The role of the Slavs within the Byzantine empire, 500-1018

Michael David Graebner






The advent of the Slavs marks a new stage in Byzantine history. Unlike previous invaders of the Later Roman Empire such as the Germanic tribes, the Slavs have remained in the Balkan Peninsula. Many historians, in describing the process of migration and settlement, assumed that the Slav's success was the result of superior military ability. This idea had its basis in a mixture of Pan-Slavism and incorrect analogy with previous invading tribes like the Germans. Incomplete utilization of the primary sources heightened this misapprehension. A close examination of the contemporary account reveals the opposite, that the Slavs of the sixth century were militarily unsophisticated and politically fragmented.


The effectiveness of the Slavic invasion of the Balkan was, ironically, due to this lack of coherence. The empire was compelled by circumstance to face, not a single concerted attack, but widespread and ill-defined inroads in imperial lands. Because the Slavs were poorly armed, they preferred the hit-and-run tactics now associated with guerilla warfare. This mode of combat spread over a large and topographically varied geographical area





required of Byzantium substantial expenditure of men and equipment. Unfortunately, the empire was undergoing a serious demographic crisis and so could not afford the resources necessary to halt the Slavic migration.


During the reign of Maurice (582-602), an attempt was made to stem the tide of Slavic advance. Several campaigns were undertaken and success was achieved in reducing Slavic infiltration. The whole program of Maurice collapsed when he was overthrown and killed by Phocas. By the middle of the seventh century, much of the Balkan Peninsula was in Slavic hands.


Social organization among the Slavs, during this era of settlement, was changing. Along with some improvement in military technique and armament, tribal aristocracy begins to make its appearance. Improved martial ability and differentiation in the social order are both due to the influence of Byzantium. In spite of these changes, the Slavic tribes were unable to unite and form a single state. They remained, at least upon imperial lands, separate units.


In 657 an imperial counter-offensive began. Its objective was the recovery of a portion of former Byzantine lands. Reassertion of power on the part of the empire did not mean, in this case, the expulsion of the Slavs. Byzantium allowed Slavs to remain as tributaries. It did so on account of the rising power of the Bulgars, an Altaic people to the Northeast, who threatened to unify Slavic tribes under their control. The empire





preferred having this numerous body of Slavs in its sphere of influence rather than as auxiliaries of the often hostile Bulgars. It was in this manner that the Slavs came to be numbered in the empire.


To augment its population in other regions and possibly to reduce the Slav ratio in imperial Europe, the empire transferred Slavs to Asia Minor. The first area of transplantation in Asia Minor seems to have been in the region of Loulon, close to the Arab-Byzantine frontier. Later, in 688 and 762, Slavs were settled in Bithynia. Even though sizable numbers of Slavs defected (665 and 692) to the Arabs, Byzantium maintained a significant Slavic Population in Asia Minor throughout the latter half of the seventh century. Although precise figures are often uncertain, it is reasonably well established that over a quarter of a million Slavs were settled in Asia Minor by the end of the eighth century. This number includes a transfer, at one point (762), of 208,000 Slavs, the largest single body of people ever moved by the empire at one time.


The appearance of Slavs within the Byzantine Army has given rise to the supposition that they were placed in Asia Minor primarily for military purposes. This hypothesis is not entirely correct because Slavs were, with only one exception, never placed near frontier regions as defensive forces. Formed during the reign of Justinian II, the "Supernumerary Corps" indicates that Slavs were not fully prepared for enrollment in Byzantine armies since they





needed to be trained and armed, thus several years after their transfer to Asia Minor. The "Supernumerary Corps'" record also shows that, after their defection to the Arabs in 692, their effectiveness as a combat unit was due to their "Training in Roman Arms." It is true that Slavs, by adding manpower to imperial armies, improved the strategic position of the empire.


Related to an over-generous estimation of Slavic military ability is a completely erroneous nineteenth-century Russian theory that Slavic communal property ownership created the essential conditions upon which Byzantine strength was based during the period 700-1100. The Farmer’s Law, once considered proof of Slavic communal ownership, and therefore of Slavic importance, has been shown not to contain evidence of this form of land tenure. In a similar manner other important institutions essential for the survival of the Middle Byzantine State, such as the Thematic system, antedate the era of Slavic colonization and possible Slavic influence.


In Asia Minor the Slavs did not remain autonomous, but were integrated into the imperial system. By the first quarter of the ninth century they were well on the road to assimilation. All of the evidence indicates that Byzantinization was the result of several related factors. Geographical isolation from the main body of Slavs In Europe combined with location in Bithynia, then the greatest monastic center in Asia Minor, hastened the acculturation process.





Added to this was the incorporation of Slavs into the Thematic system where the army acted as an agent of Byzantinization, and the Slav's own desire to partake of the riches offered by imperial position. The evidence of several Slavs' careers shows that they played a wide variety of roles within the state.


Slavs inhabiting Byzantine Europe differed considerably from those of Asia Minor. Integration, much less assimilation, was uncertain and sporadic. This was in part due to the slowness of imperial reconquest. Although military action was initiated in 657, it continued fitfully against the Slav until the end of the eighth century. Even after the reestablishment of imperial control, Byzantium did little more than collect tribute and maintain basic order. The Slavic tribes were able to remain semi-autonomous. They also had an additional advantage in the Balkans of direct contact with other Slavonic groupings outside of Imperial borders.


Byzantinization in the Balkans received active opposition from another quarter. The Bulgarian state, which, to extend its sphere of influence over the South Slavs, periodically disrupted Byzantine cultural and political institutions. The campaigns of Tsars Symeon and Samuel were particularly destructive in this regard because they both succeeded in disorganizing the Greek-speaking population as far south as the Gulf of Corinth. The establishment of a school of Slavic letters at Ohrid during the





course of the ninth century had an additional anti-Byzantine effect by providing a literature in Slavic rather than Greek.


Nevertheless, some Byzantinization did occur in Europe. In spite of Bulgarian incursions, many semiautonomous Slavs were loyal to the empire as their aid in the defense of Thessalonica (904) highlights. The case of the Peloponnesian land magnate, Nicetas Rentakios, shows that certain Slavs had forsaken their past ties and become totally Byzantine. Still this was, during the era 500-1018, an incomplete process. Regions such as Greece and the Peloponnesus were regarded as secondary in importance by imperial authorities. Where there existed a considerable Greek population in relation to the Slavs Byzantinization did take place, but stimuli for the Slavs to assimilate, namely, geographical isolation and numbers of monks dedicated to proselytization, were missing. As a consequence Slavs often remained autonomous units within imperial borders.


Regardless of the Slav's mixed fate in Byzantine Europe, the empire absorbed a considerable number. Considering the widespread relations between Byzantium and the Slavs, the paucity of Slavic traces in Byzantine life is noteworthy. Linguistic evidence does show that, during the Middle Byzantine Period, the Slavs contributed several loanwords and one diminutive formant to the Greek language. Apart from the areas in Greece where they occur, Slavic





toponyms have little significance because they speak only of local settlement. Beyond this there exists virtually nothing in Byzantine civilization to show that Slavs ever lived or were integrated into the empire.


Slavic relations within Byzantium had profound importance in another area. By their interaction with Byzantium, the Slavs became very aware of Byzantine culture and this resulted not only in the Byzantinization of a large segment of the imperial Slavonic population, but also in a profound transformation of Slavic culture outside of imperial bounds. Lacking a Slavic population, the empire could not have made the permanent impress upon the South and East Slavic world. Byzantium's internal success in the conversion of its Slavs lent effectiveness to its efforts to convert the rest of Slavdom. It is here that the most effectual role of the Slav within the Byzantine empire from 500 to 1018 is to be found.


For the empire itself it must be concluded that the Slavs played an important, but secondary, role. Byzantium could have survived without the addition of Slavic population, but its survival was considerably facilitated by the productive and willing manpower which the Slav so abundantly provided. Byzantium's later influence in the Slavic world was made more effective by its earlier relations with Slavic tribes, and its intimate exposure Slavic culture and politics. For both Slav and Byzantine the interchange proved of lasting value.


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