Conquest of the Slavs in the Balkans

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The conquest of the Slavs in the Balkans expanded the ethnic diversity there by an element that is still characteristic today. After the Latin language prevailed on the Balkan Peninsula under Roman rule in the north and the Greek language to the south of the so-called Jireček line , Slavic tribes settled here permanently from the end of the 6th century ( land grabbing ). After Christianization by the Slav apostles Cyril and Method , they were able to take over the legacy of Eastern Stream with the help of the Orthodox Church from the 9th century .

The Balkans 582–612

Slavic invasions to 591

In the late late antiquity , in the 6th century, groups referred to in the sources as Slavs advanced across the lower Danube ( abandoned by the Visigoths in the late 5th century ) and undertook raids into the eastern Roman provinces of Illyria , Moesia , Thrace , Macedonia and Greece to the Peloponnese (see Chronicle of Monemvasia ). One of the earliest sources mentioning Slavic raids is Prokopios of Caesarea , who names the attackers around 550 Σκλαβηνοί (e.g. Prok. Hist. 7,14,2) and states that they would settle north of the Danube. As a rule, smaller, uncoordinated groups operated in the impassable mountains and dense forests. In the north, the Slavs reached the area of ​​the former province of Noricum and founded the Principality of Carantania there in the 7th century .

Since there were no significant Roman associations operating in the Balkans at that time, these Slavic groups, often together with the Anten , were able to roam the entire peninsula unhindered and pillage parts of the Balkans almost every year. Not even the Hexamilion at Corinth could stop them. However, the Roman sources at that time do not yet have anything to report about permanent settlement; only from raids.

With the reconquest of the western half of the empire, which was overrun by the Teutons in the 5th century, and with the defense of the Sassanids ( Roman-Persian wars ) in the Orient, Emperor Justinian (527-565) had different priorities than the defense of the Slavs in the Balkans. He tried to secure the border by building numerous new fortresses from Singidunum to the mouth of the Danube, but due to his campaigns against the Ostrogoths and Persians, the troops that could have operated from the fortresses against the Slavs were lacking . The competent magister militum per Thracias had only very weak associations at their disposal. Moreover, the looters seldom stood up to fight, and the imperial soldiers were powerless against the small, mobile Slavic groups. So the East Romans controlled the Danube, but hardly the hinterland. During Justinian's reign in 559 Slavs could even threaten Constantinople together with Huns , but they were repulsed by Belisarius . In recent research, however, Justinian's Balkan policy is rated more positively again and the subsequent loss is by no means viewed as inevitable.

The subjugation and exploitation of most of the Slavs by the Avars under Baian from 567 created additional migratory pressure. Meanwhile, Emperor Justin II (565-578) began a new war against the Sassanid Empire , which tied the Roman troops in the east for two decades. Under his successor Tiberius Constantinus (578-582), the Avars were able to take the strategically important Sirmium in 582 and slowly roll up the fortresses built or restored by Justinian. This in turn also facilitated the Slavic incursions. The contemporary church historian John of Ephesus reports of a great Slavic invasion since 581, which for the first time had a permanent settlement as its goal. However, it is disputed here whether it was looters who stayed in the Balkans for several years until John's death, or whether they actually settled. The fact is that as early as the 580s the Eastern Roman Balkan provinces were so devastated that they no longer gave up any loot. A turning point here was the failed siege of Thessalonica in 586: the main cause of the failure was the lack of food among the besiegers, who could no longer feed themselves from the devastated surrounding area. These circumstances are likely to have led the Slavs to realize that only their own agriculture could provide them with a sustainable livelihood in the Balkans.

Temporary end of the Slavic migrations

A turning point of a different kind experienced the Slavic trains and also the process of a possible settlement from 591 onwards as a result of the Balkan campaigns of Maurikios , which prevented further Slavic raids in the Balkans with one exception in the winter of 593/594. Emperor Maurikios (582–602) had made an advantageous peace with the Sassanids and henceforth concentrated on the Balkans. The Slavs, like their Avar rulers, were put on the defensive and the latter were repeatedly defeated by the Romans even in their own heartland north of the Danube.

Maurikios succeeded as the first emperor since Anastasius (491-518) to clear up the situation in the Balkans and prevent raids from the Avars and Slavs. The Roman Balkan provinces were thus on the threshold of possible recovery. Armenians were to be settled as fortified farmers in the Balkans and the Slavs who had already immigrated were to be Romanized. With his fall in 602, however, this was just as wasted as the continuation of the campaigns. The new emperor Phokas (602–610) had to fight again against the Persians, who were able to occupy Armenia in the first phase of the war . Besides, a mutiny against the excesses of the campaigns had brought him to power. For the reasons mentioned Phocas was forced to give up the aggressive defense and also the settlement of Armenian fortified farmers.

The older assumption that Roman rule collapsed immediately after his seizure of power is probably wrong. Phocas may have been inactive in the Balkans and may have transferred troops from the Balkans to the Persian front, but perhaps its Thracian origins alone speak against a complete exposure of the Balkans . A collapse during his rule as a result of Slavic invasions is not proven by archaeological finds such as coin hoarding. In contrast, a further recovery of the Balkan provinces under the rule of Phocas seems conceivable today. As a result, thanks to Maurikios and perhaps also thanks to Phocas, the Slavic conquest was delayed by over two decades.

The area-wide settlement from 612

The fall of Phokas in 610, but above all the heavy defeats that the imperial troops suffered in the Orient from 611 onwards, was apparently the sign of departure for the Slavs. When the new emperor Herakleios (610–641) had to use all the troops in the east against the Persians, the Slavs, together with the Avars, probably renewed their invasions in the Balkans from 612 (according to others only from 615). Despite a possible interim recovery, the Balkan provinces were still significantly weaker than at the end of the 570s. Unlike then, there was no Eastern Roman regional army that could have put a stop to the attacks, because the magister militum per Thracias no longer had significant troops and, given the catastrophic situation on the Persian front, could not count on reinforcements. Therefore the Avars and Slavs overran the entire Balkans almost unhindered. When which area was overrun cannot be reconstructed based on the current sources. Only individual events stand out; for example the destruction of Novae sometime after 613, the conquest of Naissus and Serdika as well as the destruction of Justiniana Prima in 615, the three sieges of Thessaloniki (612 (?), 615 and 617), the battle of Herakleia on the Sea of ​​Marmara 619, raids on Crete 623 and the siege of Constantinople (626) in alliance with the Persians. Possible booty was made within a short time and parts of the Roman population were deported by the Avars to Pannonia . This gave the Slavs the opportunity to evade Avar rule through settlement and transition to agriculture in the impassable regions of the Balkans. From around 620 archaeological finds prove the settlement of the Slavs in the depopulated regions of the Balkans. This affected the entire Balkan Peninsula except for southern Thrace and the west of the Peloponnese. After the Avars, now allied with the Persians, had withdrawn from the walls of Constantinople in 626, the Slavic tribes in the Balkans rose against them and formally accepted Eastern Roman sovereignty. Furthermore, Herakleios specifically settled the Serbs in Illyria and the Croats in Dalmatia and Lower Pannonia as federates against the Avars (although there are no historical sources that mention the names "Serbs" or "Croats" at this time). As a result, most of the Slavs were able to escape the shaken Avar rule. The settlement of the Slavs in the countryside went hand in hand not only with the decline of Avar supremacy, but also with a changed relationship with the remnants of the Roman provincial population and the Eastern Roman-Byzantine government. The phase of the great campaigns was over, despite smaller battles. The following period was rather characterized by the migration and settlement of many small, autonomous groups.

Mixed situation between Slavs and Nonsavs up to the 10th century

South Slavic peoples and tribes (orange) in the Balkans in the 7th century, border of the nominal Byzantine dominion purple

After the Slavs settled the land, a period of relatively peaceful coexistence followed between Slavs and the remnants of the Roman and Greek provincial populations still present. Because even on the northern border of the Eastern Roman Danube provinces, some cities had survived the Avar and Slavic storms and, thanks to the sea and river connections with Constantinople, were able to hold out for a long time. Chronicles around 625 tell of an Eastern Roman fortress commander in Singidunum. But Roman settlements also stayed on navigable tributaries of the Danube, such as today's Veliko Tarnowo on the Jantra , where a 7th-century church is located. Even if the cities exerted a certain attraction on the Slavic tribes, these alone were too weak for Romanization or Hellenization, especially since they were no longer poleis in the ancient sense, but kastra , fortresses with little economic life and even less cultural life. A strong military presence would have been required to secure the routes between the cities across the board and enable them to flourish again. Byzantium was unable to raise this commitment because of the onset of Islamic expansion . Rather, Byzantium was only able to transform the sovereignty over the Balkan Slavs into a de facto rule for a limited time and place. Nevertheless, some cities along the Danube and its tributaries in Moesia retained their Roman character until the invasion of the Proto-Bulgarians , a Turkic people , in 679 and were still under Byzantine rule up to this point. The fact that the Proto-Bulgarians initially used a kind of deranged Greek as the official and administrative language shows that there were Roman populations and administrative structures in Moesia even after 679 . Only then did the remnants of the Roman population merge with the Slavs and Proto-Bulgarians, which is still evident today, among other things, from the names of places and waters, for example Niš / Naissus, Jantra / Iatrus, Ossam / Asamus, Iskar / Oescus, and the lack of layers of destruction from the former Roman settlements can be read. This amalgamation took place under the rule of the Proto-Bulgarians and was thus withdrawn from the Byzantine control. The consequence was a Slavicization, which is why today's Bulgarian belongs to the Slavic languages.

In central Albania there was another, initially completely neglected population group that had even retained their pre-Romanic language over the many centuries of Roman rule and from which the present-day Albanians evidently emerged . In Dalmatia, on the other hand, Romance idioms ( Dalmatian ) persisted until the end of the 19th century. In the Dinaric mountain region , the Mauro Wallachians were Slavicized in the 18th century, and they are considered ancestors of the Istrian Romanians . In Macedonia, the ancestors of today survived Vlachs as transhumance be operated nomadic shepherds , possibly reinforced by the 680 Sermesianoi , descendants of the Romans deported to Pannonia. It is still controversial today whether the Romanians also descended from the remnants of the Roman provincial population south of the Danube, according to the migration theory developed by Robert Rösler ; see. on the controversy about the origin, however, the Dako-Romance theory of continuity . The origin of the Megleno- Romanians living in what is today the Greek-Macedonian border area is also unclear . It has also been very controversial for a long time how strong the Slavic influence was in Greece; Jakob Philipp Fallmerayer already represented an extreme position on this , who assumed that the modern Greeks were not descendants of the ancient Hellenes, but ethnic Slavs who had only adopted the Greek language in the Middle Byzantine period. The ancient Greeks, on the other hand, were exterminated by the Slavs in the early Middle Ages. To this day, no agreement has been reached in research on this controversial and politically sensitive question.

All in all, the decline of Roman power was probably a slow process with a certain ups and downs. Byzantium used every opportunity to subdue Slavs in slave lines (Greece and Thrace) and partially to relocate to Asia Minor . Since there have always been larger cities here, rehellenization succeeded - delayed by two centuries due to the further influx of Slavic populations and even a temporary Slavicization of Greeks. The extent of the Slavization and Rehellenization led Fallmerayer to the mentioned thesis that the modern Greeks are exclusively Hellenized Slavs, which today is hardly represented in this extremity. The fact is, however, that - especially in view of the instability of ethnic identities in late antiquity and the early Middle Ages - there was an integration of Slavic elements into Greco-Byzantine society, which, with the counter-emperor Thomas , almost brought a Slav to the Byzantine throne.

See also


  • Florin Curta: The Making of the Slavs. History and Archeology of the Lower Danube Region, c. 500-700. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge / New York 2001.
  • Walter Pohl : The Avars. 2nd edition, CH Beck, Munich 2002.
  • Michael Whitby : The Emperor Maurice and his Historian. Theophylact Simocatta on Persian and Balkan Warfare. Clarendon Press, Oxford 1988.
  • Franz Georg Maier (ed.): Byzanz (= Fischer Weltgeschichte . Volume 13). Fischer Taschenbuch, Frankfurt am Main 1973, p. 139 ff.
  • Spiros Vryonis: The evolution of Slavic society and the Slavic invasions in Greece. The first major Slavic attack on Thessaloniki, AD 597. In: Hesperia 50, 1981, p. 378 ff.
  • Michael Weithmann: The Slavic population on the Greek peninsula. A contribution to the historical ethnography of Southeast Europe . R. Trofenik, Munich 1978. ISBN 3-87828-124-2 .


  1. a b c d Franz Georg Maier (Ed.): Byzanz . Fischer Weltgeschichte Vol. 13. Frankfurt a. M. 1973, page 139 ff.
  2. Fundamental is now Alexander Sarantis: Justinian's Balkan Wars. Campaigning, Diplomacy and Development in Illyricum, Thace and the Northern World AD 527-65. Prenton 2016.
  3. Walter Pohl: The Avars . 2nd edition, CH Beck, Munich 2002, pp. 105-107.
  4. ^ Michael Whitby, The Emperor Maurice and his Historian. Theophylact Simocatta on Persian and Balkan Warfare. Clarendon Press, Oxford 1988.
  5. Florin Curta: The Making of the Slavs. History and Archeology of the Lower Danube Region, c. 500-700. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge / New York 2001, p. 189 with additional information