled the Vlachs land, wandered through by the river of Plrs , in Thessaly.
The river and the land of the Vlachs are settled in the Western side of Thessaly, belonging to the thema
of Hellas . According to the same Thessalian historian, this is the region where the Emperor Basil II
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had a century before conscripted a corps of soldiers from among the Balkan Vlachs . In the 13 -14
centuries, in the context immediately following the 1204 events, a nucleus of Wallachian political life was
constituted in the same region, nucleus named in the Greek, Latin and Slavonic contemporary sources as
The Great Wallachia or Vlachia. It was commanded by a head called in the sources as despot or
archont . Consequently, there are no doubts that the toponym of Palaioblacoi is to be connected with
the presence in the region of the Southern branch of the Balkan Vlachs, which had and still has the region
of Thessaly as nucleus . At the same time, the region had a very heterogeneous ethnical structure
during the Middle Ages, being inhabited not only by the Vlachs, but also by the Greeks and the Slavs.
Therefore, Thessaly was one of the areas in the Peninsula where the feeling of the linguistic contrasts
was intensely felt by the local ethnic identities . This conclusion permits us to assert that the
endeavour for the creation of the toponym of Palaioblacoi must be searched for outside of the Vlach
world, namely among their Greek neighbours.
An apparently different situation seems to be in the case of the other toponym, taking into
consideration the finding that the vast region of Stari Vlah does not contain any toponym of the Romanic
origin. First, this finding is not entirely precise, whether it is taken into account the principal hydronymy of
the area. The main rivers in the region, among them Lim and Drava, have a Thracian or Latin origin. Even
the hydronyms having a Thracian origin seem to have a Latin feature. This allows us to believe that the
Stari Vlah belonged to a zone inhabited by the Thracian-Romans at the beginning of the Middles Ages,
and the Slavs borrowed the hydronymy from them . On the other side, the experts took the present
day toponymy of the region into consideration, inhabited by the Serbian population. It does not
necessarily mean that in the past the ethnical respect was the same. As any other regions of the
Peninsula, the medieval Serbia was marked by important population motions under the impact of the

Sovety i rasskazy Kekavmena. Socinenie vizantiiskogo polkovodta XI veka (edited by G. G.
LITAVRIN), Moscow, 1972: 260; Fontes Historiae Daco-Romanae, vol. 3, Bucharest, 1975: 32.
J. KODER, Fr. HILD, op. cit.: 244.
Sovety i rasskazy: 282; Fontes, vol. 3: 44.
P. S. NSTUREL, op. cit.: 63-64. For the mentioning of the Great Wallachia in the medieval
sources, see Fontes, vol. 3 and Fontes Historiae Daco-Romanae, vol. 4, Bucharest, 1982, where all
these sources are gathered together.
See M. D. PEYFUSS, Chestiunea aromneasc, Bucharest, 1994: 13-14 and especially Les
Aroumains, particularly the studies signed by M. D. PEYFUSS and Mihaela BACOU.
For the importance of those areas of ethnical contrasts, see also Leo WEISSGERBER, Deutsch
als Volksname. Ursprung und Bedeutung, Darmstadt, 1953: 40 sq., for the particular case of the
French-German contacts.
G. SCHRAMM, Eroberer und Eingesessene. Geographische Lehnnamen als Zuegen der
Geschichte Sdosteuropas im ersten Jahrtausend n. Chr., Stuttgart, 1981: 233-235, 286-287, and

th th 21[21]
Ottoman expansion in the 14 -16 centuries. Thus, its ethnical structure was modified . This seems
also to be the case of the Stari Vlah region. A historical tradition, especially spread in Montenegro,
presents Radule Vlah as its hero, coming from the Stari Vlah and taking refugee in Montenegro. He and
other ancient Vlachs are considered to be in direct association with the built of the church of Vlaka
Crkva (the Wallachian Church) in Cetinje, that has preserved this name by now . Although it could
not be precisely established the period of the Vlachs motion from Stari Vlah towards Montenegro, there
remains as an undeniable fact that the area was populated by the Balkan Romanians during the Middle
Ages. Therefore, the region of Stari Vlah belonged to a more extended area, intensively romanised at the
end of the antiquity, an area where the Romanic element survived a long period during the Middle Ages.
It is necessary to insist upon the meaning of the ancient Vlachs in the two toponyms. As far as I
consider, the meaning of the expression is more profound than the simple feeling of the linguistic contrast
between the homines Latini and their neighbours, Greeks or Slavs. It is especially whether it is taken the
adjective of the ancient into consideration. Examined ad litteram, the two toponyms are not
understandable by the researcher involved in the Balkan history and toponymy. The apparition of this
adjective has a meaning only whether it is regarded that the Vlachs from the expression signify the
Greek and the Slavonic translation of the name of Romans. This latter was the one that the Vlachs given
to themselves according to their dialects: armni in Thessaly, or rumeri in the case of the Western
Vlachs. There are names that the two branches of the Balkan Vlachs conserved until the modern period
or even by nowadays . Certainly, the name of Romanus had not the ancient political-juridical meaning
in the Balkan neo-Romans speaking and way of living. It represented the Vlachs that formed a medieval
natio , aside the other neighboured nationes.
The Byzantine, Latin and Southern Slavonic medieval documents are extremely clear in this
procedure. The most precious testimony was delivered by the Presbyter of Dioclea in the 12 century.
Describing the demographic modifications in the Peninsula caused by the Bulgarian conquest, the
Dalmatian author referred also to the Romanians from Dalmatia qui illo tempora Romani [emphasis mine]
vocabantur, modo vero Morovlachi, hoc est Nigri Latini vocantur . In other words, the Latin speaker
population in the Balkans had been named as Romani during the first medieval centuries, and in the
authors period as Morovlachi, translated by the Presbyter as the Black Latins. Leaving aside the
controversies around the term of Morovlachs , there is to be regarded that the Romans were called
with the ethnonym in the 12 century, or - utilising an almost general term in the Peninsula - as Vlachs.
However, it is important thaat this last ethnonym of the Balkan Latins was utilised by the foreigners, and
not by the Vlachs themselves. The latter continued to constantly self-named as Romans. Two centuries
previously, in a well known passage from De administrando imperio, Constantine the Porphyrogenitus
had informed about the Latin population in Dalmatia, brought from Rome by the Emperor Diocletian:
these are also called as Romans, because they came from Rome, and even nowadays they have this

For these population motions, see S. DRAGOMIR, op. cit. and the map of this changing of
Ibidem: 38-39, with the critics of other interpretations about the event that seems to be dated at
the end of the 15th century when Vlaka Crkva is for the first time attested.
Les Aroumains, and especially the volumes study signed by Mihaela BACOU, Entre
acculturation et assimilation: les Aroumains au XXe sicle: 151-165.
For the shifting of the notion of Romanus from a political-juridical category to a gentile
determination in the West, see E. EWIG, Volkstum und Volksbewusstsein im Frankenreich des 7.
Jahrhunderts, Settimane di Studio del Centro Italiano di Studi sull Alto Medioevo, 5 (1957),
Spoleto, 1958: 638 sq. For the particular case of the Vlachs from the Southern of the Danube, see S.
BREZEANU, De la populaia romanizat la vlahii balcanici, Revista de istorie: 29 (1976), no. 2:
212 sq.
Presbyter Diocleatis, Regnum Slavorum, in I. G. SCHWANDTNER, Scriptores rerum
Hungaricarum veteres ac gemini, vol. 3, Vienna, 1748: 478.
S. DRAGOMIR, op. cit.: 86-92, 143-148.

name . A half of millennium after, Ireneo della Croce also explicitly affirmed that the Vlachs from the
northwestern part of the peninsula, also nominated by the foreigners as cici, called in their language as
rumeri [emphasis mine] / addimandosi nel proprio linguaggio Rumeri . There must be added the
statements of some Byzantine authors that regard the Balkan Vlachs as colons of the Romans or as
th th
colons from Italy. The Hungarian chroniclers in the 13 -14 centuries also identified the Romanians in
Pannonia and Transylvania as shepherds of the Romans or as shepherds and colons of the
Romans . Therefore, all these testimonies demonstrate that the Latin population in the Balkans
continued to name itself as Romani during the Middle Ages and also afterwards, while their Greek and
Slav neighbours, and also other foreigners designate them as Vlahi.
However, a capital importance for the two toponyms explanation is the fact that the Byzantines
also named themselves as Romans (Rwmaioi). The term indicates the citizens of the New Romes
empire, members of the Roman politeia, subjects of the Roman laws, educated in the spirit of the Roman
paideia and, last but not least, members of the Christs community . Consequently, the notion of
Rwmaio had an exclusively political meaning in the empire of Constantine the Great and of Justinian.
th th
Quite soon however, beginning with the 8 -9 centuries, when the hellenisation of the empire took place,
and also because of the entering of the Balkan romanity in the Barbaricum, the term of Rwmaioi also
acquired a national designation, indicating the persons of Greek language and origin. The phenomenon
was also illustrated by John Kanabutzes in the 15 century, after a millenary experience. He defined the
difference between the Romans from the New Rome and the Bulgarian, Serbian, Romanian and
Russian Barbarians, Orthodox Christians: the notion of barbarian is not defined by faith, but by race,
language [emphasis mine], state organisation and education . Therefore, when the reconquista of the
Macedonian dynasty around the year 1000 made that the Romanic population re-enter in the Imperial
frontiers after almost four centuries of separated life, the New Rome was put into difficulty when it had to
denominate the homines Latini, returned under its politeia. This difficulty was for the first time marked
when Constantine the Porphyrogenitus defined the Romans in Dalmatia. As a singular case, the scholar-
emperor called them as oi Rwmanoi, in order to distinguish them from the oi Rwmaioi, the Greek speaker
Romans, his subjects . Some decades later, the intellectuals and the administration of the New Rome
surpassed the difficulty taking the ethnonym of Blacoi from the contacts with the Slavs, in order to
denominate the Latin speaker Romans .
Nevertheless, the difficulty still subsisted when the Byzantine world related to the ancient
Romans. There were not the Christian Romans in discussion, from the times of Constantine the Great,
whom the Byzantines constantly claimed as the founder of their Christian empire , and that
represented one of the Byzantine political ideologys major idea. It was yet about the Romans from the
pagan empire of Augustus, which were often called by the New Romes intellectuals also as Rwmaioi,
without any other specification. It was the case of Kekaumenos who, referring to the wars between Trajan
and Decebal, regarded the first one as one of the formerly emperors of the Rwmaioi / tou arcaioterou
basilei twn Rwmaiwn, while Rome is the city of the Rwmaioi (h poli Rwmaion) . The distinction

Constantin Porphyrogenitus, De administrando imperio (edited by Gy. MORAVCSIK),
Budapest, 1949, 29: 3-7; Fontes Historiae Daco-Romaniae, vol. 2, Bucharest: 1970: 662.
Cf. S. DRAGOMIR, op. cit.: 148.
A. ARMBRUSTER, La romanit des Roumains. Histoire dune ide, Bucharest, 1977: 28 sq.; S.
BREZEANU, Romani i Blachi la Anonymus. Istorie i ideologie politic, Revista de istorie, 34
(1981), no. 7: 1323 sq.
Fr. DLGER, Rom in der Gedankenwelt der Byzantiner, Zeitschrift fr Kirchegeschichte, 56
(1937): 8-9; S. BREZEANU, De la populaia romanizat : 216-217.
Maximilian LEHNERT, Ioannis Canabutzae magistri Ad principem Aeni et Samothraces in
Dionysium Halicarnasensem commentarius, Leipzig, 1890: 35; Fontes, vol. 4: 354.
Constantin Porphyrogenitus, op. cit.: 122, 124, 146, 148, 152, 162.
S. BREZEANU, De la populaia romanizat la vlahii balcanici: 217 sq.
For the 13th century, see for instance V. GRUMEL, Lauthenticit de la lettre de Jean Vatatzs,
empereur de Nice, au Pape Grgoire IX, Echos dOrient, 33 (1930): 452-453.
Sovety i rasskazy: 269; Fontes: vol. 3: 40.

operated by Kritobul of Imbros between the formerly Rwmaioi (palai Rwmaioi) and the Rwmaioi,
regarded as the nowadays Rwmaioi (nun Rwmaioi) is much more infrequent in the Byzantine world.
Maybe this distinction of the 15 century historian is to be put into connection with the national new-
Hellenic phase that characterised the Byzantine ideology after 1204.
Taking these understandings into consideration, we afford to consider the toponym from the 1393
Patriarchal act on another basis. The parallelism between the Imbros historians text and Anthony IVs act
is clear. In the first case, the expression of palai Rwomaioi supposed a distinction with the nun Rwmaioi.
In the second one, it meant Palaioblacoi, as the translation of the Palaioi Rwmaioi with the ethnical sense
of homines Latini that represented an implicit opposition to the Neoi Rwmaioi, regarded as the Greek
speaker Rwmaioi. The distinction between the ancient and the new Romans was determined in this
case by the opposition between the adjectives palaioi / neoi. Consequently, beyond the feeling of the
linguistic contrast between the Vlachs and the Greeks, the toponym of Palaioblacoi supposed the fact that
the Greeks from Thessaly were conscious that the Vlachs are a Romanic people and that they define
themselves as Romans (armni in the Aromunian dialect). This latter term was in opposition with the
name of Rhomei that the Greeks gave to themselves and that obtained a more and more powerful
ethnical connotation. A complete confirmation for this consideration could be detected in a Croatian
testimony from the 16 century. Thus, a letter written by Nicholas Jurii in 1538, and addressed to the
King Ferdinand of Hapsburg. Concerning the new immigrations, it mentioned the Vlachs that we call
ancient Romans [emphasis mine] / Walchen, welche bei uns allt Rmer genennt sein . Come from a
cultural-linguistic horizon different than the Byzantine one, this testimony might be regarded as the lack
link that could solve the complete meaning of the two toponyms. At the same time, the toponym of
Palaioblacoi from Thessaly proves that the opinion spread in Croatia, according to whom the Vlachs were
the Antiqui Romani, was not an isolated case in the Balkan Peninsula.
The other toponym leads us to a similar conclusion. Stari Vlah belonged to the same Balkan
medieval societys worlds of ideas. At a first sight, its Southern Slav origin was Serbian. Just that the
Serbian medieval tradition had not the ancient Romans and their empires memory, so enduring as in the
New Romes culture and ideology. It could be invoked that its explicit attestation in the 15 century
Croatian milieu pleads for its existence also among the Serbs. In both cases, the origin could be searched
at the Balkan Vlachs themselves. Nevertheless, there is another explanation for the Serbian toponym that
th th
seems to be more plausible. During the 11 -12 centuries and because of the Macedonian re-conquest,
the Byzantine domination was extended upon the entire territory of the Western Slavs, towards the Sava
river. There was an intensively romanised territory at the South of this line. It had an important number of
th th
Vlach toponyms and in the 11 -12 centuries there was attested a bishopric of the Vlachs. It had the
residence at Vreanoti (Vranye), on the upper watercourse of Morava . There is also the toponym of
Stari Vlah that appears on the North Western limit of this territory. Thus, there is extremely possible that
the toponym be a Greek creation at its origin and have the same form as the Thessalian toponym,
Palaioblacoi. At the end of the 12 century, the Serbian state emancipated from the Byzantine authority in
a space that comprised also the territories inhabited by the Vlachs. Under these circumstances, the
Serbian chancellery retook the toponym translated from the Greek under the form of Stari Vlah.
We could not finish without underlining the political meaning of the two toponyms.
The presence in Thessaly of two proximate toponyms, namely Palaioblacoi and Voivonda does
not appear to be accidental. It is less important whether the toponym of Voivonda is the result of an
influence come from Serbia or of the local Slavs. Actually, it is difficult to explain why other branches of
the Balkan Slavs, except of the Serbs and the Croats, would not know the voyvodal institution. Two
decades after the attestation of the toponym in the Patriarchal act, there appeared another voyvode in
an Epirote churchs fresco, around Janina , in a region with Vlach population. It is more important the
fact that the two toponyms seem to preserve the memory of an autonomous Wallachian political
continuity, commanded by a voyvode. This kind of autonomous communities were mentioned in the

KRITOBUL din Imbros, Din domnia lui Mahomed al II-lea (edited by V. GRECU), Bucharest,
1963, vol. 1, 48, 5.
S. DRAGOMIR, op. cit.: 99.
H. GELZER, Ungedruckte und wenig bekannte Bistmverzeichnisse der orientalischen
Kirche, Byzantinische Zeitschrift, 1 (1892): 256-257; Fontes, vol. 4: 24.
Marcu BEZA, Urme romneti n Rsritul ortodox, Bucharest, 1935: 133-134.

Serbian and Croatian area in the Middle Ages, where the Vlach voyvodes had large prerogatives .
th 41[41]
They also appeared after the 15 century under the Ottoman or Hapsburg domination . It is difficult to
specify the period when the Thessalian Vlachs were conducted by a proper voyvode. It was not possible
th th
during the 10 -12 centuries, when the imperial authority was effective in the region, and when the
Vlachs were under the military command of a Byzantine duke. Therefore, there were two periods that
could be taken into account. The first was previous to the 10 century. There pleads for it the information
given by Kekaumenos that referred to the existence of a military Vlach corps in Thessaly in 980 , as a
memory of a possible more ancient situation. The other period that is to be taken into consideration was
subsequent to the 1204 events, when Thessaly obtained a quasi independent situation inside of the
Empire of Thessalonic and then of the Despocy of Epirus. Under these circumstances, the local Vlachs
th th
took an important part on the events in the region during the 13 and the 14 centuries. This very fact
could explain the denomination of the Great Wallachia or Vlachia. There seems to be more probable the
last option, for which also pleads the mention of the voyvode in Epirus in 1412.
In connection with the toponym of Stari Vlah, there appears the problem of the relation between it
and the neighbour toponym of Romanija. The probability of a direct connection between the two
toponyms is less probable, although the hypothesis that the first be the Slavonic equivalent of the latter -
that could be regarded as a memory of a local Romania - is tempting. More probable, the toponym of
Romanija has represented a memory of the domination of the New Rome in the region during the 11 -
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12 centuries, whose largely spread name was Romania .

Other articles published in pur periodicals by Stelian Brezeanu:

History and Imperial Propaganda in Rome during the 4 Century a. Chr. A Case Study: the
Abandonment of Dacia
th th
The Lower Danube Frontier during the 4 -7 Centuries. A Notions Ambiguity
Toponymy and ethnic Realities at the Lower Danube in the 10 Century. The deserted Cities in
Constantine Porphyrogenitus De administrando imperio

Venetic en roumain. Economie et mentalits collectives mdivales

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Matei CAZACU, Les Valaques dans les Balkans occidentaux (Serbie, Croatie, Albanie etc.). La
Pax ottomanica, in vol. Aroumains: 83 sq.
Ibidem: 86 sq.
Sovety i rasskazy: 82; Fontes, vol. 3: 44.
R. L. WOLFF, Romania: The Latin Empire of Constantinople, Speculum, 23 (1948): 2 sq.