Slavic Conquest of Macedonia
The Tribes of Macedonia
The earliest historical sources mentioning a Slavic conquest of Macedonia come from the Byzantine historian John from Efez, who, in 581 AD, wrote:
“They lived on the peninsula freely, without fear, enriched by gold and silver, horses and weapons, they learned to fight better than the Romans themselves.”
The territories they had conquered were called “Sklavinia” in Byzantine sources. There were several major tribes on the Macedonian territory: Drugobites, Berzites, Sagudati, Strumiani, Baionitai and Smolyani.
There were two distinct branches of Drugobites mentioned in the sources, one living in medieval Macedonia to the North and East of Thessaloniki and around Veroia (in modern Greece), while the other lived in Thrace, around Philippopolis (modern-day Plovdiv in Bulgaria).
The Rhodope mountains, the valley of the Mesta River and the region around Blagoevgrad Province was settled by the Smolyani.
The dale of Struma was taken by the Strumiani tribe, who, according to Aleksandar Donski, were a Western Slavic tribe and had come from Silesia.
Chalkidiki and the nearby Thessaloniki were taken by the Rhynchinoi, who formed a Sklavinia there under a king named Perboundos, during the mid 7th century. Rhynchinoi could easily be the most powerful Slavic tribe on the Macedonian territory, and according to Traian Stoianovich, there was a slight chance of them being Slavo-Avaric, even though it was most likely that they were a pure Slavic tribe. After Perboundos was arrested and executed by Byzantine authorities, the
Rhynchines rose up and allied themselves with two other nearby sklaviniai, those of the Sagudates and the Drugubites, and launched an unsuccessful siege of Thessaloniki.
Berziti, who were an Eastern Slavic tribe, settled in the area of Ochryd and Bitola.
Sagudati settled the area between Thessaloniki and Veria.
Further west, the region north of Ioannina in northern Epirus, was populated by the Baionitai in the 7th century.
The Belegezites lived in the area of Thessaly. According to the Miracles of Saint Demetrius, they were settled around Demetrias and Phthiotic Thebes on the northern shores of the Pagasetic Gulf. The same area is still called Belechatouia. One of the leaders of the tribe in the late 7th century was named Tihomir; this name has also been found on artifacts of the same period.
The kind of life Slavs in Macedonia and Thrace led at the time is recorded mainly by Teophanes and Anastasij Biblitekar. The Slavs who settled in Macedonia were organized in social structures which were typical for their culture – they were united into dynasties (Ród), which shared common bloodlines, and clans, which were combined into territorial city and village unions. Akin to other Western Slavs as far as Pomerania, the clan was patriarchal and the families monogamous, even though the wealthiest tribesman was allowed to have many wives (we explained the reason for that custom in our article about the Pomeranian family). Generally their customs were exactly the same as those of Western Slavs: slaves were treated much more humanely than in most other places in the world, they worked with their owners instead of for them, and they could be freed after some time to become a part of the society. Over time, the society was becoming less reliant on blood-related structures, and the wealthiest people and the bravest of warriors started turning into local aristocracy. Still, this evolution was very slow and social divisions were not that discernible.
Every “Sklavinia” was controlled by one tribe. Their political system was a tribal democracy where every adult free man was allowed and encouraged to participate in the decision making. There was indeed the notion of the Elders, which consisted not only of people of old age but also of wealthy tribesmen and sometimes famous warriors. In later years, the Elders started to form something similar to aristocracy; for example, they were choosing the Prince from among themselves. Yet, in the most important or critical cases, the main decision making body was the Great Gathering, mentioned by Constantinus VII as late as the 10th century! From all this, we may see that Southern Slavs remained Western Slavs till the 10th century or even later. The 10th century is the watershed when smaller tribes merge into bigger and stronger ones, modern nations are born (in a way) and Slavic languages start parting their own ways more rapidly than ever before. Macedonian Slavic tribes got conquered by powerful Bulgarian state but as a plot twist Bulgaria accepted their language and culture, which was better than being conquered by Byzantium.
Outside aggression was both a positive stimulus for technological and military development and the reason why Sklavinia wasn’t united into a single country for a much longer time than it should have. Constant wars were the reason why there was no environment for forming a bigger multi-tribe state. They were uniting for wars but had no opportunities to unite politically
The most basic field of economy was, of course, farming. The farming technology of the locals was not much different to that of their masters, so it remained ancient styled. After exhausting the ground in one spot, the farmers would move to another spot. The tools used for farming were the same all over medieval Europe. One difference is that beside wheat, they also started growing local kinds of fruits and they started producing wine.
The second most basic part of economy was keeping livestock. They were able to keep enormous amounts of cattle thanks to the inextinguishable sources of fields to feed them. South Slavs kept horses, pigs, sheep, goats, chickens, geese and ducks. Hunting was also one of the permanent sources of meat, hide and furs. The most common foods were meat, milk, soups, fruits and fish. Honey production was increasingly going up. Clothes were made from many different types of materials, ranging from linen, through cotton, to leather and wearable hides.
Another important part of economy, naturally, consisted of artisans and craftsmen. Obviously, blacksmiths were particularly essential, but also shoe and clothes makers. As early as the 7th century, they created something similar to the guilds, which allowed people to acquire high amounts of knowledge and specialize in the most essential crafts. The Rhynchinoi tribe were also mining and started working on new techniques for metallurgy.
Gods and the Otherworld
The main local Gods were Stribog – the God of the wind; Perun – the God of thunder; and Veles – the God of the underworld and cattle. Some sources claim that Dażbog was a solar god for Slavic Macedonians.
It is also worth mentioning the cult of the ancestors, who were believed to be helping and protecting their families. In order to make sure their deceased family members don’t return as ghosts or as the undead, Slavs in Macedonia would practice cyclical sacrificial rituals over their graves. The bodies were burned on a funeral pyre, and the ashes were then inserted into the graves in vases. The graves were finally filled with tools, weapons and equipment that the deceased might make use of after death.
“Adapt and Conquer”
Life on the Balkans was, in general, neither peaceful nor easy for Slavs. Fighting virtually incessantly forced them to make quick changes and stimulated a never-ending evolution in military tactics and technology. Slavs were known to have been able to adapt to and live in the harshest of conditions. Ancient Slavs of the Balkans were known for their exceptional courage, strength and endurance. Their basic weapons were bow and poisoned arrows, spears and a shield. In earlier times, they used simple “barbarian” warfare methods, but that rapidly changed and in the 6-7th centuries their basic units were already heavy infantry and heavy cavalry. They also rapidly advanced in siege technology, building catapults, bolt-throwers, and siege towers. In need of fast transport through water, they used simple kayaks they would readily make out of wood, which were sometimes also used for raids on islands, and even as far as the Dardanelles.
The Hundred Year War for Thessaloniki
Slavs were usually settling mostly on flatland and near the water, such as lakes and rivers. A rather interesting fact is that they found out use for many of the Roman city technologies, but never used their already built cities.
The hardest fights were probably for Thessaloniki. The city was well fortified because of its military and economical significance to the empire. For nearly a century, the Macedonian tribes tried to get behind the city’s strong walls, even with the help of Avars. The first battle took place in 584 AD, and the second one only two years later. In 616 AD, the Macedonians waged war against the city again, under the brave Prince Hacon who was fighting alongside his men. The preparations for this battle started two years prior, when Slavic Macedonian warriors started plundering the coast and waging pirate raids on the sea. The main attack came from the sea. The attackers were so certain of victory that they actually took their families with them to immediately resettle the city after the conquest. Prince Hacon was in the front lines, and ended up captured and executed by the enemy.
However, the Slavic warriors didn’t lose momentum. They attacked again just two years later, this time with the aid of the Avars, who were, however, nоt used to laying long sieges, and having become bored, left after 33 days. It was not until decades later that they returned for more. In 674, a tribal federation, rather similar in form to those found among Polabians, was lead by Prince Predąb (also Prvud) of the Rhynchinoi tribe. He was killed in an ambush, which was too much for the Slavs this time. The federation of Strumiani, Sagudati and Rhynchinoi tribes encircled Thessaloniki and held it under siege for two years. The last description of fighting comes from the year 677; but even then, this stronghold remained impenetrable. Thessaloniki was to become Slavic not by war and killing, but more slowly and naturally, through social changes and economy.
From the Sea of Blood
Ancient Slavic Macedonians had to face a very dangerous enemy – the Byzantine Empire, probably Europe’s strongest military force of the 7th century. At first, they were the aggressors; but over time, as they settled and made homes in the conquered lands, the Empire brought war to their doorstep.
In 658 AD, Basileus Constans II forced the local Slavs to pay him tributes and to lend him aid against his enemies. He also permanently resettled a part of the army to Asia Minor to guard the Empire’s borders against the Arab hordes. When the Proto-Bulgars arrived, things got even more complicated for Balkan Slavs. The Bulgars entered the Balkans with a big kick on the door. Even though the Balkans was officially controlled by the Eastern Roman Empire, already at the end of the 7th century, that is, not long after their arrival, a new country appeared on the maps – Bulgaria.
The Bulgars were a people similar to the Scythians, Sarmatians, Alans and other nomadic ethnicities. Led by Asparuch, the Bulgars invaded the lands over the Black Sea and snatched the lands of Slavs who were left without any help from the Empire. The Bulgars lost no time in creating a new state, with the capital located in Pliska. In 680, Asparuch invaded Thrace. Ceasar Constantinus IV, fearing their further expansion, agreed to recognize the state of Bulgaria, sign peace and pay tribute himself. This display of weakness only strengthened the appetite of the Bulgars. Their ambitions led them further west, to Macedonia. While the Empire was showing strength towards its own citizens, it proved weak against the proud outsiders.
Justinian II, who managed to save Thrace from the Bulgars, instead of bringing war to their land, decided to make some social engineering in Macedonia. He resettled dozens of thousands of Macedonians to Asia Minor for protection and at the same time moved the local Asian colonists to Macedonia. Among them were such odd multi-ethnical “nations” as the tribe of Khan Kuvera, which was a mix of Bulgars, Vlachs (Pre-Slavic Balkan population) and Slavs, a nation which found refuge in the Empire after escaping Avar oppression. Resettlement was sadly practiced quite often on those territories. Non-Slavic groups were sent to Macedonia numerous times.
Ironically, the Bulgars weakened themselves during the rule of Telec who started displacing bigger numbers of Slavs than anybody before him. Constantinus V, just like his predecessors, showed strength only in the face of a weak enemy. He was sending his armies against Bulgars and Macedonians simultaneously. The Macedonians repaid him by raiding and enslaving great numbers of his citizens, which he had to buy out. The Slavs officially accepted the Emperor as their ruler only when he started treating them as real part of the Empire. This happened when the Bulgarian ruler Telerig wanted to take over the north-Macedonian Sklavinia of Berziti. Constantinus V protected Macedonians from 12 thousand Bulgarians sent for conquest.
This considerate behavior towards Balkan Slavs was merely an episode in 200 years of constant struggles of the Empire to diminish or eradicate the independence of those northern “barbarians”. Byzantium waged constant wars against Slavs until they succeeded in gaining control over the Sklavinias in Macedonia, Greece and Peloponneses in 783.
The Empire forced their political and administrative solutions upon the Macedonians, dividing the region into so-called “Themes“. A theme called Macedonia stretched through a big part of Thrace. The Eastern Roman Empire placed their “vice-kings” to rule over every administrative unit. It was enforced in entire Macedonia, Epirus, middle Greece and Peloponnese, although they were at the time totally Slavicized. Every time the Bulgars attacked Macedonia, the basileus would react in the same way: he would send an army against the Bulgars, and then resettle Macedonians nearer to the border, and place some strange ethnic mixes in the place of the Slavic pagans. Nikefor I, who ruled between 802 and 811, wanted to strengthen his power in the Slavic lands by populating the Sklavinias with Christians. Slavs from all over the Balkans were once again sent to the Bulgarian border and Greeks, Armenians and Syrians came to take their place. They were promoted by the authorities by receiving lands and privileges, and were promoted on administrative chairs. One possible goal of the Empire was to destroy Slavic unity and identity and to blend them into the multi-cultural mozaic of the Byzantium. This went so far that former enemies became friends, and Slavs united with the Bulgars against the demoralized, decadent and oppressive Byzantium.
In the 9th century, during the reign of Khan Krum, the power of Bulgaria was at its peak. Following his successful expansions into the territories held by the Avars, as well as some Byzantine land, he helped the Slavs settle the newly acquired areas. Krum made precise plans for his conquest of Constantinople, but he died before being able to put his plans into action. After his death, Bulgaria froze its ambitions for a decade, waiting for the right man to take the place on the throne. A rebellion against Byzantine oppression under the leadership of Thomas the Slav opened the minds of Slavs to the idea of destroying Constantinople hand in hand with the Bulgars. The 9th century saw very few Slavic uprisings on the Balkans, which were usually described as “rivers of blood and fire everywhere around”. When Bulgaria got a new leader, Khan Presjan (836-852), called Zwinica by the Slavs, the Bulgars used Arab incursions and Slavic revolts to take the upper hand against Byzantium. They conquered northern Macedonia, and in 847 forced the Emperor to renounce his claims to those lands. During the rule of Boris, they continued the war for the rest of Macedonia and it became a Bulgarian province. Yet it was far away from being occupied – Bulgaria became rapidly Slavicized from the inside. That will be covered with more details in another article.
Next time on Pomeranian Chronicles, we will cover the topics of early medieval Pomeranian society, family and slaves. We would like to thank Marek Kalisiński who has contributed to Slavic Chronicles by sharing his photos. Please check out his other work here.