The acculturation of Slavs within the Eastern Roman (‘Byzantine’) milieu (6th to 9th centuries) – Part 1

In this post we present selected parts of the paper titled “Byzantium, its Slavic elements and their culture (sixth to ninth centuries)“, by Speros Vryonis, Jr.

Solidus of Emperor Maurice      Solidus of Emperor Maurice

“The question which will concern us here has to do with the nature of pre-literate Slavic society as it is reflected in specific Byzantine texts and in what manner did Slavs acculturate within the Byzantine milieu.

The earliest descriptions (Procopius, Theophylactus Simocatta and the so-called Strategikon of Maurice) of Avaro-Slavic military campaigns and tactics make no mention whatever of an advanced poliorcetic technology. Aside from the ordinary spears, bows and poisoned arrows they possessed only ladders with the aid of which they hoped to take fortified places or towns. Very often they resorted to faked retreats and withdrawals from fortified places as a result of which the garrisons would be drawn out of the town walls, hoping thus to ensnare the enemy and destroy him in the open field of battle. The walls, henceforth denuded of defenders, were a prey to the besieging Slavs who would ascend the siege ladders under the cover of their numerous archers. In short the Slavs at this stage were not yet in possession of the technology of siege machinery.

The first part of the Miracula of St. Demetrios, the patron saint of Thessaloniki, was composed by John the archibishop of the city, whose tenure of the archiépiscopal throne spanned the late sixth and earlier part of the seventh century. Herein he describes the dangerous Slavic siege of Thessaloniki that commenced on Sunday of September 22, probably in the year 597. His eyewitness description depicts a fully developed and very effective technology among the Slavic soldiery and one which almost succeded in taking the great city.

The combination of catapults and battering rams so expertly crafted by the Slavic armies came close to penetrating the walls of Thessaloniki. How was it that the Avaro-Slavs acquired the poliorcetic technology which assisted them in taking walled cities in the Balkans, since originaly their siege devices had provided them only with ladders?

Theophylactus Simocatta records that they had been able eventually to level the walls of Singidunum, and had captured the walled town of Bongos and were able to take some forty walled forteresses with siege machines. The same historian informs us that about 587 the Avaro-Slavs set out to besiege the walled town of Appiareia in Moesia Inferior. They happened to capture, in the course of the siege, the city’s military engineer, a soldier by the name Bousas. The latter appealed to the citizens to ransom him lest he be put to death by the Slavs. The citizens refused and subjected him to insults. The military engineer, in order to save his own life and having been insulted, revealed his terrible secret to his captors:

«As a price for this stay (of execution) he would turn the forteress over to the barbarians … Indeed Bousas taught the Avars to constract siege machines, for they happened to be the most ignorant of such machines, and he built the siege machine to hurl missiles. Soon after, the fortress was levelled, and Bousas collected judgement for the latters inhumanity, having taught the barbarians something frightful, the technology of besieging. Thence the enemy captured effortlessly a great many of the Roman cities by making use of this original device»

One is well aware that the Narentine Slavs readily adapted to local piracy sometime after they overran part of Dalmatia. The same adaptation among certain of the South Slavic groups in the vicinity of Thessaloniki seems to have taken place. These new settlers encountered the Aegean for the first time and thus reacted to the challenge. Procopius has nothing to say of the Slavs and the waters save, «they revere both rivers and nymphs and some other daemons and they sacrifice to all of them»

The Strategikon of Maurice has a little more to say about their relation to the waters:

«They are experienced beyond all men in the crossing of rivers and bravely endure the waters. Often some of them, while in their own land, are surprised by trouble and, diving into the depth of the water, hold canes in their mouth made long especially for this and hollowed throughout, reaching up to the surface of the water, lying on their backs in the deep, they breath through them and it is sufficient for many hours, so that no suspicion of them arises. But even if it should transpire that the canes are seen from outside it is supposed by the inexperienced that they are one with the water. Wherefor those who are experienced in this, recognizing the cut and position of the cane, either stab their mouth with them or taking them away, bring them up from the water as they are no longer able to remain in it»

In this case Theophylactus confirms the great riverine familiarity of the South Slavs in some detail. Specifically the Avar khan of the Avaro-Slavs relied heavily on Slavic boat builders to supply his armies with the river boats in order to cross the Danube and to attack the towns of the empire. When he decided to proceed to the attack of Singidunum the inhabitans of the city organized raids so as to burn the boats being shaped by the Slavs for the attack. Thus when he wished to cross the river Save he once more ordered the Slavs to furnish the river boats for the campaign. Mousocius, a Slavic chieftain, disposed of some 150 such river boats called monoxyles (boats carved out of the single trunk of a tree). But it seems that most of these river boats, the monoxyles, were of modest dimensions and not suitable for sailing in the open sea, though it is not clear whether the term monoxyle is used to designate something a little more ambitious. Ships designed for maritime purposes had to have a deep keel so that they would not be easily overturned by the rough seas. Generally, Byzantine authors do not use the term monoxyle to denote maritime vessels. One must assume that the original South Slavic monoxyles were unable to sail the open and rough waters of the Aegean Sea.

The text (Second Part of the Miracula of St. Demetrios) proceeds to inform the audience on the shipbuilding activities of the new South Slavic settlers at the edge of the Aegean Sea and at the mouths of the rivers which empty into it:

«There occurred, as it is said at the time that John, of Holy memory, held the episcopal throne that there arose the nation of the Sklavinoi and a vast multitude of Drougovitai, Sagoudatai, Velegezitai, Vaiounitai, Verzitai and other nations was assembled, that is all those who discovered how to make carved boats out of single trees. Having outfitted themselves for the sea and having sacked all Thessaly and the islands surrounding it and Hellas, and in addition to the Cycladic Islands all Achaea and Epirus, most of Illyricum and a part of Asia, and having renderd uninhabited very many towns and eparchies, they all decided to array themselves against our aforementioned and Christloving city and to sack it like all the rest. And having thus come to an agreement on this they built very numerous boats each carved out of a single tree»

In short the anonymous author describes how the numerous small Slavic entities now settled within easy reach of the Aegean first devised the craft of hewing and carving a boat out of a single tree trunk.

The detailed description of the naval sector of the siege of Thessaloniki in about 614, shows complete disaster due to the lack of any maritime skills on the part of the Slavic sailors and boat builders. Their ineptness emerges in every one of the details of the naval fiasco of this expedition. First, they did not know how to manoeuvre their ships … they fell onto one another, sinking many of their own boats. Second, the monoxyle was so unseaworthy that one drowning sailor could overturn the monoxyle simply by grabbing it and pulling down on it. This speaks to the smallness of the monoxyle as well as to its lack of a deep keel. The lack of experience in manoeuvring ships, and in building seacraft that could navigate the rough seas was not yet in the possession of the Slavic settlers.

The Slavs were to learn about the sea from their neighbouring Byzantine populations, as they had learned the technology of siege warfare from a local urban, Byzantine engineer. In this early military encounter with the sea these groups of Slavs had experienced a total and bloody disaster in an engagement where the Byzantine military fleet was not even present.

The South Slavs of the region of Thessaloniki seem to have made the transition from their small riverine monoxyles to seaworthy vessels by the third quarter of the seventh century as we learn, again from the Miracula of St. Demetrios.

In the Avaro-Slav siege of Constantinople in late August-early September 626, the texts of Theodore Syncellus, George of Pisidia and the Paschal Chronicle relate that the Avar ruler brougth a considerable number of Slavic monoxyles from Danubian region, overland, and put them into the sea at Halai on the European shore of the Bosphorus and in the western shallows and rocks of the Golden Horn (where they would be safe from attack by the larger Byzantine triremes and biremes which could not venture into the shallow waters). Both groups of monoxyles were utterly destroyed, and their crews with them, by the Byzantine ships. This is indicative, once more, that the Slavic sailors were hindered by their continued reliance on such boats outfitted to operate primarily in riverine environments and shallows. George of Pisidia, in his poetic rendition of the land and sea battles makes an interesting observation as to the arrangement of the monoxyles just prior to their fatal clash with the Byzantine fleet in the westernmost Golden Horn: εκεί γαρ ωσπερ εν θαλάττη δίκτυον τα γλυπτά συζεύξαντες ηπλωσαν σκάφη (and there (in view of the church of the Panagia Vlacherna) did they spread out, like some net in the sea, their carved ships, and they linked (tied) them the one to the other).

It would seem that the Slavic maritime technology of the latter seventh century succeded in making a considerable adaptation in terms of technological details in their meeting with the Aegean Sea. However their performance in the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus during the Avaro-Slavic siege of Constantinople was a complete disaster. Half a century later their έζευγμέναι νήες (yoked ships) were regulary raiding Byzantine shipping, both governmental and private in the Aegean and in open view of the customs house of Abydos.

The newly settled Slavs had begun to be influenced by Byzantine military and maritime technology. But there are other details, especially in the narrative concerning Perboundos (Miracula of St. Demetrios), that indicate that acculturation was taking other forms as well. As we saw Perboundos had become bicultural to a certain extent: he lived in Thessaloniki, he spoke Greek, and dressed Byzantine, but he also had close relations with the citizens and members of the city council of Thessaloniki. His rural Slavic subjects cooperated with the Thessalonians in sending an embassy to Constantinople to plead for the life of Perboundos. When the Slavic king was executed, the local Slavs indicated that their acculturation was limited politically and so they besieged the city for two years. The local authorities had no assistance from the emperor as the latter was involved in military operations against the Arabs who constituted an immediate danger to the entire empire. But the city of Thessaloniki seems to have had a peace agreement with yet an other Slavic tribe, which was located in the Thessalian plain and so sent to them for grain. Here one sees an important economic accomodation and acculturation of beligerant Slavic tribes. As the principal urban and economic center Thessaloniki was an important center of consumption and so was also a principal customer and market for Slavic produce. Yet the Thessalonians who went with the ships to acquire grain feared that if the Velegezitai got wind of the siege which had just broken out the local Slavs might murder them.

By the latter seventh century these Slavic groups, which had entered the Greek peninsula, had established themselves on the land with their animals and were engaged in agricultural production, and so found economic demand in such markets as that of Thessaloniki to their advantage. Also they were settled within a society and land which was far more developed in most aspects, and this too was attractive. From the few Slavic graves that have been excavated in Greece, but much more from those Slavic cemeteries excavated in Bulgaria, we see that the material culture of the early Slavs did not even have the potter’s wheel in the late sixth century, something that had been around for some two thousand years.

By the ninth, tenth and eleventh century we see that there has developed a full cultural adaptation of many such Slavic settlements, and that in some cases this was well on the way to socio-cultural absorption into the local society. But before this came to prevail there was an intermediate period when the strong cultural and semi-political identity of these newly settled Slavic communities is clearly evident.”

7th-century mosaic from the Cathedral of St. Demetrius in Thessalonica, depicting the saint with the city's archbishop (left) and the eparch (right)

7th-century mosaic from the Cathedral of St. Demetrius in Thessalonica, depicting the saint with the city’s archbishop (left) and the eparch (right)

Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Anastasius Philoponus




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