The acculturation of Slavs within the Eastern Roman (‘Byzantine’) milieu (6th to 9th centuries) – Part 2

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 from Justinian's second reign

Solidus from Justinian’s second reign

“The invasions and settlements of Slavs in Byzantine lands in various parts of the Byzantine empire resulted in the appearance of several smaller «Sklaviniai». The use of this term both in the singular and plural by the sources implied the existence of separate and compact Slavic communities in the Balkans each of which had its own social organization and chiefs, as well as its own military bodies. Usually these Sklaviniai were interspersed among the older Byzantine populations with whom they had relations of sorts as well as with Constantinople and its provincial representatives. The sudden settlement of compact Slavic groups within the matrix of an older population produced hostile, and often violent relations much as the new settlers were still in a heroic or epic, pre-literate stage in which warfare, raids, boody, banditry and piracy were preeminent.

If the state were to survive during the great crisis of the seventh century it had to
take military measures not only against the great Arab threat and later that of the
newly founded Bulgarian kingdom, but it had to find time to restrain and to subject, often repeatedly, these small Sklavinias lest the state begin to dissolve from the internal decomposition of the state. This involved a military reduction of the disobedients and some kind of formal incorporation of their separate societies into the state structure. Thus the individual Sklavinias were faced, before the pressure of the Byzantine state, to choose from three possibilities:

a) A struggle to remain completely independent of the Byzantine state;

b) Essentially to accept incorporation of the newly founded Bulgarian kingdom —a realistic possibility only for those Sklavinias near the Bulgarian borders;

c) Acculturation to the local Byzantine society and incorporation of an official nature into the local administrative system, but with the rights of maintaining their local chiefs or archontes.

Most groups of Sklaviniai within the territories of the now reduced Byzantine borders had no overall institution or ruler so as to be able to coordinate the total demographic strength of the Sklavenoi in the Péloponnèse, in central Greece, in Macedonia and Thrace. Accordingly their military efforts against the Byzantine state were of a circumscribed local nature, and as a result this most serious failure (they had failed to take Thessaloniki) was that they had no reliable, contiguous demographic base on which to amass larger and more effective military forces.

Though the troubled conditions of the Byzantine state in the face of the tremendous Arab offensives of the seventh century allowed the local Sklavinias considerable freedom to indulge their activities of banditry on land and piracy on the sea, as well as occasional sieges of Thessaloniki, they were never sufficient to lead to the foundation of an independent state.

In 688/9 the emperor Justinian II carried out a successful military expedition against the Bulgarians but also against the Sklaviniai, going as far as Thessaloniki and took away captives a very large number of the Sklavinoi. These he settled in the theme of Opsikion in northwestern Asia Minor and from which he raised a special army of some 30,000. Unfortunately for the emperor this substancial army of 30,000 deserted to the caliphal armies in their first military encounter and on his return to Bithynia Justinian is said to have slain their families. Much later, in 762, 208,000 Sklavenoi are said to have settled.

Some twenty years later (782-3) in the reign of Constantine VI and his mother Irene the government sent out a major military force the purpose of which was, once more, to subdue the local Sklaviniai, under the direction of the Logothete Stavrakios. It proved to be succesful, at least for the immediate future, as he forced the Sklavenoi of the region of Thessaloniki and central Greece to pay their taxes to the government, and in Péloponnèse he succeded in taking away extensive numbers of the local Slavs and taking great booty at their expense. In the following year he was allowed to celebrate his victories in the Constantinopolitan hippodrome during the course of the horse races. This and other such encounters of the imperial armies and of the local administrative officials indicate that the impetus of such measures arose from the insistance of the government that the local Slavs fulfill their obligations to the state, and the resistance on the part of these Slavs was due to the that fact they wished to be free of all such obligations. But that they were already well advanced in some formal integration into the local political situation emerges from the incidents attendant on the Byzantine civil strife between the empress Irene and her son Constantine VI. For in 798/9 Akamir, archon of the Sklavenoi of Velzetia (in Thessaly), conspired with the Byzantines of the Helladikon (district of central Greece) to free (in Athens) the imprisoned sons of Constantine VI and to replace Irene with one of them. Irene, herself an Athenian sent her nephew Theophylact Sarantopechis (also a noble Athenian family) who succeded to blind all the conspirators. This close political connection of the archon of the Thessalian Slavic tribe with members of the leading citizens of Athens in a plot to replace the empress in Constantinople indicates the degree to which the Sklaviniai had been incorporated into the political life of both the provincial administration and of the imperial office itself.

At the same time certain of the Sklaviniai rebelled against the payment of taxes, or tribute, to Constantinople, against performance of obligations to the state and persisted in acts of banditry on the land and of piracy on the sea. Here the testimony of Constantine Porphyrogenitus in the De Administrando Imperio, makes the case quite clear where he speaks of three substantial state interventions in the ninth and in the tenth century. These interventions consisted of military expeditions of the state as well as of military actions on the part of the local Greek inhabitants to put an end to the violation of local security as well as insubordination against the authority of the state. The first of these rebellions broke out and ended between 802-811 and was carried out by the Slavs of the northen Péloponnèse in alliance with Arab corsairs. The Slavs of Achaea first attacked the dwellings of their Greek neighbors in the rural areas and then proceeded to attack the area around the city of Patras before settling down to the siege of the city. As the siege was protracted and the citizens were beginning to suffer from lack of provisions they sent word to the Byzantine strategos, whose center was at Corinth, to send supplies and his army. But before these reached Patras the local forces had succeded in routing the Slavs and so they managed, by themselves not only to defend the city but also to defeat their attackers. Upon receipt of the news the strategos notified the emperor in Constantinople, that is Nicephorus I, who replied that inasmuch as the victory was due to the intervention of Patras’ patron Saint Andrew the entirety of the attacking Slavs and their families were dedicated to the perpetual service of the ecclesiastical metropolis there to serve the metropolitan and all foreign embassies as well as state missions, from the estates and wealth of the local Slavs themselves. And so the political integration was intensified through the arm of the church and through the local administration of Patras itself.

The problem of the disobedience of the Slavs in the Péloponnèse appears once more in the reigns of Theophilus and his son Michael III (841/2): «Rebelling they became autonomous and busied themselves with robbery, enslaving, the taking of booty, arson and theft. And so in the reign of Michael the son of Theophilus, the protospatharius Theoktistus Vryennius was sent out as strategos in the theme of the Péloponnèse with a substantial force of Thracians, Macedonians and of the western themes in order to make war on and to subdue them. And he subdued all the Slavs of the Péloponnèse there and others who had been insubordinant … And the protospatharius and general of the Péloponnèse Theoktistus, having been able to subdue also the Milingoi and the Ezeritai, he imposed on the former a tax of 60 nomismata and on the latter a tax of 300 nomismata»

By 921, in the time of Romanus I, the particular Slavic tribes of the Milingoi and Ezeritai, safely ensconced on the heights of mount Taygetos, were again the source of local disturbances and «refused to obey the strategos and they refused to heed the imperial order. They conduct themselves as though they were autonomous and self-governing. They refused to any archon appointed by the strategos nor do they deign to perform military service with him, nor do they undertake to perform any duty to the imperial treasury…»

Constantine VII relates that the new strategos of the Péloponnèse Krinites Arotras crushed their rebellion in a military campaign that lasted from March until November during the course of which the two Slavic tribes suffered the burning of all their crops and the pillaging of all their lands.

When in 904 the Arab fleet, under the leadership of the Byzantine renegade Leo of Tripoli, was sighted en route to sack Thessaloniki, the strategos of Thessaloniki immediately notified the Byzantine strategos of Strymon to send an extensive body of Slavic archers to help man the walls of the city against the pending Saracen siege of the city. The reaction of the Strymonian Slavs was sluggish and very few responded to the order despite the fact that the authorities of Thessaloniki repeatedly and urgently sent out the demand The response was so weak as to be disheartening.

By 804 the modus vivendi between the local Slavic and older Byzantine populations had been regulated internally, the various Slavic groups had been tightly integrated into Byzantine society and their acculturation had proceeded apace. They were incorporated in the realms of the local economy, of political, administrative and military relations as well as by integration through religious conversion. Their relations to the neighboring Bulgarian state were regulated by the treaties between the two states as well as by local commercial and economic practices. They participated in the local political relations through the dealings of their archontes with the local Byzantine strategos or with his representative. Their religious hierarchs and priests were integrated in the bureaucratic structure of the church. They still retained their language which, in contrast to the case of the Slavs in central Greece and the Péloponnèse, borded on a massive linguistic Slavic reservoir just on the other side of the borders between Byzantium and the Bulgarian kingdom. As for their tribal identity Constantine Porphyrogenitus remarks in the De Thematibus, on the theme of Strymon: «The theme of Strymon was organized whithin that of Macedonia and there is no (early) mention concerning a theme for it was then reckoned to be a kleisoura Scythians (Slavs) instead of Macedonians now dwell in it as Justinian (II) Rhinotmetos settled them in the mountains of Strymon and in…the kleisourai».

We see that the governmental institutionalization of the administrative obligations of the Sklaveniai is manifested in the systems of enforced military service, payment of taxes or tribute, and in the performance of public obligations, all of which are noted in the writings of Constantine Porphyrogenitus.

One last glance of the military absorption of Slavic settlers in Anatolia will serve to show how the system functioned. In the large amada which was organised in an effort to retake Crete from the Arabs in 949, Constantine Porphyrogenitus records the fact that Slavic soldiery were still been recruited as a separate ethnic entity in that year. He relates their number, officers and payment: «(Pay) for the Sthlavenians who reside in Opsikion: 125 men. The chiefs (kephalai) receive, each, 5 (gold) nomismata, and the other 124 soldiers each receive 3 nomismata, or a total roga of 5 pounds and 27 nomismata».

Constantine took these figures from the official accounts of the expenses of the failed expedition, accounts which were undoubtly kept in the central archives of the palace. The figure of Slavic troops was rather small when compared with the massive figures reported for Slavic troops and settlements in western Asia Minor. The same contingent was also sent to fight under the strategos of Langobardia in southern Italy at the same rate and with the same numbers of archontes and troops.

In finishing this brief analysis of the social accomodation and acculturation of the Slavic groups settled within the Byzantine empire we can see, in rough outline, how this worked out in one specific case in the Péloponnèse where as late as the second half of the ninth century Pisatis of the region of Olympia has been settled by Scythians (Slavs) and where the ancient name of Pisatis has been replaced by the Slavic name Vis, a word which in today’s South Slavic tongues designates a hill or height.

More significant for our purpose here is the tail end of this small section of the De Thematibus on the theme of Péloponnèse, which contains a tantalizing and gossipy aside: «As a certain Peloponnesian was boasting greatly about his noble (so that I may avoid the word ignoble) descent, that notorius scribe Euphemius jeered at him with this must quoted iambic verse: Γαρασδοειδής οψις έσθλαβωμένη. This man was Niketas who married his daugther Sophia to Christopher the son of the grand and noble emperor Romanus». The gossipy phrase concerning this Niketas is to be translated as «a cunning, Slavonized face».

The personal hostility of both the notorius scribe and of the emperor have to do with the emergence of Niketas as an important participant in the politics of the court in Constantinople and of the crudeness of a nouveau arrivé. Of further interest is the fact that the scribe Euphemius must have known some Slavic, as well as ancient Greek, for he picked an appropriate Slavic epithet to describe the man’s facial feature – garazhdu=sly, cunning- and was able to add a Greek adjectival ending to the Slavic word and to make it fit into the iambic meter. How was it that he was so familiar with the Slavic word?

More important is Niketas’ family name, Rendakios, which is clearly non Greek though its ending and form have been somewhat Hellenized. The name is clearly derived from a Slavic word. The Greek Slavist Phaedon Malingoudis has traced the history and careers of 18 individuals who bore this family name from 718 into the tenth century where our Niketas appears, and most of the bearers of the last name held official positions either in the court or in the provinces. The name appears both in the Péloponnèse and central Greece and some may have been related. The first names in all cases where they are given indicate adoption of names current among Byzantine Christians. Undoubtedly they had at some time become familiar with the various degrees or styles of the Greek language, as we have already seen in the case of Perboundos in the latter part of the seventh century. Undoubtedly most of these individuals must have used their positions within their smaller Slavic societies as a stepping stone for entry into the formal governmental structures of Byzantine society, and obviously used marriage alliances (as we see in the case of Niketas) as further bridges to social mobility. A second case of social mobility and Byzantinization is the case of the famous Byzantine monk Ioannikios, of the Boilas family, obviously of Slavic origin and settled in western Asia Minor, who was first a soldier and then became a saint in the church.

We have reached the end of this short excursus on the Sklaviniai and Sklavenoi and the varied nature of their social acculturation and/or accomodation with the Byzantine inhabitants of the Greek peninsula. It was a long term process and due to geographical, political and linguistic factors attained or failed to attain various degrees of absorption or isolation in Byzantine society.”


Michael III, Emperor and Autocrat of the Romans

Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Anastasius Philoponus

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