Christianization and cultural ‘Byzantinization’ of the Slavs

Here we present selected parts of the very informative paper titled “Byzantium and the Slavs“, by IHOR ŠEVČENKO.


“The Christianization and cultural Byzantinization of the Balkans was a pivotal event. It affected both the medieval and the post-medieval history of the Balkans and of eastern Europe; what is more, its effects are with us today. Whether the consequences of this event should be considered as beneficial or baneful is a matter of judgment that depends on the historian’s own background and on the modern public’s political views. It remains that the Christianization of the Balkans not only determined the cultural physiognomy of Serbia and Bulgaria, but also prepared and facilitated the subsequent Byzantinization of the East Slavs, an event which, along with the Tartar invasion, contributed to the estrangement of Rus’ from the European West. In the light of the preceding remarks, however, the Byzantinization of the South and East Slavs should be viewed just as an especially successful and enduring case of Byzantium’s impact upon its neighbors, whether in Europe or in the Near East. It was an especially successful case on two counts. First, when we speak of those Balkan Slavs who experienced the strongest influence of the Byzantine culture, we mean Serbs and Bulgarians.

But we forget that these peoples formed the rear guard, as it were, of the Slavic populations that had penetrated into the territory of the empire. In the late sixth century, the Slavs attacked the outer defenses of Constantinople; around 600, they besieged Thessalonica. About the same time, they reached Epirus, Attica, and the Peloponnesus; by the middle of the eighth century, the whole of Greece- or, at least, of the Peloponnesus- “became slavicized,” to use the expression of a text written under the auspices of a tenth-century Byzantine emperor. Slavic raiders reached Crete and other Greek islands. We do hear of Byzantine military campaigns aiming at the reconquest of the lands settled by the Slavs, but judging by the paucity of relevant references in our sources, it is wise to conclude that these campaigns were not too frequent*. And what remained of those Slavs*? About 1,200 place-names, many of them still existing; some Slavic pockets in the Peloponnesus, attested as late as the fifteenth century; about 275 Slavic words in the Greek language; perhaps a faint Slavic trace or two in Greek folklore. Nothing more. In matters of cultural impact, the ultimate in success is called complete assimilation. When it comes to mechanisms that facilitated this spectacular assimilation, we must keep in mind the role played by the upper strata of the Slavic society, for by the end of the ninth century the Slavs were already socially differentiated. In my opinion, it was this Slavic elite, as much as the Byzantine missionaries, that served as a conduit in the transmission of Byzantine culture to the Slavic population at large. Second, Byzantium held more than its own in its competition with Rome over the religious allegiance of the Balkan Slavs. For historical reasons, which had some validity to them, the Church of Rome laid jurisdictional claims to the territory of ancient Illyricum, that is, roughly the area on which the Serbs, Croats, and some Bulgarians (Slavic and Turkic) had established themselves. Croatia and Dalmatia were the only Byzantine areas where western Christianity was victorious in the ninth century. The Serbs were first Christianized by Rome about 640; but only the second Christianization took permanent roots there. It occurred in the seventies of the ninth century and it was due to Byzantine missionaries, later aided by Bulgarians. For a while, the newly converted Bulgarian ruler Boris-Michael flirted with Pope Nicholas I; but in 870, the Bulgarians entered the Byzantine fold, and they have remained there ever since.

True, the Cyrillo-Methodian mission in Moravia and Pannonia, which originally was staged from Byzantium, ended in failure shortly after 885, when Methodius’s pupils were expelled and supplanted by the German clergy of Latin rite. But if this was a failure, it was a qualified one: the Moravian and Pannonian areas had never belonged to Byzantium. Before its collapse, the Cyrillo-Methodian mission did forge the most powerful tool for indirect Byzantinization of all Orthodox Slavs: it created- or perfected- the Old Church Slavonic literary language. The Byzantinized Slavic liturgy did continue in Bohemia- granted, in a limited way- until the very end of the eleventh century; and the expelled pupils of Methodius found an excellent reception in late ninth-century Bulgaria and Macedonia, in centers like Preslav and Ohrid, from where they continued and deepened the work of Christianizing and Byzantinizing the Bulgarian and Macedonian Slavs. Occasional attempts on the part of the thirteenth-century Serbian and Bulgarian rulers to play Rome against Constantinople had no durable effects. True, both the Serbian Stephen the First-Crowned and the Bulgarian Kalojan, tsar of Bulgaria, obtained their royal crowns from the pope (1217 and 1204, respectively). But their churches, although autonomous, remained in communion with the Byzantine patriarchate in exile (1220 and 1235, respectively); they even remained under its suzerainty, in spite of the fact that at that time the Latin Crusaders resided in conquered Constantinople and the Byzantine empire was just a smallish principality of Asia Minor, fighting for its survival. The loss of Moravia and Pannonia by the Byzantine mission was amply compensated for by a gain in another area which (except for the Crimea) had never been under the actual Byzantine government: I mean the territories inhabited, among others, by the East Slavs. There, too, the field was not uncontested, for Rome had sent its missionaries to Kiev in the middle of the tenth century. In addition, Byzantium had to struggle there with other religious influences, Islamic and Jewish. It emerged victorious: the ruler of Kiev adopted Christianity for himself and his people in 988/9, and the act was sealed by the prince’s marriage with the Byzantine emperor’s sister. In retrospect, the Christianization and concomitant Byzantinization of the East Slavs was the greatest success of the Byzantine cultural mission.

The cultural Byzantinization of the Orthodox Slavs was also an especially enduring case of the Byzantine impact on Europe. Chronologically speaking, this Byzantinization, as opposed to complete assimilation, started with the ninth or tenth century, depending on the area, and it lasted long after the fall of the empire in 1453, down to the eighteenth and even the nineteenth century. Paradoxically enough, after 1453, new possibilities of expansion were opened to Byzantine culture, the culture of an empire that was no more.

Before 1453, the history of the relations between Byzantium and the Slavic churches and states was that of intermittently successful attempts to shake off the administrative tutelage of the Byzantines. Now, both the Balkan Slavs and the Byzantines were subjects of the Ottoman Empire; in the eyes of the Ottoman conquerors these peoples, all of them Christian, formed one entity, Rum milleti, that is, “Religious Community (or Nation) of the Romans”- a name coined in good Byzantine tradition. To the Ottomans, the patriarch of Constantinople was now the head (civilian and ecclesiastical) of all the Christians in the Ottoman Empire.

Although their circumstances were reduced, the patriarchs were in some areas of activity heirs to the Byzantine emperors, and the Greek church was a depository and continuator of many aspects of Byzantine culture. This culture had now the same, if not better, chances for radiation among the Balkan Slavs as before, because both the Greeks and the Slavs were now united within the same Ottoman territory.

The churches in the Balkans were administered from Constantinople, especially since the late seventeenth-century, when Phanariote Greeks had obtained great influence at the Sublime Porte.

The two main -but not the only- channels through which Byzantine influences entered the Orthodox Slavic world were church hierarchy, secular and monastic (both for a long time largely Greek, even in eastern Europe), and the respective princely courts. Thus, Byzantium was imitated, above all, in those aspects of culture in which the church, the state, or the upper layers of the Slavic society were interested: script, literary language, both sacred and secular, literature, ecclesiastical and secular learning, art (both in its ecclesiastical and aulic variety), ruler cult, state ideology, law, and the sphere of gracious living. But the upper layers of medieval Orthodox Slavic society were less refined than their Byzantine counterparts. There was much in Byzantine culture which they did not yet need; on the other hand, there were many elementary things not exactly belonging to the exalted sphere that they had to learn. Thus while the most sophisticated products of Byzantine literature were never translated into medieval Slavic, the Bulgarian words for onions (kromid) and cabbage (lahana) and the Serbian expression for fried eggs (tiganisana jaja) have been taken over from Greek. Art is an exception, for there Byzantium gave the Slavs the best it had to offer.

From the court and the episcopal residence, borrowed elements of Byzantine culture seeped down to the people. Also, pilgrims traveled to Constantinople and brought back with them both wondrous tales of the capital’s splendor and objects of devotional art; monks moved to the Serbian, Bulgarian, and Rus’ monasteries of Mount Athos and had Greek-Slavic conversation manuals composed for them (we know of one dating from the fifteenth century) . In areas geographically closest to Byzantium, like Bulgaria, Byzantine direct domination, and later the post-Byzantine symbiosis under the Ottomans, brought close contacts on a popular level. Thus we have reflections of Byzantine influences in Slavic popular language and folklore: we know of at least 107 (perhaps as much as 245) proverbs that the Slavs borrowed directly from Greek. Eighty percent of these borrowings were preserved by South Slavs, twenty percent by East Slavs.

The Old Church Slavonic language was formed by two generations of Byzantine and Slavic missionaries in the second half of the ninth century and the very beginning of the tenth, originally as a vehicle for spreading the word of God in Slavic. It was a tool with which to translate from the Greek. We do know of some original Slavic writings by the immediate pupils of Saints Cyril and Methodius, but the bulk of the literary activity of the Slavic Apostles and of their direct successors consisted in translations from Greek: excerpts from both Testaments (soon followed by the full translation of the Gospels), liturgical books, edifying sayings of the monks, codes of ecclesiastical and secular law. In late ninth- and early tenth-century Bulgaria, the situation was much the same. The most bulky literary products of John, the exarch of Bulgaria, were interpolated translations of St. Basil’s Hexaemeron and of John of Damascus’s Fountain of Knowledge. The Mirror of Princes by Agapetus (sixth century) was most probably translated into Old Bulgarian at this same early period, and thus became the very first secular work of Slavic literature. This meant that Old Church Slavonic had to struggle with the world of theological, philosophical and political concepts and other notions, as they were expressed in Hellenistic, early Byzantine, and middle Byzantine Greek. No wonder that Old Church Slavonic teems with simple, semantic, and phraseological calques, that is, word-formations and expressions closely patterned on Byzantine Greek. To a linguist, the results of that patterning often look un-Slavic, even if the Orthodox Slavs of today no longer react to the Byzantine calques in Old Church Slavonic as un-Slavic- a thousand years of familiarity took care of that.

The calque character of Old Church Slavonic was not exclusively a bad trait. Greek, the model of Old Church Slavonic, was a very highly developed and supple language; and the more sophisticated Byzantine writers intended to imitate Demosthenes and Plato, even if in fact they often imitated the much later and more mannered imitators of these authors. In wrestling with the complicated Greek, Old Church Slavonic acquired something of that language’s quality and versatility. The impressive stylistic possibilities of modern literary Russian are due to the fact that much- some say roughly one-half- of its vocabulary is made up of Church Slavonic words, a feature that enables a Russian writer to play on two linguistic registers at will. Old Church Slavonic, with admixtures of respective vernaculars, remained the main literary vehicle for the Orthodox Slavs down to the sixteenth, seventeenth, or eighteenth century, depending on the geographical area and the literary genre. This language was Slavic according to its sound, but largely Byzantine according to its word formations and even its content. The lexical borrowings from Greek in the languages of the Orthodox Slavs are legion. There are about fourteen hundred of them in Bulgarian, about a thousand each in Serbian and Russian. Their distribution is most dense in the area of Christian terminol- ogy, such as ecclesiastical dignities, ceremonies and activities, buildings, names of liturgical texts and songs, and names of months. The language of law, court, administration, education, and the army also abounds in borrowings from Greek. In a less exalted sphere, Greek provided the Slavs with many piscatorial and nautical terms, as well as terms of commerce, coinage and measurement, agriculture and horticulture, and, finally, with terms pertaining to civilized living.”


*NovoScriptorium: They weren’t very frequent because the Empire had to face enemies in every single frontier back then. Especially after losing the rich Eastern provinces to the Arabs, it was hardly possible to finance big campaigns. Nevertheless, after a series of strong campaigns later on, the Empire managed to reconquer all the territories of the Greek peninsula. There has been a great slaughtery in this process. The Slavs that survived were forced to become Orthodox and speak Greek. Genetic research in modern Greece has shown that there is a very small Slavic DNA contribution, ranging from 4 to 14%, only in a small number of villages in the Peloponnese. After the re-establishment of the Empire’s authority in those previously Slav-inhabited areas, Roman population from other sides of the Empire but Christian refugees from the Islamic conquered territories of the East, too, were re-located to re-populate them.

Research-Selection-Comments for NovoScriptorium: Anastasius Philoponus


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