Special Feature:
Searching for the Astræus

 

here comes a time in the life of every fly fishing historian when an urge comes to visit the place where it all began, or at least, the place where it was first described. My personal opinion is that you can't call yourself a historian unless you have at the very least had a pipe-dream about going there.

   Sounds simple, doesn't it? After all, there are maps? Wrong.

   Macedonia, my friends, is in the Balkans, and things work differently there. Very differently. To say that things are politically complex is a wild understatement, and to interpret a map of Macedonia, you have to know not only when it was drawn, but who drew it, why he drew it, and what nationality he was.

   Now you are in the picture, we can go to work.

   Ælian's On the Nature of Animals is our primary source and all the author has to say is this:

   I have heard of a Macedonian way of catching fish, and it is this: between Borťa and Thessalonica runs a river called the Astræus, and in it there are fish with speckled skins; what the natives of the country call them you had better ask the Macedonians.

   Now if there is a problem, it the sad and certain fact that the author never stirred so much as a toe outside Rome. While it is disappointing that we aren't reading a first hand account, it is probably reliable, since Ælian would have had plenty of opportunity to meet people who had been to the Balkans, given that a Roman army first entered Macedonia in the winter of 200-199 BC and that the unfortunate country was annexed as a province by the Senate only a few decades later. But on the other hand, Ælian pounces on passing ideas like a thirsty man upon flagons of ale, with the result that there is little order in the work - he discusses elephants in one breath and dragons in the next, which makes his testimony just that little bit flaky.

 

   Couple Ælian's vagueness to the disorderly nature of Balkan history and geography and you have a puzzle fit for kings. Just to give you an idea of the problems we face, I present a nineteenth century map of Macedonia. If you look above the lake at Pella (just above the big bay, to right of bottom centre) you will see a river called the Astræus. The one thing I can tell you for certain about this river is that it probably isn't the Astræus.

   Why are we unsure about the location of the river? I mean, surely they don't move, do they? Well, no, the river has probably stayed put, though man may have interfered with the environment to some extent (see below). But there aren't any good Roman maps of the area, and by the time good maps did appear, the river names had been changed. If you want to see how much change has occurred - try looking at this map -, which shows how the frontiers stood in 1914.

   Part of the reason why it is difficult to identify the location with complete certainty is that the Macedonia that Ælian knew has known its share of the flames of war, with the result that today it is divided between Greece, Bulgaria and the Republic of Macedonia. The ancient geography is confusing, with many redundant place names, and the chequered political history of this area means that maps are not always what they may seem.

   In 1995, a very erudite paper by Professor N.G.L Hammond, an acknowledged expert on Macedonian history ( The Location of the Trout River Astraeus, Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies . 36. 2 p173f) pointed out that a considerable drainage project took place in the region in the early twentieth century and that the river which Herodotus and Ælian knew was probably subsumed into a 'regional channel' which carried the water from the western foothills of the plain of Beroea into the river Haliacmon. If you have a big enough monitor, a fast connection and the right kind of brain, you will be able to see what has been done by clicking here to open a 1707 map of the area, then here to see a 1690 map , then here to see a 1695 map, and finally here to see a 1720 map, before comparing them with the modern version. If you don't have the right kind of mind, you will be confused, like I am (-: And I should warn you that these files are all about 125k, so they won't appear instantly.

   If Hammond is correct, his work would place the Astræus near the red '107' on the modern road map above. The regional channel can be identified as following the line of the Moglenica, which now flows entirely within Greece. But Hammond's paper opens up a wonderful new area - that of the mythology associated with the Astraeus, and those of you who are interested should click here to find out more about it.

   There have been more recent attempts to pinpoint the river by Darrell Martin, Dr. Voljc, Charles Jardine and others, but though they make fascinating reading, none of them really strikes me as telling the whole story. In the face of these conflicting opinions, more research is needed before we can be really sure of the location of this elusive and fabled river - if we ever can be.

   The other question we might ask is - did fly fishing really originate in Macedonia? The bare fact that the first reference we have to fly fishing locates it in a particular country doesn't necessarily mean it began there, but I don't find it too difficult to believe that fly fishing either originated in the Balkans, or came to Europe through Macedonia. My own view is that fly fishing went on undisturbed, but unrecorded, for a thousand years. If fly fishing did originate in the Balkans, it is possible that during this period the technique spread across Europe and perhaps to the Far East and beyond.

   So who spread the word? To some extent, the sheer effectiveness of the method must have been its greatest recommendation, but one vehicle for the dispersion of fly fishing across such a wide area might have been the occupying Roman army and the administrators who followed in its wake. Sadly, while the vision of footsore legionaries tramping across Europe carrying fly lines in their dusty baggage is an appealing one, the two centuries that elapsed between Ælian's publication and the sack of Rome provide hardly enough time for the theory to be correct, unless fly fishing was discovered long before On the Nature of Animals was written - which is more than possible. Another option is that fly fishing was spread by the merchants who travelled in caravan type groups all over the Balkan peninsula during this period, and for long after. As part of their legacy, camels were kept in Macedonia until shortly before the beginning of the second world war. Nomadic shepherds are a third possibility, because they travelled far and wide through this ancient land in search of quality pasture. The sites they favoured are usually above 1500-1800 feet, which is the same area where trout live in southern Europe, and one of the very striking things about Macedonia is that even today shepherds are very often traditional fly fisherman. During the day they moved with their sheep, but since the dogs really did the work, they had plenty of time to cast a fly.

   If you have any more to add on this subject, I would be delighted to hear from you - just go back to the home page and follow the email link.

   And if you want to read a more academic treatment of the same thing, follow this link and read on...

 

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