THE MYTH OF THE REBEL HERO: IDENTITY ISSUES IN THE BALKANS|
Viorel Stănilă, M.A
The Institute for South Eastern European Studies
Romanian Academy, Bucharest
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, 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.
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? 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,
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.
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.
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
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 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
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.
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
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, 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:
"they should not differentiate between Greek and Romanian soldiers, they should
be enrolled in the same legions".
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
V.Stanila - Feminitate si colonialism [Femininity and colonialism], in: Analele
Stiintifice ale Univeristatii "Ovidius", seria filologie, 2001.
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.
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.
his grandmother is Ana Comnena, his parents Irini Ligheri and the general Andronicos Ducas
in UHC, pp. 10, 110-11.
In BDA, p. 133.
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.
BDA, pp. 128-29.
A. Ducellier, M.Kaplan, B. Martin - Le Proche-Orient médiéval,
Hachette, Paris, 1988, p.64, hereafter cited as LPO.
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.
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"
Neagu Djuvara (ed.) - Aromânii.
Istorie. Limbă. Destin,[The Vlacchians. History. Language. Destiny] Bucureşti, Editura
Fundaţiei Culturale Române, 1996, pp. 84-92.
Stelian Brezeanu - Romanitatea
orientală în Evul Mediu, [The Oriental Roman Empire in the Middle
Ages] Bucureşti, ALL, 1999, pp.52-53
Ion Arginteanu - Istoria românilor
macedonen [The History of Macedonian Romanians], Tipografia "L'Indépendance
Roumaine", Bucureşti, 1904, pp.90-91.
"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.)
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.