The Avaro-Slav invasion of the Balkans


Greece: The Avaro-Slav invasions of, or raids into, the Balkan peninsula and Greece in the years 578-588 are recorded by several late sources: Michael Syrus (the Jacobite patriarch, d. 1199) and the Chronicle of Monemvasia. Haldon 1990: 44 proposes that the raids began “before 577”. Madgearu (2006) brackets 577-87 as a ‘first period’ of the ousting of the Byzantines from the Danube, at least in the Moesia-Scythia sector (today’s Bulgarian-Romanian border). —It is unclear whether, on any one occasion, the invaders were Slavs, Avars or a combination (see discussion in Curta, Making of the Slavs pp.49-50). Archaeology shows that other factors were also at work in the ‘ruralisation’ of the empire. In the case of Peloponnesian Olympia, the ancient city was apparently suddenly buried by a deep deposit of riverine alluvium. This may have resulted from the blocking of the river by the earthquakes of 522 and 557. The town’s life may have largely ended in 557; but we also have evidence of a small Justinianic [pre AD 565] fortress at Olympia in which coins of 567 and 575 were found (Hodges & Whitehouse p.57). So perhaps all that remained for the Slavs to capture was a small fort.

A presumed Slavic cremation cemetery with urns of a type closely allied to ‘Prague- type’ pottery has been excavated at Olympia and generally dated to the sixth- or seventh- century (Kobylinski, in NCMH ed. Fouracre, p.542, citing Vryonis; but queried by Curta, Making of the Slavs pp.234, 308: he proposes after AD 700).


The pagan Slavs (if they were Slavs), says Michael Syrus, took many prisoners and carried away many objects from the churches, for example the ciborium or large chalice-like vessel of the church of Corinth which their ‘king’, or qagan (as Michael calls him) used as a throne to sit on. The Chronicle of Monemvasia says that the invasions of the Peloponnesus by the Avars and Slavs prompted many of the Peloponnesians to emigrate, the Corinthians going to the island of Aegina, which, of course, is not very far from Corinth (offshore in the Aegean). The people of Argos went to the island of Orobê (in the Argolic Gulf), the Spartans to the coastal fortress of Monemvasia, the inhabitants of Patras to Calabria and the Lacedaemonians to Sicily. This was a token of the permanent colonisation of Greece by Slavs.

Some have argued that Corinth and the eastern Peloponnese always remained in imperial hands, and it was in the west, centre and south that the Slavs settled. Athens too continued into the 600s (Hodges & Whitehouse 1983: 60; Fine 1991: 61, citing Charanis). If so, then we must imagine that not all the Corinthians fled to Aegina and/or that they returned thence to Corinth. As Curta 2005: 111 remarks, the relatively large number of coins from Justin II to Phokas (d. 610) now in the collection of the Patras museum demonstrates that one cannot take the Chronicle of Monemvasia very seriously, since it is precisely during that period of time that, according to the Chronicle, the inhabitants of Patras had moved to Reggio di Calabria.

5. The middle Danube: Seeing the emperor distracted in Persia [cf below: 580- 81], the Avars of “the Pontic-Caspian steppe”, i.e. the Danube-Black Sea region – hitherto Byzantine allies – seek to extort control of Sirmium [west of Belgrade]; when this is refused they attack and capture the city (581; or siege 580-82). In their wake come the Slavs, who will penetrate, in a form of permanent migration, down into the Balkan peninsula as far as Greece (see 581-82) (Whitby, Maurice pp.175-76).

The Settling of the Slavs in Greece

2. The NW Balkans: In 580 Bayan revealed his true colours, and his Avars mounted a large-scale attack against Sirmium. As Byzantine forces tried to turn back his assault, the Sklaveni descended into the Balkans en masse. The Slavs sometimes acted in concert with the Avars, sometimes against them, and sometimes independently. Indeed in some cases they came south precisely to escape Avar domination (Whitby, Maurice p.176).

An army, or perhaps better: a large conglomeration of bands, comprising – according to Menander – 100,000 “Slavonians” poured, ca. 581, into Thrace and Illyricum. The Avars too, probably separately, were operating in Greece. By 586 the Slavs had penetrated as far south as the Peloponnesus. For the next ten years, Byzantine forces appeared unable to dislodge either the Avars or the Slavs. From this time dates the arrival in Greece of Slav settlers in large numbers – as distinct from the earlier raiding expeditions. Thus says Heurtley p. 39; also Kobylinski in CNMH ed. Fouracre vol 1, p.541. See 581-82, 597 and 609. John of Ephesus specifically dates this to three years after the death of Justin II, i.e. AD 581 (quoted in Fine 1991: 31).

The Slavic takeover can also be seen in the disappearance of coinage. The latest coins in coin hoards in Macedonia date to the reign of Justin II, d. 578, and the latest in the Peloponnese to that of Constans II, acc. 641 (Kobylinski loc.cit.).

At Delphi in our central Greece, by around 580–590 the abandonment of patrician villas becomes evident; pottery kilns were then installed within their walls and functioned until 610–620 (Morrisson & Sodini, ‘Sixth Century’ in Laiou ed., 2002). This may reflect the departure of the Byzantine ruling caste and a takeover by Greek or Slav peasants. How many Slavs were able to remain behind, after about 580, in permanent settlements in Greece? This has been a much-disputed question since the early 19th century, but the numbers must have been reasonably large.

(NovoScriptorium: Recent researches have shown that the Slavic contribution to the DNA of modern Greeks is very small and at some very specific regions, not all over Greece.

Obviously, this scientific fact has its historical explanation. The Slavs did flood Greece at those times. But:

a) the Slavs were not the majority ever over all Greece, at no historical point. Most of the Graeco-Roman populations either fled outside the region either to the mountains to save their lives.

b) When the Roman State felt stronger, a series of operations aiming at ‘recapturing’ the Slav-conquered regions of Greece took place. And this actually did happen. Obviously, with a great number of Slavs slain.

c) Slavs that survived were forced to submit to the Roman Imperium in every way, and so, they soon started speaking Greek and pray in the Orthodox way, widely mixing with the Graeco-Roman populations not very long afterwards.

d) Additionally to all the above, several Emperors moved Christian populations from the East -mostly refugees from the former Roman regions now conquered by Muslims- to fill the population gap that was created in the mainland Greece territories. The Sources also inform us that a significant number of Slavs from Greece were relocated by the Roman State in the inner Asia Minor)

Evagrius Scholasticus, fl. 593, writes thus: “The Avars, having twice made inroads as far as the so-called Long Wall [inner Thrace], besieged and enslaved Singidunum (Belgrade), which Justinian had restored and heavily fortified, Anchialus [on the Black Sea coast: modern Bulgarian Pomorie], and indeed all Greece [kai thn ‘Ellada pasan’], together with other cities and garrisons, destroying and burning everything, while most of the armed forces were engaged in the East.” —Kenneth Setton, 1950: ‘The Bulgars in the Balkans and the Occupation of Corinth in the Seventh Century’, Speculum, 25, 4, 1950, 502-543.

(Source: ‘The Rome that almost fell: The long seventh century’, by Michael O’ Rourke)

Research-Selection-Comments for NovoScriptorium: Anastasius Philoponus


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