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Viorel Stănilă, M.A
The Institute for South Eastern European Studies
Romanian Academy, Bucharest

The Balkan Peninsula, with its concocted ethnic groups that have continuously claimed their identity, with its amalgam of languages and cultural practices has never ceased to appear as a paradox to those who approach it. It is a space where the most authoritative forms of centralism and unparalleled forms of ethnic segregation coexist; the Balkans are the heir of the most prestigious culture Europe have bequeathed, inasmuch as they are the core of primitivism, if compared to the postindustrial cultures of contemporary Western Europe. In a study published in 2001[1], I formulated the idea that the difference between us (the southeastern Europeans, the inhabitants of the Balkans), and the west does not consist in different ingredients of "Europeanism", but in the way they are filtered through the cultural grid of the western maleness in opposition with the feminine profile of the Balkan space. I would now try to demonstrate that this fundamental opposition, that almost separates between nature (ingenuity, primitivism) and culture (reason, knowledge) develops a set of opposing pairs that can describe the paradoxes of Balkan identity, which revolves around various interpretations of the center-margin relationship.

In order to examine this rather Manichean classification more thoroughly, I will follow to what extent the Roman military institutions (icons of maleness, courage, righteousness) were perpetuated along history. As far the Balkan identity is concerned, the presence of these institutions account for the circulation of the myth of the rebel hero, which was essential to the identity construct within the Balkans.

I will rely mostly on the Byzantine epopee The Brave Dighenis Acritas. A Medieval Byzantine Epopee, published by Gheorghia Deligheanni-Anastasiadis (Romanian version - Maria Marinescu-Himu, Bucuresti, Albatros Publishing House, 1974). This text provides information that enables us to compare the historical truth to the mythical origin of the hero, as it is presented in the epopee. At this point, several considerations about the name of the hero and the code of honor at the time are absolutely necessary. Of course, one may object to the fact that the cited edition is more of a narration of the epopee than a critical instrument for a researcher. In was precisely in my intention to use a so-called "popular" edition, which renders best the mechanisms of the consensual thinking and the way in which this type of thinking shapes and preserves the image of the hero. All the "popular" editions, which may be placed between a more lax, traditional thinking and the rigorous character of a scientific account, rely on the stereotypes of the collective mentality, thus resisting all the "educated" re-shaping that might appear in time.

In 788, a year after the seventh Ecumenical Council in Nicea reestablished the legitimacy of the icon cult, during the reign of Constantin the Sixth the Porphyrogenetes and of the empress Irina, his mother, a turmarchus, Vasilios Dighenis Acritas died on the battlefield, in a confrontation with the Saracens[2]. Could he be one of the sustainers of the iconoclasm, one of those sent away from the capital a year before in order to prevent any unpleasant events during the proceedings of the council?[3] We will never know. No other information about the real biography of this military commander is either to be found in historical accounts.

Paradoxically, his mythological biography supplies all the missing information: we find information about his being the descendant of an aristocratic family[4], we find him a handsome, wealthy, brave and chivalrous hero. He was also royally endowed with wisdom, generosity and force. His unusual destiny was prefigured as early as his childhood (at six, he looked and behaved as a boy of twelve, and he demanded to take part to lion hunting):

"His smile is different from that of a careless child. It is the smile of a brave young man. Although he is only six, Dighenis looks as if he were twelve. Since his birth he has promised to grow into a real man. He was no more than one day old when he ate a piece of toast; at his first anniversary, he touched a sword and at three he used a spear."

"[...] now I'm going to hunt lions"

There is no other man like him across the Grecian world. He is strong, healthy, as brave as Hercules and as beautiful as the rising sun; he is as hot as an erupting volcano. As gentle as a dove is he, and as wild as the tempest. As good as the rain that waters the field is he, and as straightforward as the thunder. When he sings, the birds start chirruping with him, and when he speaks, the seas grow furious and the mountains thunder. The wild creatures shiver with fear and the little lambs enjoy his caresses. His back is rock, his forehead a castle/His broad chest a moss-covered wall.[5]

His future hero status is predicted by omens: like Skanderbeg, Albania's national and mythical hero, he felt a special attraction for weapons; he could barely crawl, but he skillfully used his father's weapons.

As for the acts of bravery done by Dighenis, the adult, we can say that "during his military service, which lasted until, at thirty-three he died", nothing notable happened. He had settled the peace at the Saracen border of the empire, he had put an end to the Apelates robberies; he had fought against various forms of piracy and thus brought peace and prosperity to Cappadokia, a part of the Roman Empire that had long been subjected to numerous vicissitudes of history. When he regained the frontier land his grandfather had had from the emperor, he retired in the frontier zone with his wife, Evdochia, spending the rest of his life in an uninterrupted quest of knightly provocations and confrontations.

The romance about Dighenis was written in verses and it was attributed to a poet-monk, being dated sometime between the 10th and the 14th century A.D. The romance contains most of the episodes that formed an older epic cycle, known as The Cycle of the Acrites. This had been transmitted orally and spread all over the empire by the Byzantine troubadours, as the epopee says.[6] Being mixed with an orally transmitted epopee, the romance is full of episodes about rapes, about the interventions of supernatural forces, about betrayals among knights and fights with fabulous creatures. As a result, Dighenis himself could be easily ranked among supernatural, mythical heroes. This gallery contained exemplary figures that could interchange identities, names and behaviors through the usual contamination of the orally transmitted epopees.

Dighenis was not only a frontier hero; one may say that he had all the qualities of a player for the sake of the knightly game. His confrontations and fights were exonerated of any religious or patriotic duties; they were sublimated into pure contests. The lack of any practical purpose transforms this frontier hero into a gentle knight [7]. The semantic and etymological implications we discussed in endnote 7 prove that the paradox of Dighenis' identity resided in this double determination of the gentle knight status: descendant of a certain male line (thus, chivalrous and noble), the gentle knight was equally a person who affirmed a certain religious denomination and who, at the same time, acted as if he had been outside these determinations. The type of knight Dighenis impersonated was simultaneously inside and outside a system, on the frontier and in the center, acting according to a set of prescribed norms and at the same time eluding them for the sake of subjectivity and pure knightly play. This type of attitude has long been preserved within the Balkans, especially with groups that have had a "marginal" status, such as the Vlachs (Aromanians). In one of my field researches, I met an old Vlach who told me the following: his father, who had live in Greece, was once "forgiven" by a band of thieves, because their leader suddenly remembered that the old shepherd had offered him a cup of coffee at a fair.

As for Dighenis, this double articulated identity was predicted by his birth - "the one born from two gens" and by his name - "the frontier man", "the margin man"; exiled to a margin, like the outlaws he was supposed to chase, Dighenis would later turn into a center of power.

Apart from direct episodes in which Dighenis is the protagonist, one can also find very interesting information about the social status of the Acritai, and the state of things at the frontier with the Euphrates. All this information appears as metatextual insertions of the anonymous narrator. In old Greek, "acritai" meant "the frontier man", "the dweller of the margin". Starting with the rule of Heraklios (610-641 A.D.), the word was used to designate the peasant soldiers, who were sent as colonists at the Oriental frontiers of the empire[8] in order to stop the invasions of the Arabs. Their duty was to serve under the command of the provincial and diocesan rulers, and also to act as keepers of the commercial roads, of the gorges and of water sources. In exchange for these, they benefited from certain forms of private property and were partially exempted from taxes.

The book refers only to the Asian part of the empire; in reality, the acritai continued the old Roman social and military institution of the limitaneus (effective all over the Roman Empire). It is highly possible that the Latin word limitaneus was replaced by its Greek equivalent, "acritai". To support this affirmation we remind that under Heraklios, the title "Caesar Augustus" was replaced by the title "Basileus"[9].

During the 10th century, Constantin VII the Porphyrogenetes promulgated a series of laws meant to contribute to the administrative and military reform of the empire. He replaced the old provinces and dioceses by theme. Their rulers, who were called strategos (generals), detained the military, administrative and fiscal authority at the same time. The social roles of the acritai were taken over by the stratiotai, without any change of the dual status - peasant soldiers - of those who formed the turmae. These new peasant soldiers were recruited from free peasants, who owned land evaluated at more than four pounds in gold. They had to have the financial power to equip and support a soldier in the cavalry. In exchange of certain fiscal facilities, they were also obliged to participate to military actions when solicited by the ruler of the thema.[10]

By the ending years of the empire, after the fall of Constantinople, this type of social organization spread across the Balkan Peninsula; whether it was effective within the Ottoman Empire, or within the Serbian Czardom, whether it referred to the Habsburgs Empire or to the first Bulgarian State, it perpetuated the same basic social structures and functions. The former acritai/stratiotai were replaced by armatoli (their name under the Ottoman rule), by voinici (courageous, brave men, from the Slavic root vojnic), or by gränzer (their name under the Habsburg rule); all those subjects had duties and rights that transmitted hereditarily. The Romanian historian Neagu Djuvara[11] made some very relevant observations about these "frontier people" and their social role: he mentions the act issued by Stepan Milutin, in order to favor the monastery of Mitroviča (near Banja) referred to the law of Vlachs (zakon vlahon) that postulated the perpetuation of the functions of the frontier people. They had to guard the travelers and the shepherds. The community of Vlachs was first mentioned in Croatia around the fourteenth century. They were called morlacs (Mauro-Vlachs) and they took part to the wars that put an end to the Serbian rule in Croatia. The Croatian ruler Frantz Frankopan issued the law of the Vlachs (lex valachorum), the equivalent of the zakon vlahon, which stated the rights and the duties of these "frontier people". A similar situation occurred in the Greek province of Thessalia, after the Ottoman armies, commanded by Murad II (1421-1452), had occupied it. The Vlachs agreed to participate to the military confrontations on the Ottoman side. Paradoxically, they took part to the siege of Constantinople. Later, the Ottoman rulers were to preserve this special status of the Vlachs, by organizing the so-called kapetanios-ruled communities. These communities enjoyed certain autonomy and they were inhabited by people of various ethnic backgrounds: Vlachs, Albanians, Greeks, Slavs.

Across the Habsburg Empire, the gränzer served in the army and were given in exchange land and the right to elect their own "captains"(kapetanios, in the Greek area); they also had the freedom to practice any religious cult they inherited from their ancestors, irrespective of the official religion of the empire. The authorities protected them from the local nobility who attempted to turn them into serves. In all the official documents they nevertheless appeared as "ramblers", a generic name given to the immigrants, the runaways and to the "marginal" people.

The acrites status all these "frontier people" were to illustrate over the centuries first referred to the Byzantine subjects. It would be though restrictive to believe that this category included only Greeks and descendants of Roman colonists. After Caracalla's edict, promulgated in 212 A.D. all the free inhabitants of the empire were proclaimed as Roman citizen. As a result, a number of populations of non-Roman origins became citizens and they later constituted the future limitaneus troops. Simultaneously, members of the migrating tribes gained the same status after they had been assimilated as Byzantine subjects. Populus romanus, or the λαός των Ρωμαίον, acted as a political community (politeia), as a cultural community (paideia), and as a religious community[12], as well

A new paradox was to blur the image of these Roman-Balkanic people after most of the territories of the peninsula had been conquered by barbarians. No longer under the protection of pax romanica byzantina, which acknowledged them as citizens of the empire, they were not perceived as "of Roman descent", but as "Vlachs", a name that the Slavs attributed to them. This happened in spite of the fact they regained part of their lost territories.

Thus, the former subjects of the empire were no longer acknowledged by the "center" as its "margins"; consequently, they encountered difficulties in being part of the collective identity they had once belonged to. They were Roman citizens perceived as non-Romans. The Byzantine recruitement policy mixed them with the barbarian troups, not with the Greek ones. This is one of the causes of the uprising of Vlachs and Bulgarians(1185) at the end of which a new Romanian-Bulgarian state was proclaimed[13]: "they should not differentiate between Greek and Romanian soldiers, they should be enrolled in the same legions".

Whereas their linguistic identity was never questioned (the authors of chronicles acknowledged the Latin origin of their idiom), their social identity, of "traditional" Roman citizens was still debatable and it fueled various confrontations. Thus, two forms of social organization that shared a common origin became opposed to one another; one was official, the other perpetuated the tradition of the jus valachorum. They gradually turned into conflicting centers of power, which took turns in being the controllers according to the epoch and to the historical conditions.

In the Byzantine world, the earthly kingdom was but an image of the heavenly kingdom of God; it is thus obvious that the unity of the terrestrial world was an apriori fact that generated and controlled all the attitudes, the decisions, the directions in the internal and external politics, alike. The hierarchies did not split classes or individuals, but they ensured the coherence of the united and unique kingdom.[14] The reality offered a very different image of this unique and united empire; the empire was a mosaic made of various marginal entities, segregated by linguistic, religious, cultural and ethnic differences. These micro-communities were centrifugal and they were potential centers of power.

The demographic policy of the rulers, the numerous colonizations and displacements across the empire contributed to this perpetual shift between the center and the margins. Here are several examples:

  • 558-559 Justinian brings the Avar colonists in the Caucasian area and at the north of the Black Sea;
  • 626, approximately - the Slavs penetrate almost the entire Balkan territories of the empire;
  • 665 - five thousand Slavs move to the regions formerly controlled by Arabs
  • 688-689 - Justinian II moves a great number of Slavs in Bithynia; if he needed, he could have recruited almost thirty thousand soldiers
  • 712 - Phillipicus Bardanes relocated the Armenian population to Mythilene
  • 762 - Constantin V transferred 208,000 people of Slavic origin to the margins of the empire.

This amalgam of populations illustrated a very fragmented religious chart; communities belonging to different denominations proved that the so-called unity of the Orthodox Church was no more than an ideal. The presence of the Nestorians, together with Bogumils, of the Catholic Albanians and of members of the Syrian Church showed the instability of these marginal "islands", prone to separation at any time.[15]

It is generally acknowledged that the very existence of a center means implies the existence of a cultural corpus, shared by the majority of the community in cause. In the case of the Byzantine Empire, the recognition of a center was almost impossible, because of the foregoing conditions. The lack of a cultural continuum meant to unite, guide and model the margins according to a set of norms was somehow expectable in a heterogeneous empire, where the margins acted in a challenging and centrifugal manner.

The centrifugal tendencies had lasted as long and the empire and they were later "handed down", as an unwritten tradition, to almost all the populations inhabiting the Balkans. Some of the rulers rose from the margins of the empire; they came from the former Thracia, from Cappadokia, from Cartagena and became icons of a center they had never genuinely belonged to. These rulers did not have the right to raise their children were they had received the right of residence and they were never named rulers in their birth provinces. Justinian, Heraklius, Leon the Isaurian illustrate this type of continuous provocation and confrontation between the center and the margins, which began to weaken around the 11th century. An opened offensive of the accredited center was to stifle the actions of the concurrent margins.

The existence of parallel forms of administration allowed the collective imaginary to "invent" exemplary heroes; they were however connected to a historical reference. For example, by the end of the 10th century the institution of katepanats; this altered even more the cohesion of the theme and induced the idea of local autonomy. This enhanced the "invention" of certain local heroes who later became exemplary and tended to develop the characteristics of "central", generally acknowledged personalities of mythical heroes. During the Ottoman domination these local forms of administration would be but nucleus for an incessant struggle for the restoration of the Roman unity, the so-called Romeikos. The Vlach armatoli were active parts in these attempts of the margin to turn into a new center. The fascination of the Polé/polis made that all those local rulers acted as unique heroes, as saviors of their people and bearers of the signs of the lost empire.

Dighenis Acritas was only the prototype of a long and heterogeneous series of local heroes. This prototype was to be preserved in a later poem written by Gudas. The poet seemed fascinated by the Vlach captain Odisseu Andru ţu Veruşiu and depicted him in approximately the same style the anonymous poet used to depict Dighenis some centuries ago: "His back is as powerful as a rock/ his head is a castle/and his broad chest/ is the moss-covered wall".

Although the Greece that generated the epopee of Dighenis had long lost its glitter and was no more than a margin of an empire, the persistence of the stereotypes in constructing a hero prove that Greece never ceased to represent the nostalgia of a center. The isomorphic pairs that can be identified in all these stereotypes - Christianity/paganism, order/chaos, Orthodox/Catholics, prove that the paradoxes of the Balkan identity are more profound than they appear.

The recent accounts on the mechanism of group identity insist on the "imaginary" character of identity. Theories such as Benedict Anderson's opened the way to redefinitions of the relation margin/center. And we all have to admit that most of these theories found in the Balkans a very fruitful or at least promising experimentation field[16]. New forms of fragmentation, of intra-European secession have usually been associated to the Balkans. I do not intend to discuss the effectiveness of these theories to the understanding of the Balkan paradoxes. I would only like to point out that the paradoxes of this space perceived as "marginal" were a tradition that showed an unquenched nostalgia for certitude, center and power in the Balkans. The courage and exemplarity of otherwise marginal heroes stand for their irrepressible desire to experience the center, under the guise of a permanent revolt that gave birth to the prototype of the rebel hero.

[1] V.Stanila - Feminitate si colonialism [Femininity and colonialism], in: Analele Stiintifice ale Univeristatii "Ovidius", seria filologie, 2001.
[2] Gheorghia Deligheanni - Anastasiadi - Viteazul Dighenis Acritas. Epopee medievala bizantina [ The Brave Dighenis Acritas. A Medieval Byzantine Epopee], Romanian transl. Maria Marinescu-Himu, Bucuresti, Albatros Publishing House, hereafter cited as BDA, followed by the page number.
[3] Information found in Dr. Ioan Ramureanu, professor, priest - Istoria Bisericeasca Universala[The Universal History of Churches], Editura Institutului Biblic al Bisericii Ortodoxe Romane, Bucuresti, 1992, pp. 166-67, hereafter cited as UHC, followed by the page number.
[4] In BDA his grandmother is Ana Comnena, his parents Irini Ligheri and the general Andronicos Ducas
[5] in UHC, pp. 10, 110-11.
[6] In BDA, p. 133.
[7] If we are to examine some of the acceptations of this syntagm, based on its etymology, we find out that its meanings derive from the Latin root gens, gentis, which meant a group of people, descending from the same male line; another acceptation differentiates between Christians-who were gentiles - "gentile" in English - , and the non-Christians, be those Hebrews of others.
[8] BDA, pp. 128-29.
[9] A. Ducellier, M.Kaplan, B. Martin - Le Proche-Orient médiéval, Hachette, Paris, 1988, p.64, hereafter cited as LPO.
[10] LPO, pp. 65-66: "Le stratège hérite de l'exarque la totalité des pouvoirs civiles, militaires et fiscaux, plus ou moins limitée en matière fiscale.
Stratiotes sont issus de la moyenne paysannerie de proprietaires, rangés parmi les coqs de village; exemptés de taxes militaires, ils doivent répondre a toute requisition du stratège et entretenir un cavalier armé; on completa l'armée en permettant à des moyens paysans de s'enroler"
[11] Neagu Djuvara (ed.) - Aromânii. Istorie. Limbă. Destin,[The Vlacchians. History. Language. Destiny] Bucureşti, Editura Fundaţiei Culturale Române, 1996, pp. 84-92.
[12] Stelian Brezeanu - Romanitatea orientală în Evul Mediu, [The Oriental Roman Empire in the Middle Ages] Bucureşti, ALL, 1999, pp.52-53
[13] Ion Arginteanu - Istoria românilor macedonen [The History of Macedonian Romanians], Tipografia "L'Indépendance Roumaine", Bucureşti, 1904, pp.90-91.
[14] LPO, p.63.
[15] "Le particularisme réligieux, surtout le monophysisme, est le véhicule des particularismes provinciaux, éthniques, culturels, linguistiques de l'Orient; il reflet l'opposition des régions sémitiques au pouvoir exercé par les Gréco-Latins. La réaction contre les Chalcédoniens, c'est aussi le rejet du Constantinople, de la centralisation, des fonctionnaires du fisc. Cette opposition, que ni la persuassion, ni la force n'ont pu réduire aucune la cohésion simplement politique de l'Empire. Heraclius venu d'occident, l'a bien senti alors de l'invasion perse qui marque le début de son reigne. La résistance des provinces orientales avait été faible, quasiment une trahison."(LPO, p. 63.)
[16] See, for example, Stjepan Mestrović, Slaven Letica, Miroslav Goreta - Habits of the Balkan Heart, Texas A&M U. Press, 1993 and S. Mestrović - Postemotional Society, foreword by D.Riesman, London: Thousand Oaks, New Delhi, Sage Publ., 1997. The two books use the Balkans as an example of contradictions in defining identity. The second mentioned here expands the demonstration to the relation of this paradoxical Balkan identity to the identity of the mainstream, i.e. Western European and North American. Without going to the causes, the researchers record the long-term effects of the identity paradoxes, analyzing mostly the conflict in former Yugoslavia.