View Full Version : The Myth of Nations - Patrick J. Geary

14-07-13, 15:20
Excerpt from "The Myth of Nations", Patrick J. Geary.

Pages 142–150:

If the Saxons had taken the place of the Franks and the Alamanni to the West, the Avars assumed the roles of the Goths and Huns to the east. This steppe confederation, fleeing the Turkic expansion in Central Asia, appeared in the Carpathian basin in 567 and in 558-559 sent an emissary to the Emperor Justinian, offering to fight against the Empire’s enemies in return for annual payments. In many fundamental ways they resembled other steppe peoples who appeared in Europe in the first millennium. These nomads developed a highly specialized form of survival, based on pastoralism, that allowed them to live in regions otherwise unsuitable for human settlement. Traveling hundreds of miles in seasonal migrations necessitated the development of complex forms of organization and communication. These ecological imperatives developed into characteristic forms of political and social organization. Mobility, flexibility, and mounted warfare were essential for survival. So, too, was the need to combine with other, similar groups and thus develop enormous steppe empires over a rapid period of time. We have already seen this in the short-lived Empire of Attila’s Huns. Where the Avars differed from their predecessors, however, was in their ability to transform themselves from just another steppe people into a fairly centralized and institutionalized, polyethnic kingdom between Byzantium and the western kingdoms that survived, in victory and defeat for 2.5 centuries.

The Avars achieved this feat because they managed to establish hegemony over the disparate peoples along the Balkan frontier of the Empire and to monopolize the name Avar to an extraordinary degree. For some twenty years, Baian, the ruler or khagan of the Avars, fought Utigurs, Antes, Gepids, and Slavs until he had created a large, polyethnic confederation. Following the departure of the Lombards, Baian firmly established his rule in Pannonia. In 582 he captured the old Illyrian capital of Sirmium. His sons felt strong enough to challenge Constantinople itself: In 626, a vast army, composed of Avar horsemen and Slavic ships, began an attack on the city coordinated with Persian allies. The siege lasted little more than a week and ended in an Avar defeat. Such a catastrophe might easily have meant the end of Avar hegemony. Indeed, some of the subject groups attempted to go their own way following the disaster, but the core held, although, although it was greatly diminished. A century later, Avar horsemen raided west into Bavaria and Italy until they finally met their superior in the person of Charlemagne. Charlemagne penetrated into the center of the Avar kingdom in modern Hungary, and destroyed the Avars’ ability to maintain their polyethnic confederation. Within a generation and without a major battle, the Avars vanished from history.

If the Avar confederation disappeared without leaving more than rich graves across eastern Austria and Hungary, it nevertheless played a fundamental role in the creation of the most important and enduring phenomenon of Eastern Europe: the rapid and thorough Slavicization of Central and Eastern Europe.

Between the fifth and seventh centuries, eastern portions of the area long considered Germania, as well as the Balkan and Black Sea provinces of the Empire from the Baltic to the Mediterranean came to be controlled by Slavs. This transformation took place without great fanfare, without tales of powerful kings like Attila, Theodoric, or Clovis; without heroic migrations or desperate battles. It was a process that left no written evidence from the Slavs themselves, and its internal dynamic was even less noted and understood by Byzantine and Latin observers than were the Germanic ethnogenesis processes of Western Europe. And yet the effects of Slavicization were far more profound.

In the west, barbarian federated troops absorbed Roman systems of government, religion, and settlement. They ultimately became thoroughly Roman, even while changing utterly what this term meant. The Slavic migrations did not adopt or build on Roman systems of taxation, agriculture, social organization, or politics. Their organization was not based on Roman models, and their leaders were not normally dependent on Roman gold for their success. Thus, their effect was far more thorough than anything that the Goths, the Franks, or the Saxons ever achieved. Almost everything about the early Slavs – their origins, their social and political structures, and their tremendous success – has been an enduring puzzle.

Scholars have long debated the “original home” of the Slavs. The question of origin is probably as meaningless to ask for the Slavs as for other barbarian peoples, formed as they were through amalgams of what Roman sources termed Scythian or Sarmatian and Germanic populations in the regions east of the Elbe, left behind the military elites who formed the Germanic armies moving toward the Empire. Recent scholarship has argued convincingly that the “birth” of the Slavs took place along the Byzantine frontier under the influence of Byzantine military and economic pressure, much as that of the Franks and the Alamanni along the Rhine had centuries before in the west. However, Slavic culture was much closer to the soil and more deeply attached to agriculture than the fast-moving Frankish and Alamannic armies that became Roman federates and, eventually, conquerors. With their light plows, small-scale agriculture, and small, individually organized social units, Slavs did not simply arrive as tax-collecting armies but as farmers who worked the lands they conquered.

For conquer they did. Their spread was slow but violent, followed by the absorption of indigenous populations into their linguistic and social structures. But this expansion was uncoordinated and radically decentralized. Into the high Middle Ages, Slavic language and material culture presented a remarkable unity across Eastern Europe, but this was in radical juxtaposition to an equally radical lack of indigenous political centralization. The sixth-century Byzantine historian Procopius described how they were “not ruled by one man, but they have lived from old under a democracy, and consequently everything which involves their welfare, whether for good or for ill, is referred to the people.” This decentralization was perhaps the key to their success: Without kings or large-scale chieftains to bribe into cooperation or to defeat and force into service, the Byzantine Empire had little hope of either destroying or co-opting them into the imperial system.

Gradually, across the seventh century, Slavic warrior-settlers moved across the Danube and into the Balkans. The chronology is unclear and necessarily so: The process was so decentralized and fluid that it could hardly be dated or documented. Individual reversals at the hands of Byzantine counteroffensives could not stop such a widespread process. Nor did conquest simply mean transfer of tax revenues, as it had for the victims of Germanic conquest two centuries before: Slavs either killed the soldiers they captured or sold them for ransom. Those who remained faced flight or absorption into the Slavic peasantry. In this society of soldier-farmers, there were no other options.

When large-scale, hierarchical organization of Slavic groups did take place, it was almost inevitably done according to leadership structures introduced from outside. These might be Germanic or Central Asian leaders, whose model of ethnogenesis provided the possibility of greater concentration of power and greater subordination of individuals and groups. Fundamental to this process were the Avars.

The Slavicization of a wide band from the Elbe to the lower Danube was already well underway before the arrival of the Avars. The Avars settlement may have increased the Slavic pressure against the Byzantine frontier, as Slavic bands fled this new steppe Empire. This may explain the early Slavic invastions of the Greek peninsula in the latter half of the sixth century, soon to be followed by Slavic armies under Avar command. Others were absorbed into it and became a permanent fixture within the Avar kingdom. The Avars demanded winter quarters from their Slavs, requisitioning horses, supplies, and women from them, as needed. In times of war, they used tributary Slavs as infantry and, during the siege of Constantinople, as a navy. However, they seem to have also been prepared to treat some of their Slavic communities with more restraint, offering gifts to their headmen in return for troops and support. Byzantine chroniclers described the Slavs as the oppressed subjects of the Avars; Western observers described the Avars and Slavs as allies rather than as rulers and ruled. Both were probably correct.

Avar political and military structures provided the context for the ethnogenesis of specific Slavic groups. In the early seventh century, probably in the aftermath of the debacle before the walls of Constantinople in 626, considerable portions of the Avar periphery revolted, carving out autonomous polities between the Avar kaganate – to the west, the Franks; to the east, Byzantium.

In the region that is now probably the Czech Republic, a Frank, Samo, organized a band of mixed-parentage Slavs who had rebelled against the Avars into a formidable union. According to a Western source, the Slavs elected Samo king, and he ruled a Slavic kingdom for over thirty-five years. The hiving off of Samo’s Slavs from the Avar confederation following the Avar failure to capture Constantinople in 626 was probably only one of several such revolts against the defeated Avar Kagan.

The various groups known in the tenth century as Croats and Serbs probably had their origins in this same period of internal crisis in the kaganate. The early history of the Croats is impossible to disentangle entirely and is based almost entirely on the account of the Byzantine emperor Constantine Porphyrogenitus (905-959). Constantine wrote a treatise for his successors on how to administer the Empire that paid particular attention to the Empire’s Slavic neighbors. He drew both on contemporary experience and on now-lost materials in imperial archives going back centuries, but it is impossible to know exactly how dated, or indeed how accurate anything that he says really is. Constantine speaks of two groups of Croatians, those he calls the “White” Croats living near the Franks and the Croats in Dalmatia. He provides a mythical genealogy according to which once upon a time the Croats lived “beyond Bavaria” but a family of five brothers and two sisters split off from them, led their people to Dalmatia, where they defeated the Avars and then further divided into different groups. Actually, the Croatian name appears in various areas of the periphery of the former Avar kaganate, in what is modern Germany, the Czech Republic, Austria, Moravia, Slovenia, and Greece, as well as in modern Croatia. Attempts to establish proof of some ethnic unity for all these groups, perhaps predating the arrival of the Avars, has proven impossible.

Certainly, the term Croat does not appear in any source from before the middle of the ninth century as the designation of a people or tribe. The term Croat probably originally designated either a social stratum or was the title of a regional office within the kaganate. Such an explanation would explain why this term, which is not a Slavic word, might eventually designate a Slavic “people” without having to imagine that there had once upon a time been a non-Slavic Croatian people. It also accounts for the appearance of “Croats” on opposite ends of the kaganate without having to imagine great migrations or a family of brothers, each of whom establishes a different part of a Croatian people. Probably, in the course of the eighth and ninth centuries, these breakaway groups, identified as “Croat” by their leadership or organization in the Avar kingdom, gradually coalesced into separate polities with invented ethnic identity and a fanciful genealogy.

Just as Constantine posits a people known as the “White” Croats related to the Croats of Dalmatia, he tells of Serbian origins in a people known as “White” Serbs living beyond the land of the Huns, bordering the Frankish kingdom and White Croatia. Again he reports a genealogical legend: Two brothers take half the people and request protection from Emperor Heraclius. The emperor then settles these Serbs in the province of Thessaloniki. Later, they decide to return to their homeland, and when they ask permission of Heraclius’s commander at Beograd, they are given land in what is now Serbia. This legend, like that of the Croats, places the origins of the Serbs in the period of the Avar debacle before Constantinople, explains the presence of Serbs on distant ends of the Avar kingdom, and accounts for the emergence of a new “people” who carry another non-Slavic name in the Balkans. Rather than mining the legend for historical evidence on the origins of the Serbs, it should probably be seen as part of the rapid centrifugal forces tearing at the Avar kaganate following its defeat.

A similar origin can be seen for the Bulgars. Romans had encountered peoples of this name since the fifth century around the Black Sea. They, along with other –gur– named groups, such as the Kutrigurs, the Onogurs, and the Ogurs belonged, in Roman eyes, to the Huns, that is, to Central Asian steppe warriors. In the aftermath of 626, however, rebels against the Kagan are regularly called Bulgars. Again, as in the case of Croats, the diversity of the Bulgars is explained later in the legend of five brothers, the sons of the Onogur Kuvrat who revolted in the 630s, threw off Avar control, and united the Bulgars around the Black Sea. At the same time, Bulgar refugees from an unsuccessful revolt in the western regions of the kingdom fled to Bavaria, where they were first welcomed by the Frankish King Dagobert and then, after being dispersed for the winter, set upon, and killed by royal orders. In the following generation, a Bulgar leader, Kuver, revolted against the Avars and led a mixed population of descendants of Roman prisoners who had been settled in the Avar kingdom fifty years previously south to Thessaloniki. Possibly in the seventh century the names Kuvrat, Kuver, and Croat may all have originated in a title and only came in time to designate individuals or peoples. In any case, none of these groups – be it Samo’s kingdom, the Croats, or the Bulgars of Kuver – were pre-existing peoples revolting against Avar lordship. Rather, they were peoples in the making, forming in opposition to the Avars, but organized in some way according to institutions of principles taken from their lords.

Over the course of the following centuries these groups, whose non-Slavic names may be derived from Avar titles, developed from political units, created in opposition to their Avar masters, into “peoples,” complete with genealogically informed origin myths that explained their origins in ethnic terms rather than in terms of political organization.

By the early eighth century, then, political rather than ethnic identities characterized populations in what had once been the Roman Empire.