South Slavs, Relationship with Byzantium

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The South Slavs are a subgroup of Slavic peoples who speak the South Slavic languages. They inhabit a contiguous region in the Balkan Peninsula, southern Pannonian Plain and eastern Alps, and are geographically separated from the body of West Slavic and East Slavic people by the Romanians, Hungarians, and Austrians. They include the Bosniaks, Bulgarians, Croats, Macedonians, Montenegrins, Serbs, and Slovenes. They are the main population of the Central and Southern European countries of Bulgaria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Republic of Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia


Byzantine literary accounts (i.e. John of Ephesus, etc.) mention the Slavs raiding areas of Greece during the 580s. According to later sources such as The Miracles of Saint Demetrius, the Drougoubitai, Sagoudatai, Belegezitai, Baiounetai, and Berzetai laid siege to Thessaloniki in 614-616. However, this particular event was in actuality of local significance. A combined effort of the Avars and Slavs two years later also failed to take the city. In 626, a combined Avar, Bulgar and Slav army besieged Constantinople. The siege was broken, which had repercussions upon the power and prestige of the Avar khanate. Slavic pressure on Thessaloniki ebbed after 617/618, until the Siege of Thessalonica (676–678) by a coalition of Rynchinoi, Sagoudatai, Drougoubitai and Stroumanoi attacked. This time, the Belegezites also known as the Velegeziti did not participate and in fact supplied the besieged citizens of Thessaloniki with grain.

A number of medieval sources attest to the presence of Slavs in Greece. While en route to the Holy Land in 732, Willibald "reached the city of Monemvasia, in the land of Slavinia". This particular passage from the Vita Willibaldi is interpreted as an indication of a Slavic presence in the hinterland of the Peloponnese.Fine 1983, p. 62 In reference to the plague of 744-747, Constantine VII wrote during the 10th century that "the entire country [of the Peloponnese] was Slavonized". Another source for the period, the Chronicle of Monemvasia speaks of Slavs overrunning the western Peloponnese, but of the eastern Peloponnese, together with Athens, remaining in Byzantine hands throughout this period.Fine 1983, p. 61 However, such sources are far from ideal, and their reliability is debated. For example, while the Byzantinist Peter Charanis believes the Chronicle of Monemvasia to be a reliable account, other scholars point out that it greatly overstates the impact of the Slavic and Avar raids of Greece during this time.

Max Vasmer, a prominent linguist and Indo-Europeanist, complements late medieval historical accounts by listing 429 Slavic toponyms from the Peloponnese alone. To what extent the presence of these toponyms reflects compact Slavic settlement is a matter of some debate, and might represent an accumulative strata of toponyms rather than beingattributed to the earliest settlement phase

Though medieval chroniclers attest to Slavic "hordes" occupying Byzantine territories, archaeological evidence of actual Slavic presence and its dating is today debated. Florin Curta points out that evidence of substantial Slavic presence does not appear before the 7th centuryCurta 2001, p. 308 and remains qualitatively different from the "Slavic culture" found north of the Danube. Some authors point to the rapid adoption of local Balkanic cultures by early Slav-speaking groups in specific areas such as Dalmatia. There, investigations of burial graves and cemetery types indicate an uninterrupted continuity of traditions from late antiquity, reflecting a contiguous demographic spread that chronologically matches with the arrival of Slavic-speaking groups. Furthermore, when medieval sources speak of places "going to the Slavs", this could primarily mean that Byzantine authority disappeared, not that these regions had witnessed large-scalemigration; doubtless many local people simply governed themselves.Fine 1983, p. 63 Indeed, in the wake of Roman collapse, communities in the Balkan interior and hinterland essentially "became Slavs" by creating new identities and adopting a new language, oriented toward east-central Europe rather than the Graeco-Mediterranean world. As Timothy Gregory surmises:

Relations between the Slavs and Greeks were probably peaceful apart from the (supposed) initial settlement and intermittent uprisings. Being agriculturalists, the Slavs probably traded with the Greeks inside towns. Furthermore, the Slavs surely did not occupy the whole interior or eliminate the Greek population; some Greek villages continued to exist in the interior, probably governing themselves, possibly paying tribute to the Slavs. Some villages were probably mixed, and quite possibly some degree of Hellenization of the Slavs by the Greeks of the Peloponnese had already begun during this period, before re-Hellenization was completed by the Byzantine emperors.

When the Byzantines were not fighting in their eastern territories, they were able to slowly regain imperial control. This was achieved through its theme system, referring to an administrative province on which an army corps was centered, under the control of a strategos ("general").Fine 1983, p. 70 The theme system first appeared in the early 7th century, during the reign of the Emperor Heraclius, and as the Byzantine Empire recovered, it was imposed on all areas that came under Byzantine control. The first Balkan theme created was that in Thrace, in 680 AD. By 695, a second theme, that of "Hellas" (or "Helladikoi"), was established, probably in eastern central Greece. Subduing the Slavs in these themes was simply a matter of accommodating the needs of the Slavic elites and providing them with incentives for their inclusion into the imperial administration.

It was not until 100 years later that a third theme would be established. In 782-784, the eunuch general Staurakios campaigned from Thessaloniki, south to Thessaly and into the Peloponnese.Fine 1983, p. 79 He captured many Slavs and transferred them elsewhere, mostly Anatolia (these Slavs were dubbed Slavesians). However it is not known whether any territory was restored to imperial authority as result of this campaign, though it is likely some was. Sometime between 790 and 802, the theme of Macedonia was created, centered on Adrianople (i.e. east of the actual geographic entity). A serious and successful recovery began under Nicephorus I (802-811). In 805, the theme of the Peloponnese was created.Fine 1983, p. 80 According to the Chronicle of Monemvasia in 805 the Byzantine governor of Corinth went to war with the Slavs, obliterated them, and allowed the original inhabitants to claim their own; the city of Patras was recovered and the region re-settled with Greeks.Fine 1983, p. 82 In the 9th century, new themes continued to arise, although many were small and were carved out of original, larger themes. New themes in the 9th century included those of Thessalonica, Dyrrhachium, Strymon, and Nicopolis.Fine 1983, p. 83 From these themes, Byzantine laws and culture flowed into the interior. By the end of the 9th century most of Greece was culturally and administratively Greek again, with the exception of a few small Slavic tribes in the mountains such as the Melingoi and Ezeritai. Although they were to remain relatively autonomous until Ottoman times, such tribes were the exception rather than the rule.

Apart from military expeditions against Slavs, the re-Hellenization process begun under Nicephorus I involved (often forcible) transfer of peoples. Many Slavs were moved to other parts of the empire, such as Anatolia and made to serve in the military. In return, many Greeks from Sicily and Asia Minor were brought to the interior of Greece, to increase the number of defenders at the Emperor's disposal and dilute the concentration of Slavs. Even non-Greeks were transferred to the Balkans, such as Armenians. As more of the peripheral territories of the Byzantine Empire were lost in the following centuries, e.g. Sicily, southern Italy and Asia Minor, their Greek-speakers made their own way back to Greece. That the re-Hellenization of Greece through population transfers and cultural activities of the Church was successful suggests Slavs found themselves in the midst of many Greeks. It is doubtful that such large number could have been transplanted into Greece in the 9th century; thus there surely had been many Greeks remaining in Greece and continuing to speak Greek throughout the period of Slavic occupation. The success of re-Hellenization also suggests the number of Slavs in Greece was far smaller than the numbers found in the former Yugoslavia and Bulgaria. For example, Bulgaria could not be Hellenized when Byzantine administration was established over the Bulgarians in 1018 to last for well over a century, until 1186.

Eventually, the Byzantines recovered the imperial border north all the way to today's region of Macedonia (which would serve as the northern border of the Byzantine Empire until 1018), although independent Slavic villages remained. As the Slavs supposedly occupied the entire Balkan interior, Constantinople was effectively cut off from the Dalmatian cities under its (nominal) control.Fine 1983, p. 65 Thus Dalmatia came to have closer ties with the Italian Peninsula, because of ability to maintain contact by sea (however, this too, was troubled by Slavic pirates). Additionally, Constantinople was cut off from Rome, which contributed to the growing cultural and political separation between the two centers of European Christendom.

Control of the Slavic tribes was nominal, as they retained their own culture and language. However, the Slavic tribes of Macedonia never formed their own empire or state, and the area often switched between Greek (Byzantine), Bulgarian, Serbian and temporarily even Norman control. The Byzantines were unable to completely Hellenize Macedonia because their progress north was blocked by the Bulgarian Empire, and later by the Serbian Kingdom, which were both Slavic states. However, Byzantine culture nonetheless flowed further north, seen to this day as Bulgaria, the Republic of Macedonia, and Serbia are part of the Orthodox world. Even in Dalmatia, where Byzantine influence was supplanted by Venice and Rome, the influence of Byzantine culture persists.

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