Slavic expansion to the Balkans.part1
Most people think of Slavs as having slowly moved across the continent and in the process colonizing new lands. However, Peter Heather in his “Empires and Barbarians” gives some examples which prove the contrary – he shows a rapid speed of Slavic expansion.
In 543, the Langobard duke Hildigis attacked Eastern Roman forces with 6000 warriors, most of whom were Sclavenes (ancestors of southern Slavs). According to Peter Heather, he had probably recruited those mercenaries from Moravia (archaeology confirms the presence of Slavs in Moravia and in parts of north-western Bohemia – archaeological site at Březno, dated ca. 550 AD).
It must be noted that until around 568 (the first Avar invasion), Pannonia was occupied by Langobards and Gepids. Only half a century later – in 593 and 595 – Slavs were already invading Bavaria on one side and Thracia on another. This means that in around 50 years they advanced 250 kilometers westward and about 1400km south.
The portrayal of Slavs as peaceful farmers is not correct. Their main god was a god of war – Svetovid. As for the Balkans, the Slavic advance was also rapid, but they initially mostly plundered, and did not settle until later. The first Slavic settlements in the Balkans south of the Danube were established already in mid-6th century.
Slavs were raiding and plundering Roman lands from their territories north of the Danube river located in what is now southern Romania since around the 490s, but they started to settle south of the Danube (in Balkans “proper”) only since around 545. First settlements from ca. 545 – 550 were established in eastern Bosnia, Lower and Upper Moesia, and Little Scythia – including the regions of Ulmetum and Adina. Around the same time (ca. 550), the first Slavic immigrants probably reached what is now Slovenia (they could be the same tribe that had besieged Durazzo in 547).
The second wave of Slavs came to Slovenia after 568 (this time from the north, most probably from Moravia).
According to John of Ephesus and Menander Protector, another major wave of Slavs (Menander wrote that their strength was 100,000, but he didn’t specify whether that included only warriors or all people) broke into Thrace and Thessaly as far as the Great Walls of Constantinople in the period of 577 – 580, and settled in vast areas. Sources say that those Slavs were led by a war chief named Ardagast or Radogost (Ардагаст), and a “king” named Musokios(his real name had to be different). In 580, Slavs invaded Greece and sacked the city of Athens, for which there is archaeological evidence (other sources indicate that Slavs started to settle in Attica and only one generation later in the Peloponnesus, around 610 – but as I wrote before, it is possible that initially they had only raided and plundered, and started to settle later).
In 583, Slavs reached the southern part of the Peloponnesus. The Greek population fled to Laconia, establishing a refugium in Monemvasia. In 599, Pope Gregory I, in a letter to the Exarch of Italy, wrote that the Slavs had already seized most of Istria, and were raiding the Italian Peninsula. After these invasions by the Slavs, in 584 AD, the Byzantine Emperor Maurice sent emissaries to the Khagan of the Avars – Bayan I, asking him for help against the Slavs. The Avars initially worked as Byzantine allies against the Slavs. In 584, Radogost with his Slavs besieged Constantinople but was repulsed by combined Byzantine-Avar forces, and later lost two more battles against the Byzantine and Avar forces led by a certain Comentiolus (the battle of Erginia River and the battle of Ansinon, near Hadrianopole). Comentiolus also expelled the Slavic settlers out of the region of Astica.
In 585, the Byzantines-Avars decided to attack the original South Slavic lands across the Danube – the forces under command of Priscus and Gentzon crossed the river at Dorostolon (present-day Silistra) and surprise-attacked the Slavs in their native territory, as most of their forces had been campaigning in the Byzantine part of the Balkans for a long time. They attacked at midnight and defeated the Slavs, and Radogost fell on a tree stump and was almost captured. Luckily, he was near a river and evaded the attackers. But later the alliances switched – the Avars abandoned their Byzantine allies and instead started to cooperate with the Slavs, having subordinated some of their tribes, most notably the southern branch of the Dudlebes, and having signed alliances with other tribes. So the conquest and colonization of most of the Balkans by the Slavs could have later anyway be completed with Avar help in the early 600s.
“(…) In third year after the death of Emperor Justin, during the reign of victorious Tiberius, the damned nation of the Slavs has risen, and marching through entire Hellas, through lands of Thessaly and Thrace, captured many cities and strongholds, plundered, burned and robbed, seized the land and settled there with full ease, without fear, like in their own land. (…) they were plundering the country, burning it and robbing, as far as the Great Walls [of Constantinople], and this is how they captured many thousands of cattle, as well as many other kinds of booty. (…) Until today, that is until year 584, they still continue to live in peace in lands of the Rhomaioi, without fear and concern, plundering, murdering and burning, getting rich and highjacking gold and silver, capturing horses and plenty of weapons; and they have learned to fight better than the Rhomaioi. (…)”
In our next article we will cover what Byzantine historians wrote about Slavic brutality.
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