Serb and Bulgar invasion of the Balkans


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Taken from chapter
Origins: Serbs, Albanians and Vlachs
Chapter 2 in Noel Malcolm's Kosovo, a short history (Macmilan, London, 1998, p. 22-40)

All origins become mysterious if we search far enough into the past. And almost all peoples, when we look at their earliest origins, turn out to have come from somewhere else. Before embarking on these origin quests, it is good to keep a few qualifying principles firmly in mind. First, it can never be said too often that questions of chronological priority in ancient history - who got there first - are simply irrelevant to deciding the rights and wrongs of any present-day political situation.

Secondly, accounts of the earlier movements of peoples or tribes give a very misleading impression when they treat them as if they were unitary items, with unchanging identities, being transferred from place to place in a game of ethno-historical pass-the-parcel. In many cases (such as the migrations of the Franks in early western Europe) it is the movement of a people into a new territory or society that gives it an identity it did not previously have. Identities continue to develop over time: 'Serb' was a tribal label in the sixth century but not in the sixteenth, so that to treat 'the Serbs' as an unchanging category is as foolish as trying to identify Jutes and Angles among the subjects of Queen Elizabeth I.

And thirdly, we should never forget that all individual ancestries are mixed -especially in this part of Europe. When a Serb today reads about the arrival of the early Serbs, he may not be wrong to suppose that he is reading about his ancestors; but he cannot be right to imagine that all his ancestors were in that population. The equivalent is true for the Albanians, and indeed for every other ethnic group in the Balkans.

While most details about the movement of the early Slavs into the Balkans are unclear, the basic facts are known. A large tribal population of Slavs - among whom the Serbs and the Croats were two particular tribes, or tribal groupings - occupied parts of central Europe, north of the Danube, in the fifth and sixth centuries ad. The Serbs had their power-base in the area of the Czech lands and Saxony, and the Croats in Bavaria, Slovakia and southern Poland. This central European location was not the earliest known home of the Serbs; most of the evidence points to an earlier migration from the north and north-eastern side of the Black Sea. At that earlier period the Serbs and Croats seem to have lived together with more warlike Iranian tribes, and their tribal names may derive from Iranian ruling elites: Ptolemy, writing in the second century ad, located the 'Serboi' among the Sarmatians (an Iranian grouping) on the northern side of the Caucasus. Little is known about the Slavs' way of life in these earlier periods. The first descriptions we have of them are by Byzantine writers, who portray them as a wild people, more pastoral than agricultural, with many chiefs but no supreme leader. [1]

For a tribal population with a fairly low level of material culture, reaching the line of the Danube and looking south was the equivalent of a hungry man pressing his face against the window of a grocery. The Balkans, fully restored to Byzantine control under the energetic Emperor Justinian (527-65), contained many flourishing towns and cities, supported by productive agriculture and active trading routes. The Slavs were not the first to cross the Danube in search of better things. Germanic Goths had done so (with Byzantine permission, at first) in the fourth century, and had gone raiding as far as Greece and the Albanian coast thereafter; Huns, under Attila, had attacked in the 440s, and Bulgars (a Turkic tribe) had started raiding at the end of that century. [2] But none of these earlier invaders left any imprint on the Balkans comparable to that of the Slavs. Indeed, by the time that the Turkic-speaking Bulgars came to settle permanently in the Balkans in the seventh century, the Slav element was already so well established there that the conquering Bulgars were eventually to lose their own language and be absorbed by their Slav-speaking subjects. [3]

The first major Slav raids took place in the middle of Justinian's reign. In 547 and 548 they invaded the territory of modern Kosovo, and then (probably via Macedonia and the Via Egnatia across central Albania) got as far as Durres on the northern Albanian coast. [4] More substantial invasions took place in the 580s, bringing Slavs deep into Greece. Historians used to think that it was only these later invasions that involved any permanent settlement; but there is evidence of Slav place-names in the Balkans - particularly along the river Morava - by the 550s, which suggests a more continuous process of infiltration. [5] One factor which may have turned the southward movement of Slavs from a trickle to a flood was the arrival, in the north-western part of the Balkans, of an especially warlike Turkic tribe, the Avars, who subjugated or coopted some Slavic tribes but drove many others away. By the early seventh century the Avar armies were raiding as far as the walls of Constantinople, and threatening the very existence of the Byzantine Empire.

It was at this point, in the 610s or 620s, that the Emperor of the day (according to a detailed but somewhat confused account by a later Emperor-cum-historian, Constantine Porphyrogenitus) invited the Croats to come down from central Europe and deal with the Avar threat. [6] This they did, bringing with them their neighbours, the Serbs. Both populations then settled in the territories abandoned by the Avars: the Croats in modern Croatia and western Bosnia, and the Serbs in the Rascia area on the north-western side of Kosovo, and in the region of modern Montenegro. In some of these areas they supervened on an already existing Slav population, which, as a result, must gradually have taken on a 'Croat' or 'Serb' identity. The Serbs did not have anything like a state at this stage, but they developed several small tribal territories, each called a zupa and ruled by a tribal chief known as the zupan. [7]

By the mid-seventh century, Serbs (or Serb-led Slavs) were penetrating from the coastal lands of Montenegro into northern Albania. Major ports and towns such as Durres and Shkodra held out against them, but much of the countryside was Slavicized, and some Slav settlers moved up the valleys into the Malesi. By the ninth century, Slav-speaking people were an important element of the population in much of northern Albania, excluding the towns and the higher mountainous areas (especially the mountains in the eastern part of the Malesi, towards Kosovo). [8] Slav-speaking people lived in the lowlands of this area, gradually becoming a major component of the urban population too, until the end of the Middle Ages. [9]

What had happened to the local populations of the western and central Balkans during and after the Slav invasions? Something is known about the urban inhabitants, but much less about the people in the countryside. Despite the apocalyptic tone of early Byzantine writers, who give the impression that all civilization came to an end here in about 600, there is good evidence that the main cities survived (or were revived), just as they had done after earlier sackings. Refugees from central Balkan towns such as Nis and Sofia fled to the safety of Salonica at first, but many must have gone back home later. [10] The main towns on the Dalmatian and northern Albanian coastline, too, retained their Latin-speaking populations and stayed under Byzantine rule. (For naval and commercial reasons, Durres was the most important Byzantine possession on the entire Adriatic coast of the Balkans.) [11] But outside the major cities there are signs of decline and contraction; typical of the seventh to ninth centuries are the remains of small townships based on hill-forts, such as the one at Koman in the mountains of north-central Albania, where a Christian and probably Romanized (Latin-speaking) population must have led a rather limited existence. [12]

As for the rural population, which was also mainly Latin-speaking in most of the territory of Yugoslavia and north-western Bulgaria, it is assumed that large numbers of people were driven southwards by the Avars, Croats and Serbs. Some evidence from place-names suggests a flow of such refugees down the Dalmatian coast into northern Albania; and a folk tradition set down by a later Byzantine writer referred to a large movement of native people southwards and eastwards away from the area of the Danube and the Sava - that is, from northern Bulgaria, northern Serbia and Croatia. [13] No doubt Latin-speaking peasants and farmers continued to live in many of these areas, especially where they were in contact with a large town or city. But sooner or later the majority of them were Slavicized, and the towns in the interior of the Balkans filled up with Slav-speakers too.

Only the remnants of a Latin-speaking population survived in parts of the central and west-central Balkans; when it re-emerges into the historical record in the tenth and eleventh centuries, we find its members leading a semi-nomadic life as shepherds, horse-breeders and travelling muleteers. These were the Vlachs, who can still be seen tending their flocks in the mountains of northern Greece, Macedonia and Albania today. [14] The name 'Vlach' was a word used by the Slavs for those they encountered who spoke a strange, usually Latinate, language; the Vlachs' own name for themselves is 'Aromanians' (Aromani). As this name suggests, the Vlachs are closely linked to the Romanians: their two languages (which, with a little practice, are mutually intelligible) diverged only in the ninth or tenth century. [15] While Romanian historians have tried to argue that the Romanian-speakers have always lived in the territory of Romania (originating, it is claimed, from Romanized Dacian tribes and/or Roman legionaries), there is compelling evidence to show that the Romanian-speakers were originally part of the same population as the Vlachs, whose language and way of life were developed somewhere to the south of the Danube. Only in the twelfth century did the early Romanian-speakers move northwards into Romanian territory. [16]

Finally, before turning to the most mysterious problem of all - the origin of the Albanians - it is worth looking once more at the pattern of settlement in the Kosovo area during the early Slav centuries. Kosovo did not fall within the Serb territory of Rascia, which was further to the north-west: the Serbian expansion into Kosovo began in earnest only in the late twelfth century. About the other early Slav settlers in this part of the Balkans we have much less information. Byzantine sources just referred generally to 'Sklaviniai', Slav territories, in the Macedonian region; in the few cases when they made more localized references they often used names derived from rivers, so that it is not clear whether these were the names of Slav tribes or just geographical labels. The 'Moravoi' or 'Moravlians', for example, who are first mentioned in the ninth century, lived somewhere near the river Morava, but that is all we know about them. Historical map-makers, who do not like leaving too many blank spaces, place these Moravlians over much of south-eastern Serbia from as early as the sixth century, with arrows showing them passing into Kosovo; real evidence for this is lacking. [17]

Obviously some Slavs did spread through all these areas sooner or later. But there is one intriguing line of argument to suggest that the Slav presence in Kosovo and the southernmost part of the Morava valley may have been quite weak in the first one or two centuries of Slav settlement. If Slavs had been evenly spread across this part of the Balkans, it would be hard to explain why such a clear linguistic division emerged between the Serbo-Croat language and the Bulgarian-Macedonian one. The scholar who first developed this argument also noted that, in the area dividing the early Serbs from the Bulgarians, many Latin place-names survived long enough to be adapted eventually into Slav ones, from Naissus (Nish), down through the Kosovo town of Lypenion (Lipljan) to Scupi (Skopje): this contrasts strongly with most of northern Serbia, Bosnia and the Dalmatian hinterland, where the old town names were completely swept aside. His conclusion was that the Latin-speaking population, far from withering away immediately, may actually have been strengthened here (and in a western strip of modern Bulgaria), its numbers swelled, no doubt, by refugees from further north. These Latin-speakers would have thus formed 'a wide border-zone between the Bulgarians and the Serbs'. [18]

Kosovo's protective ring of mountains would have been useful to them; and the Roman mountain-road from Kosovo to the Albanian coast - along which several Latin place-names also survive, such as Puka, from 'via publica' - might also have connected them with other parts of the Latin-speaking world. (The hill-top town of Koman, mentioned earlier, is only a few miles from Puka, and may well have had a Latin-speaking population too.) If this argument is correct, we might expect many of the ancestors of the Vlachs to have been present in the Kosovo region and the mountains of western Bulgaria; it may have been in these uplands that they developed their pastoral skills.

Only in the ninth century do we see the expansion of a strong Slav (or quasi-Slav) power into this region. Under a series of ambitious rulers, the Bulgarians - a Slav population which absorbed, linguistically and culturally, its ruling elite of Turkic Bulgars - pushed westwards across modern Macedonia and eastern Serbia, until by the 850s they had taken over Kosovo and were pressing on the borders of Rascia. Soon afterwards they took the western Macedonian town of Ohrid; having recently converted to Christianity, the Bulgar rulers helped to set up a bishopric in Ohrid, which thus became an important centre of Slav culture for the whole region. And at the same time the Bulgarians were pushing on into southern and central Albania, which became thoroughly settled by Bulgarian Slavs during the course of the following century. [19]

Kosovo was to remain under Bulgarian or Macedonian rulers until 1014-18, when the army of the Macedonian-based Tsar Samuel died, his empire broke up, and Byzantine power was fully re-established by a strong and decisive Emperor, Basil 'the Bulgar-killer'. For nearly two centuries after that, Kosovo would stay under Byzantine rule. [20]

One key element is missing from the picture presented so far. While the origins of the Vlachs are obscure enough, the origins of the Albanians have been the subject of a much more bewildering mass of conflicting claims and theories. The two main rival theories that have emerged identify the early Albanians as either Illyrians or Thracians: in pre-Roman and Roman times, Illyrians lived in the western half of the Balkans and Thracians in the east. Albanian historians, who like the idea that Albanians have always lived in Albania, prefer the Illyrian theory. Romanian scholars, who have to deal with the awkward fact that there are strong early links between the Albanians and the Vlachs, prefer to put them on the Thracian side of the divide (the ancient Dacians, who lived in Romania, were part of the Thracian group), and in this they are sometimes supported by Bulgarian experts. But there is really no point in going into this labyrinth of historical debate unless one is prepared to discard all national prejudices at the entrance.
The previous chapter brought the political history (if such it may be called) of Kosovo up to the final period of Bulgarian-Macedonian rule, before the territory of Tsar Samuel was reconquered by the Byzantine Emperor Basil the Bulgar-slayer. Medieval Kosovo is often referred to in general terms as 'the cradle of the Serbs', as if it had been a Serb heartland from the outset; but the reality was rather different. Just over 800 years separate the arrival of the Serbs in the Balkans in the seventh century from the final Ottoman conquest in the 1450s: out of those eight centuries, kosovo was Serb-ruled for only the last two-and-a-half - less that on-ethird of the entire period. Bulgarian khans or tsars held Kosovo from the 850s until the early eleventh century, and Byzantine Emperors until the final decades of the twelfth.

Unfortunately there is very little direct evidence about conditions in Kosovo during those earlier centuries of Bulgarian and Byzantine rule. We can assume that the Slav population that had settled in Kosovo was brought within the cultural realm of the Bulgarian empire, which means that it would have been included in the Bulgarian dioceses of the Orthodox church. Thanks to the work of Saints Cyril and Methodius (and their followers) in the ninth century, the Slavs had a liturgy and other texts in their own language, written in either of two newly invented alphabets: Cyrillic and Glagolitic. The western macedonian town of Ohrid developed strongly as a cultural and religious centre in the ninth and tenth centuries, and by the end of Tsar Samuel's reign the archbishopric of Ohrid included bishoprics in Skopje, Lipljan (Alb.: Lipjan; a town just south of Pristina) and Prizren. [1] Although the formal division of the Christian Church into Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox did not occur until 1054, it would not be anachronistic to describe this Bulgarian Christianity as Eastern in the ninth and tenth centuries; the roots of the conflict between East and West went back a long way. (The Slav liturgy was at first violently rejected by the Roman Church, on the grounds that God spoke only three languages: Hebrew, Greek and Latin).

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