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2: The Slavs and Their Neighbors

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Eastern Europe is sometimes called Western Eurasia. This is correct, however, only with regard to the frontier region of geographical Europe which was outside the historical European community. And so far as prehistory is concerned, we may consider as Eurasian that eastern part of the great European Plain which was inhabited by non-European peoples whose closest kin were living in Asia. These peoples were the eastern neighbors of the Slavs, whose own original home, situated in the heart of Europe, could hardly be included in any Eurasia.

It is possible, however, that the Balto-Slavic homeland in East Central Europe was at a very early date partly occupied by some of the Finnish tribes which, having been gradually pushed back, remained the northeastern neighbors of both Balts and Slavs until the present. These tribes of Mongol race were in general on a lower level of culture and without any political organization. Such of them as lived nearest to the Baltic Coast became closely associated with the Indo-European Balts and developed more successfully than the others. In that region tribes of Baltic and Finnish origin are sometimes not easy to distinguish. The name Aestii, used by Tacitus, seems to include both of them, and while the Ests of later centuries—the ancestors of the present Estonians—definitely belong to the Finnish group, as do the Livs who gave their name to Livonia where they lived among the Baltic Letts, the question whether the Curs, after whom Curland was named, were of Finnish or Baltic origin is difficult to decide.

Larger and more numerous Finnish tribes were living not only in Finland itself, which does not appear in history before the Swedish conquest in the twelfth century when it first became and for a long time remained associated with Scandinavia, but also in the Volga Basin and north of it as far as the geographical limits of Europe, the Arctic Ocean and the Ural Mountains. The colonization of the Volga region by tribes belonging to the eastern branch of the Slavs, which was to become so important from the eleventh century on, certainly did not start before the seventh or eighth century, and then on a very modest scale. But from the beginning it was a process of absorption and gradual Slavization of the poorly developed Finnish tribes whose names appear, however, in those of some of the earliest Slavic settlements.

Different were the relations between the Slavs and the Eurasian peoples who were living south of the Finns. Those peoples either belonged to the Mongol race, like the Finns, but to its Turkish group, or to the Iranians, that is, to the Asiatic branch of the Indo-European race. In contrast to the rather passive Finns, these peoples of an aggressive character frequently invaded and at least temporarily dominated their Slavic neighbors, even in the prehistoric period. When such invasions were repeated in the later course of history, the Slavs and the Asiatic conquerors, exclusively Turco-Tartars, are easy to distinguish from one another. On the contrary, there is a great deal of confusion with regard to the names which appear in the steppes north of the Black Sea from the Cimmerian period (1000—700B.C.) to the establishment of the Bulgar and Khazar states in the seventh century A.D. The ethnic origin of each of these peoples is highly controversial, and since they all exercised a strong influence upon the eastern Slavs, after controlling them politically, the question has been raised whether even undoubtedly Slavic tribes were not originally under a foreign leadership which would explain some of their rather enigmatic names.

On the other hand, it seemed equally justifiable to look for Slavic elements which might have been included among the leading Eurasian peoples. It is indeed quite possible that when the Cimmerians, of Circassian (Caucasian) or Thracian origin were replaced (700-200 B.C.) as a ruling “superstructure” by the Scythians, that name covered various tribes of different ethnic stock, including Slavs in addition to the leading “Royal Scythians” who were well known to Herodotus and probably of Iranian origin. The same might be said about the Sarmatians who took the place of the Scythians from about 200 B.C. to 200 A.D. Again, most of their tribes, including the Alans, who were the last to come from Asia but who seem to have played a particularly important role in the first centuries of the Christian era, were certainly of Iranian origin. But the loose federation of these Sarmatian tribes probably included Slavic populations also, although later traditions, which saw in the Sarmatians the early ancestors of the Slavs, particularly of the Poles, are of course purely legendary.

The following invasions of the Germanic Goths and of the Mongol Huns, both of whom only temporarily occupied the Slavic territories before crossing the frontiers of the Empire, were of a different character. Better known than their predecessors, neither of these peoples had anything in common with the Slavs and they left no traces in Central or Eastern European history. But some Iranian elements seem to have survived through the Gothic (200—370 A.D.) and Hunnic period (370—454 A.D.). According to recently expressed opinions, some tribes of the Alans continued to control the Azov region where they mixed with the eastern tribes of the Slavic Antes. Even the Croats and Serbs, that is, the leading tribes of the southern branch of the Slavs, as well as their names, would have been of Iranian origin.

Turning from these highly controversial hypotheses to the historical facts of the sixth and seventh centuries, the Avar domination of the eastern and southern Slavs must be stressed as one of the most dangerous of the Asiatic invasions. Coming from Mongolia under the pressure of their Turkish neighbors, the Avars appeared at the gates of Europe, north of the Caucasian region, in 558. They soon became a serious threat to the Eastern Empire, and at the end of the eighth century they were finally defeated by Charlemagne, restorer of the Western Empire. The Slavs, however, who suffered cruelly from these conquerors, had to face another twofold pressure coming from the Eurasian East at the same time.

In the northeast a branch of the Bulgars, a Turco-Ugrian people who at the beginning of the seventh century had created a “Great Bulgarian” Empire in the Don region, established a state in the middle Volga area after the fall of that empire. These Volga Bulgars, who must be distinguished from the main body which moved in the direction of the Balkans, chiefly conquered Finnish territory but for several centuries also remained an obstacle to further Slavic expansion.

Much more important for the Slavs was the foundation of the Khazar “Kaganate” in the southeast. The Khazars were another Asiatic tribe, probably mixed ethnically, which first appeared north of the Caucasus around 570, when they were apparently under Turkish control. After breaking up Great Bulgaria, the Khazars succeeded in creating a large state for themselves. This reached from the Caucasus to the lower Volga and the lower Don and from the very beginning included some Slavic populations. Uniting peoples of various races and religions under their “Khagan,” as their supreme ruler was called, they were eventually converted to the Jewish faith. The Khazars had to fight the Arabs in the Caucasian region and to face the rivalry of Byzantium in the Azov region. But almost simultaneously they also started to advance in the opposite, northwestern, direction. Here they reached the height of their expansion in the first half of the ninth century when they conquered the Slavic tribes which had crossed the Dnieper River. They even reached Kiev and demanded tribute from that area.

The Khazar domination was, however, much milder than any other which these Slavs had known, and it did not remain unchallenged by other invaders of the same territory. When the Khazars first met the opposition of Norman vikings is a moot question which must be studied in connection with the controversial antecedents of the creation of the Kievan state later in the ninth century. But even before that, the Khazars clashed in the Kiev region with the Magyars, an Ugrian (Mongolian) people who stopped there for about three hundred years on their way from the Urals to the Danubian Plain. This was another tribe, though probably less numerous, which ruled over some eastern Slavs before penetrating between the western and southern branch of the Slavic peoples, not without experiencing some Slavic influence.

That Slavic influence proved much stronger in the case of those Bulgars who, instead of moving up the Volga River to the north, proceeded southward toward the lower Danube. Long before the Bulgars crossed that river and penetrated into imperial territory, their clans absorbed so many East Slavic elements that when they settled in the Balkans—not much later than the southern Slavs, the Serbs and Croats—they were already Slavized to a large extent. The role which they played in the history of the eastern Slavs was, however, only temporary and rather limited.

In general, however, it was the eastern branch of the Slavs, first called Antes in the earliest sources and later known under the enigmatic name of Rus, which as a natural consequence of their geographical situation had already had the closest relations with the various Asiatic invaders of eastern Europe in the prehistoric period. These non-European influences, of whatever kind, hardly affected the two other branches of the Slavic people, except through the Avars and Magyars. The western Slavs, especially the descendants of the Venedi, were practically not touched at all.

This basic fact contributed, of course, to the growing differentiation among the three main Slavic groups. But it also created differences within the eastern group itself; between those Antes who remained in the original Slavic homeland in East Central Europe, where they constituted a numerous, native population and easily absorbed any foreign element which passed through their territory, and on the other hand, those Slavic pioneers who penetrated beyond the Dnieper Basin into the vast intermediary region which might be called Eastern Europe or Western Eurasia.

In that region the outposts of the Slavic world were colonists who were scattered among and mixed with Finno-Ugrian, Turkish, or Iranian populations whose number increased through continuous migrations and invasions from Asia. With only the exception of most of the Finnish tribes, all these Eurasian peoples were conquerors, stronger and better organized than the Slavs and therefore in a position to exercise a permanent pressure and influence upon them. The question remained open, therefore, whether that whole area, with its mixed population subject to so many different cultural trends, would ever become historically a part of Europe.


The Germanic or Teutonic peoples were originally divided into three groups or branches, just as were the Slavs, with the difference that, in addition to a western and an eastern, there was a northern group although no southern. More than any other European peoples, all of them had close relations with the native inhabitants of East Central Europe, the Slavs and the Balts. It was the quasi-permanent Germanic pressure exercised upon the Balto-Slavs from the West which corresponded to the Eurasian pressure from the East. A theory was even developed, according to which the Slavs would have been from time immemorial under a twofold foreign domination, either German or Turco-Tartar, with lasting consequences of that situation in the whole course of history. And even more general among German scholars is the opinion that a large part of the historical Slavic homeland in East Central Europe had been originally inhabited in prehistoric times by Germanic tribes which left that area only during the great migrations, while the Slavs followed them and took their place.

Without returning to that controversy, it must be admitted that during the earlier phase of these migrations, before they definitely became a movement from East to West, some Germanic tribes spread all over East Central Europe but only as temporary conquerors. For obvious geographical reasons these tribes were those of the East Germanic group, the group which proved particularly active in the migration period and which—eventually penetrated farther than any other Teutons in a southwestern direction, only to disappear completely. In Central Eastern Europe their invasion left nothing but a tradition of ruthless domination by the Goths, who were the leading tribe among those East Germanic ones.

This tradition was particularly strong among the Baltic peoples, but for a short time, under king Ermanaric (about 3 50-370 A.D.), an Ostrogothic empire seems to have also included most of the Slavic peoples. Defeated in the following years by Huns and Alans, however, the Ostrogoths crossed the Danube and in the well-known battle of Adrianople (378) started their invasion of the Roman Empire which led them far away from Slavic Europe.

At the Baltic shores the Gothic occupation was soon followed by a long series of raids and invasions, equally dangerous for Balts and Slavs, which came from another branch of the Germanic peoples, the northern. Long before the Normans played their famous role in the history of Western Europe, bold expeditions of Scandinavian vikings not only crossed the Baltic but laid out the first trade routes through Eastern Europe, as far as the Caspian and Black Sea regions, where they established contacts with the Asiatic world. Arabic sources seem to indicate that the earliest of these connections were established along the Volga without touching the original Balto-Slavic territory. The opinion has also been expressed that Norsemen appeared and even created some kind of state organization in the Azov region, perhaps under the name of Rus, long before the Rus of the later ninth century followed the shortest route from Scandinavia to Greece, and formed the historical Russian state with its centers at Novgorod and Kiev.

But again, these are merely hypotheses, and the historian is on much more solid ground if before studying that momentous intervention of Scandinavian elements in the destinies of the Eastern Slavs, he turns, in the chronological order, to the first recorded contacts between the western group of the Teutonic peoples the Germans proper and their Slavic neighbors. These were, of course, the Western Slavs and also the western tribes of the Southern Slavs, the ancestors of the Slovenes of today. And this is precisely the most important problem of all in the relations between Slavs and Teutons, a problem which in uninterrupted continuity and increasing significance was to last until our times.

The whole issue started when the westward movement of the Germanic tribes, after reaching the extreme limit of the Atlantic Ocean, was replaced by a return drive in the opposite direction, later known as the Drang nach Osten. Even if at the beginning it was a re-conquest of territories which Slavic tribes had occupied during the preceding migrations, it soon turned into a systematic aggression on a long front from the mouth of the Elbe to the Alpine valleys, soon threatening the Slavs in what undoubtedly was their original territory. As long as the German tribes which first clashed with the Slavs and tried to push them back were pagans like their opponents and hardly better organized politically, the chances were almost even in spite of the more warlike character of the Germans. But the situation changed completely when, after the conquest and conversion of the Saxons by Charlemagne and the inclusion of the Duchy of Bavaria in his empire, that very Christian Empire created by the Franks became the powerful neighbor of all Slavic tribes on the whole western front.

For the entire further course of Slavic history, that new situation had far-reaching consequences. Those Slavs who lived near the western limits of their homeland now came into permanent contact with Western culture, with both Roman tradition and the Catholic church. But as the first representatives of that world, they met those Germans who themselves had only recently accepted that culture and now wanted to use its values, particularly the propagation of the Christian faith, as tools of political domination. That danger had already appeared under Charlemagne, but it became even greater when, after the division of his supranational empire in 843 and the following partitions, the Slavs had the East Frankish kingdom as an immediate neighbor. This purely German state, the Germany of the future, had its likeliest possibilities of expansion precisely in the eastern direction through the conquest of Slavic territory and its organization into German marches.

In that relentless struggle which started at the end of the eighth century, three sectors of the long German-Slavic frontier must be distinguished. There was first, in the North, the plain between the sea and the Sudeten Mountains. Here the Germans had to do with the numerous Polabian and Lusatian tribes which in the past had even crossed the Elbe-Saale line. As soon as Saxony was organized as one of the largest German duchies, the Slavs were pushed back from the mouth of the Elbe and the southeastern corner of the North Sea to the southwestern corner of the Baltic Sea. The series of marches which were supposed to protect the German territory and serve as stepping stones of further expansion, started with the Northern march which was created toward the end of the ninth century at the expense of the Obotrites, the Slavic population of what was later called Mecklenbnrg. The same method was tried in the whole belt east of the middle Elbe as far as Lusatia. Already under the Carolingians, in the course of that same ninth century, that area was something like a German sphere of influence, but in view of the fierce resistance of the Veletian group of the Slavs and of the Lusatian Serbs (Sorbs), the final creation of German marches had to wait until the following century, when the pressure increased under the kings of the new Saxon dynasty.

Of special importance was the next sector of the front, the central bastion of Bohemia, surrounded by mountains which stopped the German advance or made it change its usual methods. Fights with Bohemian tribes had already started in the time of Charlemagne, but on the one hand their land proved difficult to conquer, and on the other there appeared among their princes a disposition to accept the Christian faith voluntarily in order to avoid a forcible conquest. As early as 845 some of these princes came to Regensburg where they were baptized, probably recognizing a certain degree of German suzerainty. Others, however, turned at about the same time toward a first center of Slavic power which was being created by their kin, the princes of Moravia, in an area which still was beyond the reach of German invasions and in direct contact with the south-Slavic Slovenes in the Danubian Plain, where the memory of Samo’s state had perhaps not entirely disappeared.

The Slovenes themselves were, however, threatened at least from the eighth century in their Alpine settlements where Bavarian colonization was in progress. Acting as overlord of the dukes of Bavaria, Charlemagne there created a first march on what was later to be the territory of Austria, chiefly as a defense against the Avars, but also in order to control the Slavic population after the fall of the Avar power. The missionary activities of the German church, especially of the bishops of Salzburg and Passau, also contributed to strengthening Bavarian influence as far as the former Roman province of Pannonia, and under Charlemagne’s son Louis the authority of the empire was temporarily recognized even by the Croats, particularly after the suppression of a revolt by the Croat prince Ludevit in 822.

That German advance far into the territory of the Southern Slavs was only temporary and exceptional, but even so it resulted in a conflict with faraway Bulgaria and in a contact between Frankish and Byzantine influence. It is, therefore, against the whole background of these international relations in the Danubian region and of contemporary developments in the Balkans, that the rise and fall of the so-called Moravian Empire must be studied. But before approaching that important turning point in the history of East Central Europe, a more general consequence of the earliest relations between Slavs and Teutons ought to be emphasized.

Just because the German power was so much stronger, the growing danger forced the Slavs at last to develop their own political organization and to cooperate in larger units under native leadership. In many cases they proved quite capable of doing so in spite of many unfavorable circumstances. In opposition to foreign aggressors whose language they were unable to understand, they became conscious of their own particularity. But in contradistinction to the Eastern Slavs who had to face semibarbarian Asiatic invaders, mostly pagans like themselves, the Western Slavs had to realize that they could not resist their opponents without themselves entering the realm of that Roman culture which was the main factor of German superiority, and most important, without becoming Christians like their neighbors. Those among the Slavs who failed to do so were doomed in advance. The others had to find ways and means of doing it without an exclusively German intermediary by safeguarding their independence and by organizing on their own account the East Central European region. In the critical ninth century, one of these possible ways seemed to be cooperation with the eastern center of Christian and Greco-Roman culture, with Byzantium.


Long before the Croats were touched by the Frankish conquest, that same South-Slavic people, together with their closest kin, the Serbs, had entered into much more stable relations with the Eastern Roman Empire and with the Eastern church which was not yet separated from Rome. These relations were, however, of an entirely different character. In this case it was the Slavs who were the invaders. After participating, from the end of the fifth century, in various raids of other “barbarian” tribes into imperial territory, they threatened Byzantium then the only Christian Empire even during the brilliant reign of Justinian I, who by some earlier scholars was wrongly considered to have been of Slavic origin. Through the sixth century the Slavic danger, combined with that from their Avar overlords, constantly increased. More and more frequently they penetrated far into the Balkans, until in the first half of the seventh century the Emperor Heraclius permitted some of their tribes, freed from the Avars, to settle in the devastated lands south of the Danube.

These Slavs, soon converted to the Christian faith, were under the leadership of Chrovatos whose name, probably Iranian, was taken by his people, later known as Croats, while other tribes of the same group received the name of Serbs, which according to some authorities would be derived from servus (slave). Definitely established in the area which they occupy today, the Serbo-Croats made the region practically independent from Byzantium, defending themselves at the same time against the Avars. Culturally, however, they came under the influence of Byzantium, which never ceased to consider their territory the old Illyricum part of the Eastern Empire. Greek influence was, of course, particularly strong among the Serbs, who moved deeper into the Balkans and remained the immediate neighbors of the Greeks. The Croats, on the other hand, who established themselves farther to the northwest, were soon exposed to Western influences. This explains the growing differentiation between the two peoples, which were of common origin and continued to speak the same language. With the ever stronger opposition between Eastern and Western Christendom, the separation between Serbs and Croats was to become much also deeper, a distinctive feature of the history of the Southern Slavs.

But already in the early days of their settlements in regions well to the south of their original homeland, another problem proved to be of lasting importance. The problem of their relations with an entirely different people who simultaneously invaded the Byzantine Empire and after crossing the lower Danube settled permanently on imperial territory in the Balkans, but east of the Serbo-Croats, not at the Adriatic but at the Black Sea coast. These were the Bulgars or Bulgarians.

The southern branch of that Turkish people, who as a whole had played such an important but rather transitory role in Eurasia and the steppes north of the Black Sea, had already mixed with the Slavic tribes of the Antes in that region. When, after participating in earlier invasions of the Eastern Empire by the Avars, as had the Slavs, they definitely crossed the Danube under their Khan or Khagan, Asparukh, in 679, a Bulgar state was established in northern Thrace in the region of present-day Bulgaria.

That state, however, which soon extended its boundaries in all directions, had a predominantly Slavic population. For in addition to the foundation of new states in the northern part of formerly imperial territory, numerous Slavic tribes had throughout the sixth and seventh century continued to raid the whole Balkan Peninsula and even Greece proper. Most of them remained there in larger or smaller groups, creating the so-called Sclaviniae, that is, permanent settlements which without being organized as political units changed the ethnic character of the whole empire. Some scholars have even expressed the opinion that the Greek population was completely Slavized, an obvious exaggeration, since the Slavs rarely succeeded in taking the more important cities which they besieged, but which remained Greek as did most of the Mediterranean coast. But while scattered Slavic settlers came under the influence of Greek culture even more than in Serbia, they in turn so strongly influenced the Bulgar conquerors that even their language was adopted by the latter, and already in its pagan period the new state must be considered Bulgaro-Slavic. And gradually the Turkish element was so completely submerged that Bulgaria simply became one of the South-Slavic nations.

The Byzantine Empire, which continued to have occasional troubles with its Slavic subjects and even had to move some of them as far away as Bithynia in Asia Minor, was seriously concerned with the rise of Bulgar power so near to Constantinople itself. Emperor Justinian II, after defeating Bulgars and Slavs in 690, had to ask for their assistance in order to recover his throne from a rival, and in reward he granted to Asparukh’s successor, Tervel, the title of Caesar when he received him in the capital in 705. In spite of a treaty which Byzantium concluded with Bulgaria eleven years later, and which established a new boundary line north of Adrianople, there was a whole series of Greek-Bulgar wars in the course of the eighth century. In 805 Khan Krum, after contributing in cooperation with the Franks to the fall of the Avars, created a strong Bulgarian Empire on both sides of the Danube. The role of the Slavic element was increased, and until Krum’s death in 814 Byzantium, which suffered a terrible defeat in 811, was seriously threatened by its northern neighbor. Constantinople itself was besieged by the Bulgars. The relations improved under the new Khan Omortag, who even assisted Emperor Michael III against a Slavic uprising and turned against the Franks, with whom he clashed in Croatia. But it was not before the reign of Boris, from 852, that the conversion of Bulgaria to the Christian faith was seriously considered. This raised entirely new issues in her relations with Byzantium.

In contradistinction to the restored Western Empire, the Eastern Roman Empire had no desire for territorial expansion. It wanted, however, to control the foreign elements which had penetrated within its boundaries and had even created their own states on imperial territory. Moreover, it was afraid of new invasions by other barbarian tribes, the first attack of Norman “Russians” against Constantinople in 860 being a serious warning. In both respects the missionary activity of the Greek church, under the authority of the Patriarch of Constantinople, closely cooperating with the Emperor, seemed to be particularly helpful in bringing under Byzantine influence the Slavic populations of the Balkans, as well as dangerous neighbors, Slavic or non-Slavic.

That missionary activity, which in general was less developed in Eastern than in Western Christendom, was greatly intensified under the famous Patriarch Photius. Through an arbitrary decision by the imperial power, in 858 he replaced the legitimate Patriarch Ignatius, and this was the origin of a protracted crisis in the religious life of Byzantium. But he proved to be one of the most prominent leaders of the Greek church, one who was particularly anxious to promote the spread of Christianity even among the faraway Khazars, the neighbors of the last Greek colonies on the northern shores of the Black Sea. It was there that Constantine and Methodius, the Greek brothers from Salonika, who were equally distinguished as theologians and as linguists, started their missions in 860 or 861. They failed to convert the Khagan, who decided in favor of Judaism, but they were soon to be sent to the Slavs of the Danubian region. And at the same time it became known that Boris of Bulgaria wanted to become a Christian.

In both cases, however, the question had to be decided as to whether the converts would be placed under the ecclesiastical authority of the Patriarchate of Constantinople or directly under Rome, a question which had both a religious and a political aspect that was to be decisive for the whole future of the Slavs. As yet there was no definite schism between the Roman and the Greek church, but already there was a growing tension which was intensified by the fact that Pope Nicholas I did not recognize the appointment of Photius and excommunicated him in 863. Today we know that even Photius break with Rome in 867 was by no means final, but the whole ecclesiastical conflict which lasted until 880 prepared the schism of the future. And even Ignatius, who again occupied the See of Constantinople from 867 to 877, opposed Rome in the matter of the new Bulgarian church which he wanted to place under his own authority.

The Emperor, too, though eager to remain in good relations with the Papacy, was adamant in the Bulgarian problem, and finally Boris, who was baptized in 864, after trying to find out which side would grant the greater autonomy to the new Bulgarian church, decided in favor of Byzantium, a solution which obviously was also dictated by geographic conditions and by the whole past history of the territory occupied by the Bulgars. The situation was entirely different in old Pannonia, that is in the Danubian Basin north of the Serbo-Croat settlements, where during these same years Constantine and Methodius undertook their most important mission, entrusted to them by Photius on the invitation of a new Slavic power, the so-called Moravian Empire. The outcome of their activity was to be of lasting significance, not only for the relations of the various Slavic peoples with Byzantium but also for the whole future of East Central Europe.

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